ADVENTURES IN GAME TIME: Orléans Edition

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Back in June of 2015, when I was six months into my burgeoning board game obsession/addiction, I learned that a game called Orléans had been nominated for Kennerspiel De Jahres. In gaming parlance, it’s the equivalent of receiving an Oscar nod. Well, sort of. The Spiel de Jahres is actually the award reserved for game of the year, and that award usually goes to something with broad, perhaps family appeal. The Kennerspiel, however, is designated for more intensely gamey games — the titles that are a little more challenging in some way or another. Think of it as the Palm d’Or to the Spiel de Jahres‘s Oscar. This is all an elaborate and unnecessary way for me to say that about six or seven months ago, I heard about Orléans, and I heard it was good.

WELL. I took a gander at some of the early reviews of Orléans, and after seeing the way the game played, I summarily decided that I must have it. The only problem was that the damn thing wasn’t available outside of Europe. I’m a sucker for when people play hard to get, and I guess the same goes for board games because I definitely developed a crush on this bad boy. I waited patiently for months, and then finally, Orléans arrived stateside. In fact, the game’s US distributor, Tasty Minstrel Games, was kind enough to send me a review copy recently. At last I could get my eager paws onto this game; although, full disclosure, my friend Larry bought the game six weeks prior; so, my eager paws had actually pawed about already. But that’s neither here nor there.

Was Orléans worth the wait? Or did my crush merely string me along?

The central thrust of Orléans is that you, as a power-hungry citizen in Medieval France, wish to build a loyal following that will propel you to vast influence over the countryside. Your minions may be farmers or merchants or various other professionals, and in turn, they will help you erect trading posts, expand across the land, and net you goods such as wine and cheese (it is France after all). Most importantly though, followers recruit more followers, and more followers yield greater wealth and power (and wine and cheese). After eighteen swift(ish) rounds, the game ends, points are tallied, and a victor is declared.

If this all sounds rather bombastic and cutthroat, don’t worry. Orléans is a positively polite affair. Dare I say breezy?

The core of the action takes place in a soft velvet bag. You see, everyone begins with precisely four followers: a farmer, a merchant, a boatman, and a craftsman. This quartet of Medieval badasses starts life in your velvet bag where they are summarily plucked from the darkness and relocated onto your personal player board. From there, you simply send the gentlemen into town where they act in groups to recruit more followers. Want another farmer in the gang? Pay a visit to the farm house with your boatman and craftsman. Need a knight? Send your farmer, your merchant, and your boatman to the castle! How about a scholar? That’s a task for the farmer, craftsman, and merchant.

I’m thinking that this would be a good time for photos.

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These are your four starting “followers.” You can tell they’re your starters because they have a blotch of color on them, in this case green. They’re lined up and ready to deploy.

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If we put a boatman and a craftsman in the Farm House, we can get a farmer. Huzzah! Note the color coding.

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A new farmer joins the gang. His name is Josiah, and he is humble.

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The farmer, the boatman, and the craftsman go back in the bag. I then get to draw out four followers, which feels kind of silly right now because there are only three chits in there. Later on, however, there may be a dozen guys in the bag, and suddenly this becomes quite the exciting affair. It’s like your own velvety raffle.

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Surprise surprise: I grabbed the boatman, the craftsman, and Josiah. I line them up in the “Market” and prepare to use them again for the next round. Now with Josiah in tow, I may just have more options…

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For my next action, I might just send these guys to the Castle to recruit a knight.

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And just like that, I got a knight!

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Fun fact: every time you take on a new follower, you get to move your cube along these tracks, and more importantly, you then get to take a bonus. So, for example, when I recruit a knight, I get to move my cube (in this case, green) one spot to the right on the red track (because knights are red. And there’s also a knight there). Then it’s time for the bonus. Advancing on the red track lets players draw more followers from their bag. Currently I can draw five, but after I advance my cube one space, I’ll be able to take six. These bonuses are essential, and many times you’ll be torn between recruiting for an action vs. recruiting for a bonus. TRICKY.

