First, I want to apologize for not taking pictures of the actual games. I usually end up posting some image I “borrowed” from the internet and it’s time I stopped doing that so you can see just how great or terrible my games can go.
Pipeline is a game of economic competition that includes a tile-laying puzzle mini-game. At it’s heart, it is a worker-placement game where players can place their one and only worker on a space on their turn and take the action that the space provides. There are spaces for buying and selling oil (little colored cubes) as well as spaces for buying pipes, tanks, machines (to automate pipelines), upgrades, and for taking loans, contracts, and a few other things. Players can pay for a second action from a pace next to what they first picked, or they can take it for free if they have the appropriate upgrade.
At the end of the game, a players money is their score. Buying low, refining oil, and selling for a high price, is the simplest way to earn a few bucks int the game. But Fulfilling contracts, filling orders, and having a high company valuation, is the way to score the most points. The company valuation, to make things interesting, is based on some randomly drawn valuation cards. The valuation cards are the same for all players and that can make for heated competition – two or more players both trying to get the longest possible orange pipeline might buy and use up all of the available orange pipeline tiles leaving none for the other players.
The game is played in three rounds with the first having eight turns, the second having six turns, and the third round having four turns. Some of the items on the board, like the available oil in the markets and the pipeline tiles that can be bought, get replenished between rounds. This small set of turns, 18 in total, feels like it’s not enough to get anything done. That’s one of the things that makes the game fun to play. I told one of the other players a few nights ago that the game scares me but that “scared” is not the right word for it. he said its “apprehension”, which is really just another work for fear. I don’t actually fear playing the game, I just anticipate the game being stressful.
Instead of describing the various actions a player can take in a game-review format, I’m going to describe the game I played a few nights ago. I don’t remember it all so this isn’t a complete description of the game, just a sort of summary of how it played out and why I won.
Wednesday Game Night
We set up the game for three players. Some of the game has adjustments so there are less contracts and orders available, less pipes to buy from two of the pipe markets, and less places on the board to sell oil. There are “government” pipe markets that provide the cheapest pipes and those are not adjusted for the player count. Scores will generally be higher with less players, in my opinion, since there is less competition for those cheaper tiles. After set up, we had four valuations that would apply at the end of the game; one of them is always used as players get money based on the value of the pipelines connected to machines. More on that later. Next was a valuation for the value of oil in tanks and a valuation for both the value of orange pipelines and orange oil in tanks. This last one essentially means that if you have $20 worth of oil in tanks at the end of the game before the valuation cards are applied, that oil will be worth $60. There’s the original $20 plus $20 more for each of the oil valuations. It was clear that there would be competition for orange barrels of oil and orange pipeline tiles. There was another card that I can’t remember – it was probably another pipeline length or oil barrel bonus.
On my turns, I opted to go for the orange oil since on of the other two players didn’t buy orange pipe tiles. The pipe tiles are not actually orange, they are rectangular and have pipes printed on them in various shapes and in various colors. When a player gets tiles, they are added to a set of tiles in front of that player and they are then fixed in that location for the rest of the game. laying the tiles in the best positions to get the longest pipelines of the various colors using the least number of tiles, is the pipe tile mini-game I mentioned earlier.
The image above shows what might be the pipes in a players pipe network. Since I’m on the subject, I’ll mention that it takes certain lengths of pipeline to refine oil from one grade to another and that the lengths are picked randomly at the beginning of the game. In one game, it might take a blue pipeline 4 pipes to refine a blue barrel from crude to low grade. In another game, it might take 7. 4 and 7 and the limits of the random selections and since the lengths are picked using some small tiles, they can’t all end up requiring 7 pipes for all refining operations. If you look at the image above, you can see grey pipes of length 1, 1, 1, and 3. Orange pipes come in lengths 1, 1, 2, and 3. The blue pipes are in lengths 1, 2, 2, 3, and 7. The tiles are rectangular so you can have a single color of length 2 on a tile as well as the same or other colors of lengths 1 and 1 on that same tile. Play this tile laying game well and you can do well at the overall game. Play it badly and you will spend too much time and money trying to get long enough pipes to refine your oil.
Getting back to the game we played on Wednesday, I opted to get orange pipes for orange oil so I could get a big benefit from the end-game valuations. That strategy of focusing on valuations has been working for me pretty well in the last few games of Pipeline. My first actions were to get a short section of pipeline and some orange crude oil. I took out a loan and got an engineering upgrade that made my pipeline more effective (adding 1 length benefit to it for every 4 real sections) and with all of that, I was upgrading crude to medium grade when I would run my pipeline.
