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Oros is like classic video game Populous as a board game - and far more interesting than it seems


I’ll admit: I was sceptical of Oros at first. Our preview playthough at PAX Unplugged 2022 opened with our demo-giver explaining that the four players around the table were demigods who must use our followers to attain greater wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. (Disclaimer: PAX Unplugged is run by Dicebreaker owner ReedPop.)

It’s not exactly an inspiring setup at first blush, especially in a hobby where games about ancient religions, followers and deities - depicted with often questionable accuracy by European and American studios - are rife.

Oros at least managed to steer around the first looming hurdle by making its demigods earthbound representatives of a mysterious Wise One overseeing a fictional world, rather than attempting to directly tie its setting back to any real-world pantheon or historical culture. (Oros, if you’re wondering, comes from the Ancient Greek for ‘mountain’.) Instead, players’ demigods are non-specific deities of nature, worshipping fire, water, land and the sun.

Players can use their demigod powers to shift tiles around the board, creating new land, mountains and volcanoes.

It’s this natural attunement that matters most in Oros, which - if truth be told - isn’t really about gods and religions at all. The granting of godlike powers to players mostly serves as a handy vehicle to let them start manipulating Oros’ board, which represents the land and sea of its colourful world. This is where Oros manages to break away from the same old ‘place followers to gain points’ crowd and become something far more unique - and worth your attention.

Oros smuggles an interesting, highly interactive puzzle game of tile-sliding and tectonic manipulation under the surface of something that looks far more generic and forgettable.

Unexpectedly, Oros’ easiest comparison is to Populous, the series of influential and ambitious video games released for computers and PlayStation through the 1990s. As in those games, your godly powers in Oros are used to control the very ground around your followers, raising islands from the water, pushing land together to form bridges across water and slamming mountains together into volcanoes.

This all comes in pursuit of greater knowledge by ascending the tallest peaks and building sacred monoliths, shrines and temples. Players can assign workers to their individual boards to perform actions, moving their meeple followers between tiles on the map or sending them off to study - which attains ‘wisdom’ points used to unlock more powerful upgrades for your actions. But that’s ultimately secondary to the spatial puzzle of actually shifting tiles around that serves as the real reason to play Oros.

Some more thoughts on Oros from PAX Unplugged 2022Watch on YouTube

The bulk of your actions will be spent shuffling tiles around the board, using action spaces to shift rows and columns in the grid of tiles that forms Oros’ world. In a crucial detail, these tiles ‘wrap’ between edges of the grid - meaning that if you push something off one edge, it will appear on the opposite side. It makes the constantly shifting board feel like a flattened Rubik’s Cube shared between the players, who must push and pull to further their own aims.

Terraforming the world works just like you’d hope it to.

Importantly, terraforming the world works just like you’d hope it to. When tiles with land collide, they push together to form mountains. If the land is already piled high with hills, this can form volcanoes. These volcanoes can then be erupted to send lava flowing down into the sea along a connected line of tiles, which creates new landmass for players to play with. It’s a beautifully sleek way to capture the real-life physics of tectonic plates and give it a meaningful gameplay impact through combos. Plus, it just feels really, really good.

Once mountains are raised high enough, players can race to climb the peaks with their followers and place down a sacred site. These sacred sites stack as they grow from monoliths to temples, with multiple players able to potentially build sites on the same space - at the cost of benefitting players who have already staked their claim.

Players assign their followers to action spaces to shift tiles and build shrines, as well as sending them out to study and upgrade their powers.

Despite the number of options on offer for players, Oros’ rules are still fairly easy to grasp, helped by its approachable presentation and fairly straightforward objectives. Where the game strikes its deepest vein is in the numerous ways that a simple shift of a row can change the standing of every player, ending up with turns where players can spend minutes silently calculating where each island, mountain and volcano will end up when shunted.

Oros pleasantly surprised me. It smuggles an interesting, highly interactive puzzle game of tile-sliding and tectonic manipulation under the surface of something that looks far more generic and forgettable. Our first look at PAX Unplugged was enough to make me want to dive back in and continue to wrap my head around the potential of its combo-rich tile-pushing and arranging. At points, its positional elements and interaction with other players felt more akin to the moves of chess and other abstract strategy games than a typical dash to control the board.

With its potential for plenty of thoughtful gameplay under a colourful palette, Oros is far deeper than it looks - and could prove to rise much higher than anyone expected.

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