There are many offerings of remarkable, short, two player games. Summoner Wars, Neuroshima Hex, Battle for Hill 218, Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, among many others. In a field of crowded quality candidates, Omen still stands out as worthy of collection inclusion.
Omen has a depth of decision points. The decision tree commonly takes the shape of a bisection of branches, with two available choices. The game offers so many of those tough, meaningful decision points. It takes a short card game and turns it into a tense struggle. As you take your turn, you’ll be walking through a forest of dense decisions. Very little of your turn is consumed by just pushing bits around, adjusting tracks, or busy work. Instead you’ll be evaluating your options the whole time.
Omen is a two player card game. No drafting, customizing, expanding, or purchase of infinite endless power creep expansions is required. There are card drafting variants offered if you are so inclined, but the standard way to play is to just crack open the box and start playing.
The play area is structured around cities. There are 3 identical cities. A city is simply represented a stack of reward cards that players can earn by winning a battle there. All card deployment happens to a city.
The first thing you do each turn is take a wealth step. You get 3 wealth actions. For each wealth action, you choose either one gold or one card. So right off the bat you’re given 3 bisecting options. If you spend all 3 actions on money you gain a bonus gold. If you spend all 3 actions on drawing cards you get to draw a bonus one. But even selecting the focus bonus can be risky since there’s a lot of cards that punish hoarding.
Gold and cards are the resources of the game. All cards require gold to play them. If you choose all cards, you won’t play any of them if you don’t have gold. If you choose all gold, you’ll have no cards to spend it on. Balancing gold and cards over the course of the game is a key strategic factor.
There are 3 types of cards in the deck. Beasts are usually the most powerful. Soldiers will form the backbone of your operations. Oracles grant economic advantages.
Beasts always have two options. One option is using its text special ability. If you take that option, it is resolved and immediately discarded. Or, you can play it into the table as a unit, but get no benefit from its text. In that case you just get its raw power. Beasts on the table are usually among the most powerful units, so they can make a big difference in winning battles. Beasts also count as two units. Several things in this game are dependent on the number of units, so counting two heads on one card can be very potent. However you do this at the expense of its text ability.
Soldiers are cards that always trigger their text when they hit the table, but it’s commonly an ability you’ll use just once. Abilities on soldiers and beasts is where you create card combos. But because of the way you have to split your attention between two different resources, you’ll rarely be able to put out everything you want. As mentioned, the game has cards that really punish hoarding, such as forcing your opponent to discard all cards or all gold. So saving up for one big mega combo can be a risk. You’ll have to carefully consider what you’ll prioritize this turn.
The other type of card is oracles. These chickie-poos typically provide a base line supplement your resources, plus a small chance of an extra pecuniary bonus. They don’t provide a lot of interesting decisions, but they excel at sitting there and looking pretty. And you always want pretty chickie-poos in all your cities.
Another duel decision point is the path to victory. You can get points from winning battles. The other way to get points is from feats. They are not mutually exclusive, and most games will have points from a combination of both. However a player can decide to focus on one or the other.
When a city gets overcrowded, it becomes war torn and a fight erupts. Unit capacity is an important element to manage. A battle will happen on your turn if your opponent has 3 units in a city or if there is a total of 5 altogether. Usually you want a city to be war torn due to the 5 unit overcrowding, since that means you have more control over the outcome. Having 3 units in a city and triggering a battle on your opponents turn can be risky, since they will have a turn to deploy and possibly outgun you.
When you think of battles, you typically envision the loser getting beat up and losing dudes. Despite being a very aggressive game, resolving battles is rather passive for the losing player. Battles are decidedly uninteractive, so don’t expect engaging conflict execution. The typical outcome is the loser retains all of his cards, while the winner kills down to one card. It’s as if the losing soldiers in the city look up from eating their soup and shrug “did you hear something?”
When you win a battle, you draw a reward card. Each reward card presents a choice. You can utilize its special power. If you do so, you get a one shot benefit, and the card is worth 1 point at the end of the game. Or, if you never use the card’s special ability, it is worth 2 points at the end of the game. High scores are usually in the teens, so this is a critically important choice.
The other way to score is by accomplishing feats. Each player has a set of six identical feats that can be accomplished. They include things like having a soldier in each city, a beast in each city, having 5 guys in one city, or making your opponent discard 3 cards. Each feat accomplished is worth two points. On top of all the hand management, resource management, and combo creation, you are also looking for ways you can get your feats accomplished. This adds another layer to the thought process.
At the end of your turn you can make an offering. You can trash one of your preciously acquired cards to gain resources for its offering value. You can choose to draw cards and/or gain gold. So for example if it has an offering of 3, you can collect a combined total of 3 cards and/or gold.
Here’s how a turn might pan out. As one of your wealth actions, you chose to draw a card. It was a beast. You chose to use that card as a unit instead of holding it as an offering. Then you pay the cost of the beast, and have to choose between using its text or getting its strength in a city. You choose to put it in a city. This wins you a battle there and you draw a reward card. You then choose to play the reward card to get its bonus and only have 1 VP instead of 2. The reward lets you complete a feat, which gives you another 2 victory points.
The result is a string of challenging, meaningful choices throughout your turn. It requires you to be very tactical with the resources and cards you have at the moment. At the same time, it allows for “long term” planning to map out your turn. I use the phrase long term loosely; mapping out a whole turn is relatively long term considering how short this game is.
It’s easy for short games to be able to boast a high return on investment when it comes to investment in time and complexity versus the return on enjoyable game depth. Nearly any short game with any amount of decent strategy can make this claim. But Omen stands out as having an especially good ratio of weight to depth. Sessions are super short. If you have a particularly long game it might hit 30 minutes, but you can usually finish up a match sooner than that. And the amount of meaningful, challenging, interesting decisions crammed into your turn is very satisfying. I’ll almost never turn down a chance to tack on a quick session of Omen at the end of a game night.
Despite battles being uninteractive, this is a very aggressive game. There are plenty of cards that slam your opponent and make them lose their wealth and cards. The screwage will be flying on both sides, making for a very swingy game. An early punch in the face can often be turned around and countered with a kick to the groin. Metaphorically. Part of the appeal of Omen is the fierceness of the game play with the excitement and surprise of the comebacks and rebounds.
There’s one last thing about Omen I want to recognize. There’s already plenty of interesting things about Omen to justify inclusion in your collection. As icing on the cake, the artwork in this game is remarkable. There’s nothing I can say about it that’d be any better than just letting you take a gaze for yourself. So I’ll leave you with a sampling of some of the amazing images you’ll get to enjoy as you play Omen: