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Game Like a God: A Review of Omen: Heir to the Dunes

Quick Look: Omen: Heir to the Dunes

Designer: John Clowdus
Artist: Mike Riiven
Publisher: Kolossal Games
Year Published: 2020
No. of Players: 2
Ages: 12+
Playing Time: 30 minutes

From the publisher:

An ancient conflict is arising from the burning sands of Egypt. The heirs of Anubis and Horus gather followers and initiates for the war to come. Which side will prevail and gain dominion over the other: light or darkness?

Omen: Heir to the Dunes is the latest chapter in the Omen Saga . This standalone expansion is the single largest expansion since Omen: A Reign of War. It not only includes all new unit cards and reward tiles compatible with all games in the Saga, but also introduces factions and an all-new path to victory in the form of structures.

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com

WARNING: This is a preview of Omen: Heir to the Dunes. All components and rules are prototype and subject to change. The Kickstarter for Omen: Heir to the Dunes has ended, but they are still accepting late pledges.

I received a prototype copy of Omen: Heir to the Dunes for the purposes of this review; all opinions here are mine or those of my friends and family.

Review: Omen: Heir to the Dunes

Overview and Theme:
Prepare to immerse yourself in the world of Ancient Egypt. Taking on the role of Anubis, god of the Underworld, or Horus, god of the Sky, you will battle to earn rewards from war-torn cities and to build structures honoring your roles.

Omen: Heir to the Dunes is a medium-weight two-player strategy card game of hand management and area control from John Clowdus, a continuation of his Omen Saga.

Components and Setup:
The heart of Omen: Heir to the Dunes is the 40-card Unit deck, which includes the various types of followers and initiates who will help to take control of the cities and work to build each god's three imposing structures. With deeply thematic art by Mike Riiven, this deck is lovely to play through.

Each player will choose a god (Anubis or Horus) and take two Reference cards and three Structure cards specific to that god.

The small City board will be placed in the center of the table, and the 9 Reward tiles will be shuffled and placed, three per city, on the board. Each city stack also gets one War Torn token (to identify if the city is currently peaceful or at war).

A bank of 20 coins and a double-sided Favor card are set to the side of the City board.

Each player starts the game with 4 Unit cards and 4 coins.

Game Play and Mechanics:
For a game that is relatively light on bits and table presence, Omen: Heir to the Dunes hits you with strategic choices right off the bat!

Each of your turns will have several phases, or steps:
  • Wealth Step
  • Surge Step
  • War Step
  • Offering Step
The Wealth Step at the beginning of each of your turns lets you amass extra cards and/or coins. You can take a total of three items--for example, you could take 2 cards and 1 coin, or 1 card and 2 coins. If you choose to take three of the same item--3 cards or 3 coins--you will get to take an extra item, for a total of 4 cards or 4 coins, as a Wealth Bonus.

Since it will cost you coins to play the cards from the hand, you need to immediately begin to strategize to find the balance between cards and coins, determining when to go for the Wealth Bonus and when it's not good enough to justify getting only one type of item.

The Surge Step is the main part of your turn. Here, you can play as many cards as you choose to--as long as you have coins to pay for them. You will be deploying your Units on your side of the City board under the three specific city slots. When you play most types of Units to a City (Followers, Initiates, or Viziers), you can also take the action on that card if it is a neutral card or shows Devotion to your god. If the card only has an icon for your opponent's god, you can still play the card for its Strength value but you won't be able to use its action.

The use of the Devotion icons is very interesting. Each card will have an icon for one, both, or neither of the gods. Playing a card that shows Devotion to you (or neither god) allows you to also take that card's action. The first time each turn that you play a card with your Devotion icon showing, you can pay one less coin to put it out.

There is also a double-sided Favor card on the table, showing which god is currently more in the favor of the people. If you play a card that has a Devotion icon for the god not currently in favor, you must flip the Favor card to the other side. This Favor card comes into play with the Initiate Units--in order to benefit from the effects of an Initiate Unit card, the Favor card must be showing your god; otherwise, you can use the card for its Strength but not for the action!

In short, you are using your Surge Step to build up Units under one or more of the cities on the City board, and trying to take advantage of the cards' actions whenever possible.

After you finish your Surge Step, you will move on to the War Step, where you check each of the three cities to see if it has become War-Torn. A War-Torn city has either:
  • 3 Units on your opponent's side of the board, and/or
  • a total of 5 Units on both sides of the board combined.
When a city is War-Torn, you will fight over it by comparing the strength (red number) on each of the Units on the two sides of the board. Whoever has greater strength is the victor, and will earn the top Reward tile for their spoils. After a War-Torn city is resolved, the victor loses all but one Unit in that city and the loser drops down to two Units. (There are some Vizier cards in the game with the word COLOSSAL that each count as two Units for the purposes of finding and resolving War-Torn cities.)

These Reward tiles are one of the three ways to earn victory points for the end of the game. A Reward tile is worth 2VP when you win it, but they all have a special action available to you. Once per turn (during your Surge Step), you can choose to take this powerful action--and flip the tile over to its 1VP side.

