Have you ever been exposed to the sequel effect? If you’re anything like me you love trilogies and continued stories. Growing up I was always excited to hear about the next Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movie to come out, or maybe the next Harry Potter book to be released. What seemed to happen sometimes however is my expectations would be so high because of my love of the series that I would feel let down if a new extension didn’t turn out how I expected. Usually, I would build up a new game or movie in my mind based on what I thought would be cool or how I wanted the story to go.
I think the game that I want to discuss today, Altiplano, suffers a bit from this “sequel” effect. Altiplano is the sequel to Orleans (in timing only), a wonderful and very successful game from 2014. Orleans featured a seldom-used “bag building” mechanic similar to deck building. Altiplano features the same mechanic but introduces some new and interesting twists to the basic framework. I noticed when I played the game a few times at BGG Con this year some very mixed levels of interest around the table. I and a couple of other people really enjoyed it, while others around the table disliked it…quite a bit…very loudly.
One element that was very controversial was the movement within the game. This is a new requirement in Altiplano that wasn’t present in Orleans. The other aspect of the game that was discussed at length at our table were the starting role tiles. These role tiles give you a very specific direction to start the game and some felt it put your strategy on rails a bit. So let’s look at these two elements in detail. FIrst, the movement.
In Altiplano there are seven separate location tiles that form the playing area, there’s no board like in Orleans. Each location has an action that you can take, most of which consist of gaining new tiles for your bag. Many locations allow you to do more involved things as well. The trick is that you have to have your character meeple present on the location tile to do an action there. On top of that, you have to assign the correct resources in the planning phase of each round to take the actions. So it adds another layer of planning on what is already a bit to think through. You have to see if you have the resources available to do what you want to do, and then you have to check and see if your character pawn will be able to travel to the correct place to turn those resources in and do something. For some reason, this element of the game seemed to steam some players a bit.
Essentially this setup and action structure is a randomized rondel from game to game. Just in case you haven’t heard of a rondel or know what that is, a rondel is a circular action selection structure that gives you a “wheel of actions” so to speak. Altiplano requires this on top of the planning for actions and I think for that reason this can be frustrating initially, but quite rewarding with repetition. I have found that as I play the game again and again the movement puzzle is quite a fun problem to solve. Many games that I enjoy very much incorporate this type of rondel mechanic including Great Western Trail, Merlin etc. I think the difference between Altiplano and the games listed above is that the loop to find your engine isn’t quite as apparent initially and can change depending on how other players react and how the board is set initially. There is an extra level of complexity here that I quite enjoy. Where Orleans is smooth and relaxed, Altiplano is tight and crunchy and for my tastes that is quite alright.
The second aspect of the game that players didn’t enjoy were the role tiles that gave you a starting ability and resources. Each player is given a role tile that tells them what resources they can start with and one special ability that only they can do. So, for instance, one player may have a way to get fish a bit easier or one player may be able to trade for Alpacas with fewer resources. This gives you an idea of how to start and a bit of a direction. This is different than Orleans as well where all players had the same starting conditions and explored from that base level.
What I experienced at BGG Con was that some of the players at the table were frustrated by the fact that it was difficult with certain roles to gain specific resources. For instance, if you have a tile that gives you food, it may be harder for you to get fish unless you gain a special extension tile that gives you a chance to do that. What can be easy to forget however is that if you have that tile, you have an advantage that no one else in the game has. The trick is learning how to best exploit your advantage to be more efficient than your opponents. I love the strategy of building houses in the game which requires stone. Many times I don’t receive the goods I need to take this strategy however. The beauty of the game is that I have to learn and explore a new strategy based on what I am dealt or go a different direction and I really enjoy that aspect. Your strategy isn’t put on rails, you’re given the opportunity to explore the sandbox in a different way. What I see however is that many of the players I’ve played Altiplano with see this starting condition as a limitation rather than an opportunity.
As you learn the game it’s also recommended that players draft the role tiles face up instead of the basic setup of choosing face down. This allows players to pick from a couple of their favorite options and go a specific way but really I enjoy the challenge of pursuing a new strategy with a new starting condition, it feels more varied and engaging.
I think what it boils down to is that Altiplano is a very different game from Orleans and many gamers were wanting the next step of Orleans or Orleans 2.0. Orleans only requires movement when traveling to build guildhalls and Altiplano requires movement to take every action. Altiplano has different starting conditions and a way to cull your bag that actually matters and can make a huge impact whereas the town hall from Orleans is rarely used until near the end of the game in my experience. Altiplano is a resource converting, bag building, action selection, rondel game that packs a heavy strategic punch, and I love every minute of it. Orleans is a very different game. Orleans is another bag builder yes, but it’s elegant, smooth and refined and Altiplano has a bit of bite. So at the end of the day, I think there is room for both games in your collection if you like the style of Orleans. The bag building is there and the action selection is the same but the actions and the feel are vastly different. The way Altiplano makes my brain work is different than how Orleans makes it work. Altiplano doesn’t replace Orleans and Orleans isn’t inherently better than Altiplano, they are different types of games and you may prefer one over the other. I feel however that Altiplano is a strong contender from 2017 in the medium to heavyweight euro category and think you might have a great time with it. Just know that if you’re expecting Orleans you may be in for a surprise.