Dale Yu: First Impressions of Pipeline


  • Designer: Ryan Courtney
  • Publisher: Capstone Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 12+
  • Time: 60-120 on the box, my games have been closer to 3 hrs
  • Times played: 2.5 with review copy provided by Capstone Games

In Pipeline, players are in charge of their own fledgling oil company, trying to become the most successful (i.e. richest) player at the end of the game.   The board is a complicated looking affair, with many different areas on it – which are labeled (orders, contracts, machines, tanks, multiple markets, etc) – and each has cards/tiles set up on them from the supply with the extras in many areas being discarded from the game. 3 valuation tiles are chosen at random to provide end game scoring bonuses.

Each player also receives their own player board.  There is plenty of reference information along the sides of this.  Room should be left on the left of the board for your pipe network as well as space on the right for contract, order and upgrade cards.  Players start the game with $40 and 5 tank tokens. These 5 tokens can be freely distributed amongst the different grades of oil on the player board.  There is a score track at the top of the player board where each player records the length of the longest network of each of the three colors – that represents the different TYPES of oil.

Pipeline is played in 3 asymmetrical rounds (each representing a year): 8 rounds in the first year, 6 rounds in the second year, and 4 rounds in the third year. During each round, a player’s turn is comprised of 2 phases: the Work Phase and the Machine Phase.

In the Work phase, players will take their worker and place it on an action space, or on a pipe tile (either a Government tile or on your own pipe network).  You then take the action corresponding to the worker’s location. Then, if you placed on one of the eight central action spaces on the board, you are allowed to take a secondary action which is found directly adjacent to your initial action space at the cost of $10.  Some of the actions will allow you to change your place in turn order (which will take effect in the next round). The main action must always be completed first prior to taking the secondary action. Note that the action space that you choose does NOT need to be empty.  Multiple workers can be on the same actions space.

Possible actions:

Contracts and Loans: You may take up to 3 contracts, one from each row on the board.  When you take a contract, you decide if it is active for this year or deferred to next year.  Active contracts go to the right of your player board, deferred contracts are placed above. You may also take one loan while at this action space. If so, you immediately get $15 from the supply as well as a Penalty marker.

Refined Markets (3 options, each pointing to a different market at the bottom of the board) – here, you can first sell oil barrels from your board to the market, and then you can buy barrels from the market to place on your board.  Each market has a different price structure, and you can only sell/buy from the market designated by your action space.

Crude Market – the Crude market works similarly to the Refined markets above, but only deals in crude oil (and not the three refined grades).

Tanks and Pipes – You can freely buy tanks and pipes from the appropriate market.  Purchased tanks are placed on the player board in the grade row of your choice – and they must remain there for the duration of the game.  Pipes must be bought in quantities of 2 or 4, and they are placed on your board.

Machines and Pipes – Machines can be bought here, and they are placed on your personal pipe network. At the end of your turn, machines will run any Pipelines connected to them.  Pipes can again be bought here in quantities of 2 or 4.

Upgrades – There are five different upgrade columns, each with 3 levels of cards.  You can buy from any available column (marker green side up) – and when you buy from a column, you can flip the marker over to the unavailable (black) side. You must first buy the Level 1 card of a particular type, and when you buy later upgrades, you can buy the next advanced level.  After you have purchased as many upgrades as you like, you may flip over one additional available token to the unavailable side. For the rest of the YEAR, no one can purchase an unavailable upgrade.

Government Pipe tiles – there are four quadrants of government pipe tiles in the center of the board. In each year, tiles from (N+1) quadrants can be purchased – the choice of which quadrants is always open to the active player (based on where the worker is placed) until the limit number of quadrants is reached.  You can buy 1-5 tiles from your chosen quadrant and add them to your personal network

Personal Pipe tiles – place your worker on one of your pipe tiles in your network. You will now refine an oil barrel for each pipeline that passes through that tile (max 3) – though the pipelines cannot be connected to a Machine.  Each pipeline has a value which is calculated by the number of segments that are connected to that tile. The cost for upgrading oil is found in the upper left corner of the board. You must have capacity tank-wise to store the final product of your upgrade.  There is no monetary cost to running these pipelines with this action.

Machine Phase – Once all players have finished the Work Phase, the machine phase happens.  Each player can choose to pay $!5 to activate any/all of their Machines in their personal pipe network.  Each Machine runs all connected pipelines and refining oil barrels as noted above in the “Personal Pipe” action.  All machines run simultaneously, so you cannot refine the same barrel twice in one machine phase.

