A double-headed review: Okanagan and Pioneers by Emanuele Ornella
By Simmy Peerutin
It was over 13 years ago that I first played an Emanuele Ornella game and that was in 2004, at Essen. The game was Oltre Mare and it was different enough to mark him out as a designer to watch. It was packaged rather clumsily in an oversized card box with a tiny board and minuscule markers so it was not surprising that Amigo gave it the big box treatment in 2005. The multiple use for the cards, the Bohnanza-like scoring mechanic and the trading with some hidden information combined to make for a compelling package.
Oltre Mare was followed by Il Principe in 2005 and this confirmed Ornella’s arrival with a few neat twists on set collection, role selection and area control. Both games are relatively simple to explain, have a somewhat abstract, puzzly feel and yet require the players to consider multiple factors when planning their moves. In fact, it is the multitude of competing or balancing options that makes these games of his quite prone to player analysis paralysis, and so they are both highly recommended but for groups without ‘those players…’
I also have Byzanz, a novel card-set auction game which has a trademark Ornella feel – so many intersecting actions/decisions that a clear strategy is not apparent, even after quite a few plays. I had not played the game in years but played recently in preparation for this review. A person that won the fewest auctions drew with the person that won the most. Even this doesn’t adequately describe the complexity, the combination of what cards to bid (which you lose to a common display and may get some back) to which bid to target (and why), to which cards to take from the common display and when and what to sell. My brain is too small for that.
While he has designed quite a few other games, either the buzz was not particularly good or the theme did not appeal. I would be interested to hear what others think of his output between Byzanz (2008) and the games reviewed below. Have I missed out?
So, with that background, it was with some anticipation that I noted two releases at Essen last year-Okanagan and Pioneers. Both looked interesting in the run-up and so I ensured I played both at the fair. I then bought both, sacrificing luggage space initially reserved for Pioneer Days and Clans of Caledonia. Do I regret it? Find out below.
Okanagan – Valley of the Lakes (published by Matagot) allows players to explore this region of British Columbia by drawing tiles representing different territory types, often two or three different types on a single tile. When laying a tile one must ensure at least one edge shares a common territory with the neighbouring tile. This may extend a territory or complete it. At the same time as laying a tile, a player sets down on that tile, a building type of his colour. There are three types of building: A silo is built on the center of that tile and represents 1 point of influence in each of the different territories on that tile. A warehouse is built between two different type of territory on the tile just laid and has 2 points of influence in each, and a farm is built on one type of territory and has 3 points of influence on that type. As territories are extended buildings find themselves on the same territory extending across multiple tiles. When a territory is completed players calculate their influence points and are rewarded with tokens and, for the player with the lowest influence, a special action.
Victory points are awarded by collecting sets of these reward tokens depicted on Objective cards which are chosen at the beginning of the game and at the beginning of round 2. At that point each player will have 3 objective cards to aim at, as well as a common Explorer Objective card which rewards all players for sets of 4 different coloured reward tokens.
Players have a finite amount of buildings: generally, 1 farm, 2 silos and 2 or 3 warehouses depending on player count. The game is played over two rounds, both ending when all players have built all their buildings for that round. After the first round one gets 2 new Objective cards choose from.
This is not an exhaustive description of the rules but should give the reader a sense of the gameplay.
I am a sucker for beautiful looking games and this one does not disappoint. When laid out, the territories on the tiles make great patterns and the buildings add a dash of accent colour. The art on the cards is also well done, in a realistic cartoon-style. But, although there are choices to be made, the central set collecting idea is just not that thematic or compelling or novel. I also don’t particularly like it when a game is divided into 2 rounds and both rounds are essentially the same. It’s like playing the game twice. The special action for the player with the least influence when a region is completed is a good catch up mechanism, but it feels exactly that; nothing thematic about it.
Additionally, at higher player counts the completing of territories is a much more unpredictable, and so there is not a lot of player control. For me that often translates into a distinct lack of tension in a game.
Maybe I was expecting more from the designer, but I suppose looked at from the perspective of a visually appealing gateway game it probably succeeds rather well. I would however happily trade this game away.
In my opinion, Pioneers (published by Queen) is a better game.
Here, players are trying to populate the cities shown on the board with their pioneers. Each Pioneer has a specific profession denoted by the colour and the image on the tokens and can only be settled in cities that need their profession, denoted by city tiles of the right colour and image. Players also build a road network in their colour and earn income when other players use their roads.
There are threes phases in a player turn:
- Earn income – Basic plus increase for banker tiles
- Purchase – either roads segments or stagecoaches. Road segments purchased must be laid immediately. Generally, only 1 player road segment can be laid on each section between cities and so the laying of these segments is very important. Stagecoaches are purchased from a common display containing 4 coaches, with 2-4 pioneers on each coach. The idea is to empty the coaches (thereby earning victory points)by moving the common stagecoach token to city tiles requiring the pioneers in your stagecoaches.
