Odin’s Ravens: A Board Game Review

If you’re in search of a fast-paced two-player game, then look no further than Odin’s Ravens.

While the original edition debuted in 2002, designer Thorsten Gimmler released this completely redesigned version just this year. Having won the “Best Strategic Card or Dice Game” category at the UK Games Expo 2016, I’d say it’s been a success.

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The Basics

Time: 20-30 minutes
Players:
 2
Ages: 8+
BGG Rating: 7.2*
Baby Brown Bear Status: On loan

Unfortunately (and embarrassingly), my knowledge of Norse mythology is primarily based on the Marvel Comics movies (Chris Hemsworth, though, amirite?!). If you are in the same boat, please let me refresh you.

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Swoon.
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The only appropriate response to the above picture.
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*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.3/10.

Baby Bear’s half-assed refresher of Norse mythology

Odin, also referred to as “Allfather” because he is considered the father to all the other Norse gods, is the multi-faceted god of poetry, magic, and war. According to legend, his unquenchable thirst for knowledge led him to sacrifice an eye (via self-gouging) in Mimir’s Well, whence he gained some sort of cosmic knowledge. Interestingly enough, you can see a replica of this well at the Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration.

Another, more practical, way he gains his wisdom? By sending out his trusty ravens, Huginn and Muninn, to bring back news from across the world.

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Decidedly less swoon-worthy.
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In this game, you and your opponent are those ravens, racing against each other to see who can return to Odin the fastest. However, to do so, you may need to enlist the help of the trickster god, Loki (who, I just found out, is actually Odin’s blood brother and not his son, as the movies would have us believe). Check out the section in that link entitled “Loki’s Role in the Pre-Christian Northern European Worldview” for an interesting analysis of Loki’s importance in the Norse mythology universe.

TL;DR

You’re a raven and you fly across the world to bring information to Odin. If you return before your opponent, you win.

Setup

The setup is incredibly simple and is shown in the following picture.

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At the top of the picture is the stack of land cards. In the middle of the picture to the left are the two wooden raven figures, ready to race. To the right of those are 16 land cards. On the bottom of the picture are the black player’s 25 flight cards and 8 Loki cards, the rule book,  and the red player’s 25 flight cards and 8 Loki cards. The path the ravens must follow is a loop, meaning the white raven on top must go straight in front of him until he reaches the end of the row. Then he must go down to the other side of the card (in this case the forest) and circle back on his opponent’s side until he arrives back at the starting point.

Ravens start on the left side of the board and must traverse land cards. While there are 40 total land cards, they are shuffled and 16 are placed on the board. Players must make sure no two spaces in a row are of the same terrain (e.g., two fields cannot be touching). All remaining land cards are placed (in this case) on top of the board.

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Ready to fly.

Below the land cards are each player’s decks. Both the black player and red player have two stacks: 25 flight cards and 8 Loki cards. Players draw five total cards for their starting hand. They can choose to draw cards from either or both piles. I’ve personally found it best to draw at least one Loki card.

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An example starting hand includes four flight cards and one Loki card. Tom Hiddleston is a much more attractive Loki.

Turn summary

The nice thing about this game is that it’s pretty flexible in terms of what you can do, meaning you can play as many or as few cards as you can or want. That said, the basic actions you can take are flight or trickery.

Flight (flight cards)

To advance a raven, players must use flight cards that match the terrain of the next space on their route. If there are spaces of the same terrain in a row (which could only happen after moving cards around with Loki), a player can move his raven to the last card in the row, meaning the raven only uses one of those terrain cards to fly over all of that terrain.

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For example, the black raven must play a desert card next. Since there are two desert cards in a row, he will only need to use one desert card to fly over both of the deserts in front of him.

If a player has no matching flight cards, he can use any two flight cards of the same terrain in place of the one flight card he needs.

Once used, players discard flight cards into a pile that will eventually be reshuffled back into play.

Trickery (Loki cards)

There are four types of Loki cards and each card has two different actions. A player can choose only one of these two actions. Once the action is taken, the card is removed from the game. This means each player can use up to eight Loki actions total throughout the game.

The four types of cards are shown below. Their abilities are fairly self-explanatory based on the drawings, but more explicit instructions are in the rule book.

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Here are all four types of Loki cards. A player can choose to use the top OR the bottom action. 

