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Subject: Review - Oil Barons rss

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Clifford Roberson
United States
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Oil Barons (Epyx – 1983) is a combination board game/computer game where players are Oil Speculators purchasing land and drilling for oil. It is an economic/bidding game. Players try to attain a net worth determined by the number of turns in the game by the end of the set turn limit.

Oil Barons is one of those classic games from my youth that held up fairly well over the years. It is still a fun game and is very approachable to non-gamers. The need to have a computer present is a bit distracting for some however.

The game begins by launching Oil Barons on your computer. Each player chooses a color and takes all of the plastic Control Markers of that color. The Board depicting different terrain types in a 50x40 space square is placed on the table. The Active Well Markers, Depleted Well Markers, and For Sale Markers are set next to the board and one player is designated to run the computer interface. The program asks for how many players are playing. After a number from 1 to 8 is entered the game proceeds to ask each player to enter their company name. If playing 1 player, the player plays 2 companies at the same time. Once the names have been entered the computer generates 4 initial plots of land for each player. Players look up these locations on the game board and place a colored Control Marker of theirs on one of the spaces of each of these plots. If any of the plots are already owned by another player, that player enters a “Y” response to the computer’s question asking if there is a dispute with any of these plots. Disputed plots are regenerated by the computer. The computer then asks for the number of turns the game is to be from 5 to 1000 turns. Then the Skill Level of the opponents is asked (from 1 to 9). Finally the computer asks which type of game is to be played:
Reality Game: The oil pools are set before the game begins and are fixed in their locations. The costs of surveying and drilling are more realistic to 1983 prices as well. Players can survey any space that they own even cities from the start of the game.
Classic Game: There are no pre-set oil pools in this game. Chances of striking oil are dependent of the terrain type surveyed in the following order (from best to worst): Desert, Plains, Brushland, Ice Pack, Lake, Coastline, Forest, Mountains, Jungle, Swamp, Offshore, Artic, and City. The cost of surveying and drilling also follow this hierarchy from least to most as well. The Royalty Payments and overall value of the well increases from lowest to highest, however. Players may not drill at City spaces at the start of the game until congress deems it is allowed.

Oil Barons is played in a series of turns. Each turn consists of several segments:

The Auction: Every turn more Parcels of land are auctioned by the computer. The computer may auction up to 3 Parcels each turn. The computer may display “No Land Is Available At The Time” which means no land is auctioned this turn. The computer displays the coordinates of one of the squares on the game board. The entire Parcel (area containing square surrounded by Black Border) is up for sale, not just the square. The Parcels on the board are of different shapes and sizes.
The computer asks is the Parcel is owned by a player. If the answer is no, the auction is ready to begin. If a player owns it, enter “Y”. The computer will ask if that players wishes to sell. If they do, the Parcel is auctioned off as usual, with proceeds going to that player. The owner of the Parcel may not bid on this Parcel. If the player does not wish to sell, the computer will generate a new coordinate as above. A For Sale Marker is placed on the Parcel to aide in locating the Parcel. The computer will post a starting bid, and the auction begins.
The computer generates 5 dummy companies to join in the bidding. These are present to stimulate bidding. If a dummy company buys a Parcel, the For Sale Marker is removed and it may be sold in a future turn. When a player wishes to bid, the player in charge of running the keyboard must enter the Player Number of that player. This interrupts the auction and that player may enter the amount they wish to bid. Bids must be in units of $1,000. The lowest bid is $1,000 and the maximum bid is $1,000,000 over the last highest bid. The number entered into the computer is in thousands. A bid must be entered by the player when the auction has been interrupted. Players may go into debt and bid on credit during an auction. When the bidding is about to end, the computer will display “Going”, then “Going, Going”, and finally “Gone”. Bids can still be made up until “Gone” is displayed. Once “Gone” appears the auction is over. The price is deducted from the winning bidder’s assets. The winning bidder replaces the For Sale Marker with one of their Control Markers. If any more land is for auction, this turn repeats until no more land is for sale.

Private Land Deals: During this segment, the players may conduct private transactions between their companies. These deals usually involve land but may be other deals as well (agreements not to drill. Etc.). The player running the keyboard enters the Player Numbers of the players involved and the amount of money to be transferred and the computer adjust the assets of the players. If land was sold, the players swap their Control Markers on the board as well. If a Parcel with Active or Dry Wells on it changes hands, the ownership of these wells does not change. The new owner may survey the open squares in the Parcel, but established wells are the property of the original driller. Private Land Deals may not be funded with credit. Players may not enter any amount greater than their positive cash assets in these deals.

Surveying and Drilling: During this segment, each company may do the following:

Check Site: The player inputs the coordinates of one of the squares of any of the Parcels they own. They may not enter coordinates of a Parcel they do not own, of an Active Well, of a Dry Well, or a terrain type that has been deemed “Off Limits”. The computer displays a cost analysis of the square for the given coordinates. The display shows the terrain type, how many active wells are adjacent to the square, how much the Survey will cost, the cost of the Rig and Labor, the cost to Drill per foot, the Maximum Depth of the well, and the Maximum Cost of the well. This cost analysis is free and may be conducted on any number of squares of owned Parcels.

Survey: If the player decides to Survey a square, a picture of the site is displayed. A geological survey is conducted and the percentage of probability of striking oil is displayed.
If the player does not wish to Drill in this square, they may Survey and/or Drill another square. Each square is only Surveyed once a game. If the coordinates of a previously Surveyed square are entered, the results of that Survey are displayed instead of the cost analysis.

Drilling: The player enters a maximum depth they wish to drill to. This may be anywhere up to the Maximum Depth result on the cost analysis. An animated oil derrick appears on the screen and starts drilling until it either strikes oil or hits the maximum depth. While it is drilling the player may pause or terminate the drilling prematurely. If oil is struck, the computer displays the depth of the oil and the approximate number of barrels of oil per day the well will generate. An Active Well Marker is placed on this spot to indicate the Active Well.
Occasionally a Gusher is struck at a well. A Gusher counts as two wells on the same square. The cost is for only Drilling one well with the Royalties equaling two wells. For Game Events, a Gusher counts as two wells even though it is on one space.
If the player fails to strike oil, a Dry Hole Marker is placed on this square.

All costs of Surveying and Drilling are deducted from the player’s assets. Once every player has had a chance to Survey and Drill the game proceeds to the next segment.

Royalty Payments, Bank Notes, and Financial Statements:

Royalty Payments: Checks are paid out to each player for the total amount of all of their Active Wells. The amounts vary from turn to turn and from player to player. The price of the oil fluctuates as the World Oil Price changes.

Bank Notes: A company cannot go bankrupt by overspending. If a company’s assets go below zero, the computer will issue that player a Bank Note and charges interest. The interest rate fluctuates, but usually, at the start of the game, it is 10%.

Financial Statements: Each player receives their Financial Statements. The first page is the company’s Portfolio of Wells, then the Income Statement showing Net Profit or Loss for the turn. Then the Balance Sheet showing the companies net assets and liabilities. Also listed are New Cash Potential, Intrinsic Value, and Newt Worth.

News Events and Special Announcements: The newspaper Oil Street Journal appears and displays the news and government announcements. Some of these affect the game and some are for entertainment purposes and flavor. The newspaper lists the Standings of the players. The game turn number and the remaining number of turns are displayed as well as the specified monetary goal. Next, companies are notified if any of their Active Wells are now Depleted. These wells have their Active Well Marker replaced by a Depleted Well Marker and receive no more Royalty Payments. Finally announcements of National Parks and Government Land. The coordinates of one of the squares of the Parcel are listed. A Marker is placed on this Parcel to remind players of its protected statues. Un-owned Parcels may still be sold at auction. Owners of these Parcels (current or future) may not Survey or Drill on any space in that Parcel until Congress deems it is legal to do so. Active Wells still continue operation though.

The game continues until the turn limit is reached or the dollar amount has been obtained. If the turn limit expires, the player with the most money is declared the winner.

My thought on this game:

Components: The components to this game are excellent, especially of a game this old. The board is made up of 8 sections of thick cardboard that hook together. The artwork on it is adequate. It is easy enough to tell the different terrains. It would have looked better if it was a topographical or aerial view of the land instead of a picture view, but that is o.k. The board is large, even with small squares it takes up a lot of room. The Parcels can get lost on the artwork, but players will definitely let you know if you try and drill their land. The control markers are plastic chips with a round top, the well markers are little cylinder-bell things made of plastic. The other markers are painted wood symbols. They look good and are easy to tell what is what.

Hybrid: This is the only game I know of that combined computer and board game like this. It is done rather well, especially considering the time. The computer relies on the honesty of the players input though as it doesn’t keep track of who owns the parcels and the actual parcel shape. It is still impressive to see how much it does keep track of. Having a computer at the gaming table seems to violate the Board Game Code of Conduct though, but it does take a lot of the tedium that would occur if this was to be done by human out of the game.

Bankruptcy: This is my main gripe with this game. Bankruptcy should hurt in my opinion and here is doesn’t really hurt. The interest rate sounds horrible until you strike it rich the next turn. Also you can gleefully auction away until you are million in the hole if you wish because it doesn’t really matter, except for competing to win. This does keep all players in the game however, so it does serve a purpose.

Interaction: Even though the game centers on a computer and a game board there does tend to be a lot of interaction. The auctions and private dealing allow players to deal and bid amongst each other. The only weak side to this interaction is if the keyboard operator is easily distracted or mischievous as they can screw up a player’s bidding.

Fun Factor: Oil Barons is fun. The old graphics are amusing by today’s standards but are effective. It can be tense waiting for your survey results to arrive after you have set off your dynamite or waiting for what seems like an eternity as you drill keeps on going, eating up your assets. The news articles are tongue in cheek but not awfully groaning as some games of this era. The game is light enough for non-gamers to play and the interface is simple enough that technophobes shouldn’t be scared off from it. The economics system is simple yet not too simple as to be boring. Overall this is a solid game. It is too bad Epyx has gone the way of the dodo as it would be nice to see something of this ilk to be made again, especially with the quality of the game board and pieces. It would probably be just as easy if not easier to make it run completely on the computer, but that definitely would lose the charm of having the board there. The game can be found on the web at a number of abandon ware sites. The game needs the board to play and it is occasionally available on EBay for a fair price.

Clifford Roberson
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