The Heavens of Olympus (Game Review)

“Zeus has decided that he wants to construct a universe.” I hope you don’t need theme, because that’s about as much as The Heavens of Olympus ever provides. Over the course of five days (marked by the phases of the moon, for some reason), players are charged with placing planets in the sky in order to form constellations. (Yes, these constellations are made of planets.) Points are rewarded based on the fact that Zeus craves variety. In other words, the game’s rules have nothing to do with either actual cosmology or Greek myth.

The game mechanics themselves aren’t bad, though. This, the first published game by designer Mike Compton, is a fairly abstract game about placing markers on a crowded board for points. Players select actions by playing cards simultaneously, and there are rewards for choosing different actions than anyone else. Conflicting rules offer points for forming constellations within the pie-shaped regions of the board, but also for majority control of the circular orbits that cross regions. It makes for a nice variety of choices, especially since players will also need to earn “power” (generally by playing to new regions) in order to create and place planets. The system is set up so that power will be hard to maintain by the end of the game, forcing players to struggle and do (minor) calculations to play effectively. Because they’ll also need to keep the strength of their “torch” high enough to light the planets during scoring, there are a decent number of factors to track. Combined with a simple but effective catch-up mechanism that makes the player in the lead pay higher costs, this is a decent design for a medium-light game.

In my plays, the game board was a little too busy and difficult to follow with five players, but it was decent with fewer. I’m not sure whether five is simply too many for this game, or whether better graphic design could have saved it.

Unfortunately, the idea that better design was needed comes up regularly while discussing this game. I suspect that, with dedicated professionals working on The Heavens of Olympus from start to finish, it could have been a decent, if unspectacular, game. Probably a B-, maybe a C+ if the five-player gameplay still didn’t pan out. But in its current form, almost every aspect of it is cheap and shoddily made:

  • As already discussed, the game’s theme seems to have been thrown together in five minutes. If nothing else, it would have been less insulting if the game had simply called the planets “stars” (since they light up and form constellations) and said that a cycle of the moon is one month rather than one day.
  • Along with making the five-player board easier to read, a little more consideration could have streamlined the rules that require two different first player markers to move around the table, and to help people remember each phase of the game (such as the “extra night” that occurs at the start, and the torch reduction that occurs at the start of each new day).
  • The colors of the planet markers don’t match the colors of the other player tokens at all. (And the cards that are used to select actions match neither.) Expect some mistakes.
  • The marker that displays the strength of a player’s “torch” is supposed to be placed one position higher than the actual value. The idea is that since the marker covers a number, the player’s strength is the highest value still visible. This is a confusing, non-standard rule; The same board has a scoring track, on which markers cover the player’s current score without confusion. If this was a real problem, then the publisher should have provided disks that show the number underneath.
  • The box is long and thin, similar to Monopoly dimensions, rather than the taller but more compact format that is commonly preferred today. The pieces were not designed for that box size, and the board slides around banging into the sides.
  • Similarly, the plastic insert within the box was obviously not made for this game. That’s become a common money-saving shortcut for Rio Grande, but it’s especially egregious in this case. The space for holding cards is too small to hold the ones that come with this game! Was the production so rushed that no one noticed this, or did they really care that little about the game’s quality?

Some of these flaws make the game a little more confusing and slower to play. Others are just aesthetic, but definitely impact the overall experience of the game. At conventions, I’ve sometimes talked to small publishers who were obviously a little embarrassed by the quality of the finished product they could deliver. Given their lower budgets and smaller audience, it is often possible to overlook a few flaws in order to find an undiscovered gem. But in this case, Rio Grande is one of the largest game publishers in America. That they would attach their name to such a amateur production is frankly an embarrassment for them, and a little insulting to me as a member of their intended audience. I wonder whether this is a one-time mistake, or a sign of shift in strategy for a company that should know better.

Grade: D

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