Magic Realm designed by Richard Hamblen and publish in 1978 is a true classic in every sense of the word, an epitome of boardgaming at its heights, an epitome that not many has had the chance to experience. The game takes you to a fantasy world, you get to choose one of 16 avatars to represent you as you face the myriad of challenges that will confront and challenge your character and your planning skills. The theme and typical character classes are all that will be familiar to those uninitiated in this game, because what shines most about this game is the game mechanics all of which are unique in our beloved hobby.
Lets start with the components & setup; the game comes in a large flat box full of counters and tiles. The biggest component in the game is the hexagonal tiles that make up the map. These tiles are initially placed by the players to create a unique map for every game. These tiles are double sided, with a normal side with valleys, mountains, caves, forest and then its respective enchanted side, which supply a specify type of magic energy to energize various spells.
Original tile set in play
Then there is the setup board, where all the monsters, treasures and spells that are currently not in played are arranged and ready to be used. The way the monsters are presented is quite innovative. The physical size of the counter represent the size, combat strength and vulnerability of the monster.
Karim’s fan-made setup board
There is no way anyone can summarize the rules of this game in an even long review, but the game flow in its most basic form is: You beginning the game by choosing your own victory conditions, these are represented by treasures, spells learnt, fame, notoriety, gold in differing proportions, these are gained by looting and defeating opponents, monsters & denizens. The proportion of each is your choice and will help define the direction of your character in the game and in turn how each game will play out. Every game is different, the magic realm is a dynamic and impermanent place.
Each turn represents a day in the magic realm and the game lasts as long as you want, usually this means 1-3 months. During each turn, everyone writes down the actions you want to do in the beginning of your turn, the obvious choices are move, trade, hire, enchant, magic, loot, search & hide (there are others), then you enact these actions in the next phase, then you basically repeat this until the end of the month. There are other parts to this turn sequence like weather and see which monsters are active and prowling during any one turn but to explain it all is beyond the scope of the review, needless to say every facet of adventuring is taken into account and elegantly represented in the turn sequence.
One thing of note is the rulebook, its voluminous indeed and in its original incarnation is very difficult to understand and this has given the game its undeserved reputation of difficult to learn. There is an unofficial 3rd rendition of the rules that make a lot more sense and I find it a very enjoyable read. There is no doubt there are lots of rules to learn but most make logical sense and aren’t very difficult to remember. Like Chess, the rules are not difficult but the game is very hard to master. Once you’ve a few games under your belt and are grounded in the game flow, then everything else should start to fall into place… then you will notice the many many subtle nuances that belie every rule.
You will notice how every mechanism, every roll of the dice, every choice is counterbalanced and meaningful. The one thing that stands out the most is how every decision you are faced with during the game is meaningful and strategical, even though dice is involved in the use of various tables, random choices will inevitably lead to failure. Every choice must be weight against the probability of it occurring favorably and weight that against the possible unfavorable outcomes and other choices you could have made instead. The number of choices available to you is simply dazzling, the strategies you can employ numerous. Unlike may other fantasy games, every character in the magic realm plays out totally differently, sure they use the same rules & stats but because of the intricacy of the rules of the game, even a seemingly minor difference between characters will have drastic consequences in what you can and cannot do in the magic realm and hence impacting your choices.
An integral part of the game is combat, where would a fantasy game be without it. The unique combat system deployed in the game is its absolute strength as well as the reason for the game’s relative obscurity. To have it explained to you in person is simple enough, but to read and learn it from the rulebook is very tiresome and confusing. Once learnt you will discover how integral it is to the strategic options you have been making throughout your turn. The brilliance of the combat system isn’t just how the combats are resolved but how the tactical aspect of combat is integral to the strategic world that are apart of the turn sequence. The combat isn’t just an isolated mini-game, each combat must be planned in advance fought on your own playing field during the planning phase of your turn, any surprise combats will surely mean your doom.
The infamous conceptually difficult combat sheet where combat is played out. The counters displayed here are fan-made
Combat like every mechanism in the game is miraculously blended with narrative as well as logical possibilities. As the opponents face off on the combat sheet, you are armored (or not) and the monster will take a swipe at you, will it be a slash, jab or an overhead bash or will it change strategy, you don’t know but apart from that all other information is open and hence open to planning. The first round of combat’s advantage goes to the creature with the longer reach, whilst in the latter round speed takes precedent. Even before the first swing, you need to have analyse what attacks will be effective in hurting your opponent. Are you strong enough to cause sufficient damage to your opponent? Are you fast enough to prevent an undercut that will automatically hit you? If you are hit will the monster get through your armor? Do you have hirelings to aid you and how will they be deployed? How should you maneuver to avoid an enemy blow? Are you fast enough to maneuver from the enemy in the first place? What spell should you cast? Is your choice combat action fast enough to hit the monster first or will the monster get the first free swipe? Will you ambush with a missile weapon whilst hidden or should you use your underlings to lure the monsters to take the damage. These are just a few of the strategic choices you’ve to make before you enter combat, the game is lace with just the correct amount of randomness to make most combats unpredictable, but not so much that make your actions feel meaningless and at the mercy of the die roll. The game manages both to be deterministic and full of surprises, which indeed is a difficult balance to achieve!
