Saturday Morning Gaming: Wizard’s Academy
For my birthday, Maribou gave me Wizard’s Academy. It’s a game for 2-4 people and while I LOVE those, my gaming group has 7 folks in it. While it’s easy as heck to have a night where 1 person doesn’t show up and fairly common to have a night where 2 don’t, having a night where 3 people all bail is somewhat rare… so we usually play the games that can handle 5 or 6 people on the nights that we don’t have all 7 show up (and we can get back to our D&D story… who am I again? OH YEAH! The Dwarven Cleric!).
But with Maribou visiting Canada last weekend and, for that matter, everybody else flaking out, I went over to Dman’s house and he and his wife and I sat down and played this game 3-player for the first time.
First impressions: The unboxing was a LOT of fun. There are tons of different runes, there are tons of different spells, there are tons and tons of different tokens. We opened the manuals and from reading the flavor text and rules, this game is somewhat similar to “The Captain Is Dead“. Like, to the point where we were jokingly calling the game “The Headmaster Is Dead”.
From just reading the rules and opening scenario, the game appears similar. Your Academy’s Something-Or-Other Crystal is in danger from the invading imps. It is your job to protect the crystal and cast the something-or-other spell on it… at which point you win the game. See? That’s a lot like repairing the warp core. When you look at each of the character cards, you say “wow! this is an awesome character!” And then you look at the board! It’s random each time with 16 (high-quality!) cardboard squares put randomly onto a 4×4 grid. So some games will have your crystal room over here next to the laboratory and the hoard, sometimes it’ll be over there and its neighbors will be the unstable room and the holy room.
And each turn, you draw a catastrophe card and play out the catastrophe. See? Just like The Captain Is Dead!
Except it isn’t.
For one thing, when you start drawing cards from the yellow alert deck in Captain, bad stuff happens every single card. Seriously, you wince just looking at it. (And the orange ones are worse than that and the red ones make you wonder how anyone could possibly survive the first one, let alone the second one.) For this one, the timer works differently. You’ve got two decks of 10 catastrophes. You burn through the first deck and then you add the top two cards from the second deck to the first deck and reshuffle… then do it again until the second deck is out of cards and you burn through the first deck one last time. Second is that the catastrophes in the first 10 cards you play are mostly of the nature “take the problem in (particular room) and (other particular room) and make it worse”. So if the room is on fire, do the “does the fire spread?” thing. If the room is flooded, see if the flood spreads. If the room is populated with imps, have the imps do THEIR thing.
When the game first starts, hey, no problem. There’s no problem in any of the rooms, so nothing to make worse. You can leisurely (or semi-leisurely) pick up the various runes you need to cast spells and go wherever you want to go and be unhindered by anything (except that some of the rooms have only two or three entrances and so you may have to go around the long way to get in).
But then you look at what you have to do… cast the something-or-other spell on your crystal? Well, that brings us to the biggest obstacle in the game: none of you guys know what your spells are (it’s random every game). Sure, you have runes all over the board, but you don’t know what spell the runes will cast. You just know that one of the combinations of two runes will cast it. So if you cast an asterisk rune with a V thingy rune… you don’t know what it’ll do. Maybe you’ll get lucky! But maybe you’ll cast fireball. Research is possible in the library but you only have but so many actions per turn and, odds are, you won’t be more than minorly successful.
So we found that we had one guy just hit the books in the library and figure out what our spells did while everybody else ran around collecting the rune collections necessary to cast the spells we needed to get the runes to cast the spell we needed to cast in order to win the game.
We were on our sixth, and last, shuffle through the first deck when we managed to cast the winning spell. We were in the first few cards so it wasn’t, like, CRAZY but, by this point, there were a LOT of problems on the board so that whenever we drew a new catastrophe card, we knew that SOMETHING was going to go wrong. Either with the fire or with the imps… and they were both very, very annoying.
And after we won, Dman turned to me and said that he wasn’t sure if he liked the game because he never felt like we were ever in danger of losing and I said holy cow, I LOVED the game because, when we started, there was very little peril and by the sixth shuffle it felt like all of the bad stuff that was going on (the fires, the imps) were going to roll over us and we only won because we got lucky with our catastrophes (for example, if we pulled a card telling us to activate the imps in the winning turn, we’d have been back to the drawing board and would have had to run around collecting more runes).
Now here is the problem with the game. The game lives and dies on the quality of the spells. The problem that I had with the first game we played was that pretty much all of the spells were crappy. Out of the six spells we could get in the first part of the game, only two were worth a darn. One that gave a boost of speed and one that did a point of damage to everything in the room (necessary to kill the guardians protecting the upper-level glyphs that we needed to cast the something-or-other spell that would allow us to win the game).
When we played Captain, I found myself struck by how different and unique each of the characters were. I could see agonizing over which one you’d want to play due to how awesome the special abilities of the characters were. The wizards you could choose to be in Wizard’s Academy had special abilities, sure, but none of us ever found ourselves in a situation where we’d want or need to use them which made the characters appear as flavor text rather than tactical decisions. When you got the equivalent of a spell card in Captain, you found yourself excited and saying “we need to cast more of these!” but, in Wizard’s Academy, the spells were not particularly useful or helpful. They felt like chaff that was in the way of the Good Stuff that you really wanted.
I don’t know how I feel about the game. I’m going to have to play it again. (We played just one of the several different scenarios the box has to offer… maybe the tutorial one exists to be beaten and demonstrate the mechanics and the GOOD stuff is in the Real campaigns.) So this one has a tentative “maybe” from us for now. But, seriously, the whole thing about moving from catastrophes that weren’t anything at all to praying that maybe the worst thing that would happen is that the fire would spread in a direction away from you? That was AWESOME. I’ve never had a game give me that sensation before and so that inclines me to give it a tentative thumbs up just for that. If you want more in depth reviews based on more than my first impressions of the game, Board Game Geek has them here(along with pictures of the board dedicated to the school and the separate board dedicated to the spells).