When you have been gaming for a long time (you know you have if you can remember when The Tonight Show was the only "living color" broadcast on a weeknight), occasionally you find games that appear a bit too familiar; they appear to be clones of previously published games. I am not referring to games that have gone out of print and are resurrected or games that are re-themed and renamed from one market to another as in the case of so many Euro games. These are marketing decisions and I would not presume to know which concepts sell and which are an anathema. When you encounter one of these "rip-off" games, the strangeness begins. First there is the feeling of deja-vu followed shortly by disbelief and then anger - the company has disguised an old game (cue the Dueling Banjos music).
Increasing the discomfort afforded by such a revelation, on occasion, I have encountered games to which respected designers have attached their names when in reality these games have enjoyed a previous life. Certainly, anyone who has been gaming since "the day the music died" has encountered this phenomenon. Recently I was startled to hear of a game that, from the description, appeared to be just such a rip-off. What bothered me most was that the game was designed by one of my favorite designers, Michael Schacht. As described to me, Isis & Osiris appeared to be lifted directly from Knizia's Kingdoms. (Fact: Kingdoms is the English language version of Auf Heller und Pfennig. Fact: I type with two fingers. Fact: I have typed Auf Heller und Pfennig for the last time in this article.) This disturbing discovery required that I obtain a copy of the game. Having played Kingdoms many times I could not believe that the description of Isis & Osiris was correct or that Schacht could have "copped" a Knizia.
The game arrived and I was anxious to begin play. Admittedly, the rules, the board and the bits appeared to have a strong similarity to Kingdoms. Usually a discussion of game mechanics is, at best, pretty dull. However, in this case it is critical to the foundation of this discussion. That said, a passing familiarity with the mechanics of both games is required; so grab a "dew" and take a few notes.
Both games fall into the puzzle category. Players receive score markers (castles or stones) and tiles with numbers (plus or minus) printed on them. (The specific themes are as relevant as my personal opinion of Elizabethan under garment fashions). The playing boards consist of grids (5x6 in Kingdoms and 6x6 in Isis & Osiris). In a given turn a player places either a scoring marker or a tile. When the board is filled, the game is over; simple and fast.
Auf…(Hans im Glück) was published in 1994 with Kingdoms appearing in 2002 (Fantasy Flight). Goldsieber published Isis & Osiris in in 2001. There is no question about which game had the earliest appearance. Is it possible that the man who gave us Web of Power, Kontor, Dschunke, Gods and Coleretto had appropriated another's design? Say it ain't so.
Isis & Osiris arrived and after several plays I am delighted to report that you can relax; it is simply amazing that games with such similar mechanics can play so differently. Isis & Osiris is the lighter of the two games with simpler play and scoring. Each stone scores the four adjacent tiles only, without any multipliers. In Kingdoms, each row and column with a castle is scored and that is multiplied by the value of the castle itself. Kingdoms offers blocking, doubling and adverse effect tiles increasing the decisions a player faces; it is the more complex of the games.
Oh, I know what you're thinking, this guy needs to put down the pipe; these games sound nearly identical. Allow me to wander off topic for a moment. There is an urban legend detailing the origin of Chaos Theory. As the story unfolds, while a computer was projecting future weather patterns, the printer ran out of paper. The technician replaced the paper, glanced at the last output printed and input the numerical data so that the program might resume from the point where it had stopped. Unfortunately, the techie could only enter a limited number of decimal places, truncating the balance of the digits. It was believed that this missing, miniscule amount would not affect the projection. Chaos Theory was born when it was discovered that an entirely new and different weather pattern developed. A small, almost insignificant change produced an alternate, unique product. A cliché often associated with this phenomenon is that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could cause a storm in Chicago.
Isis & Osiris may have begun as Kingdoms but then it flapped its wings. There is one small difference between the games; a difference that results in a distinctive gaming experience. Simply, in Kingdoms, all of the tiles are played face up and remain so for the duration of the game. In Isis & Osiris, the tile to be played is displayed to all opponents and then played face down; admittedly a very minor difference but the flavor, the experience, the soul of the game is undeniably distinct. (Similar to adding a few jalapeno peppers to a sub sandwich.)
Kingdoms offers perfect knowledge; all of the castles and tiles played are continuously visible once they are played. Each player is afforded the opportunity to determine the precise location for placement that would maximize his score while minimizing the scores of his opponents. The only unknown is the value of the remaining tiles and tile counting can minimize this.
Isis & Osiris is deceptive, implying perfect knowledge. Try to remember the location and value of ten to twenty tiles while attempting to determine the ideal placement of your own stones (scoring chips). A good memory will be an asset; a photographic memory would be an unbeatable advantage. (Obviously certain liquid refreshments can considerably diminish a player's ability to play competently.) For the average player the end game becomes a "feel play". You think, you feel that this is the optimum spot for placement.
Where Isis & Osiris is a game of memory; Kingdoms is a game of mathematical precision. As Kingdoms progresses the turns become longer. Placement requires more consideration as the complexities of the values continue to change; the last few tiles/castles placed may be critical to the final scoring. The reverse is true of Isis & Osiris. Turns in the latter portion of the game require less time as, it seems, only partial knowledge is available. Kingdoms is a serious game; laughter is heard more often in a Chess match. Isis & Osiris, however is usually accompanied by hoots and chiding as the exasperated player realizes that he no longer is certain of the value of specific tiles. (In my particular case, when playing with my children, they immediately invest in a discussion on the affects of Alzheimer's and question my ability to locate my keys, find my way to work on a daily basis or simply remember all of their names.)
I enjoy both games and find that they complement rather than compete against one another. I am amazed that something as simple as face up/face down placement could result in such disparate experiences. One of the best experiences in gaming is to be surprised; these games accomplish this.
Note: Being compulsive about the best gaming experience, we have altered the requirements for Isis & Osiris slightly. We play one "game" for each player participating to alleviate the "luck of the draw" and increase the playing time. The scores accumulate.
- Dave Shapiro