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Designer Diary: From Olympus With Love – Omen: A Reign of War from First Illustration to Second Edition

John Clowdus
United States
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Microbadge: The North fan
Board Game: Omen: A Reign of War
A few days ago, we launched our first Kickstarter project for the second edition of Omen: A Reign of War. Luckily for us, the game went over pretty well the first go-round – at least that's what the reviewers who've reviewed it and the bulk of the players who've rated it have said – so we're going to do it all again.

Chances are, if you're reading this, you've never heard of Omen: A Reign of War, and there's an even bigger chance that you've never played the game either. If that's the case, I recommend watching this video from Marco Arnaudo, who does a great job explaining the game; if you don't like videos, Toerck gives a thorough overview in this illustrated report.

The reason you may have never heard of this game before is that Small Box Games is a very small company. Now that you've discovered Omen: A Reign of War (and hopefully taken my advice and watched or read one of the overviews linked above), we want even more people to hear about the game – and about Small Box Games in general – so here we are.

And this is the part where I tell you about how this game came to me in a stroke of genius while I scribbled notes watching reruns of Night Court. In fact, it didn't really "come to me" and it wasn't while I was watching Night Court. I haven't seen Bull on the tube in a while, and come to think of it, I don't know if it even airs anymore. Who knows? Anyway, the game came to me the same way most of my ideas do, after long hours in the hot sun cutting grass for our lawn maintenance gig.

While the initial idea and mechanisms and units were there, the idea sat untouched for a few months. We needed solid art as it wasn't a game that we could have swung with our normal simplistic/minimalist style. It was meaty and deep, and with the right art, it had the potential to cater to a decent number of tastes and be something really good.

I stumbled onto Michael Ng by accident and liked his style. It was loose and vivid, and somehow seemed different than some of the other stuff in games. Couldn't put my finger on it, but it just clicked. I figured, what the hell, and attempted to make contact. After a few emails back and forth, some negotiation, and some theme discussion, Michael sent me the image shown at right:

Yep. That's what we needed. By this point, I had finalized everything about the theme and the core mechanisms: ancient Greek mythology, CCG-style game play, various game modes. All that was left was the art. Michael delivered.

I don't take very good designer notes. But it's not just designer notes that I'm not good at, I suck at notes in general. My college notebooks were all filled with scribbles. I'm more of an osmosis guy. Important stuff just seeps in and sticks with me, and when I'm designing, changes get made almost immediately to reflect what needs to be fixed. I guess the same can be said with playtest notes. If something needed to be changed, I rushed and changed it. The funny thing is, there wasn't much that changed with Omen from the notebook to the finished product.

Don't get me wrong – some units received tweaking, and some triggering values were played with, but for the most part, the finished game that's been out for a year is what I had in my notebook, head, and computer for a few months. Utilizing a recurring resource engine and relatively low, consistent in-game values made balancing the game easier than it could have been.

External image
Early card layout with
no separate unit types
Along the way, some stuff got added. Feats came about in the first steps of the first playtest session as an alternate route to points and victory. (They weren't in the game at first, and as we looked at the huge stacks of rewards, they just sort of happened.) Some things got removed. For example, there was an additional unit type that gained bonuses based on the affiliation of your units because originally different units belonged to different gods. That god affiliation ended up getting dropped before the first playtest copy was printed as it was just too much.

Truth be told, designing the Shattered Aegis expansion and offering new units that didn't power creep the existing units out of the picture was more difficult than designing the original units. But through testing and redesign, we ended up with a strong addition to the base game, with new units offering various abilities that filled gaps and opened new design space doors, while still staying on par power-wise with the base units.

Of course, adding more units to the game was only part of what we wanted to accomplish with the expansion. Omen has always been about being a set of mechanisms and cards with multiple ways to play, so we started working on variants.

Board Game: Omen: A Reign of War – Shattered Aegis
The four-player variant was the obvious first choice for expanding the game play. After all, expanding the player load for Omen was something we wanted to do, and something we were asked for. Feedback was positive for the draft rules for Omen, something we honestly thought would end up appealing mostly to the hardest core of CCG exiles, but ended up being the top choice play mode for most players. With the extra units, making a four-player Swiss tournament style play variant was pretty obvious and hit that four-player requirement, so that was the first multiplayer variant we added.

But then we just kept on adding more...

One of the recurring comments we read was that players felt the start player received too much of a bonus, so we developed a new variant for determining the start player. In the "Emissary of War" variant, players have a choice to make based on their initial hands as to whether they want to go first or second, which not only solved the issue of deciding who would go first, but did so in a thematic way that added an additional level of depth to the game.

Jump forward a half-dozen of months, and Omen is out, the expansion is out, and reviews and ratings are solid. We're happy, but there are things we couldn't do with the game in short print runs, and we have more units to release. People want the game, so we started looking at doing a second edition that would combine the base game and the expansion into a single game, while also adding more content and better presentation. This is a daunting feat for a small publisher: competing against dozens of games each month from bigger publishers. Kickstarter made sense. Without Kickstarter (and we're still a ways away from our goal) this wouldn't have been possible.

External image
Justin's Omen art
We're standing at that juncture, plugging numbers and seeing whether we can pull this thing off, and we need more art. There's a problem: Michael is taking a break from painting, so he wasn't on board with doing more art for the game. One of the things that came up in most of the reviews and a lot of the rating comments was how good the art was. Would we be able to find an artist to do what Michael had done?

A few months back, we connected with Justin Hernandez. He's another fantastic illustrator who did Hemloch for us and did a bang-up job. (Incidentally, his wife is a talented illustrator as well; you should check their stuff out.) Luckily for us, Justin was willing to work on Omen, and we couldn't be happier with the work he's produced for us so far for this project.

So we've got the art, we've got the second edition, and we've got Kickstarter. We also have an existing fan base to cater to while trying to offer a new, expanded and upgraded product to a new customer base. We just had to figure out what to do about promos. We wanted to give people a reward for supporting the project (aside from them getting a new, upgraded version of the game), but we didn't want customers who found out about the game later pulling their hair out to get stuff they *needed* to have.

So we came up with a way to reward Kickstarter supporters while not totally alienating gamers who would eventually get on board: alternate art cards, alternate components, and a new, unreleased expansion. The alternate art reward cards and alternate coins are a bit of exclusive bling, but don't affect the game play at all (aside from making the game prettier). The new expansion is a hard copy of a new variant, a new unit type, and new rules that later customers can download, if they so choose. So hopefully, all issues solved: Kickstarter promo items for supporters and non-alienated feeling future customers. Beautiful.

Speaking of Kickstarter, we're pretty optimistic. It's been a neat experience so far and totally different from anything we've done before. Without it, we wouldn't be able to do this. Things are going great, but we still need a lot more support to make this thing a reality (and not to mention unlocking the overfunding bonuses). We had one guy ask us whether this would be available post-Kickstarter. The easy answer is yes. The hard answer is yes, but only if it funds.

Omen: A Reign of War has been a great game for us. The majority of customers and reviewers have enjoyed it, and we hope that we can continue producing the game for a wider audience in 2012. As a publisher, it's been really rewarding to watch the game's fan base grow and to have an active forum here on the Geek discussing stuff about the game. In the years that we've been in business making games, we've never had anything like this before. It's almost like Omen is our first game in a way. It's been a fun game to design and produce and has allowed us to really extend our presence as a small game company.

John Clowdus
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