“What about this one?”
My sister is holding up a little square box, about the size of a cocktail napkin, the thickness of a paperback dictionary. The motif is black and blue, with cutely crude hand-drawn artwork. The silhouette of a cat-eared demon peers over a title in block letters: ONIRIM. Is that a real word? I think it’s Hebrew.
After the jump, well, what about that one?
I’m visiting my little sister for the holidays. We’re in her town’s largest boardgame store, which also proclaims itself “the largest gaming store in the world”. I doubt it, but I also doubt there’s any sort of official organization to dispute the claim. This store has got a lot of square footage because it’s in the kind of neighborhood with square footage to spare. The majority of its square footage is taken up with pen-and-paper RPGs and miniatures. Row upon row of hardbound latter day Players’ Handbooks and Monster Manuals, shelves of outward facing campaign modules sporting flashy artwork for games I’ve never even heard of, endless racks of little figures in clear plastic packages. So much square footage devoted to the two rungs of nerdom even lower than boardgaming because normal people wouldn’t dream of playing pen-and-paper RPGs or playing miniatures-based games. What is the Apples to Apples of pen-and-paper RPGs? What is the Settlers of Catan of miniatures? See my point?
We’re here because I had extolled the virtues of single-player boardgames to my sister. She has previously sampled a few boardgames with friends at the last university where she taught. Now she’s in a new town, with a new job at a new university, with new friends, none of whom have outed themselves as boardgamers yet. So she’s curious to try something solitaire. She asked me for a recommendation yesterday. And as I drew a breath to launch into a list of recommendations, I suddenly realized that solitaire boardgaming for me meant doofusy fantasy stuff, borderline fetishistic military hardware minutiae, overlooked historical crannies, pastiche horror adventures, or the usual zombie nonsense. Furthermore, they’re all pretty hardcore in terms of the rules. If you’re playing a solitaire boardgame, you probably don’t have anyone to teach it to you; otherwise you’d be playing something for at least two players. So you have to be weird like me and you have to actually like reading rules. Relatively complicated rules. Which you don’t mind referencing frequently. And which you have to remember thoroughly because there’s no one else playing to remind you.
I had drawn in a breath to make a recommendation, so I couldn’t very well just hold it. Some words had to be spoken. Here are the words I spoke:
“Uh, well, let’s see”
I was running down the list in my mind, imagining the stack with my solitaire stuff in it. Nope, nothing in there for my sister, a very casual very sometime boardgamer.
“A lot of it is stuff you wouldn’t like,” I conclude.
There you go. My recommendation. Fat lot of good I’ve done. What the heck kind of boardgaming evangelist can’t pluck from his mental catalogue such a straightforward request for a recommendation? If I’m going to run around proclaiming “hey, solitaire boardgaming is no different than single-player videogaming!”, why can’t I come up with a recommendation for someone who isn’t a hardcore boardgamer? What is the Apples to Apples, Settlers of Catan, or The Sims of solitaire boardgaming?
So we end up at what is supposedly the largest boardgaming store in the world, figuring that it will be fun to just browse the aisles, hoping that maybe we can find something she might enjoy as a solitaire game. Frankly, I’m not sure she really cares about a solitaire boardgame. Frankly, I suspect this is all for my benefit. My little sister has always been willing to humor her dork older brother. When we were kids, I once pressed her into service to play something I’d gotten called Milton Bradley’s Carrier Strike! (exclamation point theirs). It had little plastic aircraft carriers with little plastic planes on little plastic mounts that held them over the board as if they were flying. These mounts were also brackets so you could slide the planes onto the carrier to represent landing. Each player had an aircraft carrier and you hunted each other down on a big board of empty ocean. I was thirteen years old, dying to play, my adolescent heart aching to bring these toy ships and planes to life, but crestfallen because I didn’t have anyone to play it with. Remember what it was like on Christmas to get a cool new toy that needed batteries, but your mom forgot to get batteries, and there’s no place open on Christmas day to get batteries? That’s what getting a new boardgame can be like, whether you’re thirteen years old or forty-eight years old.
But when I was thirteen years old, my sister was there for me and we played Carrier Strike!. Imagine an eleven year old girl playing Carrier Strike!, even though she couldn’t be less interested. She’s doing it because she sees her older brother crestfallen. I don’t remember the particulars of that game. I probably made her moves for her and she just sat with me while I essentially played it solitaire, narrating the moves I was making for her. Other little sisters volunteered for, I don’t know, soccer or baseball or Goldeneye on the N64. Mine volunteered for Carrier Strike!. Needless to say, it didn’t turn her into a boardgamer. She grew up to run entire departments in universities while I’m still pushing around the equivalent of tiny ships and planes.