- Movement and colonising – First move the common stagecoach token, paying the cost of $1 per road segment, either to the bank or to the player owning that road. The stagecoach must end its movement in a city that still contains a city tile, unless the player has no pioneers of any city he can afford to reach. When the stagecoach end on a tile the player takes the tile and replaces it with a pioneer of the same colour/image as the city tile. These city tiles all give a special action to the player getting them. Some are permanent, and some are immediate/once off.
Victory Points are earned at the end of the game from the VP value of empty stagecoaches, empty spaces on stagecoaches that are partly empty, gold nuggets obtained from settling gold digger pioneers in a city, and from all of their Pioneers connected to their largest connected road network.
Again, this is not an exhaustive description of the rules but should give the reader a sense of the gameplay.
Don’t let the typical Queen game art (which I happen to like) fool you. Like a number of Ornella’s games, this game is a fairly complex puzzle with many competing decisions and high player interaction (the moving of the stagecoach, the competition for the city tiles and the building of the roads). Yet here the theme comes across strongly in the way the stagecoach starts from one corner of the board and gradually the board opens up and is settled with pioneers. The stagecoach mechanism is clever and thematic, with pioneers of differing expertise arriving. Money is tight and there are many things competing for it. Does one purchase more stagecoaches to have more pioneer type options; does one spend to build up a network quickly; does one increase income by getting to the cities requiring bankers quickly; does one increase purchase options by getting to the shopkeeper cities; all the while watching the road network to ensure one is not cut off from the big final scoring opportunity with your pioneers along your connected road network.
This game has grown on me as I try different broad strategies, and while I would probably have preferred both Pioneer Days and Clans of Caledonia I am happy with at least one of the two substitutes.
6 May 2018
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers:
Doug Garrett (Garrett’s Games podcast): i’m the exact opposite on these two games, enjoying Okanagan a LOT more than Pioneers in our playings. Now that may be due to the fact that we played them exclusively 2-player, but Okanagan moved along at a good clip with some nice, angsty area majority plays. Pioneers, on the other hand, felt like a slog. It’s not even the best Pioneer-based game that came out last year (that would go to Pioneer Days from Tasty Minstrel).
Joe Huber: On the other hand, I’m with Simmy – Okanagan wasn’t a bad game, but since my first play I’ve felt no need or desire to play it again. Pioneers, on the other hand, was a game that after one play, I knew I wanted to play a second time. And while I didn’t feel a need for a third play, I was perfectly happy to get one in; it remains firmly on my “happy to play” list. I particularly enjoy the simple, quick rhythm of Pioneers – it’s a very pleasant game, but with nice puzzle aspects to give the game some challenge.
Tery Noseworthy: I haven’t played Okanagan, but I enjoyed my two plays of Pioneers; I like the puzzle aspect that Joe mentions as well as the fact that there are different strategies and approaches that can be successful. It is easy to teach and learn and plays fairly quickly while still providing a strategy game feel.
Dan Blum: I’ve played Okanagan several times and I like it; possibly not as much as Doug but more than Simmy or Joe. This is partly because it feels to me like an improved version of Klaus Teuber’s Entdecker series, which were games I always wanted to like but never could. (The last iteration of that game, Im Reich der Wüstensöhne, is not bad and I’d play it again, but I still prefer Okanagan.) That being said it’s definitely light.
Pioneers I’ve only played once but it was interesting and I’d play it again. However in our game the puzzle aspects seemed outweighed by the chaos; there seems little use in figuring out anything except your immediate move because the situation will change dramatically before your next turn. It too reminded me of a series of older games, in this case Sid Sackson’s Holiday/Maloney’s Inheritance/Shanghai, but again I think it’s better than those (at least the first two; I haven’t played Shanghai but general opinion on it is poor).
Dale Y: I have only played Okanagan, and I like it well enough. It’s an interesting tile-laying game, and I like the scoring system. My only quibble might be that it seems like people who get lucky enough to have two or three meshing scoring cards on the intiial draw end up with a big advantage because they’re able to work towards their scoring goal for the whole game; while those players who switch scoring tiles at the midpoint have to just make the best of what they’ve got, and this seems to reduce the overall scoring.
Simmy Peerutin: I would be very interested in comments about the other games I have mentioned and thoughts on the others not mentioned – Hermagor, Charon and Martinique.
I Love It:
I like it: Dan Blum, Dale Y
Not for Me:
I Love It:
I like it: Tery, Dan Blum, Simmy
Not for Me: