Omen: Small Box Gaming Perfected
I have a theory that there’s a difference between our Favorite Games and our favorite games, if that makes any sense. No? Alright, I’ll keep trying. If you were to ask me about my favorite games of all time, I’ve got a whiz-bang top ten list ready, full of all sorts of great stuff, from the innovative to the epic. If you were to ask me which games I play all the time, well, that’s a completely different list, populated with games that are also my favorites, though for completely different reasons. And within the top couple spots of that second list is Omen: A Reign of War from Small Box Games.
Now, I’ve written about Omen before. Twice, in fact — once to review the 2nd Edition, and another to preview the then-unreleased Olympus Edition. There isn’t much more for me to add to what I’ve written there, but since it’s a slow day I’m going to take a shot at explaining exactly why I keep returning to Omen week after week.
Two Demigods Enter, One Demigod Leaves
Upon consideration, there are four things that keep me coming back to Omen.
First up is the theme and the way it informs your every move. In terms of the (entirely ignorable) story, Omen is a clash between two demigod bastard sons of Zeus with a fairly straightforward ambition: gain the favor of the gods, kill the other demigod bastard son of Zeus, and rule Greece forever. Since the gods you’re hoping to appease are, well, Greek gods, their concept of proper oblation has less to do with burnt incense and fatted calves and more to do with burnt cities and distinctly-not-fatted oracle babes.
As such, there are a few ways to gain the favor of the gods, which act as victory points, and these should be on your mind every moment of the game. The simplest is to wage bloody war over the three cities at the center of the table, sending your warriors to grisly deaths in exchange for awesome rewards, which you can exchange for bonuses or hold onto for additional points. Alternatively, you could perform “feats,” special accomplishments aligned with a particular deity. For instance, Ares, god of war, grants his favor to those who send enormous armies to threaten a city. Another deity, Artemis, is the mistress of the wild, so she likes to see her mythical beasts finally finding gainful employment after months of couch-surfing from magical forest to haunted woods. Hera has a similar goal, but as she’s the patron of women, she’d prefer you hire oracles instead. Each god offers a different task — Hades like death, Poseidon likes change — and each brings you a little closer to ruling the (known) world.
Or, if neither of those methods tempt, you could just put a hero or two on retainer. This isn’t as thrilling as burning cities or performing feats, but hey, godly favor is godly favor.
This part of Omen repeatedly tricks you into spreading yourself too thin. For instance, you’ll have one of those glorious turns where you plunder two cities, only to watch your opponent suddenly accomplish a pair of feats. Or you’ll be holding onto heroes thinking the game is about to end, but your partner has come to recognize that particular slant of your brow, so she starts attacking the strongest remaining city instead, prolonging the game when you’re most off balance. Your attention is always required in multiple places at once, and the best demigods are constantly on the lookout for ways to chase two or three long-term goals at the same time.
You’re a Demigod… So Act Like One!
And by that I don’t mean you should traipse around repairing cataracts or multiplying sourdough. You’re a Greek demigod, so your birthright is to screw over anyone who gets in your way. Or anyone you’re in a mood to mess with just because you’re a half-god and they aren’t.
In game terms, the second critical detail about Omen is that it’s mean, in a knock-down drag-out burn-Olympus sense of the word. Your cards are constantly providing ways to absolutely ruin your opponent, shredding their plans and leaving them penniless and kicking their dog on your way out; and if you don’t take advantage of these perfect screw-yous, your nemesis will. One moment you’ll be hoarding a pack of oracles with the intent of sending them out on the next turn to accomplish Hera’s feat (and earn you a wad of cash and cards in the process), and the next your husband will crack his most sinister grin and deploy the Fervant Seductress, forcing you to reveal your hand and discard all those painstakingly-saved oracles. If only you’d played the Detaining Sentry the turn before, you could have stolen that card from his hand before he’d had the chance to play it — but that’s what you get for playing nice.
When I first tried Omen, I thought the card powers were excessive, and made the game too swingy. It took a few more plays to realize that all those terrifying abilities actually promote a different type of caution: the Machiavellian sort, where your best defense is to force your best friend to discard all her cards, steal her gold, murder her fighters, and salt the earth before she gets a chance to recover. And when you pull off one of Omen’s seemingly-broken combos, doing all of those things in a single turn, she’s going to hate you for a while.
Of course, the problem with all that meanness is that it comes around, full-circle, putting both sides in a position where they’re simultaneously on the recovery from their opponent’s most recent assault and attempting an attack of their own. It’s brutally tense, resembling one of those knife fights where both parties are lashed together, slashing and fending and cowering and advancing all at once.
Still, a Demigod Must Be Wise
The third thing I love about Omen is the way it’s constantly nagging at you to strike some sort of balance. Not only in the ways I’ve already mentioned, by dredging victory points from multiple sources and delivering as much screwage to your opponent as possible, but also in the way you handle your economy. Or rather, your two economies.
For one, you need to manage your hand, full of all the nasty goodies you’ll be using to get an edge over your opponent. This presents a twin problem: it isn’t always easy to fill up your hand with all the cards you want, and at the end of your turn, you have to discard down to seven cards. This includes any rewards you’ve stolen from the contested cities and any heroes you’re holding onto for additional points at the end of the game, so choosing whether to hold onto heroes (or use them for their prowess in combat) and rewards (or halve their victory points by using their special ability) quickly becomes a challenge of its own.
Additionally, you also have your coin economy to worry about. As with cards, there’s a limit of how many coins you can keep between rounds, but when it comes to gold, the real difficulty is in having enough. You have to decide how to spend your turn-opening wealth step and your turn-ending offering step (read: sacrifice step), drawing a mix of new coins and cards and hoping that the contest between these two economic systems will prepare you for future actions. Good players will strive for balance, optimizing their returns by making advance preparations and waiting to sacrifice high-value units later rather than sending them into battle now.
Taken on their own, none of these details stand out. There are uncountable other games that do each of these little things well — multiple paths to victory, harshly competitive gameplay, competing economies — but so very few that interlock quite so pleasurably as the purring engine that is Omen: A Reign of War. This is the fourth, and most critical, thing I love about Omen: that each of its systems are interdependent, working perfectly with each other mechanism. There’s a reason I keep returning to it, keep playing it, and keep having such a great time in the process.
And no, that reason isn’t the oracles. They’re just a bonus.
Why Omen Should Rule Mount Olympus:
- It’s the best title in the Small Box Games catalog, which is saying a lot.
- This legacy edition is gorgeous and polished.
- The few rules changes transform it from a great game to a nigh-perfect one.
- It’s one of Dan Thurot’s favorite two-player games!
Why Omen Should Be Consigned to the Depths of Hades:
- “Poseidon” is spelled incorrectly on one of the Reward cards.
- No reference cards, which is just silly.
- The unit ability titles were removed from the new card layouts.
- Seriously, these are my negatives.