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Advancing on the brown craftsman track nets you a nifty gear thing. This permanently blocks off a spot. Now it only takes a farmer and a merchant to recruit a knight. What an efficient turn of events!

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The bonus for advancing on the merchant track is pretty dope. Players get to add a “building” to their board, which gives them a unique, special power.

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Here’s another bonus. Advancing on the gray scholar track allows players to move a cube along a bigger, very important track called the “Development Track,” seen here in the foreground. More on that in a bit…

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Sometimes you won’t use your gents to recruit. Instead you’ll send them off to perform an action such as the ever exciting “Wagon” action, as depicted above. In order to explain this part, we have to check out a different part of the board…

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Over here we have a map of the French countryside. I’ve dutifully photographed only a small corner of said map because I was lazy and didn’t want to set up the whole board. Nevertheless, there are roads and canals and all sorts of goods strewn about (wine, cheese, cloth, etc.). Each player has a meeple — mine is a bit hidden thanks to my top-down angle.

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There. That’s better.

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So, there’s my guy, hanging out in Châtellerault. Let’s say he wants to go to the fine city of Argenton-sur-Creuse. Well, this is where that handy Wagon comes into play.

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You see, by piling these three guys into the wagon, we can now move our meeple along a road (not a canal! That’s a different action).

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COMMENCE FRIENDSHIP WAGON.

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Heavens! Our men made the journey. But wait, there’s more!

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One mustn’t confine themselves to just the Wagon action. Players can actually set out to do multiple things per turn. In this case, I’ve gained enough followers to use both the Wagon AND the Guildhall.

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And when you send your followers to the Guildhall, they build…

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A trading post!

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Oh, and guess what? I get to snag this sweet bundle of wool because I totes rolled by it on my wagon. Each wool is worth four points at the end of the game (the most valuable good is a brocade at five points).

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As the game progresses, you’ll recruit more and more followers. It will be an embarrassment of riches. But even if you’re able to draw eight followers on your turn, you’ll be limited by how many can fit in the market. In the picture above, there’s only one spot left. That’s right: you only get one shot to pull that boatman you need to take the Ship action, and wouldn’t you know it? You pulled another scholar. This is the most frustrating and simultaneously fun aspect of the game. You will be cursing (and laughing).

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Should your bag grow too unwieldy, you can always send your men to the Town Hall. Any color will do.

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The Town Hall basically means you commit your chits to a lifetime of service (ie. you discard their asses to another board where they will no longer clutter up your bag). Placing followers on this board will earn players a little bonus (usually a coin or two), and should you fill the last space for a certain “deed,” you can claim one of those dowdy citizens hanging out nearby. They’re important.

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The citizens are actually all over the game, ready to be snagged. At the end of the game, players add all their citizens and their trading posts (in the example above, that gives us a meager total of three). Now this is where it gets exciting: players then multiply that total by their current level on the Development track (five, in this case). Hey, that’s fifteen points! This sum is added to the total value of all their acquired goods and coins. Whoever has the most, wins!

There’s a lot going on in Orléans, but it’s all pretty simple. You’re just matching colors. And yet, the colors you match are hugely important. The fun of this game comes from managing your nefarious bag of followers. You’ll want to stuff it with as many men as possible so that you’ll have stronger chances of pulling off multiple actions all at once. But then all those guys get in each other’s ways. You’ll draw four brown dudes and one blue. Disaster. That’s why there’s a Town Hall — it allows players to cut away the fat and mold their bags into sleek, dangerous machines. But then… if you shave away too many of your followers, you’ll be handcuffed again. Gah! It’s agonizing fun.

Oh, and to make things even trickier, players have to contend with randomly drawn events every round. There’s one event per round, and given that there are eighteen rounds, that’s a lot of events.

