Reviewed by Herb Levy
ATHENEUM: MYSTIC LIBRARY (Renegade Game Studios, 2-5 players, ages 10 and up, 30-45 minutes; $45)
I have a love for games and books. Both are able to transport you to different times, places and adventures in an almost magical way. These combined qualities find a home in this new game by L’Atelier. It seems books in this library are in disarray but this is a MAGICAL library and players are tasked to put them in some semblance of order in Atheneum: Mystic Library.
Each player begins with their own board depicting shelves to fill with books. These boards are identical except they indicate ONE color (genre) of book that the player “prefers”. Every board is divided into five sections and, since these shelves have been unused for so long, a “spider” (token) begins in each. (More on spiders later.) There is a main, “library” board and the “Objective” card deck is shuffled, placed on the library board with four drawn Objective cards placed on their designated spots. (The board also has a scoring track where all players place their “student” pawn.) The large assortment of books (tokens) comes in five different genres/colors: Folklore/FanFiction (purple), Beastly Textbooks (green), Paranormal Publications (pink), Biographies/Memoirs (turquoise) and Rare Manuscripts (black) and these are separated into their own sections into 2 “library carts” (study cardboard holders you need to put together). Two decks of “Study” cards (decks A and B) are shuffled separately and placed on the side. As this game is “magical”, all players have magic “wands”, keeping two of them and placing the rest on the library board. (We recommend keeping the extras off board as they can get in the way of the scoring track.) Side shelf boards are placed next to the library board as is a cloth bag which holds 40 bonus tokens (depicting side shelves, “sets” of two books, books that may be used as ANY color and, on their backs of all these tokens, candles).
The game is played in 2 “phases”, a phase using Study Decks A or B. To begin, all are dealt a hand of 6 cards from the A deck. One card is chosen with the remainder passed to the player on their left (which are not looked at until later). Now all chosen cards are revealed and players resolve the benefits of the cards. The twist here is that the card played by each player affects the player to his/her right AND left! This is how it works.
Each card has two top sections (green and blue) and a single bottom section (yellow). The player playing the card gets the benefits of the yellow section. Players to the left and right, get the benefits of the green and blue sections, respectively. Because of this, the game avoids being a “multi-player solitaire” since EVERY turn, you impact other players!
Benefits vary. They may indicate books of various colors that may be taken and placed on a shelf of your choice or might indicate a book of ANY color to be placed in a specific shelf. Or you might be able to add a side shelf to your main shelf, take a wand from your reserve, draw a random bonus token or simply get a few Victory Points. Potentially most beneficial is being able to magically switch the positions of books because this can help you satisfy the demands of those Objective cards.
Objective cards show specific configurations that need to be met to score points for completing that objective. Sometimes, the cards will show a row of books in a certain color order or possibly indicate a certain shelf where a particular order of books must be found. Or maybe just certain positions that must be filled (regardless of book color) in order to score. But there are restrictions as to how and where to place books.
All books are shelved vertically and only in empty spaces. Although this is a “magical” library, books do not float in the air! All shelved books must have some sort of support, either against a shelf side or another book. Should you decide to remove a book for placement in a different area, you must be careful not to leave a book suspended in air without the proper support. That is an illegal move. Also know that, if you are fortunate enough to have a bonus tile of 2 books, this counts as two books when reshelving. Once you have taken your benefits and developed a configuration matching an Objective card, you have to have a wand to place on that card to claim it! Those points are charted on the score track, remaining Objective cards moved down a slot and a new Objective revealed to take the empty space. (Objective cards also shift down a slot at the end of every round. In either case, any wands on a card removed from the board are returned to supply.) It is important to note that Objective cards are NOT exclusive. EVERY player may claim the same Objective card (as long as it is available) by using a wand.
As more and more books are taken, shelves will be completely filled and those spiders (remember those tokens?) are forced out! But this is a good thing as it provides a choice of rewards: gaining a magic wand, drawing a bonus token, taking a book of ANY color or adding a side shelf (limit of two) to your holdings. Speaking of rewards, each bonus tile has a candle on its back. Bonus tiles may be used for their bonuses but may also, instead, be used as a candle and placed atop the slots found on library boards to score points at the end of the game.
After the second, B, deck is gone through, the game is over and points tallied. Added to the points already scored through completed Objective cards are points earned for “favorite subject” (one point each for books on your shelves matching your “favorite” subject and are adjacent – not diagonal), filled compartments (which is where those extra side shelves come in handy), candles (worth the points printed in the occupied slot) and magic wands, one point for each one unused. The player with the highest combined total wins! (Tie? Then the one with the most shelved books wins. Still tied? Then, the player with the most of his/her “favorite” books earns the victory. Still tied? A shared win is the result.)
The multiplicity of effects stemming from played cards forces you to weigh the advantages you receive from a card versus benefits you bestow on your opponents. Not always an easy choice. (In a two player game, your opponent gets BOTH the green AND blue benefits!) Similar choices await when using bonus tiles for their advantages OR as candles. You might feel a bit frustrated at the start in trying to match those Objective cards. Rest assured, as the game progresses (particularly as you use the B deck), rearranging books to meet objectives becomes easier. The game is very thematic, aided by the mild humor found in the book titles such as “Better Attics and Graveyards”, “Ancient Gremlin Practices” etc. which have absolutely no role in the gameplay but may bring a smile to your face.
Atheneum: Mystic Library is a carefully crafted, solidly built, game with all of the game’s mechanisms dovetailing nicely together. Because the game has very strong puzzle and spatial aspects as you seek to create Tetris-like arrangements in order to fulfill objectives, the game may not be as “magical” for all. But for those who can handle these sort of challenges, the game will conjure up a good time. – – – – – – – Herb Levy
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