Oasis is the latest (and perhaps last) collaboration between designers Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum. That is truly a shame, since their joint efforts have created some wonderful games. I can only wish both of them the best as they pursue solo careers. If this does prove to be one of their final collaborations, they are certainly exiting on a high note.
Oasis is part of the rapidly expanding line of games from Uberplay. Not since Rio Grande Games burst on the scene have we seen a company make such an impact so quickly. Appropriately enough, the setting of the game is a desert, and the players are attempting to accomplish a wide variety of tasks: grabbing large holdings of steppe land to raise horses, oases for their life-sustaining water and stony plains to harvest precious gems (ovoos?). In addition, players attempt to form the largest camel caravans. All of these translate into increased prestige and influence; a.k.a., victory points.
The board depicts an irregularly shaped grid, with areas for steppe, oasis and stony plains tiles, as well as a path for the camels. Into these spaces will be placed the tiles and camels that players win during the "Offer" phase. The objective is to grab large, contiguous areas of each of the three different types of terrains and form large caravans of camels.
Each player begins with 20 camels and 5 cards. The cards (which the players are prohibited from looking at) depict a variety of items, including tiles, camels, commodity cards and extra cards. Players will make offers with these cards, hoping to entice their opponents to select their offers so that they will be able to take their turns earlier on the subsequent turn.
The offer process is very similar to that used in an earlier Moon gameóAndromeda. Beginning with the player holding the 1st player token (the Noble), each player reveals from 1 - 3 cards. He may decide to stop after each card he reveals. If he stops after the first card, he receives two new cards, placed face-down beneath his current stack of cards. If he stops after two cards, he receives one new card. If he opts to reveal three cards, no new cards are received. A player can never deplete his deck of cards. This is a very clever mechanism, as the more cards a player reveals, the more attractive his offer will be to the other players. However, the more cards a player reveals, the fewer cards he receives. This means his deck of cards will be depleted and in a round or two, he will only be able to offer one card. Thus, being generous will eventually catch-up to a player and force him to be miserly for a few turns.
Once all players have revealed 1 - 3 cards, the player holding the #1 token (which is determined randomly on the very first turn) accepts one of the offers. The player from whom he takes the cards receives this #1 token, which means he will take his turn first during the next round. Then the player holding the #2 token accepts an offer (and gives the #2 token to the "offer-er"), and so on until all players have accepted an offer. A player may not take his own offer unless there are no other offers available. This is why making an attractive offer is so important. Going first allows a player to take the most lucrative offer and secure the most favorable positions on the board.
When a player accepts an offer, he executes the actions on the cards he receives in any order he desires. Cards that depict tiles allow the player to place the indicated number of matching tiles onto the board. There are rules which dictate where tiles may be placed, but these are quite liberal and not very restrictive. When a player begins an area consisting of a particular type of tile, he marks the area with one of his four control tokens. As mentioned earlier, the idea is to increase the areas you control as much as possible.
Other cards depict various items that correspond to the terrain tiles and camels: horses (steppes), water wells (oases), Ovoos (stony plains) and commodities (camels). (Side note: what the heck is an "ovoos"?) A player takes the appropriate "scoring" tiles and keeps them; they do not get placed onto the board. So just what are these tiles for? They are multipliers to determine the victory points earned by the tiles and camels a player controls on the board. At game's end, a player will score points for each of the three "areas" he controls based on the number of tiles in these areas multiplied by the corresponding number of "scoring" tiles he possesses. For example, if a player controls an area containing 8 oasis tiles and has acquired 2 water well "scoring" tiles, he will score 16 points for that area (8 x 2 = 16). If a player does not have any scoring tiles for a particular type of terrain, he will not receive any points for the corresponding area no matter how many tiles he has under his control. Camels are scored a bit differently, with only the largest contiguous area a player controls scoring. Emphasis should be placed upon obtaining multiple scoring tiles for those types of terrain for which you control a substantial area.
Once all players have accepted an offer and executed their placements, the round ends. The player in possession of the #1 token gets to place one tile or camel as a bonus. A new round begins, with offers once again being made, beginning with the player who now holds the #1 token. This entire process continues until the last of any of the three types of tiles have been placed onto the board, or until a player accepts an offer that contains at least one unplayable tile. Points are then tallied for each player as described above. The player with the greatest total of victory points is the winner, with ties being broken in favor of the player possessing the lowest turn order token.
To be sure, there are decisions and choices to be made when placing tiles and camels to the board. Players must keep an eye on continuing to expand the areas under their control, while attempting to restrict the growth potential of their opponents. This is especially critical regarding the camel caravans, as only the largest caravan of each player scores. Still, although these decisions are interesting, the most fascinating part of the game revolves around the making and accepting of offers. There are numerous factors to consider and the choices are often painful (but it's a good kind of pain).
Flaws? A few, but not enough to overshadow my enjoyment of the game. On the last turn, it's possible for several tiles to have been depleted, so offers containing exclusively those tiles will prove worthless. Thus, the players who select last that turn are likely to be unable to place or acquire any tiles and this is a significant disadvantage. The best course of action seems to be to prepare for the end of the game so that you can make an attractive offer and get a high priority token on the second to last round.
Some players have also expressed displeasure with the amount of luck involved in the game. When players reveal cards during the "offer" phase, it's possible that the cards revealed by a particular player simply aren't attractive. Thus, his offer will likely be the final one taken, meaning he will choose last on the subsequent round. Successive poor "offerings" can be extremely detrimental to a player. While this can occur, I personally haven't had a big problem with it. Luck-of-the-draw has an impact in nearly every game that utilizes cards. I've learned to live with this aspect of card games... usually. I don't find the problem to be too pronounced in Oasis and it really hasn't effected my enjoyment of the game.
My opinion of Oasis is very positive. This is a solid game that is easy to learn and play, which should make it appealing to a wide variety of groups. Yet, there is considerable depth here, with tough choices to be made throughout the game. The bonus is that Oasis can be played in an hour or less, which should help insure that it will see regular table time for the foreseeable future. The final chapter of the Moon / Weissblum saga is a fine one, indeed.
- Greg Schloesser