The talking board game has always been a source of interest for me – from the Orson Welles approved Dark Tower to Mystery Mansion’s electronic organizer. My first – and most memorable – encounter with the talking board game though, was Milton Bradley’s The Omega Virus, from 1992.
The four player game takes place on a space station recently overtaken by the titular Omega Virus. The menacingly voiced virus has threatened to turn all of the station’s weapons on Earth if the players can’t find – and ultimately destroy – him. This is done by collecting keycards (colour coated and used to enter red, green, blue, or yellow rooms), searching for Probes (secondary characters you can control), and finding weapons (Decoders, Disrupters, and Negatrons). Once a player has collected each type of weapon, they’re fully equipped to take on the Omega Virus – should they be able to find it. You see, every time you enter a room, the console reads a code – and if it corresponds to a secret 3-digit code you entered at the beginning of play, that means the virus has concealed itself in that room!
In this regard, it almost resembles Clue-lite. Players are encouraged to keep track of the rooms they’ve visited on a numbered sheet of paper, and whether a positive event happened there (like finding a key-card or one of the three weapons), or a negative one. This way, if you happen to stumble upon the virus while you are collecting items, you’ll have marked it and can double back later when the time is right. It also helps avoid stumbling back into a room where you were attacked, over, and over again. That’s right, the virus will randomly attack you from time-to-time – blasting off some of your hard-earned items. On top of this, players are able to attack each other should they wish. The Omega Virus is not technically a co-op game, as only one player will ultimately win. This undoubtedly leads to arguments when one of your friends randomly decides he wants to blast your Negatron off your back for no good reason.
The best part of Omega Virus though, is the talking console. In a similar fashion to the Nightmare series of VHS board games, the Omega Virus will taunt you. Sometimes with a count down (“15 minutes… until I… take over!”), and other times it will pepper in insults (“You human scum!”, or his imitation “Help me! Help me!”). It was commonplace in our household on any given day to hear my brother and I repeat the virus’ maniacal cackle (“Mua-hea-hea-huah-huaa-hwaaa!”). As the timer counts down, his speech pattern actually gets faster and faster, and he takes to shutting down sections of the board one by one.
Speaking of the board, the design of The Omega Virus is spectacular. First of all, the instruction manual came in the form of a comic-book – complete with a back story rendered in particularly high quality art. If you stumbled upon just those pages, you’d probably think it was a legitimate comic. The items you are searching for are nicely detailed and snap on each pawn’s backpack, and every player has a fold-out section of the board that holds their collected room-keys and crib-note style instructions for reference throughout play. The act of shutting down sections of the playing area as the game gets closer and closer to completion provides a very tactile sense of tension, when coupled with the faster virus speech.
While the rules of The Omega Virus aren’t the most original – they’re pretty much a mish-mash of elements from other games – the play remains entertaining to this day. What makes The Omega Virus stand out as a memorable piece of board game history, to me, is how much detail went into this thing. From the electronically tinged virus voice pattern, to the circuit board layout and the folding cardboard playing area, it’s clear a lot of thought was put into the experience of playing The Omega Virus. On that note alone, it’ll always be a fun game to pull out from time to time, for those “Have you heard of this one? Check this game out!” moments.
There’s even rumour of a secret easter-egg that makes the game harder by allowing the virus to jump from room-to-room (Source: http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/824699/jumpy-virus-easter-egg) – but I’ll leave that mystery for you to solve.