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Subject: Omen: Reign of War...the Good, the Bad and the Ugly rss

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Chad Ellis
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Every year at BGG.CON, Andrew Gross and I make the other one play a new game or two we think the other will really like. This year Andrew forced me to play Omen. I just noticed that Omen's designer/publisher was launching a Kickstarter project for a second edition and thought, "This would be a good time to write that review."

I'm going to stick to my normal Good/Bad/Ugly format, but after my last review I want to remind viewers that "ugly" shouldn't be taken literally. There wasn't a cool movie done called, "The Good, the Bad and the Category of Things that are Neither Clearly Good nor Clearly Bad" and for me, "The Ugly" includes some things that are potentially problematic but also significant factors that will be polarizing or negative for some but not for everyone.

Overview

Omen is a card game in which two players (each demigods) battle over three cities of ancient Greece, using soldiers, mythological beasts and mystic oracles as their agents. On your turn you spend gold to play cards from your hand (either to a city or discarding a beast for its ability), resolve battles, accomplish feats and do other cool things.

Each card has three stats -- a gold cost to play, a fighting cost that will determine who wins city battles and an offering value that reflects how many cards you draw if you sacrifice it during the offering stage.

Soldiers generally have medium fight stats and each has an ability that triggers when they are played into a city. These abilities also trigger when a soldier is moved from one city to another; one of the most powerful ways to use soldiers is by reusing a powerful effect through cards that move a soldier into or out of a city.

As an example, Seaside Guardian costs 4 to play but has a powerful effect, stealing two gold from your opponent. This makes it virtually free -- you and your opponent are each down two gold but you have a 3-power soldier. Grizzled Veteran, however, costs only one to play and its effect moves a soldier from that city to another city. If you have both you get to drain me for 2 gold twice, with the net result that I'm down four gold and you're only down one...and now you have two soldiers in play.

Beasts are very effective in combat, both because they have high combat stats and because beasts count as two units for determining whether a fight takes place. A beast's ability, however, only triggers when you play it to the discard pile rather than to a city. So, if you have a Scarred Minotaur you can either add six fighting to a city or you can have me discard my hand.

Oracles are weak in combat and have no triggered abilities, but each turn there is a portent phase in which your oracles provide you with some bonus as well as a further bonus if the top card of your deck is an oracle. A typical oracle bonus would be on the order of "draw a card and then draw another card and get a coin if the top card of your deck is an oracle". Thus, while Oracles don't do the power-lifting that soldiers and beasts are capable of they can provide you with a steady stream of cards and money.

The game begins with twelve "reward" cards shuffled and dealt into three piles. These are the cities -- any time you win a battle in a city you get a reward card. Each player also gets six feat cards (the same for each player), representing challenges set forth by the Gods, gets four gold coins and four cards.

Turn Sequence

1. Wealth, aka "draw cards and/or get money". A player gets three actions (only two on the first turn of the game). An action must be either "take a coin" or "draw a card". You can divide the actions as you choose, but if you do all of one or the other you get a bonus -- i.e. if you draw three cards you get a fourth card. Thus, it's more efficient to be able to do just one thing.

2. Surge, aka "play cards". You play cards from your hand, spending coins equal to their cost and either placing them onto your side of a city pile or (if it's a beast and you want the ability rather than the body) into the discard pile. You may play as many cards as you wish and can afford.

3. Portent, aka "the Oracle phase". Oracles do their stuff. You will often wish this happened before Surge.

4. Feat, aka "Impress the Gods for Fun and VPs". If you fulfill any of the requirements for feats you may flip them over to show they have been accomplished. Feats are each worth 2 points if accomplished. (Example: if you have at least one Beast in each city you have achieved Artemis' Feat.) Each feat can only be accomplished once.

5. War, aka "This is a battle game." For each city, check to see if it's fighting time. The answer is yes, if

- The opponent has three units
- Your and your opponent have a total of five or more units

The first condition creates an interesting dynamic -- if you put three units into a city I get to react to the threat of war during my surge phase. I may be able to kill one of your units off, I may be able to put more power into the city so I win the fight or I may just set things up so that losing the fight doesn't cost me too much. The second condition lets you create a fight that your opponent can't react to.

