Omen: The Value of Olympus
Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a review about a nifty little title from Small Box Games called Omen: A Reign of War. I don’t recommend you read it, as it’s a relic from back when I believed good boardgame reviews were 85% rules regurgitation and 15% quality, but in my defense, I was young. At any rate, I gave Omen a glowing review. Unfortunately, it could be a huge pain to get a hold of thanks to John Clowdus’s small business model, which sounds like a great setup for an independent game designer, but meant SBG could only handle lighter print runs.
Flash forward to now. Small Box Games is taking preorders of the upcoming Omen: A Reign of War: Olympus Edition, a new printing run of the beloved but hard-to-acquire original — except that it isn’t quite exactly the same as the original. A few people have voiced some concerns about the changes that will be made for the Olympus Edition, and I’m here to talk about that.
There are a few things I need to get out of the way before we jump into it.
For one, a lot of this is partially an exercise in theory. I haven’t snagged a review copy of the Olympus Edition, and it hasn’t even been released yet, which means I’m basing some of what follows on conjecture. Well, not merely conjecture, since the updated rules are available on the SBG website and I own all the previous expansions, but still, there might me some errors here, however minor.
Second, I’ve tried contacting John for some insider info, but for some reason he hasn’t replied. What a punk, to be obscenely busy on the eve of the release of two of his games. For serious.
Third, despite some differences, it seems that the Olympus Edition is still the Omen we know and love. Still, this isn’t a review; rather, this is for people who are already looking into picking up Omen, and counts on you to know a little bit about the original version. If you don’t, I recommend reading my horrible year-old review. Just don’t expect much.
Finally, no, I don’t know anything about the new Vault of Darkness edition of Hemloch. I know nothing. Like, literally nothing.
Right off the bat, there are a couple things I like about the new Olympus Edition that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
The first is that the cards now have a new design, at least according to SBG’s website and Facebook page, and the good news is that they’ve been streamlined. Previously, playing units into a city meant you had to stack them in a strange staggered pattern, because although their stats were listed along their left edge, the game clearly intended them to be arranged vertically. This led to a peculiar Leaning Tower of Murder thing, and it didn’t do any favors for the game’s readability once everyone had a sizable force out. This wasn’t a problem if you had the table space to spread everything out, but since it was a small box game and perfect for travel, littering a tiny hotel desk with oodles of cards wasn’t the tiny perfection it could have been. Now the units appear to have their values listed up top, meaning it’s possible to stack them atop each other without giving them that unsightly slant. Not an absolutely necessary change, but I approve.
Besides that, it seems John Clowdus has honed his design sensibilities over the years. The biggest change to the rules kicks the older version’s madhouse combos in the balls, dropping the infinite hand and gold limit in lieu of a 10-gold and 7-card max. There are still all sorts of wild combos to pull off, but since you can’t game the system — say, by saving up obscene quantities of gold and soldiery to avoid triggering wars on your opponent’s turns and eventually unleash an ultra-round in which you dominate all three cities and take three feats at once — it’s less cheese and more meat. I approve of this change too, though of course you don’t need a new version of Omen to make it possible.
More importantly, the new version will include Spirits and Heroes, special units that were previously only available as limited expansions.
The first of two new unit types are Spirits, previously only available in the Echoes of Myth expansion. These aren’t particularly heavy hitters, but their real advantage is in how diverse they can be, granting multiple opportunities for gaining an edge over your opponent. Each Spirit comes with two different abilities, one of which you’ll get to pick when you deploy them into a city. However, the really cool bit is that they also come with an “invoke cost.” Pay this, and you can discard the unit — though you’ll activate both of their abilities in the process. This is a great new entry to the usual soldier-oracle-beast lineup.
The second addition are the Heroes from the Forgotten Oath expansion. These guys can be used in multiple ways, either deploying into cities for a quick strength boost or acting as interrupts that will make your opponent kick you in the shin under the table. For instance, you could use the Conclave of Fate to cancel a series of ill-advised battles, the Three Hundred to gain an extra turn at the end of the game, or the Scourge of Troy to cancel an enemy soldier’s ability. All of these make an already bastard-mean game even more bastardly. I approve.
However, the absolute best part has to do with the newly restricted hand limit.
In the original, there was hardly any penalty for winning contested cities, and this could cause a bit of a runaway leader problem. Sure, the loser got to retain one more unit than the victor, but that was often a pity prize. Now that you can only hold seven cards at a time, holding onto the Reward cards you get for conquering war-torn cities is a sacrifice. It means you aren’t cycling as many units through your hand, instead sitting on high-value Rewards unless you opt to halve their victory point value by playing them onto the table.
Heroes operate on a similar mechanic. You can use them for their impressive strength at no cost, or you can use them to screw up your opponent’s plans — or you could keep them in your hand until the end of the game, when suddenly they’re each worth a single precious victory point. This is a brilliant mechanic, and it adds a whole new layer of tricky decision-making to the game.
The Real Difference
Here’s the difference between the original Omen and the Olympus Edition that has people worried: there’s only going to be one copy of each card.
Yep. Instead of getting four copies of each soldier and three of each oracle and beast, you’ll get one.
This is understandably concerning. Even the rules insert for Echoes of Myth acknowledges that, saying, “Chances are, you’re going to prefer the original rules: they’re familiar, there are more options, and more ways to play the game.” After all, won’t such a limited pool of cards make Omen feel like a completely different game?
I sat down with Somerset last night to test it out, using only one copy of each card (and using the pair of replacement cards that came with Echoes of Myth), and the answer is yes. The version we played does feel different.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The new drafting rules made the initial setup much faster, and across our multiple test runs, it felt like a tighter, quicker, more varied, more streamlined game. I liked it a little bit better than I liked the original, which is already saying a lot, and Somerset, who enjoyed it but wasn’t quite as taken as I was, became a huge fan. Which is saying a hell of a lot.
That’s my impression, anyway. The Omen: A Reign of War: Olympus Edition lacks some of the versatility of the original, but it also comes with a more affordable price tag, improved rules, all the unit types, and clearer card layout. For what it’s worth, I’ll be picking up a copy.