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Wizard School! Finally. I don’t know many people who wouldn’t want to go to wizard school, especially one as bright and colorful as the Academy of Magic and Sciences. Arcane Academy is an almost gateway weight game but it’s one I can’t stop playing. Magic flies through the air and mystic items buzz to life in this combo building game of tiles and card play.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I like combo building games. One of the reasons I like it so much is that building and pulling off combos makes you feel smart. That’s a great thing and it’s an especially great thing if that game is about a wizard school. Arcane Academy is one of those games. Tiles chain off cards which combo into other cards and transform your simple early board into an interlinked marvel of magic. Opportunities are everywhere, even when you aren’t doing super well. While surely there are people out there who appreciate a punishing game, I am not one of them. Arcane Academy is fun to play even while you’re losing and that isn’t something many games can say.
Arcane Academy begins as a game of micro-actions. Your player board is populated with some default tiles printed on them that don’t particularly do a lot on their own. One space allows you to gain only a single resource, either Will or 1 red plastic Crystal. Another gives you the option of playing a Lesson card – spells and items – or activating an item. Like 1st Year mage, you begin the game wide-eyed and full of possibility though rather ineffective at doing anything magical. Luckily, you learn quick.
Items and Spells grant points and special abilities.
The first skill an aspiring wizard needs to learn is to add new tiles to your board as quickly as possible. A market dominates the center of the playing area; in it are 4 public Lessons (cards) and 4 public tiles. There is no additional cost to the tiles besides taking the tile laying action. These tiles can be claimed by using one of the default actions, and doesn’t cost any additional resources no matter how powerful the tile. This lack of additional cost is noted and appreciated; it keeps the game streamlined. Arcane Academy gets great when you’re running your engine smoothly and the ease by which you gain tiles helps move quickly into that excellent phase. In addition to providing more (up to 4!) resources, many of these tiles have multiple actions printed on them. Shazam!
Additionally, most of these tiles have little half circles printed around their edges. If two tiles are placed with these half circles adjacent and completing a link, they can be chained together. Upon activating (and exhausting) a single tile, all adjacent tiles linked together can be activated for free. More importantly, chained tiles don’t exhaust. This means that late in the game a single turn may consist of up to 5 actions! Quite powerful and it adds to the feeling that you, as a magic student, are getting better at your courses.
Cards help feed these actions by generating resources or triggering off of board actions. Many items have an ability you can activate with a tile, and others trigger automatically. You’ll have your nose buried in your cards and board as if it was an ancient tome of spells, looking up only to smile and execute a 3 or 4 move action that surprises even you. Spells, items, and abilities fly around the board as everyone casts spells that interact with their items, activate items that boost their spells, and continue building out their tile board.
Activating the Card symbol in the middle would allow you to activate all 4 tiles connected to it!
The game never feels one note. While building an impressive engine of resources and tiles is often a winning strategy, it doesn’t always have to be. Each player has a hand of three secret private lessons that will inform early strategy as much as the public market or any general strategies. I’ve seen players win with piles of points gained off the back of a full board of tiles. I’ve also seen rapid wins accomplished with a board of only 3 purple Chaos tiles. The game ends after someone completes 8 lessons, either spells or items. A pile of low-point cards completed one after another will end the game just as surely as high cost cards that took a while to play. It’s important to monitor what your opponents are doing so that the game doesn’t end before you can get your engine going.
Tension is woven throughout Arcane Academy. From hoping the tiles and cards you want are still there on your turn to monitoring everyone’s strategies and tempos, you’re engaged the entire game. I can recommend this game to just about everyone and, more importantly, play it with just about any group as well. It’s simply a joy to play.
This review was originally posted on Ding & Dent! A list of my reviews that you can subscribe to can be found here.
For those who like podcasts, I discussed it on Episode 29 of the Ding & Dent podcast.