Tag Archives: strategy game

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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Be Aggressive – Total Strategy-Z review

When I was a kid in secondary school, there was really only one game available: Chess. On rainy days, you could read some comics, draw or play Chess… and I was terrible at it. Still am, in fact. My worst moment was when I was somehow convinced to attend a tournament to make up numbers and was destroyed by a six year old prodigy. Aside from the occasional foray into iOS play (which I’ve long since abandoned) I’ve barely played it since.

However, there’s one thing I really like about the game and that’s its relative simplicity. Each player has a set amount of pieces, they know how they move, and from there you’ve got an almost infinite amount of options – it’s got a very pure feeling. That’s a very hard thing to get right. It’s like the Three Bears and their porridge. Too simple or too complex and it’s just not as much fun…

Total Strategy-Z is a new release that aims to hit that spot and – for the most part – does pretty well. The designer has tried to make a game that balances strategy with simple play mechanics and… well, it’s not a bad little game. It’s not going to change the world, but it’s certainly a fine way to pass your time. Here’s how it works.

Strictly for two players, Total Strategy-Z sees them take the roles of generals in charge of an army with one aim – to destroy the opposition’s leader. Each army consists of different units, all of which have (according to the rules) “their own strengths and weaknesses”. In reality, this boils down to just three attributes: Attack, Defence and Movement. Each turn, a player must move one of their units around the hex board then (if they end up adjacent to an enemy) can choose to attack.

The twelve different units found in the game. They are so TINY my camera couldn’t focus on them properly.

The way combat is resolved is probably the most interesting part of the game. Everything centres around The Pot, a noble vessel that to the untrained eye may look suspiciously like an eggcup. The players will place beads into the pot determined by their Attack and Defence ratings, then the aggressor closes their eyes and draws out a single bead. If it’s their colour, the defending unit is destroyed and removed from the board. If not, the defender has successfully staved off the attack and lives to fight another day. Sadly, there are no rules in the game for multi-unit fighting – everything is strictly one on one, meaning that you’re getting a slightly less battlefield-orientated experience than you may expect.

It’s a very simple system and one that I think is fun, but it does kind of go against the whole concept that the game is based on strategy. You could be the best commander on earth but still manage to lose every single battle by drawing poorly, and I feel that this will totally infuriate people who demand that any element of luck is factored out of their games. As someone who rather enjoys a bit of chaos in their play, I don’t mind it; after all, even a giant can be brought down with a single lucky shot. Defence can be bolstered by retreating back to marked Fortress areas on the board, but don’t rely on them – eventually you’ll be wiped out by having your opposition picking your units off one by one.

Here’s what’s in the box. Like I said… “functional”.

Next up, this ain’t the prettiest girl at the dance. The whole presentation can probably be best described as “functional”. Unit tokens are marked with simple icons, and the playing area is pretty much a field of green hexes. Players are given tables to help them remember the attributes, but they’re printed on standard paper. Players each receive five tokens for the combat pot but could at some point require six (should a Pikeman hole up in a Fortress, for example). Basically, if you’re looking for incredible production values, this isn’t the game for you.

However, if you’re happy to play a simple little wargame, Total Strategy-Z could well tick enough boxes for you. It’s an entry-level affair, one that would be ideal for people who’ve never played a wargame before but fancy giving them a try at an affordable price. While I don’t believe it’ll tax those who enjoy a more hardcore experience for too long, it’s an entertaining enough way to scratch the itch. Oh, and it’s way more fun pretending an elephant is rampaging through a battlefield than trying to imagine a castle that moves around…

Total Strategy-Z is produced by Total Strategy Games and can be bought directly from their site for £20.

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The Hand That Feeds – My Happy Farm review

Farms are seriously aces. I spent the vast majority of my childhood on one in the west ofIrelandand have fond memories of long days spent wandering along riversides, climbing haystacks and watching small sheep come out of larger ones. There’s also the slightly less fond memory of my brother being kicked in the head by a cow and getting a fractured skull, but we’ll not linger there. He’s never been the same since, mind. Still, that’s what you get for having a five-year-old’s fascination with poo.

What I’m getting at is that I love me some farming. They’re happy places, which segues perfectly into a new release from the lovely folks over at 5th Street Games: My Happy Farm. Yes, the title may give away the fact that it’s not exactly the next Civilisation or TI3, but sometimes you want to play something a little lighter, sillier and downright charming. For that is exactly what MHF is.

Originally a Ukranian release through IGAMES, it’s billed at a game of stretchy animals – and is very silly indeed. To begin with, each player has four very sad (and short) looking animals on their not yet happy farm: a pig, a cow, a sheep, and that famous farmyard denizen, a rabbit. The beasties are sad because they’re hungry and you’ve not fed them yet – however, you don’t have that much food to begin with. Thankfully though, you’ve decided that animal farming alone isn’t a viable option in this current economic climate, so have also decided to go for an agrarian approach by setting some land aside for crops.

I may be reading a little too much into the backstory of My Happy Farm. I’m pretty sure that designers Oleg Sidorenko and Oleksandr Nevskiy didn’t mean it to read like a socio-economic treatise on farming in the modern world. Oh well.

Anyway! The premise is simple. You need to grow those crops, but agriculture takes time. You have three seasons open to you: spring is the time to plant seeds that you’ve bought from the market, then summer and autumn is when you can harvest – however, different crops will be ready at different times. Winter’s ignored because everyone goes into the barn and hibernates, just like in real life. Any crops not harvested will be lost to the snow, meaning that you’ve wasted your cash and those seeds. No EU farming subsidies here.

Behold, the saddest animals in all the world. (credit to the lovely Games With Two for the picture)

Once you have food at your disposal, it’s time to start fattening up those animals for the pot / rearing them to look after as pets for the coming years (depending on the age group you’re playing with). Various animal body parts are available to be traded in for certain combinations of crop types, all of which will hopefully extend your animals and make them happy! If you’re short of money, crops can also be sold for coins, starting the cycle all over again. The stretchier your animals, the more points you’ll score (and the owner of the longest beasts will get some nice bonuses). Whichever farmer has the highest score has the happiest of farms and wins the game.

My Happy Farm is very light (as you’ll probably work out from reading the above) but that doesn’t mean it should immediately be discarded as fluff. With the right group, it can be a fun little diversion that can pass half an hour nicely. Of course, kids will love it – the game provides just enough challenge and decision to keep them on their toes without presenting itself as too difficult. As long as you don’t go into it with the mindset of wanting to destroy all your opponents around you, it’s really quite fun.

With a charming if slightly strange looking art style throughout (seriously, the animals are pretty bug-eyed – what are they feeding them in the Ukraine?!) MHF sets itself apart from a lot of kids’ games by coming across as just plain odd, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. My review copy was well produced (despite being entirely in Cyrillic) and came complete with player aid boards, wooden coins and good quality cards. I assume 5th Street Games will ensure that the same will come in the English language production which you can currently find on Kickstarter. In fact, here’s a link to the campaign and a video:


So that’s My Happy Farm. A charming, silly little game that isn’t going to change your worldview but will make you laugh when you realise you have a rabbit that is bigger than a pig sat in front of you and make you curse when you see you’ve wasted all your beetroot. Sometimes, that’s all you need!

My Happy Farm is currently on Kickstarter and will be published by 5th Street Games later in the year. Designed by Oleg Sidorenko and Oleksandr Nevskiy, games take around thirty minutes for between two and four players. If you’d like to pledge to the campaign, you’ll be able to pick up a copy for as little as $17 – a bargain! Now, off to the shed with you! Those cows won’t milk themselves!


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