We’re diving into one of our recent favorites this week as Orléans was our top “new to us” game on the site for 2015. Since then, our opinions have drifted in different directions and we thought it would be fun to look at how the game has aged for us only a few years later.
If this is your first time visiting Games Precipice, our focus is on game design theory and ideas that can make games great. In writing about Orléans, the large majority of our conversation is a deep dive into this brilliant game applying the game design frameworks we’ve been writing about recently. To help frame the discussion, this is more than just a write-up about Orléans; this is an article about Orléans in the greater conversation of pool building games. So let’s jump right in.
Orléans is best classified as a bag building game and it shares a number of familiar concepts with a deck building game like Dominion or a dice building game like Quarriors. We recently covered these various mechanics collectively in a series on pool building games.
Despite the similarities on the surface, these games can be tricky to break down as a group. One approach we’ve taken to look in-depth at these mechanics has been to identify the common skills and tasks players are carefully considering while building their deck in Ascension or filling their bag in Orléans.
In Pool Builders… players manage long-term efficiency
A common bond among pool building games is that these mechanics relay a marathon mentality to players. Orléans is a game of putting one foot ahead of the other in order to string together a strategy over the long-term. By the end of the game, a player will rarely be able to pinpoint the exact moment or turn that pushed them toward victory, since each turn the player moves the needle forward just enough to see observable progress in a race of efficiency.
One notion we settled on early in our deep dive into pool building games like Orléans is that the order in which you acquire new tools or resources is at least as important as what you acquire. Orléans offers plenty of compelling choices, but only two options directly provide a direct efficiency benefit to players. Pictured below, craftsmen and knights are the two key additives for a well-oiled engine in Orléans.
In the growing family of pool building games, Orléans is rather unusual in that these core efficiency upgrades are:
- …available to you every game.
- …available to you from the very beginning of the game.
- …so abundant that each player could acquire each option several times.
A criticism of Orléans we’ll explore deeper into this article is that the game can seem to lack a significant degree of replay value. It’s a criticism rooted in perception, but for many players it has some merit, as each session of Orléans can often feel very similar to the last. It’s also a criticism worth introducing here as it can be hard to imagine many successful strategies that don’t incorporate the basic building blocks of a player’s engine like knights and craftsmen. Actions to acquire these workers can feel like standard opening moves which hinder the freedom and creativity players may be seeking in pool building games: developing fun, interesting and sometimes finding unexpected synergies from game to game.
On the topic of long-term efficiency, if we step back for a moment and think about game mechanics that often emphasize engine-building like tableau building or pool building, players are usually accelerating as soon as the game begins. In these games we’re strongly incentivized to find that powerful combination of cards or resources that will take our engine from 0-to-60 and swing the needle on our metaphorical speedometer. But in Orléans, success is better characterized by looking at our odometer and measuring the distance we can cover during 18 turns of the game. On a street with bright lights and flashy cars, the winner of Orléans is often the king of fuel efficiency.
In Pool Builders… players manage encumbrances
Several of the most interesting mechanics we’ve seen in recent years emerged from the simple idea of limiting which resources a player has access to at any given moment. Dominion’s five card hand size wasn’t a new idea, but when it is paired with the reality that some cards in a player’s deck can lack any immediate usefulness, it generated the need for players to manage the size and composition of their resources in pool building games.
One of the most intriguing features of pool building is that your starting set of tools (your initial deck of cards, workers, etc.) come with a sort of designed obsolescence. Even as you’re acquiring awesome new cards in Dominion, you’ll still have to wade through your starting copper and estate cards whose value gradually transitions from a tool into a bigger and bigger obstacle. We tend to refer to these tools or items as encumbrances and their inefficiency can play a significant role in a player’s performance.
Among deck builders, players frequently have the ability to “trash” or upgrade their starting hands, yet a bag builder like Orléans deviated from this approach by ensuring that a player’s starting set of workers stick around no matter the event.
Impressively, Orléans avoids the concept of deliberate encumbrances such as “curses” or “weaknesses” that we often find in deck builders (cards that have no immediate value and potential negative scoring value at the end of the game). Orléans also detoured from similar concepts we’ve seen in other bag building games; the wear cubes found in Automobiles and the waste cubes in Hyperborea are routinely added to a player’s bag based on decisions they make. These encumbrances can provide game design benefits in the form of competitive balance and strategic challenge in the form of pool management. On the other hand, encumbrances can lead to frustrating side-effects like player dissatisfaction, potentially longer games and, on occasion, a completely wasted turn.
