#967 -Portents [Preview]

Base price: $XX.
2 players.
Play time: ~30 minutes.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Check it out on Kickstarter! (Will update link when Kickstarter is live.)
Logged plays: 3

Full disclosure: A preview copy of Portents was provided by New Mill Industries. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game. 

It has been a pretty busy Kickstarter / crowdfunding season, this year. Does that mean we’re back to full efficacy? No clue, but in the meantime, there’s always more games to try. This next one comes from a couple of my buddies at New Mill Industries! They’ve been making some bespoke small-print board games that are exclusively crowdfunded, covering a wide variety of genres, themes, and player tastes. That’s always interesting to see. Love a small publisher. Anyways, their latest game is Portents! Let’s check it out.

In Portents, you’re in a bit of a bad way. The King is pretty upset and has been making some cutbacks (which may or may not be both literal and ominous), and the two of you are next on the list. Has your fortune telling business been entirely legitimate? Probably not. Does he need to know that? Probably not. Is this the time to demonstrate your value? Probably. It’s now or never, and heads are going to roll; can you make sure that this fortune you tell isn’t your last?

Contents

Setup

Not a ton! Start by placing the Altar between both players:

Shuffle the Omen tokens, placing them face-up around the edge of the central point of the Altar.

Shuffle the tiles in the bag and place 9 of the Bird Sacrifice tiles in the center of the Altar.

If there are any Portents (three of the same color or symbol in a row), reshuffle the tiles on the altar. Then, give three random tiles to both players. Each player should keep their hands visible, and neither player should have three tiles with the same color or same symbol in their starting hand. The last remaining symbol gets placed on the Kitty Token, out of the game. You should be ready to start!

Gameplay

Portents is an abstract strategy game of omens, predictions, and tile-sliding. Your goal is to collect sets of Omens to create Fortunes! Let’s go into how that works. There are two major phases: Sleight of Hand and Scrying.

Sleight of Hand Phase

The Sleight of Hand Phase has you placing and moving tiles around the board. Essentially, you’re waving your hands over the altar to perform your … craft? The rulebook explicitly encourages improvised incantations.

Start with a Push! You may push 1 / 2 / 3 tiles off of the altar from any one side. They can move in any arrangement as long as they move in the same direction from the same side. This means you may push several different rows or several different columns in one turn, as long as they are all pushed in the same direction. Note that any tiles on the Burnt side can’t be pushed off of the board.

Next, Replace! All now-empty spaces on the board should be refilled from your hand, placing them however you’d like in the empty spaces.

Finally, Palm! All tiles you pushed off of the Altar get added to your hand. Naturally, like the start of the game, you cannot have three tiles sharing a common attribute (color or shape) in your hand at the end of your turn.

Scrying Phase

Next up is the Scrying Phase! There’s some upkeep and scoring aspects to the game.

First, Check for Portents. This means you check for any new Portents! If there are, continue on. Here, a Portent is any group of three tiles in a line that are the same color or the same shape that aren’t Burnt. If there are new Portents, Check for Omens by seeing if any of the Omens in line with the Portent share that Portent’s color or shape. If they do, collect those Omens! Then, Ignite New Burnt Offerings. For each Portent created this turn, flip one tile in that Portent over to the Burnt side.

If there are no new Portents or once you finish Igniting New Burnt Offerings, you next Snuff Out Burnt Offerings. If any Burnt Offerings were present from a previous turn, check to see if they’re still part of a Portent, leave them where they are. If not, flip them over, back to the normal side. If flipping a tile would create a new Portent, don’t flip it.

End of Game

The game can end in three ways:

  • A player obtains two sets of three Omens that share a color or share a shape.
  • A player obtains one set of four Omens that share a color or share a shape.
  • A player’s turn ends with four Burnt Offerings on the Altar.

In any case, that player wins!

Player Count Differences

None! This is a two-player game. That said, there’s also a solo mode, for folks that enjoy that kind of thing.

