This review is part of a larger group of reviews centered around Knizia’s Keltis / Lost Cities family of games that I have been replaying. Of all the games in this family, Orakel is probably the one that I like best in this series. At the core, Keltis: Das Orakel uses the same mechanism of playing cards from different suits in columns that are ascending or descending in numerical order. This is done to advance your position on the board or to score points. If you are not familiar with the mechanism, visit my original review of Lost Cities here. This mechanism alone has spawned at least a dozen games in this family and has garnered Knizia a Spiel das Jahres award for Keltis. At the moment, Keltis: Das Orakel is only found in Germany and the game was never reprinted for foreign shores. This is really such a crying shame.
In a way, Keltis: Das Orakel feels familiar yet different from the rest of the games in the family. The similarity is obvious because of the shared mechanism. But the game feels distinctly different from other entries because the ascending card play here is not used to directly score points. It is used to move a token on the main board. True, this certainly has shades of Keltis or Lost Cities: The Board Game, but somehow, the core mechanism for playing cards here feels more detached from the action on the main board. I suppose the movement of the pieces here require more thought and also more planning.
In Orakel, there is a gigantic spiral comprising of stones, both large and small, in the center of the board. The box cover kinda eludes to that anyways, you really can’t miss it. Each stone comes in one of five colors that are instantly recognizable as they identical to the icons found in Keltis and other games in the family. Every time a card is played in your own columns in ascending order, you can choose to move one of any three of your tokens on the spiral, hopping along stones of a specific color that matches the card just played. The goal is of course, to move your tokens as far along the spiral as possible, which ends at the middle of the board. The more tokens you move toward the end, the more points you will score as only stones closer to the middle will score positive points. As soon as a number of stones collectively enter the last segment of the spiral, the game comes to a close. Just like Lost Cities: The Board Game, there is a race element in Orakel as players push forward to cross that threshold. However, Orakel provides other opportunities for players to score points along the way, and I think it is what sets this game apart from others in the family.
What are the other ways to score points? Well, every spot that your token lands on contains a randomly distributed VP chit. Landing your token on the chit will score points. There is also the standard set collection of wishing stones that appear in many games in this series. Collect enough to score points, otherwise if you ignore them completely, you will get penalized. To boost wishing stone scoring, there are these incredibly powerful multipliers. If you get one of these “mirrors”, you will trigger scoring for the wishing stones multiple times. Get a few of these mirrors and you should be competitive for winning the game. Luckily, there aren’t too many of these “mirror” pieces lying around. Be forewarned, if you pick up mirrors and score negative points, they will also be scored multiple times with each mirror.
Finally, unique to Orakel, you can also score points via the Oracle. Every round, after playing a card, players get to decide if their want to move one of their tokens or the Oracle. The number of movements made by the Oracle is shown on each card. Your goal is to move the Oracle to where one of your token is located on the spiral in order to score 5 points. Since the Oracle can only move forward, you might be tempted to move and score multiple times. Of course the moving the Oracle comes at the expense of moving your other tokens forward. So, it’s a trade off.
Not all randomly distributed chits are for scoring. Some actually help with movement. For example, there is a chit that allows your token to hop backwards on the spiral. There are others that allow an extra hop forward. There are also 3 leprechaun chits that score bonus points depending on whether your tokens are sitting on 1,2 or 3 leprechaun chits. All these additional mechanisms make the game more varied and hence more enjoyable. For example, it is very satisfying when you get to chain together a series of hops both forwards and backwards to get the valuable “mirrors” tiles.
Keltis: Das Orakel feels superficially heavier than its older siblings even though it is not that heavy to begin with. It feels slightly more complex with a bit more thinking involved, but yet, is not slathered in chrome. Overall, the game is still pretty streamlined. Besides, chrome is not something I associate with Herr Knizia’s work. What this game provides is that extra level of decision making that I wanted from Keltis or Lost Cities. If Lost Cities represent the stripped down, bare bones version of the mechanism, then Orakel represents the other end of the spectrum with Keltis or Lost Cities: The Board game sitting in the middle. Again, these games are great and I am just being nitpicky.
Perhaps the one flaw or downside I would say about Orakel is the lack of tension brought about by negative scoring. In Lost Cities the card and board game, set collection usually starts with negative points. You need to collect enough cards in a set to send it into the positive territory. This creates tension: should I start a new column and will I have enough time to get it across into the positive territory? For Orakel, no such tension exist. All cards are played to advance tokens that score points. It’s not like if you fewer cards in a specific suit, you get penalized. I miss this aspect of Lost Cities and wished it was implemented in some manner in Orakel.
The randomly distributed chits are important because they make the game feel distinctively different with each play. They will also dictate strategy: depending on the layout and the potential for chaining movements, you may be inclined to move fast on the spiral to force an early ending, or to plod along and collect points with each move, limping all the way to the finish line, but fill with points after gorging along the way. There are several ways to play the game, but the tempo of each game is pretty much an emergent aspect of the Orakel that I enjoy.
As I said before, Orakel still sits atop the Keltis / Lost Cities list and I enjoy it quite a bit. There is no reason not to get Orakel if you already have Keltis, though I guess the opposite might be true. It looks like currently, it is possible for me to play the Keltis expansion board with the components in Orakel. I might do just that and get the best of both worlds without having to buy Keltis. If you are a Knizia fan, then get it. If you haven’t played Keltis or Lost Cities, this may not be your first purchase in the series, but then again, the game isn’t that complicated that you can’t handle it. In either case, this is a solid Euro and one that I enjoy going back occasionally for a revisit on a lazy Saturday evening.
Final word: Great!