Odin Can Do His Own Damn Quest
One of my favorite ways to spend a quiet hour is to look at old maps. The way ancient peoples framed their world is fascinating, familiar landmarks and settlements emphasized, the in-between and unknown stripped out, the important stuff always at the axis. One of my favorite examples is the Tabula Peutingeriana. The entire Roman Empire is represented, from the Atlantic Ocean to India, thousands of miles of highways presented in meticulous detail, her greatest cities — Rome, Constantinople, Antioch — dominating the landscape with titanic presence. This is a functional rather than a mythical map, as was more common in the medieval period. And yet there are gaps. Entire ranges of mountains appear as little more than hedgerows, distant China is listed simply as “Sera Major,” and the ends of the earth are listed as Hic Alexander responsum accepit usqi quo Alexander — the farthest point in Alexander the Great’s travels.
Odin Quest, one of the latest print-and-play solo titles from the ever-prolific Todd Sanders, evokes this sense of the unknown lurking just beyond the gaze of the civilized world. Here, the wild is ever nipping at the heels of all that has been tamed, and every truth bears the caught breath of an untold secret.
Part of how Todd Sanders accomplishes this has to do with the way Odin Quest tells its story through the use of geography. For the most part, when we picture the world, we largely view things “as they are,” courtesy of things like satellites and a decade of Google driving spy cars everywhere. North is north, the sun moves in constant and predictable patterns, and very little ever changes. Similarly, fantasy adventure games, stuff like Mage Knight or Runebound, are placed on maps that are more or less constant. While there is a sense of discovery there, especially in the gradually revealed tiles of the former, their flat landscapes aren’t all that different from the way we perceive things in real life.
Odin Quest, on the other hand, is played on a geographic wheel that supposedly encompasses the entire world — or rather, the Nine Realms of Norse mythology, since they’re technically multiple worlds layered atop one another. As you might expect from any game that contains “Odin” and “Quest” in its title, Ragnarok is approaching, a hero must go forth, yadda yadda yadda. Different world-ending threat, same solution.
So your hero embarks, traveling around the wheel to defeat the enemies of Odin. Sure, you could lay the locations out side by side, and the rules even come with a layout for those who lack the imagination and/or table space. But while the circular arrangement of the Nine Realms might initially seem like style over substance, it’s important to note that when it comes to Todd Sanders, the style is the substance, at least in part. Hopping over to Asbru to take a shortcut from Muspelheim to Midgard feels like one is traveling sideways through the unseen cracks in the world. Winding up on the opposite side of the wheel from Svartalfheim feels oddly like you’ve undertaken an unfathomable voyage. What Odin Quest’s arrangement provides is a sense of uncertainty, of forging into the unknown. This is an unforgiving, otherworldly landscape, abstract in danger as well as geography.
In other ways too Odin Quest positions itself as a riff on the traditional fantasy adventure board game. Most of your time not traveling is spent on making friends, beating up foes, and learning magic wards. There’s an unevenness to the difficulty that can make the game a little too straightforward if particular events don’t appear, especially since there are a few that land with about as much threat as getting your socks damp, but when the right combination of terrors appears, Odin Quest takes shape as a deeply challenging puzzle.
The goal, unsurprisingly, is to clear the Nine Realms. Events cover the world with various omens, any of which might negatively impact your performance. Foes, on the other hand, can be defeated to dispel these omens, with the danger that facing them without the right preparations might conclude with new ones popping into existence. The problem with foes is that you can never be entirely sure what you’ll be facing, as they’re assembled from a combination of foe and conflict cards. A Dread Fire Giant presents a different challenge from a Rampaging Night Thief, both blocking different actions and offering their own penalties, restrictions, and rewards.
Defeating these foes isn’t as simple as merely winning a single fight either. You enter battle with a finite set of resources, the allies, wards, and abilities that let you get your berserker on. Using a powerful ability like Strength might let you roll three times more dice than something like Ardour (poor boring Ardour), but that means it’s used up, spent and discarded until you’ve run through all the rest of your abilities. The trick, then, is to gamble as cleverly as possible, attempting to win each fight with the weakest abilities you can stomach. Winning a fight with Strength, Wit, and Cunning is easy; winning every fight thereafter with leftover crap like Valor is nearly impossible. The result is a system that can occasionally feel a little slow and mathy, but it’s clever stuff that rewards the wily use of your equipment in even the most minor of scrapes. For such a simple game, there are plenty of ways to forge ahead, and it’s up to you to scout the surest path.
All in all, Odin Quest is a gorgeous take on the traditional fantasy adventure, trodding familiar terrain in such a way that it recasts the entire concept into something that feels deeply innovative. By discarding the familiar trappings of the genre — the map, the usual means of combat, and certainly the tired old aesthetics — Odin Quest once again proves that Todd Sanders is one of the preeminent designers of interesting tidbits, unconventional asides, and print-and-play board games working today.
You can download, print, and play Odin Quest over here. It costs just about nothing. As in, literally nothing.