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Altiplano – Bag Building in the Andes

It’s only around four years since the first print of Reiner Stockhausen’s game Orleans (dlp Games) but, in that time, the game has won itself a keen following. Boardgamegeek maintains a list that ranks every game rated on the site (that’s pretty much every game ever published), so it’s no small achievement that Orleans is ranked number 25 on that list. That marks it out as the 25th best game ever out of the best part of a 100,000 listed titles. Why am I discussing Orleans in a review of Altiplano? Well, they are both games by the same designer and the game play in each is remarkably similar…

Altiplano box

OK, what’s all this ‘bag building’ malarkey in Altiplano?

You will surely be very familiar with deck building as a game mechanic, where players burn through their individual decks, usually spending weak cards to replace them with more powerful cards that can be accessed on a future turn. By contrast, Orleans and Altiplano are both bag building games. In Orleans, players each have tokens representing a series of different specialised workers. The unique feature of the game is that the workers that players get to place out on the board are those that they draw blind from their bag. A key mechanic of the game is in the choices the player makes to seed the bag to increase the likelihood of particular worker tokens being drawn.

Altiplano uses a mechanic that looks at first glance to be very similar, albeit replacing Orleans’ handful of different artisans with a somewhat wider variety of different resources. If you know Orleans, much about Altiplano will feel very familiar. Indeed, some players initially described Altiplano as a reskin of Orleans rather than a new game or sequel. That’s not at all fair. Altiplano isn’t just Orleans in alpaca’s clothing. It takes the core mechanics of the earlier game and refines them. Whilst, in Orleans, for example, workers are constantly dumped into the bag, in Altiplano the bag is only refilled when it is entirely empty. This completely changes the dynamics. In Orleans you can only ever play the odds in the hope of increasing the probability of drawing the particular workers you are hoping to put into play; in Altiplano you know that whatever is in the bag must eventually be drawn. In that sense, bags of tokens notwithstanding, Altiplano plays much more like a conventional deck building card game.

Altiplano takes a euro game into the Andes

I am a sucker for Medieval themes, so I had no problem with the theme or the artwork in Orleans. Despite the high regard that game is held in, some folk grumble that the medieval theme is clichéd and the artwork in Orleans is dull. This is not a criticism anyone is likely to be voicing about Altiplano. We are no longer in France in the Middle Ages. The new game instead substitutes the challenges of contemporary farming at high altitudes in the South American Andes, and we are treated to notably more vibrant artwork. The smiling cartoon alpaca that stares out at us from the box lid recurs in the game as a resource tile and as an impressive, if not wholly necessary, three-dimensional ‘starting player’ marker.

Altiplano marker

Rather than a central board, Altiplano offers a set of seven locations that are randomly laid out in a circle in the centre of the table in such a way that no location is more than three spaces away from any other (moving clockwise or anti-clockwise). Players will be moving their meeple between the various locations because they need to be at a set location to take a particular action on their individual player board. Players are entitled to one free move every turn but they will have to utilise food tokens to make a second, third or fourth move.

Most of the meat of the game, however, is still played out on each player’s individual board and their individual warehouse board, used for taking resource tokens out of supply and setting them up for end game scoring. Players can spend coins to extend their player boards, enabling them to generate more resource tokens. Players each start the game with their own unique special ability but those abilities can be replicated by another player if that player buys an appropriate extension.

Altiplano extensions


Altiplano – a game of ever renewable resources

Because so much of the play is focused on players’ individual boards, there really oughtn’t be any waiting in this game for your turn to come around. The rules offer you the option of waiting in turn order to see what other players choose to do but you are very much more likely to play with all players making the choices on their boards simultaneously. Even so, that doesn’t mean this game is wholly immune from ‘analysis paralysis’. Resources can be utilised in numerous different ways and in various combinations to generate other resources – and not always very logically. I had no problem envisaging that fish might be used to generate more food but it seemed rather less intuitively obvious to me why two fish at the lake would generate stone from the mine. Some resources can only be claimed by cascading through others: you need alpacas in order to make wool, and without wool you cannot get cloth.

Altiplano indiv

And remember, although the tokens represent resources, they function in the same way as the workers in Orleans. You need to forget the mindset of resources being spent: in this game, they are utilised then the resource tokens go into the player’s ‘container’ (reserve) all to be tipped back into the player’s bag when that is empty. Some players will find this especially counter-intuitive when they are selecting options on their board to ‘sell’ a resource at the market. By contrast, contracts bought from the market are fulfilled using the tokens specified on them and, in this instance, those tokens are discarded from the player’s supply – they will no longer be recycled back into your bag…

Being able to carry forward resources from one turn to the next and the greater control over the contents of the bag alleviates some of the frustration that occasionally occurs in Orleans. In Altiplano, you have much greater control of your ‘engine’. That said, you will still suffer the same frustration of never being able to do everything you might want to. You’ll always have to make some hard choices from among the many desirable avenues seemingly within your grasp. For all the hardship of the high plains of the Andes, there always seems to be a rich cornucopia of options open to you.

Altiplano leaves you to your own devices…

Altiplano is a ‘purer’ engine builder than its predecessor. There are no development tracks and there is no deck of event cards to worry about. Some will miss these elements from Orleans but, for many players, their omission represents a streamlining of the core mechanics. The game does come with ‘mission’ cards as an included optional expansion but these function as adjuncts to your point scoring engine. They give a bonus score for the combination of resource tokens that the player contributes to them. The game uses a card drafting mechanic for distributing the mission cards which has the net result of leaving one of the mission objectives only seen by the player but the other will be one of two cards handed him by his neighbour.

Altiplano travel

Not that you will otherwise be seeing much in this game of the neighbouring players. Though you will each be moving your meeples around the circle of locations, players don’t interact at locations. In fact, play in this game involves very little player interaction of any kind. Sure, you will find there are occasions when two or more players are trying to get the same extension tile or the boat card with the same bonus resource, but you will otherwise be entirely focused on your own board and actions and can go most of the game barely glancing at what your opponents are doing. In play, Altiplano feels like you are each engaged in simultaneous parallel solitaire games. It’s important to bear this in mind: if you especially enjoy games with player interaction, then Altiplano will almost certainly not be the game for you. Given the relatively solitary style of play, it comes as a surprise that the game doesn’t include any rules for an actual solo play option; it wouldn’t take much ingenuity to devise one, however.

If the health warning about lack of interaction doesn’t put you off, and if you enjoy engine builders, then Altiplano is definitely a game you’ll want to consider. It’s not difficult to learn and it plays quite quickly (the box suggests 60-120 minutes for 2­–5 players, and that seems about right) and the parts of the game fit together very well. It isn’t just a clone of Orleans but dedicated fans of Reiner Stockhausen’s previous game will especially appreciate both the similarities and the differences. Altiplano earns a very commendable 8/10 Games Quest rating.

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Selwyn Ward

Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.

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