One of my favorite attributes of Orléans is that you never quite feel like you’re losing our on a turn. You may not always accomplish exactly what you hoped to do this turn, but you’re rarely more than a turn away from finishing your short-term goals. Inactive workers carry over from turn to turn and so even when you’re experiencing a truly lackluster turn, it is possible to set up your player board to have an extraordinarily productive turn next round. In the most dire conditions (or as part of a game-long strategy), you can manipulate the contents of your bag so you have complete (or almost-complete) control over your next bag draw.
Regardless of the quantity of workers in your bag in Orléans, you’ll never be able to draw more than eight workers each turn, so optimizing the contents of your bag is nearly as important as adding new things to it. For instance, if you have way too many farmers crowding your bag, sending a few to the Town Hall can help to thin your bag of such pests and ensure your next bag draw will produce a more fruitful harvest in the future.
Orléans uses the Town Hall as an interesting approach to help you manage your pool of workers. Many deck builders only grant the concept of “trashing” as a privilege – sometimes a unique action or a powerful card ability is the only method of dispatching weaker cards and refining your deck down to just the good stuff. By contrast, the Town Hall makes it very easy, almost too easy, and in the process of getting rid of those farmers, you even get compensated in a variety of benefits for doing so.
In execution, the mechanic of using the Town Hall comes across an awful lot like sending an old horse to the glue factory when you’re done with it. Except, instead of horses, we’re sending those pesky farmers. And so the tables have turned.
In Pool Builders… players manage uncertainty
If Orléans is any indication, a truly great bag building system is one that gives you almost complete control over the inputs (which tools you add to your bag) but very limited control over the outputs (which tools you draw from your bag). Each type of worker has a few specific tasks it can help with and, because of that, it can be a delicate balance to complete the tasks you need as quick as you want them.
Very few things are more frustrating in this style of game than to draw seemingly everything… except that one very specific card, tile or token you need most right now. Pool building mechanics are often a tangible reminder that you can’t always get what you want and sometimes that reminder is sticking its figurative tongue out at you turn after turn.
A pool building system is only as good as its solution(s) to alleviate randomness and players are always in need of “better” tools to mitigate the situation. In regards to the workers of Orléans, a description of “better” can be perfectly synonymous with “highly flexible”, and having a few wild cards each turn can help you do what you want, when you want it. Through the powers that be, Monks can do anyone’s job in Orléans and may substitute for any worker variety on a given turn. Every other worker type has a few very specific actions they can be used for, and if a worker doesn’t align with your goals this round, they begin looking a lot like one of those pesky encumbrances we talked about in the last section.
Fortunately, there are also several place tiles that sacrifice direct scoring potential for long-term strategic flexibility. The School and the Herb Garden transition scholars or boatmen into a pseudo-wild role to help fill worker shortages in your most desired action spaces. Strong strategies in games usually correspond to specializing toward a specific action or scoring opportunity and performing it greater, faster or with fewer resources expended, yet there is surprising merit to a generalist strategy using these place tile buildings in Orléans. While other players will occasionally be spinning their wheels trying to do anything; you’re frequently able to do something productive each turn.
One observation that stands out in Orléans is that the workers aren’t inherently superior than one another in performance. In games of efficiency, quality is often king. A gold in in your hand in Dominion is always going to get you further than a copper, and replacing rookies with free agents in Baseball Highlights: 2045 or buying more powerful ships in Star Realms can be the difference between victory and defeat.
But unlike the Medieval time period the game is set in, Orléans doesn’t use the sort of feudal ranking or hierarchy of resources that we’ve come to expect in pool building games – every worker type fills a specific role in the economy. You’re usually praying that you’ll draw the monks from your bag, but using them over a farmer or knight won’t earn you any extra points or resources. If you build the Herb Garden, your boatmen don’t suddenly transform into an unstoppable naval armada. They just acquire some additional skills in farming, trading and carpentry.
