Ominoes – Hieroglyphs: A four-sided game review

Ominoes: Hieroglyphs* is a tile-laying game for two to four players that takes less than an hour to play. The box says ages 10+, but a gamer child as young as eight should easily get to grips with it.

While the game shares the title and artwork from Harman’s previous game Ominoes, this is a very different beast: this is a longer, deeper and more strategic (serious?) game, but still easily falls into the ‘family’ bracket. It is also roughly the same price, at around £25.

The artwork and graphic design are clear and colourful, fitting the Egyptian theme well. The box is actually sensibly sized for a tile-laying game (perhaps the first ever?), fitting the contents snugly inside. In it you’ll find almost 100 cardboard tiles, about the same again in cardboard counters and four small player boards. The tiles are a little disappointing in the quality department, if you’re used to games such as Carcassonne, but they’re perfectly functional and we haven’t had any problems with them.

Teaching Ominoes: Hieroglyphs

I would put the game firmly in the family game category, although fans of light euros and tile-layers should also find something here to enjoy.

Unlike games such as Carcassonne, here you each have a hand of five tiles in hand. These will be visible to all, so there’s a certain amount of checking out what others can do as you start to know the game more.

Each tile is double sided, with the majority showing two of the game’s six symbols (one on each side). In addition there is a number of altar tiles – one in each of the four player colours (which equate to four of the six symbols) and several of each of the two neutral symbols. Each player receives their own temple tile as part of their starting hand, while the others are shuffled in with the other tiles.

On your turn you’ll add a number of your five tiles to the central array of tiles. You can play as many as you like, but they must all have the same symbol face-up (you can flip the tiles over before you play them). You can then play them anywhere as long as they join into the central array orthogonally, with the aim of getting a set of at least four – hopefully making it adjacent to as many temple tiles that have been laid as possible.

You then (hopefully) score: you get a token of the colour you made a group of four of; plus a token of the type of any temple your set was placed next to (again orthogonally).

You can even include a temple as one of your set of four scoring tiles, as it still counts as that colour – in which case it scores both ways (as part of the set, and as a temple). If a temple happens to be another player’s, they also score a token of their colour. The only restriction is you can never have more than three of any type of token at one time.

If you do score a set, next comes the twist: each of the scored tiles flips over onto its other side/symbol (but never temples – once on the board as temples they’re there for the rest of the game). If you plan it well, you will make another set of four – which will score for you again. If that does happen, all the tiles that scored the second time are discarded (as long as they don’t leave other tiles unconnected from the central group) and your turn ends (rather triumphantly – smug grin time).

At any time on your turn, if you have four different tokens, you can build one of the four sections of your pyramid (you could do several on a good turn). Each section then needs a specific coloured token placed on top of it (the four player colours, which can be trickier to get) before you complete the capping piece – and win the game.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’m on the fence with Hieroglyphs. My first few games were very enjoyable, as we lumbered around getting a feel for what was going on – we played with similar joie de vivre as we did with its predecessor (which I love). But once we started to ‘get’ it, the game slowed down as people started to try to play the perfect turn – which meant leaving nothing for your opponents. It then became a case of information overload for me, as what I thought was a light game suddenly morphed into a deeper abstract strategy one.
  • The thinker: While this is an interesting game, it’s too random to sit comfortably in my ‘abstract strategy’ list. If you’re doing well but get starved of a colour of tile it is easy for opponents to block off that colour’s temple (if it has even been placed) so you can’t score it. While it may be good play by your opponents, it’s really you being screwed by luck of the draw with your tiles. Also, there’s the king-making issue many games such as this have: when the player to your right is rubbish, therefore leaving you easy openings. but this is a clever design and I enjoyed my plays that felt ‘fair’: it’s just a little fragile for my tastes.
  • The trasher: I do like a bit of ‘bash the leader’ and games with some ‘wow’ move moments; and Ominoes: Hieroglyphs can have those in spades. It’s easy to be mean, as can block temples off to stop people scoring them – but of course this slows the game down for you too. It’s near the end when it gets tactical, as you look to see what players are falling short of and try to deny them – while also setting up your own big move. And it’s always fun to score big on your turn on other people’s temples – but only when they don’t need, or can’t take, the tokens as they’re already have three of them. Simple pleasures!
  • The dabbler: This is a good game if people don’t take too long on their turns! I guess after loving Ominoes I expected Hieroglyphs to have the same level of thinking (it’s got the same name after all) – and when it does, it’s fun! I think what the game really needs is a timer: use your turn, or lose it! Otherwise it is a simple, bright game that is relatively easy to set up, teach and get played with pretty much anyone. And it’s great to have a more portable tile-layer: look and learn, Carcassonne! I just with is had a little more polish – especially the rulebook, which is hard to follow – and had come with the drawstring bag it’s clearly crying out for.

Key observations/Conclusion

If you enjoy tile-laying games, I would encourage you to give Ominoes: Hieroglyphs a try. It’s light on rules but medium on strategy, meaning you should be able to keep people on differing levels happy – as long as they don’t mind a bit of luck and potentially a bit of leader bashing.

Ultimately the luck of the tile draw is what tends to keep me from most versions of Carcassonne – and I personally feel the same negative push here. So I won’t be keeping Ominoes: Hieroglyphs, despite being won over and having enjoying my plays. That said, a little birdie told me the next game to use flipping tiles is in the pipeline, so I’ll be eager to see if that builds on this promising beginning but arrives at a game that’s more to my personal tastes.

And finally, if you haven’t checked out the original Ominoes you really should. It’s a fast dice placement game using a simplified version of the scoring system and symbols used here; and while luck of the draw (or roll) again features heavily, for me it gets the balance just right – I think due to the shorter playtime, simpler decisions and – well – it’s custom dice and I’m easily pleased…

* I would like to thank Yay Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

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