Monday, 3 March 2014

Otontin: Warriors of the Last Empire a push your luck diplomacy game

I was contacted by Andrew Chia of Red Tin Bot back in December of 2013. Red Tin Bot is a game company that's just starting up in Singapore and Otontin is their first board game. Andrew offered up a review copy of the game for me to bring out to Windsor Gaming Resource events.

Otontin: Warriors of the Lost Empire  is a slightly confused game. On their boardgamegeek page you see:

"Otontin is a volatile card game for 3-8 players, aged 10 and up."

Yet over on the Red Tin Bot website you see:

"Otontin: Warriors of the Lost Empire is dice game for 3-8 players that plays in 30 minutes."

So which is it? I would say it's mainly a push your luck dice game. Added to that is a bunch of diplomacy leading to a war phase in which actions are chosen by playing cards. Since everyone has the same cards though I wouldn't really call this a card game. Those cards could be replaced by tokens, chits or pretty much anything else.

The theme of Otontin is that of ancient Aztec cities battling over control of cocoa beans. Each player builds up their forces and uses these forces to attack the other cities or defend their own. Diplomacy is a big part of the game as players can set up alliances as well as make deals with their cocoa beans. The game is played to a set number of beans with a quick game being 10 and a long game being 20. The player with the most cocoa beans in their city the turn after someone hits one of these milestones is the winner.

Otontin Production Quality:


The first thing I noticed about this game is how awesome it looks. I love the thick card box it comes in. It's nice and small. I hate games that take up far more room than they need to. This isn't going to take up much room on my game shelves and is actually small enough to toss in my wife's purse. That should be perfect for a quick filler dice game like this (note "should": see later). 

The dice are beautiful. The symbols are very clear and easy to read. Some of the nicest looking specialty dice I've seen in a game. The chits for beans and warriors are really thick and you get a ton of them. There's also a really nice black bag, used for the dice during play but great for storing everything. Actually, with the bag, you don't really even need the box anymore making the game even more portable. The last thing in this package is the cards. These are a little thinner than I'm used to but they work, as you will never be shuffling them. There's a ton of them but really it's just the same set of 6 cards in a bunch of different player colours.

There is one big disappointment in this box though and that's the rulebook. As the game comes from Singapore I probably shouldn't be surprised that the rules are rough. Really rough. English as a third language rough. The first read through I really did not get it. I had my wife read it and she had the same problem. The words look like English but they don't quite work together.

Otontin Gameplay:

Gameplay consists of three phases: Campaign, Strategy and War.

In the Campaign phase the players play Zombie Dice. I'm pretty much serious. In this phase you pull three dice out of a bag, they are coloured red, yellow and green. Green dice have more beneficial sides than yellow or red, etc. On the dice you find Cocoa Beans, Warriors, Priests (temples) and Saboteurs (skulls). After each roll of three dice you can either keep what you have or press your luck and roll again. If you ever get four shotgun bursts skulls, your turn immediately ends and you get nothing.


Okay I will admit it's a bit different from Zombie Dice but it's almost impossible not to make the comparison. Saboteurs rolled let the players to your sides steal troops from you. Beans give you cocoa tokens. Priests are saved for later, if you use up all the dice in the bag you can re-roll them (like feet in that other game I'm trying not to mention again). Warriors get you troops to put in your city. You have to decide if they will be attackers or defenders and you put them on the appropriate card in your play area.

The Strategy phase is where all the diplomacy happens. Mechanically all players decide what they are going to do on each of their fronts and place a card to represent this decision to the left and right of their city (their play area that contains their warriors dedicated to attack and defense and their cocoa beans). The three possible choices are Shield (defense), Spear (attack) or Hand (negotiation). Players each have two Hand cards but only one of each of Spear and Shield. This means that you can only attack one direction and defend the other but you could negotiate both ways.

The Hand action/card is the most confusing part of the game. This hand represents the fact you have a deal with the neighbor on that side. It can mean that they are letting you move your troops through their city to attack someone past them or it can mean they are sending you troops to help you defend. It could just mean you have peace between you and neither will attack the other. It get's complicated when you have multiple Hands played in a row. This creates a 'bridge of hands' in which the players at either end are now considered adjacent for attacking and defending.

