From across the desert sands of Egypt, and through many thousands of years, comes the ancient puzzle that is Ominoes.
Launched via a successful Kickstarter by Yay games last year, Ominoes is a fast-paced, abstract dice game, which requires players to collect sets of their own symbol, whilst preventing their opponents from doing the same, in an Egyptian-themed setting. Ominoes recently won “Best Abstract Game” at UK Games Expo, but is it any good? Let’s find out.
Ominoes: What’s in the box?
Ominoes comes in a surprisingly big box, which is largely empty: the board, although not huge, pushes the footprint of this game to a completely different level than the rest of the components would suggest, and the dice are left largely rattling around in the box.
As much as it seems odd to start a review of a game with the box, this one bothered me quite a bit – it doesn’t feel like it would have taken much effort to put a simple hinge down the middle of the board, and have the end result take up half as much shelf space.
Board aside, Ominoes is mostly dice, all of them six-sided and customised. 4 faces each feature one of the 4 different player-symbols, whilst the last two contain the wild re-roll and move faces. The dice are wooden, with the symbols painted on, and they look solid enough, which is reassuring, as a game of Ominoes where the symbols have rubbed off would be more-or-less useless. Overall the component quality of this game is solidly “fine” – it neither feels cheap and shoddy, nor like money has been wasted on needlessly high-spec components.
So what do we do?
Every turn in Ominoes you (generally) do 3 things – you roll an Omino, you move an Omino already in play, and you place the one you just rolled.
4 of the 6 sides of a dice in Ominoes correspond to the sets the players are trying to collect – the Green Bird, the Blue Scarab, the Red Snake or the Yellow Sun. When you roll one of these Ominoes, you move a dice with the same symbol already in play 3 spaces – you can’t move diagonally, through other Ominoes, or back to a space you’ve already been on this turn, but otherwise it’s fairly flexible. If there is no suitable die to move already in play, then this step gets skipped.
Finally, you place the Omino you’ve just rolled: at this point, if you have a group of 4 (or more) adjacent Ominoes of your colour, you can score them: receive a point for each, and remove them from the board – the first to 13 points in a 3 or 4-player game, or 21 points in a 2-player game) is the winner.
Is that it? – No!
If that was all there was to a game of Ominoes, then it would be a fairly uninspiring luck-fest with an Egyptian theme tacked on. Fortunately, there’s a bit more going on than just “can I roll 13 reds before you roll 13 blues?”
Whilst 4 of the 6 die-faces in Ominoes contain the coloured symbols that correspond to the different players, there are also 2 black faces: Ominotep and Ypay-Ra (presumably the Egyptian deities concerned with Ominoes and Yay Games respectively). Ominotee, the serpent eating itself – allows you to roll a die already on the board. Yay-Ra “the mover” (depicted by a stick-man) allows you to move any die already in play (following the standard rules). More importantly, these black symbols are considered ‘wild’ for the purposes of groups – this has a number of benefits. For one thing, treating the snake and the mover as wild means that you don’t have to roll 4+ of your own symbol before you can do things, as you can still score points off of groups made up primarily of wild dice.
Early in this game of Green V Red, it doesn’t look like there’s much on for the Green player.
However, Rolling Yay-Ra, the mover, allows them to form a group of 2 greens and 2 blacks, which can be scored!
More to the point, the black, wild symbols make the strategy of movement in Ominoes a lot less one-dimensional: when moving your own Ominoes, you want them all bunched together, so that you can score the points – if it’s somebody else’s then you want them as spread out as possible.
As soon as you introduce a wild group though, the goal is more ambiguous: the fact that these are neither entirely yours, nor entirely your opponents’ means that you need to give a lot more consideration to where you put them – there might well be opportunities for you to increase your own score, but careless positioning can allow your opponent to score points.
Just for 2? Or bring the others?
Ominoes can be played by anywhere between 2 and 4 players, each taking one colour, and the board is double-sided depicting a more compact play-area when there are only 2 of you, followed by a larger grid of spaces to ensure that a 3 or 4-player game doesn’t get too congested. They also have different sized blue centre-areas, which are out-of-bounds when playing the expert variant.
