It's time for baseball, people! Pitchers and catchers report soon and the national pastime is with us again!
I recently played my third game of Orleans. The first two games were with four players, but this one was with three. John and Chap were my opponents and neither had played the game before.
In my first game, I won a close victory with a Trading Station strategy. In my second, I tried grabbing goods, but lost to the guy who built Trading Stations by about 20 points. For game #3, I wanted to try something different. The most obvious source of VPs that I hadn’t yet tried was the Beneficial Deeds (B.D.) board. I checked out the Place tiles and was intrigued by the possibilities of the Pulverturm (Gunpowder Tower) tile. This adds two extra spaces to your Market, but the characters placed there can also moved to the B.D. board. Essentially, it expands your ability to place characters from 2 to a maximum of 4. It seemed as if this would greatly increase the odds of completing Deeds and winning its Citizen before an opponent could swoop in and steal it from you.
So the steps for my strategy were as follows:
1. Grab Knights, to get my number of drawn characters up to 8 as quickly as possible;
2. Get a Place Tile that gives you a high-valued Good, preferably the Tailor Shop;
3. Move my character enough and build enough Stations to keep the Trading Station player from kicking butt;
4. Snag lots of Monks;
5. Get the Pulverturm;
6. Place massive numbers of characters on the B.D. board;
7. Get my Development Status up to a reasonably high level, so that all those Citizens are actually worth something at the end of the game.
That was the plan, but I got off to kind of a slow start, at least compared to my opponents. Chap tried a clever gambit, taking a Scholar on Turn 1. That meant that he’d be able to take a Monk on the next turn, as well as a character from the Village. Unfortunately for him, the Turn 2 event was one of the two remaining Pilgrimage tiles, so we got to say, “No Monks for you!”. Tough break, but at least he got a head start on winning the first Citizen on the Development track.
Meanwhile, John grabbed a Knight on the first turn and used it right away to move his Merchant out of Orleans on the next turn. Very soon, it became apparent that he would be implementing a Trading Station strategy and implementing it quite aggressively.
I wasn’t too thrilled at John making an early run on the Knights, but I kept to my script. I started off with a Craftsman and mechanized the Castle, so that I could get Knights that much quicker. I ended up mechanizing the Castle, the Village, the Monastery, and the Tailor Shop, covering up the Farmer on the first two tiles and the Scholar on the last two. At one point, I had to take a couple of Boatmen, even though it wasn't in the original plan, simply because I needed them to activate both the Castle and the Village. That led me to realize that I probably wasn't taking into account the types of characters necessary for activating my key locations quite enough.
Another part of the strategy that didn't work particularly well was my map activities. It took me quite a while to move my Merchant out of the friendly confines of Orleans and by the time I did, John was already well on his way to placing all 10 of his Stations. I realized belatedly that it would be next to impossible to keep someone from building all of his stations in a 3-player game, since the number of towns isn't reduced with the lower player count. I eventually built three of my Stations, including one in Orleans. At that point, I found myself in a town with only Grain on the exiting paths, so, given the poor payout, I decided to stay right there for the rest of the game. The way it turned out, 3 Stations was just about the right number to build.
However, the basic strategy of hitting the B.D. board hard was very successful. I picked up a ton of coins from placing characters on the board. In addition, I earned 6 Citizens from closing out locations on the board. What with drawing 8 characters a turn and being able to place up to 4 characters a turn on the board, timing things to ensure that only I could get the Citizens wasn't hard at all.
I was also able to get more than my share of Monks. It didn't even hurt too much when the first plague followed its normal pattern of killing off my first Monk. However, both of my opponents suffered some key losses during the last two plagues, while I lost only Knights, which were far from critical to me. Overall, the plagues probably hurt my opponents more than they hurt me.
The original plan was to raise up my Development Status fairly late in the game, since my other objectives were ones that my opponents could take first if they chose to do so. However, both John and Chap were quite focused on picking up their Status and I began to worry that the supply of Scholars would run out. So I began occupying the University as well and managed to get my Status up to 4 before the Scholars were gone, which was at least respectable. Then I got a lucky break. During the third plague, both of my opponents lost Scholars. Since I was first player the following turn, I was able to grab one and that, along with a little help from the Kanilisation area of the B.D. board, got my Status up to 5, which turned out to be a boost of 11 VPs in my final score. John was already on the verge of getting his Status up to 6—he had grabbed the Library Place tile, which yields 2 books, and mechanized it fairly late, just to ensure that he could reach that goal—so an extra Scholar did nothing for him.
