In modern board gaming, we tend to have a short memory and a long wishlist. Kickstarter has us shelling out funds many months (sometimes years) before games are released, and by the time they land on our doorstep, we’ve already moved on to the next thing.
In The Dusty Dragon–a semi-regular column on iSlaytheDragon–our goal is to reintroduce games from the past. Games that are at least five years old and are not in the Board Game Geek top 150 qualify for Dusty status. The goal of the column is to balance out the more immediate board game coverage on iSlaytheDragon by reminding us of some games that might have slipped through the cracks. (To see all posts in this series, click here.)
The year is 1846. You’ve come all the way across the country to settle the new territory of Oregon, lugging all your junk in a covered wagon and enduring the cries of, “Are we there yet?” from the kids. Now the journey is finally over and it’s time to get to work. You’ve got to farm the land, build some houses, stores and train stations, and seek your fortunes by exploiting the vast coal and gold reserves in the mountains. Only then can you claim dominion over the land! Wait. Dominion. That might be another game…
Go West Young (or Old) Gamer!
The goal of Oregon is to earn the most victory points by efficiently farming/settling the land and constructing buildings. This is accomplished by playing cards and placing tiles and farmers on the most point-lucrative spots on the board.
At the beginning of the game, each player draws one of the face-down starting tiles and places it face up in their player area. A starting player is chosen and that person places his starting tile on any spot on the board which matches the background of the tile. The next player in clockwise order now places his tile and so on until all players have placed their starting tile.
Players now begin taking their regular turns. A turn consists of four steps:
Play cards and place a building or a farmer. On your turn you must play two cards. To place a farmer, you play two landscape cards. Each card corresponds to one of the images along the top and left side of the game board. The two cards combined represent a row and column on the board. (It’s up to the player which image is used for the row and which for the column.) The area where the row and column intersect is broken into six spaces and you may place a farmer on any of those six spaces, provided it isn’t already occupied by a farmer or a building tile. You also can’t place a farmer on a water space. (Farmers aren’t good swimmers, apparently.)
To place a building, you play one building card and one landscape card and draw a tile that matches the building card. The landscape card determines the row or column where you will place the building. You may place your building on any empty space in that row or column, provided that the space matches the background on your building card. So a mountain tile must go on a mountain space, a grass tile must go on a grass space, etc. Harbor tiles must be placed adjacent water spaces.
In either case, if your joker token is active, you may use that in place of any landscape card. The joker is turned over to the inactive side once used.
Score. Buildings and farmers earn points depending on what they are placed next to. If you placed a farmer, you earn points or coal/gold tiles for all buildings adjacent to the farmer, depending on the building type. You also earn points if your newly placed farmer creates a group of three or more farmers of your color.
If you placed a building, all players with farmers adjacent to the building earn points. Everyone moves their marker the appropriate number of points along the score track and the active player also takes any gold/coal tiles earned this tun and places them face down in front of himself. Note that some buildings also allow you to activate your joker and extra turn tokens.
Use your extra turn. If your extra turn token is active you can play cards and score again. You can’t use two extra turns on one turn, though, so if your extra turn token is re-activated this turn, you must wait until your next turn to use it again.
Draw cards. Draw enough cards to return your hand up to four. You may draw from either the building or landscape piles, but you must have at least one of each in hand at the end of your draw. If you draw or have a building card of a type that has no tiles remaining, you may discard the useless card(s) and draw again.
The next player now begins their turn and play continues around the table until either a player places his last farmer on the board, or a certain number of building tiles are exhausted. (The number depends on the number of players in the game.) This triggers the endgame. At this point, the round is played to the end so that everyone has one more turn.
After turns are complete, players turn over their coal and gold tiles, add the points together, and advance their markers on the scoring track, adding these new points to the points already acquired during the game. The player with the most points wins.
A Gold Nugget or Fools’ Gold?
Confession time: I snagged Oregon right as it was disappearing from the marketplace after going out of print. At the time, I wasn’t into Euro games but Oregon was getting such rave reviews from my Geek Buddies on BGG that I couldn’t resist. I didn’t want to regret not buying it later. I also bought Finca about the same time and these two games formed the foundation of my Euro education. (Of course, it took a while to embrace them because there was always something shinier to play.)
At any rate, once I finally got Oregon to the table, I saw why so many people liked it. First of all, it isn’t a difficult game to learn. The rules are simple. Basically you’re playing cards and placing farmers and buildings. The only tricky bits are the scoring rules. Keeping track of what scores when and how much can mean a lot of trips to the rulebook in the beginning. Once you’ve played a couple of times, though, everything makes sense and it becomes very easy.