Remember that beasts count as two units.

The player with the highest total fighting power in that city wins the fight and collects the top reward card in the deck. Then he must discard all but one unit on his side. (Since beasts count as two units, the winner can never keep a beast.) The loser discards down to two units (if she had more than two). Ties on fighting power go to the player with the most soldiers; if that's still a tie then both players discard down to two units and no one get a reward card.

6. Offering, aka "You did nothing for me, so I'm trading you in." You may discard a card from your hand to draw new cards equal to its sacrifice value. This is a very powerful effect, so you'll almost always want to keep a card with a 3 or 4 offering value in hand.

Then it's the opponent's turn. Play continues until a player has accomplished at least five feats or two of the three city reward stacks are empty. At that point each accomplished feat is worth two VPs and each reward card is worth one or two depending on whether you used

The Good

Tense and interesting turns. Omen feels like a trading card game on steroids sometimes -- you don't pull off combos like ProsBloom (I'm dating myself) but you can have some very big turns where you empty the opponent's hand, steal some of their money, win a battle and accomplish two feats. Play is fast-paced and fun.

Wipeout recovery. Sometimes your opponent will just destroy you on a turn -- take your money, discard your hand, etc. Few card games of this type can allow this while simultaneously giving you a chance to come back, but I've done it (or had it done to me) multiple times in Omen.

Lots of variety of things you can do. While on a basic level you can only score points by winning fights and completing feats you will have a lot of potential paths for achieving your goals. You can play for slow card advantage with oracles, combos with soldiers, big fights or big effects with beasts. You can emphasize city advantage or try to force through feats.

Play time feels about right. Each game I've played of Omen has felt about right -- enough time for both players to do a lot, but not long that the game dragged.

Gorgeous art. The art for Omens is unusual, lovely and very evocative of the Ancient Greek theme. It's not often that I play a game and think, "Wow, I'd love to work with this artist on one of my designs" but I sure did with Omens.

Two very valid formats. You can just pile up all the cards and play off of a common deck or you can draft, selecting your favorite units and trying to create synergy while blunting the synergy of your opponent's draft. Each method plays very differently but both are fun.

The Bad

A bit too CCGish for a "battle" game. It's a very close call for me whether this belongs here or merely in "the ugly" but I wish that battles were more central to Omen. The problem is that (although reward cards can be used for powerful effects) battles in Omen are generally a source of disadvantage balanced out by VPs gained. Meanwhile, players have very powerful indirect attacks (e.g. making the opponent discard his whole hand, stealing his gold, or using 187 attacks on his units in play).

For six gold you can put a powerful beast into play and likely win a fight, in which case you'll have to discard it. You get 2VP and a card you can use (at a cost of 1VP) for a powerful effect. For the same cost you can make your opponent discard his entire hand, which could cripple his turn.

Because indirect attacks are so good and battles generally weaken your board position, the threat of a battle can often be ignored and winning a fight often gains you less than your alternatives of card or money advantage.

None of this necessarily detracts from the game, however. Just as Magic players are used to thinking of Mystic Snake as a four-mana counterspell that happens to leave a 2/2 body behind, Omen players need to think of Grizzled Veteran not as a cheap soldier with modest attack stats but as part of a combo to move around other soldiers in order to trigger their "enter a city" effects. If that's fine for you, then ignore this "problem" but if what excited you about Omen was the idea of throwing down with warriors and mighty beasts in order to conquer cities...

The Ugly

Cards and mechanics don't always enhance flavor. Whether it's that soldiers are typically more valuable for their Magic-like come-into-play abilities or that crushing someone in battle over a city means that you lose more units than they do and instead of occupying the city you get a card, Omen's gameplay fights a winning battle to remove the game from its storyline, although the art and component names put up a valiant effort. This is sort of a cousin to my one "Bad" point

Overall

Omen is a very good game. It captures a lot of the things I love about games like Magic and Epic, while avoiding two extremes of TCGs -- total degenerate turns and grinding control games. Few of the mechanics are truly new but they are very well and novelly applied, with a resulting game that is full of interesting choices and fun turns as well as the opportunity to crush and be crushed and yet to come back (or watch your opponent come back) from the brink.

