Monday, June 6, 2011

Omen: A Reign Of War - Flaming Capes, Hot Chicks, And Oceans Of Blood

Everyone who reads my articles knows that I'm not usually a fan of card games, and I'm definitely not a big fan of deckbuilding games. I mean, I'll play them if that's all there is to play or if a die-hard wants to play one with me, but I'm not going out of my way to play them. I like boards that make me feel as if I'm a general plotting the downfall of mankind, and I like little toys that help me visualize tanks rolling over enemy troops, turning them into blood-colored pudding just before firing a high explosive shaped charge into an enemy tank, bursting its magazine and eviscerating the crew with white hot flame.

Cards just don't do that for me, usually, because while I have a seriously twisted imagination, a lack of bits takes away from my enjoyment in many cases. Yet again, Small Box Games' John Clowdus has smashed me in the face with a virtual crowbar of cards and has proven why he's the man. Omen: A Reign of War (Omen) has virtually every possible thing a card gamer could want, right there in the very small box. There's player interaction, grand strategy, cards with multiple purposes, and all of this with a relatively low amount of complexity. Add to this wonderful box of goodness the brilliant art that makes it is easy to imagine my armies of darkness besieging a city, hurling bodies soaked in kerosene over the city walls to demoralize my hated enemy and poison their water supply.

Art, you say? A Small Box Game being lauded for its amazing art? This game is profoundly different than any of the games he's put out not only because the gameplay is stunningly crisp and well-designed, which is normal, but it's because this is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the first games he's produced that doesn't look like it was made from clip art. The art is simply unrivalled by comparison not only to other Small Box Games, but to much of what's on the market today. It's beautiful in every way, and if this is the new standard for Small Box, I'm going to drive to Atlanta to kiss John hard on the lips. It's that good, and for Small Box, it's an indication that Small Box may have started small, but has finally taken its game to the next level and can compete head to head with the FFGs and AEGs of the world in the quality arena.

The concept of Omen is that you play one of two of Zeus' sons, looking to take control of the world, more or less. At your command are legions of oracular hotties, beastly creatures, and brave soldiers, with which you set forth upon the planet to snuff out your weaker brother's meager forces. As is the norm with Small Box Games' offerings, the cards do several things and can be played in different ways to gain different bonuses or powers. Much of what makes Small Box different is this relatively simple concept, but Omen really boils this down to the core and creates a lovely goulash of clever strategic options.

As I noted before, the art is outstanding. It's beautiful in an amazing abstract way, and it really draws the theme out incredibly well. I'd say that this is "dripping theme" but since this phrase is becoming taboo, I'll say instead that it spurts theme out like arterial blood from a recently dismembered leg, hewed off mid-thigh by a Scarred Minotaur's battle axe. When looked at as a total package, I'd put this among some of the best card games I've ever seen, from a quality perspective, and everything about the game is 'just right'.

When you open the really neat little box, you're met with what may be the first Small Box rulebook that's not only in excess of one letter-sized sheet of paper, it's actually incredibly clear, understandable, and is easily the best-written he's ever produced. Then there's over one hundred cards with the best art that he's ever put in his games, which with any luck will be the new standard for Small Box. There's also twenty or so little plastic coins and some stickers to match. While the stickers are completely unneeded, they do spice up the look of the coins a bit, although I'd argue that the placing of circular stickers on circular coins is one of the hardest things ever attempted by man or God. That's it for the components, and I will reiterate that this is the single best-produced game he's ever made as far as components, card art and quality, and really, even the box is kick-ass.

But, good art and bits do not a good game make, as you well know, so let's talk about what makes this bad boy tick, eh? Regarding setup, there's two ways to go about it. There's the standard game that's loaded with randomness, and then there's the drafting game which is far less random, but more strategic. In both versions you deal out six feat cards to each player, which essentially represent the major goals of your campaign, and then you take the reward cards and split them into three stacks of four each, which represent the cities you'll be fighting over, and place them face down in the middle of the table. You then put all the coins in a pile near the center of the table as a bank, and then, finally, based on the standard or drafting version, you get your money and unit cards.

With the standard game, you simply hand out four coins and four unit cards, placing the remaining 76 unit cards in a shared draw pile. In the drafting version, though, you need to make 24 stacks, each containing each unique unit card, and hand out ten coins to begin the drafting. Drafting consists of paying one coin and taking one of the stacks until each player has ten stacks, and then you remove the remaining cards from play. There are some minor limitations on the amount of stack types you can have, but it's all very straightforward and simple. After drafting is complete, simply shuffle the cards from your stacks into a draw deck, and then begin the game as if you were playing the standard version, drawing four cards and taking four coins.

Gameplay consists of playing cards from your hand and placing them on cities and other things in a very strict, ordered manner consisting of six phases, until two of the three cities has been depleted of cards or until either player has completed five of his six feats. Each player will perform all six phases, and then the other player will reciprocate by playing his six phases, with the end coming swiftly in about 30 minutes, give or take.

