Review: Orléans

crunchy boatmen, hot jests, herb gardens, winning beer
[Team SU&SD grows ever-stronger! Please give a warm welcome to game writer Jon Bolding, who comes bearing gifs. Enjoy, everybody.]

Bolds: Welcome! Welcome to Medieval France’s fabulous Loire valley, and its jewel, its shining, brocaded, wine-and-cheese-filled capital city of Orléans.

Orléans has a lot in common with those ever-popular “deck-building” games, in that you’re still accruing little somethings to go in your something, but each something is different, and has a different purpose – and your something, certainly, is different from everyone else’s something. In Orléans these somethings aren’t cards, but are little circular people, and you stuff them in your personal bag like a kind of hungry giant saving them for later, never quite sure what delicious treat you’ll pull forth when you go plunging in for a snack.

Ugh, peasants again? Why don’t we ever have Boatmen? Love Boatmen. The little crunchy paddles and rafts. The delicate waterlogged texture.

And speaking of crunch, Orleans is a good deal heavier than most deck-building games. Really, what we’ve got here is a fabulous fusion of a “building” game and a heavy eurogame, and it’s almost entirely delicious.

Your goal is to be the most successful trader in the city of Orléans, and you do that by adding people to your network of contacts and friends – your bag. Each turn, you pull a handful of people…

…and put them to work on your little board in specific combinations to do things like travel, build a trading post, write books or make beer.

As you spread your network, you add more and more people to your bag – but you want to build that bag very precisely. Too many of one profession and you’ll just keep drawing crummy Farmers you don’t need. Too few of another and you’ll be desperately seeking Knights to escort your traders across the countryside.

At the end of the game, however, your bag of people isn’t worth anything. Instead you get points for the trade goods you amassed, the buildings you built, the public works you financed, and the hoard of cold hard cash you’re sitting on. Just like in life, your worth will be judged by where your journey ended up – not by the friends you made along the way. Also just like in life, sometimes there’s a horrid plague that snatches away your only Monk friend, leaving you bereft and miserable and unable to make beer.

Each turn, then, presents you with an interesting choice: Do I spend time building up my bag, so that I can do more later, or do I grab as many points as I can now?

Orleans Player Board 2
But winning and points isn’t precisely where the fun is in Orléans. So we’re going to go looking for it a bit. I mean, I actually do know where the fun is in Orléans – it’s the trendy bars and nightclubs around La rue de Bourgogne, but we’re not here to talk about my exploits on the dance floor, are we?

Quinns: Wait. Was that an option?

Bolds: Moving on! There’s something about just touching Orléans that’s nice. The simple tactile pleasure of rattling around your little people, tumbling them through your fingers, then being delighted or dismayed by what you got. Then you do a satisfying, simple puzzle where you try to fit the colors of people you did draw onto your player board to take actions, managing what you wanted to do against what people you actually drew. Those actions get you more people for your bag, or books, or little tasty bottles of wine, or help you pay your taxes.

Actions all play into some aspect of the game other than their obvious purpose, which is where most of the game’s interesting choices are. There’s a system called development points, which are part of a perhaps over-complex scoring multiplier, but within the cut and thrust of the game are really just a race between players to reach higher spots on the board’s various progress tracks first.

Picking and choosing which track you want to compete on is a big part of the game, but there’s a hell of a lot of tracks. You’ve also got a little map of France, where an action moves your trader from village to village collecting the local specialties – but only the first player to travel a route gets the goods.

Orleans France Map 2

It’s all, well… over-complex wasn’t the right word. You’re just overwhelmed with choice. There’s so many paths to victory that you have to choose just one or two, but it’s rarely clear which one you should choose – even in your fourth or fifth playthrough. Indeed, there’s enough that some games everyone picks a different path and there’s practically no competing at all.

You might set your heart on one strategy but get bad draws for it, leaving you to scramble for another. That will frustrate some strategy-focused players, but it’ll be a delight to others who enjoy optimizing the hand they’re dealt. It also gives you the lovely scapegoat for loss that’s a strength in this kind of game – a great emotional equalizer. Victory might come down to a single bad draw, all else being equal, or a few hot draws deliver profoundly pleasing victory for the underdog. You can (and will) have a game where you draw the worst people at the wrongest time and you do, to revisit our giant analogy, consider simply eating them out of sheer frustration.

Finally, you can get worthless freeloaders out of your bag by sending them to do public works for a small reward – but the best reward is reserved for the last player to place a citizen on that work.

Some of the best late-game tension comes from the race to build the city wall – but not too fast! You want to be the last person to build the city wall because then you get to throw the wall-building party which everyone is just dying to attend, literally, because nobody much bought Monks this game and you need Monks to cure the plague.

Orleans Public Works Board 2

That feeling of tension and competition while playing is surprisingly vibrant, stemming from a bit of brilliant design that I’ve withheld from you so far: Nearly the entire game is played simultaneously. Almost nobody seems to be pointing this out, but Orléans’ greatest design strength is that it barely cares about player order at all.

When you’re drawing and choosing actions, so is everyone else. In the rare few cases that require you to care about player order, you simply turn to the people who go before you that round and ask them to politely finalize whichever action you care about. It takes much of the lonely, deliberative, calculating, “multiplayer solitaire” time of the strategy board game and synchronizes it.

That said, it’s not all cheeses and coins. Interesting player interaction and racing can be limited to about half the players, and there are more than a few non-interactive paths to take. That’s great for the first few go-rounds, or for new players, but they start to feel perfunctory once you’ve played three or four times and everyone knows how to keep their bag contents streamlined.

Orleans Merchant Buildings 2

But a bit of metagame strategy does exist. See, by adding Merchants to your bag you get new, pleasantly bucolic buildings for your player board. These are unique, and come from a pile of a dozen or so, meaning once you snag one only you can do it. And they can be drastic changes! With an herb garden, for example, your Boatmen can do the work of a Merchant or Craftsman, displacing Monks as the game’s wild cards. With a hayrick, suddenly your otherwise lazy Farmers are pumping out a point for you every turn.

For a new player the pile of buildings is daunting, as each does its own thing and twists the game in your favor – there’s a lot of them, and they’re all available, and they only serve to compound everything else that’s going on. Once everyone has played, though, it’s all about second-guessing what someone else is going to do, and how soon they’ll do it. Will they put that technology marker on their ferry, so they can zip south faster and snatch up all that brocade fabric, or on their study, to take an early lead on the development track?

Orleans Citizen Tracks 5

As the game draws to its round-limited close, I want to revisit that scoring part. It’s an odd duck, with direct, apprehensible points like money and goods competing with a formula: The number of good works you’ve done (tracked in Citizen Tiles) plus the number of guild halls you’ve built on the map, all multiplied by your position on the development track. It can lead to some surprising and unsatisfying victories or defeats.

Think you’ve got the game sewn up because of your huge development multiplier? Well, too bad about the player who just racked up money the whole game. Definitely in the dumps because you didn’t manage to develop much of anything and barely built buildings? Surprise! You win because of your voluminous wine cellars.

But – but – the experience of play is satisfying, even if the end can let you down or the scoring boggle your brains. I think Orléans is great design because it’s strategic and tactile, and it has those surprising ups and downs. Those who enjoy heavy games may find it a light, fun diversion, and it’ll make a lovely, complex game for those who prefer a lighter experience. For a one or two hour playtime it delivers the kind of experience you get with much longer games, and the simultaneous play means you can actually jest, jeer and jape at your fellow players while you did it.

So, maybe, in the end it is about the friends you made along the way.

Well, the friends and the cheeses.