It is no secret that I am a big fan of Stefan Feld. His designs are very analytical and are typically about efficiency, trying to score the most points with your limited turns by taking advantage of multiple actions during your turn. And his games usually are Point Salads, which simply means they have about 100 ways to score points in any given round. Some of my favorite Stefan Feld games are Bora Bora, Trajan, Aquasphere and Castles of Burgundy. In 2016, there were 2 new Feld’s announced at Essen Spiel, Jórvík and The Oracle of Delphi and I had to jump on them and make them mine! The Oracle of Delphi is a little bit different design for Feld, but different is good, right? Oracle is a race game with some pick up and delivery, not where you run fast and powerful cars around and around a track to come across the finish line first, but a game designed to reward the player that accomplishes the stated goal first.
What is The Oracle of Delphi About?
Zeus, Greek god of thunder and sky, has issued a challenge to the mortals, that if completed will win them a place alongside him at his mountain realm of Olympus. This challenge is akin to the voyages of the great Odysseus where players will have to sail through the dangerous waters of the Aegean Sea to complete 12 assigned legendary tasks, including raising statues to the gods, erecting shrines to their honor, to slay ferocious and deadly creatures of myth and to make generous offerings of precious goods. The game design requires that each player controls a sailing ship that provides the vehicle to traverse the Aegean, which is a variable landscape of sea spaces connecting islands, city tiles and temples. All players who accept the challenge will be asked to complete the same 12 tasks, in any order that seems best to them, with the first to complete all 12 claiming victory and their eternal prize. The players will have to come to understand the mysteries of the Oracle of Delphi as they are guided on what actions to take, not by guesswork or by the whims of fate, but by the hand of the mystical force of the Oracle using dice. I will say that when I read the description of the game when announced last summer, I thought to myself, “That all sounds great and all, but how do you score points?”. The answer to that simple question is there are NO POINTS! The Oracle of Delphi is a definite departure from previous Feld design classics such as Bora Bora, Trajan and The Castles of Burgundy, but definitely shares very unique action selection and efficiency design elements that can be commonly found in a good Feld design.
The players will all have the same tasks to complete and will have the same method to do this in taking various actions. The 12 tasks include building 3 Shrines, collecting 3 Offerings and deliver them to their corresponding Temple, raise 3 Statues and defeat 3 Monsters. The turn sequence involves three phases including Check for Injury Cards, Perform Actions and Consulting the Oracle. While the same actions are available each round to each player, the use of dice will determine the specific actions that can be taken based upon the symbols that are rolled. As with any good dice allocation game, there are ways to change or “recolor” the dice in your favor and in Oracle, you can use Favor tokens to do this. The dice are a color-based system, where a die of a specific color must be spent to manipulate a corresponding element on the board, and the colors will correspond to various colored tasks on the board. For example, in order to build a red shrine, erect a red statue, fight a red monster, move to a red sea space or collect a red good, you will need to spend a red die. As mentioned above, players may spend currency in the form of Favor tokens to change or “recolor” the die-faces each round to better suit your needs for the tasks you are trying to complete. Using your dice to complete tasks will net you further benefits, such as special action cards or extra Favor tokens.
The Oracle Cards are an additional item that players can collect in order to use as an additional turn as they act as an Oracle die. To gain an Oracle Card, players simply use any color dice to randomly draw a card from the stack. These cards are collected and can be used immediately or in later turns. When used, they are discarded and act as the color dice that is shown on the card. Skillfully using unusable dice each round to collect cards can be the difference between getting your tasks completed first or not.
