Review: Keltis: Das Orakel

You may have heard of the game Keltis without knowing it: it was released by Rio Grande Games as Lost Cities: the Board Game in the U.S., which I reviewed a while back for this very site. Although playing off of the strength of the Lost Cities card game may have been a smart marketing idea, it’s led to an unfortunate conundrum. Keltis won the German Game of the Year award in 2008, leading to several spinoffs and expansions that have not seen the light of day in America. Knowing how much my wife enjoyed LC:tBG, I imported them anyway, and Keltis: Das Orakel is the cream of that crop. A standalone game for 2-4 players, the card play is identical to Keltis: cards from 0-10 in five cards are played in ascending or descending rows in front of you. However, the board is now one big spiral, and playing a card lets a pawn jump to the next instance of that color. In addition, new bonus tokens and ways to score further mix up the game, making it a far cry from its original inspiration.

Components: There are very few components to this game -  there’s the central board, a deck of 110 cards, and tokens to be placed on the board. In addition, each player gets three pawns, a leprechaun token, and a scoring marker. The components may be sparse, but they are extremely well done. The tiles are thick and clear, the pawns are nice and large, and the board is a gorgeous, intense green that will immediately make Americans think St. Patrick’s Day. The box is unnecessarily large, and the price for importing isn’t going to be great (I believe I paid around $35 at GameSurplus). Despite those drawbacks, the bits are extremely functional and have an elegant beauty that makes the game a joy to see in action. 

Accessibility: If you’ve played any other Keltis or Lost Cities game, then you know how ridiculously simple the gameplay is. You simply play a colored card into its corresponding row, and the number of the card must follow the sequence for that row (either ascending or descending). That system has not changed from Keltis, which means that veterans of that game can jump right into the action without any hassle. Even if you have never played any of the other games in the series, it’s still a very straightforward, brilliantly basic mechanic that leads to some seriously tough choices. There are some new types of bonuses available on the board, but they are all pretty simple as well, although we had a rule wrong simply because I stink at reading rules (to score the Leprechaun bonus, all of your pawns must be on Leprechaun spaces). I’d have trouble believing anyone who’s played a board game before would have trouble with this one.

Depth: Although it’s not advertised as such, I described the original Keltis as largely a push-your-luck exercise. The difficult decision in that game is deciding when it’s okay to skip a few numbers in sequence to advance ahead of your opponents and snag an artifact or some extra points before it’s too late. Das Orakel has turned that idea on its head, because now the whole board is theoretically available to you, regardless of the cards you receive – I’ve played an entire game before using only four of the five colors at all. Between the different colored staircases and the new option to move back to any prior space, you have much more control than before regarding where your pieces land. In addition, the game is no longer just about advancing as far as possible on the track while grabbing artifacts. Two new scoring methods are introduced: the Leprechaun and the Oracle. The Leprechaun scoring is simple: there are three Leprechaun spaces on the board, and if all of your pieces are on some combination of them, you can gain a 5, 10, or 15 point bonus. In addition, these spaces allow you to discard a card from your hand or from the top of your rows, allowing even more flexibility than the original game. The second new scoring option is the Oracle, who you may pull towards you using the “Oracle number” listed on each of the cards. Bringing the Oracle to a space with your pawn on it scores you 5 points (and none for anyone else, even if they share the space). Having all these new ways to score mixed in with the old means that figuring out the best path of victory is a good mix of long-range strategy and the tactical decisions of dealing with the particular cards that you draw. It’s a wonderful mix, one that will have you thinking deeply throughout the game and keep you coming back for more. 

Theme: It’s tough to judge this category, because the whole reason Keltis was sold in a different package than Lost Cities: the Board Game is that the German publisher wanted it sold as an abstract. And it is indeed an abstract game, although Das Orakel has some small thematic touches to enhance the Celtic theme (oracles, leprechauns). I do feel that the game properly evokes a Celtic theme, but does absolutely nothing to immerse you in it. I also feel this game gives a fun sense of exploration, when you find ways to abuse the tiles and work your way back to that artifact you desperately needed. I still feel like I am playing an abstract, and therefore I applaud the fact that the game is advertised as such… but that still means it feels like you’re “just” playing a game when a strong theme can deliver so much more.

Fun: From the first move of the game, Das Orakel is filled with interesting, tense decisions and you’ll feel the burn on your brain when you try to play well. If that sounds like fun to you, then Das Orakel is chock full of fun, but it doesn’t offer much else. There’s no theme in which to immerse yourself or laughs to be had – just head-scratching strategy. I love the fact such a deep game can come from such a simple rule set, but it runs against our expectations – we tend to expect deep strategy to come with heavy rules and theme, and easy rules to make for easy games. However, a simple game like this can be explained to anyone, and they can enjoy the rewards of a deep game without having to spend a ton of time learning one – big rewards for little investment. 

Although I really enjoy this game, in line with our new review system I give it 3 meeples out of 5, because the game has a somewhat limited appeal: if you like your games to be heavily thematic or complex, this is not the game for you. But if you are the kind of person who enjoys simple abstract games and doesn’t mind a little bit of luck, I can’t recommend Das Orakel highly enough.

 Rating:

 3 out of 5

9 comments to Review: Keltis: Das Orakel

  • Shouldn’t games be judged for what they are, though? The only complaint this review expresses is that the game is abstract, which I realize some people don’t like… but “abstract” is a completely valid category of game, not a design flaw.

    If abstract games are going to be limited to a maximum rating of 3/5 just because some people don’t like the category, you probably just shouldn’t review them here at all, because that’s awfully prejudicial. By the same logic, you could dock a game a point for not being playable by two players, or only being for two players, since some people are only interested in group or one-on-one games.

  • Derek Thompson

    First off, I hope you take more away from my words than one number, as I really like the game. 3 is not a bad score. But part of the scale of our new rating system is that a 3/5 could be “an otherwise excellent game that has a limited appeal due to playtime, theme, or unusual mechanics.” Das Orakel lives in a weird space where it’s abstract, but it’s also got a stronger dose of luck than many abstracts, so that is why I think the appeal is more limited than a ‘typical’ abstract. A 4 is a game that I could just tell any reader to go out and buy it and I think it’d hit the mark more often than not. I don’t feel that way with this particular game. Hope that helps.

  • Derek Thompson

    As an example, Ingenious is an abstract that I would give 4/5. Though it may be just as luck-driven, it feels more strategic. It is more up-front about its level of abstraction, and it’s quite a lot of fun as well. For those reasons I would be happier to make a broad recommendation of Ingenious than Das Orakel (other reasons would include availability and price, too, I suppose).

  • I understand. And, of course I take more away from your words than the rating. I just think that it’s not the best philosophy for a rating system, because it’s going to result in pretty much only 3s and 4s being handed out, as has been the case so far.

    Anyway, I guess it’s not a big deal… most rating systems are effectively meaningless, and only there because people expect reviews to come with a rating. I like the way GAMES Magazine rates games for simplicity/complexity and luck/skill, but not for quality, as the fact that a game was included in the first place is an endorsement.

    My game designer nature says that a better quality-rating system would be two-dimensional, covering both degree and broadness of appeal. E.g. a 5D game would be the very best of a genre with narrow appeal (e.g. a top-notch grognard wargame), while something like Ticket to Ride might be 4A because of its broad appeal.

  • Derek Thompson

    If anything, I would just remove more numbers, since as you say, it’s kind of meaningless, which is why we removed our category evaluations. I see what you mean, though, about rating vs. appeal. That’s an interesting idea, one to consider. For example, I think Castles of Burgundy is at the top of its niche.

    And you’re right that we’ve had a dearth of 5s, primarily because it’s a rare game that I think I can recommend to ANYONE, but I think in retrospect I should have given King of Tokyo a 5. I’ve taught it to many different people, and only one person has been unimpressed out of maybe 20 or so.

  • Christian Wilson

    Handing out a lot of 3′s and 4′s is fairly accurate. Most of the games we review are ones we bought with our own money — generally with the expectation of some level of quality. That’s not always the case; I have a review coming up with a 2/5, and we’ve handed out a couple of 5/5 scores too. It’s just that the vast majority of games are “very good” or “pretty good but not great”. A ten-point system would (and did) yield similar results, with a lot of 7′s and 8′s handed out.

  • Oh, have you given out some 5s? I guess I was remembering incorrectly… I read all the reviews here and didn’t remember any 5/5s since the rating system overhaul.

    I understand that whatever you’re reviewing, a lot of things are going to fall in the middle of the scale… but that’s exactly the problem. You cut down from a /10 system to /5 because you weren’t using the whole scale. Which solves the problem if the relationship if you compress the ends of the scale, i.e. 1/5 = 1-3/10, 2/5 = 4-5/10, 3/5 = 6-7/10, 4/5 = 8/10, 5/5 = 9-10/10. Now you use the whole scale, and you only lose granularity at the ends, where you weren’t placing many games to begin with.

    But it seems you’ve just divided by 2, i.e. 1/5 = 1-2/10, 2/5 = 3-4/10, etc. which makes the problem worse, not better. You’ve lost granularity in the region of the spectrum that most games fall, and still don’t use the whole scale much.

  • Actually, my example of compressing the ends of the scale is too conservative to really illustrate the point, because I only made the 1/5 bigger and 4/5 smaller. Better example:

    1/5 = 1-4/10, 2/5 = 5-6/10, 3/5 = 7/10, 4/5 = 8/10, 5/5 = 9-10/10

  • Derek Thompson

    I think it’s more a matter of us getting adjusted to the new scale. There are games we’ve reviewed with the new scale that I think I would have given a different score, but I hedged. It is a very rare thing to get a 10/10, but like you said, 5/5 should be more common, if there is less to use. Like I said, King of Tokyo is really a 5/5, in hindsight. Once you we get more adjusted to the scale, you’ll see the number of 5s increase. I nearly gave Mondo a 5, but I didn’t because not everyone likes real-time gaming. The problem with 1′s and 2′s are simply that they are dreadful to review. So, no matter what kind of scale you have, you just aren’t going to see the low-end numbers that commonly, because it’s a pain to do.

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