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One of the Loki cards allows you to build a loop that elongates the route for the other player. For example, the white raven on the bottom is trying to move left. He must now play a forest card, a field card, and a fjord card to win instead of just a fjord card.

Turn end

After you are done playing your cards and have discarded them appropriately, you must draw three new cards to end your turn. You can choose any combination of flight and/or Loki cards.

Note: you can never have more than seven cards in your hand and must immediately discard down to seven if you do. Remember, discarded flight cards are eventually reshuffled into play, but discarded Loki cards are not to be seen again!

Game end

The game ends when a player moves his or her raven into the final space on the opponent’s side. If that player went first, the other player is given a chance to move to the end of his or her track. In case of a tie, the player with the most cards left in hand wins.

My Thoughts

Cons

  • Lack of strategy. The only real con is that there’s not all that much strategy involved in this game. You can plan a little bit, but you’re mostly at the mercy of the luck of the draw.

Pros

  • Easy to learn. This game is incredibly easy to learn. In fact, you can skim the rules and start playing within 20 minutes.
  • Quick pace. Odin’s Ravens is great “filler game,” as we often call them in our game group. By this I mean that it’s fast-paced, doesn’t take long from start to finish, and isn’t too heavy. You can play it to relax and catch your breath between longer and more strategy-heavy games.
  • Artwork. I really appreciate the illustrations on the land cards. Each terrain is unique, colorful, and surprisingly detailed. They make me wish I could fly over them in real life.
  • Two-player game. While some may view it as a con, I like that this is a two-player game only. It’s a nice option for weeknights when you feel like playing a game, but don’t want to play something that’s really designed for multiple players. It’s a good date night game, too.
  • Lighthearted. I like the theme on this one a lot (as evidenced by my need to go into a little more thematic detail above), but I especially love that it’s lighthearted. I’ve been known to become a little cross when playing more serious games against Papa Bear, but this one is just light enough that I feel like we can challenge each other to multiple plays with no hard feelings. Does admitting this make me overly competitive? Probably, but no one loves to lose to the same person repeatedly.

In short

Odin’s Ravens is engaging and approachable for all experience levels. It’s fast enough to play a few times in a night without growing tired of it, and is very easy to learn. So far, it’s one of my favorite games of 2016!

What say you?

 

An Intro to Board Games

Both Papa Bear and I grew up playing board games. In fact, when asked if he liked growing up with three brothers, he says, “Yes, because we always had a perfect amount of people for games.” I’m sure he likes his brothers for other reasons too, but it’s hard to say.

As an only child, I prefer to think that I was just super creative when I wanted to play a game and couldn’t wrangle together anyone else. After all, playing by oneself is almost a surefire way to win.

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I’m also going to lose, unfortunately.
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Though we grew up with games like Mastermind, Scrabble, Life, and Monopoly (So. Much. Monopoly.), our tastes have changed in recent years. It all started when a good friend gifted us with Dominion for our wedding.

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More on this later.
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Any good game involves a certain level of strategy, but what Dominion introduced us to was a whole new world that took those strategies to the next level. (For what it’s worth, bad games involve strategy too, but the goal is usually to end the game as soon as possible. Here’s looking at you, Candyland.)

In this new world, games are more complex. When I asked my game group to describe what makes these games different, they said that, unlike Monopoly or Life, for example, these require “meaningful decisions.” Because there is much less left to chance (e.g., rolling a die or spinning a wheel), you are responsible for your outcomes. Each action must be carefully planned as it can greatly affect your and your opponent’s future strategies. In turn, each time you play is very different from the last.

Now, I don’t mean to sound snobbish. There is a time and a place for games like Monopoly and Life. To me, one of the greatest things about board games is that they encourage conversation and interaction. Nearly any game allows for fun interchange, even those where “fun interchange” may be better described as “contentious debate.” Plus, many of us grew up playing these games. Playing them later in life can be fun for purely nostalgic reasons. Furthermore, they are great for teaching both kids and adults how to play board games. They introduce turn order and help people learn how to read game rules, win and lose with grace (sometimes), and generally have fun playing games.

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These faces strike a chord with my sentimental heart.
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Let me step back, though. Before we go too far down the board game path, let’s start with some basics.

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A Quick Board Game Primer

A board gamer’s best friend: BoardGameGeek

Simply put, BoardGameGeek is a database for board games and it pretty much contains anything you’d possibly want to know about any game. I like to use it to research games before we buy them, read forums for recommendations of what to buy next in any certain category, search for rule clarifications, and log my game plays. If you think that’s a lot, you should see how Papa Bear uses the site. He basically lives and breathes “BGG.”

