The Game As Mirror: A Review of Onirim

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.

Mid-game

Onirim in play. Few card games are as visually attractive as this

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.

A Nightmare and a Happy Dream

A Nightmare and a Happy Dream

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.

A Happy Dream Revealed

A Happy Dream Revealed in a game with this expansion. Perhaps the player could remove a dark premonition from the game (one of the four cards at the top left of the picture). But, with two red cards in her sequence, and none in hand, perhaps choosing a red card to draw from the deck would be more valuable

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.

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5 thoughts on “The Game As Mirror: A Review of Onirim

  1. Terrific article, a really interesting read. Thank you. And what a facinating topic – the game as a mirror.

    I believe that times of hardship/suffering can eventually lead to fruitfulness, that after walking ‘through the valley of darkness’ you can find yourself on higher ground that you never would have found otherwise. However I would never welcome or summon a nightmare. Is there are part of me that is attracted to destruction? If there is I wouldn’t want to nourish it. Instead I’d want to be free of it.

    I have been facinated by dark and dreamy movies like Mulholland Drive or Eraserhead or music such as that by Lambchop, Faith No More, Cowboy Junkies. I’ve enjoyed reading cold existential literature or staring into the blackness of a Harold Pinter play.I’ve known a relish in this.

    Now I run a mile from any of that stuff! I believe it is better to dwell on what is good!

    Thus the theme of Onirim -(what’s that word mean anyway?) is something I tend to avoid. It’s not that I don’t acknowledge the dark undercurrents in the world, it’s just I don’t go swimming there anymore.

    What other games are ‘as a mirror’ to life?

    • Hi Terry,

      I’m glad you found this review interesting.

      I think all games, by virtue of what it is to be a game, reflect something about human nature. In the same way a child’s dress-up and role-play games mimic and stimulate certain emotions and behaviours, I guess board games all do likewise – but often in a more abstracted way.

      In some senses, it’s an obvious point, but the reason for playing, I think, must lie in this stimulation-cum-simulation. You cannot play, for instance, an economic game like Le Havre or Acquire with the real goal of making money (because, unless you’re betting on it, you won’t really make anything). Instead the reason for play, I feel, has to be connected with experiencing the sensations and modes of behaviour associated with those processes, both positive – fulfillment, organization, discovery, and negative – ruthlessness, vindictiveness, greed.

      In my view, what distinguishes Onirim is that it is, to some extent, about this reflection. It both knows, and shows, that it reveals certain dark desires (albeit in a very limited way).

      All of this is something I want to think more about, though – I know my thinking on this is at a relatively undeveloped stage. This blog, in part, is to help that thinking (and the communication of it) to advance.

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