Pipeline is a heavy, economic Euro about buying crude oil, refining it in your network of pipes and then selling it at a profit. Sounds simple enough. And yet, Pipeline contrives to have one of the steepest learning curves and most brain melting gameplay I’ve ever encountered.
In my first game, I made mistake after mistake and got punished for it. The objective is to make the most money and around 2/3 of the way through, I wasn’t sure if I would even break even by the end.
And yet I loved it! It is one of the most engaging games I’ve played. Doing badly was a bit frustrating, but trying to solve all the interconnected puzzles involved in the game in an attempt to get an effective engine going was thoroughly engrossing.
On your turn, you typically take a single action (it is possible to take more as you get your engine going later). These are relatively straightforward:
- Buy/sell oil
- Buy pipes
- Buy tanks (for storing oil) + pipes
- Buy machines (for automating your pipe network) + pipes
- Refine oil
- Buy upgrades (special abilities)
- Take a contract or a loan
However, there are many nuances that make these actions much trickier to select than you might think. Firstly, there are 3 colours (types) of oil. When you buy/sell oil, you can’t buy/sell anything you like. You can only buy/sell certain colours in certain places. The action that lets you sell blue oil for the highest price might let you buy orange oil, but not grey oil.
Secondly, there are 4 different grades of oil. As you refine it, higher grades can be sold for more, but you have to store different grades of oil in different tanks. You could take a contract to provide high-grade orange oil and medium-grade blue oil, but then you need to plan very carefully to make sure your network of pipes can refine the right colours of oil to the right grade.
How does your network of pipes actually work? This is probably the most AP-prone part of the whole game. You buy pipe tiles from one of around 4 different places (it varies throughout the game). You might want a couple of tiles from one section and one tile from a different section. Often, you’re having to make the best of it with less than ideal tiles because of this restriction.
Every time you buy tiles, you then play a mini game of Pipe Mania (or some such pipe game from the 80s) where you’re attempting to make long connected sections of different coloured pipes. The colours don’t have to match, but you really want them to. The longer the pipe (in each colour), the more you can refine the oil. Each tile can be rotated so there are a tonne of options, but once you’ve placed them, you can’t change them!
The game is tight and potentially quite punishing, which can add to the AP since if you make a mistake, you know it will cost you dearly. The difference between playing it well and struggling through your first game is huge. I ended up with a little over $100 in my first game. In our last, the winner had over $1000! This appeals to me though: with practice, you will improve a lot.
There is a selection of tech upgrades you can buy, but they’re quite expensive and you can get blocked out of them very easily. When you buy one, you prevent anyone else buying the same type of upgrade (there are 5 types) for the rest of that year (the game is split into 3 years). But you also get to block off another type for the rest of the year, just to spite people!
You can find yourself racing to buy the upgrades, racing to buy the pipes (good pipes make a big difference), racing to buy the oil (it becomes more expensive as people buy it). It can be all too easy to spend too much on any one of those things, then you don’t have enough to run your engine and you just stall. It reminds me of Through The Ages in the sense that it’s one massive balancing act. You constantly feel like the success of your game hangs on a knife edge!
There are lovely mechanisms in it though. Player order changes significantly from round to round. Taking certain actions will bump you into first place for the next round, which means if you time it right you can go last in one round then first in the next, getting two turns in a row. Pulling off mini-feats like this at the right time can really help.
The upgrades vary from game to game, as do the available contracts and the selection of endgame scoring tiles. Although it’s “most money wins”, you get extra cash at the end for certain things. It might be having long pipes, or lots of different lengths of pipes, or contracts, or tanks. This variability means your strategy needs to change quite a bit from game to game.
For a heavy Euro, it really does tick all the boxes. I wouldn’t recommend it for the faint-hearted, but if you like a good brain-burner, this one has it in spades. The theme is dry (ironically for a game about oil) and mostly irrelevant (why are there 3 colours of oil?), but if you’re into your heavy Euros, you probably don’t care much about the theme anyway. As economic games go, Pipeline is about as good as it gets, in my opinion.
Have you tried it yet? What do you think? Too punishing? Or does it keep you coming back for more?