One Sentence Synopsis: If you’ve ever wondered what a traffic-jam at sea during ancient times might have looked like, consider your curiosity fulfilled.
It’s ancient times, and Ophir is a region of great prosperity and wealth. Shipments of gold, silver, ivory, sandalwood, and all sorts of exotic animals depart its ports daily, finding their way into even the farthest reaches of King Solomon’s domain. The powers-that-be have decreed the erection of a great temple to cement Ophir’s legacy of opulence in indomitable stone and brick, and as one of 2-4 merchants you are tasked with fulfilling the construction’s need for gold and silver. You’ll ply the seas with your fellow merchants, acquiring resources and taking advantage of fleeting trade opportunities to gain coin and favor in order to advance your reputation and purchase the precious metals required for the temple. The waterways are thick with ships, however, and only the most influential of merchants are given the right-of-way to conduct their affairs. Should you overcome your fellow traders and contribute the most valuable cargo to the temple by the time it’s completed, your name will undoubtedly stand alone as the greatest merchant in the annals of Ophir.
Normally playable in under an hour-and-a-half with a full four players, Ophir is a lighter-weight economics game that is easily learned and taught thanks to its detailed, well-organized rulebook, and straightforward underlying mechanics. The board is randomized in various ways at the beginning of the game to provide for a different experience each time: the locations of the marketplace, temple, and five resource areas(stone, wood, gems, textiles, and gold/silver) are randomly placed, three market modifiers of -1,0,+1 are applied to spaces in the marketplace, and a representative of the temple takes over one of the three market stalls for the duration of the game. Additionally, after players each choose one merchant apiece through card drafting, but before the resource locations are revealed, the starting player places two barriers on the map between hexes of his/her choosing. These barriers serve to restrict player movement on an already-tight map, and add an extra layer of strategy to the game’s already-thoughtful movement process.
Players all start with a ship capable of carrying two cargo-holds worth of resources, a 6-sided dice that is displayed on their ship to indicate their current influence level, and a certain amount of “favor” as indicated on their merchant card. The merchant cards themselves possess unique abilities that will generally inform players’ overall strategies for the game. For example, the Navigator lets the player travel freely over barriers, and the Moneychanger lets the player complete a trade while in the temple. Favor is used for three purposes: aiding the player during movement to either stay where they are(anchor), which is not normally allowed, to bypass other players’ ships without having to make an influence check, or to purchase silver or gold at a flat rate of 3/5 favor per bar, respectively.
Turns are taken in order, and consist of players moving two spaces and then taking an action, which is usually to acquire one resource of the location’s type. If a player is already full on resources, they might consider a trip to the marketplace where three face-up commodity cards indicate the exchange value in coins for different combinations of goods. The right-most card is cycled out of the commodity chain after each transaction, so players must be expeditious in timing their visits lest the exchange they were hoping to make gets shifted down to the stall assigned the “-1” modifier, or worse yet, gets displaced off the board completely. Players are always able to see the top card of the commodity deck to aid in their planning, and the possibility of more lucrative exchanges increases as the game goes on thanks to a “B” deck of commodity cards that is randomized and placed underneath the initial “A” deck of more basic transactions. Additionally, players may choose to exchange their goods for favor and victory points equal to the top number indicated on whichever commodity card is currently housed in the temple representative’s stall. Although money is usually king, ignoring favor and this extra route for VP is an oversight players should not easily make.
Once players have amassed enough coin or favor to acquire a gold or silver bar, it’s time to start thinking about hitting up the temple. The temple itself is built in 3D layers, slowly rising above the game board as each tier is completed. Each layer takes three bars of either gold or silver to complete, with the prices for the bars increasing as each level is finished. Points gained stay the same regardless of the metal’s pricing, however, with gold giving ten Victory Points and silver giving five; players must therefore balance gaining early Victory Points for less total coin, with gaining money to develop their cargo capacity for later rounds which is purchased at the temple for two coins per additional hold.
Movement is tricky regardless of the destination since players aren’t allowed to pass through barriers, and can’t sail through spaces containing another merchant’s ship without making an influence check. To do so they roll their influence die and compare it to the value displayed on their opponent’s dice; if it’s equal to or more they may successfully enter the space, but if it’s less then one of their movements for the turn is used up, and the opponent’s influence dice is decreased by one. Thoughtful use of positioning can impede others’ plans and disrupt carefully laid strategies, and is a great technique against players who don’t have enough favor to spend on bypassing influence checks.
The player with the most Victory Points after the final temple tier is constructed is the winner.
Ophir is on the lighter end of the spectrum for Euro-style economic games. There’s good strategy in balancing early points gains with putting oneself into a good position for later rounds, and substantive options to consider each turn as-far-as movement is concerned. While I wouldn’t necessarily call the game thematic, most of the game’s mechanics are integrated well with the theme which is beautifully conveyed by Naomi Robinson’s deeply vibrant board and box art.
