This weekend I was fortunate to get to play The Heavens of Olympus.
In the Heavens of Olympus, each player takes on the role of a minor god that is attempting to gain the favor of Zeus. In order to do this, they must set the stars in the heavens in beautiful and diverse ways. How the game actually plays is that it is broken down into 5 days, each consisting of 3 phases. At the end of each day, the players score points based on where their stars are placed and which of those stars are lit. During each phase, the players choose between one of four options: 1) create new stars in a limbo state, 2) place the stars that they have created, 3) increase the number of stars that they will have lit, or 4) switch positions of two stars (at least one belonging to them). Once the scoring occurs, players then score points for the lit stars that they have that give them the greatest number of stars in an orbit, and also for the stars that are lined up into constellations. The game continues in this manner for 5 days, and at the end of the 5 days, whoever has the most favor wins the game, thus being welcomed in by Zeus and his fellow Olympians as a greater god.
The first pro that I found in this game was the limited number of options available. Whereas I was initially hesitant about the fact that there are only 4 actions that you can choose, it actually works out quite nicely. All players select their actions at the same time. Then, when they reveal their choices, if multiple players selected the same action, those players must pay "power" in order to perform that action (and if you are out of power, you must pay victory points). This works very well, as in 3-4 player you will often choose the same options as other players, and in 5 players, every phase will consist of at least 2 players selecting the same option. Because of all of the overlap with other players, it is important to decide both whether that is the best option and whether it is worth the risk of paying extra if other players perform the same action.
The next factor of the game that I liked was the balance between keeping stars together and separating them. If you place all of your stars together, then you are able to get much larger constellations, which can be worth quite a few points. However, if you place your stars in regions where you do not yet have many, you are able to get significantly more "power" which you can spend to do other actions later. (And of course, since you can switch positions of stars, you can place them to get points and then move them to get constellations - but at the cost of an extra action.) This worked really well and made the decisions often much more agonizing (which I'm sure was by design).
The final pro that I will mention about the game was that it introduced two different game mechanics that I don't recall seeing elsewhere (at least not in quite this way). The first mechanic was keeping your stars lit - which continuously ate into your actions. At the end of each day, 2-3 of your stars would become unlit. In order to keep them lit (and thus valuable for scoring), you were forced to choose the action of lighting them each day. The other mechanic was that the stars that you build go into a limbo state before they were actually placed on the board (and there was a limited number (3) that could be in this state). These mechanics combined for a fresh new gaming experience, and I really appreciated that The Heavens of Olympus was very different than anything else I can recall playing.
Now for my neutral point of interest. The Heavens of Olympus is not really "haha" fun. By that, I mean that this isn't the type of game that you go and joke around and laugh during. Instead, it is fun in a cerebral way much more like playing Chess, Go, etc. It is a game that is very mentally taxing, as you must carefully consider each move and the decisions are very challenging as there are often several actions that each player needs to perform each phase. This forces them to weigh the pros and cons of what to do. This also happens during the "trade stars" action - you must carefully decide which stars to switch based on what is most advantageous for you versus whether you can defend your new position (by doing things like preventing people from breaking your constellations). Each decision that is made in this game seems crucial, because there are only 15 total actions that you will perform each game! Because of this, it seems that every "trivial" decision is of grave consequence. Whereas I thought that the game would be fairly light and jovial by looking at the box, it turned out to be a highly strategic challenge. I think it will appeal more to people that enjoy games like Power Grid than people who enjoy games like Ticket to Ride.
Now for my first con. It can be hard to visualize what is going on in the game, and this can lead to the game slowing down sometimes. Since the orbits are all lined up in concentric circles, my eyes often wandered as I was trying to follow the orbits to see who had the most stars on each one for both scoring and determining which stars I should swap. I don't know how this could have been done differently, and it doesn't significantly detract from the gameplay, but it was something that affected the game enough that I felt it was worth noting.
The next con that we found in the game was that it was very "high maintenance". Because of the being lit versus being unlit (and that a swapped star couldn't be re-swapped in the same round), it felt like we were constantly flipping the star tokens from one side to the other. Again, this didn't really detract from the gameplay, but it did add some potentially unnecessary length to the game.
Overall, I give the Heavens of Olympus an 8.5/10. This is a very solid game that I can see myself playing when I'm looking for a mental workout. I look forward to the next titles that this designer creates.
As one last point of note: the designer, Mike Compton, has posted a link detailing the design process for The Heavens of Olympus here, which I found to be very interesting. Regardless of whether you decide to play the game or not, you should go read his post, as it really gives good insight into how a game becomes what you see at your friendly local game store.
If Heavens of Olympus sounds interesting, you might also check out Glory to Rome, Fealty, and Space Alert.
I would like to thank Rio Grande Games for providing me a demo copy of Heavens of Olympus to review.