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A Bagbuilding Look at Altiplano

Deckbuilding seems to have slowed down in recent years, after being one of the dominant forces in the industry throughout much of the ’10s. But it’s nice to know that when we see a new game in the genre, it tends to be more original and innovative, as is the case with Reiner Stockhausen’s newest bagbuilding game, Altiplano (2017).

The Physicality of Bagbuilding

Each of the bagbuilding games that I’ve played has gotten me thinking about the genre because it’s simultaneously so close to deckbuilding, but so intriguing different. So I previously defined the subgenres derived from deckbuilding (while writing about Orléans) and talked about the things that bagbuilding does particularly well (while writing about Automobiles).

This time I was thinking more about the physicality of bagbuilding: how it tends to be built around small pieces, like the cubes in Automobiles or the discs in Orléans (and Altiplano Itself) by simple virtue of the fact that that’s what you can easily draw from a bag.

We already know that small components of this sort create limitations (like the fact that you can’t print complex rules on the things you’re drawing) and advantages (like the fact that the drawn components are easier to see when they’re sitting around). However, it also lends itself to certain types of play. Because you have small bits you can pile them up in various ways. Altiplano shows this off well: you can have piles of discs all over your action cards, powering the actions (just like in Orléans) and you can also store and set-collect piles of components (as happens in your warehouse in Altiplano). Clearly, there are lots of other ways that these small components could be used to advantage a game: you could build literal structures, use bits as pieces in puzzles, or pass components around in trades. The grid-covering of A Feast for Odin (2016) and the structure building of a game like Rumis (2006) could potentially be enhanced by a bagbuilding mechanism.

And when is a bagbuilding game less successful? If it doesn’t take advantage of the physicality of its components. For example, Automobiles did some good things with its cubes, such as the ability to recover them from its “discard”, but overall it treated them as cards that could be drawn from bags, and that seems like a game system working against its own physicalities rather than in concert with them.

The Game

In Altiplano, your draw disks from a bag each turn and use them in various combinations to power actions. However, each action is associated with a location, which creates a second, orthogonal level of strategy: not only do you have to assign disks to actions, but you also have to assign disks to moving among the locations, and because there are restrictions to how far you can move at a time, you can be limited in what you can do in multiple ways.

The output of the vast majority of actions is more disks. Most will help you power actions, which grow more powerful as you use rarer disks. Many of these disks will also be worth victory points. The actions that don’t create disks can instead improve your position in the game (by giving you more disk draws or by giving you new, unique actions) or can improve the point value of your disks (through stone houses that increase the value of certain disks, though orders that can be fulfilled by certain disks, and through warehousing to set-collect disks).

In the end, you try to achieve the most value from this spaghetti of points, probably by specializing in a few resources and/or a few methodologies of earning points.

Orléans & Altiplano Fight

One of the most interesting things about Altiplano is that its core system of bagbuilding a set of disks that are then used to power actions is very similar to the bagbuilding in Orléans. However, it also has some really notable differences.

There are changes to how you gain and lose disks:

Non-Mandatory Disks. In Orléans you were almost forced to take disks in order to take an action that you wanted. This meant that you were often accumulating disks that you didn’t need, and either had to quickly filter them out or figure out how to use them. This somewhat undercut the bagbuilding play. In contrast, the actions and bagbuilding of Altiplano are much more discrete: if you acquire a disk, it’s because you chose to do precisely that.

Warehouse Filters. In Orléans you filtered disks out to the Beneficial Deeds board, but there was little reward and eventually Deeds spaces would fill up, and players would lose the ability to filter some of the disk types. In contrast, you get huge rewards for filtering in Altiplano because you earn set-collection points from the warehouse. This opens up a whole new subgame where you have to decide when to use your disks and when to turn them in for points, a mechanic also found in Tyrants of the Underdark (2016) but generally pretty rare. (You also can’t run out of filtering ability until maybe at the very, very end of the game.)

There are changes to how you draw and discard disks:

Draw & Discard Mechanics. When you discard disks in Orléans, they go straight back into the bag, which means they’re immediately available for redrawing. In Altiplano, they’re instead placed in a cart, which is mixed into the bag for redrawing only when the bag is emptied. Ironically, this makes Altiplano’s randomness work more like deckbuilding than bagbuilding: it’s now mirroring the way that players place cards into a discard pile before reshuffling. I’m never that convinced by a game mechanic that actively works against its components (against its physicality, one might say), which this does. However, it certainly makes Altiplano a more deterministic game than Orléans. (More than once, I checked what disks I had remaining in a mostly empty bag, knowing that I was guaranteed to draw them on the next turn.)

Reserve Disks. In Orléans, you could hold a few disks in reserve without them impacting your ability to draw (except, perhaps, late in the game). In Altiplano, those disks are instead subtracted from the new disks you get to draw. This forces players to commit those disks earlier than they might like … and in some cases, where they can’t be placed anywhere, punishes a player for poor bagbuilding. This is an example of a mechanic change that quite simply makes the game more challenging than its predecessor.

And there are changes to how you use disks:

A Different Output. In Orléans, the most important output of an action was often the action itself: gaining some advantage on a track on the game board. In contrast, in Altiplano, the most important output of an action tends to be a disk. Whereas Orléans felt like an action-selection game, where the actions were selected in a very unique way, Altiplano instead feels like a resource-management game, where you’re climbing up a supply chain by generating base resources, which in turn allow you to generate advanced resources. This certainly shows how variable bagbuilding play can be, when even such similar mechanics can produce gameplay that feels so different.

Variable Actions. In Orléans, when you placed disks in a space, you were simultaneously declaring which action you’d be taking. However, in Altiplano, when you place disks in a specific location, they can still be used for different things. For example, cocoa placed in the Forest can be used to generate flood, cloth, or glass. Some spaces have even more variability: a pair of rounded stones placed in the Village could be warehoused or they could be used to build a stone house … and the player doesn’t have to decide which until he takes the action! This is one of several mechanics in Altiplano that makes the game feel much more tactical.

Location Restrictions. Here’s the biggest change for Altiplano. In Orléans, actions could be taken freely if they were activated by the correct disks. In Altiplano, the player’s pawn must also be in the right place, and if a player wants to go to more than two locations in a turn, he must spend food, and even then the extra locations have to be close together! This creates a big puzzle every turn. In doing so, it also expands upon two of the other trends of Altiplano’s revisions: it makes the game more complex and more tactical.

Variable Actions. Both games allow players to purchase personal actions: they are buildings in Orléans and “extensions” in AltiplanoAltiplano may encourage players to purchase a few more over the course of the game than Orléans, but the total counts similar. It wouldn’t be unusual for players in either game to have 4 or 5 of these action-expansions by the end of the game. Despite all of that, the extensions in Altiplano feel much more important than the buildings in Orléans. That’s probably mostly due to the location system: because it’s costly to move between locations, players specializing in limited locations will be advantaged … and will tend to use those particular extensions frequently. However, the two games also have a different philosophy about their core actions: in Orléans, the core actions tend to be required throughout the game, while in Altiplano it’s possible to abandon some of them if a player has great extensions to use instead. The end result is that players in Altiplano have more agency and more ability to build up their own engines, creating more differentiation and more variability in play.

The Good & The Bad

So, with all that said, what’s good (or not) about Altiplano as a bag-building game?

The Good: Altiplano’s intricate rules for both bagbuilding and action selection result in a tactical, puzzle-focused game with a lot of depth. Each player’s initial impetus, in the form of an Extension that gives access to certain disks, also does a great job of setting the different players down different paths — and it ultimately rewards them by supporting a number of different paths to victory.

The Bad: Tactical complexity is often a double-edged sword. This isn’t a simple deckbuilding game where you draw your cards and then immediately know how to use them. Instead, the complex numerous possibilities result in a very think-y game, which can cause AP. (Fortunately, the simultaneous placement of disks in action spaces partially offsets this.) The game also runs a bit long for what it is, a minor flaw that it shares with Orléans.

Conclusion

Altiplano continues to expand the small bagbuilding genre and shows how minor changes to a rule set can result in major changes to how the game plays. Investigating the differences between Orléans and Altiplano could be a course in game design all its own. With that said, they’re both similarly good games; the real trick is in understanding how those mechanical differences result in gameplay differences that are likely to interest different audiences.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples