The serene and mysterious depths of the ocean are a place for solitude even amongst a group of divers and is that the feeling that Otys looks to recreate? The name is certainly mysterious enough! The cover art stunningly serene. And the puzzle you face can absolutely be described as one of solitude. But is everything better down where it’s wetter? Let’s head under the sea.
Players: 2-4 (solo mode available online)
Time: 60 mins
Designer: Claude Lucchini
Artist: Paul Mafayon
Publisher: Libellud, Pearl Games
The world as we know it is gone, drowned beneath rising oceans until all that remains are the rag tag colonies built upon the ruins of the old. All resources now come from beneath the waves, scavenged by competing diving teams like the ones you’ll be controlling from your precision engineered player boards.
All those slots! The big long one for your stack of divers, the horizontal branches for the gate keys that allow you to activate your divers. They almost worked perfectly. One of my slots is too tight for the piece to slide neatly, and annoyingly all the boards fail to sit flat and stable on the table top. I feel a little deflated by the unfulfilled promise.
But we have bigger fish to fry. Otys is a race game, a race to gather victory points for gathering resources and fulfilling contracts (mostly). So far, so typical. Its unique selling point is the elaborate, but perfectly accessible puzzle that underlies the collection of those resources. This is where those cleverly constructed boards come in.
On your turn you grab one of those numbered gate tiles and slide it along its track…
This does three things. The first is you get handed some little bonus according to the blue tiles on the central board. I presume someone is stood at the gate handing them out like fliers at a train station. We’re activating level 1, so we get a self-help guide… that is, a bonus diver upgrade. More on those later.
Then you get to activate the diver at that gate, using their power and sending them back up to the surface to join the conga line again. Now you won’t be able to activate that diver again until enough others have been activated and they have shifted back down below the waterline. But that’s not the only problem. The gate, once used locks down, placed in a line along the bottom of the board. Only once that line reaches the bloke chewing his pencil at the end of it can they go back on your player board, ready to be activated again. They are old and temperamental these doors.
So you need to activate each level once before you can do a second thing on a given level. That’s difficult, to fulfil a contract you want all the resources it requests on a single level. Most of the divers’ powers are tied to the the level they are at, so you want to activate them at the right place, but they all move as you activate others and… here you have the central puzzle. Timing everything just right so that your divers are at the right place at the right time. It’s not unlike herding cats.
But that’s not the only problem. You see, to be truly efficient, you also want to be making use of the bonus tile associated with your level. Trying to upgrade a diver who is already upgraded, or when you don’t have the money to pay for said upgrade, is a wasted opportunity. Race games are all about these incremental efficiency gains. Which makes this a troubling puzzle… and results in an experience that is not about finding the perfect route, hitting all the nails in succession and perfect harmony, but about feeling like you’re rarely doing the job right. Let me explain.
It would feel great to string together two or three turns where each action you take is a perfect action, where the previous action has set up the next and everything combos together. That, in general, is a great feeling to experience when playing a board game and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy Euro games in the first place. Otys, however, seems to want to do everything it can to prevent me from feeling good about what I do. I can’t focus on particular levels, I need to activate most of the other levels again first. I can’t focus on a single diver because they must always cycle too. This cycling inevitably leaves you with a couple of divers that you don’t want to use and are only activating because you have to. That’s not a positive feeling. Then, your ability to really plan, so that you can truly maximise the bonuses and actions you are taking, are scuppered by the X gates.
The X gates are a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they are wild gates that let you activate any level, but they also have a side effect: they force you to cycle the central bonus tiles. That’s fine for you, it’s just a slight wrinkle to consider before playing them. But it annihilates your opponents’ ability to plan, especially with more than two players. While I completely understand their inclusion – they prevent the game becoming a solvable puzzle and adds some much needed player interaction – it is also the most random and frustrating of player interaction. Perhaps it is just the level I play at, but I’m not using Xs to intentionally mess with my opponents, that’s an unintended consequence of my wanting to activate a level again or reposition the bonus tiles to benefit my turn. The more disappointing impact on the game as a whole is to make the best efficiencies and most frustrating inefficiencies have more to do with fortune than strategy.
This is a race game. It’s all about these incremental efficiency gains.
Now, that’s not to say you can’t control your options to some degree. While 4 of your divers are truffle-hounds dedicated to scavenging a particular resource, the others have skills that are more about improving your efficiency or opening up new options. Consider Hillary Clinton in the top left here,
For the cost of one sim-card shaped coin she can increase the rate at which your gates cycle or increase the effectiveness of your batteries, special resources that can be spent to redistribute divers or keep them from floating to the surface after activation. Both applications are valuable in mitigating the wasteful turns I was discussing earlier. Wall-E on the other hand is something of a scavenger. Costing a fortune to activate (2 sim-cards!) he will grab you an immediate bonus and a bigger bonus for completing contracts at that level for the rest of the game. You can get a greater reward if you can make the most of the opportunity you’ve created for yourself. That’s great! But rarely that great more than once…
The shop assistant let’s you buy and sell cubes from the central store. Which has a neat and tidy supply and demand mechanic which basically never gets used because it’s never worth paying more than a credit for a cube or selling for less than two. So the shop assistant will mostly feel like dead weight, unless you upgrade her. That’s the rub with most of these special characters. To get the most out of them they need a lot of investment.
Initially, I thought these different characters offered different strategies to pursue. But after a few games I’m not so sure. When you can only activate them infrequently, or can only get their true benefit on specific levels, and that divers you don’t care to use inevitably clog up your system, you are practically forced to activate everyone at various points. This undermines the idea of investing in a single character and if you’re using almost everyone regularly, future games simply don’t feel that different. Everyone ends up being used even though they can’t all be used effectively… but if you’re lucky you might at least get a gate bonus you can make good use out of?
In the end, I’ve been left feeling like any characters not gaining you cubes are closer to distractions than truly useful individuals. That’s half the divers! In a system this small and tight I want to feel like I want to activate everyone. Otys never reaches that point for me. Yet the system often forces me to do things I don’t want to do or, often due to powers outside of my control, makes the actions I want to do far less efficient, even snatching a rare great turn out from under my grasp. Better players than I can work through this I’m sure but I’m not convinced that is the experience I want to have.
Ultimately I find Otys to be more an exercise in minimising frustration than in executing a brilliantly choreographed set of moves. That is dissatisfying to me. It is also as far from the serenity that beautiful cover promised as possible. I can’t deny that Otys contains a unique puzzle. It is worthy of praise and perhaps you might find more enjoyment from it. Indeed, for all my criticisms it is not a bad game by any means. But when a game of it is over and I’m packing it away again, I’m just left feeling as empty as the water-logged world of its surface.
Rating: Water everywhere, but not a drop to drink
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