- Designer: Renier Knizia
- Publisher: Ravensburger
- Players: 2-4
- Ages: 10+
- Time: 45 minutes
- Times played: 5 with review copy provided by Ravensburger Germany
Orongo was one of my more anticipated games from Essen 2014 – namely due to the combination of designer and publisher. While Herr Doktor Knizia has been putting out many games each year, it seems like there haven’t been as many games out with the “big boy” publishers as of late. Thus, I was excited to hear that Ravensburger had plans to publish a Knizia this year.
Orongo brings back out one of the familiar tropes of German Gaming – Easter Island. Along with Romans, Pirates, Roman Pirates, Egypt, Egyptian Pirates, Poop, pooping pirates, and generic Renaissance themes, Easter Island is one of recurring settings for TGOO. In Orongo, players vie to build their Moai (humongous stone head statues) on the periphery of the island. The first player to build their fifth Moai will win the game.
The board is a representation of the island with a hex grid laid out on top of it. About half of the hex spaces have nothing but palm trees printed on them while the 60 remaining spaces are numbered and each has a picture of one of the 11 resources on it. There are a stack of 60 chits that correspond to these numbered spots. Additionally, the pool of 48 shells is split up evenly amongst the players (i.e. 12 each in a 4p game) as well as a handful of translucent marker tokens in their color.
Each turn is comprised of three phases. First, the round starts with a number of resources being drawn at random and being placed on their corresponding spots on the board (normally 4 tiles in a 4p game). The second phase is a closed fist auction. Players start with 12 shells, and these are hidden behind a screen. Players may take any number of these shells (including zero shells) and place them in their fist. When all players have bid, the hands are opened. The player who bid the most shells places all of them on the reef area on the board and then places three marker tokens in front of them. The second place player gets two marker tokens but also gets to put all of his bid shells BACK behind his screen. Anyone else who bid at least one shell then gets one marker token in front of them (and also gets to return their bid to their screen). If there is a tie, it is broken in clockwise order from whomever has the start player marker. Finally, if anyone has bid zero shells, they get no marker tokens, but they do get to take all the shells from the reef area. If multiple players bid zero, they split the shells as evenly as possible leaving any remainder behind.
The third phase is the placing of tokens – the player with the winning bid gets the starting player marker and then gets to place his 3 tokens first. These markers can be placed either on a resource tile on the board or on any empty palm tree space that is adjacent to at least one marker of that player’s color. Once the new start player places his three, then the second bidder gets to place his two. Then, in clockwise order from the new start player, any remaining single markers are placed.
As these translucent markers are placed, you much carefully look to see if you can build a Moai. As soon as you meet the requirements to build a Moai – you must do so! There are 4 different combinations of icons that can build a Moai:
- One Temple and One God
- One Birdman and One Nest
- Two Food
- One Quarry
If you have an set of markers which are all adjacent which meet one of these 4 sets AND there is an additional translucent token placed on an empty coastal hex on the island, then you immediately build a Moai on that empty coastal hex space. You must place shells on each of the resources used to build the temple (so that you don’t use them again later). If you do not have enough shells to pay for the Moai, you may not place the final translucent marker which would have triggered the build. You must wait until you have enough shells to build. These used shells are now out of the game permanently.
Each player is given four Moai to start the game, and there is one left on the board for a player’s final build. This last Moai can only be built when the four personal Moai are on the board. Once this last Moai is built, the game immediately ends and the player who built it is declared the winner.
Alternatively, the game could also end at the end of the round when the final number tiles are placed. If no one has built the final Moai, the winner is the player with the most Moai built at that time. If there is a tie, the winner is the player with the most shells left.
My thoughts on the game
As usual, Doctor Knizia has not really introduced any novel mechanics to the game – as of late, he has become a master at reworking previous ideas into games that still feel new. Orongo is an interesting mix of repeated auctions and an area control game. While, at first glance, the repeated auctions seem monotonous – there is a fair bit of strategy and jockeying that can come out of this simple mechanic. The main reason for this is that only the highest bidder pays their shells to the bank. Everyone else gets some reward without having to give up their shells. As the economy is mostly closed (as it is in Knizia’s Traumfabrik), if you are able to save up on your shells at the right time, you could be in a commanding position when you really need to get a specific space. The ebb and flow of your shell situation is something that you always have to keep in mind – figuring out when the right time to pass is also important so that you can maximize the return of shells to your supply without giving up too many bids.
