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Subject: A description and review of Altiplano rss

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Steven Syrek
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Altiplano

By Reiner Stockhausen, published by dlp games

I had a chance to play through a complete game of Altiplano while visiting this year's Essen Spiel, and I thought I would share my impressions for those eager to unbox and imbibe this highly anticipated title. In short, this is a fun and fantastic game. I always like a game that at first gives me that feeling of dread—"Oh God, I can't learn another one"—but then, after a few turns, becomes perfectly coherent. The plethora of parts, the intricate-seeming mechanics, and the variety of possible actions all resolve quickly into your own personal happy path to victory. But you do have to pay attention to the details, as your options are always limited in this game, and some happy paths turn out happier than others.

Gameplay in Altiplano consists of converting various commodity goods (food, wool, stone, ore, fish, wood, cacao) into more valuable goods (silver, cloth, glass) and then converting those goods into victory points. Instead of having a traditional gameboard, the action takes place at a series of locations, each with its own mini-board, that are randomly dealt out at the beginning of the game into a fixed but variable configuration. Each player receives an identical action board displaying the common actions available in the game and which is the focus of most decision making. Players also receive a unique role, such as fisherman, farmer, woodcutter, etc. Roles provide additional, specialized actions that you can cleverly match up with those on the action board to create powerful, personalized action combinations. The arrangement of locations and the distribution of roles, both being random, make for more varied re-playability than if there were a single, fixed game board.

Movement in the Andes is difficult. As such, you begin the game with a single cart capable of only one free move per turn. You can make additional moves, but you must pay for them with food, and you can't move as far—because you're walking? Additional carts may be purchased, but they still require an allocation of food to use, making careful planning essential. Each location—village, market, harbor, farm, mine, and forest—allows you to perform location-specific actions. For example, you can acquire wood from the forest, ore from the mountains, fish from the harbor, and exchange various goods for coins at the market. You can also purchase location extensions that grant special, more powerful actions in their respective locations and cards that provide victory points for accomplishing certain goals. Finally, one of the actions at the forest location allows you to build a road (represented by still another mini-board). The more road you build, the more corn you earn, and the more goods you get to use on your action board each turn. Corn itself has no value, but you can use it to fill your warehouse, and each filled row in your warehouse is itself worth victory points at the end of the game. Got all that?

The unique mechanic in Altiplano is called bag-building or pool-building. I have been told it is what makes this game similar to Orleans, a prior dlp title, which as of this writing I have yet to play. Each turn, you draw a set of goods tiles from your own little, cloth bag and then assign each good to a location, space permitting. By constructing roads or purchasing certain extensions, you may increase the number of tiles you draw. This is the planning phase. The more goods you have in your bag, the less likely it is for any one of them to be available in a given turn. So it pays to warehouse the goods you don't need and accumulate new ones in a deliberate, not haphazard manner.

Once you've drawn your allotment of goods and allocated them to specific actions, the turn is then played out in a series of rounds. Each round, you may move once (if possible) and perform one action. Movement traverses the location boards in accordance with their distribution on the table. When your player pawn is at a specific location, you may perform the actions for that location indicated by the action board, using whichever goods you allocated to that location for that turn. The turn ends once every player has declined to perform further actions. The first player market, a cardboard cut-out alpaca, is then passed to the left.

The key to Altiplano is syncing up your movements with your intended actions and, as is often the case in Eurogames, building and running your own point-producing engine as efficiently as possible. For example, I purchased a market extension early on that enabled me to exchange two coins for a single cacao. Since my role allowed me to generate alpaca wool cheaply, I kept selling that (and everything else) at the market, exchanging the money for cacao, and then going to the forest to exchange the cacao for valuable glass, which I eventually warehoused. I ended up accumulating eight out of the twelve glass tiles available in the game and even a fair portion of cloth, next in value to glass. While this entailed a bit of repetition, the random drawing of tiles at the beginning of each turn forced me to continuously make novel decisions, as I had to eke out a living using whatever limited resources (and even more limited moves) I had at my disposal.

Other players devised their own paths to victory. One focused on building his road and thereby stuffing his warehouse to the rafters with corn. Another bought almost all the game cards providing victory point boosters. Ultimately, my strategy prevailed, but we finished closely enough that all our preferred strategies seemed valid to me, and I would call that a game night success.

One lesson I learned was not to specialize too much. An engine is a fine thing to exploit, but as I indicated above, Altiplano is a game of limited, unpredictable resources, and the fuel for even the most finely honed engine can suddenly run dry. The highly-constrained movement, in particular, can make the game feel slow if you fail to accommodate it. It seems worth pursuing, therefore, a major strategy (such as my fobbing off of cheap cacao for glass and cloth) along with a few different minor strategies, whether it's collecting VP cards, filling your warehouse, completing orders (often extremely valuable), or something else. Over-diversification, on the other hand, seems likelier to fail, as the tighter strategies will pay greater dividends earlier, running down the supplies of goods, location extensions, and cards before you have a chance to grab your fair share. I played the game all the way through exactly once, so I am obviously an expert.