In my second game, I had limited numbers of things to do at the end of the game, so I wanted to avoid that fate this time. I made sure not to activate the Tailor Shop too early on; as it turned out, I grabbed the seventh and last Cloth in the supply on the last turn. I started grabbing Boatmen and Farmers in the latter part of the game, since both give you VP items as well as the characters themselves (and my progress on the Farmer track meant I was getting a coin a turn from the bank). I was a little concerned that my frequent banishment of characters to the B.D. board would limit my supply, but because I was recruiting so many characters, that wasn't the case at all. I was able to make full use of my dudes up to the very end of the game, while my less experienced opponents found themselves with much less to do.
I almost forgot to talk about the Bathhouse. Just as we did in my second game, we followed the designer's recommendation and modified the tile so that the owner only draws two tiles and places one when activated. Chap chose it and got some positive use out of it, but it had very little effect on the game. Once again, the impression is of a potentially useful tile, but certainly not overpowered and possibly on the weak side. I don't view this as a problem. For one thing, several of the Place tiles are less than game changers; I'll be damned if I can figure out an effective way of using the Hayrick (which gives you Grain tiles when activated). For another, I've yet to see anyone base a strategy around the Bathhouse and the possibilities are intriguing. Maybe I'll try to do something like that for my next game.
When we tallied up the scores, it turned out that my good deeds were enough to handle John's Trading Station strategy. I beat him 187-171, with Chap, who never really could come up with a focused strategy (not uncommon for new players), far behind. John built all 10 of his Stations and got his Development Status up to 6. But my goods total, thanks to the Tailor Shop, was equivalent to his and my coins (due to the B.D. board and my Boatmen) totaled up to 84, almost twice as many as his. I had 8 Citizens (6 from the B.D. board and one each from the Knight and Boatmen tracks), which kept me competitive with his Station VPs. It was a reasonably easy victory, but if I hadn't lucked out with the Scholar deaths during the last Plague, or if John had planned better for the endgame (maybe by grabbing the Office or the Hospital Place tiles), it could have easily been much closer than it turned out to be.
Still, I think this was the most satisfying game of Orleans I've played. I came up with a fairly coherent strategy and, despite a few hiccups, was able to carry it out the way I envisioned it. I was also able to make the necessary adjustments for the aspects I hadn't considered and the strategy itself was good enough to win. I also had the timing of the game right, so that I had enough to do until the last turn, without fussing over things that were less valuable (like my map movements and station building). By no means do I think I've come close to mastering this title (we are talking about one game, after all), but that's a good thing, as I still think there's plenty left to explore here.
So here's what I've concluded after playing this three times:
* The Beneficial Deeds/Pulverturm strategy is powerful and can certainly hold its own against the Trading Station strategy. Moreover, there's really no limit to the number of players who can utilize the Station strategy in a game, but there's only one Pulverturm tile in the game, so in theory, the B.D. strategy should have less competition. It'll be interesting to see what happens if those two strategies go head to head in future games.
* The game plays quite differently with different player numbers. The designer modified the number of goods by player count, but not the number of towns, so you'd think the Trading Station strategy would be stronger with fewer players. I'm not sure if it is, but the game certainly has a different feel with 3 than it does with 4. That's neither good nor bad, just interesting.
* It's deeper than it first appears. It seems that Reiner Stockhausen's creation reveals its nature more and more with repeated play, which was the kind of thing they used to say about the games of another Reiner. And given how good Knizia's games used to be, you have to believe me when I say that that's quite a compliment.
* Orleans has a tactical and a strategic element, but its more strategic than tactical. The Place tiles you choose and the actions you mechanize really determine how you'll play for the entire game. I think that was why it took so long for me do anything on the map in my game—it takes a lot more effort to do things that require 3 characters than those that need 2 characters. Yes, you can modify your strategy to some extent and recover from some missteps, but I really think you need a good strategy to win and that strategy needs to be implemented fairly early.
* The game's depth suits my abilities. As much as I love games like Russian Railroads and Terra Mystica, it's hard for me to wrap my brain around the level of analysis those games require to play well. And coming up with coherent strategies for them is just about impossible, so I play them by the seat of my pants (and have fun doing so). But with Orleans, the difficulty seems to be just right: hard enough to require analysis, but not so hard that it boggles me. I'm sure my more gifted gamer friends will turn their noses up at this (it is, after all, more or less a middleweight game), but it provides a very nice intellectual challenge for me, as well as being a lot of fun to play.
So if it sounds as if I'm happy with my purchase of the game, it's because I am. I'm already looking forward to Game #4. I've got a few ideas about how I can use the Bathhouse as the centerpiece of a strategy and I can't wait to see how it'll turn out. Hopefully, it won't be too long until my next session report, when I can tell you how successful I was.