Scry Guys

Squint hard enough and even Wingspan could count as augury.

I know an uncanny amount about divination. Not because I believe in the stuff, mind you. It comes up a lot in my work, both as a practice in ancient religion and as a prominent branch in the history of board games.

So when Chris Chan’s Portents first hit my table, I was fascinated to learn which type of cleromancy it would use. Drawing Roman sortes? The knucklebones and dice oracles of astragalomancy? The fateful archery competitions of belomancy? We haven’t even touched upon the really cool ones. Maybe Portents would let us manipulate shards of coconut, or pour molten metal into water and examine the resultant shape’s shadow, or undertake bean magic. Yes, bean magic. Favomancy. It’s shocking how many forms of geomancy used beans. The possibilities for gamification are endless.

Turns out, Portents is about haruspicy via bird parts. And while any self-respecting haruspex would immediately note that it uses the wrong organs, never fear: this one is about fraudsters trying to out-divine one another.

I think I'd make a good ancient fortune-teller.

Making portents.

“So it’s Tic-Tac-Toe?”

That was Summer’s first thought, shortly after reading the rules but before actually playing the thing. Probably because Portents is about making three in a row. Three symbols or three colors, whichever works.

Ten minutes later we were both busting our brains over optimal moves. Potential matches, upcoming omens, which tiles our foe was holding. I’ve never put this much thought into a make-three game before.

The concept is simple enough. Every turn, you manipulate the grid of bird sacrifice tiles — that’s “B.S.” tiles, hardy har — by inserting at least one but as many as three into the grid, all from the same side. This pushes other tiles off the display and places them into your hand. It’s when you make a match that Portents gets interesting. First, one of those tiles is “ignited,” flipped to the opposite side, which keeps it locked to the table until its match is broken. Meanwhile, your goal is to claim omens, the circular tokens that run the periphery of the divination table. By aligning matching B.S. tiles with those omens, you claim them. Collect enough omens to make their own matches and you’ve got a fortune on your hands. Two weak fortunes or one strong fortune and your rival is sacrificed while you’re elevated to the role of the kingdom’s sole diviner. For now.

It’s a clever little thing, a bijou puzzle game that punches above its weight. Like many good puzzles, its iconography slips through gradual layers of clarity, first offering obvious moves that yield nothing, then becoming a blur of mismatched information, then at last, with the relief of a fraudulent magician arriving at a convincing apophenia to dazzle the assembled court, resolving into a move that yields an omen, blocks your opponent, and returns the perfect tiles for your next turn.

—that chubby guy from Blacklist who's supposed to be a badass

“I make my own fate.”

Those moves feel great, and they come fast and hard in the early game when omens are widely available. Between well-matched players, however, it isn’t long before the easy pickings have been gobbled up and you settle in for the duration. This phase of the game could generously be described as deliberate. Given the open information of your opponent’s tiles, it’s possible to scan moves ahead of time, but the grid is sufficiently busy that this is easier said than done, especially once both players begin wrestling over the last few omens. It isn’t prone to stalemates, exactly; turns have too much flexibility for that. But it does downshift hard in its final stretch. This was most apparent in our last match when the only available omens were trapped in the corners. By dint of needing a diagonal match, these tend to be harder to nab and, by extension, much easier to block. The result felt like finishing one of those illustrated sliding-block puzzles only to realize the character’s forehead had gotten mixed up with their chin.

This problem disappears entirely in the solitaire mode. As fate would have it, your rival’s demise didn’t guarantee your security after all, for the king has decided that even his cat can assemble fortunes from bird parts. This version of Portents is a race. If you ever go a turn without making a match, the august feline will gobble up an omen. Even if you happen to spit out fortunes all day long, the cat slowly orbits the table and eventually concludes the game on a timer.

The solo mode veers Portents into its own lane. The game is faster and more assured, less prone to frustrating tit-for-tat reversals, and spills out omens rapidly, but it lacks the apprehension and uncertainty that comes from dueling a thinking opponent. The cat is implacable but stupid, demanding but predictable. Its tiles are slightly randomized, since it holds four of them at any given time, but in many cases you can use its movements to your advantage with only the barest forethought.

Also, you don’t have anybody telling you to hurry up your moves. That loosens its collar somewhat. a 1965 film that my grandma owned. She thought it was incredible and made me watch it almost every time I stayed over. It made me into a dog person.

That darn cat.

Portents occupies a strange place, both versions making me pine for the displaced aspects of their twin. Against an opponent, its back-and-forth grows a little too restrictive for my liking; against the cat, I wish somebody would block my next move. Yet in both cases I can’t help but appreciate the itch it implants into my gray matter. The result is a flawed jewel, but a jewel nonetheless.

Portents is on Kickstarter for the next ten days.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A prototype copy was provided.

Posted on October 20, 2022, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. “By Chris Chan”

    …. not, not THAT Chris-Chan?

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