STERLING GAMES publication of Tim Herema's ARCHMAGE is indeed a magical game; the Collector's Edition is even more magical and amazing, especially if you happen to love Sterling Game's own beautifully unique components. All pieces could be created from card and still do the required job, but the 3D units give the game a wonderful, added visual appeal. There is also a sleeve to protect your box (though be careful removing it and putting this back on) and one black velvet drawstring components bag for each player. Both useful, and very classy, touches.
ARCHMAGE is also a great example of how age rarely affects board games. This was published in 2018, three years ago, but only came to my notice earlier this year which means to me it was a new game. It (I have the Collector's Edition) comes with a 24 page Rules book, the last 4 pages covering all aspects for solo play, and a double-sided, landscape printed, quick rules sheet (of thin but durable, card) which spells out the game play from setup to game end.
The action is preceded by a brief history of the Archmage, the true Ruler of the (un-named) Land and a description of what is expected of the players - build the most powerful Order of Mages. There is a time limit (a set number of Rounds) and just a little room for error (one mistake, especially early on, should not cost you the game, several errors are a different matter).
Players used to Starling Games products need no introduction to the quality of the components. If this is your first Starling Game (then why haven't you played EVERDELL, SHADOWRIFT, FLOURISH etc) then you can be assured of a game of substance.
Having said the above, making errors isn't easy, but choosing the wrong option is. There are a good few times when you will need to make a decision, such as 'which path to take' and then it is better to mentally weigh up what good each choice will be for you in the future. When we play, when options affect only the player and after taken would then be the end of their Turn, we usually leave them to it - give them a moment to think - and the next player begins their Turn. Of course we ensure that the 'thinking' player's next Turn doesn't come around before they have made their previous Turn's decision. (Usually we shout, deride, hassle and push them into making the choice - anything just the right side of friendly persuasion).
In this Land's universe there are six major spheres of magic, each an embodiment of one of the original Mythic races:
Blood (Red/Demons), Death (Black/Goblins), Matter (Yellow/Gnomes), Nature (Green/Dryads), Time (Purple/Elves) and Will (Orange/Dwarves).
The Fundamental spheres are shown on each player's personal Tower board as a Wheel of Magic - intersecting centrally, each overlap forming a doorway to a choice of paths
. For example Fundamental Time (Purple) has Fundamental Matter (Yellow) to the left and Fundamental Will (Orange) on the right. The first space for each is in the sphere's main colour.
Human Mages combined the mythic magic to create greater magic (Advanced and Master). The Mythic races failed in their melding and instead created Drow (Elves/Demons), Trolls (Dryads/Dwarves) and Gremlins (Gnomes/Goblins). I mention all of this about the Spheres of Magic to give you an idea of how deep the roots of the short story are indoctrinated.
To advance Time to the next magic level (ironically called 'Advanced') it has to meld with the magic on one side of it, Matter or Will. This is shown by the next space towards the centre being a blend of Purple/Orange or Purple/Yellow. The Master, or third, level is a sliver of space (in size) in comparison and reverts back to one of the main colours of the chosen path. So the spaces in our example of Time melded with Will, for example, would be Purple, Purple/Orange and then the choice for the Master level of either Purple or Orange.
Selecting the correct path and subsequently the level of these magic phases is what I was speaking about above when I say we let our players have a little time for thought.
The number of players doesn't overly affect the gameplay but it does determine several things, such as the number of Town Tiles and Wilderness sets (each set comprises of the five Wilderness locations).
Sphere associated Relic can be found in specific Wilderness locations.
And the non-location-assigned Blood/Blood/Attacking/Demons.
Players each have 6 Sphere coloured wooden discs. These are their Planets and are shaken in closed, cupped, hands and then randomly dropped, one into each of the planetary spaces at the top of their Player Boards, leaving the seventh (the central) space empty. These spaces are known as the Conjunction Track and the planet discs are moved, one space at a time, per turn, towards the central position, gaining you a relic in the colour of the disc moved - Relics are shown in the 0-6 spaces for each sphere.