A player will need to be able to identify the most efficient path along the sea lanes and around islands to make sure they are planning to complete their assigned tasks the fastest. This will mean that you should be planning to take multiple actions while in a certain area that is near several areas where you can gain goods, pick up statues or fight monsters. Doubling back over the same path is generally not a good idea in this game as that extra time will cost you in the end. The most difficult part of the game and its sequence of turns is the Check for Injury Phase. At the end when players consult the Oracle, the last player will roll the black Titan die along with their Oracle dice for the next turn to determine the power of the Titan’s attack. The Titan attacks all players simultaneously and if the attack is at least 6, each player will randomly draw two Injury Cards, which represent wounds and have a color associated with them. If the Titan rolls less than a 6, you compare its strength with your total shields and if less, you will take only 1 wound. So during the Check for Injury
phase at the beginning of a player turn, if you have 3 of the same color wounds or 6 total wounds, you will have to forfeit your turn to recover and are allowed to discard 3 wound colors of your choice. Having to forfeit your turn due to either poor wound management or bad luck can be devastating and allow your opponents to get that much further ahead of you. This part of the game is a good addition that forces players to manage something other than the tasks themselves and is true to other Feld designs by forcing you to split your focus between various moving elements.
True to form for a Feld design, The Oracle of Delphi has many different pieces that move together to achieve victory. The various mechanisms stand alone and don’t necessarily build upon each other. A player will have a lot of parts to manage in order to create their efficient route to ultimately win the game. This glut of things to focus on and consider, might create an overwhelming first play experience, but I found that by the end of our first game, we had the basics down and were focused on the planning aspect of the game which is where Oracle shines.
What I Liked About The Oracle of Delphi
The Race vs. Point Salad – When I first realized that the game was a race and not necessarily a point salad (remember there are NO POINTS in this game), I didn’t know how I felt about it. After all, one of the many reasons that I love Feld designs is the ability to score many points in many different ways
and most of all enjoy trying to figure out the mechanics or actions that I can abuse in order to take more actions each turn leading to collecting more points than my opponents. But, as we played I quickly realized that the same planning and search for the most efficient path element was found in the game, just in a different way. In the picture to the right is an example of looking for a way to be efficient as I was planning to utilize my yellow and pink Oracle dice to collect a statue and deliver a yellow good in the same turn. This type of planning is very satisfyingly fun to me and is found in Oracle. So the race element of the game is also something that I enjoyed as it was different but also offered the game within the game of planning. Definitely a good change of pace for a Feld fan as you will get the same feeling from this game as you would other Feld favorites, just in a different way!
Components – I really like wooden components and the temples, sailing ships, statues and wooden monster squares are very well done and also very colorful. The Board Tiles are also great as they allow for variability in the setup which leads to greater replayability. The rule book is well organized and laid out and has good examples as well. But the best part are the custom Oracle dice. They are a very light stock of dice (which I prefer a little heft to my dice as they seem to roll better.) but have amazing symbols on each of the faces that have a unique symbol that matches those on the Player Boards. Overall, the game components are a very strong point for the game.
Variability – I’ve already mentioned this but there is variability in the setup which is always a good thing. Lots of Feld games have this element in their design and in my opinion, each new game should be a different experience and the Board Tiles make it so. The selection of Ship Tiles at the beginning of the game is also a good thing as the 8 different tiles offer a very different ability to the player’s ship which will make each play different.
Favor Tokens – I really love mechanics, items or options in games that allow players to manipulate their dice. In my opinion, no good dice allocation game is complete without having including this in the design. In Oracle, the Favor tokens allow you to “recolor” a die to match your plan. These Favor tokens are very powerful and I have found that the more you have, the better efficiency you will be able to reach in your tasks.
Custom Dice – The game includes 6 custom dice that are used to consult the Oracle of Delphi and each provides the players with a color that allows them to take various actions during the course of the game. The dice are very beautiful and I am a big fan of custom dice. They are made from a balsa wood type material so they are very light and also they have rounded corners. I prefer dice with a little weight, as they are easier to roll with a little gusto, and ones with square corners as they tend to settle on their result quicker after rolling. But, these dice are very interesting looking and I love the varied colors used as they are very visually appealing. The symbols are also different and can be understood without knowing their color for those that are color blind. A nice part of the components for sure!
Equipment Cards – Each time a player defeats a monster, they are allowed to randomly draw one of the Equipment Cards to use in their journey. The cards grant either a permanent or one time ability and some of them override basic rules of the game so they can be quite important. One card increases your ships range by 1, another allows you to fight a monster, explore an island or build a shrine from 1 space away, which can be very powerful as it helps you be efficient with your moves. Yet another allows you to spend 3 Favor tokens to take an additional action that turn. These cards increase the variability in your journey as they will be different each game as there are 16 to choose from.
The Pillars of Delphi Variant – As I opened my 1st edition copy of Oracle that I pre-ordered from Cardhaus.com, I found these thimble shaped wooden pieces in the game but to my surprise, there were no included instructions with them and they were not listed in the components section. I went to Board Game Geek and noticed that there was a variant that was included only in the 1st edition copies. The Pillars of Delphi is a variant that adds an option for players to score more rewards by placing a pillar on an island tile. Not necessarily needed to make the game a good one, but the variant was a nice surprise that simply added value to me as well as some replayability.
Theme – While the theme worked for me, it did seem a little painted on. I will say that the Consultation of the Oracle is a very thematic part of the design that is well done. I did really enjoy the Greek theme as I have always liked The Odyssey by Homer and could feel that same struggle of Odysseus to fight off the Cyclops (one of the many monsters you can encounter), the beautiful Sirens (make sure you take plenty of bee’s wax) and the race to please Zeus (though Odysseus was trying to get home to Penelope). So if you have a hankering to rewrite the journey of Odysseus and create a story that features you as the hero, this game is good in that respect.
What I Didn’t Like About The Oracle of Delphi
There is not a lot that I didn’t like in this game but here were some areas that I have concern about:
Ship Tile that Returns One Zeus Tile – There is one Ship Tile that is drawn randomly at the beginning of the game, that allows a player to choose and discard one of their tasks and now changes the rules of the race by giving them a head start as they now will only have to complete 11 tasks. I felt that this was an unfair advantage and made it very difficult for the other players to win. I will say that at least they were forced to choose one at the beginning and didn’t have the option of simply keeping all of the tasks and not finishing one. This made it more of a strategic decision for the player and at least made it not as beneficial as it could have been. I think we may not play with this tile as an option in the future.
Dice Rolling – As with any dice rolling game, randomness can become an issue that stalls out one player while the others might get every fortunate roll that they need to carry out their plans. There is no way around this but I would have liked to have seen one additional mitigation option included in the design to combat the randomness. I would allow each player to reroll 1 die per turn when Consulting the Oracle. This seems fair and should not break the game or create problems. If this were included, there are enough ways to mitigate the randomness in the Favor tokens and Oracle Cards that this shouldn’t be an issue.
Lack of Player Interaction – There is nothing worse than knowing your opponent has just completed his last task and all he has to do is ride a wave to the finish line and claim victory. It would have been great to have a few gotcha elements to increase interaction with the other players. There simply is no way to slow down another player who is winning. Maybe this could have increased the thematic element of the game by allowing players to access the powers of some of the other gods that are rivals with Zeus such as his brothers Poseidon and Hades, or his father Cronus. This could possibly be a future expansion so I will simply trademark these ideas right now!
I found this game very interesting and very enjoyable in its departure from the tried and true point salad scoring conditions so prominent in other Felds. I loved the planning aspect and the same focus on being efficient. It felt very comfortable and familiar to me but with some new mechanics and focus added in. The only major downside for me was the randomness that comes with all dice rolling games. If the dice are unkind, you will have a difficult time, but with this randomness there are mitigating elements built into the design such as the Favor tokens and the Oracle Cards that will help take away the sting of poor rolling! So if you have a desire to be efficient and love to plan out your victories (remember the best laid plans will change and you must be flexible), Oracle will be right up your alley. If you also like other Feld designs, read Tim’s most recent look at the Best 3 Games with…Designer Stefan Feld, where he talks about The Oracle of Delphi, Aquasphere and The Castles of Burgundy. You can also check out our unboxing video.