The Oracle of Delphi

Stefan Feld

Publisher: Pegasus Spiele / Hall Games

You have to wonder, why the Oracle would care about helping mortals move around? Isn’t she busy enough? (Photo credits: Ralph Bruhn@BGG)

Stefan Feld is widely known for his games with point salad scoring and he rarely stray too far from his strengths. Oracle of Delphi is one of the few games where there is no scoring. This is a race game where the winner is the one that crosses the finish line first. While I have slowly morphed into a Feld fanboy, his games tend to be somewhat similar mechanistically speaking and that is why Oracle is a welcome breath of fresh air. Be that as it may, the game still features a few mechanisms that give me pause.

In Oracle, player compete to finish 12 tasks assigned by Zeus. The first to complete all the tasks and report back to Zeus is the winner. The tasks are grouped into 4 categories: erecting statues, building temples, deliver offering to temples and fighting monsters. Players will complete 3 tasks from each category. To accomplish these tasks, players command a ship that moves through a series of hexagonal tiles on a modular game board filled with different features and terrains. For the most part, I would characterize the main mechanism in Oracle as a straightforward pick up and deliver. For example, to erect statues, players have to first sail to specific city tiles to pick up different colored statues and then deliver them to distinct islands scattered across the game board. Similarly for temple offerings, players have to load cubes in their boat and drop them off at matching-colored temple islands in order to fulfill the quest. Both the statues and temple offering cubes come in 6 colors and players cannot deliver the same color payload for each quest category (i.e. all 3 cubes delivered or 3 statues built must be different in color).

For the other two types of quests, one involves building temples. Each player has to construct 3 temples of their own player color but the building sites are hidden in face down tiles scattered randomly on the main board. Tiles must first be flipped and uncovered before the temples can be built upon visiting the island. This quest may seem to be at the mercy of the tile flip, but players are incentivized to flip over tiles even if it helps opponents because the rewards for flipping tiles, can be quite substantial. In fact, in our games, most temples sites are uncovered quite early in the game allowing players ample time to plan their sailing routes.

The final type of quest requires slaying 3 mythological Greek monsters, 2 of which are predetermined at the onset of the game and the third is of any type of your choice. There are 6 different monsters that populate different islands and to defeat a particular monster you first have to sail to the island, roll a d10 and add the number of shields on the shield track. If you exceed the monster strength of 9, you defeat the monster and claim the tile. If you fail, you can repeat the battle by playing a favor token, each time reducing the creature strength by 1 before re-rolling the die. If it sounds like battling monsters is a luck fest, you are not incorrect. In reading the rules, this quest was the one I worried most. Still, after playing, it wasn’t half as bad as it sounds (see below).

As with other Feld designs, rolling dice to determine range of actions available is the main feature in Oracle. Each round, the Oracle dice are rolled and placed on a rondel on the player mat. Almost all actions require a matching die of the same color: Moving your ship, loading cubes or statues, delivering payloads onto island tiles, building temples, fighting monsters, etc. To blunt the impact of randomness in rolling dice, favor tokens act as modifiers to alter or recolor dice to ones matching your needs. Since you have 3 dice, that means each player will have 3 actions per turn. If you have a one-time use oracle card, you can squeeze in an additional action. Overall, the use of action dice is one which Feld is famous for. Another common feature to appear in many Mr. Feld designed games is the accumulation of threat tokens. Here, the last player in each round rolls the titan die to see if the titan injures any players, forcing players to pick up injury cards. If enough injury cards are accumulated (6 in total or 3 of a kind) at the beginning of each round, players essentially spend the turn recovering, skipping their turn. Figuring out a way to neutralize the threat has always been incorporated as part of the action selection in other games from Feld including Notre Dame, Bruges, In the Year of the Dragon, Macao, etc.

So, how does Oracle match up with other games designed by Stefan Feld? At first blush after reading the rules, the game felt more luck-driven and subject to the outcome of the dice rolls not only for the Oracle dice, but also for battle monsters and picking up injury cards. While other games from Feld feature dice, Oracle in particular, felt particular impacted by the type of dice you get because almost every action requires a specific die to advance. Playing the initial game somewhat quell those fears. Mr. Feld has showered the game with numerous mechanisms to blunt the outcome of wayward dice rolls. The most prominent are favor tokens to make the game less rigid. For each favor token spent, you can recolor a die to help trigger the actions you desire, extend ship travel by +1 hexagon to reach your destination, continue a battle with monsters, etc. Favor tokens are actually quite plentiful and late in game, you should not have trouble picking them up. Next, Oracle cards can be picked up to supplement the actions provided by the Oracle dice. Here, players can accumulate these cards over time and use them as additional actions. Third, there are plenty of bonus cards available to boost your progression. These come in the form of equipment and companion cards that give permanent or instant abilities every time you complete a type of quest. For example, one companion card allows you to sacrifice a particular die and move your ship up to 6 tiles and finally landing on a tile of any color. That is tremendously powerful. Fourth, each player starts off with a special ability ship card that gives you a powerful and unique benefit. Finally the gods themselves are helping you out: There are 6 gods that gives you fairly powerful benefits if you can advance them on their respective God track. Once they reach Mt. Olympus, you can trigger their powers any time during your turn. Poseidon for example, allows you to teleport your ship anywhere on the board. With all these compensatory mechanisms in place, the dice rolls don’t see all that critical. I don’t think my actions were really hampered by the luck of the roll. For the most part, I was able to manipulate enough elements in the game to get to where I want and do what I needed. At most, my actions might be delayed by one round, but even then, careful planning can mitigate these delays. In short, my actions wasn’t exactly being driven by the dice rolls.

That said, I still have a few gripes. I am not a fan of how the monster quests are done. I think rolling the d10 to resolve battles feels out of place. I might expect this sort of thing in an FFG-designed game and not in a solid Euro. There has to be an alternate way to resolve battles that does not rely on a d10. At this moment, the only way to ensure victory is to have half a dozen Favor tokens in your stash before attempting to fight monsters. I also think the powers conferred by the gods should have a bit more in-game longevity. For example, Artemis’s (Green) power becomes obsolete relatively quickly once all temple island tiles are flipped; similarly, Ares is no longer useful once you finish off all the monsters. In fact, about half the god powers aren’t useful late in the game. I also think the board lay out can be confusing with two dozen bright colors and symbols everywhere. At least more than once I had some trouble telling red and pink apart. This is a minor quibble though.

Overall, I think The Oracle of Delphi is a decent, above average game. Unlike VP games where you just chug along collecting points, not knowing how you are faring compared to the rest, there is palpable tension in Oracle just because it is a race to the finish line. You can look around the board and see how others are doing and because of that, the tension is ratcheted up a notch. You are always trying hard to catch the leader but since most Euros avoid “take that” conflicts, there aren’t many ways you can slow the leader down. So if you are lagging, it might be tough to catch up. Even though there are plenty of dice in the game, I think Feld has done a good job to mitigate luck of the roll. For that, I am quite impressed and glad he has ventured out of his comfort zone to design Oracles of Delphi.

Initial impressions: Good

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