Oh My God! There's an Axe in My Head. The Game of International Diplomacy.

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Oh My God! There's an Axe in My Head
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I like screw your neighbor games. I can't help it. Cutthroat Caverns is the greatest game released in the last few years. I like the part in Lifeboats where you move a sailor to ensure the last guy in line drowns because he can't get in a new boat. Intrigue & Diplomacy are light party games. In Carcassonne I like to steal cities, or make them unable to be completed. Surrounding a group of players with lava in the Downfall of Pompeii will cause me to gleefully cackle, even if my own pompeeples are the ones suffering hot lava death. The fun part of gaming is the social interaction that revolves around it. The groans & cheers from good screwage play never fails to find everyone grinning and laughing, and that's what gaming is about. OMG! is exactly this type of game.  

I went to Origins 2008 at the last minute, and as a result had not registered to play anything. While wandering around I saw a listing in the program guide for OMG!. I believe I had seen the name before, probably on BGG; it seems to have some memorable quality for some reason. In the end, I only officially registered for 3 games at Origins: a $22 airsoft battle, a $22 LARP, and the $2 OMG! boardgame. I was the most excited about the OMG! game. My time was 10:00am the next morning. I showed, the designer showed to teach the game, but no one else did. The game plays 3-6, so he suggested I just drop back by later in the day, they were running demo games continually during the con. I checked back continually and they were full and in play during the day and always completely empty for the first game of the morning. I began to despair but finally on the last day at 10:00am there was a  designer, myself (your handsome, witty, and charming author), and 3 others ready to play the game. Yeah!

The premise of the game, which I only mention because it's sooo awesome:
GENEVA, 1920.
The League of Nations convenes for the first time. Proud to be the host for this august world body, Switzerland invites their champion axe-juggling troupe, Les Bella Lieben Jolie De Von Giorno, to entertain the assembled delegates.
Unfortunately, halfway through the demonstration, the Troupe goes insane, and begins hurling axes into the audience, splitting head after head. The Secretary General calls for calm, but before he can order a recess, his cranium is split as well.

No impressing the Grand Viziar here, just mayhem! Ah, gentle readers, but there's more! Lest we forget, this is the 20's and Great Powers period ...

The remaining Great Powers use the confusion to pass the gavel between themselves, conduct international business amidst the chaos, and generally try to shift the balance of world power while escaping a bunch of armed psychopaths.

It's not enough to escape, you need to exploit the situation to gain control of new territories & make treaties as well as ensure your rivals don't do so. So, basically, it's an accurate historical simulation of the real Great Powers period of history.

The game has a mix of elements that are well balanced. There's a probability curve right out of Can't Stop. There are variable player powers that reminds a bit of Cosmic Encounter. There's a board with some serious positional play which made me think of Chess. You have a hand of cards of three type: territories (solo points), treaties (points for you and a partner) and action cards (the Fuck You! Fuck You! Fuck You! screwage cards.)

Each player selects a Great Power: France, England, Soviet Union, Japan, Germany, or Italy. Each Great Power has a special ability that can generally only be used once in the game, the Soviets Communist Insurrection being the sole exception. A territory can be destroyed/forced-to-discard through the play of a Communist Insurgency card. The Soviets power instead lets them claim the territory as their own. France can make any one treaty permanent. Japan can copy the last power played in the game. You get the idea, I'm sure. The single-use restriction is interesting. Rather than being an element of screwage, your player power instead seems to give you the ability to cement a strategy. France, for example, could play an interesting treaty and then base a significant amount of her strategy around that treaty, knowing that it, through the use of her power, can't be screwed with by someone else. The actually REMOVES a chaotic element from the game play, allowing you to develop a strategy you can count on.

[Pics ripped off from the designers site.]



 axe game board

The board is set up. It consists of a grid, 11 squares wide and 10 squares long. On one end is stage, holding the clowns and their deadly axes. On the other are the doors out of the hall, and safety. You can see the Great Power pawns start near the stage, but have a row of minor delegate pawns (the large number of blond pawns) between them and the stage. Between the Great Power pawns and the doors at the far end are a large number of minor delegates that you need to wade through. There's also the red Swiss delegate pawn, which acts an unkillable (even insane Swiss clowns don't kill their own countrymen) blocker pawn. The 10 square board width represents the probability curve from Can't Stop that I mentioned earlier. Each turn 2d6 are rolled and the clowns throw an axe down that column, killing the first pawn it reaches, Great Power or minor delegate, and then is left in that space. The Swiss delegate is an exception: an axe that would hit him just bounces off and lands in the space in front of him. The number of axes thrown each turn can increase over time. It starts at one and increases by one for every Ambassador pawn that leaves the board, and there are certain other cards which can increase the count also. There are a couple of things going on here. Generally you want to keep another pawn between yours and the stage, so that a 'hit' on your column will kill that pawn and not your own. Note from the initial board layout that a row of minor delegates starts between you and the stage, giving each column one free hit, leaving you time to get some of your own pawns positioned. Then there's that probability curve. Do you REALLY need a pawn between you and the stage if you're in the 12 or 2 column? What's the chance a 12 will be rolled? How about the 11 and 3 columns? Gonna take a chance there also? Decisions, decisions ...

Each Great Power has three types of pawns: an Ambassador, a Translator, and a Bodyguard. They have an A, T, or B letter on the top, and each players has a different color. The pawns also have cutes faces: the Ambassador has a monocle, the body has 'mean eyes' and the Translator has an Eek! expression. I never would have thought it possible to do with just some black lines. Very cool. The Ambassador and Translator each get to move 1 space each turn, and the Bodyguard gets to move 2 spaces each turn; orthogonal only, no diagonals in this game. If your Ambassador makes it out the doors on the far end, to safety, you get 5 points. If your Translator escapes you get 3 points. If your Bodyguard escape you get 1 point. Pretty simple, but the designers have thrown in a twist. You also score points, potentially a lot, by playing territory cards from your hand, but you can only do that if your Ambassador is still on the board. Further, BOTH players Ambassadors and at least one of their Translators must be on the board for you to negotiate a treaty with another player. Finally, your Treaties will only score points if ONE of the players in it gets their Ambassador off the board. If both players Ambassadors are killed then neither player will get points for their joint treaties. Thus there are elements of interdependency & alliances, so your joint treaties will score points, and an element of pushing your luck: how long do you dare risking those clowns before you take that last step and escape with your major points? Axes that kill delegates, player or minor, are left in the space they landed in. Your bodyguard can pick up the axes and use them! You can move in to another space, killing the pawn there, player or minor, or you can throw the axe, orthogonally, killing the first pawn the axe meets, in the exact same way the clowns do. Is someone getting ahead in points? Maybe it's time for your bodyguard to pick up an axe and go find their Ambassador, to help ensure they don't get those treaty points, or negotiate any more treaties & territories ...

Each turn the pawns on the board move. This starts with the minor delegates fleeing towards the door (Fools! Don't they know there's land to loot! Obviously not, and that's why they are minor delegates ...) All of the minor pawns on the row next to the doors will flee out of the doors, and all of the minor delegates will move one space closer to the doors, if not blocked by a players pawn. This would result in A LOT of pawn movements, but there's a nifty shortcut. Instead of moving all the pawn you instead remove a complete line of pawns closest to the players, and then move up the pawns between the players and the stage. In that second picture, the game board at the start, the shortcut is to remove the line of minor pawns right in front of the colored player pawns, and the move the minor pawn in front of the Swiss delegate (the red one with the + right in the middle) one square closer. This shortcut makes the once-a-turn mass pawn movement MUCH easier. After the mass movement then each players gets to move 2 pawns 1 space each. Thus, while a space just opened up in front of each player pawn, the other players now get a chance to move pawns in to your path, block you in, free their own lanes of movement, etc. Finally each player gets to move their own pawns and possibly have their bodyguard use an axe he's picked up. Hopefully you opened up some lanes in front of you to move forward, or are moving in front of other pawns to get some more axe-fodder behind you. Remember that probability curve? Well if you started on an outside space (2-3, 11-12) your row is safer from clowns, but you're more boxed in and have fewer movement options. International diplomacy is a bitch, eh?

