An Empty Omen
Look, you already know that John Clowdus’s Omen: A Reign of War is one of my favorite games ever designed. I’d still be lying if I called it a perfect game. It’s very phasey, full of insistent procedures and favored approaches, not to mention being reliant on learning that pool of cards and winning in the pregame draft. If Clowdus announced he was going to redesign Omen from scratch, I’d be over the moon.
To some extent, that’s exactly what An Empty Throne purports to be. Like Omen, this is a Battle Line-alike game about fielding units, comboing powers, and trickling more points into your pool than your opponent. That’s where the similarities end. Foremost because, at fifty-five cards, this thing is lean.
Oh, and there are no phases. An Empty Throne is nothing but action.
Two actions, to be precise. Place a card or move a card. That’s it. Told you it was lean.
But I’m not here to list the rules. The rules don’t communicate how balletic it can be. Balletic: I mean that. Years ago, I attended a ballet Q&A for a college course. One fellow student asked about how technically demanding the dances were. The ballerina remarked that her goal was to make strenuous physical feats seem graceful. Effortless. Like they were as breezy as walking. An Empty Throne doesn’t pose any physical challenge more strenuous than your average shuffle, but the principle applies. Being good at the game looks easy. You play a card to trigger some effect. Usually that effect is to activate its ability, or the ability of the card at the “field” between players, or both if you’ve managed to match the card’s suit or the right number. Like the best combo-making games, these effects are clear but not always obvious. You know what the card will do. Knowing how to use its effect — which other card to claim, move, pick up, steal; where to leverage a card to put the opponent under threat; when to build a set of matching cards or focus on another field — that’s another level entirely. Anybody can play, just like anybody can dance around. But playing well? That’s where the game gets interesting. That’s where it begins to feel graceful. A glissade as cardplay.
Omen contained moments of grace. It also contained moments of stomping around in clogs. Not that I minded. It was a game about demigods pummeling each other to pulp. One of the biggest examples was the pregame draft. You could play out of a shared deck, but that was nothing compared to the thrill of building a deck and seeing how it would compete. The method was easy despite its intrusiveness, both players drafting from three cards at a time.
That’s another difference between Omen and An Empty Throne. Here, there’s no drafting. It isn’t even an option. Your hand is crafted over the course of play. The four locations — three fields plus the tombs — each hold their own brand of cards. Fields hold the “normal” five suits, face-up, ready to trigger their abilities, while the tombs are full of buried secrets, alternate suits with powerful abilities or mismatched numbers that don’t readily make sets. Crafting your hand is holistic. There are the cards you can see, cards you can’t, and even opposing cards. Did I mention that cards are never discarded in An Empty Throne? They aren’t. Once played, they’re in play forever. At most, they might bounce back into somebody’s hand. But they’ll never disappear from the table entirely. Every play therefore cuts both ways. Any card you place can be stolen away, swap sides, get used against you. Even though cards can’t be discarded, there’s little permanence. Something else it has in common with Omen, although it arrives there circuitously.
The more I try to disconnect An Empty Throne from Omen, the more they seem inextricable. I’m not even sure they can be disconnected. Apart from Mezo, Omen was Clowdus at his grandest and most bombastic — and Mezo’s scale is more the keystone of its publisher’s ethos than its designer’s.
For the most part, I make the comparison positively. An Empty Throne is the craft of somebody who’s learned restraint, not to mention a few other lessons. Earlier this year, I wrote about Clowdus’s history trilogy, about how each uses a single deck of cards and a compact ruleset to represent three periods of history as modeled reductions. The goal wasn’t to simulate every detail of the periods under examination, but to offer broad-stroke representations. Where the Neolithic revolved around hunting and gathering and developing culture, Bronze Age was about building, collapsing, and rebuilding, and The Middle Ages was about contracting plague and repressing rebellions. For better and for worse, these were models about models, eminently playable in their familiarity, but only as accurate as the historical bedrock they were built upon.
The same goes for An Empty Throne. It cuts to the heart of Omen because it’s a model of a model. Here is what Omen would look like without the dozens of units and a list of phases and a pregame draft. On one level, it’s entirely effective. I’d much rather introduce a newcomer to Clowdus’s work to this than Omen, for instance. On another, it turns out that not every jagged edge needed rounding. This isn’t solely a case of my nostalgia for Omen, although there’s an unmistakable note of that. The big culprit is the cards themselves. Where the units in Omen were viciously distinct, each demanding their own attention, the cards in An Empty Throne have been flattened to eight archetypes, most with similar abilities. They blur together. By design, even, since they’re often more valuable for their value than for their ability and suit. The effect isn’t strictly better or worse, rewarding positioning and set assembly over brute force, inadvertently mirroring Riftforce without feeling quite as slick.
What to make of An Empty Throne? Personally, I’m rather fond of it, especially as an alternative or an introduction to Omen and the lane battler genre more broadly. It doesn’t rekindle the flame of Omen, but perhaps it was never meant to. Its emphasis on positioning rewards fluid play, and slotting everything into its proper place despite an opponent’s best efforts never fails to feel good. This is an empty throne I don’t mind filling.