Players have Spell cards - an 18 card deck - in their colour, and their effects triggered by spending the necessary Relics. A spell may only be cast if an apprentice is in the corresponding spell area. The setup for 2, 3 and 4 players is slightly different as each player is added, all clearly, graphically, shown on page 8 of the Rules book. The main land tile, the Ruined City, is used in each game with the number of surrounding Wilderness, Outpost and Town hex tiles changing accordingly.
Another choice you need to keep in mind is whether it is worth holding onto Relics so you can cast the more expensive Master spells (3 Relics) or manipulating your game as best you can between the single Relic Fundamentals and the 2 Relic cost Advanced. Because of the complex (not complicated) use of magic and depending on the Spell being cast, Relics from more than Sphere can be used - you need to keep this in mind when using relics.
Spells, as you would expect, not only have different effects but also different limits and durations. Lightning Bolt icon spells are one-off and immediate. Left/Right arrow icon means the spell stays in effect until the start of the caster's next turn, and Infinity icon spells are persistent throughout the game.
The rules for the Infinity icon spells are that the effects persist for the rest of the game unless removed when specified conditions are met. At the start of the casting player's next turn the spell refreshes and can be cast again - this isn't clarified but to us it reads that the spell ready but the cost must be paid each time it is cast. However, with Relics being somewhat difficult to obtain and save this makes such a spell extremely expensive.
Mages have MPs (Movement Points) to journey across the land, to explore and to attack when necessary. Mages attack best with well prepared spells. Visiting specific spaces on the map is advantageous. You can gather Relics in Towns, Recruit followers in Camps, Trade Relics for the Initiate Apprentice (space = Race Enclave) etc. In other words plotting your travel is another very important mechanic.
This is a game with so much to remember and so many things you want to do each turn (but cannot do them all) and that for the first couple of games it is likely you will accidentally make one or more of the aforementioned errors. Of course with such complexity often comes a great game. As I say it may take you a couple/few games before its true value begins to shine through for you - then you'll see ARCHMAGE for the gem it is.
With all that is going on it is possible, it happens on rare occasions, that you lose track of the number of Turns each player has left. All players move a Planet disc inwards during the Preparation phase, this is a Turn counting mechanism, but can be accidentally overlooked later in play as your mind is juggling the actions you are planning. Speaking of planning ensure you end your movement in the position best suited for your next action. For example you need to be on your own Mage Tower to advance your spell casting you need to get Initiates onto your playing area (Tower) and you need to Promote them (meld two magic spheres as previously mentioned).
Player's turns may offer a 'Robbing Peter to pay Paul' action - giving up some portion of your turn to cause an irritation to an opponent. You have to weigh up the cost to you against the defecit to the opponent/s.
Area control, management, decision making; these are some of the elements that make up ARCHMAGE. The latter few Rounds can end up being a little repetitive in the 'wash, rinse, repeat' style. This is because earlier actions, exploration for example, have cut down the available options and the game is grinding rather than smoothly sailing to a halt. But by then your plans should be in place so you are now solidifying them and looking to enhance your end of game scoring. It starts like a steam train, picks up speed like an electric train and then hits the brakes and slowly grooves to the buffers.
Online the basic ARCHMAGE can be found for around £44.00. Due to it being limited in production, the Collector's Edition is less available, in fact I could only find it at OnBuy.com where they want £183.32 (free postage). Considering it has no miniatures or metal pieces or anything that looks to be specifically sculpted, this is quite a hefty price. It's a very nice game with some excellent unique mechanics, but a nigh-on £200.00 game it isn't; true but not the best note on which to end this review.
So let me finally add that from start to finish (not including rules reading) it takes up to 120 minutes with 4 players. It is a game which will grace the shelf of any core board gamer. The quick-play sheet allows players to brush up on the game play prior to starting each session but it is a game that requires focus, if not full concentration. I like it!
And the Winner is: . . . . .