At any point during your turn, you may partially or fully fill an active contract (as found to the right of your player board).  Place an appropriate cube onto the contract card and collect money as noted on the chart on your player board. Each contract can be filled exactly once a year once active.  If it is not filled by the end of the year, you will get a Penalty marker. You can also fill an order tile from the game board, but this must be completed all at once. Put the appropriate cubes on the order tile, place it next to your player board and collect money per the chart on your player board.

After the Machine phase, play another round until you get to the limit for your particular year (8 rounds in the first year, 6 in the second, 4 in the third).   Before the second and third year begins, there is a small upkeep phase. The contract supply is refreshed. All players with current active contracts that are not fully filled cause their owners to take a Penalty Token for each unfinished contract (and lose the contract).  All players now remove all cubes from their contracts. The markets (both crude and refined) get new cubes added to them. The Tank and Machine tiles are all discarded and the supplies are replenished with new tiles from the supply. Finally, all of the Upgrade markers are flipped back over to the available side.

If you’re at the end of the third year, the game instead moves into the final scoring phase – players add money to the total they have at the end of the game

·         Contracts – give penalty tokens for all incomplete Contracts

·         Oil Barrels – players earn money for each oil barrel left on their board based on the grade

·         Pipelines – mentally run every pipeline in your personal area and earn money based on the highest grade of oil that could have been possibly refined by it

·         Valuation tiles – evaluate your progress on the three Valuation tiles and earn money as applicable

·         Penalties – lose money on a sliding scale based on the total number of Penalty tokens collected over the course of the whole game

The player with the most money wins.  Ties go to the player earlier in player order.

My thoughts on the game

Pipeline has an old-school feel to it – harkening back to an era when two to three hour games were the norm and when foolish early moves could lead to a game-long handicap making it nearly impossible to win.  One of my all-time favorite games, Age of Steam, definitely falls into this category, though it’s a game that I maybe only play once or twice a year now. After hearing the pitch for Pipeline at the Capstone Games booth at Origins, I wanted to try the game out and see how it played.

As with many complex games, there is a steep learning curve to the game.  There are a lot of rules to absorb for a first play, and even once you know the basics, there are a lot of choices to decide between early on in the game.  The pace of the game follows an interesting trajectory – it starts out extremely slow; at the start of the game, your actions are small, and it feels like you aren’t making a lot of progress.  For this reason, you get 8 turns in the first year – because you’re not going to get a lot done in those early turns – you need more money, more cubes, and a wider personal pipe network. You’ll need lots of money, and you’ll surely have to take out loans.  You only start the game with $40, and everything in the game costs you money. Heck, it even costs $15 to run your machines! You should be cautious with your loans though, because each Penalty Marker that you collect costs your progressively more, so you really want to be as efficient as possible when building your engine.

(As an aside, I do have an issue with the denominations of the money.  Surely they mean millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars here. Sure, it doesn’t really matter, they could have just called them Elektros on some non-real currency, and then I wouldn’t have cared – but it does seem a bit discordant that I’m building a pipeline for the amount of money that I could use to buy two Happy Meals for my nephews…)

You’ll need to carefully weigh your action options each turn.  As you only get one main action per turn, you want to make sure that you don’t waste a turn by not maximizing your options.  Also, don’t forget that you might be able to take two actions on a turn – if you start with an action on the game board, but don’t be blinded by this option.  The extra option costs you $10, and early on, this amount is a huge portion of your total bankroll – so make sure that you really get $10 of benefit out of the secondary action!  I think, in general, you will get your money’s worth from the extra action, but with money being tight – just be sure that you know what your plan is.

In much of the first year, you’re working to simply make enough money to keep everything going and maybe sock away 5 or 10 bucks extra.  Each turn, you will hopefully add a little bit more pipe to your network, which will hopefully let you reach the next grade of oil which will in turn payoff slightly more when you sell/use that cube.  And, don’t forget, you’ll have to use an action to run the pipelines! Once you have saved up enough money, you’ll graduate to automation; you’ll be able to buy a machine or more, and then you’ll be able to run your pipelines for money alone (and you can save your actions to come up with different ways to make more money).  Soon, you’ll be able to buy more machines, and this means that you can run more pipelines automatically (well, at least for the same flat fee), and then you’ve moved into the next stage of the game.

Once you get your engine running, the pace rapidly quickens, and you suddenly have everything that you need to buy barrels, refine barrels, and earn lots and lots of money.  In a solo sense, there is something very fulfilling to see your plan come together and you go from a single turn where you make a single improved cube to one where you add pipes, makes refined oil and then run your machines to make even more oil.   I have already mentioned earlier that being efficient is the key here – not only do you want to limit the number of Loans/Penalties that you collect, but the timing is also crucial. As the pace of the game exponentially speeds up once your engine starts working, if your engine is a few turns behind everyone else, you’ll simply have too much lost opportunity to win the game.   Once the engine starts working and the earnings accelerate, there’s no going back and nothing to slow it down. Therefore, if you don’t start moving when everyone else moves, you’ll be left further and further behind with each successive turn. 

Therefore, in the first part of the game, your goal is to beat everyone else to automation (or at least that is what my first games tell me). At worst, you don’t want to be getting there more than one turn later than everyone else.  If you are tardy, you might as well pack up your stuff and head home. In my experience, you’ve already lost the game. While I really enjoy the puzzle of getting my company up and running at full speed, failure at this puzzle seems to truly snuff out your chances of finishing well.  There really is no alternate path – the rush to automation is a singular chokepoint in this game.

Though your meeple is considered a worker, this is NOT a worker placement game.  There is no limit to the number of workers that can take the same action. The only place where you might be able to really attack a leader is with the upgrades.  I suppose that a player could finagle themselves into an early turn order slot at the start of each year, take the upgrade action first and then block off the upgrades in certain areas for the rest of the YEAR.  It’s a weird interaction to limit to turn order, and limiting each of the five tracks to one upgrade AT MOST per year seems unnecessarily brutal. The upgrades can really be truly useful, but the way in which the game limits the players from actually gaining them and using them seems to be a shame.

I think that I would have loved this game ten years ago.  I would have loved the challenge of a game with brutal chokepoints and severe penalties for taking loans.  I mean, it’s not even as rough as Age of Steam which could actually eliminate players early on if they ran out of money.  Here, you cannot literally eliminate yourself from the game, though you can certainly functionally eliminate yourself. Now, the game length is longer than I want, and I now have moved away from games that functionally eliminate players.  Maybe I’m getting too soft. Maybe my brain is so addled that it can’t handle super complex games. But, I am fairly sure that I don’t enjoy games that leave me with an hour of doing nothing meaningful. And I definitely don’t like being the person to suggest a game which then leaves someone else out in the cold.   That’s probably something more on me than on the game. I have seen plenty of groups have great experiences with this, and I can see how this would appeal to those who like this sort of game. I really do love the puzzle of the first part of the game – I just wish that everyone would get to compete in Pipeline for the whole game.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Alan H: This is one of my games of the year as it also fits into my genre of games. I’ve played the game five times now and no game has gone beyond 2 1/2 hours. So this falls into my ideal game length and I enjoy everything about this game. I was also a Kickstarter backer.

My experience with the game is significantly different from what Dale has touched on. For me, the decision about which orders to aim for, and which of the contracts to take are the key decisions as this makes you align your pipe network to achieving these goals. Influencing this is the cost of each oil upgrade which is set each game, as this determines what length of each coloured pipe which helps decide which pipeline tiles you are looking for.

I have also found that the upgrades are not focused on significantly, primarily because of the cost but also because the alternative things can be more important. I suspect future plays of the game may change this view. While automation is important players tend not to do this until the second game when they realise how effective it can be although I have found non-automated well constructed networks can outperform an imperfect automated network.

The next area that I really enjoyed was the player sequencing which I thought was a very clever game system. Not only did it provide lots of competition for early choices it also allowed for significant planning as the years due to an end and restocking took place and a new area for government pipelines became available.

I have played this game with complete novice games (that was a new experience!) as well as very experienced gamers. I say the majority like the game a lot and everybody would play again.

Lorna (3 plays): I liked arranging the pipes but the rest of the game fell flat for me. Just felt kind of rote. Unfortunately not enough to keep me interested in playing.