So now she’s volunteered to browse the aisles of this gaming store, her looking for solitaire boardgames, me just looking because what boardgamer doesn’t like to browse the shelves of the various $50 games he’ll never buy?
“What about this one?” she asks.
She’s asked me this about several games that say they’re for one player. I’ve put the kibosh on most of them because most of them I’ve never heard of and they look questionable. Whether or not this is the largest gaming store in the world, it certainly has a lot of boardgames I’ve never even heard of. I know for a fact that many — most — of these are awful. That’s why there are so many boardgames these days. It’s a big enough business that there’s plenty of room for games that aren’t good.
But as I squint at the name and realize it’s not a Hebrew word and that I was thinking of onanism, it occurs to me that I have heard of Onirim. I listen to a podcast called 1 Player Podcast. The host is a charmingly awkward guy named Albert Hernandez, terrible at off-the-cuff speaking, organizing his thoughts, or conducting interviews, but so earnest, so sincere, so obviously taken with the pursuit of single-player boardgames, so completely unselfconscious as his pets and children squawk in the background while he’s recording. Every biweekly episode, Albert reads news items (he has recently added a co-host who’s more polished, more confident, and far less interesting). Then he describes some solitaire game he’s learning. He explains the rules the same way a child tells you the plot of a movie: without any filter for the irrelevant. It’s called enthusiasm.
Sometimes Albert will nervously interview a game designer. At one point, he interviewed the designer of Onirim. What I remember from the interview is that Onirim is solitaire, of course. Also that it’s something about dreams, about escaping from a dream labyrinth, about finding dream doors. Stuff that might be more palatable to a sometime gamer than the number of spell points an orc mage gets, the difference between an AIM-9 and an AIM-7, or how many cards you have left before the British fleet sails up the Dardanelles.
“I’ve heard of it,” I tell my sister, “but I don’t know if it’s any good. It’s something about dreams, about escaping from a dream labyrinth, about finding dream doors.”
My sister smiles and studies the little cat-eared demon silhouette on the cover. We like cats. She gets the game. At this point, I have no idea that I’ll be eagerly ordering my own copy within a week. And in another week, I’ll be ordering everything else the designer has made.
For me, the main value of a game is that it tells a story. The rules have to be good as well. I’m particularly fond of rules that tell stories in new ways, of designs with new approaches to narrative, of mechanics I haven’t seen before. So I had no interest in Onirim when I heard the designer interviewed because it seemed like all this dream nonsense was very vague, very loosey-goosey, very abstract. Dreams are like that. You won’t catch Martin Wallace making a game about having a dream. And sure enough, as I’m reading the rules, it seems like Onirim is just a variation on solitaire. Flip over cards one at a time. Match them with other cards or discard them. Did you run out of cards without solving the matching puzzle? You lose. Did you match enough cards to solve it? You won.
Since my sister is as averse as any normal person to reading rules, she’s asked me to teach her how to play. I play a couple of rounds to get a feel for it. Yep, a variation on solitaire. Onirim comes with some variants, one of which uses a cute little cat-eared demon figure, the only thing in the box that isn’t a card. The figure is called the Little Incubus. He’s a marker for the option to bank a card to use later. He’s just a black shape with eyes. I like to take him out of the box even when I’m playing the variants that don’t use him. He sits and silently watches me play long after the cat on my lap has gotten bored and fallen asleep.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I still don’t own a copy of Onirim and at this point I have no intention of owning it, much less playing any longer than it takes to hand it over to my sister. I teach her the rules by playing a game myself, telling her what I’m doing as I do it. These cards do this, those cards do that, your overall goal is to find the eight doors before the deck runs out. Kind of like regular solitaire, but kind of not.
Then I give her the deck of cards and have her go through her own game while I remind her of any rules she might not remember off the top of her head. There aren’t many rules, but there are a couple of finicky bits, and the cards themselves have no information beyond a color and a symbol. There is no text, no iconography to imply function, no diagrams, no numbers, no words even. You just have to remember stuff because the cards won’t tell you. For instance, the deck always has ten “gotcha” cards called Bad Dreams. A Bad Dream card has a picture of a cluster of the little cat-eared demons crowding each other to get a look at you. That’s it. Nothing on the card tells you what it does. Yet when you draw a Bad Dream, you have to choose among four penalties. Until you’ve committed the rules about each penalty to memory, you have to look them up in the rules book.
My sister finishes her game needing almost no help from me. She wins. She finds her way through all eight dream doors before the deck runs out. She seems to like it. She says she likes it. She smiles the same way she smiled when she decided to buy it. Then we get to doing other things for the rest of my visit and as near as I can tell, she loses interest in Onirim. That’s cool. Solitaire boardgaming — heck, any kind of gaming — isn’t for everyone. She’ll have the little box with the cat-eared demon available if she ever has the inclination to play something solitaire.
