Whether it’s Game of Thrones’ Iron Throne or the power struggles of medieval rulers, the thrones of real-life lands and fantasy kingdoms alike are notorious for landing more bums than a round of musical chairs - making them the perfect subject matter for board games unafraid to pit players against each other in a brutal clash of kings and queens.
Oriflamme is the latest tabletop title to stake its own claim to the compact card game throne. Don’t underestimate its size and fresh-faced lack of experience - its blend of savage strategy and terrific tension means it might just have a chance of taking and holding the crown for a while to come.
In Oriflamme, three to five players are opportunistic medieval families looking to seize the throne in the wake of the heirless king’s passing. Each family - and player - has its own set of cards, illustrated in the style of oil paintings by artist Tomasz Jedruszek. They look fantastic. The different decks are marked out by a family crest on the card backs: dragon, gryphon, unicorn, squid… thing. It’s all very Seven Kingdoms.
Oriflamme is like lining up a set of dominoes - if the dominoes were all trying to knock over their neighbours and be the only one left standing. And one of them is hiding a knife behind its back.
The family decks are made up of ten cards, each with a unique action. Everyone has the same cards - except they don’t, because you each remove three at random before each game begins. It’s a simple yet effective way to keep you guessing at what a player might have based on what they’ve already played, without knowing for sure, and means you can’t always exploit the same strategy out of the gate.
Players take it in turns to place one card facedown in the middle of the table. Cards are laid in a single row, and added to either the left or right of the cards already down - never in-between them. (Except for later rounds, but we’ll get onto that.) The tension starts to build as someone places their card next to yours and you begin to exchange suspicious glances about what they might have in store. It’s like lining up a set of dominoes - if the dominoes were all trying to knock over their neighbours and be the only one left standing. And one of them is hiding a knife behind its back.
Once everyone’s added a card to the row, players go along the line and choose whether they want to reveal each of their cards as they’re reached. If they stay hidden, they gain influence tokens - the game’s equivalent of points. Flip the card face-up and you get any influence placed on it in previous rounds, plus the chance to use its special ability. The question of when to cash in your influence and reveal your card to your opponents - inviting immediate attempts to deal with your more troublesome powers - is what makes Oriflamme thrum. It’s part the bluffery and deduction of Coup, part the ruthless take-that of Love Letter, and part the careful programming and timing of Mechs vs. Minions or Robo Rally, without feeling like a pretender to any of those beloved games’ thrones.
Abilities typically come in two forms: gaining more influence based on a certain requirement, such as being the only heir card revealed or having adjacent cards from the same family next to the lord, or sticking one to your fellow players by assassinating one of their cards, stealing influence with a spy, moving cards around with the royal decree and generally being a bit mean. Nobody said taking the throne would leave you with many friends, after all. Depending on the power, cards might stick around or be discarded straight away, lending an ever greater importance to when you choose to flip them - and how long to risk a card staying facedown, gradually gathering more influence and the growing interest of your neighbours’ blades.
Going earlier in the queue means you stand to get one over your opponents by eliminating one of their cards or swiping influence before they have a chance to stop you. Biding your time towards the back of the pack, meanwhile, lets you choose whether revealing your card now is the right choice - or simply dishing out some well-needed recompense to those who’ve wronged you. Sure, that might not be as strategic, but it certainly feels satisfying.
There’s an extra trick up Oriflamme’s blood-splattered sleeves, too. After the first round of cards have been laid, players can place cards to the left or right of the row as usual, or on top of one of their own cards already in the queue. It’s a tiny rule that blows the game’s already enticing strategy open, allowing for players to use earlier cards as a way of holding a valuable place in the line for later plays or overlaying cards to protect the character beneath - at the cost of losing the covered ability and any influence until they’re revealed again.
It’s a game full of small but impressive rules that come together in a wildly entertaining and engaging 20 minutes.
Although Oriflamme gives players enough control over where and when to play cards to avoid things descending into chaos, the sequential and to-the-letter execution of card actions means that there’s plenty of chance for players to be forced into eliminating their own cards with a soldier or archer as cards shift around and are bumped off. As with all of the card abilities, it feels brutal but fair - a deliberate tactical move by an opponent or the result of unfortunate luck - rather than random to the point of frustration.
There’s not much to Oriflamme in terms of rules or components, but co-designers Adrien and Axel Hesling absolutely make this a game that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a game full of small but impressive rules that come together in a wildly entertaining and engaging 20 minutes. There’s the fact that cards remain in place from round to round, making an early reveal of a spy, lord, soldier or archer potentially valuable as they churn influence or knock out cards turn after turn - but risking a quick assassination from another player. There’s the ambush card, a delightful trap that lies in wait, ready to discard an attacker and give its controlling player a handful of precious influence. There’s the risk-reward of the conspiracy card, which doubles any collected influence on its reveal - potentially bringing a windfall if played early on, but needing guts and luck to survive long enough for a devastating crop of points in the closing rounds. And then, and then, and then. Alone, these are interesting touches - combined, they’re a tour de force.
On its face, Oriflamme might look like little more than a medieval contender to Love Letter, the enjoyable and sweetly spiteful - if often overly chaotic - party board game of quick player elimination. Instead, it’s an exceptional game of tense bluffing, perfect timing and merciless power-grabbing, with decisions and moments that feel like they should come in something at least twice this size and three times as long to play. Not to mention that it costs just over a tenner, which is even better.
In fact, the only thing I don’t particularly like about Oriflamme is the fact that the box tray - which opens like a pack of matches - slides out from the bottom of the box, meaning that I keep scattering everything over the floor every time I pick it up to play. As it turns out, that’s all the time.