[Editors note: The following is a Nemesis Review, featuring opinions from our in-house thematic-loving @futurewolfie and his ferocious opponent, the stodgy euro-loving @Farmerlenny. Make sure to read both opinions to get a better overall picture of the game!]
In ancient times, tribes of people spread across ancient Greece—conquering regions for the resources they provided and developing technologies and techniques for battle (and more research)—searched for Atlantis, and sought out the favor of the gods.
At least, that’s what they do in Philip Kayaerts’ Olympos. Olympos is a fairly recent entry into the Euro sphere of games from the creator of Small World. So how does Olympos stack up against other games in the genre, and against Small World itself? (You know every game a designer creates has to get compared to every other game made by the same person.)
How it Plays
Olympos is an area control game divided into two boards. On one board, you have a map of Greece (including Atlantis, which is apparently south of Greece) divided into regions, each region featuring a single resource, with a few regions including a “lost tribe” or “Zeus” token as well. On the other board, you have a grid of “developments,” which you can pay resources to gain and which provide a bonus or special ability.
Players must start at the very northern point of Greece and slowly move their way down, invading regions to control resources, eventually crossing the sea to conquer Atlantis. While a region is controlled by a player, that player has access to a single, permanent point of that resource. This resource is used in researching developments, but it isn’t spent—the player gets to hang on as long as they control the region.
What makes this game truly unique is the time track around the edge of the board. Every action you do costs a certain amount of time. When you complete an action, you move your marker forward on the time track. The next turn goes to whomever the last marker on the turn track belongs to.
An action consists either of moving a single tribe marker or researching a development. Researching a development costs 7 time; moving a tribe costs different amounts based on what you do. Each region you move costs 1 time; you can move through occupied regions, but stopping in one results in a battle. Much like Small World, you automatically win, but depending on how many swords you possess versus your enemy, it may take a lot of time. You can move around as much as you like, but if you move too much you will find yourself waiting quite a long time before you can move again.
Researching developments provides bonuses: extra swords, decreasing the time cost for certain actions, providing a small bonus. The catch is, each development is only available in limited quantities.
Along the time track, certain points provide players with Olympos cards, which give them extra hourglass tokens, resources, or points. In addition, these points activate gods who either punish the least-favored player or reward the most favored.
The game ends after one player has passed a certain point on the time track. When that player gets another turn (which could be a while, depending on how much time they used on their last action), the game ends.
Points are rewarded based on number of regions controlled (with Atlantis regions worth double), point tokens, developments, and cards accrued during the game. (In addition, certain developments provide extra points for other things, such as number of swords). The player with the most points wins!
The game sounds a bit complex, but really, it all falls together pretty quickly once you get going. It flows smoothly and constantly drives forward.
The key to this game is efficiency. The less time you can spend doing an action, the more turns you’ll get, which can give you a tactical advantage. This results in fairly quick gameplay, with turns coming by fast enough to keep everyone involved, and slow enough to give you time to think about what you need to accomplish next.
There are a lot of avenues to pursue for victory, and I’ve seen all different strategies come out on top in the end. Developments are worth points, and you can score big if you pursue them all-out. But you can just go after the battle upgrades and try to conquer most of the map, especially Atlantis. Sometimes pursuing the favor of the gods is a waste of time; other times it can push you to the top. Conquering lost tribes (and the star tokens that go with them) can allow you some hefty point purchases… if you can hold those regions long enough.
The variable nature of the development board does not provide for an extremely different game every time you play. Unlike Small World, you don’t get a varied mix of powers and abilities. Instead, the same five powers for each row will show up, just in a different arrangement each time, resulting in a different resource cost. This does mean that the most desired regions may change from game to game, but it doesn’t drastically alter the experience.
The randomization of this board does provide something interesting though—a special row of “developments” that provide massive amounts of points, which are discounted to you for each development you’ve purchased in the same column. This encourages buying down a single column, and because the rows are randomized, it means you’ll be pursuing a different collection of powers each time. Again, this is not a drastic difference, but it does encourage pursuing different strategies. You won’t be going after the same five developments each time you play, and thus your goals will change slightly.
Okay, let’s get to it: Olympos is delightful. It’s thematically light, but the theme is there; unobtrusive, but available. You have the regions, the developments that make sense (for the most part), and—most thematically—the favor of the gods to be won. The board is bright and colorful, with solid wooden tokens to represent your tribes and your place on the time track.
I love the tension the game creates with the time track. Olympos is not a tactical war game—sure, there are regions to be conquered. But if you can grab the region you need efficiently so you can buy that next development you need before someone takes it away, it’s no big deal if that region gets conquered afterward.
