Magic, the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers

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).


Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

Other Fall 2015 GA Reports


Reviewed by: Kevin Whitmore (Numbskull Games, 3 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 120 minutes; $49.99) California Gold is a 2015 release from author Patrick Stevens and published by his company, Numbskull Games. But don’t let the title fool you; California Gold is about “Orange Ranching, the second gold rush” as the slogan on the top of the box clarifies. The game supports 3 ...
Read More
Reviewed by: Larry Levy (Czech Games Edition, 2 to 12 players, ages 14 and up, 15 minutes; $20) Many of us may tend to think of game designers as having specialties—things like card games, children's games, and the like.  But while that's occasionally true, most designers are pretty versatile.  Obviously, it's to their benefit to have more than one arrow in their quiver.  That's certainly true ...
Read More
Reviewed by: Pevans (Ragnar Brothers, 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 120 minutes; about $70) That’s “Democratic Republic of…” The first thing to get straight about this game is its title. It is not, as many people think (all right, I thought) on first sight, Doctor Congo… It is the latest heavyweight strategy game from the Ragnar Brothers. It is definitely a complex game ...
Read More
Quick Quiz For gamers around the world, playing games is a learning experience. First, you need to learn the rules to play the game correctly. Sometimes, this means poring over the rulebook. Sometimes, it means absorbing the rules from someone who has played the game before. Once the game is in action, you learn something about your opponents in how they handle the challenges inherent ...
Read More
Reviewed by: Frank Branham [Back in 2004, Hasbro released a spectacular new game with a fantasy theme, wonderful graphic design and lots of beautiful miniatures. The game was Heroscape. The game caught on with critics and players alike and became a success spawning lots of expansions for players to add to that gaming universe. But nothing lasts forever so, after a rather long run, Heroscape was ...
Read More
Reviewed by: Herb Levy (Lookout Games/Mayfair Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 30-60 minutes; $37) The isle of Skye is a small island located in the English Channel. Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, as designed by Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister, uses that setting to challenge players to develop their own "clan territory" in such a way as to achieve ...
Read More
Reviewed by: Herb Levy (Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 10 and up, 60 minutes; $29.99) Over 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 ...
Read More
Reviewed by: Greg J. Schloesser (Blue Orange Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 8 and up, 45-60 minutes; $49.99) Blue Orange has been publishing games for over a dozen years. They predominately produce lighter family and party games, although there have been a few that require a bit more strategy (Gobblet comes to mind). Perhaps their most popular game is Spot It!, a fast-paced party ...
Read More
Reviewed by: Andrea "Liga" Ligabue (Fantasy Flight Games, 2 players, ages 14 and up, 120 minutes; $99.95) I've always been fascinated by the Star Wars universe and related games. I played a lot with the old West End Games RPG and I really love Star Wars: X-Wings. When FFG announced the release of Star Wars: Armada, I was thrilled. Someone could think Armada is the ...
Read More
[With our 30th year celebration launched, we have to admit that we wouldn't be here if there was nothing to discuss! For that, we have to be thankful for the talented game designers that have managed to create so many thought provoking, challenging and entertaining games over the last three decades. So, as with our Top 30 Games poll, we contacted everybody we could find ...
Read More
[In celebrating our 30th year, we thought about the thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) of games that have appeared on the scene over the last three decades. So we contacted everybody we could find who had ever contributed to Gamers Alliance Report since our beginning as well as our worldwide membership and asked them: In YOUR opinion, what are the BEST games published, ...
Read More
Reviewed by: Herb Levy (Lookout Games/Mayfair Games, 2 players, ages 8 and up, 30-40 minutes; $21) Some topics command more than their fair share of attention when it comes to trains. One of those topics is, without question, trains. Russian Railroads (featured in the Spring 2014 Gamers Alliance Report), for example, used trains as a springboard for an excellent worker placement game. Now, Helmut Ohley, ...
Read More
Reviewed by: Herb Levy (Stonemaier Games, 2 to 6 players, ages 13 and up, 45-90 minutes; $60) Wine is often thought of as "the nectar of the gods" being a source of inspiration for centuries, its virtues extolled through literature of all sorts (even poetry). So it is no surprise that this inspiration has spilled over into games. Wine making, its pleasures and perils, have ...
Read More