After killing monsters or at certain sites on the map you can loot for treasures and spells, and even then you are face with many dilemmas. One of the most unique mechanisms that drive the game is how the dice is read. Yes, how the dice is read! Instead of the total of two dice as is the usual norm, in magic realm, you throw 2d6 and you only read the bigger number. So if you roll a 5 & 4, the result is a 5. This means that bigger numbers are are more likely and to get a (1) you need to roll snake eyes (1 & 1)! This mechanism has many interesting effects during the game. For example, treasures are kept in stacks, to loot a treasure site, the result of the dice roll determine which treasure you take from the stack. The number rolled results in you taking the treasure counting from the top of the stack down. For example, if there are 4 treasures in a stack and you roll a 6 & 5 which reads as a 6, you get no treasures as there are no 6th treasure in the deck, to get anything you need to roll a 4 or lower. So you see, as the treasure stack get smaller, the number you need to roll get smaller as well and it becomes less likely you’ll get a treasure…. The BIG treasures are always on the top of the stack which makes them very hard to get and you will have to waste many turns you can ill afford to get them.
Time is of the essence in the game, to attain your victory conditions you set for yourself at the start of the game before the last turn of the game is very difficult. You will initially die a lot in the magic realm, poor decisions and unnecessary risks will leave many dead, requiring a restart. Once you get better, you will die less and less and I’ve found the game so delicately balanced that many games end up as nail biters.
The narrative of this game has no peers, to get any stronger will require a Dungeon Master. But unlike a game of D&D, this game tells its story via the game’s mechanics and your characters battles, actions and treasures & spells found. The stories the game can tell is unending and every game I’ve ever played have ended with many memorable moments.
In the last game I played as a sorcerer, we were playing with the development rules where our characters start off with only very limited powers and we have to level them up. Initially the sorcerer has no spells and can’t learn any and start of really weak and as you can imagine, I was playing the thief at the beginning, avoiding combat and looting whilst hidden, I got very lucky at the dragon’s lair and stole a powerful magical sword. With the money from selling some of the other treasures I found, I hired some knights and hence armed with the sword and with a group of lackeys (troll fodder) it was time for some payback. My sorcerer became a ranger of death, killing many tough monsters in melee. A rather unpredictable outcome when I first chose to be a magic user. It is these surprises, the organic nature of the game that draws me in. The magic realm comes alive during play and I find myself losing all tracks of time. The game length is variable depending how many months you play, and the number of players present. A typical month with two players will take 2 hours and a campaign of 3 months could take up to 6 hours.
The game plays very well as a solitaire game, as mentioned, all the characters present a very different challenge and combine that with the ever changing realm, the strategic planning and narrative elements, you have a makings of a great solitaire game. The game only gets better with more players, with two characters it becomes a cooperative game where players team up to increase chances of survival, the interactions between players are intense as you choose the correct course for you adventurers to take. The game comes alive with 3 or more players, where conflict between characters can be introduced, the game becomes very competitive and diplomatic. Anything can happen in the Magic Realm.
This has to be the hardest game I’ve had to review, to try to distill the essence of this game in a short essay is not easy. This game is the result of genius, the Magic Realm comes alive through its game mechanics. In turn each and every game mechanic, many of which are unique to the boardgaming genre, results in a myriad of strategic decisions that will have a long lasting affect on the game’s outcome. The same said mechanics also blend seamlessly to create a powerful narrative which is what truly brings the game to life and takes this game to another echelon of gaming experiences. I know no other game, including videogames, that can create an experience quite like adventuring in the Magic Realm. There is also a strong community of liked minded adventurers online, some of which have created stunning pieces of expansions and addons to the game, enlarging the game-world and increasing the ease to play and introducing the game to a new generation.
I will give this game an 11 out of 10, because even among other 10 out of 10 games this game has no peer. If you want a truly unique and engaging gaming experience, I highly recommend trying Magic Realm.
+11 for simply the most engaging, thought provoking game I’ve ever play. Once the rules are mastered and learn, you’ll begin to appreciate all the subtle nuances that amazes you with its attention to detail, whilst still creating an amazingly balanced game. A must have game in anyone’s collection.
-0 apart from the learning curve that is made much less steep if you have someone teach you the game, there is nothing much I can fault about the game. The original counters could have been a little more informative and you need to look up reference tables to see certain counter values. This problem is largely solved by repeated plays and also fan made adaptations with more informative counters, but the original game is still very playable. I have the original 1st edition which as a few more counter errors than the 2nd edition, but I’ve had no problems in all the years I’ve play this game.
Description on the back of the box, not many games had an Avalon Hill Difficulty Rating of 9!
Promotional leaflet, Avalon Hill Propaganda!
~ Eric Lai