But later that night, when she’s already crashed and I can either read my book or watch TV, I decide to give Onirim a few more runthroughs because I’m thinking about the suits. The cards have four suits, or colors, each representing a type of room in the dream labyrinth. The red cards are the observatory. The blue cards are the aquarium. The green cards are the garden. The beige cards are the library. But these aren’t just regular suits, like in a deck of cards with an equal number of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. There are more observatory cards than there are aquarium cards, and there are more aquarium cards than there are garden cards. The library has the fewest cards. Why? The easy answer is because. This is, after all, a game about dreams.
But the more pertinent answer is because asymmetry. These suits are distinct. I know the red observatory cards are the most plentiful. I know the beige library cards are the rarest. That therefore informs my decisions. Red matters very differently than blue, green, or beige. Intriguing. Let’s give this another try real quick. A game takes no more than ten minutes. My book can wait.
I’m flipping over cards and trying to implement a pattern before the deck runs out, matching different colors and symbols, but also using the special power of key cards and managing the penalty of Bad Dreams. Thematically, I suppose it’s a close enough approximation of wandering through a dream labyrinth. Vague, loosey-goosey, abstract. The child-like artwork fits perfectly, bold, colorful, simple. But mechanically, it’s a deck management challenge, requiring frequent shuffling — who doesn’t love shuffling? — and forcing some really tough decisions. How do you work your way through the deck of cards, minimizing the impact of the ten Bad Dreams while hunting down the eight dream doors?
I end up playing several times, concluding that, yeah, sure, it’s a cute little game. Now that I’ve sussed it out, it’s not something I’d care to spend much time with. But I have one more thing to check out. What I haven’t investigated because I was focusing on teaching my sister how to play the basic game is the advanced version. Or, in this case, numerous advanced versions, referred to as expansions. They’re really variants that add additional cards to the deck. Since they’re all included in the second edition, calling them expansions is a bit misleading. But I doubt you could even find a copy of the original expansion-less edition from 2010. The Onirim that’s widely available, the 2014 release, says “includes 7 expansions” on the cover.
Each expansion introduces new gameplay, basically by adding new hazards and new benefits. And they’re each distinct. It’s not like one variation adds a couple more cards and another variation adds a couple more slightly different cards and all the while you’re still playing the same deck management puzzle. Each expansion varies the deck management in subtle but important ways. One variation requires unlocking the doors in a certain order. Another variation lets you use the discard pile as a resource. Another lets you rearrange cards. Another lets you hold cards for later. Another deals a set of impending penalties, hovering over the game at certain trigger points unless you can disarm them. Another can reduce your hand size, but it also gives you wild cards. Another introduces eight special dream helpers with unique one-off powers.
The expansion with the eight dream helpers is Onirim’s strength and weakness in a nutshell: delightful artwork with lots of character; variations to add a bonus and a penalty; gameplay that varies dramatically in ways that aren’t indicated on the card itself, so you have to keep looking it up until you’ve memorized it. The artwork, dream helpers and otherwise, is a cross between Picasso and a six-year-old. It’s the sort of lo-fi stuff that you don’t usually find in games that aren’t based on some dippy webcomic or designed by Tom Wham. It’s perfect for Onirim. You have to resign yourself to the fact that you must know all the rules, because the cards aren’t going to explain them to you any more than a jack of hearts is going to tell you where it fits into a royal flush.
The seven expansions are made to mix and match as you like. I can’t imagine ever playing with all seven expansions at once, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. It’s not even a matter of introductory expansions working their way up to advanced expansions. The first one is relevant even once you’ve learned the last one. The idea is to try different ones at different times, or to combine a couple of expansions that you like, or combine a couple of them randomly. In fact, have this site choose two numbers between one and seven. Play with those expansions. I just added my own eighth expansion!
Set up time is minimal. It’s just a deck of cards, after all. Usually about 80 of them. Take out the cards for the expansions you don’t want, shuffle in the cards for the expansions you do want. You’ll go through the cards a lot, even during a game, usually to find the door you just unlocked. Then you’ll shuffle the deck. You’ll also shuffle the deck to add cards you’ve drawn but can’t play. You’ll shuffle the deck several times after a game, because now the cards are organized by color and type. Cards in Onirim get shuffled a lot. A whole lot. No, seriously, like about ten times as often as any deck of cards in any other game. If you get uptight about nicked edges and worn card backs, Onirim is going to drive you batty. But if you’re like me and you think nicked edges and worn card backs just show a game is loved, Onirim is going to wear that love proudly on its unsleeved card backs. Not that the cards will get tattered; the quality is what you’d expect from any professionally made game. But anyone who’s played enough Onirim to learn all the expansions isn’t going to be able to resell his copy with a “like new” description. In fact, when you look at the deck from the side, you can tell the cards specific to an expansion by the brighter line in the stack. Don’t look at the deck from the side! That’s cheating.
I also really like the box, which isn’t something I care about with most of my games. The small but not too small Onirim box has two triangular flaps inside that close over the cards and the rules books. When the flaps are closed, they form a little cat-eared demon looking out at you. The two rules books nestle snugly into each other, with a diagonal flap that shows which book is for the base game and which book is for the expansions. Underneath the rules, there’s room for two decks of cards sitting side-by-side. The main deck with whatever cards you’re using from whatever expansions sits on the right. Whatever cards you’re not using from the other expansions sit on the left. Or vice versa. Sleeved cards won’t fit if you care about that sort of thing. The scowling Little Incubus sits in a molded trey above and between the two decks, presiding over them with a stare too precious to be baleful.
The size and efficiency of the box expresses Onirim’s “nothing but the cards” approach. Nothing but the deck. You don’t need chits or a scoring track or a board. You don’t need text once you’ve learned the specific rules. You don’t even need numerals. Well. One of the expanions uses numbers on cards called Towers, which is an odd choice. Pips could have been used instead. It’s weird to suddenly have numerals in a game with literally no text or numerals anywhere else. How often do you read in a dream? But aside from Towers, there are no numerals on the cards. Even the eight dream helpers with their unique special powers are just artwork. I know that card is the squirrel spies, but what do they do again? You’ll stop having to look up this stuff after a few playthroughs.
Because it’s all and only cards, it’s ideal for those of us who just want to spend a little time drawing, dealing, and shuffling without making a whole big production out of it. Here is a way to handle cards for ten minutes at a time with an opportunity for strategy, without simply going on autopilot. It’s an easy way to enjoy bright, simple, colorful artwork sprawling across the entire two-and-a-half by three-and-a-half inch expanse of a playing card. Feel that solid deck, that brick of dense paper, resting lightly in your fingers. The solid feel dissipates like smoke when you fan it out into individual cards. Now shuffle. A few times for good measure. Will you enjoy the satisfaction of a perfectly zipped shuffle with both halves falling neatly into place? Are your hands strong enough, or have you played down enough of the 80 cards, to bend the zipped halves the other way so they flap flap flap down on top of each other? Or will you do one of those inevitable ungainly fumbles when the cards from one half fin out and catch and you’re trying to stretch your fingers around something too ungainly for the stretch of your fingers?
You snap the discrete snap of a single card between your thumb and index finger or, if you’re feeling a little jaunty, between your index and middle fingers. Snap it down on the table, making a three-card set. Order out of chaos, shuffle, arrange, shuffle, arrange, shuffle, arrange, solve the mystery of what card is where. How many Bad Dreams are still lurking in there? Possibilities narrow as the deck melts away. Dice are all good and well, but they cannot hold a candle to the intrigue, mystery, ostentation, and heft of a deck of cards. Dice are to cards as numbers are to words.
I don’t have anything like Onirim. I don’t have a ten-minute solitaire game that isn’t narrow and frustrating like Friday, a ten-minute solitaire survival challenge that is also only cards. Friday wore out its welcome after three plays. Onirim has long legs. So before I fly home from visiting my sister, I have ordered my own copy of Onirim. It’s waiting for me when I get home, the little cat-eared demon peering up at me. I usually play when I’m watching a movie or TV show that only needs half my attention, or when I’m listening to a podcast that needs even less of my attention. Sometimes the TV show or podcast has ended and I don’t notice, because now I’m just playing Onirim.
I’ve gotten familiar enough with the game that I play quickly. I draw and play and draw and play and shuffle and draw and play and draw five and discard one and shuffle again and move these cards here and draw and play. Anyone watching me would think I’m just randomly moving cards around. It’s like a language they haven’t learned.
I probably win about half the time, depending on the expansions I’m using. I only win the Dreamcatchers expansions about a quarter of the time. I win Towers most of the time with plenty of deck left. Dark Premonitions can go either way; I routinely get down to fewer than five cards left, most of them barely suppressed Bad Dreams. Once I won with only two cards left. They were both Bad Dreams. One more draw and I would have lost.
Within two weeks, I will have ordered Castellion and Sylvion, the two latest games by Onirim designer Shadi Torbey. Not because I’ve exhausted Onirim. Far from it. But because I want to play whatever else Torbey has designed. Onirim is that kind of game.