Onirim vs. Urbion – Battle of the Dream Masters

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As a big fan of games that don’t take up much space (both in the box and on the table), and a lover of solo and cooperative experiences, it didn’t take long for me to track down Onirim and Urbion. Well, to be honest I never did find Onirim, but Andrew is awesome and found it for me. Regardless, I now have both and have decided to pit them against each other for your amusement.

Look at that epic stare-down! Although the marshmallow at the bottom there looks a bit bored...
Look at that epic stare-down! Although the marshmallow at the bottom there looks a bit bored…

 


Both Onirim and Urbion are published by Z-Man Games. Both have been designed by Shadi Torbey. Both allow for either one player to go it alone or for two players to work together. Both come with a handful of expansions right in the box. And both are simple yet complex surreal card games that involve controlling dreamscapes.

They’re both also hard as crap.

Dream Weavers

Behold, the formless horror of your nightmares made flesh!
Behold, the formless horror of your nightmares made flesh!

First, there was Onirim. It’s a game in which you play a Deamwalker trapped in an ever-changing labyrinth. Your goal is simply to escape, but you don’t have a whole lot of time before you’ll be stuck in there forever. You’ll need to be efficient and methodical if you’re to have any hope of finding your way through all eight doors and escape the nightmares that are stalking you.

Then there was Urbion, which takes you out of the maze and puts you in charge of the titular city of dreams. As ruler, you’ll need to balance the various districts in the kingdom using both good and bad dreams (Sognae and Incubi) to maintain balance and order. You’ll also need to watch out for Chaos, which can really make a mess of things.

Keeping Control

Are you a bad enough dude to manipulate a city full of dreams?
Are you a bad enough dude to manipulate a city full of dreams?

While both games share several similarities, including a bizarre but enjoyable watercolor-like art style, they play very differently.

Onirim tasks you with placing cards with alternating symbols in order to make your way through the labyrinth and hopefully find a door or two. You can’t simply draw a door from the deck and be done with it, though. If you don’t have a matching key, the door will be shuffled back in. You can ‘earn’ a door by successfully placing three like-colored cards in a row (with alternating symbols), however.

Of course the more cards you place the smaller the deck gets, and the smaller the deck gets the closer you’ll get to being lost in a maze for all eternity. It also increases the likelihood of a Nightmare popping up, which can have one of several nasty effects on your progress.

Earth. Fire. Air. Water. Only the Avatar... you know what? Never mind.
Earth. Fire. Air. Water. Only the Avatar… you know what? Never mind.

Urbion is more about balance, both in theme and in gameplay. Whenever a new district is added to the table, two cards are drawn and placed next to it. These could be good dreams (positive numbers), bad dreams (negative numbers), or Chaos (can be positive or negative). Your job is to use the cards in your hand to make all the values for each district add up to zero.

Things get a bit more complicated when you consider that certain districts can only have certain elements (represented by a symbol on each card) played on them. You’ll need to maneuver cards from one district to another in order to shift the balance in your favor, but the catch is every action you take requires using a card. If you place a card, you draw another. If you want to swap two of the same kind of cards (either two Sognae or two Incubi) you have to discard a card. And the more cards you lose, the closer you come to defeat.

Stacking Up

They may not look it, but the cards in Onirim are going to give you a really hard time.
They may not look it, but the cards in Onirim are going to give you a really hard time.

For the record, I really enjoy both games quite a bit. They’re easy to learn, extremely difficult to master, and they’re the perfect size to carry along in a pocket. But in the end, only one game can come out on top.

For starters, the core gameplay for Urbion is very intuitive – balance the numbers to zero and look out for elements; that’s about it. Conversely, Onirim feels a little disconnected with all the little rules and regulations you need to keep track of (i.e. you can only place alternating symbols, Nightmares do one of several things, discarding a key triggers a “Prophecy,” etc). And while I like Onirim’s somewhat bleak and desperate theme a bit more, mechanically it’s can be a little awkward. Specifically in how it requires players to reshuffle the deck almost constantly.

The included expansions, while definitely appreciated for both games, also work much more smoothly in Urbion. You can shuffle in a few extra cards and know how they work without even needing to consult the rulebook (i.e. a handful of cards that can act as either Incubi or Sognae, districts without elemental restrictions, etc) The Books of Powers require a little more thought during setup, but once they’re on the table they clearly explain their functions all by themselves.

Good, bad, I'm the guy with the dreams.
Good, bad, I’m the guy with the dreams.

On other other hand, Onirim’s expansions aren’t quite as straightforward. The Book of Steps Lost and Found is easy enough as it’s mostly about forcing you to unlock doors in a particular order, and the spell card uses similar iconography to the spells in Urbion. The Towers is a little more finicky, and it can be difficult to keep track of how many of the special (and necessary to win) cards are left in the game. And then there’s Dark Premonitions and Happy Dreams, which is basically a collection of cards that stay on the table and trigger bad stuff once you’ve met certain conditions and cards that get shuffled into the deck and do good stuff when you draw them. Problem is, there are so many variables it can be difficult to keep track of them without having to consult the rules almost constantly.

When all is said and done I pretty much had to go with Urbion because I can pull it out, teach it, and play it a lot faster than Onirim. I don’t have to shuffle the deck every two turns, I don’t have to consult the rules every three turns, and I don’t have to stop in the middle of things to explain concepts to other players all the time (when playing co-op, of course). Both are still great games in their own right, though.

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