You may think that wizards and potions are everywhere in the cardboard world, and you would be right, but thank heavens that they take at least some shelf space from Mr. Cthulhu and his betentacled gang. You need to travel a fair way to put some fresh air between you and these two themes, normally back to Renaissance Florence or somewhere similar, so yet another game about aspiring magicians taking their final exams makes me burst out in not-very-excited yawning. Sound familiar? Why yes, it is exactly the same theme as Potion Explosion, which I reviewed last year, and which turned out to be quite good, so maybe there is gold to be forged from these thematic base metals. Apparently there are some books and films about young wizards as well which are quite popular. Anyway, let’s take a wand-er through the components and background of Arcane Academy.
Big name designers mean a good first impression.
Small box…big names!
Well, the theme, as mentioned, is exactly what you would expect, but the first sign that all is not as it might otherwise be is that the names of Eric Lang and Kevin Wilson appear on the box. Wait, you mean Eric Lang as in Blood Rage, Arcadia Quest and “Insert any licence here: The Card Game”, and Kevin Wilson as in Descent, Cosmic Encounter and Fury Of Dracula? O. K. Clearly we have some very heavy hitters indeed lined up to bring us what, to all intents and purposes, looks like a light and colourful family game, so let’s park our expectations and prejudices and see what awaits us in this particular exam.
Arcane Academy certainly looks great from the outside, colourful and vibrant and fizzing with cartoony art that is friendly to the younger player. Opening the box is a bit of a mixed bag, but far from a disappointment. The player mats are flimsy, but of material that seems to be hard to damage, so well suited for younger players as it happens, while the tiles and cards are pretty much what you might expect. The exhaustion tokens (we’ll get to those later) are standard black cubes, but the shards, oh the shards, are wonderful translucent red gems that look as if they have been forged from a dragon’s tears…or maybe some kind of plastic, but, really, they are lovely. They act as the currency in the game, and there are also four assemble-it-yourself spinners to keep track of will, which is used to cast spells, and a rather fine black bag with “Arcane Academy” printed on the side from which the tiles will be drawn.
Want to score? Get on the board!
Player boards come with preprinted starter tiles.
The core of the game lies in each player’s board and what they do with it. The board begins with the four preprinted tiles in place, one in each corner, and the symbols on those tiles denote what a player can do when they activate it. The choices are really easy – gain shards or will, activate or buy an item, cast a spell, place a tile…and that’s it! Every game needs a tweak, though, and Arcane Academy’s is this – once you have activated a tile, you may then activate any tile that is adjacent and linked to the activated tile. Hello combos! After a few rounds players will begin to understand that the most powerful tiles, such as the one that gives you two shards and two will, have no connectors at all, while others can even have connectors on each of their four sides. Placing a tile therefore becomes a question not just of how useful the tile will be on its own, but also how it can trigger or be triggered by its neighbours. This simple twist takes Arcane Academy out of the mire of pick-a-tile-place-a-tile-maybe-activate-a-tile games and turns it into something else entirely – an abstract problem all wrapped up in a colourful and user friendly theme. Players are even allowed to build over tiles that are already on their board, so if you want to remodel your layout then go right ahead.
But there’s more. Once a tile has been activated it gains a black cube and is considered exhausted (this will sound familiar to any players of Insert Name Here: The Card Game). Bit by bit a player’s board will fill up with these cubes, to the extent that a spell will be needed to clear some of them away or, as a last resort, a player can take the “rest” action to clear them all, even though this effectively costs them their whole turn. New players or dullards like me can find themselves backed right into a corner because they (I) haven’t been paying attention to this crucial matter and have ended up with no way of placing tiles or using items.
Gather items, cast spells – gain achievements!
Spells and items (and more spells and more items)…
Then there is that deck of cards, a mixture of items and spells, all of which are termed “achievements”. Spells are activated by using will and placed under a player’s board, while items are paid for in shards, remain in play, and may be activated via tiles. Others cards have end of game or ongoing effects, and most of them also have a value in points which will help players to win the game (or, in my case, fail to prevent them from losing). There are always four tiles from which to choose in the central display, and four cards available to everybody to buy, but each player also gets a hand of three private cards, reminding me very much of the system of “contracts” in Via Nebula. The assignments also act as the timer for the game, as the first player to complete eight of them takes the “Pencils Down” card, and the game then ends after their next turn.