The other bit of strategy that you have to account for is that your continued success in the game makes it harder for you to compete for further auctions – this is because each time you build a Moai, you have to take some shells out of your personal supply and essentially remove them from the game. Thus, with each build, you have to take a bit of time usually to get your shell situation back on par with everyone else. You also have to be careful to have enough shells to be able to build a Moai when you want to – if you make a move too early and you aren’t able to pay for it, someone else might see your plan and then make a single defensive play to screw you over.
The game does allow for some simple defensive plays – there are times that you can place your markers in places to thwart your opponents from being able to build a Moai on their turn. While this doesn’t happen a great deal, it happens enough to make mention of it. But in the end, it seems to be a game that is more of a race to finishing than playing defensively. In my 5 games, we have yet to have a game end because there were no more tiles to place – it has always ended when someone is able to build their fifth Moai.
The problem for me is simple – the graphic design is dreadful – to the point that it hinders play. The island map on the board is beautiful, and you can easily see the icons in the numbered spaces. However, the icon tiles are virtually identical in coloration, and therefore are nearly impossible to see when they are on the board, especially in dim lighting or if you are unlucky to be sitting further away from the board than other players. We find ourselves constantly peering at the board to see which spaces do in fact have tiles on them. Furthermore, once you are able to figure out which icon tiles you can play your markers on… the translucent tiles are mostly see through, but the darker colors tend to truly obscure the art underneath them – which means that you’re often trying to slide them around to see what’s underneath… which leads to the other big problem for me…
The other issue here are the shells. While they are beautiful to look at and definitely help carry the theme – they have the problem that they are quite mobile. It doesn’t take much of a jostle (or sneeze) to send these little cowrie shells rolling all over the board. This becomes a problem when you can’t remember where they started from! Near the end of the game, many of the hex spaces will have shells on them as they have been used to build Moai in the past. We nearly had to abort one game when someone accidentally kicked one of the table legs and sent the majority of the shells sprawling off their appointed spots. I would have much preferred non-thematic white cubes to the shells, and in fact, I have added a baggie full of these white cubes to my copy of the game.
So, the sad thing for Orongo is that I love the game mechanics, but the production makes it hard to play. It’s not often that the physical components of a game would cause me to drop the rating of a game, but when it actually affects the playability, it can’t be ignored. I’m hoping that this one can somehow be re-done, because a better produced game would be an “I love it!” for me for sure. As it stands, this current version is one that will get some play but likely will never become a staple of my game collection. I have played the game 5 times, so it’s not like it was a complete deal breaker – but in each game, there was usually at least one player who really had a hard time with the components.
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers
Joe Huber (1 play) – I – really had hoped to enjoy Orongo. It was actually one of the small number of games I tried to get from Essen. But – after playing the game, any disappointment I had about not getting a copy evaporated. The physical issues, which Dale mentions, are really annoying – they actively detract from play of the game. If I’d enjoyed the game enough, then I might have considered putting up with them, but instead the game felt a bit too random, as the order in which tiles come out makes a significant difference in how the game plays out, benefitting some players and hurting others in a manner that left me unimpressed. Without the component issues, I’d probably have fallen into the Neutral camp.
Mitchell Thomashow (1 Play) I’m always interested in Knizia’s semi-abstract games as I think his very best (Ingenious) are outstanding. But lately he’s designed so many “spin-off” games that it’s really hard to know which are worth the effort. Indigo was pretty good. I haven’t tried many of the others. I only played the game once, but because of the poor physical design I found it extremely difficult and downright irritating to wrap my head around it. Its not even a remotely complex game, but because of the poor design it’s fiddly and confusing, at least at first. There may be a decent game here, but it’s not particularly original, and I couldn’t muster the effort to find out.
Craig Massey (3 plays) – I was very excited for a new Knizia game rather than a new take on an older design. I do understand the physical design of the components can get in the way of the experience of the game. All of those criticisms are justly deserved and surprising given Ravensburger’s track record. I can’t remember a previous Ravensburger game that these types of design issues. The shells while great looking are frustrating when they wobble and move. And as Dale has said the tiles can be tough to distinguish from the board. Good lighting is a must for this game. I don’t feel like the game was at all random, but rather it is an extremely tight auction game where every bid and move counts. I would say that instead of random, the game feels very unpredictable. There is an opportunity for defensive play as well and the ability to get in your opponents way. For me this is all a big plus because with the closed economy, something more predictable would lead to a stale experience after a play or two. I have to admit that typically component issues are a roadblock to my enjoyment of a game, but I’m finding Orongo compelling enough to set those issues aside.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Craig M
- I like it. Brian L
- Neutral. Dale Y, Ben M, Jennifer G, Mark J, John P, Nathan Beeler
- Not for me… Luke H, Joe H, Mitchell T