PLAYlist 28: Altiplano | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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PLAYlist 28: Altiplano

Jul 04, 2018 By Austin Trunick Bookmark and Share

Ever since I first laid eyes on a small jpeg of its colorful box art, Altiplano – now available in North America from Renegade Game Studios – has been my most-anticipated board game of 2018. Not only is it a pseudo-sequel to Orleans, one of my all-time favorite board games, but it featured a humongous, 3-D starting player token representing what I had assumed was a llama. He’s big, cute, happy-looking, and tall enough for your average Ninja Turtle figure to ride. I’ve had plenty of casual gamers turn down medium-weight Euro games due to their dry theme and aesthetics, but who in their right mind could possibly say no to a big, cardboard llama? So, imagine my embarrassment after teaching and playing an entire game with others, calling him a llama the whole time, only to turn re-read the back of the box to find out that Altiplano’s adorable mascot wasn’t a llama at all, but an alpaca.


Oof. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive myself!

Altiplano is a game of fishing, mining, and alpaca-breeding (not llama-breeding) in the highlands around Lake Titicaca. You’ll start by scraping together your limited resources and laboriously carting them across the highest-altitude regions of South America, eventually building up your economy enough to make headway into more valuable industries such as cloth, glass, and cacao. 

As you’re setting up your first game it becomes very clear how much variation Altiplano will offer over multiple plays. Each player is given a role tile granting them a unique ability; in the center of the table, seven location tiles are shuffled and arranged in a circle. Additionally, extension tiles – which are purchased from a shared market, and provide players further unique abilities – are shuffled and set out. These randomized elements will shake up your strategy each time you play. In many Euros (including my beloved Orleans) an experienced player will tend to fall into the same starting strategies each time, like a kid who’ll only order chicken fingers when dining in a fine restaurant. In Altiplano, though, you’re almost forced to try different things. (The game also comes with an in-box expansion which gives each player specific mission cards to fulfill, offering yet more variation to future games.)

Goods and resources are represented by tiny cardboard discs. These are acquired into your personal container – another 3-D, cardboard component that looks like a wooden crate, which is pretty cool – and eventually moved into a player’s cloth bag. At the start of each turn, players simultaneously draw a number of these discs from their bag, which they’ll place in designated areas and use to carry out actions available on their player boards. (The bulk of the actions allow you to acquire more goods or cards that help you score more points at endgame.) Each action requires a player to have specific goods and be in a specific location. As you have a limited number of discs and movements each turn, Altiplano becomes a brain-burning game of logistics.

Being a bag-builder – a close relative of the ever-popular deck-builder style of games – Altiplano players will rapidly fill their bags with new goods, only to frustrate themselves later when they’re drawing all those fish and stones they bought early on when they were for their new and exciting cacao beans they just added to their bags. That’s when you’ll start sending that stuff to a separate warehouse board, where they’ll build up and eventually earn you points once you fill an entire shelf. Of course, you’ll want to make sure you really won’t need that good again before you send it away to collect dust.

That’s a very rudimentary explanation of the game’s core mechanics. Altiplano has a lot going on, if the bazillion moving cardboard pieces weren’t enough indication of that. For a game that has you diving into a cloth bag and randomly yanking out chocolate and alpacas like an overexcited bingo caller, it requires a lot of careful planning and forward thinking. If you’re the type of Chess player who plans five moves ahead, Altiplano is just for you. If that’s not your strength, however, you’re probably going to find yourself frequently on the wrong side of the mountains with a bunch of dead, useless fish in your hands. That caveat aside, Altiplano is deeply strategic, with multitude, viable pathways to victory ripe for exploration. While many games call for expansions to keep them fresh, Altiplano will offer a much longer-than-average shelf life with no additional purchases necessary.

Of course, there was little chance we’d make it through our discussion of Altiplano without setting it side-by-side with its sibling, Orleans. This is the new game by Reiner Stockhausen, the designer of that France-set, bag-drawin’ classic – which we wrote many glowing things about in a previous column – and the two titles do share more than a few similarities. Comparing the two isn’t quite like apples and oranges, however, but more like, well… llamas and alpacas, for example. While they make look the same to the casual viewer, they’re altogether different beasts.

Take their ears, for example. Alpacas have short ears, while a llama’s are long and curved. Alpacas are intelligent yet skittish, where an untrained llama might kick you or spit in your face if approached. Llamas are mostly kept as pack animals, while alpacas are bred for their fleece production. And did you know that the offspring of a male llama and female alpaca is a smaller, longer-haired hybrid called a huarizo? Cute! #llamafacts #alpacatruth

Let’s get back to board games, shall we?

Where Orleans is mostly a game of engine building and disaster mitigation, Altiplano has much more of a resource management element to it, given the logistics of moving your pieces around the board. Orleans, even with either its stellar expansions, is never more than a medium-weight game. Altiplano, in comparison, is perhaps more what I’d consider light-heavyweight game. It’s longer, with more rules and things to keep track of, and calls for more mental processing power. Orleans is easier to learn and teach, but most fans wind up investing in one or more of its expansions early on, as the base game can tend to feel same-y quickly. I can’t see Altiplano, on the other hand, needing expanded any time in the near future, as there’s just so much to parse already in the base box.

In short: I really like both games. Altiplano isn’t going to replace Orleans on my shelf, mostly because the steeper learning curve limits me to breaking it out only when my heavier-leaning opponents come calling. As a big fan of Orleans, however, it’s just the sort of deeper experience I was hoping for from Reiner Stockhausen’s spiritual sequel. It’s the sort of puzzle I’ll be looking forward to cracking for years to come.

Altiplano has an MSRP of $65, and can be purchased from online retailers for almost twenty bucks less than that. That’s a good value for five pounds’ worth of brightly-colored cardboard tokens.

The nations of South America export far more than just silver, cacao, alpaca fur, and the other goods you’ll be trading in Altiplano. Stretching as far back as Brazil’s Tropicalia godfathers Os Mutantes, the continent has been one of the primary exporters of far-out psychedelic music. So, let me take you on a tour of fuzzy South American psych from contemporary acts such as Colombia’s Red Sun Cult, Chile’s bands Follakzoid, Vago Sagrado, Trementina, and Holydrug Couple, Paraguay’s Fuzzkrank and Uruguay’s La Cobras, Boogarins from Brazil, and Los Acidos from Argentina. Viva!


 Previous PLAYlist columns: Pioneer Days, Crystal Clans, Jurassic Park: Danger!, PhotosynthesisIce CoolFood Truck ChampionArs Alchimia & LemuriaA Game of Thrones CatanTroyesTwilight Imperium: Fourth EditionFlip ShipsNMBR 9UnearthEscape from 100 Million B.C., Orleans (plus Trade & Intrigue)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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July 8th 2018

The game looks so interesting! Thank you for sharing the game and the nice playlist.

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July 17th 2018

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March 5th 2019

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