Orbital: A four-sided game review

Orbital* is a puzzley euro-style city (well, technically space station) building board game for 2-4 players that takes under an hour to play.

The box says ages 8+ and that feels about right, although to compete well you’ll need to keep quite a lot of information in your mind at once in terms of scoring.

The medium sized box contains one main board, eight double-sided (but very thin) player boards, 128 cardboard tiles, 20 coins (read: crappy yellow tiddlywinks) and a handy scoring pad. The art is functional, the graphic design works well. The tile quality is fine and the eight different tile colours stand out well enough. However, their small size means care should’ve been taken in terms of the symbols/art on them: it’s hard to see, meaning those with colour blindness issues could well struggle with the game.

The theme is barely there at all, especially because the art on the tiles is so minuscule (each side of a triangle is just an inch long) your finished ‘orbital’ will look nothing like one. However, that’s where my small criticisms with the game end. Orbital will actually look lovely on the table come the end, even if it will more resemble a piece of abstract art than a page from a teen boy’s sci-fi wet dream. So, if you go in expecting an abstract puzzle game and not a space opera, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Teaching Orbital

Orbital is an easy game to teach, as the small four-page rulebook should testify. The tiles are sorted by size and placed next to the main board, which has spaces for several of each sized tile (they range from a single triangle up to five triangles combined in various shapes). 

Flip over two of the random end game bonus scoring tiles (and explain them). Put a tile in each available space on the main board, give each player a space station board (there are four shapes to choose from) and five coins, and you’re ready to start.

On your turn, you must take a tile and add it to your station. Your first one can be placed anywhere, but after that each following tile must connect (along a long side) to one you’ve already placed. You can always take the single tile in the top left corner of the main board for free; but if you want any of the others, you’re going to have to pay.

You can work both down and across from the top left, putting a coin on each tile you pass – then take the one you want (you don’t put a coin on the space you take a tile from). The way the board is set up means that, as long as you have at least five coins, you can get to any tile on the grid. Later, if you take a tile that has coins on it, you also take those coins. In this way, no new coins ever come into the game – but none leave.

Where you place your tiles can be as important as which ones you take, depending on the scoring methods you’re trying hardest to succeed at.

For example, you’ll score two points per housing tile and as long as you have an equal number of both farms and power plants – and these can be anywhere in your station. But there are points for the largest collection of gardens or houses too, or bonus points for restaurants if they happen to be placed next to farms. 

When one player has filled their board with tiles (or the single tiles run out, which I haven’t seen happen), the game ends immediately. You lose one point for each space left on your board, then count up your points following the 11 scoring conditions printed on the player boards – plus the two random scoring tiles revealed at the start of the game. Most points 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: I’m always amazed when a simply mechanism comes along and blows me away. How has no one thought of doing this before? Orbital’s tile buying mechanism did this for me: the simple fact, yes, tiles are replaced and slide in to fill the gaps – but if you want a bigger tile, it’s always going to cost more. A seemingly small change to an old idea, but which had a really big (and positive) impact on game play. I also love the fact they’ve included the different shapes of station (a bit like they have with Galaxy Trucker), as they make the game just different enough to add a bit of variety without adding any rule complexity. 
  • The thinker: While this is a very simple game in theory, the high number of scoring mechanisms make it a satisfying puzzle to unlock. While the tile art doesn’t really pop, it means the colours are easy to identify across the table – so you can easily keep tags on your opponents. Winning scores tend to be in the 60s or 70s, so the five-point bonuses for largest connected garden and housing can make all the difference – and are all the more satisfying if you can grab them by a single tile. Managing your coin economy is also an interesting challenge – so all in all, this is a very strong title for its weight and length.
  • The trasher: Orbital has no direct confrontation, but you can mess with people! For example, everyone needs recycling tiles or they’ll lose points at the end of the game – so why not take all recycling tiles as they come up? It makes an interesting end game, as people blow their money on high cost recycling tiles – leaving you the pick of the good stuff! It can also be fun to purely play the economy, taking the biggest tiles you can as cheaply as possible and rushing the end game. You may not win, but its hilarious to see it dawn on people the game is ending much quicker than anticipated – and they’ve got loads of minuses coming!
  • The dabbler: While the number of ways you can score points is overwhelming, I really enjoyed this one. The theme doesn’t exist but the game looks lovely and colourful on the table, while its super simple to teach and pick up. Also, you can’t really score on everything – so the key for me is picking a few things and doing them as well as possible. It’s a shame the coins are so cheap – but the first thing we did was upgrade ours to some fancy metal ones, as there’s only 20! 

Key observations

The main complaint I’ve seen about Orbital is it’s difficult to see what other players are doing – which I absolutely cannot fathom. For me, the ease of doing this is one of the game’s strengths. This genuinely baffles me. Maybe on your first play you may want to just get your head around scoring, but really? Sorry, but that’s nonsense.

Another is the fact scoring is “annoying”. I can see this as a point of view, as there are a lot of ways to score. That said, they provide score sheets; all the ways to score are printed right there on your player board; and none of them are complex – there are just a lot of them. But sure, if multiple paths to victory that you have to keep an eye on is going to get on your nerves, this is not the game for you.

What I’ve actually been surprised by is how much people have enjoyed the game, from both ends of the gaming spectrum (new/light and experienced/strategic gamers): quite a difficult thing to pull off.

Conclusion

I love city building games – in theory. I say in theory because I’ve been starting to doubt that (and my sanity) in recent years, as I’ve never actually found one I liked. Suburbia was ugly and clunky; Ludwig improved on it but had the awful pricing mechanism (and a lot of luck of the draw). But now I’m happy.

Orbital has a satisfying building purchase mechanism, an equally satisfying puzzle of piecing them all together, and enough ways to score to make your head hurt a little – but also to let everyone choose their own route, while keeping things competitive. It’s a shame the tiles couldn’t be a little more expressive of the theme, but for me that’s a minor complaint: this is easily one of my games of the year. 

* I would like to thank DMZ Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

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