Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 60 minutes; $29.99)


magicarena1Over 20 years ago, Magic, the Gathering burst onto the scene and the reaction was, to put it mildly, PHENOMENAL! The game flew off the shelves! More importantly, that Richard Garfield design put a small company, Wizards of the Coast, on the map and created a whole new genre of gameplay: CCGs also known as Collectible Card Games. (We featured the game back in the Winter 1994 issue of Gamers Alliance Report.) When a game meets with that kind of success, spin-offs are inevitable and more and more decks of Magic cards appeared throughout the years to fuel the frenzy. But not a BOARD game. Although it took over two decades, that gap in the array of Magic, the Gathering offerings has been filled. Now there is a boardgame set in the gaming universe of Magic, designed by Joseph D’Alosio, Ethan Fleischer and Craig Van Ness: Magic, the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers.

In addition to the dramatic artwork on the box, what catches your eye is the display of painted figures seen through the box’s windows: the “Planeswalkers”. In the “Multiverse” of Magic, there are “infinite planes of existence” and these Planewalkers have the power to travel to these various planes and, in their travels, battle each other for dominance. Five Planeswalkers are here to choose from and each player will control one of them, taking that Planeswalker figure, the matching color of spell cards, army cards and two sets of additional figures that will comprise their “squads” to command.

Every Planeswalker has a unique card which details Life (how many hits they can suffer before being defeated), Movement (how many spaces can be travelled on a turn), Range (from how many spaces away an attack can be launched), Power (how many dice you roll when attacking), Toughness (dice rolled when defending) along with other attributes. Each Planeswalker also has two squads of forces, each with its own army card too. The (smaller) Spell cards are either a sorcery or an enchantment and describe what, precisely, the spell will do when cast. The individual Spell card decks are shuffled and all players draw a hand of three cards.

The board is constructed from a set of six “jigsaw” pieces to form a battleground divided into hexes for movement and distance. The precise configuration of the battleground is determined by the scenario chosen (three scenarios are provided) which may include plastic terrain pieces which add height and ruins which impact on movement and “line of sight”. Planeswalkers begin in specified areas at the edge of the battleground with their allied forces off the board, in reserve.

Each turn, players draw a spell card, choose an army card (indicating which forces – the Planeswalker or one of his/her two squads – will be active that turn), move any or all active figures and (optionally) attack with the active figures. Once both players have completed a turn, the turn track moves up another level.

Players may use up to three spell cards on a turn. If playing a sorcery spell card, effects are applied immediately and the card discarded (into your “graveyard”). Enchantment spell cards put an “aura” around the enchanted forces and are placed on the appropriate army card (face down if the enchanted is “hidden”, to be revealed at a later time). Now, the forces to be used this turn are chosen.

magicarena3Any special abilities found on the chosen army card used this turn go into effect. In addition, if your Planeswalker is in play, you may summon (that is, bring in from reserve) up to two squads and heroes to the battlefield. Figures so summoned must be placed within 5 hexes (in line of sight) of the Planeswalker. Now, you move your forces.

Pieces may be moved up to the number of spaces as noted on the appropriate army card. If there are higher or lower levels of terrain, additional movement must be used. (In moving DOWN from a higher level, a die roll needs to be made to see if there any damage occurred from “falling”.) If a figure moves adjacent to an opposing figure, that unit is “engaged”.

Engaged figures may attack. In addition, figures that can be “seen” (i.e. there is a clear line of sight) AND are in range (as noted on that figure’s army card) may also attack. Attacks are done, one figure at a time, through dice rolls with modifiers applied. (Some forces have specific abilities, noted on their army cards, that affect rolls. Rolls are also affected by height levels figures occupy, spell cards and more.) Each side rolls the appropriate number of dice. The six-sided dice used in the game show 3 crossed weapons (a “hit), 2 shields (a “miss”) and a blank. If the offense rolls more weapons than the defender rolls shields, the defender takes damage, 1 “hit” per each weapon not countered with damage markers used to keep track of the carnage caused.

Turns continue until victory conditions of the chosen scenario are met. (Failing that, the winner is determined on “points” which is, essentially, totaling up the “figure cost” of each surviving figure you have on the board with the player with the higher total declared the victor.)

Each of the Planeswalkers (and their minions) have different abilities, strengths and weaknesses. This gives each scenario, depending on which Planeswalkers are involved, different dynamics. Using spells wisely is imperative, of course but the luck factor built in with dice rolls and card draws makes this a game of exciting unpredictability, suitable for a general gaming audience. A plus is the presence of four “glyphs”, plastic pieces placed on the battlefield and used in the scenarios, to increase the power, toughness, movement and spell drawing ability for those who control them. This gives secondary objectives for players by creating areas of contention above and beyond the simple goal of removing the enemy Planeswalker from the fray. More experienced players who have been around for awhile and enjoy miniatures combat will sense a familiarity with the look and play of Magic, the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers as it bears a strong resemblance to Heroscape, a miniatures combat system recently discontinued in the Hasbro line, that still has a large number of devotees. (Check out our “Flashback” on Heroscape this issue.)

zendikarpcsBecause this game is introductory in nature, all you need to get started is here but not as much as might be hoped, particularly regarding plastic terrain pieces. More is on the way, however, as the rules refer to expansions (scheduled for 2016) to add variety. As a matter of fact, the first expansion has already been announced and will be called Battle for Zendikar (January, 2016 release, $19.99). This expansion will introduce the land of Zendikar to the game as well as a HUGE and extremely powerful purple monster – the Eldrazi Ruiner – with its minions intent on “gobbling up” the world! (Check out the relative size of the Ruiner in the photo.)

While graphic quality is high, there are a few choices made that are a little puzzling. The six part board is one sided. Gamers might have been better served with double-sided terrain for more and different landscapes. Another curious choice is the means used to keep track of turns. The turn order track is INSIDE the rulebook accompanying the scenario chosen and a small cardboard counter (about the size of a dime) provided to be placed on the track. Not only is it far too easy for the counter to slip and slide on the chart but what if you want to consult the rulebook? Oops, there goes that tiny counter! And keeping track of hits by using small cubes placed on the BASE of a piece without a secure placement is just not a good idea. With such a high class package, surely better ways to achieve the same results could have been found.

Magic, the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers fills a void in the WotC/Hasbro line for fantasy miniature gaming and is an enticing entry to introduce miniatures to players already involved and committed to Magic (with its use of Magic colors and characters in play and the reliance on spells). By building on the recognizable Magic, the Gathering name, many CCG players may feel the urge to explore this three-dimensional aspect of Magic while miniatures aficionados who lean towards Swords & Sorcery in their gaming will find it hard to resist the high production value (and the lure of more expansions to come). – – – – – – – Herb Levy

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