In fact, Olympos is not a very confrontational game. Although you will end up invading each other’s regions, it’s more about finding a comfortable corner to work from—and then hopefully messing up everyone else’s efficiency along the way. Of course, every other player is trying to be efficient, so the task is a tough one. But it’s very enjoyable, and it breaks out of the classic Euro game mold of “build buildings, collect resources, sell resources.”
As I said, I’ve seen a variety of strategies emerge victorious, which is great. The warmonger player won’t necessarily come out on top; the player with the favor of the gods is not guaranteed victory. The victor will probably have a little bit of everything, but the dominant strategy will vary from game to game.
There are a couple things I do not like about Olympos. First of all, the icons on the cards and developments are pretty tough to interpret. Some of them are fairly clear (and the icons on the board are very helpful), but a lot of them just don’t make sense. I spend a lot of time checking through the rulebook to remember what a particular god does. But the worst offender is in the Olympos cards. Some provide a specific bonus if you have the most of a particular resource; some provide a bonus per each item of a single resource you have. Some require a specific combination of resources and then provide a bonus. And some just provide a single resource. While there are no words on the cards to read, the icons are poorly designed and barely even indicate what a particular card does, which is especially tough for newbies.
The other thing I don’t like is the art on some the god cards. It portrays ancient Greek gods and goddesses, and while most of them are good art and perfectly fine, there is a lot of nudity. One may argue for the artisitic merits of nudity (I don’t think there is much, by the way), but the fact is, it makes an otherwise innocent game very uncomfortable to bring to certain gaming situations. I will probably never introduce this game to my parents, I won’t be bringing it to my church small group, and I won’t be introducing it to my younger game-loving cousins. It’s sad because it’s got great gameplay and the nudity really comes out of nowhere. It’s unnecessary and uncomfortable. Fortunately, the god cards are not kept in hand. They spend most of the game face-down, and once activated I just throw them back in the box, which minimizes the card’s face-time and makes it almost unnoticable. But I don’t like having to worry about that. So basically – you can avoid the nudity for the most part, but the fact is, it’s there.
Okay, done with that. In conclusion, Olympos is not only solid mechanically, but it’s tense and very enjoyable. It’s a Euro game that stands out to me when most of them blur together. It’s colorful and not terribly difficult to learn (although it does have a learning curve, mostly regarding how best to have points at the end of the game). If you can get past the nudity in the art, it’s definitely a worthwhile experience. The variable turn order and time mechanic is brilliant. I am a huge fan of Small World, and I am a huge fan of this game as well.
Olympos is a pretty enjoyable game. It was hard for me to get a handle on it the first time I played, but it made much more sense afterward. I think the difficulty is in the scoring. It’s fairly abstract and hard to keep track of the different things that can earn you points.
The time track in Olympos is its stand-out feature, and it is what makes the game worth looking into. Players must not only manage what actions are likely to help them most in the long run, they must also balance how much time each action will take them and where this will place them relative to other players. Researching a new development is pretty awesome, but not if it means you won’t get another turn for a while. I like the tension in this decision. The variable turn order mechanism is similar to Glen More, but for whatever reason, I like the way it is integrated into Olympos much better.
I also like the non-confrontational nature of the war in this game. You can always conquer a region: the question is how much time it will take you. (There’s also a question of messing with Blake…but I won’t go into that. Just don’t mess with him.) This is similar to Small World, though I think the system is even easier here (for good reason: in Small World, the combat is everything; here it is only one piece of the puzzle).
I disagree with @Futurewolfie about the art in Olympos. First of all, I find the bright colors on the board distracting and ugly. (This isn’t a major concern; it’s just not to my taste.) Second, I didn’t think the nudity on the cards was too bad. In fact, I might not have noticed had I not heard about it elsewhere. (Then again, I don’t own the game and didn’t have to look at the card art much. [ed note: I did my best to minimize the nudity. Clearly it worked.]) In any case, this is probably something to keep in mind, but I don’t think it should be a problem, especially with adults.
The one thing I worry about with Olympos is the replayability. I haven’t played the game enough times for this to be a looming concern, but it does seem to be the game’s weakness. Small World this is not, but I think you should get several plays out of the game before it starts to feel stale. And the game really does play differently based on the tech trees and the other players. (Read: don’t mess with Blake.)
The overall package of Olympos fits together very well. The time track sets a natural limit on the game, and even the learning game with set up and explanations took only a little over an hour. A game with all experienced players took around forty minutes. In that time frame, Olympos provides a fun game experience full of interesting decisions. In fact, I think I like this game better than Small World (if not just because it feels like the right length, whereas Small World drags on longer than I think it should.) I still prefer the type of Euro that @Futurewolfie detests (resources! cubes! math!), but Olympos is a game we can both agree to play and enjoy.