Choosing when an action will benefit you more than a victory point is a meaty part of the strategy of Omen: Heir to the Dunes! In our first several games, my partner and I never went for it, hoarding the tiles with their 2VP intact. As we grew to know the game better, we saw times when it was especially advantageous to use these powerful abilities hiding on the flip sides of the Reward tiles.

The final step for your turn is the Offering Step, where you can choose a card to discard in order to earn a combination of cards and coins adding up to its blue Offering number. Or, you can choose to use its red Strength number to put face-down cards from the deck under one of your Structures.

This is a great opportunity to fill your hand of cards and bolster your coffer, but it's also your main opportunity to work on constructing those Structures, which will give you not only a big VP boost but also a very helpful one-time ability when they are finished. Again, the strategy here is fairly deep for such a small game as you work to balance your need to keep bringing in cards and coins with the desire to earn a big bunch of VP by building a Structure.

Your Structures take 5, 7, or 9 cards to complete, but part of the timing is a little tricky--you will be mainly adding to your Structures (you can only have one in progress at a time) at the end of your turn during your Offering Step, but the Structures can only be completed, and flipped over, during the Wealth Step at the beginning of your next turn! This turns out to be very important for determining when the game ends, and can often let you and your opponent know that you will each just have one more turn.

I mentioned above that the Reward tiles are one of three ways to earn VPs. Completing Structures is the second way, and the third way involves cards you still have in hand at the end of the game. Some of the Unit cards have the word TREASURED on them, and each of these cards is worth 1 VP if you have it in hand at the end of the game.

At the end of your Offering Step, though, you'll have to discard down to a maximum of 5 cards and 10 coins, so you can't just hoard those Treasured Units throughout the whole game. There are several cards with helpful actions, though, that could let you pull Treasured cards out of the discard pile, or choose a card from under your Structure to keep in your hand--these are great ways to add more Treasured cards to your hand near the end of the game.

Once you have completed all the phases of your turn, you will check to see if the game's end has been triggered. The game will end immediately at the end of the current player's Offering Step if either:
  • 2 or more cities on the City board are empty of Reward tiles, or
  • the active player has completed all of their Structures.
If neither of those is currently true, your opponent will take a turn, starting with their Wealth Step. If either of the game end conditions is true, you will add up your VPs to determine the winner:
  • 2VP per unused Reward tile and 1VP for each used Reward tile
  • VPs as listed (3, 5, or 7) for each of your completed Structures
  • 1VP for each Treasured unit card in your hand

This sounds like a lot of information and a ton of strategy, but once you learn the flow of the game, Omen: Heir to the Dunes really does play in about the 30 minutes listed on the box. It has a small box and a fairly small table presence, and because it's meant for exactly 2 players, you don't have too much downtime between your turns. It's much lighter in terms of time and effort than this lengthy discussion might make you think!

The Good:
Omen: Heir to the Dunes does a great job with capturing the feeling of two gods fighting in Ancient Egypt. The art is very nicely done, the card titles and actions are quite thematic, and it provides a very satisfying experience.

Although the footprint and play time are both small, Omen: Heir to the Dunes packs a surprisingly big strategic punch, with almost constant decisions that force you to balance your coins and your cards, your city units and your structures, almost like you're measuring a heart against a feather!

Omen: Heir to the Dunes would also make a great gameschooling choice for upper elementary through high school for kids who are learning about Ancient Egypt. There would be plenty of rabbit trails to follow by jumping off from the titles and illustrations, and it's a good way to learn next-level strategy in a shorter game.

The Bad:
A few of the mechanics of specific cards are a little hard for new players to pick up. For example, certain Units have a "Labor" action that does not activate when you play it to a city, but rather only when you use that card as your discard in the Offering Step.

This is explained in the rules and on the reference cards, but it still seemed to take players a little while to really understand that part of the flow. (Using a Reinforce power only for your god, or an Invocation only when your god is favored, were similar concepts that took a few plays to really master.)

Players Who Like:
Omen: Heir to the Dunes is an obvious choice for fans of the previous Omen Saga games or for other works by John Clowdus, like Neolithic (one of my favorites). It's great for fans of two-player games with strong strategy in a short play time, from Kahuna to Lost Cities, too.

Final Thoughts:
I'm not sure if Omen: Heir to the Dunes has topped Neolithic for us, but it is strong on theme, art, interest, and strategy in a compact package and convenient length. It's definitely a keeper and a great mid-weight game for two players!

Check out Omen: Heir to the Dunes on:


About the Author:

My name is Alexa: I'm a life-long game player and homeschooling mom to two awesome kids. I've loved board games since my early days playing Scrabble and Gin Rummy with my grandmother, and life only got more interesting when I married a Battletech enthusiast and fellow game lover. We've played games with our kids since they were small, and I helped start a thriving homeschool co-op where we have weekly sessions of board games with kids.  In a family with kids raised on Catan and Pandemic, life is sure to be fun! You may run into me on Twitter, BoardGameGeek, and other social media as MamaGames. Be sure to say hi!
Game Like a God: A Review of Omen: Heir to the Dunes Game Like a God: A Review of Omen: Heir to the Dunes Reviewed by MamaGames - Alexa C. on March 13, 2020 Rating: 5

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