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Here are three random events: Plague causes players to randomly chuck a follower; Taxes has players paying one coin for every three goods they possess; and Harvest has everyone paying the bank either five francs or one harvest good. Now would be a good time to note that there are plenty of lovely events that cause financial windfall — I just didn’t photograph them.

The events aren’t really detrimental to the game’s outcome — more like repeated annoyances (or perks). That being said, they can occasionally exert some serious pain. That Plague has been known to slay a follower I desperately need to pull. And my friend Drew had to submit to torture when he couldn’t pay taxes one round (and yes, torture is an official term from the Orléans rulebook). These devastating moments are rare though, and they generally only affect players early in the game when they’re still po’. Personally, I’d like to see the events flex more muscle. I’m used to the punch-in-the-gut events of Nations. Pleasant? No. But full of wonderful tension!

Truth is there’s not a huge amount of tension in Orléans. Most suspense comes from pulling guys out of your bag. At a full player count, however, the map and Town Hall provide some late game excitement. There’s a sudden shift as everyone rushes into the Town Hall, trying to nab those last citizens. Timing is everything. On the map, players rush to erect any trading posts they can, grabbing a resource or two in the process. Space is limited though, and things definitely get dicey.

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Here’s a pic from an actual three-person game. You can see us already getting up in each other’s bidness.

With two players, however, there’s no real tension in these areas. The map is large enough for two players to do their own thing, and the town hall slots rarely even fill up. Balance-wise, this is okay: a two-player game doesn’t net as many citizen acquisitions from the Town Hall, but it’s easier to build trading posts across the map. In a four-player game, it’s easier to grab those citizens, but harder to build posts. So, yes, it’s balanced across player counts, but there’s a huge lack of tension in a head to head battle.

That’s okay though. The game is very fun. It may be the only “big” game in the past six months I’ve played twice in one night. Part of that is a sense that there’s a huge amount of strategy hiding under the hood of this thing. Sure, you can just go for trading posts and development track multipliers, but soon your approach will evolve. You’ll want to be faster, more efficient, smarter. You’ll be looking for an edge on your opponent anyway possible, and they’ll be doing the same to you. Suddenly, those special buildings will look a whole lot sexier. And that crappy boatman who only gives you coins? He’s now a viable option. Like Concordia (one of my all time favorites), this is a game that not only deserves multiple plays, but multiple plays with the same people. The sharper everyone gets, the more cutthroat I believe this game will become.

That night I played Orléans twice? Well. The first game, Drew destroyed me and our friend Stacy. Like, he destroyed us (which was embarrassing for me since I had already played twice before). But then the second game, we knew Drew’s strategy. He had to change it up or else we would undermine him. Not only that, I was determined to switch up my own strategy too. I went hard for buildings, and since the table knew not to let one person corner the market in one area, everyone followed suit. Now we all had tons of special powers, and the stage was set for an epic showdown. That’s exactly what happened over the subsequent second half of the game. We played to the strengths of our special powers, and in the end, I eked out a marginal victory over Drew and Stacy. In one extra playthrough, the entire experience tightened up exponentially, and Orléans went from a breezy puzzle to a thoroughly fascinating and fun game.

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Drew, Stacy, and I battle to the death. Also, this gives you a neat glimpse into the game in action.

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Moves will be made; feelings will be hurt; potato chips will be eaten.

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An upside-down view of a rapidly populating Town Hall board.

As you may see from the photos, there are many bits and pieces and boards. They’re all of fine quality — cute art, thick cardboard. Woefully missing is some sort of scoring track for the end of the game or at least a pad. Calculating the winner is a bitch without those things. Yes, I’m not afraid to lightly cuss.

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The game takes up a sizable footprint. It’s doable though.

Minor quibbles aside, Orléans is a lovely game with surprising strategic depth. I’m excited to learn even more of its nuances, and until then, I’ll be cursing the velvet bag and its supernatural hold on my most needed followers. Worth the wait!

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