Orbis: A four-sided game review

Orbis* is a light euro-style tile-laying game for two to four players that takes 45-75 minutes (longer with more players) and is listed for ages 10+ (which feels about right).

I put it at around the top of family to gateway game complexity, as the rule set is relatively simple but you need a bit of gaming nous to see how it all clicks together. It has a lightly pasted-on world building theme, as each player draws landscape tiles to create their own pyramid of floating islands.

The game comes with 75 cardboard tiles, 100 wooden cubes and around 30 cardboard tokens. The artwork has a nice family, cartoony feel and the graphic design is clear and consistent – although there look to be some potential colour blindness issues with the tiles themselves. Nothing really stands out in terms of quality, but there’s no real complaints; making the UK price tag of around £20 very good value. But is it a game you’ll want to own?

Teaching Orbis

In Orbis, each player takes 15 turns – and on each they will take a tile, eventually building a pyramid with a five-tile base. One of these will be a god tile (more on these later), with the rest being regions; but it’s all about taking tiles that combo well with each other to score points.

Taking a region tile follows five simple steps – the first of which is generating worshippers (read: cubes). Regions come in five colours and there are always nine to choose from, in a 3×3 grid. When you’ve chosen a tile to take, simply add a cube to each orthogonal region in the colour of the region you’re taking – making them more desirable to other players. Next, collect any worshippers on the tile you’re taking.

Some tiles cost worshippers to take – if so, now’s the time to pay (if you’ve just collected worshippers of the right colour from the tile itself, you can use them immediately). Otherwise, your new worshippers join your collection (you can have a maximum of 10 at the end of your turn). Now, you finally get to add the tile to your pyramid.

Any tile can go on the bottom row, but as you start to build higher a tile can only go on top of two other tiles if it matches the colour of one of those below. Sometimes you may not be able – or want – to do so. In this situation you still take your pick of tiles, distribute and take worshippers as usual, but you don’t pay any tile cost. Instead, you flip the tile over to its ‘wilderness’ side and it becomes a wild tile, while also giving you a negative point. This can still be a good move though – but more on that later.

Finally, if you didn’t flip the tile, you get any benefit the tile gives – as long as you meet the benefit’s conditions. It could be as simple as grabbing a few worshippers. But each of the five region colours has a different way of scoring end-game points, relying either on discarding workers (sometimes from the central board, sometimes from your stock), tile placement position, or total number of a specific tile type at game end. Sometimes, if you don’t meet that scoring requirement as you place the tile, you lose the chance.

You’ll do the above 14 times each – with the other pick being a god tile. At the beginning of the game, a number of these (player count, plus one) are randomly chosen from the 10 in the box and placed at the side of the table. On any of your turns, you can take one of these gods instead of a region – and at the end of the game it will be placed atop your pyramid, much lie an angel on the Christmas tree. Most of these will score you end game points dependent on certain strategies – but some will give an immediate effect, or stop you from facing negative points.

After 15 rounds, simply add up your points – and highest score wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Orbis doesn’t bring anything new to the party, but it flaunts what it does bring with aplomb. The rules are simple, it plays fast and is easy to follow, but there are several strategies available. Even when to take a god tile is an interesting decision: do you go early, setting up your strategy but leaving others open to scupper you – or go late, but potentially being left with the best of some bad options? However, I found it a little too precise: scores tend to be close not due to matching player skill, but more because anything you do – good or bad – is going to score you a very similar number of points. It’s a fast game, so I feel swingier (and/or more punishing) scoring would’ve ramped things up nicely.
  • The thinker: As with other family games, such as Ticket to Ride, this feels very group dependent. It has a nice (if ultimately shallow) puzzle to solve, but if playing with aggressive players you may see your best options being taken purely by spite. I expect, as there is no solo variant, this was very much part of what the designer and publisher liked about the game – but as a lover of the long game, knowing you can have any and all rugs pulled from beneath you isn’t a feeling I’m looking for in this kind of game. Which is a shame, as the different coloured regions play surprisingly differently in a game that has such a small footprint.
  • The trasher: It took me a few games to realise the power of wilderness tiles, but once I did the Orbis enjoyment factor quadrupled (although it didn’t start very high!). If you see a tile someone really wants, you can always take it from them – and while it gives you a minus point it also acts as a wild tile for you – meaning anything can go on top of it, and it can count for all kinds of scoring opportunities. This is particularly strong with two players, as otherwise you’re relying on other players to chip in with your evil plans! Also, with more, I felt the extra players did really add anything expect time. But at two, and maybe three, I like it!
  • The dabbler: What a lovely looking game – and so simple! While the theme doesn’t really come through at all (meeples instead of cubes would’ve helped) it looks fab on the table and is very easy to learn. You need to learn fast that you can’t go with all colours, but then it’s also nice to have the wilderness tiles available as a ‘get out of jail almost free’ card when you screw up! As there’s no hidden information you can also help younger players and new gamers as you go, while even if you have a bad game you know it’ll be done in 30 minutes and you can just go again. All round, a fun family game.

Key observations

Once again, as with Raids a week or so back, I find myself linking to my recent post on replayability in games. Initial exploration of the game’s scoring opportunities was fun, but you use the same region tiles every game and they come out in a partly prescribed order – suggesting a fragility in the game and leading to a lack of replayability for gamers. Also as with Raids, the fact you initially don’t not what tiles are in the game can lead to misconceptions on planning a strategy – and so an unsatisfactory first game experience too. For example, you may go blue, white and red – only to find there are only one red and one white tile that work with a blue strategy.

But when you know the tiles, the way some regions score is fragile long-term too – even taking in the fact you first draw all the set 1 tiles, then 2s, then 3s. Especially with two players, the fact tiles are unique means you know they’re coming – but them not coming out at the ‘right’ time can lose you the game. It feels as if, for a gamer, Orbis sits uncomfortably between the tactical joy of dealing with the hand you’re dealt – and the strategic one, at the other end of the scale, of knowing what’s on the way.

More worryingly, seeing as the game has issues for gamers anyway, is the lack of innovation. I understand publishers wanting a stable of family games to sell to a growing market, but is it enough to rearrange the design toolbox when there are 1,000 games being released each year? I don’t want to sound as if I’m picking on this one title because I’m not – it’s a solid, average game I expect I’d have loved if new to the hobby – see also Splendor, Century Spice Road etc etc. But it’s the cumulative effect of these releases that may break the camel’s back.

Conclusion

Orbis is, in theory, right up my street. It’s a well designed game that has tough limited choices, a strong abstract puzzle theme, nice presentation, short play time, plus some strong passive player interaction if you want it. I’d recommend it over the hugely popular Splendor and miles over of the awful Century series.

So why did it fall totally flat for me? It took a while, but after my fourth or fifth play it hit me: its mutton dressed as lamb. Orbis is, in essence, a small box filler card game. Everything could be boiled down to cards and cubes which, while the game is good value for money, would’ve reduced both the box size and price point considerably. But beyond that, it feels and plays like a smaller game – which for me makes it an unsatisfying game when playing with all these fancy, chunky, pointless pieces.

I realise this is a strange criticism that some will think ridiculous, especially in today’s climate where many gamers seem to think bling first and game play second – moaning about a game being too well produced when it still only costs about £20! But what can I tell you? It’s how it makes me feel. I know I’ll be in the minority and I still recommend the game to you if it sounds like your sort of thing – it’s a solid if unspectacular release. But in terms of my collection, I’ll be taking a pass.

* I would like to thank Space Cowboys (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy of the game for review.

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