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Game Preview: Witchstone, or Experience the Magical Transformation of Two Designers into a Third

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Witchstone
At the end of March 2021, I posted a round-up of new games from designer Reiner Knizia that included Witchstone, a title from German publisher HUCH! with co-design by Martino Chiacchiera, making this one of only two Knizia co-designs that I know.

I've now played the game three times on a review copy from U.S. licensee R&R Games, and I've updated the basic description of the game, which I'll repeat here:
Quote:
Each player in the game has a personal cauldron that bears seven crystals and six pre-printed magic icons, and they share a larger game board that features a crystal ball that shows the entire landscape. Each player has a set of fifteen domino tiles, with each half of the domino being a hexagon; each domino depicts two different magic icons from the six used in the game.

On a turn, you place one of the five face-up dominos in your reserve onto your cauldron, then you take the action associated with each icon depicted on that domino; if the icon is adjacent to other dominos showing the same icon (or the matching pre-printed icon), then you can take that action as many times as the number of icons in that cluster. You must complete the first type of action completely before taking the second action. With these actions, you can:

• Use energy to connect your starting tower to other locations on the game board, scoring 1, 3 or 6 points depending on the length of the connection.
• Place witches next to your starting tower on the game board or move them across your energy network to other locations. As you do this, you gain points and possibly additional actions to use the same turn.
• Move your token around a pentagram to collect points and to acquire bonus hex tiles; you can use these tiles immediately for actions or place them in your cauldron to make future tile placement more valuable.

Board Game: Witchstone
Pack those tiles tight

• Move the crystals in your cauldron, whether to make room for future tile placement or to gain bonus actions by ejecting the crystal completely.
• Advance on a magic wand to gain points and take additional actions, with the actions being doubled should you currently be the most advanced player on the wand.
• Claim scroll cards that boost future actions or earn you bonus points at game's end depending on how well you've completed the prophecy depicted.

After each player has completed eleven turns — which could equal 40-60 actions depending on how well you've used your cauldron — the game ends and players tally their points from prophecies and other collected scoring markers to see who has the highest score.
If you saw my earlier post, you might have noticed that I left off the start of the description that gives a thematic setting because in practice the thematic setting is pure window dressing. The game "world" is purely one of placing tiles on a personal game board so that you can then take actions on a larger shared board, with the images of witches, wands, pentagrams, and so forth being no more than decorative.

I'm fine with such absences, though, because Witchstone delivers what I am looking for in games: challenging choices that bring you into conflict with other players. The conflict, in this case, involves competition for energy paths, for bonus actions, for point tiles, for other bonus actions, for prophecy scrolls, and for still more bonus actions.

Board Game: Witchstone

Witchstone feels very much like a Stefan Feld design, specifically 2020's Bonfire (which I covered in October 2020) because that game also has you placing tiles in a personal space — ideally generating multiple actions with each placement — so that you can then do stuff on a larger shared board and compete for tiles, cards, bonuses, and so on.

Given the publication dates of these titles, clearly Witchstone and Bonfire were designed independently, but the similarities are surprising. What differs about the games is that in Bonfire you collect target tiles and you must go through a lot of steps to score those tiles — assembling a path, opening gates, moving the guardians, and actually doing what's required on the targets — typically in a game-ending push of actions whereas in Witchstone you pick up points here, there, and everywhere, with the scrolls scoring automatically at the end of play and with the game being more about trying to multiply actions like rabbits in a magic act.

Board Game: Witchstone
Setting up my final four tile placements — unless I draw something better

My games of Witchstone have been with three and four players, and as is often the case with such designs, players generally did far better in their second and third games compared to their first. You have a sense for how the cauldron tiles might better fit together to generate more actions and which actions you want to take before which other actions and whether an opponent can do the thing that you want to do before you can so that you can build a back-up plan. In the first game, you do stuff to see what happens; from the second game on, you do stuff because you know what will happen.

More thoughts on the game in this overview video:

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