Dan Blum: Review of Orléans

Orléans

  • Designer: Reiner Stockhausen
  • Publisher: dlp Games
  • Ages: 12+
  • Players: 2-4
  • Time: 90 minutes

Times played: 2 (on a purchased copy, though not mine)

Orleans Box

Background

In the beginning was Dominion. There might have been games that used “pool building” as a central game mechanism before, but it was certainly the first one that anyone noticed. Like anything new that attracts a lot of notice, it was imitated a lot. And the days of deck-building were long in the land.

Dominion of course uses cards. Most pool-builders use cards, but some use dice, and one thing someone (I have no idea who) tried early on was making a copy of Dominion that used tokens drawn from a bag instead of cards drawn from a deck. This saves space and time: no shuffling! Sadly it ceased to be a good alternative once cards were released that manipulated the order of one’s deck, but there’s no reason tokens in a bag wouldn’t work fine for other pool-building games. Surprisingly (to me, anyway) there haven’t been many: there’s Puzzle Strike, there’s an interesting-sounding but unavailable Argentinian game (Imperios Milenarios), and as far as I know that was it until this Essen, which saw the release of three such games.

Orléans is of course one of those three. It’s by Reiner Stockhausen, who designed a few decent but not too memorable games in the late 90s (Freibeuter and Dolce Vita) and a few years ago started dlp Games, which has produced a few games that I have mostly found to be mediocre, although I like fellow Opinionated Gamer Jeff Allers’ Citrus. So, not a great pedigree, but Orléans I think is much better than Stockhausen’s earlier games and is also my favorite dlp game (sorry, Jeff).

The Game

The action in Orléans is driven by small cardboard tokens representing various citizens of medieval Orléans; players start with a farmer, a boatman, a craftsman, and a trader and can later acquire knights, scholars, and monks. These get placed in individual bags and a certain number are drawn each round and placed on the individual player boards.

Those boards contain spaces for various actions, with each action requiring a specific set of two or three tokens. Some actions let you acquire more tokens, with each token also coming with a benefit which depends on its type; all of them are useful, but two of the more interesting are the one provided by craftsmen, who let you place a little cogwheel on a token space so it’s permanently occupied, and the one provided by traders, who let you take a tile of your choice with a new action space on it.

Orleans Board

Other actions involve your merchant figure on the game board; you can move it by land, move it by water, or build a trading station in a town. Moving lets you pick up goods which are worth points (and may be needed for events) and trading stations are also worth points.

There are just two other major game elements. One is the development track; moving up this track can get you victory points or little cardboard citizens (these are for scoring, not your bag) and also determines how many points you get per trading station and citizen at the end of the game. The easiest way to move up is by recruiting scholars, but there are other ways.

The remaining major element is the “Beneficial Deeds” board where you can send tokens to help build canal systems and whatnot. This gets you victory points (or in one case development track movement) plus a citizen if you complete a project. It’s also how you permanently winnow your bag, which is important.

What’s Good About It

One thing I like is that, while the core of the game is reasonably complex, it’s not gussied up with lots of extra little bits. Each of the eighteen rounds of the game is very simple: reveal an event tile, quickly assess the farmer track, then everyone draws their tokens and plans their actions. After that players take turns performing actions, then the event is resolved. Obviously given how popular some games are that have ninety-two different phases in each round my view is in the minority, but I still think a nice clean system is a plus.

More important are the dynamics of play.  Orléans is definitely reminiscent of a deck-building game in broad outlines; if you want to perform certain kinds of actions you will need to acquire certain tokens. However, each token can be used in multiple ways, so there’s a fair amount of flexibility, especially if you recruit monks, which are wild but come with no additional benefit. Furthermore, the additional benefits can be just as or more important than getting the tokens; you may not really need another scholar token, but if you want to move up the development track you may need to recruit one anyway. If you don’t plan properly you may find yourself with a lot of tokens in your bag you can’t use for much.

Of course, there are ways to manage your tokens. There’s the aforementioned Beneficial Deeds board, to which you can send two tokens per round. However, you can’t always rely on it as each space will only accept a specific kind of token. This is where I think the extra action spaces you get with traders really shine; they all do useful things, so the obvious way to assess them is by how much you like their actions, but I think which tokens they allow you to usefully employ can be just as important. If I can use my excess scholars on the Office tile, I don’t care if it’s not getting me that many points – anything is better than not being able to use them.

The reason why I care so much about being able to use what I draw is that this game is different from the majority of deck-builders in that you do not discard everything at the end of a turn. Any tokens you don’t use stay in your market area where you put newly-drawn tokens, and if there’s not enough space to put all the tokens you’re entitled to draw, tough. Fortunately, it is possible to assign tokens to actions even if you can’t complete the action space; they stick around until you do (if necessary you can move them by forgoing draws).

