Friday, January 31, 2014

Returning to the Realm

Every few months, I get the irresistible urge to dig through my cabinets and dust off a copy of the most venerable board game in my collection -- Magic Realm. This is one of my favorites, written by Richard Hamblen and published in 1979 by Avalon Hill. As a 9 year-old, fascinated by all things swords and sorcery, I was lured in by the giant, heavy box with the cool art... while wandering a Toys-R-Us of all places... and instead of buying some D&D books, I spent my pocketful of birthday money on this mystery game instead.

That first play through was a tiny bit rough on 9-year old me. The rules were copious and dense and written in that 70's wargame style that I had not yet grown to love. Worse yet, because of the density of the rules, they had to be broken down into bite-sized "Encounters", the first of which included nothing but constructing the board and moving around... not quite the epic sword-swinging, spell-slinging adventure I had been anticipating.

I was sorely disappointed.

picture by AtlasMaximus on deviantArt
Still, the game had something to it that kept me coming back -- a combination of the intriguing characters, the awesome spell and treasure cards, and the ominous monster chits. So, over the course of the next few years, there were probably a dozen or so attempts at the game. I would set it up, make a few moves, realize that I had missed some important aspect of the rules and start over. I would limit myself to "no hiring natives" or "no horses" to simplify things and avoid rules I was uncomfortable with...

(Cue the training montage)

Ultimately, I learned to play Magic Realm. I still play it 35 years later and it is my all-time favorite board game. Why do I love this old, complex, grognard of a game?

There are 16 characters and each of them plays very differently.

As a modern-day role player, I am used to exception-based rules systems. These are games where there is a relatively small core system and characters differentiate themselves by their exceptions to these rules. Pathfinder is a great example of this type of game. Most of the game is roll d20 + modifiers > target number... but each character class has exceptions, along with hundreds of spells and feats, each of which change the rules in some fashion.

In Magic Realm, each character has only two advantages, which are "exceptions" like Pathfinder's feats, but otherwise, they are defined by 12 maneuver chits. There are just four types of chits, fight, move, magic and special, but the information on these chits defines how strong your character is, what weapons and armor he can use, how much he can carry, how fast he runs, what magic he can cast and how quickly he tires.

The fighters all play very differently because of the strengths and speeds listed on their maneuver chits. The Swordsman is quick and agile, but lacks the power of the White Knight. He can flee from nearly any fight, and is best when harassing other players (mostly mages). The White Knight is powerful and tough, but fatigues quickly and can be overwhelmed by numbers. He is best seeking out the tremendous guardians of treasure troves. The Black Knight is neither as quick as the Swordsman, or as powerful as the White Knight, but has just the right combination of maneuvers to be one of the deadliest foes to the human denizens of the Realm.

The mages vary in the types of magic they wield, the speed at which they wield it, and the extent to which they rely on magic in battle (by the fact that they have given up move and fight chits for magic ones). This system gives us dabblers like the Elf, who can cast some spells, but is also a formidable combatant with the bow, assuming he can get the drop on his opponents. The Sorcerer is a master of elemental magic, bringing flaming death to his foes, but will most certainly lose any battle if deprived of his precious purple magic. The Witch King is an embodiment of magic incarnate, but cannot even carry treasures without resorting to some kind of spell (he lacks move/fight chits).

It is incredible how much subtle variation fits into this single mechanic. Each character has strengths and weaknesses, opponents against which they excel and those they fear. Once you add in the advantages each character has (their exceptions), their starting equipment, and their allies and enemies in the Realm and the result is that each character plays very differently and gives you a very different view of the game.

The board is awesome!!!

The board in Magic Realm is made up of a set of hexes that contain from 4-6 interconnected clearings (spaces). The board is beautiful and built by the players before each game and the way that it is built can have huge implications on the game.

See, each type of hex can hold certain types of creatures and sites. The valley tiles hold the dwellings and the various NPC factions in the realm. The mountain tiles can hold treasure troves, but are hard to traverse and are also home to fearsome spiders, dragons, giants, and perhaps the most dangerous enemy of all... bats (no really... giant freaking bats!!!). Cave tiles can also be rich with gold, but are very slow going for most characters in the game. Tarry too long in a cave and you might be faced with a tremendous armored troll, or a pack of murderous goblins. Woods tiles are often uneventful (except for the mysterious Deep Woods), but can be enchanted by certain magic-using characters to change their paths, opening up some areas of the board, and closing others off.

