One of the perks of writing about board games for an audience of 4 is that on occasion you are asked for your opinions on a game as they are worth their weight in gold. Or a less precious metal with gold plating. Or a piece of paper with “GOLD” written on it in all caps. Maybe even in a gold crayon.
Not too long ago, I was contacted by Brent Cunningham of Wishing Tree Games, publisher of the delightful Seven Sisters , and one of those scrappy underdogs that took a chance on PSS. Brent told me of their second Kickstarter project, a game called Codename: Oracle, and his media plan for it, including a variety of videos, blogs and podcasts to talk about it, including PSS. Well, we at PSS are nothing if not vain little monkeys who will give you the world if you stroke our heads and tell us we’re pretty, so I told him to send it on over.
Codename: Oracle is a two player game where government psychics working for the CIA and KGB respectively try to extract nuclear launch codes from the brain of the other. Failing that, they will happily settle for melting the brain of the other.
It’s one part Concentration (memory), one part Mastermind (deduction), and way better than either of those.
Upon opening the demo version, I wasn’t exactly sure what to think. Reading over the rules and the theme of the game did very little to clear the nebulous and ambiguous reaction from my brain, so it was time to jump in.
Each player has a Player card that identifies them as a CIA Psychic or a KGB Mentalist. This card also has a track to keep count of your remaining health and a completely indispensable reference guide to the effects of the symbols. More on this below.
Each player has a 50 card deck of Zener cards. Zener cards, for those of you who don’t know, are cards with a few distinct symbols on them that Dr. Peter Venkman uses to scam on blonde chicks with bad 80s hair while shocking passive-aggressive whiny nerds. Theoretically they were also used to test for ESP and clairvoyance.
During set up, each player will select five of these cards to comprise their “Code Row.” Above the Code Row they will deal out twenty more cards randomly in a 5 x 4 grid called their “Mind-Field” so each player has twenty five face-down cards in front of them. Each player deals themselves a hand of five more cards, a first player is determined randomly and the game is afoot. The stakes? Avoiding nuclear war. Or triggering it. You know, same thing, really.
As mentioned earlier, your goal in the game is either to determine the contents of your opponent’s Code Row, giving you their nuclear launch codes, or destroy them with mind bullets. In each game I played, I was trying to do both.
There are up to 5 actions that you can take on your turn in the order of your choosing
1. Look at two of the cards in your Mind-Field. All of those cards are face down, and most of the other actions involve revealing certain sets, so the intel gathered by this action is pretty crucial to the success of those actions.
2. Change the position of two cards in your Mind-Field without looking at them. Those sets I mentioned in the first point need to be revealed in certain patterns, so you not only need to know what cards you have, but where they are in relation to matching cards.
3. Replace a card from your Mind-Field (without looking at it) with a card from your hand. The replaced card goes to your discard pile. As mentioned above, you know that you are looking to make sets in certain patterns, so if you’ve got two star symbols next to each other and a star in your hand, you can place it next to the other two to guarantee a set.
4. Reveal a set of cards in your Mind-Field. So, all of that peeking, swapping and replacing finally has a point! There are three different set types to reveal.
4a. If you reveal a column of 3 matching adjacent cards, this is a Strike. Your opponent is given the option to try to put up a Shield. If they do not take this option or if their attempted shield fails, they suffer a point of damage (each player starts with 9) and reveals the card in their Code Row corresponding with the column of the Strike. Strikes also have other effects pending which symbols they were formed of.
4b. If you reveal 4 matching cards in a 2 x 2 square, this is a Focus. Reference your handy chart to plan your Focuses according to your current strategy. There are some that heal, some that harm and some that reveal information or change board states. As a Focus is not a Strike, Focus effects that damage do not provoke shield attempts, but they also do not reveal any Code Row information of your opponent.
4c. When a Strike is incoming, you have a single opportunity to erect a Shield by revealing a row of three matching symbols. Successfully revealing a Shield stops the damage, stops the Code Row peek and pending what symbols the Shield was made of, other effects.
Failure to reveal a successful Strike or Focus shows the cards to both players, so in a way, swinging wildly gives you more intel than the peek action listed in point 1, but giving your opponent that information gives them better opportunity to disrupt you if they see what you are trying to do. Additionally, revealing a failing set ends your turn. In the case of a successful reveal of any kind, Strike, Focus or Shield, all revealed cards are discarded from the appropriate Mind-Field to be replaced with face down cards.
5. Try to crack your opponent’s Code Row. This can be a game winner, so it’s a high risk, high reward endeavor. You will make a guess as to each card in its specific position. If you are correct, the opponent reveals the card to confirm. Hooray! If you get it wrong, you suffer two damage. You repeat this process for every card in the Code Row. It’s best to go in with a strong knowledge because at 2 damage per wrong card, it can get ugly really quickly.
Stuff What I Like
I have to admit, despite a chunk of apprehension in the beginning, I am really impressed with Codename: Oracle for a few reasons.
1. A lot of my favorite games, like Chaos in the Old World or The Resistance take a lot of people to get together. It’s not always easy to get a group together. For this reason, I have a very special place in my heart for two player specific games. These are fantastic for gaming couples and also for when you can only find one friend available.
2. It doesn’t take a lot of space on the shelf, set up time or clean up.
3. With 5 symbols and 3 applications for each symbol, there are 15 unique abilities. This is a very interesting mechanic and adds a lot of strategic varieties to the game. Taking the actions in an efficient order is also pretty crucial. So while the game comes off as pretty light and straightforward, it’s surprisingly deep.
4. I like tension in my games, I like my game decisions to matter, and Codename: Oracle delivers. That 9 Health doesn’t last nearly as long as you think it does, and this game, more than any other game I can think of requires focus. It plays quickly, but intensely. If you’ve got the memory of an elephant and the deductive capabilities of Sherlock Holmes, get ready to enjoy a lot of victory with this game. If you’re a regular human being, get ready to chew your nails to bloody nubs and understand that if you need to get up from the table for a drink or to use the restroom mid-game, you’ve probably just lost. Good luck remembering where you had everything, especially when you’re moving things around and when you actually use things, all that carefully gathered intel goes to the discard pile.
5. Breakfast theme optional! The friend I played this the most with referred to the circle as “egg”, the square as “toast” and the wavy lines as “bacon.” So, calling out things like “Bacon Strike!” and “Toast Shield!” adds some silly fun for those who enjoy that sort of thing.
6. Lastly, the price point is very accessible, and the mechanics used will translate easy to non-gamers. While not for all types, this game has a very broad appeal, and fantastic replay value.
As far as this nerd is concerned, Wishing Tree Games is 2 for 2. The campaign lasts through Wednesday, August 21, 2013 and I encourage you to join me in the ranks of the soon to be satisfied supporters here.