OREGON (Hans im Glück/Rio Grande Games, 2-4 players, ages 8 and up, 45 minutes; $39.95)
In pre-Civil War America, the west with its unexplored, untamed and unclaimed land beckoned those who hankered for a new beginning, a new start. Players answer that call in this new game, the first by Ase and Henrik Berg, as they build and populate the land to create settlements in the territory that gives the game its name: Oregon.
Oregon comes boxed with wooden pawns (farmers), 50 landscape cards, 21 building cards, 28 building tiles (4 of each type), extra turn and joker tiles, coal and gold tiles, start tiles and a gameboard depicting the unexplored Oregon territory. The building tiles are separated by type and placed, face up, in seven stacks. The coal tiles and gold tiles are randomly mixed separately and placed in their own piles, face down. The building cards and landscape cards are separated and shuffled to create two decks. Each player is dealt three landscape cards and 1 building card. They also get a joker tile and an extra turn tile. The 7 start tiles are mixed and each player randomly draws one and, in turn order, each player places his start tile on any space on the board that matches that tile's background color. Now the game begins.
A grid, superimposed on the board, is created by the symbols of the region (settlers, wagon, campfire, bison and eagle) marking rows and columns. The first thing done each turn is a player plays two cards from his hand which will allow him to place either one of his farmers OR a building on one of the spaces matching the intersection of those cards. Place two landscape cards and you MUST place a farmer; place 1 landscape card with a building card, and you MUST construct that particular building type in the matching space. Buildings come in seven varieties: post office, harbor, church, coal min, gold mine, warehouse and train station and each of these has their own way of scoring.
Placing a farmer by himself or placing a building by itself does not score. It is the relationship between farmers and buildings that result in points. If a farmer is placed next to a building, the player earns points for all the building adjacent to that farmer (horizontally, vertically and diagonally). If next to the Post Office, you score 3 points, next to the Harbor, 4 points, church, 1 point for each farmer (of ANY color) surrounding the church. Next to the coal mine or gold mine allows that player to make a blind draw from the corresponding tile of tokens. (Point values range from 1 to 3 for coal, from 3 to 5 for gold.) The warehouse and train station add another wrinkle. Each of these score 1 point for the player but also allow him to activate his joker (which makes turns a landscape card into ANY landscape card) or extra turn token (respectively).
Building scoring is similar. Placing a building next to already placed farmers can earn bonuses for ALL players in the immediate vicinity. Constructing a post office near a farmer earns 3 points for EACH farmer next to the building. Similarly, a harbor gives 4 points for each farmer in the area. Building the church rewards players with 1 point for each surrounding farmer. All players near a "discovered" coal or gold mine may draw the corresponding tile and the warehouse and trains station, again, scores 1 point for the player and allows activation of their special tiles.
An additional way to score is to create, what can be called, "settlements". When a player has managed to create a link of three of his farmers (adjacent to each other either horizontally or vertically, NOT diagonally), that player gets an immediate 5 point bonus. There is no further bonus for larger groupings.
After cards are played, the player must replenish his hand back to four, drawing from either pile but always making sure that he has at least 1 building card and 1 landscape card in his hand.
The game continues until either one player has placed his last farmer OR a certain number of building types have been exhausted (2 to 4 types, depending on the number of players). Now, the round is played to its conclusion so that everyone has the same number of turns. At that point, coal and gold tiles amassed throughout the game are revealed and these point values added to a player's current total. The player with the highest final score wins. (If a tie, the player with the most farmers on the board wins the game.)
Oregon is a light foray into a certain type of area control game. The card/grid design is reminiscent of the Sid Sackson classic New York. In New York, players had cards which created intersections allowing players to claim those particular spaces. Although cards are also used to claim spaces, Oregon adds something more: multiple building types and a dual scoring trigger.
It is not enough just to place a building or a person. It is linking buildings WITH people or people WITH buildings that creates the score and is a solid tie-in to the settlement theme. As in any card game, there is always a chance that a poor card draw could leave you helpless. Oregon mitigates that problem by encouraging players to create multiple settlements since scoring is triggered each time three farmers link. This compels the savvy player to populate different areas of the board thus creating more potential scoring spots. The result? More useful card draws and fewer draws of no value at all. Also, there is a little "wiggle room" for placement as the intersections generally allow for up to six spaces to choose from. (Tiles can only be placed on spaces with matching terrain backgrounds so there is some placement restriction. Further restriction can occur as the game progresses since available spots will, of course, gradually lessen as buildings and farmers are placed. Another impetus for seeding your farmers in different areas.) The scoring itself can be a little confusing at first in trying to remember what will score and how points are calculated. But as long as you keep the theme in mind - that you're growing settlements and farmers and buildings TOGETHER will score - the haze of scoring lifts and the game moves ahead briskly.
Oregon is colorful (artwork by Franz Volwinkel), has relatively simple game mechanics to explain and plays quickly, making it the kind of game suitable and accessible for more casual gamers. Yet, there is enough heft to the gameplay to give players a sense of satisfaction when you manage to set up your population to capitalizing on scoring opportunities. A promising first design. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Herb Levy
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