By Michael Chamberlain
Ortus, released this year (2013) by FableSmith and designed by Joost Das, is an abstract strategy game for two players with an Asian combat theme, played on a hex board. The game is said to last between 30 and 45 minutes and this is about right, though you can expect your initial games to be shorter while you get used to the subtleties of the game and the ways you can win or lose. Players will take turns making moves until one of them either eliminates enough enemy warriors or controls five of the energy wells on the board.
In the box you will find a nice double sided board (two different arenas to play in), two teams of eight warrior meeples (2 each of four colours), some counters (four glass and two wood) and a well written and colourful rule book in four languages. All of the components in this game are a really nice quality, granted the glass beads are nothing special but they don’t need to be. The real stand out pieces are the warrior meeples. The Warriors come in four colours and their team is distinguished by the colouring of their hats (Either pale or dark). They come in four colours representing the different types of warriors: Wind, Earth, Water and Fire (yellow, green, blue and red respectively).
Set up is nice and simple. Each player places their warriors on the grey haven spaces on their side of the board, these are spaces where pieces are immune to attack; the pieces can be placed in any order or configuration. Players then take a glass bead and their guide marker and place them beside the game board. This game can be played in either an apprentice or a master game, I will be focussing on the master game. However, I will make reference to my thoughts on the apprentice after describing game play.
At the start of a player’s turn, the player will count how many energy wells they control (at the start of the game this will be zero) and from this they will mark their energy for the turn. Depending on the number of wells controlled this will range from 14 to 28 (though the start player only gets 7 for their first turn) and this is the resource you will use to move, defend and attack with. If at the start of their turn a player controls five energy wells they have won the game. The player can then move their warriors at the cost of one energy per space moved. The only warrior that doesn’t obey this rule is the Air warrior, these move in a straight line until something blocks their path (either another piece, the core at the centre or the board, a haven space or the edge of the board). A player may move as many pieces as they wish on their turn but each piece may only move and attack once in each turn (the only exception to this is that the starting player may only move one Air warrior).
Energy is also used to make attacks so let’s look at those next. Each of the four warriors have a different attack. In the master version these attacks have different strengths and costs. These vary from the Air ranged attack at strength 4 and costing one point of energy for each hex to the target (this is by far the easiest ranged attack), to the supper aggressive Raging Bear charge attack from the Earth warrior, that counts as the pieces move and attack for the turn, costing two energy per point of movement but with an attack strength of six. When a piece of yours is attacked, you have a choice: you can either remove the piece from the board (though it will return again to play at the end of your next turn) or you can pay an amount of energy equal to the attack’s power to protect that piece and keep it in play. A player can stop moving pieces and making attacks at any time they wish and any remaining energy is then available to the player during his opponent’s turn to defend against attacks. Also the Fire and Earth warriors have strong defensive abilities. Earth is cloaked from attack unless it is on a hex line with an opposing Earth warrior and Fire warriors can team up to offer protection to each other and other pieces.
When you first remove an enemy piece from the board you will get to place your guide marker on the board and then move it one place closer to the centre core space each time you kill a subsequent enemy piece. The guide marker serves two purposes in the game. Firstly, if your guide marker is ever on the core space at the centre of the board you win the game. Secondly at the end of your turn you get to return any of your defeated warriors to the board and these can be placed anywhere in your haven, but you also have the option to place one of these pieces onto your guide marker.
Ortus is a game of dynamic balance in your resources and ambitions. How much will you push forward to control that energy well? How many pieces can you afford to defend and lose? Its blending of resource management with abstract strategy I found to be very well achieved and a delight to play. There is no doubt that this is still very much an abstract game, yet the theme, beautifully depicted by the board, descriptions and the meeples does not diminish this but enriches this beyond that of abstract games which we are used to seeing. We did find playing it that we were laying pieces down to keep track of which pieces had used their actions and although this is not a solution that is advised in the manual is a simple enough one to deduce that I have no doubt many gamers will come to this solution anyway. This game will of course suffer from the problem that many abstracts do in that is one player is significantly better than the other that and it is likely to be a runaway victory for that player. However, there is a variant allowing for one player to have a reserve of bonus energy to use for defence, which allows players to still achieve an enjoyable and balanced play experience. Despite not having tried this yet, it is impressive to see that this has been considered and implemented allowing for I believe more scope for players to enjoy. I could scrape the barrel here and try to find some little thing to criticise in this game but it would be dishonest to do so. I am very much enamoured of this game and its complexities right from the balance of energy from attack and defence, to the ways in which the different pieces work (Water for instance has some devastating attacks that are a joy to set up) I am really glad to have the chance to play this and will continue to enjoy it. Rumour of an expansion with more pieces in time is news that would be very much welcomed if and when it comes to fruition.
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