Joe Huber (1 play): One of the popular styles of modern board game design is what I call the “kitchen sink” style – games where mechanisms are added, continuing to be piled up until one is left with a game that – doesn’t feel like it knows what it wants to be, at least to me.  In Pipeline, the mechanism for building pipelines is reasonably interesting – but because of how much has been tacked on, it plays only a minor role in the game. The economic engine of the game is needlessly complicated, obfuscating the state of the game to no good gain.  The game also works strongly against my preferences in making options such as upgrades only accessible to as few as two players; I strongly prefer that if a system is going to be included, it be generally (if perhaps with increasing costs) available to all players. And far too much of the game is thematically off – there’s no good reason to have three kinds of oil; it was just required to fit with other mechanisms chosen, and I understand isn’t justified in the rules.  On the whole, the game was strongly not for me; I was relieved when the game finally ended. It didn’t take any longer than the ~2 hours Alan suggests he’s seen – it just felt longer.

Dan Blum (1 play): I agree with Lorna and Joe; I liked the pipe arrangement well enough, the rest of it was not great – not terrible, but really nothing special and with the different parts not well integrated. There’s also not much there there – the game really dragged for me because once I got my setup working I could plan my actions way ahead and just had to wait to take them. There were no interesting decisions after that point.

Larry (2 plays):  I’m much more in agreement with Alan than I am with Dale.  Pipeline is a really good, well designed game. There’s a lot to teach, but it’s pretty logically designed, so the learning curve for competency is only one game or so.  My poor spatial reasoning means that I may never truly master constructing an elaborate network of pipes, but I did much better with this in my second game than my first, so I still have hope.  The rest of the game is rock solid and I really like that it’s based on Action Selection (with a few nice enhancements) rather than being Yet Another Worker Placement Game. I’ve also seen players recover from slow starts, so I’m not sure I agree with Dale that this is a brutally unforgiving game.

The title may be slightly overdesigned.  Specifically, the Upgrades feel like they might be one element too much.  I’ve rarely had time for them, with all the other essential actions I need to carry out.  OTOH, I’ve seen beginning players make good use of them (and I’m sure experienced players will use them effectively), so maybe I’ll see the wisdom of them once I gain more experience.  I do agree with Joe, however–allowing the choosing player to block 2 or 3 of the categories for the rest of that year seems like a peculiar design decision, particularly since the main reason to go into Upgrades is if you plan to specialize in one of them over the course of the game.  I’d be curious about why the designer chose to go in that direction. Fortunately, if that rule bugs you, it’s an easy one to ignore as a house rule.

I’m definitely looking forward to playing this some more.  If you’re a gamer who loves network designs and doesn’t mind some complexity, it’s hard to see how you could do better.  My OG rating: I like it (and it might turn to love with more plays).

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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6 Responses to Dale Yu: First Impressions of Pipeline

  1. Pingback: Dale Yu: First Impressions of Pipeline – Herman Watts

  2. Geoff Speare says:

    For the records, the oil types are blueberry, citrus, and robot.

  3. ianthecool says:

    I enjoyed my play of it enough, but I found that there was nothing really drawing me back to it. I probably wont bother with it a second time.

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  6. Annabel says:

    I got my ass kicked by this game the first time around, but I could see what I had done wrong, and wanted to try it again. Second game went much better, but again I made some poor choices and could see how I could’ve done better, and wanted to try it again. And next time… and next time… nearly 20 games in, I’m still finding ways to play it better. In a nutshell, it’s quite the simulation of spinning up a new business: I’d say 80% of my errors were could be described as overextending/insufficient attention to cash flow. (The remaining 20% is down to not keeping an eye on what my competition was doing…) I have not yet reached the fabled expert level of $1000+ end scores, but I’m still challenged by the game to get there.

    Upgrades? Eh, we tend to play semi-nice, blocking only the upgrade(s) we purchased. Turn-order jockeying is a large component of the upgrade metagame, in that if you can set yourself up to end a year with a) a decent amount of cash, and b) first turn order, you can swoop in and nab the upgrade(s) you want at the beginning of the next year (when blocked upgrades become available again). Before Pipeline, I didn’t have a lot of experience with games that let you purchase turn order, so this was a novel lesson for me. Turn order can REALLY matter.

    I really enjoy the spatial puzzle too, as it’s a challenge to create a network that both maximizes early (pre-automation) refinement AND works well once a machine has been placed–machines must cover 1/2 a pipeline tile, which can effectively bisect a long, useful line into two shorter or even useless lines if you don’t plan well.

    It’s not for everyone, but Pipeline really hits the spot for me. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more from designer Ryan Courtney.

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