I find this to be an underrated attribute of Orléans; players aren’t gaining an implicit advantage and then able to leverage that into an even larger advantage. Runaway leaders can still happen, but several things usually need to align and in a game limited to 18 rounds, the timeline for a leader to get out to an early lead and snowball toward a massive one is limited.
A common trait among pool building games is that players typically cycle through their entire pool of resources before starting afresh. If I acquire a specific card in Dominion or a particular cube color in Automobiles, I can usually expect to see it once between each reshuffle. This complete cycling of resources leads to a predictable thoroughness that can help smooth out the randomness of the draw.
Orléans occupies a unique position among pool building games in that the mechanics don’t require you to completely cycle through your resources at any point in time. Any of your workers that trigger an action each turn go straight back into the bag and completely avoid any sort of discard pile they would make a pit stop at in Automobiles or Dominion. This means that the all-important Monk I acquired early in the game could theoretically be drawn back out on every turn, or hardly at all.
At first glance, it would seem like Orléans could suffer from an incredibly high variance factor, but it can actually allow players to exert more control over what they might draw each round. If you’re not drawing the worker types you need, you can trim your pool of workers using the Town Hall. You can also temporarily remove a worker from circulation by allocating it to an action you don’t intend to complete this round, giving you greater control over what you might draw next turn.
As we write in depth about game mechanics, Matt and I enjoy identifying common strengths and weaknesses that we observe across a large group of games and we did just that in an article about pool building games last fall. Orléans tends to exhibit many of the traits one can find in many pool building games, but I’ll highlight two examples below.
Pool building games tend to functionally scale well between player counts…
…and Orléans scales more effectively than almost any other pool building game. Orléans allows players to plan simultaneously and resolve quickly, which bodes well for minimizing downtime; a factor many deck builders struggle with at higher player counts. As a result, rounds in Orléans can take a comparable amount of actual time to resolve whether you’re playing with two players or five.
For comparison, a deck builder like Dominion is mechanically very effective from two to four players, but each additional player will add a proportional amount of downtime each turn since players individually plan and resolve their turns in sequence.
Pool building games tend to have a lengthy set-up, a lengthy clean-up or both…
…and Orléans is just as guilty as most games in the genre. It’s not unusual for pool building games to need substantial pre-game work; plenty of deck builders require some combination of sorting, randomizing, organizing and/or shuffling before (and after) playing.
In Orléans, there is a fairly important randomization of the goods on the map, along with organizing player pieces, worker types and remaining goods into their respective areas of the board. It’s just enough to warrant multiple helping hands whenever it reaches the table.
It’s worth noting one of the reasons it can take several minutes to organize before the game is because Orléans does scale so well; the worker count of each type scales with number of players as can several other factors when incorporating the expansions.
Pool building games tend to have plenty of moving parts as soon as they begin and that often leads to an additional investment of time and preparation in analog gaming.
Game Structures of Orléans
As part of our ongoing series titled “game structures“, we’ve been examining specific approaches and principles that game designers can use to enhance replay value, engagement and satisfaction in games. Many of these ideas are present in Orléans and as one might expect, it was one reason we selected the game for this design analysis.
Each game of Orléans begins in what we classify a “low resource” starting state; every player starts with the four basic workers and a handful of coins to help survive any untimely event tiles. Just like many other pool builders, players start with the bare essentials and choose their path as they go.
Although a player can activate many of the actions on their player board from the very first turn, there are inevitably are only a few logical opening moves. As a result it is not at all unusual for all of the players to execute the same sequence of actions in the first two rounds and while these initial choices do eventually branch out, the decision tree can initially feel narrow and the first few rounds can become routine over time.
One approach game designers might use to provide variety between games is to assign a personal objective or secret goal to players, which can encourage players to spread out in different directions during the game. Destination tickets in Ticket to Ride help to put players on a different track from one another and the hidden objectives in a game such as Scythe provide unique assignments that might encourage a player to attempt something new in the game that they may not have tried before.
Interestingly, Orléans doesn’t assign players any personal objectives or secret goals and since players start from an identical position with identical starting resources, there is relatively little in the base game of Orléans that helps to avoid several players from pursuing the exact same strategies. While an absence of personal objectives is a perfectly valid design choice, it does feed into the argument that the replay value of Orléans suffers because it doesn’t incentivize a player to try something new.