The combat system is more detailed than most rpgs and still plays quickly.

Magic Realm's combat system accounts for surprise, characters' speed, strength, weapon speed, sharpness, length, readiness, armor (and damage to armor), wounds, fatigue, magic, disrupting spells, mounted combat, henchmen, potions and magic items, ambushes, and special maneuvers... all in a system that resolves most fights in under 5 minutes.

The game supports PvP, PvE and teamwork seamlessly.

Do you have a hardcore group of gamers that likes to cut each other down as they battle for a win? Magic Realm will handle that, with tons of opportunity for players to screw with each other and rules for any number of players and their henchmen participating in a battle. If your group is more civil and prefers to quest in parallel, racing (instead of fighting) to the finish, MR supports that too. The game board and its denizens hold more than enough challenges for the players even if they are peaceful with each other. Players that are feeling particularly helpful can actually team up -- and the game handles this as well, with rules for following, trading and sharing discoveries.

The game plays great solo (or with up to 16 players) and has a computer version.

Unfortunately, I don't play a ton of board games these days and a main reason is simply getting people together for them. Most of the folks in my gaming groups are rpg gamers first and if we are getting together, it better be for an rpg!! Magic Realm is great in that it is an amazing solo game. The board is randomized so that each play is different, and the rules are such that there is no ambiguity as to how enemies behave. The game does not rely on player conflict and so just battling the board as it spawns treasures and monsters is an interesting challenge.

There is even a computerized version of the game that will let you play without the tedious setup!

It passes the Cool Story Test.

The Cool Story Test is exactly what it sounds like -- does the game consistently produce cool stories? Some great games fail the Cool Story Test. Settlers of Catan is a wonderful game, but I never find myself talking about the time I played a road building card to steal the longest road from my wife and eek out a win.

Magic Realm has several factors that make it a great generator of gaming stories. The way the board is different each game, the characters and their strengths and weaknesses, the appearance of monsters and various NPC factions, the crazy treasures... all of these factors lead to highly emergent game play and a lot of great stories.

One of my more recent favorites is when both the Captain and Berzerker headed to loot the Altar. Unfortunately, they approached the Altar on a day when demons and undead were afoot (we were using an expansion with undead in it). So, the two heroes found themselves at the treasure site staring down a Tremendous Demon and a gaggle of Skeletons.

Both players had a couple of henchmen accompanying them and because they were far from the next likely source of treasure, decided to make a quick, temporary alliance and try to clear the site. So, leaping from their hiding places, they attacked. The battle promised to be epic -- two heroes and four henchmen vs. one demon and six skeletons!!

Except the demon's first attack connects with one of the henchmen and invokes the dreaded Power of the Pit. The nefarious creature rolls double 3s, which means the effect is Terror -- all light and medium chits are wounded, and light or medium creatures are killed. The demon's wail injures the Captain pretty badly, totally annihilates every skeleton and henchman in the clearing... and leaves the Berzerker totally unscathed. He subsequently pulls a lucky shot with his axe and cuts the demon down.

A single combat round and a pile of corpses later, the Berzerker is ready to loot the treasure site... with only a passing thought to betraying the Captain...

Magic Realm is the most ambitious attempt at simulating an entire fantasy role-playing epic in the space of a board game.

This is perhaps my favorite thing about Magic Realm. Of all of the games in its genre, it alone tries to be a simulation of all the aspects of a fantasy rpg campaign. Other games might play at this, but ultimately, abstract too much or streamline too much to get it right.

Magic Realm is complicated and in some places, obtuse. It is certainly a game from an era in which 120 pages of rules didn't instantly relegate a game to the dust bin. But no other game has the amazing depth or scope that this one does. It is hard to imagine describing a game with 120 pages of rules as "tight", but MR's design is pretty darn tight for all that the game does.

In Magic Realm, I might barter with natives, lead an army of rogues or crusaders, kill dragons, sneak by a horde of goblins, escort a group of travelers through the Deep Woods, transform into a massive troll, be cursed or make a wish, loot a dragon's horde or be dragged to the depths of the pool by a tremendous octopus... It is truly an epic, and a classic. If you have a chance, give it a shot.

My Amazon Let's Play
Magic Realm Rules
Magic Realm in Plain English
The Least You Need To Know To Play Magic Realm