Serpentine Fire – Ortus review

Ortus Cover

With Essen mere days away, you can expect an onslaught of reviews and write-ups about the new games that are due to be released at what is the biggest games show of the year, not least from me here on The Little Metal Dog Show. Mercifully some publishers see fit to supply games in advance which benefits us both – I get to talk about a game in advance, freeing up a spot in the mayhem after Spiel is done, and they (hopefully) get a bit of extra noise made about their upcoming release. One of those forward thinking chaps is Joost Das, head of Fablesmith and creator of Ortus.

Though it’s billed as a two-player arena battle game, I’ve got a very heavy abstract strategy vibe from Ortus. Sure, there’s this entire backstory about controlling the elements and sending agents that represent Earth, Wind, Water and Fire to fight each other in a battle on a mystic plane, but if you boil it down to the essential elements you’ll soon discover that Ortus is a devilish, clever game where you’ll mix area control with a splash of direct combat.

Just be ready to have your brain fried; as with most games that fit into this category, actually playing Ortus can get pretty tough. Sure, the rules are limited but the options open to you allow for incredibly open play as the call is on you to go aggressive or turtle up and protect yourself…

Back to the story, briefly. As mentioned before, the two players act as Lords looking to control a set of sacred energy wells that are dotted about the arena (which is made up of hexagonal spaces). Both begin with eight warriors at their command, four sets of two each representing the elements, who will attempt to seize control of these wells. Doing so will not only boost your abilities, but managing to hold on to five at the start of your turn also means victory.

Energy – and the spending of it – is the key to Ortus. Both players have a track on the right hand side of the board that shows how much they have at their disposal for the current turn. You will always have a minimum of fourteen clicks, but having one of your warriors on top of a well at the beginning of a turn will see this amount increase. This creates something of a snowball effect as the more energy you have, the more actions you can perform during your turn.

An evenly balanced battle can easily be lost with one simple mistake. Generally by me.

An evenly balanced battle can easily be lost with one simple error. Generally by me.

These actions, as hinted at earlier, are actually pretty limited. Moving from one hex to an adjacent one costs a click. In the basic game rules, the cost of attacks are worked by checking the amount of hexes between you and your target, spending that amount of energy, then triggering the attack. Ranged, performed by the yellow Wind and red Fire warriors, will see your guys remain in their spot but knock your opponent’s energy down by four spots. On the other hand, blue Water and green Earth fighters can Charge, rushing to a space next to an enemy and hitting them for five. A third attack type, Strike, can only be done if you start your turn beside a opposing piece – it’ll do three damage and it’s a freebie, but in actual play such a move occurs rarely.

Should you manage to get your opponent’s energy down to zero, attacking them will see some of their pieces removed from the board – these are referred to as the Fallen, but fear not! These warriors do return, but not until the end of their next turn, limiting their action as they come back to the edge of the board. Wiping out enemy combatants also means you score Honour, and each time will see you move a disc in your colour called the Guide a little closer to the Core at the centre of the board. Successfully get it to the middle and you win the game immediately.

That’s the game, really. Early turns are filled with trepidation as the two players attempt to feel each other out, slowly moving a couple of spaces here and there as they try and grab an energy well or two in a bid to boost their power for subsequent turns. In the games I’ve played I’ve noticed that there always seems to be a tipping point where one of the players just decides to go for it, making a break for glory – and it’s here where everything turns to glorious chaos. Whether it’s a point where someone pushes themselves just a little bit too far and uses up an extra click of energy, or they forget to cover one of the wells with enough people… Ortus is a very much a game of reading your opponent as well as watching what’s going on with the board.

And yet, when I first cracked the box open and played it, I really didn’t enjoy this one. I lost my first couple of games quite spectacularly and decried it as not for me, but there was something in there that brought me back. I see where I went wrong in those initial plays – you can’t win in Ortus by trying to storm the board and rush in. Victory requires a careful balance of positive movement forwards to take the wells over while covering your backside with enough energy to defend yourself during the opponent’s turn. Frugality is important – spend your energy, yes, but don’t waste it.

That point is even more true when you introduce the Master Game rules that bestow thematic attacks and abilities upon the four elemental types. Wind warriors’ movements see them zip across the board while the Earth fighters receive a boost in their attack – though it comes at a heavy energy cost. The Water attacks are particularly useful, smashing into groups and wiping out lines of enemies, though the most impressive to pull off are the Fire powers, especially their Dragon attack. Lining up your warriors in sync with each other, targeting a single player and destroying them for free is really very satisfying…

The game is well produced, just as you’d expect from the team at Ludofact over in Germany. The warrior meeples – warples? – are sturdy, though you’ll need a little wood glue to keep their heads on the bodies. Art throughout is grand and the rulebook is straightforward and well written, especially the summary on the back page which is pretty much all you’ll need after a game or two. My only negative is that it can be a little confusing keeping track of the warriors you’ve used during your turn, though I’ve found that can be dealt with by turning your pieces around once they’re actions have been done. As each one has a small marker on their fronts to denote their side, it’s a simple way to know who is still left at your disposal.

I can, hand on heart, recommend Ortus to anyone seeking a thoughtful, strategic game for their collection. I remain a poor player but find that when I lose I can see where I went wrong – winning is all down to seizing that moment and capitalising, so if you see me and fancy a game and watch out for those mistakes!

Ortus will be officially released at Essen next week. Designed by Joost Das and published through Fablesmith, it’s strictly a two player game. Games take around half an hour, and there’s also a digital version on the way! Swing by the Fablesmith booth in Hall 1 – you can find them at F-103. And thanks to Joost for the privilege of checking out the game in advance. 

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