When I was a young kid I relished visits with my cousins on my mom’s side. We always had fun adventures outside in the woods, inside on their Sega Genesis, and occasionally gathered around a table to play The Omega Virus. Though I probably did not play it as many times as my memory suggests, this is a game that has stuck in my mind throughout my life. The Commandos and Probes, the colorful board, and the voice of the antagonistic AI have stuck with me, surfacing every once in a while. As I entered the wide world of tabletop games a few years ago, memories of this game came rushing back to the forefront of my mind. In The Omega Virus, players take up the roles of different colored Commandos searching room-to-room in the Battlesat1 space station controlled by a hostile computer virus. With the limited guidance of the station AI, the Commandos are searching the station for the necessary gear to find the Virus and delete him. After I told my wife about the game, we looked it up online and ordered it from someone one eBay. Well, technically two people because finding a copy of this game intact and in good condition is difficult, though not unreasonable. This is a special game to me, and I would like to talk about some of the great design decisions of this old gem of a game.
The Game Speaks and Knows
Omega Virus is an electronic talking board game. These were a trend in the late 80s to early 90s. The built-in speakers and computer wizardry drive the gameplay, taking the place of elements like scenario cards, event decks, or even a game master in some cases. The electronic voice would do things like tell players when it is their turn, what their options are, if they are attempting to perform an action they are not allowed, and so forth. In theory the hardware would keep the game going and uphold the rules, while the players reacted to it and played with it. I say “in theory” because I did not play every talking game, and, due to their popularity, I am reasonably certain that at least a few poorly designed electronic board games were made.
The talking element of Omega Virus is two-fold, i.e. it has two voices. The benevolent station AI that formerly controlled the space station and the hostile virus AI that took over. They share one function, reminding the players of the time limit (10-30 minutes based on the selected difficulty), but they differ elsewhere. The good AI informs the players when it’s their turn, and the Virus tells players when they have found items. Additionally, the Virus serves another function that makes this game unique and tense. Through the vocal performance and hardware limitations, he is an annoying jerk. Every line delivery for the hostile AI is mocking and disdainful. When he tells the player of an item they find, he spits out the words with an overtone of arrogance, suggesting the item will not help you.
The Virus Is After You
As players progress through the game, finding the four necessary gadgets, the AI will call the Commando’s out. There’s no feeling quite like having three of the four gadgets on your Blue Commando, only to hear the AI declare, “Blue, must be terminated!” It’s a frightening experience because you realize at that point that the game is keeping up with you, storing every interaction and found item. The virus also keeps track of the time, informing the players how many minutes they have left, every five minutes or so. The less time left, the more the voice seems to relish telling the player what little time they have remaining. One of the hardware limitations the designers use to their advantage is that the players have to use the button inputs to tell the game what rooms they are inspecting, and the buttons do not read inputs while the voices are talking. As such, the Virus will occasionally taunt the players, his echoing laughter grinding on your nerves because you just want to input a room number but can’t because the virus is busy laughing at you.
And that is his primary job. The Virus AI is supposed to be annoying. He is supposed to waste your time and stress you out, distracting you from your thoughts and plans. The Virus functions mechanically and psychologically. That element is my favorite thing about this game, the amount of character and flavor the designer packs into the voice, which could have just been mechanical.
Omega Virus is definitely not for everyone. In fact, half the people I have sat down to play this game have not liked it for the reasons that I love it. However, I definitely recommend checking this game out if you can find a functioning copy. It is well worth experiencing at least once, so you too can know the wonders and horrors of The Omega Virus!