Finally, we have three other things that happen in a turn. First the players can trade cards with each other and make non-binding deals. Secondly, you can play territory cards from your hand to the table, if your Ambassador is still on the board. Territories are worth between 0-3 points per card, and have a different value for each player. For example, Samoa might be worth 2 to Japan, 1 to France, and 0 to everyone else. This tends to encourage trade, and thus interaction between players. If you are Germany and have Samoa, then maybe Japan has something interesting for you. This encourages alliances, and also 'trades between enemies'; Germany may be a warmonger who's bodyguard is trying to axe you, but hey, he does have that Samoa card which is worthless to him ... Experienced Diplomacy players will recognize this bury the hatchet mechanism. Once you play a territory card you are generally assured the points on it at the endgame, unless you trade it away or it's hit by an (infrequent) Communist Insurgency.  Treaties are a different beast altogether. You play a treaty card from your hand by offering it to another player. Both of your Ambassadors must still be on the board, and at least one of your Translators. If the other player accepts then, if at least one of your Ambassadors escapes, you will both score the points shown on the card. In the meantime, each treaty generally has a special power, such as increasing your hand size by 1 or allowing each of you an additional move of a minor pawn. These 'minor powers' go in to play immediately. But wait, there's more! The treaty cards in play are laid out in a grid. If your Great Power Card is not adjacent, then you can't make a treaty! This makes treaties with another easy at the beginning of the game, since there is no grid or it's small, and harder later in the game. Thus you tend to develop many treaties with the same partners, cementing alliances with them, which encourage you to help each other during the game so one of your Ambassadors escapes so you both get the points. WW 1 entanglements, anyone?  

Two last elements. First, each player has a hand of hards, a mix of treaties, territories, and action cards. The action cards are similar to the Cosmic Zap, Stellar Gas, Emotion Control cards from Cosmic Encounter. They let you screw with the other players and/or avoid screwage from the others. Vetoing treaties, bribing bodyguards, blackmail, moving more minor delegates, or modifying the the thrown axes (DUCK!) are examples. There is a decent amount of screwage here, which combines well with the Bodyguard play and the minor delegate moving. Finally, start player passes around the table, ala Puerto Rico. During a turn each player moves the minor delegates, then each player trades, then each player players territories, etc.

I want to give you a brief rundown of my demo game. I choose to start on the far left (France), in the 2 & 3 column. England (the designer) started next to me on 3 & 4 column. Japan, who had played once before, started in 5 & 6 next to the English. Germany started on the far right, in 11 & 12, and the Soviets started in 10 & 11. The first axe fell near the Soviets, and his Bodyguard picked it up and axed the German Bodyguard, and threatened the German for the rest of game. Two points here. First, eliminating another players Bodyguard reduces their chance to screw with you and threaten you. That's a good thing for the Risk Mitigation crowd. Second, being hemmed in to the side of the board, as the German was, with a hostile player next to you can make the game tense for you. That's the downside of choosing the edge of the probability curve: your positional play is hemmed in and your neighbor is more of a risk. I was in the same position as the German on the other side of the board, with the English next to me. This was the game designer and he was playing for blood. He also stated up front that he was known for being ruthless. Foolish boy! You don't admit that the first time out otherwise you spoil a perfectly good innocent backstab! Little did the designer know that I love to ask for allies in Cosmic Encounter and play an N to send them to the warp. I resolved to make the designer my pet project and picked on him all game, even though I was hemmed in with him next to me. The game moved on, and the Soviet player (on the other side of the board) and I developed a pretty strong alliance with many, many treaties (and potentially many many points.) We were helping each other out on the positional play also: moving the minor delegates in a way that helped each other and hurt our rivals, for example. This was a pretty safe alliance for me since he was on the other side of the board. He also started working on some treaties with Germany, who he was messing with the in beginning, later in the game. This made me a little nervous; as long as I was his only option for big points then I wasn't very worried about a stab. I also developed a trusting relationship with Japan, who was directly on the other side of th English. Recall, Japan had played once before. I traded some territories with him and moved some pieces to his advantage, and he was helping to keep the English away from my throat.  About mid-game an axe fell near my Bodyguard and I was in an excellent position to get the English Ambassador, and maybe wipe the board of the English. Japan helped me out by moving his Pawns out of the way ... and in to a position where I could get BOTH Ambassadors, the English and the Japanese. This was helped by a threatened axe thrown by the Soviet from across the board (threats keep working turn after turn ..) I went for the stab, trying to screw the English, who knew it was coming, and the Japanese, who later admitted they trusted me completely. (Oh, the Joy!) I was foiled by the play of a couple of action cards through a quick alliance by England & Japan. My, how quickly their animosity was forgotten when faced by the French. :) In retrospect, I pulled a stab a little early, I should have waited just a few more turn, toward st he beginning of the endgame, and I should have had a couple of Veto's (Cosmic Zaps) to guard against action card play from my victims. In my own defense, I had built enough treaties with the Soviets that I thought I had the game and could control it, and was probably right if my stab had  worked. My strong treaty position with the Soviets was eventually destroyed by an action card or two, but I did eventually win the game, by a great deal, with the designer coming in second. It was not really a runaway leader situation, but more of a wolf among the sheep situation.