For that matter, you can complete an action space and still not take the action, saving it for a later round. There are several reasons you might want to do this: you might not be able to take the action yet but want to make sure you can do it when you’re ready, if you’re building a trading station someone else might build it first (so you’ll need to move before building), or you might simply want to keep the tokens for it out of the bag for next round; you can ensure you draw specific tokens by keeping enough other tokens out of the bag (though you won’t want to do this all the time).

What this all adds up to is a game that is very definitely about managing your pool of resources, but which doesn’t feel like a deck-builder with a board tacked on.

The designer of the game - picture taken by henk.rolleman on BGG (permission granted)

The designer of the game – picture taken by henk.rolleman on BGG (permission granted)

What’s Not So Good

I don’t think there’s much to complain about, really. In ascending order of importance:

The box cover is not very attractive. Fortunately I think that the art on the components, while in the same style, looks much better.

Eighteen rounds seems like a lot. When I first read the rules I was thinking that it might be one of those games that would be improved by simply pretending everyone had played the first few rounds already and starting after that (there are a number of such games). However, in Orléans it’s possible to meaningly differentiate your position starting on round one (you could get an extra action tile, and they’re all unique) and the first few rounds should fly by once everyone gets the system. The 90-minute playing time may not be achievable in a first game but I think will be in a second. In any case, in neither game that I played did anyone express the opinion that the game was dragging on too long, unlike some other games I could mention (*cough*Johari*cough*).

Some people think the Bathhouse (one of the extra action tiles) is overpowered. It requires one farmer and when used lets you draw three tiles from your bag, place two on action spaces, and return the other. It’s certainly useful, but in my second game I deliberately bought it right away and tried to use it as much as I could. I did win the game but since it was only by a few points and no one else had played before, I hardly think that means it’s too strong. However, if you disagree you can always play without it or adopt one of the tweaks mentioned on dlp’s page for the game.

Finally, the rules do not really describe how the players are supposed to conduct the planning phase of each round. In most cases this is unimportant, but sometimes you will really want to know which actions the players ahead of you might take; you both might be in the same town without a trading station, or in a position to move to the same town, or both might have reason to take the last token of a particular type.

One could play that everyone has to plan in turn order, but that would of course make the game take much longer. On dlp’s page for the game they suggest planning simultaneously and announcing when one is done, if necessary making the announcements in turn order. I think this is fine; if I need to know if a player ahead of me is planning a certain action, I simply wait to finish until they are done and look at their board.

I think it would also be fine to prohibit looking at other players’ boards, using screens if necessary; bear in mind that you can always defer an action until a later round, so you could only get in real trouble this way by planning to take the last token of a type and then finding none left. However, re-allocation is possible so even this situation is not ruinous.

Opinions from the Other Opinionated Gamers:

Dale Yu: right now my rating of this is “I like it” after two plays, but it has definitely potential to move up into the I love it ranks as I continue to explore the complexities of the game.

I’m definitely a fan of the deck-building (and now pouch-building) genre, and Orleans really does seem to capture the fun aspect of building; namely that you get to quickly see the results of your alterations to your “deck”.

Though I haven’t played the game nearly enough to figure out if any of the particular strategies is more powerful, the game certainly allows you to go your own way in terms of strategy.  Obviously, you choose tokens based on what actions you’d like to do.  But you might also build your bag in a way to take advantage of the other powers of the tiles – such as being able to draw more tokens out each turn or placing the gears down on spaces to make future acquisitions cheaper.

Like Dan, I initially thought that the 18 rounds would be cumbersome, but once everyone is familiar with the game, most of those rounds take only 2-3 minutes.  We have chosen to play simultaneously in the planning stages with a gentleman’s agreement not to look at other players’ boards until you are done with your planning and have committed to your token placement.  The game would be dreadfully long and painful if you waited to do things in turn order. I suppose that if it really mattered, someone could ask to go in turn order, but in 2 games, this hasn’t happened yet.

FWIW, based on the postings online of the designer, we have also simply placed the Bathhouse tile in a ziploc bag and have left it out of our games.  There are enough other tiles available that I’d rather not add in a potentially unbalanced one to the game just yet.

Interestingly enough, I missed a rule in my first two plays that will likely only increase my liking of the game – I had missed the fact that you could choose not to take an action even if you had completely filled the space up with tokens.  There have been a few times when I (apparently erroneously) discarded tokens because I thought I had to build a trading post but I wasn’t in a city that was available to have one built in!

Larry (2 plays):  I’ve enjoyed both of my games, and I say that as a person who tends not to like deckbuilders.  The game plays fast, the decisions are interesting, and there is definitely a significant strategic aspect.  It’s an advanced middleweight which gives you things to think about without being close to being overwhelming.

Even though there are some benefits to be the first to accomplish certain things, this is primarily multi-player solitaire.  This doesn’t bother me as long as the planning is enjoyable, but if you’re looking for something with lots of player interaction, this is not your game.

We played with simultaneous planning rounds where the players agreed not to look at what their opponents are doing, just as Dale’s group did.  This seems to be the most sensible approach in terms of fairness and allowing the game to have an appropriate duration.

In my first game, we left the Bathhouse tile out.  For the second game, though, we included it, but modified it based on the designer’s recommendation:  instead of “draw 3 tiles and place 2”, it’s now “draw 2 tiles and place 1”.  This seemed to work very well.  The tile is now useful, but in no way overpowered.  There are other ways of modifying the tile, but I have no problem using this method.

In both my games, the person who did the best job of visiting towns and building trading stations won.  I don’t think this is an overpowered strategy, but it does suggest to me that ignoring this aspect of the game and strictly focusing on other things is dangerous because:  a) the events favor the traveling and building approach; and b) you make it too easy for a player who is focusing on traveling and building to grab too many goods tiles and build too many stations.  My first impression was that this is a game about specialization, based on the place tiles you acquire and the technologies you place.  But now I’m thinking that you might need to at least dabble in one or two other areas in order to succeed.  It’s still early in my investigation of the game, but it’s a good sign that I’m thinking about strategy as much as I am.

I’m not completely certain about the title’s replayability; it’s possible that the number of strategies are limited and that we’ll have explored them all after several more games.  But so far, the game has been fun and is one of the highlights of Essen for me.  I hope that we’ll continue to encounter new things with our future plays.

Dan again: If it helps, Larry, in my second game I did not build that many trading stations compared to some other players and still won; I built some, got several citizens, and made sure to get to the end of the development track. I was nearly caught by someone who had fewer stations and citizens and wasn’t as far up the track but who had a lot more goods (many generated from extra action tiles). So I think there is reasonable strategic space. That being said, I don’t think it’s the kind of game that has many radically different strategies; the interest lies in trying to efficiently execute a reasonable mix of strategic elements.

Alan: After only one play I can see how the game pans out. I’m with Dan that 18 rounds seems like a lot, but I felt the game whizzed by. Part of that is because everybody is engaged and partly because you are thinking about what you would like to do next round.   And in my opinion when you are actively thinking about what to do in your next turn, it makes the game feel wanted.  In one game you cannot explore all the options. I have only used two buildings but I already know that one of them was vanity and was hardly used.  With so many buildings that means there is a lot to explore. My slight concern is that I won on visiting towns and building trading stations, as Larry did, and the person who did least of these was a long way last. I like the holding limits placed on the game and the choices that this forces, which also adds to my intrigue with the game, and as the game has development elements, it hits my love of this type of game system.  The game promises much and so my current rating reflects my desire to play again soon.

Craig (3 plays): Like Larry, I’m not in general a fan of deck building as a mechanic, but I seem to have taken an early shine to Orleans and the variation of of “pouch-building.”  I was the player chasing Dan in the second game he described above where I focused on goods collection and almost caught him.  Given that experience and two subsequent plays where the bath house was a non-factor, I’m squarely in the camp of no modification needed to the bath house.  I’m just not seeing it.  For now, I’m finding myself thinking about the game when I’m not playing it and wanting to try different approaches.  That’s the sign of a good game that is likely to stick around for a while.

Joe H (1 play): There are a number of things I enjoyed about Orleans; the game feels like a professional design.  But at the same time, I didn’t care for the start of the game, which felt scripted (all the more so because the players who didn’t follow the script finished well back), and later in the game I ran out of choices; early in the mid-game, certain choices became blocked.  And that, more than anything else, killed the game for me; I hate games which leave me feeling like I have a single reasonable choice.  It also didn’t help that some of the events have a might-hurt-you, might-not nature to them.  Orleans isn’t a bad game, but it’s not a game for me.

Brian (1 play): My one play of this game saw two players execute ‘focused’ strategies. The experienced player raced up the development track gaining bonus citizens. One of the new players traveled almost exclusively, and got many trade goods, but didn’t slow down to build trading houses. Based on what I saw, I concur with the reviewers above that a balanced strategy is important. The experienced player won, but mostly because of a few good building purchases.

I enjoyed my first play, but my rating is still highly tentative. I’m just not sure whether the sort of optimization problems this game presents me will excite. I do like that the early turns of the game are important for what new tokens you recruit and how that influences the actions you take throughout the game. It is definitely a game I recommend trying. While it has a longer play time, the decisions are fairly unique and it does move along well. So, a firm recommendation to go with the tentative rating.

Jennifer Geske (4 plays):  When I first read the rules, the game reminded me of Siberia, another game from the same publisher a few years ago that also requires programming of multiple workers to activate specific events (although Siberia is a more tactical game). So far I have enjoyed my plays (we play with the ‘nerfed’ Bath House building). I don’t think the beginning of the game is scripted (I’ve tried going for trader/tools, buildings, scholars and knights as the first move in my plays). The part I like the most about this game is after you’ve built up enough workers so you can decide not only where to place them but also when to activate the actions (I’ve left the workers standing on full action spaces to reduce the risk of losing them in the plague). To have more flexibility, you can have some drawn workers simply unassigned until the next round. I also like the game actively encourages ‘thinning the deck’ by offering some benefits for retiring workers (VP or citizens). I do have two complaints – first is the production quality of the starter worker tokens. After 5 days of play at Sasquatch, the ink on the tokens have rubbed off enough that it’s difficult to tell the player colors (especially the yellow one). The second issue I have is that I do think 18 rounds is too long. It’s less of an issue of how long the game takes (my sessions are on the longer side for my taste but a lot of that has to do with players not knowing it’s their turn for action again), but more the fact that I think more experienced players will all have enough time to do everything they want to do – development track advancement, goods tokens, trading houses, etc. I would have preferred that the early-game decisions to have more significant trade-off ramifications. Overall, I think this is a solid game with a lot of replayability.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

  • I love it!  Dan Blum, Alan H, Luke H
  • I like it.  Dale Y, Larry, Jennifer G, Jonathan F, Craig Massey, Brian L.
  • Neutral.  Tom R
  • Not for me… Joe H
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6 Responses to Dan Blum: Review of Orléans

  1. mac72 says:

    In my experience (three games) the game was always won by the player leading the knights track , but this player has never ignored trading posts so I can’t totally rebuke the comments that trading posts are required to win. In my memory though, it was a clever choice of special action tiles that made the difference.

    • Dan Blum says:

      Neither of my games was won by the player leading the knights track. In fact, in the game I won I was behind on that track the whole game.

  2. I didn’t get to chime in – but as an OG writer, I’m somewhere between “like it” and “neutral” after one play. I’d be willing to play it again, which is more than I can say for *cough* Johari *cough*.

  3. William Ang says:

    The sequence of the planning phase used to bug me until I read on BGG, the designer has said that everyone should plan simultaneously. However in the event that someone needs to plan based on what others are doing, simply wait for the guy ahead of you in turn order. This makes perfect sense to me. My group plays that you can only change plans if you’re behind in turn order based on what people ahead of you are planning. It works well!

  4. Ben (chally) says:

    I didn’t manage to add my comment in time, but add me to the “Not for me” camp. Orleans was a surprising disappointment. The game itself was much lighter than I would prefer (or had expected), and mostly involves spending actions to collect points in a rather straightforward way. The engine-building consisted almost exclusively of getting more actions, so that you can collect more points per round. One of the other players at our table commented that there were no meaningful decisions in the game. While that’s a little farther than I would go, I didn’t think the game gave me any reason to feel particularly invested in my decisions.

    The game’s thematic trappings actually hindered my enjoyment further. The game contains a number of different currencies, each of which is just a value of points. For example, there is money that you can’t spend (each dollar is one point). There are goods that you collect but don’t use or consume (a wheat is one point, a cheese is two, etc.). They might as well have used a single currency – VP – and just printed a value on every token. It would have at least saved me the burden of having to check the reference board all the time in order to figure out whether wine or yarn is more valuable.

    More fundamentally, the reason I generally dislike purely abstract games because I want games to attempt to model real-world challenges (even if they are boring challenges like subsistence farming). “Theme” that consists only in pretty pictures and flavor text doesn’t merely gets in the way if the underlying mechanics are all artificial constructs. And that is the case with Orleans. The game is not about wheat or cheese or money, because those items have none of their natural properties. Food that you can’t eat or trade is not food. Money that you can’t spend is not money. (By contrast, the fact that you need to be accompanied by a Knight to travel the countryside at least gives that token a Knight-like function). I suspect that I could play almost the entire game of Orleans with some scrabble tiles and a bunch of playing cards numbered 1-5, and that’s not the sort of game I tend to gravitate towards.

    It’s not terrible by any stretch, but I’d prefer to never play this again. There are too many better games out there and not enough time at the table.

    • Dan Blum says:

      This is not entirely true since there are events which require food or money.

      I am also in general skeptical of this line of argument since I am hard-pressed to think of a game which actually models something in anything like a realistic way. Most games that are touted for this are in fact very abstract and unrealistic if analyzed carefully; my impression is that people claim that games they like are “realistic” and games they don’t like are “abstract.”

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