What is going to be played during this phase should all be determined through a bunch of inter-player diplomacy. Players should be making promises and deals here. They should be forming alliances and creating bridges. Most of this seems to be done to get the leader. 

The War phase is where you play out what happens with all those cards just played. Attacks occur in order of the largest attacking army. Attackers have a strength of 2. Defenders have a strength of 4. Warriors still in the city (because the player didn't play a Spear or Shield) are 'resting' and are worth 1. Warriors are removed from both sides and if there is at least one warrior left after all defending (and resting) warriors are defeated the attacker gets all of the targets Cocoa beans.

Sound confusing? It is. The designer actually sent me a bunch of YouTube videos to help me figure all this out. There's four of these and they did help explain the game quite a bit. This was needed as the rules are not all that clear. Here's a video that explains how the Hand tactics can affect the War Phase:



Well that's basically it. You roll a bunch of dice and collect stuff (if you don't roll four skulls). Then you wheel and deal and decide on your strategy. Lastly you act all those strategies out. Rinse and repeat until someone has the target number of beans or the warrior tokens run out (the amount you get is based on the number of players).

What I thought of Ontontin

I first broke out Otontin at one of our Games & Grub events at the Green Bean. Seven other gamers jumped at the chance to try this great looking game. Everyone really dug the look and feel of the dice and we got some positive comments about the portability (see I'm not the only one that likes these small compact boxes). Then we started to play.

Wow was this game slow. The box and all online sources list it as taking about half an hour. I'm pretty sure it took us that long just to finish the Campaign phase of the first round. Having to wait for seven other players to play a 'press your luck' dice game is a bit much. By the time you've rolled and the next person has finished you are bored. It no longer directly affects you and you are just sitting there waiting for the round to end.

Once the very long Campaign phase ends you get what should be the meat of the game. The diplomacy. Deals should be made and backs should be stabbed. It just didn't happen. Sure there was a player or two who made a deal, but mostly it was "how can I get the leader" oh wait someone rolled 4 skulls so you can't move through their city, so I guess I do nothing. Attacks were actually uncommon. With defense being worth twice as much as attack and four times better than resting, there was a ton of defending going on.

After a couple of rounds it became obvious who had the most beans. The game boiled down to three players out of eight really having any impact. They were the ones who did best in the press your luck dice game. The rest of the players really didn't seem to have any impact at all. Pretty much all they could do is get in the way and/or kingmake. The worst part is that the game took over 2 hours. This was supposed to be a short game. A 10 bean game! That's a  long time for a game for one of our events. People usually like to mix things up, especially when I sell them the game by saying it should only take half an hour. 

At this point I probably could have packed the game up, tossed up a hugely negative review and called it a night. I didn't want to do that though. There are some bits of this game that sound like they should work. Plus that half hour on the box had to come from somewhere. So we gave the game another shot.


The three player game of Otontin is completely different from the eight player slog. It was remarkably quick. The Campaign phase was actually really engaging, as what every player rolled actually mattered. Especially when they rolled skulls and you got to steal troops from them. Diplomacy actually happened, though again it was just a matter of trying to convince the other player to gang up on the leader, or bribing them not to depending on what position you were in. Attacking was easier as people had more balanced forces. The game was still swingy and the amount of randomness in the push your luck dice game meant more than any real strategy but at least it didn't take all night. With only three players we were done in about 25 minutes. The game was actually somewhat fun.


So overall I've got mixed feelings about this one. In no way can I recommend playing an eight player game of Otontin. It just doesn't work. While the components are awesome and I love the small box, that many players turns what is meant to be a filler game into a multi-hour slog. A game where the randomness of the dice and kingmaking determines the winner over any real player strategy. Cut the players down significantly, and there's a game here. The random factor is mitigated by the short play time, as it is in many press your luck games. It goes from a horrible game to something I wouldn't mind playing now and then. Even then, with so many great filler games out there like King of Tokyo and Tsuro I find it hard to give Otontin a solid recommendation.

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