Long-term planning is central to Ophir’s gameplay experience, so players should prepare themselves for a lot of mental calculation throughout the game. It generally takes a few turns for players to move and gather the necessary resources needed to fill an order and return to the market, and other players are working towards the same orders so there’s a great deal of jockeying for position. The cycling mechanic for the market means it’s quite possible a trade deal will have moved into a less-appealing position on the track by the time a player makes it back to market, or perhaps even have gotten shifted off the track entirely, so it’s essential players take into account what other merchants are doing each turn to try and deduce their plans and stay one step ahead. Players can manipulate the movement and cycling mechanics in their favor as well, denying other players more lucrative trade opportunities, or even arriving in the market late in order to take advantage of the trade modifier tokens which may offer greater rewards for a card after it has cycled down a couple of positions.
Although I personally find the planning aspect of the game stimulating, there are some drawbacks. The game can run longer than its 60 minute advertised playtime if you’ve got a number of inexperienced players, or players who do not plan efficiently since building the temple can slow to a crawl under those conditions. It’s also possible for one person to gain a nearly unbeatable lead by excelling early when gold/silver are cheap if other players aren’t on the ball, and while I’ve never seen it happen to the point of a total blowout the possibility is something to keep in mind. In other words, there’s a lot of player agency in Ophir, and your end scores are absolutely reflective of your performance for better or for worse; the game is rather unforgiving of slow starts.
The only really random element of the in-game mechanics are the influence dice, which are set randomly at the start of the game and get re-rolled each time a player tries to enter a space containing another ship. The system is simple and doesn’t bog play down at all which is nice, but it doesn’t fit well thematically since influence ends up changing willy-nilly each time you need to roll. The inclusion of an influence mechanic is integral to making the game’s movement more strategic and giving players an additional element they have to consider when planning their routes and interacting with other players, but I found the implementation left something to be desired.
The other randomized elements in Ophir are meant to enhance the game’s replayability, and I think they do an excellent job of giving each playthrough a different feel. The use of “A” and “B” trade cards to build the market deck makes for a smooth upward tack for rewards and trade difficulty during the game while still allowing for randomized decks, and the market modifiers mean the ideal time to arrive at the market after an order is revealed is usually different from game-to-game. In some games it may prove more beneficial to visit the market as soon as possible once a card is flipped, and in others the player may want to bide their time and risk the card getting cycled out in order to visit the market when the desired card is in the final position. The same is true of the temple’s representative, who changes which space is actually worth favor and Victory Points each game. Finally, locations of resources, the market, and the temple are also randomized during each setup; combined with the placement of two barriers which are usually impassable, those elements provide for some great changes in Ophir’s strategic dynamics.
Further contributing to Ophir’s replayability are the various character cards players choose from at the start of play. Each character’s ability feels completely unique compared to the others, and most are substantial enough that they’ll actually influence each player’s overall strategic thrust. There are, however, some that seem more useful than others. The aforementioned Moneychanger, for example, gives the controlling player the significant advantage of being able to complete trades at the temple, which is generally occupied less than the market. Although the Temple Guard’s ability lets the player increase their influence dice rolls by one, I’d much rather get the Moneychanger. That’s a point of personal preference though, and each of the characters’ abilities is powerful in its own way.
I’ve found Ophir fun with any number of players, though the 2-player variant changes the game’s flavor a bit. A “rival” ship is placed on the map to maintain the crowded feeling of the 3-4 game, and gets moved by players if they’re able to beat the ship in an influence check. The active player can move the ship either one or two spaces, cycling out a market card to simulate a trade if the rival ship ends in the marketplace. The ship essentially acts as an additional confrontational tool for players to use against one another, or to manipulate the market into a more opportune position. Although it works, I personally prefer the expanded deduction elements that come with having more players to the strategy added through the rival ship.
The last thing I’d like to touch on are the components. Ophir’s production value is extremely high, and Terra Nova Games has done a great job of providing a quality product. The box is strudy, as are the board, player boards, and temple pieces. I’m also glad the decision was made to represent the temple in 3D; there’s something satisfying about seeing the temple actually rise off the board as each successive layer is added, and it’s not something I’ve seen done before. Each of the wooden resource tokens are shaped nicely in sizes that are exactly right for the cargo areas they need to fill, and all are colored in the same vibrancy as the rest of the game’s components. The ship and building locations tokens are likewise shaped well. Included baggies help organize all the pieces.
COG Takeaway: Ophir is an entertaining, light economics game for 2-4 players that includes multiple elements of very thoughtful long-term planning, and promotes good engagement and points of both direct and indirect interaction between players. The set collection and movement aspects of the game create a good deal of tension as players compete for space and try to optimally time their movements to achieve their own goals while thwarting the carefully-laid plans of others. Player agency is front-and center, and while some people may be put off by the fact that the game is not very forgiving of an early poor performance, I personally enjoy the challenge of deducing others’ future actions and trying to stay one step ahead. I’m not really sold on the influence dice, but the rest of the mechanics feel extremely tight and are integrated well with the maritime theme. It’s a title I’d highly recommend if you’re looking for a light strategy game, and Terra Nova Games has really solidified itself as one of my favorite up-and-coming publishers.