Altiplano, a bag-building game along the lines of Orléans set in the South American highlands of the Andes — the Altiplano — is not a simple game, presenting players with new challenges time and again. There are various ways to reach the goal, so the game remains appealing to try out new options and strategies, but success or failure also depends on whether your opponents let you do as you like or thwart the strategy you are pursuing. The competition for the individual types of goods is considerable — as is the fun in snatching a coveted extension card from under another player's nose!
Aside from building up an effective production, you must deliver the right goods at the right time, develop the road in good time, and store your goods cleverly enough to fill the most valuable rows with them. Often, a good warehouseperson is more relevant in the end than the best producer.
At the start of the game, players have access only to certain resources and goods. This is due to the different role tiles that each player receives and that provide everybody with different starting materials. At the market, however, a player can acquire additional production sites that give new options. The numerous goods — such as fish, alpaca, cacao, silver, or corn — all have their own characteristics and places where they can be used. Whereas silver makes you rich, fish can be exchanged for other goods, and the alpaca gives you wool that you can then make into cloth.
Altiplano was released in 2017. Given the similarities it bore to Reiner Stockhausen’s previous successful game, Orléans, it was inevitable that comparisons would be made. Both games are described as “bag builders”, whereby the manner in which contents of the bag are drawn and played is similar in both games. Artwork by Klemens Franz also serves to draw comparisons.
However, in the three years that separated the two games, Stockhausen designed a different game, which, for some, fixes issues they had with Orléans, whilst for others it offers a less interesting challenge.
In Altiplano, players start with a selection of tokens, which are initially placed in a bag. A fixed number of tokens are drawn from the bag, and can be played on a number of action spots in specific combinations. Each token represents a resource, and certain resources are required to play specific actions. Players all start with the same actions available on their player boards, although this is appended with a unique “character” ability, which should shape the way that players begin building their engine.
Most of the actions that are available enable players to build their pool of available resources/tokens. However, the game is about careful management of that supply of tokens; acquiring tokens of too many different types can have a diluting effect, so it is better to limit the selection. However, this can allow other players to focus their bag building on the other tokens, which might give them an advantage in other ways. Resources are also worth points at the end of the game, with those that are more difficult to acquire providing more points. However, in contrast, these are less useful through the game.
Players may choose to transfer resource tokens to their warehouse during the game, where those tokens can be used to earn end-game victory points. This may be a good way to thin out a rather bloated bag of tokens. But it does limit the pool of available tokens, and several tokens of the same type need to be transferred to earn those crucial points.
There are other actions available – such as increasing the number of tokens which can be drawn from the bag each round, or acquiring a cart, which allows more movement between the different play locations.
There are seven locations, arranged in a circular fashion. In order to take the actions which are available to them on their player board, players will need to relocate to the location in which the action is available. For instance, fish tokens can only be acquired from the harbour tile location. However, players’ movement is initially limited, so one possible initial goal will be to acquire carts, to allow freer movement between locations. There is always the option to spend money to travel, but this only allows movement by one tile at a time, so can feel very restricted.
Altiplano features a stack of extension tiles. These are mostly small action spots, which can be purchased through the course of the game. These are unique, and therefore provide variation between payers and between games. However, each player is only permitted to purchase one extension tile per location tile, preventing them from over-developing one location.
The extension tiles are limited, and serve as a counter for the end game – one of the end game triggers is the exhaustion of the pile of unrevealed extension tiles. Tiles appear loosely in a programmed order; this means that the tiles which appear early in the game are more likely to be useful through the entire course of the game; those appearing later are typically of benefit in later rounds, or during final scoring. Familiarity with some of the tiles which are likely to come out at later stages of the game may be beneficial to experienced players, thereby giving them a slight advantage.
There are also a number of decks of cards is play in the game. Each is located on one of the location tiles, with differing costs and benefits. Buildings provide end game bonus points for specific resource types; boats provide one-off resource tiles. Order cards, much as the name might imply, provide bonus points for supplying a specific set of resource tokens (these tokens will no longer be available, so choose carefully which orders to complete!)
Right out of the box, Altiplano also includes a small “mission cards” expansion – these are unique to each player. Missions provide end game points for successful achievement of specific objectives, such as having the most completed orders, or three alpacas (yes alpacas are an in-game resource token). The mission cards can be introduced after a few games have been played, providing a slight feeling of freshness about the game.
Final Thoughts on Altiplano
Altiplano is a nice, accessible engine builder. It is a balancing act between acquiring as many resources as possible, and maintaining a limited number, so that the supply of actions can be managed effectively. There is enough variability in the box to keep it interesting, although there is very little player interaction. The Klemens Franz artwork looks whimsical, but there is more depth to the game than the smirking alpaca first player marker might suggest. Seriously, that marker is overkill.
Is Altiplano better than Orléans? That is very much for you to decide. It is certainly more colourful. Is there room for both in a collection? I would argue yes, despite the initial reservations that I had. Orléans features a little more player interaction, though some find the “multiplier” track frustrating. Comparing just the base games straight out of the box, though iris a close call, I might actually prefer Altiplano. There. I said it.
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