Designer: Henrik and Ase Berg
Artist: Franz Vohwinkel
Publisher: Hans im Gluck / Rio Grande Games
I wrote recently that there were approximately 5-6 games amongst the hundreds that I have sold (570 to be exact) which I regretted. It does not happen too often, but for the most part, I sold these games before I truly had a chance to play and appreciate them. Well, I managed to snag a copy of Oregon, one of the games on this list. I sold Oregon after a single play probably 10-15 years ago and I don’t think I gave it a fair assessment. I knew Oregon was a typical Hans im Gluck production: light on rules, relatively short play time but having some depth in game play. Beyond that, I do not know exactly how much of my desire to reacquire Oregon was driven by nostalgia. It is not really not easy to find a copy of Oregon without forking out a princely sum. I was lucky that a local gamer decided to give up a copy in his collection for a reasonable sum.
Oregon is more a game from the yesteryears when Hans im Gluck frequently published family games in the lighter spectrum (Finca, Pantheon, Titania, Maori, Hanging Gardens, etc). Today, these games would be considered JASE (Just Another Standard Euro) and probably have a tough time finding an audience. In fact, Hans im Gluck’s publication itself reflects this trend. Games like Marco Polo, Russian Railroads, First Class, Lift Off are all heavier and more complex. I think only Hadara can be considered as in the same league as the older catalogue of games in terms of difficulty. Still, Hans im Gluck remains my favorite publisher of all time and the quality of their games never fail to disappoint (ok….perhaps only Maori).
Back to Oregon, the game is a card driven tile-laying game but more complex than Carcassonne. In the game, players play cards to place farmers or build structures on a grid-like landscape in Oregon. The landscape features mountains, plains, lakes and a railroad track. At the edge of the board, there are matching symbols that appear for each row and column of the grid such that if you play a pair of landscape cards with these symbols, one can find the row and columns that intersect on the board. Each area of intersection is essentially a parcel of land with 6 squares and players can place a farmer in any one of the 6 squares, so long as it is not a lake. In this way, your hand of 4 cards restricts where you can place your farmers. Building of strucutres follow a similar concept, but easier still. One needs to only play one landscape card and the corresponding building to build in all the land parcels that are located either in the row or column featured on the landscape card.
Obviously, placing farmers and constructing buildings serve only one purpose: gaining VPs. For each farmer place, scoring occurs only for the active player. Farmers will trigger scoring for all buildings that are orthogonally and diagonally adjacent to the farmer (ala Cloister scoring in Carcassonne). Hence, it is advantageous to place your farmer in a high density area with lots of building tiles. On the flip side, buildings are scored, when constructed, for all the farmers that surround the building. Again, farmers in orthogonal and diagonal spaces count. In this case, scoring of buildings is universal as all farmers will score regardless which player triggered the scoring. This scoring combo is actually quite devious as placing farmers is tougher (requires a pair of landscape cards) but scores points only for active player while buildings are easier to place, but the wealthy is shared amongst all players. Yet, scoring of farmers depend on presence of buildings and vice-versa. It is very neat to see how these two scoring categories interact with the tile/farmer placement. To make things interesting, each player also has a joker tile that can be activated and flipped over to substitute for any one landscape card and also an extra turn marker for performing back to back actions.
There are only a handful of building types and none are complicated. Gold and coal mines provide hidden VP chits with gold mines providing high value chits for each farmer surrounding the tile. Harbor (4VP) and Stagecoach (3VP) provides direct scoring with the former being build only on squares adjacent to lakes. The church has an interesting scoring matrix where it scores 1 point for each farmer surrounded the tile regardless of the farmer belongs to. The warehouse scores only 1 VP, but players get to refresh their joker tile while the train station also scores 1 VP but players get to refresh their extra turn token.
The game plays until one player exhausts their supply of farmers and thus triggering the final round or a certain number of building types, depending on player count, are exhausted. Game continues until each player has played an equal number of rounds. Easy peasy.
Like many other Hans im Gluck games, Oregon appears embarrassingly simple to play and judging strictly by the rule book, I bet many gamers would have given the game a pass. In fact, I am quite sure that was the case when I first disposed of the game. I didn’t gave it much of a chance because of how light the rules read. How could a game this light possibly be any good? Well, like many other games in this genre, player interaction and how the board takes shape will guide most of your decisions. The emergent properties of the game are quite a sight to behold and something you just can’t tell by reading the rules. Even in 2 player mode where the map board is the same size as a 4 player version, the game does not feel “loose”. That’s partly because scoring depends so heavily on player interaction. You really cannot score points if you lay your tiles or farmers in isolated corners of the board. In a way, you want to interact and capitalize on the foundations on what others have built knowing full well, they will also be gunning to do the same. By placing 3 or more farmers in a tight cluster, players also get bonus points and this further promotes clustering on specific areas on the board that heightens player interaction. Much like Carcassonne where players are encouraged to interact during city building for points, Oregon also forces players in a non-aggressive manner to interact for point scoring. That, in a nutshell is what makes Oregon a really good game: the player interaction.
There is also no question that luck comes into play for Oregon in the form of card draw. You only get a hand of 4 cards consisting of buildings and landscapes. Picking up cards blind from the draw deck means that you won’t always be able to place buildings and farmers where you want and take advantage of a scoring opportunity. You must make do with what you have and sometimes, this means playing in areas where points are not as plentiful. This is probably true earlier in the game when there are fewer elements on the board. I think those that are critical of the luck of the draw here have a point, but perhaps misses the picture. If Oregon is a full information game with no luck, the game just would not work very well as optimal placement is very evident. In which case, players would end up placing their pieces for maximum scoring each time. By restricting placement, players are forced to consider alternatives and find plan B or plan C as acceptable moves for scoring while waiting for a big scoring opportunity. It is very possible to set yourself up for a big payday if you place your elements carefully and arrange farmers in a way to maximize placement of future buildings. It takes time and there is no guarantee of success, but with some luck, it is possible to draw the buildings you are looking for. Similarly, opponents must be aware of such scoring opportunities and make some effort to block the process. My guess is that the luck is more prominent at higher player counts, but then again, there will be more elements on the board for scoring. It is possible to have a card draft tableau out in the open for people to choose, but again, I am not sure if this is a good thing for Oregon. The game is ultimately a light game appropriate for its category.
Oregon once again highlights the perils of judging a game from initial plays for which I am absolutely guilty as charged. My decision to reacquire Oregon is a good one because the idea of playing a shorter but deep game is more appealing to me at this point in time. Given the lack of play time during the week and the limited amount of time over the weekends, I feel that every hour spent explaining the rules is an hour lost to game play. Oregon is a typical high quality production and design from Hans im Gluck and I think they deserve more credit for their games in this weight category which is slowly becoming extinct. I hope the company continues to make such gems and hope that the market can help support their publications.
Initial impression: Good