I and my fellow players went into Arcane Academy expecting something light and frothy. After all, the box looks like an explosion in a sweet shop, and the rules are simple enough to teach in five minutes. We came out, after half an hour of play, with our expectations totally destroyed, and in a good way. Arcane Academy is not light and frothy fodder at all, but is instead a really enjoyable and brain-burny way to spend half an hour. At the start of Arcane Academy a player’s decisions will be fairly innocuous, and you will start building up your tiles, will and shards in order to gain more power. As the game goes on and your player board becomes simultaneously more crowded and exhausted each turn takes on a progressively greater amount of weight, and before you know it you find yourself with very little space in which to manoeuvre, especially if you fail to plan ahead.
Black cubes represent tapped, sorry, exhausted tiles.
Take an action? Feel the reaction!
There is also a fine balance in Arcane Academy, which means that every decision taken has both a benefit and a disadvantage, and the real trick to success is in judging the long term effects of each. Resting will clear the board and enable a player to trigger as many as five tiles in the following turn (if those tiles are adjacent and linked, remember) but this will come at the cost of forfeiting an entire turn, and who knows whether that assignment or tile that you really want will still be there when the game comes round to you again? Take a weaker tile from the display and it will have more connections, but is it worth it when the tiles it will go next to are already exhausted? Will the shards I spend buying that assignment be worth the points it can bring in before the end of the game?
Given that the final round of Arcane Academy is triggered once any player completes eight assignments, players need to keep up with the pace of the game but also make sure that every single decision bears the appropriate amount of weight. Play Arcane Academy properly and you will feel as if you have had a solid and meaty experience, even though you will be surprised to see that only thirty minutes have passed.
Game length is kept pretty tight.
Exams can be tough, but don’t think too long!
The flip side to this experience, of course, is that Arcane Academy can be prone to some analysis paralysis, which is not so much an issue with two players, but can slow the game down as you get to the maximum player count of four. Naturally, if your own gaming group is happy simply to activate the most colourful tile in a “let’s pop this down and see what happens” kind of way then AP is not going to rear its ponderous head, but get two consenting adults together who are trying their best to humiliate the other, and it can slow a little. Talking of humiliation, did I mention that I lost my first two-player game 36 points to 5. No? Well, I did. Humiliating. Having mentioned the spectre of AP, though, thankfully the design of Arcane Academy is so lean and clean (and, I’d argue, mean) that any pauses tend to come down to players trying to decide in which order they are going to activate their linked tiles.
The bottom line is that Arcane Academy is a seriously impressive game, and players or couples looking for an experience a couple of notches up from something like Potion Explosion and with the same kind of theme would do well to consider this. The designers have rock solid reputations in creating complex game systems full of interactions and exceptions, and Arcane Academy, while mechanically much simpler, manages the feat of keeping that kind of player involvement alive without drowning the game in exceptions. It also manages to be the kind of game families can play together if the grown ups perhaps tone down their need to optimise every decision and instead focus on the experience of play itself, even if playing it well is probably the domain of the older gamers. Still, the charming and entertaining art is effervescent and engaging, far more enticing than in many other slightly more dour and serious wizardy offerings.
These tiles and this bag will decide your fate.
Is this magic? Or easily di-spelled?
Seasoned gamers will realise that underneath the surface of Arcane Academy lie the cogs and gears of an abstract, and stripping away the cards and the theme would leave players with a very dry experience indeed, but the extra layers do a fine job of softening what could otherwise have been a rather dry experience. The theme itself, though, is a take it or leave it affair, as far as I am concerned, and at several points during my games I totally forgot that I was supposed to be a young wizard, gaining shards and will to buy items and cast spells, and imagined myself instead as a general gaining income and troops to buy equipment and launch sorties into enemy territory, for there is a decent amount of direct player interaction here, even if it is obstructive rather than overtly spiteful. Perhaps this makes the theme irrelevant as it stands, but it is probably more symptomatic of a game that lives on a robust engine that is strong enough to take many interpretations. Keeping it with wizards also opens it up to a whole world of younger gamers, while those of the next generation up will find plenty to enjoy here once the little ones have gone to bed.
Arcane Academy is a deceptive thing, like a wizard in disguise. It will sit there looking charming and innocuous on your shelf and only reveal its true secrets once you open the lid and dive in. For a game that takes around thirty minutes with two, but still significantly under an hour with four, it offers a satisfying and meaty experience, and I went away from Arcane Academy thinking for the next few days about how I would play differently next time, which is always a good sign. My fellow gamers’ marks for Arcane Academy were solidly in the 8 or 9 out of 10 category, and I would err towards the higher side of that spread. Arcane Academy is a tight, lean, enjoyable and quick game with some depth and the potential for broad appeal, and be aware that it works as well for couples wanting a decent head to head experience as it does for young children dreaming of wizardry. A magical 9 out of 10.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and i'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.