PLAYlist 13: Orléans (plus Trade & Intrigue expansion)

Sep 26, 2017 By Austin Trunick
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When I was in the first grade my teacher kept an alligator on a shelf behind her desk. It was a stuffed animal, of course, three feet long and totally hollow; a bag, essentially. Its guts held remarkable treasure: candy. There had to have been more than 100 pieces inside. When a student did something exceptional – hit a specific benchmark in their studies, aced a test, or was especially kind to another kid on the playground – our teacher made a big show of bringing him or her up to the front of the room, allowing them to stick their arm elbow-deep down the gator’s throat, and blindly pick out their prize of one single piece of candy as if they were a human crane machine.

Three decades later, my brain has barely retained specific memories of the first grade, yet any former classmate I’ve spoken to remembers one thing about that teacher, and it’s the alligator. It felt like there was so much ceremony in a student’s summoning to the front of the classroom. (To the teacher’s credit, she made sure everyone in the class was granted the privilege only once or twice through the school year.) I remember feeling my way around inside the gator’s gullet for what felt like hours. Whatever sweet treat you pulled out, no matter how small or innocuous – these were Dum Dums, Sixlets, and other penny-style candies – it seemed like an invaluable trophy, and would be savored more solemnly than any piece of candy you’d receive, say, trick or treating, or caught from a parade float.

I think a big part of this excitement – aside from the pomp and circumstance of being the most special-est kid in your entire class for a brief moment of time – came from the total crapshoot as to what candy you’d pulled out, and the brief rush of anxiety you’d get in the seconds before you looked at your winnings in your hand. Personally, I recall eagerly anticipating my turn in the reptile’s mouth and daydreaming of pulling out a Lemonhead, only to clamp my fingers down around a hard, round, individually-wrapped treat that turned out to be a Fireball. (The disappointment was crushing.)

What I’m really taking far too long to get around to is the subject of this column: a game in which you’ll spend a lot of time reaching your hand inside a plush bag, hoping to grab one thing but inevitably withdrawing the exact opposite. Designed by Reiner Stockhausen and ported to North America by Tasty Minstrel Games, Orléans is a Euro-style game that bottles the magic of pulling random things out of bags and works it into one of the most engaging strategy games we’ve reviewed on Under the Radar.

Two to four players start the game each with their own velvet bag – so soft you could rest a newborn on it or, alternatively, use it to store a bottle of Crown Royal – and four small, cardboard discs representing medieval workers. In front of you you’ll find a personal player board covered in tiny, colored circles the size of your discs. There are also two boards shared by all players: a small “beneficial deeds” board covered in more colorful circles that offers late-game point-gobbling opportunities, and a large game board with progress tracks, piles of tokens you can earn, and a twisty-turny map representing regional France, itself covered in tokens representing goods like cheese, wine, and… what appears to be beef jerky? (The manual calls it “brocade,” so we’ll go with that instead.)

During each round, all players will simultaneously take their little colored discs (representing farmers, craftsmen, boatmen, monks, and other Dark Ages-types) and place them on matching spots on their personal boards. These spots are grouped into sets, which you’ll want to fill if you can. When everyone is done, you’ll take turns completing actions (finished groups) by removing the discs from your board and putting them back in your bag. These actions allow you to move your pawn on the main board, build tradehouses, shuffle discs between boards, or – and most often – let you add another disc to your bag. When everyone is done, you shake up your bag, reach in, and randomly pull out four new tokens (or more, as the game goes on.) 

As you add a wider variety of discs to your bag, more options will open up to you on future turns. It’s a balancing game, though, as your bag fills up, the more random your selections will be when you pull from it. (Mama always said Orléans’ velvet bag is like a box of chocolates… you know.) Given that there such little way of knowing what you’ll pull from your bag on any given turn – and no quick way to thin out what’s already in there – you’re usually stuck working with what you’ve got. Thus, even more so than most European-style strategy games, Orléans rewards adaptability and tactical thinking.