If you're a fan of Eurogames in general, there is no doubt you will derive immense satisfaction from Altiplano. It combines the novelties of its board arrangement, movement mechanics, and aleatory planning phase with the familiarity of a classic engine-building, worker placement game to great effect. Some may find it formulaic, however, so it depends how much you like mental computation in your games. I personally enjoyed the process of getting my cacao-trafficking scheme up and running while also completing a few order cards along the way. One such card, which netted me a huge number of points, took most of the game to fill out, and I had to purchase an extension just to be able to do it. But when I did finally place that last tile on it, I felt that self-satisfied smugness that only a well-designed Eurogame can provide. I felt taken care of, in fact, as if the game itself kept a promise to me. Even if I hadn't won outright, however, achieving these sorts of micro-goals in games is often enough for me. Completing a tough order is a bit of a victory in its own right, and it's fun just to feel competently in the running.

While Altiplano comes across as anodyne enough, I still wondered what an Andean person visiting our gaming table would think. Had we reduced their entire civilization to a series of faceless, proto-capitalist market exchanges that take place in a colorful, cartoon representation of primitive village life? Do we really think the people who built Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and Tiwanaku spend all their time carting around cacao and alpaca wool on dirt roads in order to exchange them for corn and cloth? Is it the final insult to the memory of Túpac Amaru that the highest ambition of his nation, as portrayed in this game, is to cram warehouses full of glass cups and silver bracelets? As much fun as it is, I admit to feeling slightly uncomfortable with this game, its choice of theme, and the smiling, weathered villagers depicted on its components. But I may be overreacting. I certainly give the designers credit for choosing a setting other than pseudo-medieval Europe. Also, the alpaca icon has a little clover in its mouth. That's pretty cute.
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Jeremy Avery
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sjsyrek wrote:
Is it the final insult to the memory of Túpac Amaru that the highest ambition of his nation, as portrayed in this game, is to cram warehouses full of glass cups and silver bracelets? As much fun as it is, I admit to feeling slightly uncomfortable with this game, its choice of theme, and the smiling, weathered villagers depicted on its components. But I may be overreacting. I certainly give the designers credit for choosing a setting other than pseudo-medieval Europe. Also, the alpaca icon has a little clover in its mouth. That's pretty cute.


Nearly every euro game ever made is entirely reductive though. I agree with your basic premise, but it is just as valid for the French in Orleans, the Scots in Clans of Caledonia, etc. Truthfully, I'm just happy they took a chance on a setting that is a little different. In that sense, it introduces the Inca to some people who would be otherwise ignorant of them. That's a baby step, but not a bad one, I don't think.

Thanks so much for the review. I need a few more reviews like this to tip me one way or the other!
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alan beaumont
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'For you Baldrick The Renaissance only happened to other people'
sjsyrek wrote:
While Altiplano comes across as anodyne enough, I still wondered what an Andean person visiting our gaming table would think. Had we reduced their entire civilization to a series of faceless, proto-capitalist market exchanges that take place in a colorful, cartoon representation of primitive village life? Do we really think the people who built Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and Tiwanaku spend all their time carting around cacao and alpaca wool on dirt roads in order to exchange them for corn and cloth?
For about 96% of any pre industrial society this is exactly what their life would be like. It was no different in European society. It made pretty much no difference what was going on culturally; if you were a farmer, you farmed.
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Y P
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Thanks for the review!

sjsyrek wrote:
Do we really think the people who built Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and Tiwanaku spend all their time carting around cacao and alpaca wool on dirt roads in order to exchange them for corn and cloth?


I would rather be one of the people carting around cacao and alpaca wool than one of the slave laborers building those majestic buildings.

Disclaimer: I have no idea if they used slave labor, but since it seems most other pre-modern civilizations did I think it's a safe bet.
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Steven Syrek
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I knew that last paragraph would be like bait. Thanks for the thoughtful responses, everyone!
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Bill Heaton
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I enjoyed the puzzle the game offered alot. I understand the multiplayer solitaire complaints, but personally don't mind it. Our main issue was the turn order. We wanted to speed the game up a bit (5 player) by just doing turns independently, but in 5% of the actions order did matter.
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Adrian Stark
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sjsyrek wrote:
[...]

While Altiplano comes across as anodyne enough, I still wondered what an Andean person visiting our gaming table would think. Had we reduced their entire civilization to a series of faceless, proto-capitalist market exchanges that take place in a colorful, cartoon representation of primitive village life? Do we really think the people who built Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and Tiwanaku spend all their time carting around cacao and alpaca wool on dirt roads in order to exchange them for corn and cloth? Is it the final insult to the memory of Túpac Amaru that the highest ambition of his nation, as portrayed in this game, is to cram warehouses full of glass cups and silver bracelets? As much fun as it is, I admit to feeling slightly uncomfortable with this game, its choice of theme, and the smiling, weathered villagers depicted on its components. But I may be overreacting. I certainly give the designers credit for choosing a setting other than pseudo-medieval Europe. Also, the alpaca icon has a little clover in its mouth. That's pretty cute.


