Time: ~50 minutes
Times Played: 8
I kickstarted Peak Oil and it was my first trip into the unknown Kickstarting world. Prior to that, I had only backed Zombicide: Black Plague. Black Plague was a game that I knew I’d be interested in as we were (and still are) heavily invested in the Zombicide line-up. Peak Oil however was something completely different. I had played worker placement games and economic games, but I had never backed a game that wasn’t already established. I was nervous but excited.
Before we delve too much further into this review, it’s important to understand what the term ‘peak oil’ means as it sets the stage for the entire the of the board game. “Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of crude oil extraction is reached, after which the rate of extraction is expected to begin to decline… forever.” Peak Oil, the game, is centralized around this theme that oil is about to run out and your company is trying to siphon off every last bit of black gold that you can from the globe while also investing in new technologies to ensure that your energy empire stays on top. You will do that through any means necessary.
I love the theme and the artwork. Those two aspects, combined with the term “worker placement” all but ensured that I clicked the pledge button on Kickstarter. While there are other games that deal with oil drilling, such as Crude and Black Gold, it’s not a niche that has been over-saturated like mid-century agriculture. I also enjoy that the theme is a mixture of reality and parody without becoming too bogged down in trying to appease either category. The social satire is there without being overwhelming and shoving an agenda down your throat. The art of Heiko Günther is some of my favorite that I’ve seen in a board game. Whereas art is subjective, I routinely see Heiko’s art praised in relation to the games that he has worked on. It’s unique and economical. Nothing is wasted and nothing is more than it needs to be.
The components, mainly the crude barrels of oil, help keep the theme alive and will also awaken the slumber of some euro players as it provides the cube (barrel) manipulation that they have come to rely on. However, it does have a high level of player interaction as players can deliberately block worker placement spaces from their opponents and there is randomness from the PR cards that are drawn and from the barrels being drawn from the bag. While this has some euro tendencies, it will also have features that frustrate euro players. The game also has a heavy dose of risk mitigation sprinkled about, namely due to the start-up companies and a players investment in them. Peak Oil utilizes Agents (and sometimes Mercenaries) as the workers to be placed. Majority rules and the actions those Agents can take range from developing oil fields to manipulating the public’s opinion.
The game itself plays relatively fast. There’s a decent amount of strategy and decision-making to be made but the game isn’t overly heavy, so you can knock out a game in under an hour but feel like you’ve been playing a lot longer (which is a good thing). I like to think that Peak Oil is to Viticulture in comparative difficulty as Stone Age is to Lords of Waterdeep, a lighter game in the same genre that packs a surprising amount (but not overwhelming levels) of depth for the time frame and components. The worker placement spots and theme fit one another like a glove and create an immersion for the players that helps teach everyone how to play Peak Oil and more importantly, implant the idea that they want to play again.
So what is it that you do in Peak Oil?
The game begins with a pouch of barrels that are black, red, and yellow. This is the word’s oil supply and will vary depending on the amount of players. Black barrels are traditional oil, yellow barrels require players to take a PR Crisis card, and red barrels do the same as yellow except red barrels go back in the bag. Players begin the game with two workers (also known as Agents). Over the course of the game, players do have the ability to recruit more workers.
On a players turn, they will do one of two things: move a worker from one location on the board to another or take the action of a location on the board. What separates Peak Oil from other worker placement games is that all locations are open to all players and it’s the majority that impacts what actions can be taken at each location. Having the majority in a location ensures that a player can perform both actions whereas having the minority means you can only complete one action. There are a few locations on the board that only have one action and in that case, only the majority can take the action there.
Once a player has decided on moving a worker or taking an action, they are then allowed to move a second worker. If they want, they can even move a third worker if they pay the price of a barrel of oil.
The actions available to players (from left to right) are Expand, Develop, Invest, and Grey Ops. Each action location has a majority action and a minority action and if you are the majority, you can perform both.
Expand allows players to Recruit an additional worker as the majority action. This worker starts the round in that players HQ. The secondary action of Expand is Dispatch, where you can move all your workers on the action location to another location on the board which immediately activates it.
This was probably one of our least used spaces as once you have your workers, majority isn’t too important. Dispatch is a nice secondary ability but with careful planning, you don’t have to waste workers to do the action.
Develop has a majority action entitled Drill. Drilling allows the majority player to collect one of the three region cards to the side of the board. In doing so, the player places the amount of barrels on the card towards the top of the board. These cards also allow players to draw random barrels from the pouch which could be bad. The minority action is Whitewash, which allows you to pay one, two, or three barrels to discard one of their face-up PR Crisis cards. The cost equals the level of the Crisis.
I love the push your luck aspect of drawing barrels from the bag (I’m a sucker for games with pouches) and I think the PR Crisis cards are incredibly thematic and add an appropriate level of stress for a player as no one wants negative points. They create consequences for your actions and stop players from just running away with the game.
Invest has Start-Ups as the majority action. The majority player will pay the price in barrels and take the start-up card they want. The minority action is Technologies, which allows the player(s) to place one barrel of oil from their HQ onto the technology space on the right side of the board. Placing these barrels does one of two things: it increases the base cost of purchasing those start-ups for the rest of the game and makes them more valuable at the end of the game.
Investing is one of the more pivotal locations on the board. It has a very Acquire-esque feel as players need to be aware of what other players are doing as well as ensuring that they are increasing the price of their technology so other players cannot live off their hardwork. But they can’t go here without the proper amount of oil so it’s a balanced location that players need to get to but have to plan for.
Grey Ops has players managing the Black Market, which allows the majority player to move all barrels from the Black Market to Technologies (thus making them more valuable but more costly). The minority action is to hire a Consultant, which offers some rule bending abilities for the player.
