Jonathan Franklin – Review of Orbis

Review: Orbis

  • Design by Tim Armstrong
  • Illustrated by Davide Tosello
  • Published by Space Cowboys
  • 2-4 players
  • 45 minutes
  • Played three times with 3-4 players
  • Review by Jonathan Franklin

Orbis is a light-medium engine building game with a spatial aspect and pinch-points that distinguish it from Splendor and Century: Spice Road, while fitting neatly into that genre.

It is largely attractive with strong tile art, colorful cubes, and a nice final 2d pyramid for each player.  Setting it up in a public place will draw people in and the game play is clean enough that it is easy to understand after watching a few turns.  Oddly, we liked the art on the landscape tiles far more than the art on the god tiles.

Each player has 15 turns to take a tile from the center display. 14 will be lands and 1 will be a god tile. Their final display will be a pyramid with five tiles on the bottom, then 4, 3, 2, and topped by the God (added last, even if it was was taken earlier).

The goal of the game is to have the highest score at the end.  Scoring is quite simple, the value of the 15 tiles plus the temple bonus, which is a simple end game majority scoring with ties broken by the highest tile number in the set.

There are three placement rules that drive the construction of your pyramid.

  1. All tiles other than the first one must be placed next to another tile, starting on the base.
  2. A tile can only be placed on a higher level if it is
    1. Supported by two other tiles directly below
    2. One of the two tiles below is the same color as the one being placed.

If you want to place a tile and either you cannot pay the cost or you cannot legally place it, you may flip it over and place it as a wasteland. While the wasteland tile is minus one point, it also counts as any color tile, so you can build any color tile directly on top of it.  This can be pretty awesome in the middle of your row of three, thereby improving your odds of being able to place non-wastelands on the row of two, right below the god.

The tiles have colors that are thematic and score in different ways, but before we get to that, note that I mentioned paying for a tile. The game has three stacks of tiles.  The first ones mostly have no cost. The second and third stacks cost cubes. You get cube from tiles in two ways. First, some tiles give you cubes in one of five colors. Second, when you take a tile, you place cubes of the color you took on each orthogonally adjacent tile.  This means that the tile you take might have a bunch of cubes already on it and give you more. You can then spend those cubes on later turns to buy more expensive tiles.

There are some minor twists, such as some tiles score if a condition is met when placing it vs. at the end of the game.  Some tiles give you cube generators, but they are not useable when paying wild cubes to buy some tiles. In addition, you are limited to 10 cubes in your stock at the end of your turn.

One twist to the game is that if you take a tile with cubes on it, you may use those cubes to pay for the tile you are taking.  In addition, you can always covert three physical cubes of one color (not generators) for one cube of another color. Given the 10 cube max, this is not always as bad as it sounds.

Gods tend to generate one to three points and feel more advantageous as a pause move than as a direction to build towards.  We saw scores from 17 to 27, so getting 2 points per tile seems quite good. There are no big moves and the game as a whole feels quite tactical, maybe you take a tile someone else wanted, but if you score no points, you likely just helped the players other than the one who wanted it by falling on your sword.

Everything is visible, but because a tile is taken each turn, there is not much planning ahead.  When it comes around to you, you assess the situation and pick what works best. If the ideal tile is flipped for someone, the downside is they got lucky, the upside is that freshly flipped tiles have no cubes on them, so they don’t reap the perfect tile and cubes.

Space Cowboys games are always well developed and this one feels smooth until the last few turns.  We found that the tile got exceptionally expensive and because red tiles can remove cubes from the board, we were often too poor to buy any tiles. On one hand, that is sad and anticlimactic.  On the other hand, the more expensive tiles don’t generate more points than the less expensive ones, so maybe it is more a feeling of disappointment than a losing approach.

My family invested more thought in the tile selection process than my gamer friends.  My family thought about which cubes they were leaving for the next player, what tiles that player could take, etc.   In our other games, we just took tiles and let stuff happen. I don’t think one is better than the other, but the former does take longer than the latter.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Dale Y:  Orbis is one of my favorite games from this year’s Essen.  For me, the constantly changing nature of the tiles (and cubes) in the central area of the table kept me fully occupied and invested in the game.  I like the way that there are multiple strategies to take – sure, many are tied to a specific color; but in the end, you always have plenty of opportunities to change gears.   At first, I didn’t see that – my first few games were a constant winnowing of color until I was really only looking for one or two colors to build upon my earlier tiles. Then, eventually it dawned on me that I could take a tile and choose to flip it over – sure there were some short term penalties associated with it; but now I could build any color tile on top of it – and suddenly, my end game options were wide open!  The game is clearly very tactical in nature, and you usually have to wait until your turn comes around to really figure out what you want to do – but you can do some advance planning when it’s not your turn; and I’ve found that the game moves along quite swiftly in our group. As with any game where tiles are flipped over randomly, there are times when the right tile comes up at the right moment for a player. That’s life.  It’s also mitigated by the fact that the older tiles will have more cubes on them, and this tends to balance out any luck in the flipping. I have played this six times so far, and I am looking forward to many more plays.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y
  • I like it.
  • Neutral. Jonathan, Nathan Beeler
  • Not for me…

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