Buckle up board game fans, because this week we’re going on a high-octane ride to… hang on, medieval France?
Pretty much all of the things we’ve fired at you from The Boarding Kennel fun cannon so far have been sparkly, glossy efforts full of shiny components, dripping with theme and generally involving either outright conflict between you and your friends, lying and backstabbing, or at the very least some apocalypse requiring you all to buddy up and argue over the right moves to make.
Yes I used the words ‘fun cannon’. We have another cannon here as well you know. A less fun one. So watch it.*
Some people like to refer to games like the ones above as Ameritrash, but then some people also like wearing Crocs and buying U2 albums, so I wouldn’t pay much attention to them. Those same people continued their obsession with labelling things by creating the companion term Eurogames, which are like the above but without the glossiness, or the interaction between players, or any of the fun and excitement. STOP stop that’s not true – there are shedloads of great Eurogames out there which are excellent fun – works of mechanical genius in which all the micro-decisions you make can multiply to send your points-scoring machine rocketing ahead of your friends.
Imperial Assault from Fantasy Flight Games: Look at those miniatures! Those dice! Classic Ameritrash.
Ameritrash games are often easy sells – tell your mates you want them to rush around fighting a global pandemic, or fly X-Wings about the place, or survive a winter surrounded by a rampaging horde of zombies, and it’s a fair bet you’ll be able to rope them in. Tell them you’ve bought a game where you each have to run a cocoa farm, or build canals in industrial revolution Britain, or manage a successful electricity network, and they’ll likely end up in a wide-eyed panic, slowly inching backwards out of the room with their gaze repeatedly flicking towards the kitchen knives.
This is making Eurogames sound awful. But the best ones are masters of creating a tantalising puzzle, a conundrum to be cracked, and engineering your solution to be quicker, smarter and more efficient than your opponents’ can be every bit as satisfying as rolling a boatload of dice to blow up a bunch of stormtroopers.
That brings us nicely to Orléans, which takes the well-trodden Eurogame trope of collecting up little people and putting them different places for various rewards, and injects a burst of randomness through a resource drafting system more familiar to players of card games like Dominion or Star Realms. That fusing of genres not only had people drooling over the game at last year’s mammoth Essen game fair, but also caught the eye of judges for this year’s Spiel des Jahres awards. The biggest prize in board gaming, a Spiel des Jahres win can catapult a game’s sales through the roof, and Orleans finishing in the top three for the slightly meatier ‘Connoisseur Game’’ category in theory marks it out as one of the best games of the year. So is it any good?
It’s good news for Orléans that it’s generated so much interest, because otherwise there’s no way you’re picking up that beige box off the shelf and deciding it’s worth a nose inside. It looks like the cover of the sort of lame, moralistic children’s book your gran might have unwisely bought you as a birthday present, even though I’M BLOODY TWELVE NOW GRAN I LIKE DOCTOR WHO AND LASER DINOSAURS AND AM GETTING FUNNY FEELINGS AROUND GIRLS. On first appearance it seems quite twee, all smiling monks and waving knights, but let’s take a closer look at the knight’s head.
What… I mean… is he… which way is he facing? Has his neck been snapped? And everyone else thinks is some great joke? Maybe this game’s more brutal than we thought. I’m going in.
Orléans has between two and four of you acting as medieval lords and ladies in and around the namesake French city, each assembling a crew of hard-working types like farmers, boatmen and craftsmen, as well as weedy booklearners like monks and scholars, to boost your power in areas such as trade, science and construction in order to win the game. Yay feudalism! Everyone starts with four little folk – a farmer, a boatman, a craftsman and a merchant, and on their turn gets to pop them on their player board in combinations of their choosing to sprout extra little helpers. Each one you make powers you up in a particular area – create a boatman, for example, and you’ll get a couple of coins from him ferrying proles about. Grab a craftsman, and you’ll net a little wheel which sits on a space in your player board and automatically counts as having a worker on it. Efficient!
Once you’ve used your little guys to generate extra farmers or merchants or whatnot, all the pieces you used (you can hold them back in the ‘market’ area if you can’t shove them into a combination) and any new ones you generated all go into a lovely cloth bag, and on your next turn you randomly draw a set number and go again. There’s a conundrum for a start. Grabbing a pile of merchants early might give you first pick on a bunch of extra buildings to put your workers on, but you’ll be more likely to draw merchants out of your bag in future turns, potentially limiting your ability to do actions like boat around Orléans’ waterways and drop points-scoring guildhalls all over the place. Did I not mention the map? Step this way.
(Yes I forgot to take a photo of the map, what of it)
It’s not all feeling around in bags and grabbing tiny men in the dark – Orleans also lets you stretch your legs – and oars – travelling from town to town in the area around the city, grabbing precious goods like cheese and wine as you go. There’s only one package up for grabs on each route, however, and once it’s claimed it’s gone for good, so chugging around grabbing expensive goods like wool and cloth before your opponents do makes perfect sense. Except. If you’re using your little workers to power yourself across the countryside, you’re falling behind in other areas like technology or science. Players can also build guildhalls in each of the towns they visit, which score points at the end of the game, and the same kind of advantage to grabbing goods applies – there can only be one in each city, so getting yours down first blocks an opponent from doing the same. But powering your guildhall construction means you’re hiring fewer farmers, or monks, or any of the other little fellows on offer.
There’s more! As well as having to prep for random events which get drawn each turn – which might prevent you using monks, or see you lose a bunch of cash if you can’t turn in some wheat, cheese or wine – there’s also the third board to consider. This lets you commit a couple of workers to ‘good deeds’ for the town each turn, grabbing a few extra coins and ridding you of all those troublesome boatmen you hired early on, but now no longer need, for example. Places are limited, however, and with a hefty bonus on offer for placing the last worker needed to fill each mini project on the board, the late game sees an added burst of tension as everyone eyes each others’ plans for the good deeds and works out whether the turn order means they’ve utterly screwed it.
Keeping all these plates spinning – or choosing which ones to let fall – is the meaty crux of Orleans, a constantly shifting puzzle which demands you watch your opponents’ decisions like a hawk, and continually shift tactics to ensure you remain ahead in key areas and don’t fall too far behind in others. It’s no wonder there was such a buzz about this game at Essen – marrying classic Eurogame crunch with a hint of randomness from the bag-rifling is a bold move, and designer Reiner Stockhausen deserves praise for trying to push the worker placement genre in a new direction. The thing is – I just don’t think it works.
In trying to innovate away from being just another worker placement Eurogame, Orléans has the feel of a game which has been stretched in two directions until something important fell out of the middle.
I’m a huge believer that whoever you are, there’s a board game out there that you’ll love. Maybe ten, maybe hundreds, but at least one – whether you’re into brain-sapping mathematical decision making and railways, or just want something where you can sit around laughing and telling bizarre stories with your friends. For me, the ‘play’ in playing board games is hugely important. I play games with my friends to feel something – joy and laughter, hopefully, but also suspense, or relief, or satisfaction perhaps. Orleans has satisfying moments – seeing the risky plan you hatched last turn pay off, or working out the best way to combine the rag-tag bunch of workers you’ve clawed from the bag this turn – even the act of rooting through the bag and seeing what you dig out has an air of suspense followed by either frustration or relief. And satisfying is fine. Really.
But there weren’t a lot of laughs, or even tension really – the nature of the player boards means everyone spends much of the game hunched over their own little engines, working out the most efficient way of powering the turn while balancing what those decisions mean for the future. There was a bit more interaction later in the game as people hoovered up goods from the map and guildhalls began infesting towns, squashing people’s options, while everyone also schemed to grab the choice sections of the ‘good deeds’ board. But not a lot – and this slight bump in interaction comes just as the game is getting inexorably slower as the end looms, with everyone desperate to eke the most out of their burgeoning numbers of workers.
The thing is, if you’re a fan of intricate, ‘multiplayer solitaire’ Eurogames, where efficiency is king and satisfaction gleaned from out-calculating and outmaneuvering your opponents – I don’t think this is for you, either. The Spiele des Jahres judges praised Orléans for the “disillusionment and ecstasy” created by the bag-drafting system, but all it ultimately does is take a smart board game engine and throw a handful of randomising gloop into the gears. All right, so part of the challenge is building an engine which mitigates that randomness as much as possible, but ultimately I fear that for a two-hour optimisation puzzle, having your plans scotched by a random draw is going to suck the fun out of it for engine-building fans as well.
There’s an old Native American saying: “If you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both”. I only know this from years of Leonard Nimoy repeating it to me during plays of Civilisation IV, but the point stands. Orléans does a great job of ramming this proverb home within the game – spread yourself too thin across all the possible actions, and you’ll never triumph. It’s just a shame they missed it when they bolted together the game itself.
*We actually only have the fun cannon
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