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Game Preview: Orbis, or Lovely Crinkly Edges in a Splendid Universe

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Orbis
While Gen Con remains the convention at which a U.S. publisher will launch a new release, for publishers outside the U.S. Gen Con is often a peek-a-boo show for the games they plan to debut at SPIEL. This is especially true for publishers distributed by Asmodee North America, with Days of Wonder showing off The River (preview), Pearl Games showing Solenia (preview), itten demoing a giant-sized Tokyo Highway (preview), and Libellud showing Shadows: Amsterdam (preview).

Yet another preview title hitting the demo tables was Tim Armstrong's Orbis, which Space Cowboys will release at SPIEL '18. In many ways, the universe-building game Orbis is reminiscent of Splendor, a 2014 release from Space Cowboys and Marc André, with 2-4 players taking bite-sized actions while operating with a tiny wallet in a tight economy over three ages to build up a collection of goods from the five-colored options displayed for drafting. The games feel similar in that way, yet Orbis creates a tenser game thanks to two design choices:

Board Game: Splendor
1. In Splendor, you're either taking money, reserving a card and getting money, or buying a card, while in Orbis the money that you receive on a turn is tied to the tile that you take. Nine world tiles are on display, and when you take a tile, worshippers (i.e., money) flee from that world to adjacent worlds, with you keeping any worshippers already on that tile, whether to pay for the cost of that very tile or to keep in reserve for the future. Sometimes you'll want the money on this or that tile, while preferring to draft a third tile for its special ability, but that third tile will leave your wallet empty for future turns, so maybe you'll have to settle for something else — or perhaps take a chance and hope that your opponents will seed the board with more money by the time your next turn rolls around.

This money-seeding aspect of the game also ties into your choices. Whenever you take a tile, you're enriching the tiles around it. You might have surveyed an opponent and know that they really want tile A based on the universe they're assembling, but they don't have the money to pay for it — unless you take the tile you really want, which will then give them the money they need. Is there an acceptable plan B for you? Does your opponent have other good options if you don't give them a handout, or will that set them back more than what you might be losing by going for Plan B?

Orbis has a fixed tile set, so you'll use the same tiles with two players (or three or four players) in each game, and while you won't know the order in which those tiles hit the drafting table, once you play enough games, you'll know what's possibly coming when, and you can start building your universe with those options in mind. If you try to force a particular tile, though, you risk others burying what you need. Flexible tactical planning is what you need, another callback to Splendor.

2. The other main difference between Splendor and Orbis is that due to the possible actions on a turn, you often shift back and forth between money, card, money, money, card, money, card, card, card. In Orbis, you must take a tile every turn, and you'll take only fifteen in the entire game, with one of those being a god tile that's not part of the regular draft. That god tile is your only "pass" in the game, the only time you can pause to let money build up or hope for the tile you want to show up on the table. Otherwise, you're forced to take something, which will lay out money for others and will fill one of the slots in your pyramidal universe, hopefully with something you can use.


From gallery of W Eric Martin


Each god tile has a unique scoring condition, and you play with one more god than the number of players. You start the game with no money and no direction, other than what's shown on those god tiles, akin to the nobles in Splendor. This game you can score extra points by, say, maximizing volcanoes or villages or by giving away six worshippers. You're going to take one of those tiles, so you should build to ensure that you can score at least one of them — but if you can score only one of them, then you risk an opponent who can also score it taking that tile first. Hate-drafting exists in all universes.

I've now played Orbis six times on an advance copy provided by Space Cowboys at Gen Con 2018, and I've summed that experience both in the text above and the video below. I still haven't played with four players, but I've played three games each with two and three players.

The two-player game is tighter than 3p since you're drafting with only one person going between each of your moves, which means you have more control to affect their choices, just as they do with you. If you choose to fight for the temple majority bonus, you have a greater say over which tiles they can take, and that bonus can be a ten-point swing in a two-player game (since the two bonus tokens in 2p are worth 7 and 2 points), but temples are worth no points otherwise, so you can't fill your universe with them. As in many other games, you want enough to do the job, while still allowing you to do other things as well.

With three players, you can't focus too much on attacking others since that negative play isn't automatically a positive for you, but sometimes you can still put a hit on someone. You need to be more flexible in your building since a color of tiles might vanish between two of your turns, and the money supply can fluctuate wildly thanks to all the volcanoes that can consume people.

And with every choice you make, your future choices are squeezed even tighter thanks to the building requirements that force you to color match as you go higher in your pyramid. Everything squeezes you as the game nears its end — building requirements, escalating costs, the vanishing money supply — then it's over and you're left to contemplate your creation and prepare for judgment day, i.e., scoring.

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