Peak Oil places you into the shiny, pointed shoes of someone running an oil empire where you must deal with investing in new technology, drilling for oil and then selling that oil before the world has run out of its favorite fossil fuel and will presumably be turning into a post-apocalyptic scenario quite soon, possibly with some guy called Max blasting around. This all takes the form of a worker-placement game where you have to fight for control of a few different locations across the board while fending off the other players.
To kick off everyone gets given their very own cardboard HQ sheet as well as a private portfolio which represents the companies that you’ve already quietly invested in. These will count toward scoring at the end of the game and are kept secret from everyone else, which is why it’s so delightful to watch as your opponent’s sink cash into companies that will give you some extra points later. You also get two starting workers, a few barrels of oil which represent a tremendous amount of cash and, of course, a burning desire to make even more money at the cost of the environment.
The world’s oil supply gets represented by a bunch of black barrels, along with red and yellow ones which we’ll come back to later, being put into a bag. The exact amounts are determined by how many players are sitting at the table.
On your turn the first thing you have to decide is whether to move a worker from one action spot to another, or take an action. However, here’s the catch; if you have the majority of workers at a location then you can do both of the things associated with that space but if you’re in the minority then you can only take one. The areas at the top of the board represent various locations across the world such as Russia only have a single action each, though, so only someone who has more workers than anyone else at that location can send out oil to the refineries. Once you’ve decided whether to take an action or shift a worker across the board you then get to move a second worker, and even a third if you’re willing to pay a barrel of oil for the privilege.
This forms the real strategic meat of the game as you’re constantly weighing up what you want to do against stopping other players enacting their own plans. At the start you’ll just have two workers to play with, but you can get up to two more by recruiting them in order to spread your influence wider and open up more options. However, since you can only take an action before moving anyone around you always need to be thinking ahead while also watching what everyone else is doing so that you can take the actions you need to. Do you risk sending a worker or two away from the space you really want in order to spoil someone else’s plan? How many workers should you shift somewhere to maintain a majority for the next turn? If there’s a country that has a lot of oil sitting in it, should you try to shift your whole workforce there in order to ship it out before anyone else can?
Let’s delve properly into the various actions you can take on a turn. The first spot in the bottom row of actions is Expand, and by visiting here you can increase your available workers by one, recruiting a new pawn and placing in at your HQ for future use. The secondary action available here is to Dispatch all your workers currently on the action spot to another location and immediately activating it. This means that provided you are in the majority you can recruit a new agent and then potentially take another two actions all in the same turn.
Investing in new technology is your ultimate goal in the game since it provides the big points, and you can do this by heading to the Invest space and putting a barrel of oil on any of the technology spaces on the right of the board, simultaneously increasing the price of that technology when purchasing Start-Up cards and bumping up the amount of points those cards will be worth at the end of the game. Speaking of cards, this spot also lets you take the Start-Up action which you do by selecting one of three face-up Start-Up cards which represent the various technologies and paying an amount of barrels of oil equal to the barrels sitting on the corresponding technology slot. At the end of the game each card will be worth points equal to the amount of barrels on these technology spaces, so it pays to buy Start-Up cards early and then invest in the appropriate technology as the game goes on, but of course you also have to keep an eye on what everyone else is doing or risk handing other players a bunch of free points.
Drilling for oil is how you discover the liquid black resource you so desperately want, so to do this you visit the Develop spot. When you drill for oil you select one of the three region cards sitting on the table and then place the amount of oil barrels shown on the appropriate location at the top of the board. But then you also get the chance to push your luck a little because almost every card has bonus barrels shown on the bottom right, meaning you can draw up to that many barrels randomly from the bag. That’s potentially dangerous, though, because this might result in you drawing a yellow barrel which means having to take a PR Crisis card that will be worth negative points at the end of the game and that also has other nasty effects. If you already have a level 1 crisis you need to take the next level, and if you’ve already got that you’ll need to go up to the horrible level 3 crisis’. Drawing a red barrel works exactly the same, except that unlike yellow barrels red ones are placed back in the bag.
Luckily the Develop action spot also lets you take the Whitewash action where you can pay a few barrels of oil to have any awkward PR Crisis cards quietly swept under the rug. Personally I imagine this as basically bribing the major media outlets to stop covering the issue.
Once a region has some oil you need to head there with a few workers in order to ship it to refineries and make yourself a splash of black cash. These refineries are connected to the locations via travel routes, and these travel routes will have randomly selected chips displaying a few different things that can force you to draw barrels from the bag, thus potentially running into some horrible PR crises, or you might just have a few barrels nicked by pesky pirates who will send them to the Black Market. You get to keep all the barrels that make it to the refinery, though, adding them to your HQ in order to be spent down the line. You can, however, pick up Security Tokens from certain Region cards that let you flip over chips to the other side, thus potentially making things easier, or even swap chips in order to help yourself out and hinder someone else.
When you draw barrels from the bag, excluding when you pull out ones in order to supply a location with oil, the first black barrel you draw gets sent to the Black Market, which are spaces beside the various technologies on the right-hand side of the board. Only a single barrel can be put next to each technology, and when those spaces are filled all the barrels get shifted over to the technology.
When you visit the Grey Ops action space you can also place a barrel from your HQ on an empty Black Market space, and then move all the barrels from the Black Market to their corresponding technologies. This Grey Ops space also lets you hire a consultant from the available ones, and these can give you a few extra abilities as well as earning a couple of extra victory points.
As you come to the closing stages of the game the titular Peak Oil phase is triggered once all of the black barrels have been taken from the bag, representing how the world has finally run out of liqid dinosaur remains. Once this final phase has been activated everyone gets a chance to move one worker, and then going through all the action spots in order each player with the majority gets to take one of the available actions first before removing their workers. Thereafter everyone else gets to take one action on a space provided they have at least a single worker there. Then its game over and time to tally up the points.
It’s actually the closing stages of the game that found to be the most troublesome. As players judged the oil to be running out they became increasingly unwilling to do anything that would force them to take barrels from the bag as it would most likely result in PR crises instead. This slowed the pace down a bit as everyone stopped trying to ship as much oil and instead would just drill, that way they could guarantee removing some more black barrels from the bag, plus drilling cards often have icons which help with end-game scoring. Maybe it was just me and my friends playing the final rounds of the game wrong, but it felt like a problem. The only time it was less of an issue is when one player had a clear advantage and could therefore afford to take more risks.
Everything else, though, is really rather excellent. I’ve got a soft-spot for worker-placement games, anyway, but this one does exceptionally well by having a relatively simple and easy to learn set of mechanics that deliver a lot of strategic depth. I love how you have to really plan ahead to ensure you have workers on the action spots that you need. It creates a lot more interaction between players, too, who all have to be aware of what everyone else is doing or else risk being unable to maximize their turns.
I’ve also got to commend the production values and general look of the game. The little wooden barrels are a nice touch, the cards are made of good stock, the workers are nice and chunky. It just feels nice to play with, and the blue, stylized art style gives it a distinct look all of its own.
Thus far Peak Oil seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the gaming world and that’s a shame because there’s a really great board game here that strikes a nice balance between depth and ease of learning. I really enjoyed planning out my moves, judging when to drill for more oil, shipping it, and investing in technology, all while keeping an eye on everyone else. Worker placement games can often feel like you’re playing by yourself, only occasionally interacting with the other players, but Peak Oil really keeps everyone engaged with each other, though admittedly with only two players that effect is considerably decreased. Still, I’m giving this one a solid recommendation.