Running pipelines is the only way to refine the oil to higher grades. A player can use their worker-placement action to place the worker on a tile and run all pipelines that run through that tile, or they may build a machine and just pay $15 to run the pipes attached to the machine. Since you cannot run any pipelines manually that are connected to a machine, it’s important to buy and use a machine at the right time in the game. Do it too soon and you might not have enough money on some turns to run it. I timed this well by selling some high grade oil so that I could pay for some tiles of a different color, blue, and then run the machine to refine the blue oil. From that point on, I was able to take an action and run my pipeline with a machine on almost every turn (one time, I just didn’t have any oil to refine). I also had money to buy the HR upgrade (Human Resources) that let me take a second action on my turn without paying extra to do it. After the fifth or sixth turn of the game, or maybe one turn after that, , I was able to do three things per turn instead of the just the one that you get when you start the game.
At this point in the game, my strategy was to increase my orange pipeline lengths to the maximum needed to refine crude oil to high grade in a single step. I also created a second orange pipeline out a different side of my machine so I could refine two barrels at a time. After a few more turns, I had two orange and two blue pipes I could run with a machine. Now I just had to focus on getting a contract. Oh yeah, that valuation I forgot about was one tat paid the value of all fulfilled contracts. That happens just once at the end of the game for any contracts that were not lost during the game. If you can’t fulfill a contract, you lose it and also get a red cube. Red cubes are penalty cubes and each is worth more of a penalty than the one before it. A single red cube costs $20 at the end of the game but two of them costs $50 making it bad to get them. Note that you get one every time you take a loan so the first $15 loan ends up costing $20 to pay back if you have no other red cubes.
I had to do some math near the end of the game because I could fulfill some orders (like contracts but must be filled completely when they are filled) using the orange barrels of oil that would be worth twice their normal value at the end but with one of the blue barrels I had, the whole contract still made me a small profit (a loss for the orange barrels but a big gain from a blue barrels).
My final score after losing money for my red red cubes was $811. It was my highest score ever. I had a great game with some good competition. But with three players, the government tiles didn’t run out as quickly as with four players and it was a little easier to do well. At this point, I’ll describe a few other features of the game that make strategy and tactics hard to implement but very rewarding when they work out…
The places on the board are organized sort of randomly with there being a space for each of the markets (crude and three refined markets) and then another space next to each of those for pipes & machines, pipes & tanks, Contracts & loans, and upgrades. With an upgrade or by paying $10, a player can take two actions that are next to each other. One action is taken then other is taken after paying if needed. The layout is such that you cannot typically take more than one of the higher level actions like “tanks & pipes” in a turn. A player can also place their player token on a government tile area on a specific tile and then buy that tile and all they want that are touching all touching each other orthogonality. Government tiles are cheap but there’s no way to take a second action. There is also nothing else you can buy, like tanks or machines, when using the government pipe market. And finally, the government pipe markets are not all accessible until the last round. The first round allows only two of those markets to used and the players themselves, based on which they select, determine which are available. The only other place to place a worker besides the 8 action spaces and the (up to) 4 government tile markets, is the players pipeline network in order to run their pipeline and refine cubes. The players pipeline, like the government tile markets, don’t allow for a second action.
Upgrades like the HR department, that allows a player the second action without paying the $10 fee, are bought for $20 each and once a player buys one, it is no longer available for the remainder of that round. This is tricky to deal with since the first round is the longest and a player might take a loan early on to deprive others of an important upgrade for a long time. Some upgrades get players free tanks and pipes every round, as well as a tank or pipe or two when the buy the upgrade, or they provide benefits like making a pipeline more effective than it’s length allow. That HR department upgrade is great if a player intends to use a lot of second actions.
The markets for buying and selling oil are interesting. There is a crude market where a player can buy any combination of the three colors of oil based on the price marked under the cubes they intend to buy. Oil gets more expensive as player buys more of it. The crude market is the only market where a player can buy, and even sell, all colors of oil. Selling there doesn’t get a player much money but it can be a useful trick if it’s needed. The other markets each have two colors you can sell for a very high price and then one color that you can buy and sell at about the same price as in the crude market. In other words, if you need to sell a higher grade of a color and then buy some cheaper crude of a different color, you can go to the appropriate refined market. You can never sell refined oil of a color then buy crude of that same color in a refined market so some amount of planning is needed to sell and buy at the right time and with the right colors. You might even have to sell in a market where the price is a few bucks lower in order to be able to buy the other color you need.
That’s most of the game. The only randomness is in the valuations that apply to everyone, the upgrades that are available to everyone, and the what pipe tiles get picked when filling the pipe markets, again that apply to everyone. The game has no randomness that affects one player differently than another. I like the time and resource pressure of the game and the lack of randomness. I like the length of the game where it’s a hard and stressful but it doesn’t go on for too long. In photos, the game looks boring, but it’s not when you play. Each player is focused quite a bit on their own pipe tile network and that is always in flux and never the same. There are just the right amount of cubes, representing the barrels of oil, getting moved around to make a player feel like they are building something and accomplishing something. This would be one of my favorite games if it was just a little less difficult for me.