Orléans Review

Orléans
Pool building, Worker Placement
Tasty Minstrel Games
Reiner Stockhausen
Klemens Franz
2–4 Players

Orléans is a generous, brilliant game that can easily hang with the best in its genre.

At its heart, boardgaming is about making decisions. Do I go in for the attack now, or do I spend another turn building my army? Do I spend my resources to get another worker or to get a special power? Which worker placement spot will give me the greatest benefit at this moment?  Immediate reward, or end-of- game bonus scoring? The thrill of boardgaming comes in the attempt to string together a series of decisions that lead to a victory.

And that victory doesn’t even have to be a win necessarily; sometimes victories are small things:
a turn that goes just the way you wanted it to go. And the victory is all the more satisfying if you
can pause to reflect on your individual decisions that led up to it—if you can trace the lineage of
those crucial, decisive moments and say to yourself, “Yes, I planned for this. And I planned
well.” It’s like taking pride in packing exactly what you need for your vacation, not one item of
clothing more or less.

But more decisions in a game don’t always translate into a better game. It’s a balancing
act for designers. You want just the right number of decisions. Too few, and it’s not even a
game—it’s just an experience the players are an audience to. Too many decisions and a game can be crippling. Here are thirty different things you can do—many of which may not have an effect until much later in the game; quick, assess each one’s value every turn.

Orléans is a game that gets the balance just right. In it, you play a medieval lord doing
medieval lord things like gathering a small army of servants (“followers”), traipsing across the
countryside to gather goods, building a franchise of trading houses, accumulating technologies
and developments, and even sacrificing some of your success and wealth to perform a beneficial
deed here and there.

Each player has a colorful velvety bag which holds a bunch of round tokens
that represent your followers. Every round, you pull a certain number of those followers out of
your bag and use them in various ways. Every player has an individual player board showing
various places you can send your followers. If you want to recruit a knight, you need to send a
farmer, a boatman and a trader to the Castle. If you want to recruit a monk, you need to send a
scholar and a trader to the Monastery. If you want to send yourself traveling down a river, you
need to send a farmer a boatman and a knight (for protection!) to the Ship.

What’s that? You only pulled a farmer and a boatman this round? That’s okay—send them to the ship and have them wait until the next right when you’ll probably pull the knight you need. The game is very accommodating in that respect.

The more followers you gather into your sack, the greater your variety of options—but
there’s no guarantee you’ll draw the followers you’re looking for. Still, even if you didn’t draw
the boatman you need to recruit another farmer from distant shores, you did draw a craftsman
instead, and you can use that guy to go to the University and recruit a scholar. In general, there’s
always something you can do with the followers you draw—even if it’s just deciding to send
them into retirement for the rest of the game, for which you’ll earn a couple bucks and the benefit of eliminating some chaff from your velvet sack. Not that we’re calling any of those
dedicated laborers chaff.

Orléans is filled with possibility. You never feel boxed into a corner. There’s almost
always a good place to put that farmer. But, at the same time, you never feel overwhelmed with
options.

At first glance of the game set up on the table, it might look overwhelming. Tons of tokens, resources, a main player board with two distinct sections and lots of tracks with cubes on them, individual player boards covered in complicated looking iconographic circles. But the truth is that the game is surprisingly simple—and after a round or two, you just get it. That individual player board with all the complicated iconography? There are only really ten options on it. And not all of them will be available to you. If you are trying to figure out what to do with your knight, your options are reduced to four.

But here’s the other thing: all four of those options are interesting. Some of them may be better than others, and you might spend some satisfying moments puzzling through where your choice will lead you—but you never feel as though anything is a dead end or a waste of resources.

And, for me, that’s the recipe of success in a game: the right number of options (not too
many, not too few), each of which, even if they aren’t equal, feels like it will give you some
benefit in the long run. I love a generous game. I know there are players out there who thrill at
being on the hairy edge between success and failure—those who get excited about snatching
victory from the jaws of crippling defeat—those who don’t mind getting brutalized by a game
nine times in a row so that when they win that tenth time their victory feels all the more earned.  I get it.

But I’m not that kind of player. I prefer Valeria Card Kingdoms over Machi Koro. I
like it when a games gives you a ton of stuff—offers you a bunch of little individual victories
over your time at the table—so that when the game is over, the winner is simply the person who
had a slighter greater number of satisfying victories.

Orléans is that kind of game. The end-game scoring, in fact, is such an oddly
complicated formula that it’s hard to tell who’s winning and who’s losing during the game. And
that’s a good thing. You might run into other players on the map, and some of them might even
build a trading post in the place you wanted to build one. But that’s okay. You’ll just go down
river a little way and build in a different location. You’re on your own adventure, and while
some people use the term “multi-player solitaire” in a derogatory way, I don’t.

In fact, the expansions for the game are some of the most well-crafted I’ve ever played.
There are three different solitaire modes, each of which is a carefully crafted variation on the
theme with renewable challenges to keep the gameplay fresh. Another expansion module turns
the game into a co-op. Another replaces the somewhat lackluster “Beneficial Deeds” board with
something more compelling. Another ups the player interaction with more aggressive things you
can do to your opponents (this is the least interesting one to me, obviously).

But the reason that the game is so widely expandable is that the gameplay from an individual standpoint is so satisfying. What’s great about the game doesn’t depend upon players interacting in any particular way—and that’s why it works just as well as a competitive game, a cooperative game, or a solo game.

And there are very few games I can think of that are able to make that claim.
Orléans falls easily within my top ten games of all time. I’ve never had an unsatisfying
play of it. And I’ve found myself teaching it to players who are relatively new to the hobby—which is exciting because you get to watch as they go from feeling intimidated by the
euro-sprawl on the table before them to, by the end of the game, a real feeling of mastery over
the mechanics. In a hobby where many players delight at being eviscerated by tight economies and unforgiving mechanisms, Orléans is downright amicable to its players—and that’s the kind
of game that will always have a place on my shelf.

(Gameosity received a review copy of this game.  We were not otherwise compensated)

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