This isn’t to say that the game itself is a cakewalk because it isn’t. It’s far from being a heavy game, but there is some strategic thinking to be done. While the meat of the game is playing your cards and placing farmers and buildings, the really interesting stuff happens when the jokers and extra turn tokens get involved.
These must be activated by placing a farmer next to either a train station or a warehouse; they are not available all the time. Once they’re active, though, you have to think through the optimal ways to use them. A joker can bail you out of a situation where you don’t have the cards to make the move you want, or it can be used to take quick advantage of an unexpected scoring opportunity that opens up. Extra turn tokens, if used wisely, can set you up to pull off a large point haul, if you have the cards (or the joker is available to you) and the positioning to do so.
In either case, you have to ask yourself, “If I use this token now, do I think I’ll be able to reactivate it later, or is this going to be my one shot?” You may opt to hold on to it, thinking a better time may come later, but then kick yourself for having missed an opportunity. You can also use it and then kick yourself when something better comes along next turn, or your plans to reactivate it get thwarted by your opponents’ placements. Decisions, decisions.
Astute players will watch their opponents and try to block their moves, as well. And that’s about the only “meanness” in the game: Seeing that your opponent is about to set up a whopper of a scoring chance and dropping your farmer in the space he wanted. There’s a little groaning when it happens, but it’s not overly aggressive and there’s almost no opportunity for everyone to gang up on someone else because the board changes so much turn to turn. What little meanness there is evens out over the game.
Most of the scoring is obvious each turn, so you can get a general sense of how everyone is doing. However, the points earned from your acquired gold and coal tiles are hidden until the end of the game. So while Sally may be way behind on the score track, if she’s got a lot of tiles in front of her, she might still be in with a chance. Some people will hate this, but for the family level game that Oregon is, it feels right. No one is definitively out of the game until the final tally. And since you can usually find some way to earn points on most turns, it’s not the sort of game where one mistake puts you out of contention.
I mentioned that Oregon isn’t a heavy game and here’s why: This is one of those games where not everything is within your control and you cannot plan too far ahead. It’s sometimes a game of making the most of what little you have. Sometimes you’ll have nothing good to do on your turn so you’ll just have to dump a farmer or a building in the middle of nowhere and hope that you can do something with it later. Any plans you make may also be thwarted by your opponents, particularly when you’re playing with four people. The board changes so much between turns that whatever you were planning has probably changed by the time play comes back to you.
There is also some luck in the draw of the cards. You may have a great opportunity to score, but if the cards don’t come up for you, you may have to let it pass you by. This can be mitigated somewhat by careful management of your joker and extra turn tokens, but no matter how careful you are, there will be those turns where you get hosed. Again, this isn’t bothersome to me in a family level game like this, but those looking for total control should look elsewhere.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Oregon is that it introduces a few Euro mechanics and ideas in easy to understand ways, making it a good springboard for learning more difficult Euros down the road. It combines a little bit of tile laying with area control, hand management, multiple scoring opportunities and, you could argue, the beginnings of worker placement. Yet all of this is packed into a family/gateway level game that anyone can learn. It’s light, but not so light that decisions are meaningless or governed strictly by luck. It’s not a bad way to teach your brain how to start thinking “Euro strategically.” I would recommend it for anyone looking to take their first foray down the Euro path.
Oregon has a very peaceful, comfortable vibe to it that’s a joy to play. As I mentioned, it’s not terribly aggressive so no one’s going to be flipping the table before the night is over (unless you’re playing with unstable Joe who really needs to be in a “program” somewhere). The nature artwork on the board and cards always relaxes me, and the puzzly nature of trying to find the perfect placement makes me feel like I’m just quietly working a jigsaw puzzle. You have to pay attention to the board, but the game isn’t so brain burning that you can’t have a nice chat and some social time while you’re playing. Yes, the theme is thin and you could strip everything away to just numbers on a grid and have the same game, but the lovely artwork, cowboy meeples, and relaxing gameplay make for a game that feels like an evening around a campfire.
Unfortunately, Oregon is out of print with no signs of ever coming back. This means that physical copies of the game are hard to come by and can be pricey. Do not despair! If you want to play, there is an online version available on Yucata.
If you can snag a copy for a reasonable price, though, Oregon is a great family introduction to Euro games that plays well at all player counts. It also makes a great couples game for those nights when you want to spend time together but don’t have the time or brainpower for something heavier. Even though it’s an older game, it doesn’t feel dated or like the world has passed it by in terms of mechanics. It still feels fresh to me. I’m surprised that Oregon didn’t win more awards during its prime because, to me, anyway, it seems like the nearly perfect marriage of light strategy, easy rules, and basic Euro mechanics that the Spiel des Jahres jury tends to go for. I highly recommend that you keep your eyes peeled for a cheap copy.