Mechanically, the game plays from 3-6 players and takes about 2 to 2.5 hours the first time with 5 players at a con. I would estimate about 90 minutes after a few plays, maybe 2 hours at the outside with 5-6 players. The default starting position, for your Ambassador, on row 3, means that it will take at least 9 turns for you to move off the board, if you move ahead every time which is unlikely to happen. It seemed to me like the game could be shortened by moving your starting rank up, to row 5 or 6 perhaps. This should haven any impact on the game other than making it end earlier. There is very little downtime, things move along at a nice clip. No phase takes too long. Oh, some AP idiot could drag things out in moving or card playing, but that's case in almost every game.

I've have thought of three faults with the game, but I'm not sure how based in reality they are. At first I thought that the Great Powers special abilities being single-use was not very cool. But then I decided that I was thinking in terms of screwage, instead of protection. If you think of them as a way to protect some strategy you are working on, then it makes more sense. You are protecting a line of development from everyone else, and in that context the single-use makes sense. Secondly is the major pawn movement for the minor delegates. When hearing it described I thought it was going to be a major pain in the ass. The 'shortcut' method took care of all of that and it was straightforward, simple and went quickly.  Finally, I'm not sure about the card distribution for the action cards. I had two masterful stabs blocked through the use of the special cards. I can think of three things going on here: first, I may be just grousing because they were really great stabs that didn't go through. Second, maybe I should have protected my stabs by holding a few appropriate screwage cards to unzap their zaps. Finally, I can always remove a few cards from the deck if I think the distribution is leaning a little more towards 'saving your ass' then ' screwing you over.'

There at least three versions of this game. From reading, it appears that the designers sold a paper copy, in the same vein as a Cheapass game, at cons in the past. There is also the nice edition they had at Origins. This was obviously the mock demo version. The cards were decent, the pawns were all wooden, the instruction sheet was well laid out, the board was real and had 'Oh my God! There's an axe in my head' written along the edges in about a zillion different languages. It also had a bunch of little plastic axes. Finally, the designers have mentioned that Bucephalus  Games has picked the game up for licensing, and should be shipping in the November timeline. They mentioned a price point to me which is slightly above average for a game with all these wooden components, but well within what I would pay. I've become much pickier lately about what I play. I don't buy good games anymore, I only buy GREAT game, and I don't mind paying some $$$ for a GREAT game, since it unlikely I'll buy more than about 2 a year, and that's pushing it.  This is a 'new' Bucephalus, I believe, not the old one. They were showing several games at Origins with above-average quality. It isn't DOW, or FFG quality, but it isn't SJG either. I got the feeling they were more of a designers collective/service then a traditional publisher, but I may have been wrong.  

The positional play on the board, with the probability curve, push your luck mechanism, alliances & treaties, and special card play all blend themselves in a wonderful mix. The game, proper, isn't chaotic. A strategy can help you win. Of course this isn't Race for the Galaxy, so the other players may have something to say about your plan ... Oh, and all scoring is open, if you give a shit about those things.

Bottom line:  If you like Screw Your Neighbor then plan on buying it sight unseen. Otherwise, if you get a chance to play it then do so, but set aside some cash beforehand because you're going to be picking it up right after you play it. It is REALLY good.

The game can be found at the designers website: http://yamara.com/axe/game.html

The publishers website is:
[I think this is the first legitimate .biz url I've ever seen.]

The games entry on the BGG site:

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