Despite my best intentions, Christmas happened again this year. Sorry about that. A man can only do his best, and although my best is considerable, it takes some time to efficiently bring Christmas to a close. Until then, I suppose we all have no choice but to suffer through it.
In the meantime, that means presents, from people. To me. They try their best. This year, me and mine seem to have gotten a lot of tabletop games. It’s been rather a year for that. A lesser man may simply play them, and leave it there, but I’m much more than that. Instead, I shall use this opportunity to enlighten the world! And you’re welcome.
Right. So with all my traditional self-absorbed pompousness out of the way, I got a lot of new tabletop games this holiday season. I’m going to review them. Sound good? Good.
The first game on the Tabletop Critique chopping block is this little number here.
Magic: The Gathering holds a special place in my heart. I was super big into it as a cub. Well, as super big into it as you can get without actually owning any cards. See, I had those types of parents who thought that anything their children enjoyed was a tool of the devil, so, I had to rely on borrowing stuff from friends. Still, there was a time in my life where my thoughts were constantly on Magic. Beyond just the game itself, the stories, the world-building, and the lore had a really strong impact on me, kickstarting my imagination at a formative stage in my life in a way that little else did. It may be a little odd, but Magic was where I first started playing with storytelling, using the cards as setpieces to craft my own tales to tell myself, which built into one of those good old lifelong passions.
Eventually, I did start picking up the card game itself, then lapsed out of it, and now generally only play on special occasions. I still do have a lot of fond memories for the flavor and the world, however.
Which I suppose is where Arena of the Planeswalkers comes in. It’s a competitive miniature-based tabletop game. I know absolutely nothing about Heroclix, so I feel completely comfortable assuming this game is exactly the same but with a different flavor and a major twist to the mechanics somewhere. Each player controls one planeswalker figure and a collection of critters associated with them, then uses this squad to attempt to conquer all the other players who are doing the same.
In keeping with the source material, you’ve got five colors to work with, each with their own planeswalker, creatures, and spells. Each comes with their own strategic focuses, strengths, and weaknesses, giving you the tools you need to craft your tactics in taking the other teams down. Combat takes place on a game board that can be set up a couple of different ways, with a few obstacles and terrain features to present risks and opportunities. Each creature and planeswalker has different stats and traits, each spell card affects the battle in different ways, you get the picture.
Arena of the Planeswalkers isn’t very flavorful, but mechanically, it does carry the Magic the Gathering feel about as well as you could expect when turning the card game into a board game. The mechanics of it are quite simplified, but the functions carry over into the new format quite well. Summoning creatures plays much the same role as in the card games, and well placed spells will twist the flow of the game in exactly the same way as they can in the card game. In terms of mechanical feel, the game has built it’s similarities with the CCG with unequivocal success.
Another thing I really like about the game is the miniatures. Not the plainswalkers, those just look a little janky, but the creatures, who are just the base plastic models, look rather nifty. Between the minute features and the fact that each model is in a different pose, there’s a lot of attention to detail that I rather appreciate. The figures are nice to have. They didn’t need to have as much design as they do, but they do, and it’s a good thing.
For a game with like 15 pages of rules, it’s pretty easy to pick up. That’s because, on the surface of it, it’s a pretty simple, self-explanatory game. There’s no real complicated mechanics, and as long as you understand the basics and a few of the more complicated rules, you’re good to go. Well, you are assuming you bother to actually read the cards, which is where the real complexity of the game is. And if you read the cards, you’re already a more advanced players than those I tried the game out with. And they were so whiny about my beating them, too.
There is a flipside to that, though. A few of the mechanics are way more complicated than they need to be. The whole set of rules regarding line of sight are have waaaaaay too many moving parts, and are largely completely unnecessary. If you playing with someone who insists on following those rules rather than using, you know, basic common sense as to whether thing a can see thing b, that’s a good sign that you’re in for the most boring possible game and you need to make new friends. The rules as written are also inadequate on a few key factors, as well. The creatures you summon can’t act the turn they’re loosed. This completely changes the way the game plays, yet my fellows and I were completely unaware of this after reading the rules. It took encountering a creature that was immune to this and the help of the internet to sort this out for us. Rulebook was no help on this at all.
There is an element of chance to this game. Each character has offensive and defensive stats, but that only affects their odds of success in combat, it’s not a strictly mathematical game. I’m fine with that, but it’s probably important to know going in for those who insist that 2+2 should always equal someone dying.
The game’s also a bit slow-paced. This is a deliberate design choice, largely influenced by the fact that you can only do anything with one of your three groups of units any given turn. Again, one that some people are going to be fine with, others aren’t. It does have some very significant impacts on play, not all of which I believe were intentional, but for better or worse, you’ve got to have some patience with this game.
The actual play is… eh, I like it alright. Once you have the rules down and you’ve gotten comfortable with the pace, it moves smoothly enough. It plays a lot like your standard tactical RPG. Think Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, something like that, and you get the jist. You move on a grid, attack and defend with your defined ranges, get along like so. It’s the spells and the creature’s abilities that really lend the variety and complexity into the game, and, in my experience at least, proper use of those is absolutely necessary for success. Just as in the card game, almost nothing is just plain vanilla take-it-as-you-see-it. Which should be an element of play that really interests me. However, although I found the basics of it mechanically sound, and the game seems to execute competently, I never really found it very exciting.
I think that’s because of balance. Both balance with the game as is, and my concerns about balance should I look at picking up the expansions, which this game is very clearly made for. The plague of ill-placed DLC is not limited to those vidcons, folks. That was one of the things that killed my career in the original CCG, the way the metagame developed and power of certain types of card creeped ever upward, to the point where the only way to be competitive was to sink a lot of resources into it and play in a way that wasn’t as fun as when everyone could just put in similar amounts of themselves into the game. I won every game of Arena of the Planeswalkers I played. Even after my opponents actually started reading the cards. There was a massive skill gap in the game even when everyone was a newbie. Which could be overcome with us all building some more experience, but it’s probably not a fun time building up there. More than that, though, the building blocks themselves are a bit unbalanced. Blue in particular feels stronger than any of the other colors. When I played blue, I was overwhelming. I controlled all my target terrain on the second turn, and ended up beating down the opposing team without ever being touched. On top of that, the game is made for expansions. Just like the original. And just like the original, I’m worried about the power levels creeping up and weighing the playing field towards the latter releases, to the expense of the base game. The new expansions include some multicolored plainswalkers, which I can already tell will have access to way more potential than the monocolored heros. The smaller number of cards and units available in Arena of the Planeswalkers compared to the CCG means the monocolored planeswalkers will have nowhere near the amount of flexibility and strategic customization as the multicolored ones, to their own expense.
But I don’t own any expansions. All I have is the base game, so I don’t necessarily have to worry about it. It’s all right. Simple, and has some flaws, but it’s fun enough to not be a waste of time. Don’t think it’s my particular cup of tea, but I can see myself bringing it out on some occasions.