The first phase is the wealth phase, where you can either take three coins, three cards, or a combination of the two. Additionally, if the player takes no cards, he gets one additional coin. The second phase is the surge phase, where players spend their coins to play their soldier, beast, or oracle unit cards, either by placing them into cities or by using their powers, in the case of beasts, by discarding them. Each unit has a cost associated with it, and this is the price you must pay in coins to activate or place these. Additionally, if you've earned rewards cards, you can play one of them to activate its power. There is a limit of five units per side in any given city, and beasts count as two units, so it's critical to identify where units will be most effective as you lose them after a war occurs, whether you win or lose.

The third phase is the portent phase, which allows you to make use of the oracle cards that you've played into cities in your surge phase. These provide you powers for the turn, and make up a large portion of the strategy of the game. These oracles have widely varied powers, such as gaining coins or additional cards or, potentially causing you some harm. The oracles generally have powers that require you to draw cards from your draw pile and if they're another oracle, and all of this must be taken into consideration when initially drafting so you can stack the deck a bit to get better benefits from them.

The fourth phase, the feat phase, really is just a victory condition check. You simply check to see if you've met any conditions for completing feats, and if you did so, simply turn the completed feat face down to indicate you've accomplished that goal. Feats can be tricky, because in a great many cases you need to have done a specific thing on your turn to accomplish it, such as taking five cards during your earlier phases, so it's crucial to keep mental track of what you did earlier.

The fifth phase is where the bloodletting begins, as it's the war phase. Wars only trigger when the opponent has three units in a city or if a total of five total units are in a city. Again, with beasts counting as two units for this purpose, you may only have three cards on your side if you have two beasts and a soldier or oracle, but it counts as five units. When war occurs, you simply count up the combined strength of both sides and the player with the highest value is the winner, who takes a reward card off of the top of the city as his spoils. Both players must now discard their army from that city, with the winner discarding all but one unit and the loser discarding all but two. In short, the winner is left with an oracle or soldier in the city and the opponent can have any card, be it soldier, oracle, or beast.

The final step in a players turn before handing over the helm to an opponent is the offering phase, which amounts to selling off one of the cards in your hand for its listed offering value, and taking a mixture of cards from the deck and/or coins from the bank in the amount of that value. This is a key way to gain resources to continue the fight as well as a way to get rid of cards you don't view as situationally useful if you have them in your hand.

Regarding war, it's critical to manage your hand carefully to not trigger a war until you're ready to do so. Some oracles allow you to move units from one city to another during the portent phase, and this makes for a deliciously evil surprise attack that can be utterly unexpected by your opponent. Add to this the power of the beasts and it's a complete mixture of death and dismemberment just waiting to slice the carotid of your vile enemy. In short, what makes this game to utterly vicious is the overall complexity of the long-term strategies that you can develop. While the game itself is rather simple on its face, there are a staggering amount of options in the game.

The endgame occurs, as I noted, when two cities have been completely razed with its former inhabitants' heads on poles, or if a player completes five feats. Scoring is, happily, not byzantine as you simply count up your treasures and feats to determine your score. Unused rewards count for two points and used ones count for one, and feats count for two points. Ties are broken by the person with the most feats, and that's all there is to scoring. My average scores have been around 16 points or so, and the most points that anyone can have in a game is 26, I believe, if you take all eight rewards possible and complete five feats.

Why Omen Shocked Me Like A Mystical Thunderbolt To The Scrotum:
- The art is prettier than a Penthouse Pet on top of a Playboy Bunny...well, almost
- Fast, exciting gameplay with lots of "you bastard" moments in every game
- The wide variety of units creates a potential universe of strategic options
- While twice the price of Small Box's usual fare, it's worth every penny

Why The Oracle Observes That All May Not Be As It Could Be:
- The coins were fine without the stickers; I'd have rather saved a couple of bucks off the price
- While learning the game is very simple, to be effective you really need to know the cards' interactions to get the most from the experience

If I was the Most Interesting Man In The World, I might be tempted to say, "I don't always play games, but when I do, I prefer board games." That being said, Small Box Games is one of the few publishers that always seems to buck the system and make compelling card games that I actually want to play more than a couple of times. So far I've played this game six times over the month I've had it, and with three other people. The ease of learning is very high, but to really understand the game you really need to take a gander at the cards to understand what they do.

That being said, once you understand what the individual cards do and how to leverage them against one another, the game becomes a whole new world. If you're a card gamer, this is a total no brainer. It's far better than Race For The Galaxy, which I really like, and it's far better than Thunderstone or Dominion, which I don't particularly like but can tolerate. The only card game I like better than this is Bhazum, another Small Box title, but with the amazing art in this game, it's really a tough call for me. Either way, you're going to definitely want to dive into this one, and I can't see you getting tired of it anytime soon. There's definitely longevity here, and I'd be shocked if an expansion with new units and mechanics doesn't come out in short order, extending the playability even more, or possibly allowing for four-player battles. Short version: One of the best card games I've ever played.

4.75/5 Stars

To take a gander at the game, check this link at the Small Box site:

1 comment:

kalecommando said...

Wonderful review. Kudos! (I ordered the game, and am now eagerly awaiting it to arrive! :)