For a few years now, Omen: A Reign of War from Small Box Games has been one of my favorite card games. With all the subtlety of a Spartan dory to the gut, its primary strength rested in its outright meanness, allowing a skilled player to leverage his cards into terrifying combos that won battles and robbed an opponent of options.
Thus, the announcement of Omen: Edge of the Aegean, no mere expansion but a follow-up, a sort of parallel development of the Omen system, got me nearly as misty-eyed as Odysseus. And for anyone who doesn’t quite understand that reference, the hero of the Iliad and the Odyssey is a huge crybaby. Like, huge. The guy can’t stop himself. When he hears a bard sing a jingle about his tricksy victory over Troy, he weeps. When Calypso, hottest nymph in the isles, decides to invite him over for a feisty sex-party, it’s waterworks time.
I, on the other hand, was merely on the verge of weeping, for I am a manly man compared to whiny Odysseus.
At its heart, Edge of the Aegean works a bit like a microgame version of A Reign of War, its systems so indistinguishable from its predecessor that it’s even possible to blend the two into a chimera of Grecian warfare and mythology. As before, this is a duel between demigod bastards of Zeus, both sides determined to prove that they’re the most suited to rule at their daddy’s feet. To this end, you’ll amass wealth and soldiery, hurl your guys into battle, and do everything in your power to outsmart your nemesis.
What sets Edge of the Aegean apart is just how compact it is. Where the Olympus and Omega editions of A Reign of War featured 66 unique units to throw into the fray with approximately the same compassion you might reserve for a handful of brush tossed into a campfire, Edge of the Aegean’s roster of 22 seems slender by comparison. A Reign of War was already tight, very little flab hanging off its bones. Was a weight-loss regimen really all that necessary?
On the other hand, these units, divided across four simple “classes,” are where the gameplay finds its footing. And in many ways, that footing is superior to that of its predecessor.
Here’s the deal. Both sides are working from a shared deck, so any unit that isn’t in your hand or on your side of the table might worm its way into your opponent’s possession at any moment — and even those cards that are “safe” might be easily lost. There are plenty of ways to earn points, though the primary road to victory is by ransacking the three cities lining the center of the table. To accomplish this, massed units are your best bet, and much of the game revolves around figuring out how to build your strength and trigger your units’ abilities to dole out the greatest possible punishment. Myrmidons are the most common type of soldiery, and often act as the lynchpins of any city-oriented strategy. Not only are they tough, but they also pack a reusable ability that triggers anytime one of your units enters that city alongside them — for a price. Having a Guardian of Elysium in a city, for instance, means that a demigod with a surplus of coins might be able to raise an army from the discard pile, while a Chthonic Sentry can effectively gut an opponent’s entire hand if you’ve been paying enough attention. If these units sound unfamiliar, don’t worry. Because there are so few cards to worry about, it won’t be long before they’ve cycled through a deck a few times, becoming far more recognizable than that neighbor two doors down who you’ve never spoken to.
The other units aren’t as numerous as the Myrmidons, but don’t think that means they’re any less important. Automatons present one of the toughest choices in the game. They’re your most solidly-built fighters, making them desirable for the front lines, but sacrificing them at the end of your turn earns a significant benefit, and usually one that can seriously disrupt your opponent’s plans. Moirai are rare — they’re the Fates of mythology, so there are only three in the whole deck — but they offer powerful ongoing benefits when on the table or points when held in your hand.
By far the coolest units, however, are the Keres. These gals are no slouches in battle, but their real value lies in the possibility of exaltation. Once deployed, each one presents its own mini-objective, like ridding your opponent of cards or coins, or stacking a bunch of units in one place. That sort of thing. Once a Ker’s ability has been met, it “exalts” and is removed from the game, but you earn a chunk of points for your troubles. A chunk of points equal to what you’d earn ransacking a city, in fact. Simply by appearing on the table, a Ker entirely transforms the scoring potential of a demigod, and acts as a much more fluid version of the original Omen’s “feat” objectives. Here, however, they’re objectives that pitch in during battle and can be offed by a clever opponent.
Omen has always been a game about trade-offs, and Edge of the Aegean doubles down on that front. It’s telling, for instance, that its units are a bit more complex, requiring some sort of trigger before making use of their ability. More than ever, this centers the spotlight on clever combo-building, playing it careful, and striking right at the moment it will do the most damage. There’s nothing quite as joyous as bringing out the precise set of units that will leave your opponent’s army in tatters, their coffers depleted, and a fresh pile of points sitting before you on the table — and knowing they could have blocked you if only they’d seen through your strategy.
I went into Edge of the Aegean as a skeptic. The units initially seemed underwhelming, especially when considering the high cost of some of the Myrmidon abilities. The roster seemed too pared-down, the scope too limited.
And while I do miss some of Omen’s breadth, the sprawl of units and the many considerations they bestowed, I’m a convert. Perhaps it’s the Keres, which supplant the original game’s feats so completely that I’d be satisfied if I never pursued one ever again. Or maybe it’s the fact that these new units do seem to build off of one another’s abilities more cautiously than before. The effect is more measured than the original, while still resulting in a tight back-and-forth that never lets up until one demigod is finally crowned as the favored offspring of Zeus.
All in all, I’m happy Edge of the Aegean is here. For veterans and newcomers alike, it matures the Omen system into something both accessible and deep.