One advantage Orléans gains by avoiding personal objectives is that the strategic freedom is handed over entirely to the players. The design of the game isn’t trying to dictate part of your strategy or confine you to a small corner of the map. For experienced players, this can be empowering, since it is up to each player to find opportunity anywhere their opponents are ignoring it. In short, Orléans follows the old gaming adage; go where no one else is going and maximize your own scoring potential.
If we glimpse briefly at the expansions, particularly the cooperative mode of Orléans: Invasion, players are assigned a role paired with a personal objective they must complete before the end of the game. It’s a welcome change and in some ways it rectifies the recursive feel of the base game. The variety between the roles functions as a division of labor for the team by encouraging each player to specialize and gravitate in different directions, all the while still coordinating the team’s goals.
Early last year, we covered a variety of mechanics and ideas that motivate player behavior in games. Games frequently offer bonuses for fulfilling achievements or threaten penalties for ignoring an area altogether and in Orléans, Reiner Stockhausen uses both approaches to influence player behavior.
If the personal objectives we looked at in the last section can drive divergence and motivate players to try something new, community objectives are another tool that game designers can use to drive convergence, or areas of collective interest and competition.
Community objectives are public, often significant to a player’s final standing and sometimes vary between games. Suburbia prominently features four random end game scoring tiles each game which reward players for achieving things like having the largest population or having the fewest industrial tiles in their player area. Splendor uses noble tiles to award a sizable scoring benefit to players who satisfy their requirements. The largest army and longest road tiles in Catan can also fall under this approach to game design. Community objectives help to highlight areas of competition; dangling the proverbial carrot in front of experienced players while also providing guidance and a clear motivation to new players.
At first glance, Orléans doesn’t offer any traditional community objectives we might find in other games. Rather than outright scoring bonuses, citizens are awarded first-come, first-serve to the players reaching progress points on the character and development tracks and more citizens to the players who finish out sections of the Town Hall.
Citizen tiles tend to reward players for things they’re probably already planning to do but also present a source of urgency for players advancing side-by-side along the same tracks during the game. Citizens certainly aren’t game-breaking in score (they’re worth at most a half dozen points), but they’re the icing on the cake for people who enjoy that sort of thing.
The event tiles in Orléans fulfill another role in motivating players by nudging them toward (or away from) particular actions each round. The event tiles are a refreshing addition to the game and they help in some small way to shake up preset player behavior, particularly early in the game when a player might have a standard sequence of turns in mind.
After playing the game several times, it became apparent to me just how important the combination of events and citizens are to the first half of a game of Orléans. They help keep players engaged as there is always something to race for (citizens) or worry about (events) and without them the game would miss out on key mid-game goals players can prioritize on their journey.
Player Motivator – Scarcity
Practically everything in Orléans feels a lot like a limited time offer and that can lead to an exciting atmosphere as players grab as many of the beautiful Kickstarter Deluxe components they can get their hands on.
The urgency and fear of missing out on various scoring benefits is a primal motivator in game design and practically anything you desire in Orléans is probably dwindling in supply as we speak. There are seven main cookie jars players are gradually depleting over the course of each game:
- Finite Worker Supply: There are only a handful of workers employable in each of the trades, so hiring the last knight or monk can be a small victory if it ends up in your bag and stays out of someone else’s.
- Unique Place Tiles: If you’ve got a strategy in mind, there is likely a specific building that relates to it. If you can grab the deed to it first and stake your claim, its exclusive benefit becomes your own.
- Limited Goods Supply: If any of the resources such as wine or cheese run out, they’re gone.
- Restricted Monetary Supply: The coins in Orléans are limited to the tangible supply that is available. In some games this may never be an issue, but in other situations a player might be motivated to empty the bank to void all future payouts to their opponents.
- Narrowing Travel Rewards & Guildhall Locations: The ship and wagon actions provide resources to the earliest players to hit the road and set sail from Orléans. In the base game, the first player to build in a town is also the last.
- Dwindling Citizen Count: Claiming citizens isn’t everything, but if two players are already headed down the same path, one citizen can be a small victory in the bigger picture.
