Stefan Feld’s Oracle of Delphi is, at heart, a racing game. Players compete for Zeus’ favour by dashing around the map trying to complete twelve tasks and returning to the start. Whoever does this first, wins. Simple, right?
Well…as Blackadder once said, “Yes. And no.” Hidden beneath the Percy Jackson-ish exterior is a subtle game which rewards both cautious, flexible planning and bold, even reckless play. There are many interesting choices to make every turn. This is a Feld design, after all.
The stuff Zeus wants you to do falls into four categories: kill beasties; put up statues; make offerings at temples; put up shrines (which also involves discovering islands shrouded in clouds, yada yada). Twelve in all, three of each kind. The rules helpfully suggest that if you want to shorten the game you can simply reduce the number of quests each player has to get done.
The fun starts in setting up the map, which is made up of oddly-shaped hexonimoes (shapes consisting of bunches of hexagons), which makes each game different and allows for different levels of challenge. Then you seed the board with monsters, temples, statues, offerings…y’know, the kind of stuff that was laying around the Classical Greek world. Each player gets their own board and organizes their bits, which consist of three Oracle Dice (labelled on each face with the symbol of a different god), Zeus Tiles (the tasks you’ve got to get done to win), God tokens (measuring your standing with six different deities), a ship tile (which you either draft or select randomly and which gives you a unique benefit), and one randomly-drawn damage card (so you start the game slightly damaged, but then who doesn’t). You also get a little ship-eeple (shpeeple? Argeeple?) which starts the game with Cardboard Zeus on the map, which is also where you must return after you complete all your quests. Now you’re ready to play out your pitiful preordained-by-the-gods fate.
The first thing you do on your turn is check your privilege damage. If you’ve got too much, you’ll have to pass your turn, so right off you know managing your damage is a thing. If you manage to start the turn completely blemish-free you get to boost your standing with one god.
Now comes the meat of your turn, where you decide what to do with the Oracle Dice you rolled at the end of your last turn. This being Feld, there’s a Greek crap-ton of stuff you can do. Suffice to say that the dice don’t determine what actions you can take but rather which colour will be involved in your action. So if you use Poseidon (blue) to move your ship, guess what? You gotta land on a blue space. If you use Aphrodite to heal damage, its only the red damage cards you can toss. And so on.
But, you will ask, what if I make a poopy roll and don’t get the colours I neeeeeed? Have no fear; Feld is near. First of all, you can use a currency called “favour” to change the colour of your dice. Second, as a reward during the game you will accumulate Oracle Cards in various colours and every turn you can use ONE of them as if it were a die—which in theory gives you four actions every turn instead of three, which you want to have because more actions = get stuff done faster and this is a race game, eh? Third and Fourth, you will also be earning Companion and Equipment cards as you complete quests, some of which let you mess with your dice. So, as usual in Feld games, there are ways of mitigating bad luck—but usually at a cost.
Once you’re done your actions, “consult” (i.e., roll) your Oracle Dice to see which gods you’ll be able to invoke next round. Other players possibly get to boost a godly standing depending on what you roll, but don’t worry, you’ll be able to leech off of them on their turns. (Karma!) If your standing with a particular god gets high enough, you can cash in all that goodwill for a yummy one-time power, after which that god de-friends you and you have to start all over with them. (There are other ways to curry favour in the game, of course.)
Having players roll their Oracle Dice for the turn ahead (instead at the beginning of the turn) is a clever design choice as it gives players stuff to think about during other players’ turns. Since in some cases your plans will be upended if another player completes a task you were counting on doing, you need to keep one antenna pointed at the board.
The last thing you do on your turn is roll a six-sided die, after which everyone groans and draws damage cards—well, most of the time that’s what happens. Actually, the d6 roll represents THE TITANS attacking all the players every turn (the jerks) and you compare the roll to your shield strength (which is therefore also something you need to manage). If you haven’t been doing your Dynamic Tension exercises and your shield strength is wanting you have to draw a damage card. On a roll of 6 everyone takes TWO damage, which is just sad.
The game continues in this way as players complete quests, hand in Zeus tiles, and receive the corresponding rewards. Whoever checks off their To-Do list first and returns to Cardboard Zeus is the pre-ordained-by-the-gods champion and gets a free mug of ambrosia. Or rosehip tea. Whatever you’ve got is fine.
Oracle of Delphi represents a step forward for Feld. Mechanics like the Oracle Dice, monster combat, gifts of the Gods, and handling of damage suit the theme very well, rather than feeling arbitrarily bolted together. There’s none of Feld’s usual point-salad approach, where you can get victory points in about eighteen different ways. All of this helps in teaching the game and making it flow quickly and smoothly.
One bit of random oddity/neatness is that the first printing of the game shipped with six mysterious pillars, one of each player colour. When I set up the game and read the rules the first time I thought to myself, “OK, the offering cubes go here, the statues go there, and the pillars…hmmm…the pillars…” I couldn’t find mention of pillars in the setup or anywhere in the rules. Was I going mad? Racing to the BGG fora, I discovered that the pillars had been included by mistake, but (here’s the neatness) the publishers had asked Feld to design a variant for them, and he did! (They’re here.)
The game is not flawless. The number of things you can do with your Oracle Dice and Cards on your turn can bring on analysis paralysis. You can get hosed with your combat dicerolls or damage card draws and this will frustrate certain types of player; I think it’s best to warn people up front that luck plays a larger role than usual for a Feld game.
In terms of components there are a couple of needless complications. Firstly, it is not apparent at first that there is no relation between player colours and colours of offering cubes, statues, or gods. “Why are there six of some things and only four of other things?” you will ask yourself over and over, as I did, until you suss out that they should have picked four completely different colours for the player boards and tokens. Second, the map tiles use coloured hex outlines for sea hexes on one side and just icons on the other, which means you have to choose between (a) using one side consistently for the whole map, limiting choice, or (b) mixing it up, which looks kinda jumbly and confusing. Poor graphic design choice, I think.
Overall, though, for me Oracle of Delphi is up at the top of my Feld standings. I’m even working on a solitaire variant, which you should check out on BGG if you’re interested.