Oros is what happens when plate tectonics meets Asteroids. Asteroids as in the video game, if you’re old enough to remember that one. Smooshing landmasses together to make mountains, building temples and shrines, and sending your followers out to study is the order of the day, and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve never played a game with mechanisms like those in Oros, which makes it feel fresh and different. There’s a lot going on, however, which might make for an awkward first play. It’s worth persisting though, because Oros is one of the best under-hyped gems of 2023.
The world according to Oros is a small, water-covered globe. That globe is laid flat on the main game board, and underwater volcanoes are spewing land into the world, creating islands and bigger land masses. As a demigod, you’re powerful enough to move land, and you’ve got two methods to do it. You can either shift connected land tiles in one direction or move tiles into other tiles, combining them to make bigger pieces of land and even forcing volcanoes to form. When I talked about your first play maybe feeling awkward, it’s down to the way the moving tiles act when they move past the edges of the map.
When the tiles in the leftmost column move to the left, they come in again to the column on the right, and vice-versa. The same goes for tiles in the top and bottom rows moving up and down. If something disappears off one side, it reappears on the opposite side, just like in Asteroids. The really interesting thing is what happens when tiles in the leftmost column (for example) move up. They slide off the top and rotate clockwise into the top row, like turning a wheel. The easiest way to think about it is like a Rubik’s Cube. Getting your head around how these two work in tandem is a challenge for some people, me included, but it’s not the end of the world.
You can play the game and not totally get how all that movement works together, and have a great time, and even win. It’s an important point to take note of, because when you introduce the game to people for the first time it can make them feel like “I don’t really get this, so I’m not going to play well, and I’m just going to get demolished. This is no fun.” Expect a lot of questions for the first game or two, and a lot of referencing the rulebook for examples. In terms of difficult things though, that’s as far as it goes.
To win the game you need to get the most wisdom. Wisdom comes through study, and in order to study your followers need places to study. You build those places through the build action on your player board, which is also where your other actions live. You move your followers from space to space to activate the actions, which adds a layer of strategy right from the get-go. If you want to take the Journey action, that action space needs to be vacant, so the follower that was there needs to go to another action space, thus blocking that space. It’s like constantly tripping over your own feet while trying to walk in a straight line.
Most of the strategy in Oros comes from timing. The land tiles grow as volcanoes erupt and tiles get smashed together until two size-4 tiles merge and become a mountain. Mountains are the only places you can build, and competition for those spaces is fierce. You can build up in three tiers, and the higher the tier you build, the more wisdom you get, and the higher up the ziggurat (scoring track) you go.
The cool thing is that the wisdom you earn is spent on moving little markers up the tracks on your action spaces which improves the power of each action. You’ll get situations where you think the little corner of the world you’re occupying is ready to be built on, then all of a sudden somebody else shifts that entire column halfway across the board, and it’s open season for monolith builders of all colours. It’s like setting up a delicious meal on a long table, getting everything just so, and then someone pulls the tablecloth and takes it all away. Yoink! It’s equal parts infuriating and amazing at the same time, and you can’t help but admire when someone pulls off a genius set of actions which completely ruin your plans, while simultaneously boosting themselves way up.
Oros left me a little cold after my first play. I liked what it was trying to do, and I liked the mechanisms, but it left me a bit flat. The second play though, the third, and each play after that were great. When you understand what the game is doing, and what you need to do to win, it takes on this whole new light. The combination of the unique geometric puzzle and action selection is extremely satisfying.
I really appreciate the simplicity of the game design. Having a few meeples and markers per player and a few stacks of tiles is refreshingly clean in contrast to the current trend of more, more, more. Setup and teardown are quick and it actually takes longer to explain the game than to get it ready to play. The movement is a tricky thing to get the hang of, and I’m sure it might be the thing which turns some people off of the game after a first play. That would be a shame though.
I want to draw attention to the Automa system in Oros. To play the game you need at least three players, which sounds like a kick in the stomach for solo or two-players, but thankfully the designers have included a custom Automa deck per player colour. They’re not only just different colours, they also have different personalities and play styles. The good news is that running the Automa requires zero mental overhead. You don’t need to make any decisions for the AI players, just follow the simple instructions on the current card from top to bottom. It means playing solo is not only easy to do but really rewarding.
Oros is a unique game which deserves way more attention than it gets. If you’re one of those people who’s always looking for that undiscovered gem, or just want something different from anything you’ve played before, Oros is a fantastic choice.
Review copy kindly provided by Lucky Duck Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Design: Brandt Brinkerhoff
Publisher: Lucky Duck Games, AESC Games
Art: Brandt Brinkerhoff
Playing time: 60-120 mins