Onirim is not only the smallest game we’ll be writing about in this post but it’s also the oldest in my collection. And there’s a good reason for it. It’s absolutely amazing!
In Onirim you are a dreamwalker, trapped in an ethereal labyrinth, searching for 8 doors that will free you from slumber. However opening the doors isn’t exactly a walk in the clouds. On your turn you’ll play cards from your hand, forming a single row of dreamy labyrinthine rooms. The object is complete sets of three matching coloured cards, but each new card you lay down must have a different symbol to the previous one – either a sun, moon or key. If you manage to get the colours and the sequence to work, you’ll discover one of the doorways you’ll need to escape the dream world.
Getting the correct sequencing of labyrinth cards may sound tricky, because it is, but as you play cards onto the labyrinth track you’re also refilling your hand, which always gives you an option of where to go next. However, scattered throughout your draw pile are ‘nightmares’, waiting to disturb your peaceful sojourn. Nightmares eat away at the cards in your hand and deck, forcing you to discard precious pieces of the puzzle and ultimately making it more difficult to escape. There are ways of fighting the nightmares (like holding on to ‘key’ cards) but the skill is to carefully manage your hand while simultaneously digging deeper into this dreamy labyrinth.
Onirim is a perfect blend of challenging game play and addictive fun. Every game will have you locked in the dream world and you’ll say to yourself “I know how to get out!” So you’ll try again, and again, and again. Until, suddenly it all starts to click, and you will get out. Eventually. However, just when you think you’ve mastered the system, along comes a new challenge. Onirim comes packed with several mini expansions that add new layers of difficulty to the game. Now, you have to find the doors in a set order or search mystical towers and cast spells to fend off the nightmares. And when you master each of those, you can combine them all together to make a puzzle with more horrifying depth than cube in Hellraiser. The amount of punch this small box packs is utterly staggering.
Onirim is of course the game that launched the Oniverse series nearly a decade ago, which has grown to become the Studio Ghibli of board gaming with it’s whimsically child like art style and immensely rewarding puzzle solving. In truth you could take this endorsement for any of the Oniverse games, but for me, Onirim is the OG of this fantastic series and will remain in my collection for years to come.
Hostage Negotiator simulates what it’s like to be in the unfortunate position of leading a conversation with a hostage taker, and if there is one thing this game teaches you, it’s that nothing is certain in this line of work.
The action in Hostage Negotiator all takes place around a central tableau, which shows you all the relevant information you need to do you’re job. Who the terrorist is, what their demands are, how threatened they currently feel, how many hostages they have taken, and heaven forbid, how many casualties there are. You’ll have a hand of basic ‘conversation cards’ which you use to talk to the hostage taker. Whenever you play a conversation card, you roll a number of dice according to how threatened they feel. The more threatened they are, the less dice you roll and vice versa. Conversation cards have a variety of outcomes but by successfully talking with the hostage taker, you are mainly trying to calm them down – reducing their threat and increasing your dice pool – and getting them to open up – gaining you conversation points.
That last part is very important, because when a conversation is over in a round, you get to spend the conversation points you earned and buy more advanced conversation cards which open up more daring plays like instantly freeing hostages or having a sniper take the shot. Ultimately the calmer the hostage taker is the more likely future conversations will go well, and the more they open up to you in conversations the more psychological tools you’ll have at your disposal. Unfortunately, things are never straight forward in this line of work. At the end of every round a ‘terror event’ will occur which really hammers home the unpredictable nature of these situations. Even when things are going seemingly well, the unthinkable can happen. If you haven’t freed enough hostages by the time 10 terror events occur, you’ll only have one very slim chance to save the day.
Hostage Negotiator is probably the most intense game on this list. Not only is the theme extremely evocative, but you are also at the mercy of dice rolls at every turn. On the surface this may seem like a shallow luck-fest, but that is how all good gambles appear at first. Like in casino games, luck is a tool that can be bent in your favour, and at it’s core, Hostage Negotiator is gambling at it’s purist. The strategy is to improve your odds as best you can in a very volatile situation. Of course this means things can (and will) go wrong, even when it seems certain, but that is the beauty of this game. It shows just how demanding and challenging the job of a negotiator is, and I for one am quite happy to only visit the profession through this game.
Van Ryder Games has a reputation for making games that tell stories and Hostage Negotiator is no different. I’ve not played a game before or since that so closely marries theme and mechanics. When you move a meeple from the the hostage pool to the casualty zone, it’s hard to not feel like you’ve been stabbed in the heart. Conversely, when you move someone to the safe zone, you feel like an absolute hero. This game is definitely not for the faint of heart but if you enjoy a good dice with death, look no further.
Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth
Speaking of games that tell stories, ‘Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth’ by Osprey Games is a re-skin of the highly acclaimed ‘Lost Expedition’ which came out in 2017, and is (rather unexpectedly) equal parts a puzzler as it is a story game.
In JD:TCE you control Judges Dredd, Anderson and Giant of the infamous comic book series ‘2000AD’, as you march across the wasteland beyond the Mega Cities known as ‘The Cursed Earth’, in search of a person called Max Normal. Max is carrying a virus so potent it risks all life on the planet, and the Judges are tasked with securing his capture before he ends up in the wrong hands. And the wrong hands is exactly who is after him. An evil droid named ‘Satellat’ with its partners, ‘Mean Machine’ and ‘The Disciple’ are already hot on Max’s heels. As the Judges, you’ll need to catch up if you stand a chance finding Max before they do.
You’ll encounter a multitude of hazards across the cursed earth, represented by large beautifully drawn full art cards, laid in a single row across the play area. The type of hazards on encounter cards are symbolised by different icons, while their priority is denoted by their colour. Yellow icons are compulsory, red gives you a choice of hazard and blue is completely voluntary. These encounters can be anything from running low on food and ammo to bumping into a Satanic dinosaur….The cursed earth is a very weird place.
When your turn begins in earnest, you’ll encounter these cards from left to right, but the order they’re arranged is dictated by dusk and dawn setup each round. At dawn, you’ll arrange cards in numerical order, which doesn’t seem that terrible (you’ll say while peaking through your fingers) since it gives you a sliver of foresight as you lay the cards in the row. Whereas at dusk, cards are instead placed at the book ends of the row, which quickly becomes a logistical nightmare that my normal sized brain struggles to comprehend. The reason why these cards arrangement is so important is because the goal is to mitigate as much damage as possible so you don’t get squirted out the other end of the row like the last bit of toothpaste. Sometimes you’ll find precious resources like ammo and food, or best of all, a path forward to the next location, but most of the time, the Judges will become wounded, irradiated and fight their way out of encounters one at a time.
JD:TCE is an extremely challenging and intriguing puzzle. The game is essentially a gauntlet run through a harsh and unforgiving wasteland, and you have to make sure the Judges don’t hit too many rocks on their way down the hill. Lining up the cards in such a way that you aren’t dead by dawn is a Kasparov like quandary in itself, but fortunately there is a knack to it. Once you get used to the layout each round and which cards are the most dangerous, you start to see the signs, like a safe cracker carefully listening for pin tumblers to drop. Practice, memory and a dash of luck, are the main herbs in this spicy dish.
Although the puzzle IS the core feature to this game, one of the most striking things for me was how every card tells a story. The hazards on each encounter all make complete sense and often steer the player towards which direction they should take. You may stumble upon a wounded triceratops, but do you spend valuable ammo to put it out its misery and spend the time to prepare its remains as food, or do waste no time at all and move through it? That narrative cohesiveness and entertaining tasks gives this game just that extra bit of je ne sais quoi that makes it a solid gem. Do yourself a favour and get this one. Don’t think about it, just do it. It’s usually cheap and at the time of writing this review, it’s available from Osprey’s website for less than a tenner. So it’s a no brainer if you ask me.
Zulus on the Ramparts!
Some days I just get this hankering to play a war game. I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a war gamer, but there is something incredibly alluring about their serious tone and beige colour palette. Lucky for me ‘Zulus on the Ramparts’ is a casual war gaming delight and could fit on any soloists shelf.
ZotR retells the story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa in 1879, which to this day, is one of the most successful defences in military history. To give a little context, the British had just suffered a massive defeat at Isandlwana, the first engagement of the Anglo-Zulu War, with nearly 1400 casualties at the hands of a Zulu army numbering of over 20000 warriors. The surviving troops retreated to nearby Rorke’s Drift, a mission station manned by 150 British troops and lead by Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead, and alerted the makeshift base that a contingent of Zulu Warriors was heading their direction. Deciding to stay, the British began fortifying the station with bags of corn around the perimeter. There they waited for the Zulu forces. The Zulu warriors were made up of 4 attacking groups, known as iButho’s and comprised of some 3000-4000 fighting men. With the Zulu forces vastly outnumbering the British, the attacks began in the late afternoon and didn’t cease until the early hours the next morning with the British managing to keep the the Zulu’s at bay by sticking to their guns (quite literary).
ZotR is one of Victory Points Games famed ‘States of Siege’ titles, which is a gloriously straightforward tower defence system. You’ll reveal tokens at the start of your turn that tell you which of the Zulu forces – the loins, chest, left or right horns – will move towards the centre of the mission station, and you must spend your turn performing actions like forming a reserve company or fetching ammo & water for the troops, while also firing a volley of attacks at the Zulu’s ranks by rolling handfuls of dice. Attacks that connect either drive the Zulu forces back or reduce their numbers. However, it only takes one iButho to break the back of the British forces. If any of the iButho’s make it to the Zulu Victory token in the centre of the board, the British lose. If on the other hand, the British can withstand the constant barrage of attacks until the relief column arrives in the morning, they will have survived as they did in real life.
This is a super exciting game that has a tremendous amount of card playing depth bubbling underneath its dice chucking surface. The main British protagonists – Lieutenant’s Chard and Bromhead – have such a marvellous synergy it’s hard not to cheer them on like they’re wrestling tag team. Chard helps you dig deeper into the deck and gets troops out FAST, while Bromhead is the go getter of the two and lets you commit more actions during your turn. The card play is so good in ZotR, I’ll often opt to play it over bigger games like Arkham Horror the card game. ZotR can be brutal at times, but thankfully the game comes with a slew of bonus cards that give you more defensive options. These are entirely optional so if you prefer the historically difficult version then you won’t be disappointed.
As a person who only flirts with war games on occasion, ZotR is perhaps one of the sweetest deals for casual players since the story is one for the most straight forward. You don’t have to worry about country spanning maps or moving hundreds of troops or complex military strategies or the socio-economic aspects of certain territories. There’s none of that. ZotR is a very easily digested story that invites the player to learn more when they’ve finished, which is exactly what I want from a war game – A compelling story that makes you want to discover more about a culture in a different time and place. A true gem in my opinion.