Fantasy adventure board game Oltréé is a brisk, brutal and beautiful successor to Talisman and Eldritch Horror
A modern co-op classic in the making?
Oltréé feels like a classic board game in modern clothes, offering back-to-basics questing and fantasy in a seriously attractive and approachable package. The result? Something that may well go on to become a nostalgic favourite in its own right.
Based on John Grümph’s sandbox medieval roleplaying game of the same name (no, I haven’t played it either) and co-designed by veteran 7 Wonders and Hanabi creator Antoine Bauza, Oltréé chucks together RPG-lite storytelling with co-op disaster management as players protect the inhabitants of a fantasy world from all manner of unfortunate happenings.
In the vein of Games Workshop’s beloved classic fantasy quest game Talisman, the players must travel between a set of eight regions around the board’s edge, revealing encounter cards that present various side quests in need of completing. Here, the players are working together, rather than racing to be top of the pile.
Each encounter comes with a dash of self-contained narrative, whether it’s a mysterious comet falling to the ground nearby or a mine to explore. The events are typically resolved with either a quick dice test against one of four core stats - degrees of success or failure leading to different outcomes - or, occasionally, the player’s direct decision whether to, say, invite a suspicious-looking wizard into their castle or leave them be and risk the reputational hit. Multiple decks of colour-coded cards mean that each scenario will feature a different set of events, neatly mixing things up between plays.
The fast-moving gameplay, charming writing and chewy-enough challenge are elevated by the sumptuous production.
At the middle of the board lies the players’ fortress, a crumbling structure that they can steadily repair using resources collected from the local provinces, constructing buildings to grant bonus abilities and a bigger dice pool to help with tests, as well as towers required to secure the surrounding regions - stopping future incidents - once their encounters have been dealt with. The players must keep the fortress’ defence and prestige topped up accordingly by helping out the locals and restoring its buildings, or risk instant defeat.
Threading the smaller quests together is an overarching central story in the form of a deck of cards - charmingly decorated as a book, complete with a front cover and illustrated pages - that progress as the players take their turns. This chronicle combines with a set of separate assignments that feed into the main quest, without being too closely tied in terms of story - allowing players to mix and match objectives and chronicles for variety during replays. (The chronicles all act as standalone single-session stories, with no campaign mode.) For instance, clearing up local regions and building an observatory to observe a passing meteor may help with closing the portal to a demonic realm.
Individual turns in Oltréé move quickly, shuffled along by the lightness of players’ actions. Each player gets two actions, typically boiling down to moving somewhere and doing something - questing, building, repairing or using a local region’s unique community action (usually getting a resource of some kind). The start of a turn sees the chronicle progress, new incidents appear or either local problems - which block community actions until solved - or worldwide events happen, which complicate the players’ efforts to mop up and patch up their besieged kingdom.
Oltréé is a board game that feels far greater than its surprisingly modest parts.
Game length varies on the luck of a die but never drags, with chronicle pages sometimes flashing by in a couple of fast-forward rolls. At points, the randomised pace can verge on frustrating - leaving few turns to react before swift defeat - but never quite tips too far. It’s one of several luck-based elements in the game, including skill tests and where incidents occur - something that can quickly sway the odds away from players. Fortunately, there’s often enough chance to up your odds - whether by tactical re-rolls or strategic planning - that such frustrations don’t sour the overall experience.
The chronicle keeps things moving at a good clip, with playthroughs coming in at well under an hour for Oltréé’s shorter scenarios and easier objectives. While early rounds see the players potter around in search of small-fry quests, things build to an eventual crescendo, similar to the arrival of Cthulhu or another Old One in co-op modern classic Eldritch Horror - at which point it becomes do or die for the band of merry rangers as they scramble for an exciting last push toward victory.
Repeats of the same scenario do benefit from knowing what’s coming, allowing you to invest in skills and stats that will help you later on. The ability to plan for upcoming chronicle pages means that repeated playthroughs feel more like puzzles to be solved than stories to be experienced, though the variety of separate encounters and events maintains a level of surprise. After a defeat on our first play, we were pumped up enough to immediately jump into a second try - with the reset taking no more than a couple of minutes - and emerge victorious.
Oltréé’s fast-moving gameplay, charming (if slightly generic and occasionally spotty) fantasy writing and chewy-enough challenge are elevated by the sumptuous production of the game itself. Each player controls a character with a unique bonus die and ability, represented by a unique decorated meeple on the table. They travel around a world brought to life by the rich illustration of artist Vincent Dutrait, with wooden resource tokens, cut-out player boards and a 3D dragon standee adding to the gorgeous visuals. Even the box comes with four flapped compartments nestled in its inlay, completing the sense of an immensely pleasing object to open up on game night.
Oltréé knows where its simple strengths lie. It is at heart a basic game, but one that offers more than enough moment-to-moment satisfaction and entertainment, wrapped up in a stunning package, to make its very modest length whizz by. While the narrative events and limited number of chronicles in the box will eventually wear thin, there’s enough puzzling and variation tucked beneath the surface storytelling to invite reason to return again and again.
Oltréé is a board game that feels far greater than its surprisingly modest parts. Light without feeling fleeting, with gentle rules but tough difficulty, expansive without feeling sluggish or overwrought, it manages to offer a very comfortable, crowdpleasing co-op adventure. Compared to the exhaustive length of Talisman and the overwhelming complexity of Eldritch Horror, it’s the perfect thing to break out for a quick romp around a fantasy land with friends. After a few plays, I was enamoured; a few more, and this could easily become a new co-op go-to.