I always wanted to know, are there actually people in the world who think this way, or is it just some meme making fun of political correctness via unrealistically vast exaggeration that I just haven't heard of before?

In case it is the former: If you haven't noticed, we're playing games here. It's not a history lesson. Vikings also weren't raping and killing people 24/7, yet noone cares to state this in a Blood Rage review.
Not all Japanese people are Sake drinking Samurai wielding their sharp Katanas against their foes, yet noone points out this fact in a review to one of the uncountable Samurai games.
Ad infinitum.

Yet in case of this game, you feel the need to point out such a fact that literally not a single person on this whole forum is unaware of.

Could it be that - counsciously or subcounsciously - you simply think of the culture in question as a backwards one that is weak enough to be insulted by a mere board game, so that you see a chance for virtue signaling?
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Brett Miller
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I shouldn't take this bait, but....


Schnabeltasse wrote:


In case it is the former: If you haven't noticed, we're playing games here. It's not a history lesson. Vikings also weren't raping and killing people 24/7, yet noone cares to state this in a Blood Rage review.
Not all Japanese people are Sake drinking Samurai wielding their sharp Katanas against their foes, yet noone points out this fact in a review to one of the uncountable Samurai games.
Ad infinitum.

Yet in case of this game, you feel the need to point out such a fact that literally not a single person on this whole forum is unaware of.

Could it be that - counsciously or subcounsciously - you simply think of the culture in question as a backwards one that is weak enough to be insulted by a mere board game, so that you see a chance for virtue signaling?


1) In a way, the Shut Up and Sit Down review did point this out about Blood Rage (although in all my plays of it there is no "raping" action I am aware of). However, you are correct that they didn't bring this up as racist or culturally insensitive. However, that is probably due to the fact that Nordic/Scandinavian people are not disadvantaged the way certain minority groups are. In fact, northern European countries are some of the wealthiest/happiest in the world.

2) On the issue of insensitivity towards Japanese people in games with Feudal Japanese themes. This has come up. Many, many times.

3) Bottom line: it's a pretty well-established idea that it's more problematic to reduce groups/cultures that are less dominant/privileged in our society for a variety of reasons. First of all, it's problematic to be reductionist about a culture that is not your own. It's one thing for a European game designer to be reductionist about their own culture, but it could be considered insensitive to do that to a different culture. Whenever we try to make something about a culture we don't understand as well as our own, there is a danger of promoting stereotypes without realizing it, although it's worth noting that the OP did not suggest that was the case here. But most importantly, less powerful groups are more vulnerable than more powerful ones. Pointing out that a presidential candidate is male will not hurt their electability. Pointing out that a presidential candidate is a woman will hurt her electability. This is an example that applies to the US - I can't speak for other places.

And yet, there is the fact that European themes are more prevalent in board games, leading some to want to go outside of medieval Europe or trading in the Mediterranean for themes. And when we do this, I think it's appropriate to take stock and at least ask: "did we do a good job? Did we respect the culture?" This is the behavior of a thoughtful person, IMHO. That last paragraph from the OP was not a rant or an indictment, merely a question that I find valid and reasonable.



Oh, and one last thing. I am a Sociologist and there is a body of literature on the fact that games are, in fact, history lessons, whether we intend them to be or not. Just as movies, video games, books, whatever, all serve to teach us about their subject material. Think about it: when you imagine what the 'wild west' looked liked, what do you base it on? Or Feudal Japan? Or medieval Europe? Our understanding of these places that we have never seen first hand is unavoidably characterized by the things we have experienced: games, movies, books, etc. However, again, I don't think the OP was accusing this game of being a bad history lesson.

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Richard Dewsbery
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billsaints wrote:
Our main issue was the turn order. We wanted to speed the game up a bit (5 player) by just doing turns independently, but in 5% of the actions order did matter.


This. In spades. For most f the game turn order - and taking turns in order - is an irrelevance and a distraction. But occasionally - when cards/extensions are taken, and especially towards the end of the game when token stacks are getting depleted - it's really important. Which is annoying - turn order should either be important mos of the time or irrelevant and designed out. This is probably my biggest gripe with the game - aside from the rule book, that is. It's the sort of thing that stops a good game being a great one. Though I've yet to decide which one Altiplano is.
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Steven Syrek
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Listen to the sociologist. He states what I was more or less implying. I'm not of the "it's just a game" camp, either, but I don't think anything is just an anything. Does such thinking insulate our hobby or just trivialize it?

And on this idea of "virtue signaling." I don't think this is a valid critique and possibly not a valid (or at least useful) concept. On the one hand, it accomplishes little besides being an ad hominem attack. On the other hand, isn't it virtue signaling to point out someone else's virtue signaling? And that's called meta-hypocrisy!

But again, I appreciate the conversation.

I hadn't thought of the turn order critique. I see the sense in that. And the manual could be better, too. Agree about that. Still a fun game, though, and I'm eager to compare it to Orleans.
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Arthur Cormode
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Great review up to the last paragraph.
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