Milk’s Favorite Board Game

alt title: "Is That a Volcano Steaming up the Place, Oros It Me That's so Hot?"

There are certain missteps freshman designers struggle to avoid. Take Oros, the first title from Brandt Brinkerhoff. Set on an archipelago bristling with demigods and volcanoes, Oros leans into its first-timer gaminess right away, offering upgrade tracks that don’t always feel fully-baked, complex interactions between its shifting islands and floes of lava, and persnickety rules that are guaranteed to slip through the cracks. It’s as scattershot as its shattered seascape.

For all that, it’s also as refreshing as a sea breeze. Let’s pick into why that is.

I see Brinkerhoff has some deep-seated assumptions about which colors feel which emotions. HMMM.

Happy islanders erect happy temples.

Even at a glance, Oros seems like a rather nice place to visit. Its seas are resplendent with green islands. Constant subsurface activity keeps the islands on the move, sometimes sprinting from one side of the globe to the other — technically this planet would be shaped like a donut, but don’t think too hard about that — and at other times slamming into one another to form volcanoes or pile up mountains. Yet for all this tectonic violence, it’s a peaceful realm. Its four tribes are locked in competition, but their relationship is strictly mutualistic. There’s some fluff about demigods, “light and knowledge,” and other tidbits of Mormonalia, but this isn’t your grandfather’s pioneer religion, all blood and thunder. In this place, the shoves are more akin to pattycake, all about scooting a rival’s island out of range before they can beat you to a desirable building spot. It’s all very pleasant.

That doesn’t prevent it from being just a scooch snitty. Your goal, as the demigod of a tribe, is to shepherd your people as they gain wisdom, travel across the islands, and eventually build temples atop painstakingly terraformed mountains. It’s a process dominated by sequences. Volcanoes churn lava into islands, islands pile together to form mountains, and your followers race to those mountains to build temples. Followers pull triple duty as map units, action-takers, and researchers who learn at your demigod’s feet and then return with wisdom, AKA upgrades. Even those all-important temples adhere to specific sequences. Each one begins at the foundation and works its way upward to the capstone, albeit with one major twist that sets the tone for all the goings-on in Oros.

Also some interesting art. The blue demigod is apparently weeping over a fish. It's kind of a cool look, TBH.

There are plenty of upgrades and scoring bonuses to ponder over.

That twist is that no temple stands on its own. If you’ve laid the foundation, you can’t erect its second or third level. It’s a clever idea, and it sets aright what might have otherwise been an unbreakable lead for whomever first accomplished it. You see, mountains take a while to create, only generated when two size-four land tiles collide. Never mind the particulars; suffice to say, it isn’t a trivial undertaking. It isn’t uncommon for players to treat one another to some last-minute rumbles. When somebody finally forms a mountain, their follower had better be standing at its foot, lest somebody shift an entire row of tiles and spirit them away from their intended destination. You’re trying to create and inhabit firm ground, but the entire world is composed of crisscrossed treadmills.

That’s where the temples come in. Rather than awarding a secure building site to only one player, every mountain benefits exactly three separate tribes. There’s a lot going on here. Each level of a temple scores points and provides an increasing number of upgrades. They also allow your followers to teleport from your player mat onto the map itself, increasing your potential mobility. Sticking around on a temple also lets you “study” there when somebody builds a level on top of it. Ding! That’s a free upgrade.

At the same time, temples behave as a catch-up mechanism. Or, to be more precise, a slow-down mechanism. When you build a temple, your follower is placed on its now-completed highest level. But these temples are tall, higher than the mountains, meaning you’ll need to travel up or down them like a staircase. While building the final level of a temple is enviable, it also means you’ll consume valuable actions and movement points climbing back down the dang thing. You’ve leaped ahead of your opponents. Now you face the StairMaster.

There is no demigod of fiddles. Although there ought to be.

The bigger map highlights just how fiddly Oros can be.

I mentioned some jank. Oros never quite escapes the sense that it’s trying to do too much. If anything, it proudly leans into its fiddliness. Its lightest offense is the way the map is moved and shifted. Tiles can be pushed over the edge and reappear on the opposite side of the map, causing a real pile-up when a shift upends entire rows and columns, or even sends the whole periphery of the board marching clockwise, complete with attendant ninety-degree rotations. Especially on the larger map, we found ourselves losing count of which tiles had moved and which were still awaiting their turn. The same goes for other little rules. Land-creating volcanoes behave simply enough in theory — lava flows downhill — but are burdened with little particulars. If that wasn’t enough, the upgrade system allows you to bend or modify these rules. Not every option is equally useful. Letting lava zigzag rather than pouring in a straight line isn’t as exciting as upgrading your followers’ movement, for example. If anything, those latter upgrades are largely essential, letting your followers bypass entire portions of the game’s movement puzzle by hopping over minor stretches of water rather than having to call upon their demigod to ram a nearby landmass into their beach like a tectonic taxi. The entire thing is uneven.

For all that pernicketiness, what begins as a complex dance to position islands, merge landmasses, and ensure you’re in the right place at the right time to capitalize on firm real estate soon devolves into a blind race to reach and build on opposing foundations. In a four-player game, it isn’t uncommon for two or three players to sync up. They’ll swap foundations and temple levels while everyone else tinkers with landmasses or tries to move closer. This can create a vicious cycle as some of the table amasses upgrades and points while everyone else falls behind.

And yet I can’t help but feel some fondness for Oros. Not only because there’s nothing quite like it, although in this hobby a little bit of novelty goes a long way. It’s more than that. I’ve always appreciated games that actualize your creations, that let you see the produce of your play, and Oros gives you command over every little corner. The islands and isthmuses, the cutesy volcanoes, those shared temples, the mountains. Pro tip: Stack each mountain tile atop another tile to make them stand above the rest. This draws attention to them as primo destinations and makes it significantly easier to remember you can’t shift them willy-nilly. Point is, this world feels uniquely yours. It carries the scars of landmasses you’ve banged into each other, gaps where you slid rows apart, clusters of peaks from that volcano project you began and never finished with a mass eruption. And you’re not only building it. You’re exploring it, looking for connected passages, breaking apart land bridges that favor other players. It’s slightly akin to Santa Monica in that regard. I love a game that lets me wander through the space it had me create.

My little world. Where I never once let Geoff get within a mile of a good mountain co-op.

Ah, that’s better.

Do I wish it had been a little smoother, or let my followers do more than just build temples, or provided an arc that didn’t halt so abruptly once the first buildings were assembled? Sure.

At the same time, Oros is an enviable first effort. It understands a few notable things on a bone-deep level. Like having temples slow down their builders for a moment. Like its rather clever action-selection system. Like letting your followers take on multiple identities depending on your goals. Like letting me wander through its world rather than just stringing it together. It’s a lovely destination. I’m happy to give it a few repeat visits.

 

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Posted on January 24, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This one is beautifully appealing, like a tectonic Mexica.

  2. You should be arrested for that title. 😛

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