W. Eric Martin
I started playing modern strategy games in the early 2000s, and one saying that sticks with me from that era is that every game is an auction game. At first glance that saying seems ridiculous, but with a little translation of game terms, you realize that tons of games meet this definition:
• In Carcassonne, you use small wooden figures to bid on landscape features. In most cases, the winning bid is 1, but sometimes you outbid another player or rejoice in your shared auction victory, with the value of the lot being determined as the game progresses. Repeat this argument for every area control game, making modifications where needed.
• In Formula D, you compete against others to be first to reach a predetermined bidding amount, but the amount you bid each turn is decided somewhat randomly — and if you bid carelessly, you can damage your credit rating, which limits your bidding ability on future turns. Repeat the argument for all racing games.
• In Wizard, you each bid one card each turn, with the player who makes the highest bid winning the pot. Repeat for all trick-taking games.
• In Modern Art, you use money to bid on works of art. (Okay, this one doesn't need much translation.)
The idea of translating all games this way is somewhat silly, but if you're a fan of topology, such transformations can prove entertaining. You're peeling away the layers of the game to reveal its core, to recognize similarities and differences with other games, to see how a designer twists a familiar formula or discovers a new approach to what seems like old news.
At heart, Emanuele Ornella's Okanagan: Valley of the Lakes is an auction game, but most people won't see it that way. They'll see the tile-laying and put it in the Carcassonne box, yet the laying of tiles during play is merely a way for you to place bids on various reward tokens — and the collection of these tokens is what the game is really about. Well, that and the desire not to waste your bids by placing them on lots that never close.
Let's look at turn six of a game in progress to see how this shakes out:
You're playing white, and you plan to place the tile shown in the lower-left so that you close out the mountain area. When you do this, everyone who has bid on this area will be looking to grab a share of the reward tokens; these tokens match the images in the mountain area, and you can see that two forests and a field have already been closed.
Each time you place a tile — matching the landscape on adjacent tiles, natch — you then place one of your wooden bidding markers on that tile. The silo grants you a bid of 1 in all territories showing on that tile, the long warehouse places a bid of 2 on two such territories, and the farmhouse places a bid of 3 on a single territory. Thus, in the mountain purple currently has a bid of 3, red a bid of 2, and yellow a bid of 1. Which piece do you want to place on this tile? That is, how much do you want to bid?
Before you answer that, let's consider why you might have placed that tile in the first place. You hold in hand — secretly, mind you — these three objective cards:
Everyone received five goal cards at the start of the game, then discarded to three. These three overlapped nicely, so no fool you, you kept them. For each set of those three round tokens you collect, you score 7 points at the end of the game. For each round fish token, you score 3 points.
The game includes one public goal card as well, with you netting 4 points for each set of four differently colored reward tokens, whatever their shape.
If you place your farm in this mountain, you'll tie purple for high bid. What's more, since you placed the tile, you can break ties however you want, so you can win the auction with a bid of 3. As the top bidder with a bid of 3, you can take any three of these reward tiles. (You always take tiles equal to your bid — except if no tiles remain, which would the case here since purple would take the remaining three tiles and red and yellow would get nothing.)
If you place your silo, you'll tie yellow for low bid of 1 while claiming a stake on the two other territories on that tile. If you choose to beat yellow, then you'll get the lone tile that remains after purple and red grab stuff. If you choose to make yourself last in the bidding, well, there's a special prize for going last:
The last-placed bidder takes the bonus action of their choice from those shown at the top of the tile stacks, with the choices here being to take a nugget card, have each other player give you one token of their choice, or take two round fish. You want fish, so that might be good. Whoever collects the most nuggets gets a 10-point bonus at game's end, so that's good. Depending on which tokens opponents have already collected, that action might be best of all! (If you're the lone bidder on a lot, you can either claim tokens or take a bonus action. No doubling up!)
Finally, if you place your warehouse, you'll be second or third in the bidding since red also bid 2 and you probably won't have the best choice of tiles, so that's probably a stupid choice. Don't do that.
After the low bidder takes the special action (then moves that tile to the bottom of the stack to bury it), and players take tokens from high bid to low, you must take a tile to place on the next turn. That one on the left looks nice since you can almost complete the lake at right, but if you don't want that one or either of the other two, you can take one from the top of a stack to surprise everyone — including yourself — with an unknown arrangement of landscape and tokens next turn.
And that was turn #2. You take 10-12 turns total in a game depending on the number of players, and at the halfway point you draw two new goal cards, then again discard down to three. If those fish haven't been flopping your way, maybe it's time to gather peaches instead. At game's end, you reveal your cards, tally points for nuggets and goals, then see who's the Okanaganest.
I've played Okanagan four times on a preproduction copy from Matagot, thrice with three and once with four, and as you might expect in an auction game like this, the randomness of the cards and the tiles can drive you bonkers. In my most recent game, I had three goal cards that overlapped perfectly — then I saw my neighbor collect eight of the tokens that I wanted before I had collected anything! Ugh, time to change courses. I took a bonus action that allowed me to draw two goal cards, then discard two. Good! A new direction!
And yet the pain continued. I was last to choose on a lot or I received less than what a bid "should" bring or the lots I had bid on never closed. I managed to place tiles around a huge field in such a way that it was impossible to close, thereby costing everyone else bids on that lot, and somehow it didn't matter as I was losing more than they were. Everything went south, and I ended the game with one-third of what the winner had — the winner being the neighbor who had been snatching my tokens and lining them up for perfectly overlapping goal cards.
My lakes ran dry
Other playings have gone my way, and I'm not sure yet whether I'm playing more smartly in one game compared with another or my opponents are playing more dumbly or the bonus actions have broken my way or I've read the minute differences in the reward token/landscape layout better — or whether it's somewhat random and that's that.
The bonus actions give you lots of avenues for advancement, so you're happy to let a silo net you something from those stacks, whether a hexagonal (round, square) tile of your choice, or the ability to swap two tiles for tiles of the same shape but different color (or same color and different shape), or a token swap with an opponent for tokens of your choice. The ability to flush the tiles on display seems like a useless ability so far, but maybe I just don't know the tiles well enough to realize that I should dig for the perfect tile for my situation. After all, sometimes the best way to win an auction is to put up for bid only the goods that you really want.
A tile-laying game on a tiled table? Next time, I'll bring a tablecloth...