Board game categories

BGG helpfully classifies games in a few ways: type, category, and mechanism. Here are BGG’s “types” of games:

While these categories and descriptions are generally helpful, and will earn you points if you use them correctly in the gaming community, it’s important to remember that some games span across categories. So if you think you only enjoy party games, you may be surprised to find out that some of your favorites are also considered to be thematic games. You may be a bigger board game geek than you thought!

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This guy is so excited about games that he decided to dress up as a blue meeple at the beach!*
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Where to begin

Based on the above descriptions, you may be drawn to a particular kind of game. You’ve likely already played a party game in recent years. If you have any friends who like to play games, ask them to play. I’ve never met a board game fan who will turn down a game night. If you don’t know any game lovers, check out a local board game store. For me, it’s the Chicagoland Games: Dice Dojo on Broadway and Bryn Mawr.

Going to your local store is great for a few reasons: 1. Any purchase would help support a local business; 2. They usually have demo libraries full of games you can try before you buy (with no pressure to buy at all); and 3. They typically host open game nights. The Dojo, for example, hosts an open board game night each Wednesday. There, you can meet like-minded people and try your hand at a new game. You are most likely not the only person unfamiliar with the game, so the environment is very conducive to learning and asking questions.

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Open game night at the Dojo. You can see a sliver of the demo wall on the right. They have so many games to try.
[Source: Me, after participating in a great open game night at the Dojo]

Now, since I tend to like strategy games (and party games) best, and since that’s kind of what I started off talking about here, I’d personally recommend starting with Dominion. Admittedly, I have no other frame of reference, but I think it’s a fun game that’s easy to learn and play in a relatively short amount of time. Another popular starting point for strategy games is Catan, formerly known as Settlers of Catan or “Settlers.”

Learning to play a new game

I’ll admit, when we first started playing Dominion, I found the eight-page rule book to be rather daunting. Now, I find eight-page rule books to be refreshingly short.

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“Time out. I don’t want to read eight pages of rules. What else can I do?”
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There are several ways to learn how to play a new game. Over time I’ve realized that, in order of preference, I like to:

  1. Play with someone who already knows the game;
  2. Watch an overview video; and/or
  3. Read through the rule book.

Playing with people who know the game. Assuming your friends are somewhat articulate, it’s easiest to learn how to play a game from people who have already played it, especially if they’re played more than once. After a brief summary of components and rules, I often find that it’s easiest to just start playing and asking questions along the way. Sure, you may not be able to form a solid strategy yet, but there’s no better way to improve than by making mistakes. Plus, if you totally suck it up the first time, imagine how surprised they’ll be when you dominate the second time around.

Watching an overview video. Now, let’s say you know you’re going to play a game but you don’t own it and your friends aren’t with you yet. Save everyone the time and energy of having someone explain it by watching an overview video first. Good ones (like the Watch It Played series) will provide a succinct review of the basic game play and may even throw out a few ideas for strategy. The Dice Tower also has some nice videos.

Reading the rules. Finally, it never hurts to learn a game by simply reading the rules the designers took so long to write. In my experience, they become easier to understand the more games you play and rule books you read.

Regardless of how I initially learn a game, I find it to be very insightful to read through the rule book again after playing once. With a basic understanding of the game down, it’s easier to understand some of the intricacies of the rules. It’s also helpful because you realize what you did incorrectly the first time. Oops.

Ready to Play?

Enough talking about what kinds of games are out there and how to learn how to play them. It’s time for you to just start playing!

Have no friends? There are several solo games. Have a lot of friends? Grab a party game. Have just a medium amount of friends? You’re in luck, because there are a gazillion for two to four players.

Because I talked up Dominion a couple of times throughout this post, look for a follow-up that gives a little more detail about the game and why Papa Bear and I like it so much.

(Edit: Here’s the Dominion review.)

Again, the best part of playing games is the social element (although I do love a good mental challenge and some healthy competition). So while you (eagerly) wait to learn more about Dominion, feel free to ask questions or comment with your personal favorites.

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Yes, I’m using a Monopoly board as the final image on a post where I kind of bash Monopoly. 
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*A meeple is a little wooden figure used in board games.