- Shrinking Beneficial Deeds Board: If you push your workers from your bag into early retirement, you can get a slightly better compensation for placement on the beneficial deeds board.
One of the successes of Orléans is that the scarcity of all these cookie varieties will fluctuate depending on the group you’re playing against. You may have to sprint to construct some of the place tiles before they’re gone while some worker types may never be in short supply. All of the possibilities lead to some very interesting tactical choices available surrounding when and where a player should prioritize his or her efforts. While players always have plenty of overlapping demand with one another, each person can still be running a slightly different race.
At the same time, it can be common for nearly every player to be doing a little bit of everything in Orléans and I think this is one more reason for why sessions of the game can feel eerily similar. A player is going to have a tough time specializing or executing a truly extreme strategy in Orléans because as soon as you exhaust the 1 or 2 areas you’re focusing on (like maxing out several of the worker tracks), your remaining menu of options dwindle. For your final few turns you’re practically compelled to bounce back and revisit to some of the areas that you were previously ignoring.
By the end of some games, you may find that every player had their hands in nearly every cookie jar; making it appear that I didn’t do a whole lot different from anyone else, nor did I do anything dramatically different from my last game.
Orléans occupies a category of player interaction that we refer to as “implicit interaction” as does the vast majority of pool building games. In this category, players can’t directly hinder each other’s game states but can still affect the strategies and the options available open to them. In a sense, each player is working on their own puzzle, but everyone is sharing in the same box of puzzle pieces.
Whenever a game has a relatively low degree of player interaction, it runs the risk of turning into an optimization problem. Players will naturally concentrate on similar choices and decisions and – in Orléans – that means fighting over the same place tiles, the same worker types and the same coveted citizens. Many games combat this “optimization problem” by incorporating variability and swapping some of the puzzle pieces in and out – things like modular boards, alternate maps, randomized scoring conditions or asymmetry between players.
For better or worse, Orléans sticks with a fairly static setup and when that is paired with a low degree of player interaction, it misses out on a lot of opportunities that help keep the game refreshing and unpredictable. Because players have very few opportunities to surprise one another, they often miss out on the need to adapt to one other or even to the game itself. If a player settles into a routine opening or desires to play ten games of Orléans in a row executing the exact same strategy, there often isn’t a lot standing in their way from game to game and that can rob a title of some of its longevity in the modern tabletop environment.
Lasting Thoughts on Orléans
From your first few plays, it can be surprisingly easy to settle into a favorite strategy for yourself in Orléans – and that is one of the most welcoming attributes of the game. Yet once you get that strategy to work, the game doesn’t really give you any incentive to explore new things, or even a strong impression that there are more things to explore.
Players are rarely forced to adapt and it can make players feel like they’ve played it through and have nothing left to explore. In many cases, game sessions can feel more repetitive than they probably are if one were to record the results and compare them side-by-side.
Part of the problem might be that Orléans offers a player everything all at once. As an example: If I want to place a building, I choose from the entire stack of buildings; a format that inevitably leads to group think surrounding the “best buildings” at the expense of a player’s need to evaluate the situational value of a limited group of buildings available. A lot of interesting game design space exists simply by constraining the options or knowledge a player has access to and allow them to figure out how to best use the buildings or resources they acquire.
At this point I’ve picked on Orléans for its replay value, but it is entirely possible that it was an active publishing choice rather than a limitation in its design. As impressive of a bag building system that Orléans introduced, the expansions that have followed are masterful in resolving any shortcomings the base game may or may not have. Innovative game design carries a risk of becoming bloated or rendered inelegant by too many ideas at once and were the publisher to have included more of the expansion content (which arguably resolves replay value criticisms) in the base game would have potentially fallen into the trap of design creep. As gamers, we’re always grasping for more and in this highly competitive era of tabletop publishing, some minimalism can also be the right choice. As the saying goes; sometimes less is more.
If we look at the expansions; Orléans Invasion is one of the most fulfilling game expansions I’ve come across in years. It expanded the game into solo scenarios and a brilliant cooperative mode, it resolved the questions of variety in replay value and it provides the impetus for players to pursue different strategies. While the expansions improve the experience substantially, the base game deserves a lot of the credit for laying a foundation for strong ideas to be placed a top it.
Conclusion – Rating Orléans
Over the years I’ve evaluated games using an unnecessarily complex set of seven attributes which reflect my personal preferences. Three significant attributes carry additional weight (Originality, Pure Fun & Replay Value) and four more represent my preference for a few specific attributes in games (Theme, Strategy/Luck Ratio, Scalability & Parity).
Originality: One thing I’ve realized since we looked closely at Terra Mystica is that I underestimated just how influential its design would be in the years since it was published. We’ve observed many of its characteristics in games that have been published since. I don’t know if we’ll see the same fate for Orléans, but it doesn’t have an obvious comparison at the moment, and it may not for some time.
Theme: Both the actual city of Orléans and the map used in the game are flush with rivers and canals, but the theme can come across as dry as a desert. It’s not a strength of the game, but it also doesn’t need to be.
Pure Fun: Orléans is deeply satisfying at its core and very fulfilling by its conclusion. The bag building mechanic feels like a pleasant puzzle where there isn’t any pressure and I’m always building toward something bigger and better. I think the main strength here is that the game avoids much of the frustration that can take place in other pool building games; lackluster or wasted turns and anti-climactic finishes.
Replay Value: My main reservation about Orléans is that it doesn’t have the staying power it feels like it should. The expansions add a tremendous amount of replay value, but the base game doesn’t have the longevity for which I’d like to give it credit.
Strategy to Luck Ratio: Orléans offers a range of methods to mitigate the randomness of your bag, and your performance is determined largely by your actions, and on occasion, the actions of your competition. I’ll never ask for anything more than that from a game.
Player Scaling: Orléans scales almost effortlessly (beyond the setup) and the level of interaction between players is a fairly consistent experience whether you’re playing with two or five. Lastly, it avoids a lot of downtime with each additional player.
Parity: It’s not unusual to win or lose Orléans by only a few points and (even more importantly) the score almost always feels close because it usually is.
Alex’s Verdict: 4.5/5.0 The reigning king of bag building and one of my all-time favorites.
I use five equally weighted themes that reflect both the design achievement of the game and how excited I get to play it.
Aesthetics: Orléans plays on an intensely Euro-y board with paths between villages, resource tiles, meeples, workers, tracks, and player mats. The artwork and graphical design are both attractive enough but nothing you haven’t seen before. I didn’t find the theme particularly persuasive–the game could just as easily be about contemporary real estate development or even be a pure abstract as it could be about a medieval French city–but the tactile experience of handling the bag and drawing tiles from it was a nice touch, and the “deluxe” components look and feel great if you’re lucky enough to have them.
Flexibility: If there’s one knock on Orléans’ design, it’s that the lack of variation in its setup and the generally optimal things to do to start the game can make each experience feel substantially similar to the last, though the randomization of which tiles are selected on each turn does force players into pursuing slightly different strategies.
Fun per time: Like in many pool builders, there’s something nice and satisfying about getting your engine up and running in Orléans, and the competition for the most beneficial workers adds a level of interactivity that can be absent in many pool builders. You might see a “bag builder” as just another pool builder, but the novelty of the idea makes it perhaps artificially fun. 90 minutes is a little long for what Orléans brings to the table, but at least it doesn’t pretend to be shorter than it is, and it goes pretty quickly as most of the actions are simultaneous.
Depth per complexity: As Alex mentioned, there’s always something different you can do in Orléans, though the game doesn’t necessarily incentivize you to try them all. The short-term objectives that Orléans constantly encourages players to achieve helps players to craft coherent strategies and get better handles on what could otherwise be a dizzying amount of complexity.
Mechanics: This is where Orléans really shines. For all of the reasons Alex mentions above, I think the bag builder represents a real innovation in the pool builder genre. Orléans also does a lot of great things with variance mitigation and managing encumbrance that designers of any pool builders would be wise to take a long look at Orléans’ approach.
Matt’s Verdict: 3.5/5.0 As much as I enjoy Orléans, I think Alex is probably the bigger fan between us. I’ve never had a bad time playing it, though it’s not necessarily a game I find deeply immersive or that I want to keep coming back to as a mainstay in my gaming rotation, largely because every game of it can converge into feeling very similar. That said, there’s no question that it’s one of the most innovative games to surface in the pool builder space in a long time.
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