Omen: Reign of War is a head-to-head card battler by John Clowdus of Small Box Games. John has released a number of artisanal games in tiny print runs. All of which have been home produced and critically acclaimed. Sadly, these have never made it into my collection. I always baulk at the cost of shipping from the USA.
His work came to my attention as it is much vaunted by the excellent Boar Game Barrage team. As soon as I found I could get a copy of Omen, I took the plunge. I wasn’t disappointed.
How to Play
In Omen: Reign of War you are fighting for control of three cities in a mythic Classical Greek setting and you take it in turns gathering wealth, playing unit cards, fighting over cities and making offerings to the gods. Turns break down into a series of steps – first you draw ‘wealth’: cards (from a common deck), coins or a mixture of the two. You can take three items in total, but if you choose all coins or all cards you get the bonus of a fourth – a small but meaningful decision.
Next you ‘Surge’ – which is really just playing cards by spending the requisite number of coins shown on the individual card(s). Cards come in a range of categories and are typically played on your side of one of the three cities, which occupy the battle line between you across the table. You can play as many cards as you can afford, but a maximum of 5 cards can occupy a city (Colossal Beast cards count as 2). When you play these cards some, such as Soldiers, have an immediate Deploy effect as well as boosting your Strength in the city. Others, like Beasts, give a choice of placing the card or discarding it for an even bigger effect.
While ‘Surging’ (ridiculous, no?) you can also use one of the Reward cards that you may have won from prior victories in combat over one of the cities. These give a big effect, but if you use it the Reward drops from 2VP value to 1VP – and with a tight end game scoring margin it’s not a decision to take lightly.
The third step is Portent – this is the activation of the effect of any Oracle cards in your cities which are unique in giving a turnly effect for as long as they are present. Once this is complete you then have a chance to check whether you have completed one of your six Feat cards which contribute 2 VP to your score. Each player holds an identical set in front of them on the table and they show criteria such as having an Oracle in each city or drawing 5 cards in your turn.
Then it is crunch time as you do a War check. If your opponent has 3 units in a city or your combined total is 5 is going to be a fight and this can happen in multiple cities in one turn. Fights compare the total strength of the units on each side in the War-Torn cities. The winner gets a Reward tile but they lose all bar one unit and the loser loses all but two – talk about Pyrrhic victories. Ties are resolved by the total coin value of the two sides with the more expensive army winning.
Finally, onto the Offering step, where a unit from your hand can be discarded for its offering value in coins/cards or a combination of the two. An interesting bookend to the Wealth step at the beginning.
The game ends when two of the three cities have been depleted of Rewards or when a player has completed their fifth Feat card. VP are based on Feats completed, Rewards earned through war and Hero cards held in a players hand.
How Does it Play?
Omen is pacey, punchy and really rather fab. Turn play becomes swift but full of satisfying decision points. The Wealth mechanic at the beginning of your turn and the Offering step at the end encourage you to plan our the rhythm of one turn to the next. This is quite frequently thrown by the aggressive plays of your opponent. The Surge step always presents difficult choices on what you want where and the balance of playing for effects, getting closer to completing Feats or setting up to provoke or avoid war.
The conditions for war themselves are interesting as you have to plan carefully to try to ensure that this triggers at a time beneficial to you rather than your opponent. And when a war is fought, what to keep and what to discard can be a tough call particularly if you are choosing between weak Oracles with their turnly effects or stronger Soldiers or Heroes – the latter of which also afford VP if they are still in your hand at the end of the game.
It isn’t a perfect game, but my critique is pretty minimal. The game tends to be more tactical than strategic as the potentially devastating effect of your opponents turn can leave best-laid plans in tatters. That said, this is a game of dramatic recovery and the end game is often very close. The other minor criticism is that battle resolution feels a little odd given winning has a higher casualty cost than losing. Also, the greatest impact on the immediate game state often feels like it comes from card-play rather than battles. But I am not saying this is broken – it works well, but just feels slightly strange at times
Omen: Reign of War is another game that scratches my old MtG itch without necessitating the commitment of an LCG. Though it does have variants in the rulebook and a number of expansions which can be combined in a variety of ways. The one I have picked up, Tales of the Ancients, add interesting modular content at a minimal cost.
Omen is 2 player only and plays in 30-45 minutes – though if you are anything like me you will end up playing several games back to back, as immediate and long term replayability is high. Production values are great and the art and design are smashing - a real table presence albeit compact and small-box.
Definitely recommend this to all who like head-to-head 2 player games – well worth a place on the shelf and a frequent showing on the table.