Simple Plans: A Review of Oregon

Released in 2007 by Rio Grande Games. Designed by Henrik Berg and Åse Berg. For 2-4 players.

A tile-laying game set in the not-very-wild west, at first glance Oregon possesses little to dazzle its players. There are no cowboys, there is no hunting, and there are certainly no gunfights. Nobody even dies of snakebites or dysentery. There are, instead, meeples, point scoring building tiles (next to which the meeples must be placed to be activitated), and a blandly illustrated board for these to be placed upon. But still, Oregon produces a decent level of excitement pretty much every game.

Suitably enough, this exhilaration will in most cases stem from the use of two ostensibly unspectacular elements – an extra turn marker, and a joker.

The former allows players to circumvent Oregon‘s usual rule that either place a single meeple, or a single building tile can be placed on the board each turn – giving an extra chance to do one or the other. Placing either a meeple or a building means playing a pair of cards from a hand of four – two location cards to place a meeple, or a location card and a building card in the latter case. However, flipping his or her joker token to its inactive face lets a player use just one card to place either a meeple or building (a single location card to place a meeple, or just the building card to place one of those).

The board is seeded with four different buildings before the first turn. Each player chooses where one of the buildings is placed. At the top centre of the picture are red's extra turn token and joker, face up, ready to be used

These special tokens can each be refreshed after use by placing a meeple alongside a particular kind of building: a store re-activates the joker, while a station brings the extra turn token back into play.

Let’s have an example of how these might be exploited, and where the fun comes into it.

It’s me to play. I’m being teased by a couple of gold-mines side-by-side towards one edge of the board; if I could place a meeple on a square touching both, I could score up to ten points (depending on the value of the gold tokens I draw at random – each is worth three, four or five victory points). But, where I can place my meeples depends on the cards I hold. I have a card to place my meeple in a column next to the mines, but not in a suitable row. A joker would, of course, help. But impetuous as I am, I spent my joker last turn on achieving next to nothing.

Nevertheless, I can work around the situation. I’m lucky enough to have a building card depicting a store, and another location card which will let me place it next to one of my meeples.  And, as with all the buildings in Oregon, if the store is built next to a meeple already on the board, the player owning that meeple benefits. So building the store could get my joker back (and give me a victory point – the less glamorous secondary bonus the store carries).

Sure, the store has to go next to a green meeple too. It’s the only spot available. But green’s joker has not been spent – I’d only be giving her a single point. It’s not possible to collect multiple jokers or extra turns, so I’m only helping her the tiniest bit. Indeed, I like the idea of taunting her this way. She knows this from the look on my face.

So the store is built. Job half done.

Now, I take a deepish breath, and flip my extra turn marker.  Next, I throw down the location card showing the column with those mines. Then, flip my joker right back to its used face with a suitably incendiary vigour. And a humble little meeple is sent to mine two gold-mines at once.

Red tuts that I’ve gone just where he would have. I try to make a mental note regarding the clue about his location cards that this gives me, but I know I’ll have forgotten within two minutes.

I sneak a look at my newly acquired gold tokens. Each is worth just three points. Of course, I front that they’re both fives. Who wouldn’t? My joker and extra turn marker are both lost, and the whole fuss probably wasn’t worth it for the points I gained. Still, it was fun.

This, for me, is the core of Oregon. Planning turns so that once every three or four rounds, you can flip those bonus tiles and defy the restrictions on meeple and building placement the game’s cards provide. Sure, sometimes luck will be with you, and you’ll draw just the cards you wanted. But the game is generally more fun when you don’t: that’s when you need to be a tiny bit inventive. It’s not so taxing, it’s not meant to be, but it is consistently enjoyable.

Meeples clump around point scoring buildings in Oregon. Note red's extra turn marker is currently flipped over, meaning it must be refreshed by visiting a station before it can be used again

Apart from the station and store, the game’s other buildings operate exclusively to give out victory points. There are two kinds of mine – the gold mine and the coal mine – both of which make the player draw a tile of uncertain value. The harbour and post office provide fixed sums – four victory points and three, respectively. No special rules, no nuances. It’s probably right they should do no more, however, so the game isn’t overwhelmed by fiddly rules unsuited to its length (somewhere between forty minutes and an hour, in my experience, depending on the number of players).

But then there’s one more building – the church. This is Oregon’s other generator of big moments. Built just like any other building in the game (and therefore only available to be constructed by players lucky enough to pull the correct card), it can see points flying everywhere: each meeple in a square adjacent to a newly-built church earns a number of points equal to the total amount of meeples next to that church. If, for instance, six of the eight squares around a church are occupied by meeples when that church is built, each meeple earns its player six points. If yellow has four of those meeples, that means twenty-four points – an amount it would usually take half a dozen turns, or more, to earn.

Yellow has exploited this church to fantastic effect. Green also gains some points - a sacrifice worth making

Attentive play can often prevent an opponent from pulling in such phenomenal point hauls, however. It’s usually possible to block a player from putting together especially large clumps of meeples. Indeed, usually this blocking will happen as a by-product of players aiming for the same lucrative areas of the map. Oregon is all about opportunism, both grabbing opportunities to score points, and opportunities to deny rivals. Your hand of cards is too small to plan more than a single turn in advance. But the absence of grand plans does not mean the absence of grand experiences. Oregon stands as evidence of this.

One thought on “Simple Plans: A Review of Oregon

  1. Pingback: Revisions, January 2013: Sid Meier’s Civilization; Hey, That’s My Fish!; Food Chain; Oregon | Painted Wooden Cubes

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