Peak Oil: Board gaming at the end of the world

I love a board game that has something to say, but I hate it when a game has too much to say and not enough actual play.  It’s like reading a children’s book that prioritises phonemes over fun times.  Games like Spartacus: Blood and Treachery, Battlestar Galactica, Fog of Love or Pandemic all teach us something about life and human nature at the same time as they entertain and challenge us.  But everyone has seen “roll and move” games that are trying to teach us “Biblical truths” or sexual politics.  I have nothing against teaching either of those things, but when they try to force them on us through the shoddy guise of a badly-designed and derivative game, I’m offended from every direction.

When I spotted Peak Oil at the UK Games Expo 2019, I was immediately attracted by the retro-futurist style of the art and the sparsely economic appearance of the game on the tabletop.  But I was cautious.  I don’t mind admitting to being an environmentalist (I’ve not quite joined the Green Party, but it’s really only a matter of time), but I didn’t want to have climate change arguments foisted on me with cards and dice.

I had no need to fear.

Peak Oil is a parable, not a political argument, and one in which the players take an important role: controlling an oil company as the oil is about to run out, and deciding where and how to invest their company’s vast wealth to make sure the cash cow keeps mooing even when the black stuff is gone.

In other words, you’re all playing the bad guys and no one is going to be punished for their fossil fuel addictions.

Yes, it’s a cynical premise, but bear with me because this game has some slick mechanics that make it a real brain strainer.

A turn is a straightforward, two-step process.  First, you either take an action or you reassign an agent.  Then you re-assign an agent.  Simple, right?

The agents are classic wooden pawns (no plastic in this game, which is a nice touch) in the colour of your company.  You can take actions based on where your pawns are placed on the board.  Having a majority of pawns on an action space gives you an advantage.  So pawn placement isn’t just about serving your own ends, but about interfering with the plans of your opponents at the same time.

There are five basic action spaces, which various allow you to recruit more agents, drill for oil, invest in emerging technology, recruit consultants, interfere in the fossil fuel black market and whitewash your PR problems.

Drilling for oil gives you money but also generates problems along the way, as you’d expect. Investing in technology gives you nothing in the game itself, but is the big contributor to victory at the end of the game. The black market lets you siphon money from oil straight into new tech. But at every turn there’s the risk of bad PR.

Public Relations are a major issue in this game, for obvious reasons and the mechanics to handle it are clever and involve a significant “push your luck” mechanic that lies at the heart of the game.

At the start of the game, you fill a black bag – the oil supply – with a number of barrels depending on the number of players.  Barrels (wooden markers) come in three colours: black, yellow and red.  Black barrels are “safe” and, depending on what you’re doing, either go into circulation as oil revenue or disappear into the black market.  Yellow barrels force you to draw from the “PR problems” decks, but are then removed from the game.  Red barrels do the same as yellow ones but then go back into the bag.  As you’ll have noticed, therefore, the proportion of good to bad barrels starts firmly in the favour of the players and gradually gets worse.

PR problems not only hamper your play with various rules, but also give you negative victory points the end of the game.

Speaking of the end of the game, this is, perhaps, the weakest part of this otherwise extremely slick and intelligent piece of design.  For a start, as the number of black to red barrels shifts to the wrong side of 50/50, players are increasingly unwilling to push their luck and suffer negative victory points, meaning that players will shy away from taking actions if it’s going to force a draw from the bag.  As a result, the end game can become a fairly drawn-out affair as players jockey for position and try to work out if they stand a chance of winning.  The final rounds are triggered when the last black barrel is drawn, so the one to pull it is invariably the person who thought they had the least odds of winning to begin with.

A second issue with the endgame is adding up VPs.  Unlike some similar games – Terraforming Mars, for example – there’s no on-going points tracker, so you really do just have to go from person to person, adding up their score.  This works fine and isn’t too complicated, but it lacks the elegance of the rest of the game.

However, having said that, the game also comes with several rather neat variations.  The core box comes with the “Crude” rules that I’ve not play-tested yet but which do away with some of the more complicated aspects of the game in favour of a shorter play-time experience.  It also comes with a set of optional counters that you can place on the board to change where the various actions can be found.  This is a slick and imaginative idea and can be used if your play group thinks it – or just one member of it – has “cracked” the game’s optimal strategy.

That said, although I think there probably is an optimal strategy, the “push your luck” element means that the game is unlikely to be dominated a single, enlightened player.

Having tried the game with both two players and the maximum five players, I can say that my original impression of the design of the game was justified.  Peak Oil is as slick and professional as its army of consultants.  It tells a chilling parable about wealth and corporate skulduggery without leaving you feeling like you’ve been preached at.  And it balances skill and luck sufficiently that a newcomer to the game is as likely to do well in the endgame as a veteran.

There is also at least one basic expansion, called Spillover, which introduces a range of additional or modified rules to mess with the core mechanics if you really want to switch things up. I think this is one for the most experienced players, as the rules themselves will take four or five goes to really get your head around.

If I were to compare it to anything else on the market at the moment, the obvious comparison is Pandemic, which it resembles in every respect except for the, y’know, cooperative part. Peak Oil has earned a place of honour in my gaming collection and I look forward to seeing it on the tabletop on a regular basis.

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