In this game of Red v Blue, Blue rolls a Yay-Ra. He could use it to score his Blues, but instead he takes the Yellow group, leaving his Blues in play for a future round, and denying his opponent an opportunity to score.
In a 2 or 3 player game of Ominoes, there will be colours on the dice which are not anybody’s main colour. When this happens, they become collectible by anyone.
Aside from fixing an otherwise major mechanical difficulty (imagine the scenario where red, blue and yellow play until the whole board is green…) this felt like a really clever decision by the designers, as it creates another area of ambiguity: in a 2-player game of blue versus yellow, it’s not only the two wild faces, but also the Reds and Greens which now require extra thought – spread them out too much and you deny yourself the chance of points, but cluster them too much, and you hand the opportunity to your opponent. Making the unused colours score-able by either player also reduces the likelihood of a dead turn where you cannot move or place anything which will impact the game in a meaningful way.
Do I need luck or strategy? A bit of both!
In any dice game, the faces you roll are going to have a major impact on the overall outcome: if nobody ever rolled anything besides Reds, then the red player would win, no matter how incompetent (although I think I’d be checking for weighted dice if that happened against me…)
That said, Ominoes manages to balance the luck element really well – the fact that half of the faces on a dice can potentially score you points if used wisely means that games where you can do nothing really would have to be freak occurrences, even if there will be spells when the board feels depressingly light on your particular colour.
As I’ve already said, the fact that 2 or 3-player games make 1 or 2 of the colours available to all players really adds to the interest, and for this reason, a 4-player game is going to feel a lot more congested, more likely to give you a turn where the options are more obvious and/or limited. That’s not to say that Ominoes isn’t a fun game with 4, but the removal of this extra level of strategy, coupled with the increased downtime means that Ominoes is a more appealing prospect for me, when played with 2 or 3. Again, though, even in 4-player, Ominoes isn’t a game that has much downtime, unless you play with people who really like to overthink things. If your friends make Ominoes seem slow and Analysis Paralysis-heavy, I’d get new friends rather than a new game.
What about that Theme?
As I mentioned earlier, Ominoes has a broadly Egyptian theme to it – the dice symbols that you collect are based on Hieroglyphs, and the rulebook even comes with a little story about how the components for the game were discovered by the designer’s grandfather during an archaeological dig in Egypt, and how it has taken the intervening 50 or so years to uncover and translate the rules. Even the die-faces are given the names of pseudo-Egyptian deities.
As far as I can tell, this is pure fluff, and Ominoes was invented sometime this century by a living, breathing boardgame designer. That said, the thematic element was very well done, and Ominoes has a good feel to it, even if the Egyptian stuff isn’t really fundamental to the mechanic.
Ultimately, Ominoes is an abstract game, and if you’re expecting anything deeply thematic, you’ll be disappointed, but all the flavour touches that have been added are nicely done, and it makes the overall package that bit more appealing.
Ominoes: Final Thoughts
Overall, I thought Ominoes was fun – it’s fairly simple to explain, very quick to learn, and a full game probably only takes 15 minutes. The thematic elements are light, but nice, and they enhance the experience without ever being jarring.
The game walks a good line between strategy and luck: There definitely are important decisions to be made, and if you’re not paying attention, or try placing things at random, then you really won’t get you very far in a game of Ominoes. Equally though, the dice rolling element take this out of the orbit of games like Othello where it’s 100% strategy, and the only things that matter are your decisions and your opponent’s, meaning the whole game is much more accessible to people who aren’t hardcore gamers, or to younger players.
I think I like Ominoes better as a 2 or 3-player game than maxed out with 4, but it remains enjoyable and engaging at any player-count.
Overall I’d rate this a 7/10. It probably doesn’t have the level of thematic depth it would need to become a really regular feature on my gaming table, but it’s enjoyable enough to break out fairly often to fill a short gap.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.