Strategy

  • While using Burnt Offerings is a pretty good way to box your opponent in, watch out for having too many on the Altar! You may be giving your opponent a way to win! Recall that having four Burnt Offerings on the Altar at the end of your turn means that you win, so, you can leave one or two on the Altar and mess with your opponent’s plans, for sure, but if you have too many on the Altar they may be able to turn it against you and win! Keep an eye out for that situation and Snuff Out some of them on your turn, if you can.
  • Regardless, you should place Burnt Offerings to try and prevent your opponent from going after Omens that you want. The way you make Portents matters a great deal, and there aren’t that many tiles in the game. This means that you should be able to predict how your opponent might go about taking some Omen on the board on their next turn, given your board setup, and plan against that. Keep in mind, of course, that they may be planning around that move, but if you place enough Burnt Offerings in a spot, you’ll usually at least be able to push their ambitions somewhere else. That can protect you if you know what you’re looking for (usually, you want to block them taking whatever Omen will win them the game).
  • Going for Portents that give you multiple Omens at once is usually a good plan, if any exist. Generally, you’ll be able to tell at the start of the game; it’s any pair of Omens that are on opposite sides of the board and share a color or attribute. That means you might be able to play a particularly useful Portent and get both of them in one move, putting you even closer to winning (especially if you’re going for a Fortune of four Omens of the same color or attribute). More generally, more Omens is good, so Portents that get you more Omens is almost certainly good as well.
  • Keep an eye on the diagonals! It’s one of those things that you occasionally forget about. I think that some folks see the board and think that it’s only orthogonal lines and not diagonal lines. Maybe it’s just how the Omens are placed? Unclear. Either way, you might be able to use that to your advantage if your opponent forgets about the diagonals, but you should also make sure that you don’t! That’s how you lose some omens.
  • You can also set up multiple Portents in one turn, if you place your tiles correctly. Usually it maxes out at two, since you generally make two Portents that have one overlapping tile, but it’s possible to make more Portents or parallel Portents, I suppose. If you manage to make four at once and immediately win, I’d just be super impressed.
  • One tile’s missing! It’s harder to set up Portents of that shape and color, so take advantage of them when you can. You can usually restrict your opponent a bit by claiming a tile or two that has something in common with the missing tile, which means that you might be able to prevent them from taking Omens with a matching color or attribute. Just keep in mind that there are two ways to take any Omen, so don’t rely too much on this strategy working forever.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • The theme of this one’s super fun! I like that it has some similarity to The Quacks of Quedlinberg where I’m a professional grifter being forced to actually deliver on something and keep my job, but I also enjoy the kind of spooky fortune telling aspect of it all. It’s a fun spot, and it’s definitely not something I’ve seen before.
  • It’s a very quick game to play and reset, which is nice. I love a quick two-player abstract (usually), so it’s nice to have one that you can just dump the components back into the bag, shake them up, and you’re all reset. An extremely quick reset, which makes me very inclined to play it again.
  • I like the art style! It’s a fun, colorful collection of skulls and bones, which I can tell appeals to the publisher. Daniel’s really into skulls, is part of the joke here, but beyond that, it’s a bit of a macabre art style with a fun pop of color, which I think works out very nicely! I don’t totally understand the cat as part of all of it, but, as with most games, I’m not supposed to understand everything, I guess.
  • While the game is a bit physically small, I do enjoy the constraints imposed on players by it! Makes everything feel very tactical. Tactical constraints are always fun, for me. They make me think a bit more about how I want to approach a particular puzzle or problem. Here, they’re set by your opponent as a result of their Portent, to try and block you from moving on your next turn. That makes the whole tile-shifting puzzle more complicated, which I think is pretty satisfying. It’s always nice to see a game do a lot with a little, and Portents is definitely on the small but mighty side of things.
  • Doesn’t take too long to learn or each, either. This one’s a quick one! It’s essentially a push puzzle with some tic-tac-toe mechanics going for it, and those two simplish concepts marry to become something much more interesting and complex than either of their component parts, which I’m a huge fan of.
  • I like that there are a few possible paths to victory, all of which prevent the game from hitting a standstill. The game likely could stalemate to some degree, but that would require players really leaning into trying to find a stalemate rather than achieving it through normal play. Having the four-Omen Fortune just speeds the game up, and I feel like the four Burnt Offerings victory prevents the game from stalling (or collapsing, as I suspect it would with four Burnt Offerings on the board at once).

Mehs

  • I’m glad that the colorblind-friendly icons are on everything, but I’d love if they were a bit bigger. Really, the entire game could be bigger and it probably wouldn’t be a huge deal, but making the colorblind-friendly icons larger would be nice. Even I have trouble seeing them, sometimes. That said, I do appreciate the effort taken to make sure that folks who can’t distinguish colors can still enjoy the game.

Cons

  • The restriction on having a hand with three tiles of the same attribute at the end of the turn makes the game feel a tiny bit clunky, at times, since it’s a metagame restriction on normal player behavior. It’s mostly that it adds a check that doesn’t flow as part of the standard game. I understand why it exists, but it’s the kind of thing that a player may not remember, accidentally violate, and then have to undo a turn that they had planned out or strategized around, which leads to player frustration. I wish there were a smoother way (in terms of mechanically) to enforce that restriction, because right now it’s not particularly smooth.

Overall: 8.5 / 10

Overall, I think Portents is a clever little game! I quite like how intelligently it uses its limited play space to force interesting constraints onto the players both functionally and strategically. It’s really neat to suddenly have dead spaces on the board that you have to try and navigate around, even if I do find the ban on having three tiles of the same color or same attribute in your hand a bit clunky. I don’t think it happens often in practice, but having to keep an eye out for it frustrates me, somewhat. The one thing I will say on the “little” side of the little game is that I would love if the game were a bit larger in the final version. The colorblind-friendly icons are a bit small, and the tiles aren’t that large, either. A bit bigger (somewhere in the Azul-sized space) would be nice. Maybe I’m getting old. Beyond that, though, I’m always a bit loathe to try two-player abstract games because I love Santorini so much that it’s tough for any of them to come close, and, frankly, I ended up enjoying Portents a lot! I think the theme is humorous and a bit silly, granted, but I also expect some off-the-beaten-path themes from New Mill Industries! Part of their charm. I was impressed with Portents! My favorite of their line so far. If you’re looking for a tight two-player abstract game, you want to practice your definitely-legitimate fortune telling, or you just like skulls and bones, you might enjoy Portents as well! I was impressed with it.


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