Released in 2010 by Z-Man Games. Designed by Shadi Torbey. For 1-2 players.
I want chocolate that is dark and bitter; a love-life that might sometimes be painful, but never mundane; I want icy, frosty winters and dry, cloudless summers. From the same place in my heart comes my affection for Onirim. There are few, if any, other board or card games which feel like this one does to play.
Onirim is a card game to be played either solitaire, or by two players working together. It is a classical patience game insomuch as it challenges the player or players to organize a deck of cards; it also shares with Klondike and its ilk the fact that games are not infrequently lost due to poor luck rather than poor play.
However, Onirim distinguishes itself in that its styling recognizes the flirtation with defeat which lies within the drive to play such patience games; by this, I mean Onirim is actually about the death drive, the subconscious Freudian/Stekelian thanatos. The game is styled as a journey through a dark mental maze – most cards in the game are termed labyrinth cards, while the eight cards the player must collect to win are called doors, and therefore implicitly lead to the exit (though the fact they can be collected in any order might, if one considers it, suggest that even a winning path is not really to be understood as an escape route). During this journey, the player knows that he or she will confront multiple undeserved punishments during the course of the game (ten cards among the standard deck of 76 represent nightmares, which force the player to choose between undesirable options). There are also key cards, which can assist the player, but the balance is towards feeling abused by the game – turning over a new card from the deck is seldom done without trepidation. Klondike has never produced such feelings in me.
Much of this effect is produced by Élise Plessis’ beautiful, uncanny artwork. Fish swim outside the water on the blue cards, while on the green ones plants appear to peer through what could be alarmed eyes. It is this art which makes evident that it is a maze of the mind which is the setting of Onirim. The rules need not, and do not, offer any story. The game itself evokes sufficient atmosphere without the lazy crutch of a rule book back-story.
The processes involved in the game’s card play are mostly straight-forward. Played solo, each turn in Onirim the player must either discard a single labyrinth card from his or her hand, or add one to a sequence on the table, and then draw to replace the card used. When three cards of the same colour occupy the most recent three positions in that sequence, the player can retrieve a card from the deck depicting a door of the same colour (It is worth noting that as well as having a colour, cards also show a symbol – either a sun, moon, or key – and consecutive cards in the sequence must not show the same symbol).
Nevertheless, there is considerably more scope in the game for meaningful reasoning than in most familiar solitaire games. For instance, when a player is drawing a new card, if a door is revealed, this can only be collected directly if the player was holding, and then surrenders, a labyrinth card of the appropriate colour depicting a key. Thus, keys are precious if kept. However, they can also be discarded to allow a prophecy (giving the player the chance to view, and re-order the top five cards of the deck). Thus, each turn a key is available, there is some tension regarding whether it should be held or used.
The three small expansions included with the game add both punishments and decisions. The best of these, ‘Dark Premonitions and Happy Dreams,’ introduces a selection of cards – laid out face up at the beginning of a game – which confront the player or players with ill-effects when certain conditions in the game are reached; for instance, one specifies that when both blue doors have been discovered, then two key cards must be removed from the deck. The happy dreams, four cards shuffled into the main deck, may be used to prevent these outcomes from occurring (each happy dream can cancel one premonition) – but they also have other possible powers, again granting the player some control over his or her own fate.
With or without the expansions, Onirim is quite marvellous. On one level, it offers an addictive patience experience – it would be hard to imagine that I would ever get any work done at all, if it were a version of Onirim, rather than Klondike, pre-installed on my PC. But, more than this, Onirim shows how eloquently a simple, text-free card game can mirror something of human nature, and therefore tell us about ourselves. When nightmare after nightmare comes, Onirim can be bitter, painful and frosty – but the game helps to understand that somewhere inside we often want these sensations.