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Co-op Case Study: Onirim

We analyzed co-op games small and large while working on Meeples Together. Onirim was one of the smallest: a 78-card game for just two players in a teeny little card box. But size can be deceiving …

This article originally appeared on the Meeples Together blog.

Publisher: Z-Man Games (2010, 2014)
Cooperative Style: True Co-op
Play Style: Card Management, Set Collection


Players wander the dream realms trying to find the oneiric doors and escape.

Actually, this is a pretty abstract card-management game with nice artwork. Each turn a player plays or discards a labyrinth card, then draws a new card. If a player plays three sequential cards of the same color or draws a door card while holding a key card of the same color, then he can take the door. The object is for each of the two partners playing the game to collect one door in each of the four colors.

However, the players are also bedeviled by nightmares, which are cards that each cause the loss of 1-5 cards. If the players can’t discover their eight doors before the deck of cards runs out, they’re lost forever in the dream realms.

Challenge System

The most important element of Onirim’s challenge system is the timer: when the deck runs out, the game is over. This acts very similarly to timed decks of cards in Hanabi (2010) and (to a lesser extent) Pandemic (2008). In each case, the limitations of the deck of cards force the players into super-efficient play … and if they’re not efficient enough, they lose.

The other element of Onirim’s challenge system is its threat: the ten Nightmare cards that players can draw. Nightmares come from the same deck that contains the labyrinth cards, so players never know if they’re going to get something good or bad. This is a rarity in cooperative game design: it randomizes the activation of threats at a pretty low level. Nonetheless, it can also be found in Terra (2003) and (to a lesser extent) Lord of the Rings (2000).

The way in which these threats work may be the most interesting element of Onirim’s challenge system. When a Nightmare appears, the active player must choose to do one of four bad things: discard a (rare) key card; discard a door that’s already been collected; discard his entire hand; or discard up to five unseen cards from the draw pile.

Because players have to make a hard decision every time a threat comes out, those threats feel very important. The result is pretty terrific for the dread (and agonizing decisions!) that it introduces into the game and for the gameplay it allows.

These choices also create a real feeling of sacrifice; sometimes a player might have to give up something notable (like an otherwise unmatched key) in order to prevent his partner from giving up something horrific (like a valued card in the cooperative pool). Though other cooperative games have tried to create hard choices between a player keeping something for himself or giving something better to the rest of his team, Onirim is one of the few to make that decision a nonobvious one.

Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger; Decay; Timer; and Removal Consequences (with choice).

Cooperative System

Onirim can be played as a solo game or as a two-player game. The two-player game introduces the game’s only cooperative system: the shared resource pool. Rather than a single player having a hand of five cards (as in the solo game), each of the two players has a hand of three cards, plus there are two more cards in the middle of the table, which are called the “shared resource”. Either player can play or discard those cards, just as if they were a part of his own hand.

Obviously the players need to jointly manage this cooperative card pool, so that the cards in the pool always go the player who needs them most. This results in a surprising amount of thoughtful gameplay. A player can purposefully decide to discard his hand (and thus the pool) if he thinks that his partner could really use two new cards to look at. He could similarly play or discard a single card from the pool to try and help out his partner.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of solo play going on, as each player has to make a sequence of cards (and thus acquire doors) on his own. This creates a nice balance that helps to prevent a controlling player from taking over the game. Though there are clear group decisions to be made, the success of the group ultimately depends on each player’s individual play of cards.

Finally, Onirim is notable for the fact that it’s perhaps the only mass-market cooperative game that maxes out as two players. This allows it to focus on a very different sort of design. For example, the cooperative card pool probably wouldn’t work nearly as well with four (or eight!) players, because so many people adjusting the pool would make it much too chaotic. Conversely, it can work great when just two partners are working together.

Expansions & Variants

Onirim contains three different expansions in its box, each of them adding several cards and some new rules to the game. Having all of these rules laid out together is interesting, because they jointly show how expansions need to include both good stuff and bad stuff, so as not to upset the balance of the cooperative game (unless it was previously unbalanced).

However, the particular dilemmas introduced by the various expansions are also interesting, because they show how challenge systems can go beyond simple threats. Thus, the first expansion introduces “goal” cards, which are limitations on how cards can be played; while the second expansions introduces new requirements in the form of “tower” cards — which must also be played to win. Finally, the last expansion includes a more typical threat: “dark premonition” cards that make bad things happen when certain conditions are met.

A second edition (2014) of Onirim introduced four more of these “modules”.

Final Thoughts

Onirim is an interesting cooperative design. That’s in part because it’s so minimalistic: with just 78 cards it manages to create compelling and tough cooperative play. Hanabi and The Game (2015) are among the few co-ops in the same ball park.

Beyond that Onirim has an interesting challenge system (because it requires hard choices) and an interesting cooperative system (because it keeps the players both separated and working together). Finally, it may be the only notable cooperative game specifically designed for two players — which probably contributes to its unique design.

Shadi Torbey

German-born Lebanese singer Shadi Torbey has performed in operas throughout Belgium and France. He’s also designing a series of card games that can be played solo or in cooperative partnerships. Onirim (2010, 2014) was the first, followed by Urbion (2012), Sylvion (2015), Castellion (2015), Nautilion (2016), and Aerion (2019). They’re all set in the same dream-like universe of Onirim.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples