Magic Hill is essentially an abstract strategy game with a "tacked on" theme, but enough work has been done to make the theme stick and the result is a very entertaining diversion that can be played as fluff or as a semi-serious strategy game...or anything in between. I wouldn't necessarily bring this out for a serious gaming session, but it's a game I can play with my non-gamer friends, with kids or with anyone looking for some fun with an element of strategy.
In Magic Hill you have several pieces (Goblins) that you move from starting positions (Towns) up various levels of a game board (the Mountain). You move by playing numbered cards in your hand and can climb levels either by climbing on other Goblins (yours or those of other players) or by finding secret passageways. The object of the game is to be the first player to reach the top of the mountain.
A wide range of hidden chits are placed at specific points on each of the rings. When a Goblin lands on one of them it is revealed, it does whatever it does, and then is (usually) turned over again. Chits can be "scary ghosts" that send your Goblin back to a town, secret passageways that let him climb a level or other fun effects. Other squares on the board hold magic stones that increase your hand size by one (you may hold at most two of them).
The level just shy of the top of the mountain has three chits and at least one of them is a secret passage, so if you have a lone Goblin at the top it's still possible to win...if you're willing to risk it.
Players alternate turns. During your turn you move one of your goblins by playing two or three cards from your hand or you may discard any number of cards instead of moving (you will rarely choose this option, but sometimes you really want to move a particular Goblin and don't have the right cards).
Each Goblin has a number (1-5) and all of the cards are similarly numbered (with some Jokers that are wild). The first card you play indicates which Goblin you are moving -- the second (and third, if you choose) card(s) indicate how many spaces you want to have the Goblin move.
Let's say your hand is 1, 4, 4. You could move your "1" Goblin 4 squares or 8 squares in any direction. You could also move your "4" Goblin 1, 3, 4 or 5 squares in any direction -- the 3 coming of course from moving 4 squares in one direction and 1 in the other.
Your starting hand has three cards. Landing on magic stones increases your hand size. At the end of your turn you always draw to your full hand size.
If your Goblin lands on another lone Goblin you are standing on it. Until you move your Goblin, the other Goblin may not move. You are also able to hop up to the next level. If you don't, another Goblin may come along and knock you over!
Play continues until a Goblin reaches the tower at the top level, either by hopping on another Goblin or by finding a secret passage on the level below.
The card moving mechanic is actually quite good. You can rarely do exactly what you'd like but you almost always have a range of decent options, so luck seems to play a role but not an overwhelming one. It's very rare for someone to get frustrated and complain that they don't have any good moves.
The ability to invest in hand size (rather than just working directly to get a Goblin to the top) adds a nice (if not particularly challenging) decision point to the game.
Another aspect of the game that I like (particularly for less serious gamers) is the way you can manage the role luck plays in your turns. You can avoid unknown chits and go for the magic stones to reduce the chance of bad luck or you can deliberately land on chits and see what happens! The fact that there's always at least one secret passage on the semi-final level also means that someone who gets an early lead is rarely guaranteed a win. They have to get two Goblins up and then land one on the other before they can win safely, so anyone else who can run a lone Goblin up can take a 1+ in 3 chance at winning!
A final comment on gameplay -- depending on who I'm playing with, I can take this game as seriously as I like or the situation calls for. With my wife (a non-gamer, alas...this is one of the few she'll play), I just enjoy the ride, move my goblins and hit chits as they come. With more serious opponents I put in the effort to remember hidden chits (can be tricky when the board rotates), make sure I get my magic stones, look out for opportunities to sit on my opponent's goblins and keep mine working together. Most games are (for me, anyway) a lot less fun if I'm not playing at full strength, but Magic Hill is enjoyable either way.
Ravensburger components are always high quality, both in materials and design, and this game is no exception. It would have been easy to use a two-dimensional board, but instead you get a real mountain (OK, hill) with a mystical feel. The pieces are board, not wood, but they are sturdy and the art is nice. The layout is also nicely done, with the result that setup doesn't take long (despite having to put a bunch of chits and magic stones on their squares) and it's easy to see things during play.
This is a fun game that is exactly what it looks like -- a not-too-serious game with a fun theme. I can't wait until my daughters are old enough to play, and I'm very glad to have it in my collection, especially because it's a game I can play with my non-gamer friends that doesn't rime with Ickshunary or similar.
I'm looking to get a fun game for my niece who is turning five. How old are your daughters? Have you tried it out with them yet? Is the strategy beyond a 5-year old?