I don't think Omen will ever be one of my top-ten games but it's one I've been meaning to order and will be the first game I order on Kickstarters. (OK, technically it's the second because I chipped in on a group purchase of Eminent Domain, but whatever.) It's absolutely earned a spot in my collection and is just the sort of gem that small publishers strive to make and which we in the community owe it to ourselves to support.

And I'd say that even if I wasn't a small game publisher.

I rate it an 8.5.
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Eric Foldenauer
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Outstanding review! You really captured why this game is among my top ten games.
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Richard Linnell
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I really need a new badge, avatar, and overtext. GM me with any ideas....
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Took me a minute to register "portent phase" as was intended, instead of some slang version of "important phase". Good review though, maybe I should give this one a look on Kickstarter. I'm sure they would appreciate a link to their Kickstarter page....
 
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CJ
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Good review thumbsup
 
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Stefano Castelli
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As usual, Chad, an excellent review.
 
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Jim McMahon
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solidhavok wrote:
Took me a minute to register "portent phase" as was intended, instead of some slang version of "important phase". Good review though, maybe I should give this one a look on Kickstarter. I'm sure they would appreciate a link to their Kickstarter page....
It's in the first paragraph of the OP:

Chad_Ellis wrote:
Every year at BGG.CON, Andrew Gross and I make the other one play a new game or two we think the other will really like. This year Andrew forced me to play Omen. I just noticed that Omen's designer/publisher was launching a Kickstarter project for a second edition and thought, "This would be a good time to write that review."
 
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j clowdus
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Thanks for the review! Glad you enjoyed it!
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Jimmy Okolica
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Nice review. This is currently one of my favorite 2-player games, and my #1 for the time frame.

There is one time when playing beasts into cities is very powerful and that is if you can play a couple at once, giving you Artemis' Feat and a couple of city wins. This can be particularly devastating if you can make the game end at the same time. Of course, that means you've been hoarding coins which is dangerous too. I really love that about the game. Every good strategy has a card that throws it to the wolves.
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Chad Ellis
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justjohn wrote:
Thanks for the review! Glad you enjoyed it!


I really did. As a fellow small-publisher I'm always happy to find gems like this coming from our crowd and I'm really glad you've been having such success with this one. Now I'm just trying to decide what level of KS sponsorship to go with...I'm awfully tempted by the vanity option to get immortalized on a soldier. Is there any reason that you're only allowing soldiers and not oracles?
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Cameron Chien
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...because your average BGG user would probably not look good scantily clad in a long linen scarf?



Cameron
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j clowdus
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Thanks for the kind words. We've actually had other people ask us the same question. If you want to be an Oracle, we can make that happen!

We just figured most would want to be the Grand Commander, if not for the name alone.
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Chad Ellis
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justjohn wrote:
Thanks for the kind words. We've actually had other people ask us the same question. If you want to be an Oracle, we can make that happen!

We just figured most would want to be the Grand Commander, if not for the name alone.


Well, if I go the vanity level I would probably rather have my wife as an oracle than myself as a warrior.
 
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j clowdus
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Yep, if you do, we can make that happen for sure!
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Dean O
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Good review, though the title was initially confusing - that phrase would normally say to me 'Omen: A Reign of War... there's some good aspects, some bad aspects and some particularly bad aspects', with a suggestion that the repetition of the 'bad aspects' part means it's going to be a negative review. But maybe that's just me.
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Burkhard Nierhaus
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Good review of a game i love.
A little problem for me is, that a good card draw in the the first turns, could really win the game. BUT the Game is still so much fun, even after a desasterous loss (card luck or bad play, hehe) i want to play again.
I can really recommend Omen
A great card game, with hard (rough?) decisions and great moments.
 
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Tristan Hall
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LIFEFORM - LATE PLEDGE NOW!!!
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Great review, cheers!
 
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