Looking past the randomness of your bag pulls, there’s also a randomized event card revealed at the beginning of each turn. Most of these are bad news: plagues that will indiscriminately kill one of your workers at the end of a turn, taxes on your valuable goods, and other nastiness. You’ll have until the end of your turn to prepare for the cataclysm – if you so choose – meaning that you’re forced even more to think on your feet. (“What, I only drew scholars this turn? And there’s a famine coming?!”)

Let’s talk about some of the options you’ll be able to spend your discs on. I count 12 of them on the basic, vanilla player board you start with (counting the “village” space as three options.) When you purchase an additional disc, you’ll also be able to move your token along that character’s appropriate track on the main board, which grants you an additional bonus. These range from coins to goods, to increasing the number of discs you draw each turn, to giving you a gear-shaped technology token that you can place on your player board, forever covering up a space and shrinking the number of discs required to take that action in the future. You can also take a place tile with its own empty spaces to fill with discs – which, in turn, opens up even more options to you on future turns. (There are a ton of these tiles, with different powers to suit any play style.)

I’ve barely cracked the surface when it comes to how many different paths are available to you in any given round of Orléans. There are oodles and oodles of options in Orléans. (Try saying that ten times fast.) Do you want to know the best part? None of them suck! Unlike in so many Euro-style games, where it’s clear that one or two strategies aren’t as viable as others, I haven’t found one in Orléans that’s not a feasible pathway to victory under the right conditions. I’ve had a chance to play this game a lot over the past couple months, and every time I’ve eked out a win, it’s been in a different manner. On the flipside, I’ve been beaten in ways I’ve not managed to pull off myself. It’s not only a game I want to play again and again in hopes of finding new ways to solve it, but it’s a game I want to play again and again with different groups of people, as opponents’ moves go a long way in dictating new strategies of your own.

Speaking of winning, how does that happen? Well, after a set number of rounds, Orléans finishes with one of your big, point-tallying affairs, but it’s not nearly as painful as some algebra sessions I’ve had to go through to score out other games. A lot of things are worth points: money and trade goods, for one. Along the way in the game, though, you’ve hopefully been working your way up the development track along the bottom of the main board. (There are numerous ways to do this, and you’ll almost certainly work yourself part way up it by accident just through normal play of the game.) This track works as a multiplier, and grants you points according to how many trade houses you built on the map and how many bonus person tokens you earned (usually by excelling at one particular action more so than your opponents.) Have the most points? A winner is you.

Here’s a nice change of pace, too: the element of randomness in Orléans helps level the playing field. Sure, the more you play the game, the better you’ll get. BUT, no amount of practice will prevent lady luck from shining on a newcomer just a little more than the seasoned vet. Some gamers will hate this, I know, but I feel like it widens the range of people you can play it with. If you’re a gamer, there are probably boxes on your shelf you never really want to teach new players, because it’s no fun sitting down at a game for 90+ minutes and either A) mercilessly kicking their asses while they’re still learning the game, or B) purposefully making suboptimal moves so that you can play down to their level. Neither of those is any fun. That’s why Orléans – a game where n00bs aren’t always going to get schooled by the guy who’s played it dozens of times – is one of the rare, deeper Euros that’s actually fun to teach.

Thematically, the game has little to do with its setting. According to the back of the box, the game takes place during “the medieval goings-on around Orléans,” a hilariously vague description which is actually the most time the game ever spend selling you on its theme. (Maybe French merchants and farmers of the Dark Ages lived in giant, velvet bags? I don’t know, I’m not a history major. Or French.) But, you know, we’re okay with all of that, because what little artwork is there is actually pretty adorable. The tiny people on your discs look like something you’d see scrawled in the margins of a 700-year-old manuscript. Plus, the game’s iconography is top-notch, and every card, token, or space on a board is covered in symbols with easy-to-decipher meanings.

