There are so many great games out there, that sometimes, a few years go by before you discover a great game that’s been out for a while. That is the case with Orléans, one that I’m surprised hasn’t made more noise. Even though it’s a bit of an older game (2014) now, it’s still worth a full review so that you get the full scoop on it. Like the title says, it’s a combination of a deck building game with a worker placement game, and it melds the two together very well. It incorporates a number of races between you and your opponents, with awards available to those who can progress the fastest in certain areas. Add in a Catan-style race to put down buildings at intersections before the other guy does, plus the potential to produce goods before they run out, and you get a multi-layered game that brings together many of the best elements of other games, and ties it all together with a medieval theme of Knights, Monks, Scholars, Farmers, and more. All in all, it is a first rate game and one that I would like to play about as often as possible.
Orléans goes against the grain of what I usually like in that it’s more about the actual game play itself and the mechanics that make it go, instead of being a game about theme and do-something ability, which is what I normally go for. Every round is exciting when you pull your group of citizens out of your bag and get ready to deploy them. You leverage what some lower level Farmers, Craftsman and Traders do together, to get goods, build buildings, but also to get Scholars and Monks, who can advance your knowledge. You go around the board, collecting goods like cheese and wine and silk and building Guild Halls, and then you put it all together in the end in a hopefully winning business proposition by having the most points. Mostly, the feeling is of the game itself, what your bag of citizens looked and felt like, what ranks you are able to climb through their actions, what abilities your workforce can wield. It’s also a “point salad” type of game in that there are a lot of points to gain on a lot of fronts, and a lot of races with opponents to win, and those sort of dominate the feel of what’s going on. Since you don’t really see what your opponents have in terms of points and since nobody can interfere with you taking the spots you want (except for a few on a shared board related to City Hall), you really get rolling with your bag of citizens, and it’s fun. It’s a game that sucks you in, and throws in enough of a medieval France feeling of good and trade routes and such, to make you feel like you’re somewhere else.
The setup is on the light side compared to a lot of games, not quite super easy but certainly not a burden. The game has several boards to set out, and you put random goods on the main one. What probably takes the longest is then sorting all the goods and citizens from one another and putting them into their proper piles, and finally, shuffling all the event tiles.
Interesting Mechanics and Game Play
Orléans brings together some of the best mechanics of several other games, including deck-building games, worker placement games, and maps you move around. There are three key phases to the game: the Followers, the Planning and the Actions. During the Followers phase, you draw your “hand of cards,” the citizens you can deploy this turn from your “deck,” in this case, a felt bag full of citizens. During the Planning phase you will deploy your citizens and during the Action phase, they do what they’re deployed to do.
If you’ve ever played a deck-building game like Dominion or Ascension, you know the primary mechanics of these games, which is building a deck that has cards that combine together to create value, either in terms of victory points, or in terms of creating things that create victory points, or things that create things that create victory points. That’s what’s going on during the Followers phase: You draw your citizen “followers” from a bag, almost like drawing cards from a deck but instead of cards, they’re little wooden discs. If you don’t like the draws you’re getting, you can invest these citizens to get new citizens like the Monk from the Monastery, or “thin out your deck” by assigning your unwanted citizens to the Town Hall.
Then for the Planning phase, if you’ve played games like Stone Age or Tzolk’in, you know worker placement games, where your efficient placement of workers towards objectives is the key to the game. Start by drawing your “followers” from the bag, then place them as workers to create value each turn. Unlike other worker placement games, there is no competition for specific work spots. You each have the same work places in front of you. It’s one of the few areas of the game where there isn’t competition.
In addition to a map with the work places in front of you is a shared board of cities, roads and waterways, where each player moves around with a Merchant Token and builds Guild Halls worth points at the end of the game. You move your Merchant Token by occupying some of the work spots with your citizens, like the ship or the wagon, and you pick up goods along the way. Once someone builds a Guild Hall in a city, nobody else can build one there, so there is a competitive aspect to it.
In the meantime, there are several tracks to manage such as the Development Track, Boatmen Track and Trader’s Track. Many of these tracks have competitive elements embedded, typically a race to get victory points by developing the furthest on that track. Also, there are limits of many of the goods and some of the citizens, like Monks, so you want to get to things more quickly than your opponents in general, but you can’t get to all of them and have to prioritize.
So, there is a lot going on, a lot to manage, but the set of decisions you actually make is pretty small, making it all pretty manageable. In terms of strategic depth, this is a step up from Catan, but this isn’t Eclipse.
Theme and Components
Orléans isn’t really a highly themed game, but the components are nice and there’s enough of a medieval French feel to get you into the game. The beauty of the game is it’s simplicity. The goods like Wine, Cheese and Silk are simple, colored wooden pieces with decent heft them. The event tiles have a similarly nice feel to them. The best part are the colored felt cloth bags, and the citizens, small wooden discs with stickers of Farmers, Merchants, Monks, etc. These citizen tokens appear to be exactly the same components as in the game Quicksand, and I really like the components in Quicksand, only in Orléans you get many more of them. The actions aren’t necessarily tied to a medieval theme but the theme works to bring the game together. The art is cartoony but it too works with the fairly simple but sturdy components. The components support the game but they don’t really elevate it, but they’re ideal to let the game itself stand out.
The irony here is that I espouse the virtues of games with high do-something-ability, and I espouse the virtues of Orléans, yet this game is moderate to low in terms of do-something-ability. Like one of my all-time favorites Puerto Rico, this one is more about the game itself, and how the game goes, versus what you do or build. You don’t quite build anything that lasts, and mostly just accumulate points, plus items that are worth points. You will move around the map, pick up goods (points) and build some Guild Halls (also worth points) but that part of the game is not much more than Catan without roads, not one where you really conquer anything. You also progress on a few tracks like knowledge, crafting and trading but it’s not like you’re building a city. What you do build is your workforce, and your bag of citizens, represented by little wooden discs, is just so alluring. I’m always excited to see what work group I get, and what they can get or build this turn. I will say that compared to other games, even the last place player will feel involved in the game and like he’s got a fighting chance to pull it off. You can’t say that for a lot of games. Maybe that’s why it feels like you did something by the end of the game, even though compared to most games, you really didn’t.
I’ll say I’ve only played this a couple of times, but I would play this again and again. The mechanics and the feel create a really great game, one that moves quickly enough and has enough avenues to success that it’s really rewarding to play. The buildings change every game, the order of events varies, and the players will take different paths to victory, all of which create a dynamic game that will almost never be the same twice. It does take a couple of hours after setup to play a full game, so there’s only so much you’d play in a night.
It’s not big on theme, it’s not big on do-something-ability, the components are nothing special, but Orléans is nonetheless one of the best games I’ve played in the past year or so, and you can scroll through the list of titles it has been up against. It’s simple and fast, yet it’s got tons of strategy mixed with good old luck of the draw, and I think in place of do-something-ability is a game where everyone feels like he’s in it until the end. It’s got enough twists and enough paths to victory that no two games will be exactly alike.