Grey Ops costs a barrel to even attempt so the risk/reward factor here is something unique to each player and will vary from game to game. I liked that. If it was free, there would be no reason not to go here as influencing technologies can have a massive impact on end-of-game scoring. The Consultants are a nice addition to add some unique abilities to players and while I doubt I got to use all of them, I never felt any one was more overpowered than another.
The last action a player can take is Shipping. This action is not on the bottom row like the others but instead occurs on a physical location on the board and has players moving the oil from a fixed area to a refinery. This is accomplished via the travel routes on the board and the various chips on the board will dictate what happens to that oil (Black Market, PR Crisis, etc.). The chips are double-sided and a player can use a Security Token to flip the chip with the hopes of mitigating any disaster. Any oil that successfully makes it to the refinery is the players to keep and can be spent later.
Shipping is the key way for players to increase their funds and the chips on the board provide a risk/reward aspect that makes the decision to ship a little more complicated than ‘there’s a lot of barrels there; I should ship them before anyone else does.’ I also really enjoy the mitigation that is possible by being able to flip the tokens to make them a little less awful.
The game comes to a close when all the black barrels have been removed from the bag, which indicates that the world’s oil reserves have gone the way of the dinosaurs that they originally came from: extinct.
When that final barrel is pulled from the bag, each player has the opportunity to move one worker and then each action spot is activated on the board with the majority in each location performing the action before removing their workers. Once all workers have been removed from the board, points are tallied and the player with the most wins.
Peak Oil is all about thinking ahead and planning for what’s to come. A player either needs to do what’s best for themselves or what best derails their opponents plans. It’s a fascinating conundrum as players have to decide what route to take and what, if any, repercussions could occur. It’s a game that makes sense as you read the rules and play your first game but really clicks the second time you’re able to run through it.
Peak Oil plays three- to five-players but the sweet spot is three. At two-players, the game doesn’t have enough interaction between players and one player can run away with it if their draws are better and they’re able to capitalize on shipping. The game does what it can to scale everything to two-players but it feels more like a solo endeavor with someone playing at the same time as opposed to a duel. Five-players is just too many and drags the game out as it takes forever to get your oil machine running due to everyone taking spots on the board. It’s a fun experience the first time just to see the how the game handles five-players but once you’re done, you’ll be glad it’s over. Four-players works fundamentally but the again the issue occurs that the game runs too long for how light it is. The equal number of players also can cause a lot of headache with players vying for the majority and as there’s only one way to go about what you want to do, it becomes a muddled and contested mess quickly. Three-players however, is where the game works best. The game will run a little less than an hour and while the possibility of kingmaking exists, the likelihood of negative aspects impacting players keeps anyone from running out ahead of other players and thus keeps players from trying to support others bids for winning. The majority needed to do most actions also means that players can’t team up to assist one another. In our three-player games, scores were all relatively close whereas the other player counts resulted in a larger discrepancy between players.
I liked Peak Oil and I’m glad I backed it and was able to get it to the table, but it’s not a game I see getting back to the table (partly due to trading it). It has so many mechanics that I’m partial to: worker placement, player interaction, market manipulation, etc. but the game was too light for me and I did not enjoy the end game. In most games, you can foresee the end of game trigger occurring and while I have no problem with that, I felt like Peak Oil telegraphed it from a mile away. It was almost too easy to not only be aware of ending the game but also to tactically avoid trigger the phase if a player wanted to. The last round also differed in the way the game was played, which was weird to me and resulted in players having to be reminded constantly that things are about to change when the bag started to get low on barrels. It wasn’t a massive fundamental change but just enough small caveats that built up, especially if you weren’t playing the game a lot.
Players also did not want to be the one to force the game to end and they also knew that when the bag got low, they were either ending the game or taking a PR Crisis (which they probably couldn’t mitigate as the game was going to end soon). This final phase(s) of the game could add an easy twenty minutes to gameplay as players completely avoided areas on the board that would result in the drawing of barrels.
I also felt like the PR Crisis, while an important aspect of the game, never felt as dire as they’re portrayed to be. If you had bad luck and drew multiple in a row, then they truly felt like a crisis but only picking one or so up every few times you drew from the bag never felt punishing.
For whatever reason, the game just never clicked for me and my group and I felt like every time we played, it felt like we were all playing for our first or second time. In the past, if there was a game I didn’t like or agree with, I had no problem pointing out the issues I had with it (Dice City, Raptor, CV, Terraforming Mars) but Peak Oil didn’t really have that one mechanic or action that made me turn against it. It just fell flat. I wish I liked it more but every time I think of something the game did well, I think of another game that did what it did better. Interactive worker placement locations? Viticulture and The Manhattan Projects. Press your luck mechanics? Tobago and Formula D. Economic simulation games? Acquire and Chinatown. Environmental theme? Dominant Species and Terraforming Mars. Political genre? Imperial or 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis. Peak Oil felt like the jack-of-several trades but not overly extraordinary at one.
I also wish that there would have been more English resources available for the game. While the rules weren’t necessarily complex, I can’t think of many games that don’t have an accompanied rules/playthrough video. Not only would this help with players learning the game, it would also boost the visibility of the game and help players learn if this is in fact something they would want to play. I will give kudos to the rulebook though for the organization and thematic flair that consisted about as you read each page. I can’t think of any major rules that we flubbed or any inconsistencies (besides the end game) that we messed up.
I haven’t seen Peak Oil available for retail in any of my local gaming stores but that doesn’t mean it’s completely unavailable to purchase. I’ve found a few copies on BGG and the 2 Tomatoes website has copies available for pre-order.