Game Night Verdicts #73 – Orichalcum

One of the first steps when reviewing a game is getting to the core of what the game is about. In a few short and consise sentences you’re trying to pin down what matters about a game. Beyond its appealing presentation and evocative language, you have to make explicit what it is that you actually do in this game? Whenever I teach a game, I tend to rely on the same kind of description. With Orichalcum, though, I had to struggle. The summary was barely any quicker than the rules explanation itself. It was a challenge to get to the core of the game, without falling back on vague gaming jargon.

That was because the game’s design had already done the work for me. Orichalcum is a game that has been reduced to its essence, without feeling reductive. It’s a game that is clean in its presentation and direct in its design resulting in an experience that gets rolling almost as soon as you take your first turn. That is impressive.

Out of a shared tableau we choose a pair of a landscape token („discovered areas“) and an action. We place the former on our personal map and may then use the latter. By shrewdly lining up the options from one turn to the next, we try to score victory points. Our slowly („dis-“)covered map gives us the opportunity to gain single victory points (i.e. „build a temple“). We can collect or generate the eponymous Orichalcum to swap them for victory points as well. In between we can set up bonus actions and abilities, that will aid us in scoring points faster.

Interestingly, this elegant and smooth entry into the game disguises the learning curve yet to come. At first play feels as if the random coupling of landscapes and actions in addition to the random distribution of buildings, which provide additional abilities, will determine the outcome of the game. But after a handful of plays (or fewer still if you’re a veteran gamer) it becomes apparent that you can retain a lot of flexibility, if you plan ahead and make decisions tactically. While this doesn’t necessarily unlock some secret strategic complexity in Orichalcum, it feels quite gratifying to make yourself less dependent on simple luck.

The game has a sudden death-like end game mechanism, when a player scores their fifth point. This leads to Orichalcum only feeling tense near the end, and only when two or more players are about to score their last point. Some groups might consider this an anticlimactic ending. If the action you need is available on your turn, the game is simply over. But this very same arc appeals to players, who like to see their plans pay off unhindered. Because Orichalcum does not let you limit or otherwise interrupt another player’s turn.

This assurance to player agency provided by the game’s design resonates with players who prefer to avoid „high interaction“-type games (otherwise known as petty squabbles masquerading as competition). Orichalcum provides tricky decisions, once you play it at a certain level. That is once you know how to plan ahead and keep your options open. Until you get to that point, it’s a colorful, cheery tile-laying game, in which you have to hope for the right action or right token to show up. If it doesn’t, you’ll just have to make the best out of what you get.

A more experienced board gamer might note that Orichalcum seems to lack the courage to disappoint its players. It’s a game that wants to entertain above all else. As such it aims to limit any possible moments of frustration. Every setback you might face, is quickly softened to be turned into a future opportunity instead. If, for example, your hoplite warriors fail to defeat a monster on your island, they are not fallen and discarded. Instead they remain in play to support you the next time you choose a battle action. If your enjoyment in a game relies on players being chastised and punished for their “wrong” decisions, you will find little to hold on to here.

In Orichalcum every action is designed to be constructive. You would have to make a serious effort to get your agency reduced to meaninglessness. At worst, you simply slow down your progress. It’s why the rulebook describes this game as a race.

Orichalcum plays like a distilled edition of modern game design’s best practices. It’s clearly structured, presented in an approachable style and even inexperienced players can grasp the game’s rhythm makes after a short time. All of this is confident design craft. Even if it is so straight-forward, it can be misconstrued as banal. Orichalcum might not be as valuable as gold, but it’s still great quality.

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