I’m out of breath already, and I haven’t even really touched on a few elements of the game I really like, such as how placing discs on actions you don’t plan to fill is and efffective way to manage what's are in your bag. Or, the game of chicken you play with your opponents on the beneficial deeds board, wherein you want to fill spots to earn bonuses, but not too many, which would give your opponent an even bigger bonus. What about the scarcity of resources, and the rush to grab them before they run out? And that map! You can win a game just by running around, scooping up trade goods, and building houses everywhere. Trust me, you’ll want to try all of these things at some point or another.

But, I’m not here to hash out every single rule. I’m here to talk about the feels. I’m not overstating this, but Orléans is some of the most fun I’ve had with a strategy game all year. It’s masterfully balanced, with so many possible routes to victory that you’ll want to try it again and again. As I stated before, too, it’s a great balance between luck and strategy: just enough of the former, and more of the latter than you can shake a stick at. Plus, those velvet bags are just so dang comfortable. Once you’ve put your hand in one, you may not want to take it out.

At less than $60, there’s a ton of game for your money here. Just based on the sheer weight of the box and how much heavy-duty cardboard you’ll find inside it, it feels like a game that would cost a good deal more than that.

Buuuuuuut WAIT! There’s more! And it’s actually the reason we’re talking about this game after it’s been available a few years already. New to U.S. store shelves this fall is Orléans: Trade & Intrigue, a package bundling four separate expansions, adding yet more play options to a title that already felt like the Golden Corral buffet of board gaming. Each of these expansions can be added to your game piecemeal, and we’ll spend a few moments talking about each:

 - With “Orders,” you shuffle then lay out five cards from a deck which offer players an incentive to deliver specified goods to a specific city. (Imagine: “Le Mans needs cheese! Go, go, go!”) The first person to get the goods to where they’re needed gets a big point bonus. This adds yet another method of scoring to the game, increases movement around the map, and provides starting goals for players who like a little more guidance in their games. Thumbs up.

- “Intrigue” replaces the game’s original beneficial deeds board with one that greatly increases the player interaction in Orléans. These new beneficial deeds are ones that harm your opponents by forcing them to pay you money, swapping your less-valuable goods for their pricier ones, or straight up killing a dude in their bag. As the back of the expansion box reads: “Caution, nasty!” Oof, yeah, this board can get dirty. If you’re the friendly type, it’s probably not going to be to your taste. If you like to play cutthroat, though, you’ll probably love it.

- “New Beneficial Deeds” is the antithesis of the Intrigue board. It’s another board that replaces the game’s original, and shakes up the late game with some bold, new scoring options. Like the original board, though, these are all pretty friendly – benefitting you without necessarily putting the hurt on your opponents.

- “New Events” is my favorite of Trade & Intrigue’s offerings. It’s a set of 34 new hour glass (or “event”) tiles, from which you’ll pick out 18 at random to replace the ones from the original game. These bring to the table interesting new problems and rewards to consider, and because there are so many of them, you play with a random set every time – adding even more fricken’ variety to Orléans. It also makes it impossible to predict (and thus prepare for) upcoming events, which is the one place I could foresee the original game getting stale for well-seasoned players. This module almost makes the expansion worth it all by itself.

Trade and Intrigue also comes with two new building tiles that interact well with the included expansions. For less than $25, this is an expansion that will easily double the lifespan of your game. Orléans is already so deep and full of variety that you won’t need to expand it right away, but if you find yourself loving the game as much as we do, Trade & Intrigue is a great value in terms of extra content and how much it can make the game feel new all over again.

This column’s playlist is a collection of jazz, funk, and more by some of our favorite New Orleans musicians. I know, I know – New Orleans and (old) Orléans are on different sides of an ocean, but we’ll use any excuse we can to dip into the Big Easy’s vast musical spectrum. The songs on this list come from a few of my personal favorites, mixed in with many local selections from Zach Hollwedel, Under the Radar’s comic books editor and resident New Orleanian. Enjoy! 

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Previous PLAYlist columns: Whistle StopCaverna: Cave vs CaveTwilight StruggleHonshuBärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the DragonYokohamaClank! A Deck-Building AdventureVillages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.



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