The Kosmos two-player line of games is, quite simply, the best series of games I've ever played. I do not love every one of the games but the percentage is very high and even the lesser entries have something to recommend them. Further, there is a surprising amount of variety both in the games themselves and the range of complexity. From simple games such as Tally Ho to the more complex Hera & Zeus and Babel, there's likely to be several titles for anyone to enjoy. As such, each new entry is automatically one that I'm very interested in checking out.
In one of the more recent titles, players take the role of Odin's ravens, Hugin and Mugin, who travel the world each day, reporting back to the Norse God. In this case the world consists of nine cards lined up in a row, each showing a specific type of terrain. (In fact, each card shows two types of terrain, one on each side.) Odin's Ravens is a race game and so the players compete to reach the end of the "world" first and this is done, for the most part, by playing cards matching the terrain directly in front on their raven. (You may also play pairs as a "wild card" to cross any terrain.) Points are awarded to the winner based on how much further ahead he was at the cross of the finish line. Multiple rounds are played until one player has at least 12 points.
In addition to the standard terrain cards a player also has several special "Odin cards" in his or her deck. These let you perform special actions such as advancing your raven, rotating a terrain card or swapping two terrain cards.
That this pretty much sums up the major points in the game tells you that we are dealing with a rather basic game here. A simple structure does not necessarily mean a simple game though and there are several features which add considerably to the games appeal.
The first such feature is the "Magic Way". At the start of each round a Magic Way card is revealed which shows two terrain types (or an Odin figure). A player may "discard" a card matching either of the two card types to this Magic Way. At the end of the round the player who has sacrificed the most such cards scores 3 points. (Note that the rules for the Magic Way in the rulebook are grossly incorrect. If my description above is insufficient, you may read the corrected official rules at: http://www.riograndegames.com/) This presents the players with some interesting decisions, more than it might seem at first. If you can manipulate the "world" so that your opponent has lots of terrain matching the Magic Way cards he'll be in a bit of a pickle—should he use those cards to move or sacrifice to the Magic Way?
One very important rule is that when you play a card to move over terrain you cross all matching terrain cards directly in front of you. This means that if you have three mountain terrain cards, one after the other, directly ahead of you, you can cross all three with a single mountain card. Normally this will not happen all that often as there is a rule that prevents such matching cards from occurring when you first lay out the world. However, with the use of Odin cards you can work wonders. Consider the picture above—you're the grey raven and have a "snowscape" card in hand. If you play the Odin card that allows you to rotate any unoccupied terrain, you could rotate the card directly in front of the brown raven and then cross three cards with one play! Further, you may have messed up your opponent's plans by altering the cards he needs to cross!
One of the other unique features of the game is the use of an "auxiliary card stack". Essentially this is a way of saving cards for later use. Normally a player is limited to playing just three cards on a turn. However, she may additionally play up to three cards from her auxiliary. The trick is that you have to have placed cards in your auxiliary on previous turns and that the cards must be played in order (i.e. the last card added must be the first card played). At first glance this might seem to be a useless rule—why bother adding a card to your auxiliary? Why not just play it outright? The answer of course, has to do with planning. The game is all about efficiency—it's a bad thing to have to play multiple cards to cross a single terrain. Each such play is likely to cost you a point and when victory is only 12 you can't afford to give up many. You only have five cards in your hand and it's almost guaranteed that you won't be able to use them in the most efficient manner just playing them and drawing from the deck. So, you need to concern yourself with planning the entire race as best as possible and this is where the auxiliary comes in. For example, you may have grassland in front of you but no grassland cards in hand. You do have two mountain cards though and so could use those as a "wild card" to advance your raven. But what if there are several mountain cards ahead of you on your path? Wouldn't it be better to save those cards for when you can use them efficiently? Further, how do you know that you're not going to draw a grassland card right away? It's probably better for you to place those mountain cards in your auxiliary and hope to draw a grassland card at the end of your turn. The trick is in managing the restrictions on your auxiliary and making sure that you've place those cards in an order that you can actually use. In fact, I'd say that this is where the true skill lies in the game and that the player who best does so is the one most likely to win.
The biggest problem I had with Odin's Ravens is that occasionally an individual race can be a complete blowout. Scores of 9-0 were not unheard of and would pretty much decide the game right then and there. In fact, I suspect that playing to 12 is the problem as we often found that the game ended too quickly. Playing to a higher total would tend to even out any discrepancies in the luck of the draw—making the victory conditions 15 or 18 would seem to be a very easy variant for those who wish a longer game. I also wonder if simply playing five races with the high score winning might be an even better solution? I'll leave it to the reader to decide if this idea is worth pursuing.
Overall, I found Odin's Ravens to be a nice light-weight addition to the Kosmos two-player line of games. The goal and the play are relatively straightforward (although proper use of the auxiliary is a little tricky). I'd place it in a similar class as Lost Cities and can easily be played with more casual gamers.
- Greg Aleknevicus