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Patrick Korner
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Game Review: Fairy Tale
By Patrick Korner

Publisher: Z-Man Games
Designer: Satoshi Nakamura
Artist: Yoko Nachigami
Graphic Designer: Angurira
Players: 2-5
Ages: 10 and up
Playing Time: 30-60 Minutes

Introduction

Very rarely, a game comes along that completely rewrites the rulebook about what a good game can be. A game that spawns its own genre, its own lingo, its own subculture. You can probably think of a few: Scrabble, Dungeons & Dragons to name but two. And, of course, a little card game released by Wizards of the Coast back in 1994: Magic: The Gathering. Magic (MtG) started out as a card game, but quickly became a lifestyle – as well as the inspiration for a veritable torrent of ‘me too’ releases. Since its inception, there are countless cards, countless ways to play, and countless players who hit the local game shop on countless occasions, looking to score another hit of that collectible cardboard crack.

And there’s the rub: collectible. To many, this is a dirty word associated with feverish collecting and an endless drain on finances – hardly the sort of cost-effective fun that most folks (especially parents) hope for! But what if there was a way to capture some of that MtG flair and fun in a non-collectible fashion? Certainly many have tried: Blue Moon and Scarab Lords show that even the great Reiner Knizia has lent his talents to the effort. Well, add another game to the list: Satoshi Nakamura’s Fairy Tale (Yuhodo, 2004 and Z-Man Games, 2005). This Japanese-flavoured game of Fairies and Dragons tries to emulate a popular form of Magic (booster draft) while keeping the card set limited and the cost of entry low. But does it succeed? Is it a legitimate alternative to that MtG experience? Read on and find out!

Components

Note: This review is primarily devoted to the domestic Z-Man edition of the game, not the original Japanese edition. As such, my comments on the components are directed to the Z-Man edition exclusively, and I will only reference the Yuhodo version in passing.

Fairy Tale is a card game, so it’s not surprising that that’s all you get in the box (along with the rules, of course). The cards are a little narrower than ‘standard’ MtG cards (probably more like Yu-Gi-Oh in size, if that means anything to you) and are also considerably narrower than those found in the original Japanese edition. The cards are all black-bordered and, I must say, are the best-quality cards I’ve seen to date from China. They’re linen-finished, glossy, and have that UV coating feel to them that makes them slick and easily shuffled. The usual warnings about shuffling black-bordered cards still apply, though – get too rough and you’ll see white chipping along the edges. This is not a knock against these particular cards – this is something that happens to most black cards after a while, since, short of pile shuffling, it’s very difficult to avoid wear completely. If this is something that matters to you, then it’s easy enough to pick up some card sleeves at your local game shop, although that will mean that the cards likely won’t fit in the box any more (you may wish to bring the cards with you when you go to make sure you get ones that will fit without being too loose, and possibly invest in a deck box to hold them while you’re at it).

The original Japanese edition drew mixed reviews for its cards: the artwork was generally lauded as being very nice (and wonderfully Japanese, a rarity in the Euro/U.S. dominated market), but the graphic design left some people cold. I will get into more detail about the design (as well as what the various symbols and such mean) below, but it’s worth commenting here that Z-Man has taken some steps to rectify these issues: some additional words have been inserted here and there to clarify things, and, most importantly, the names of the matching cards have been added beneath all of the small image thumbnails on the bottom of many cards – thus making it much, much easier to match a picture with a card. The images themselves have also been enlarged slightly, which is another nice touch. Kudos to Zev and the Z-Man crew for getting this right – it’s now a much easier game to play your first time out.

Overall, I can’t find anything important I don’t like about the cards – they’re beautiful to look at, and the functionality has now been improved to the point of being a non-issue. I’d have loved to see the cards stay the same size as the originals, but that’s really getting down to nit-picking level!

Gameplay

Before detailing the gameplay itself, I need to explain a little more about the cards themselves. Each card has several elements to it. At the top, there is a point value, a type (character, home or story represented by person, castle and book icons, respectively), and the faction that it belongs to. There are four factions in the game: Dragonvale (Green), Fairywood (Brown), Holy Empire (Yellow), and Shadow (Black). The first three have card sets that are essentially mirrors of each other, while the Shadow cards are more diverse. The name of each card is printed near its top, while the artwork fills most of the middle. Each picture also has a number shown in a small bubble located at the upper right-hand corner – this is the number of copies of that particular card in the 100-card deck.

Many of the cards also have effects (flip, unflip or hunt) shown along their right-hand side – the effects kick in during gameplay, and I will explain them more shortly. Finally, various cards have additional reminder text / icons along their bottoms – this text typically outlines scoring potential for the card and/or what other cards will help in your scoring attempts. Again, I’ll go into more detail below.

Anyone who’s played Magic before can read the next sentence and have the actual gameplay summed up neatly: It’s a variant of booster draft. Okay, now to explain a little more for the rest of you. Booster draft is a limited-card-pool MtG format in which each player gets 3 unopened packs of cards. Over the course of the draft, the players open these packs, choose cards, and pass the leftovers along around the table. Once all of the cards have been taken, players build their decks (i.e. pick which of the cards they drafted they will play with) and then play a small tourney.

In Fairy Tale, each player is dealt five cards from the deck at the start of each round. The players can look at all of the cards they were dealt and must then choose one to keep (draft). Each player then passes the remaining four cards to his left-hand neighbour (which means he is being passed a set of four cards himself). Choose another card and pass the leftovers. Repeat until all cards have been drafted, which means each player will have a pile of 5 cards he picked out on the table in front of him (face-down, of course – the cards a player drafts are kept secret!). At this point, the draft phase of the round is over and the card playing phase begins.

Each player chooses 1 card, after which they are flipped over simultaneously. Check for card effects (more on those below) and then do it again. Do it one more time, so that each player has 3 cards played out – the remaining cards are discarded and are out of the game.

When a card with an effect is played, then all players affected by the card must choose a legal target (if they can) to be the effect’s target. On some cards, this is the owner of the card, on others it’s everyone. Hunt is always applied first, Unflip second, and Flip last. The effects are quite straightforward: Flip forces cards to be turned face-down (which removes them from scoring consideration), Unflip lets cards get turned face-up again, and Hunt is like a specialized Flip that can only target cards that were played at the same time.

After the first round, re-do the above process 3 more times, alternating the passing direction each time. In other words, pass right during the second round, left during the third and right during the fourth and final round. After the final round, each player counts up the points he scores with his cards – high score wins.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, there’s quite a bit going on. There are a lot of potential combos between cards, and the final score a player has will depend less on the individual strength of the cards he drafted and more on the way they combine. So, time to explain how the scoring works.

Some cards are very simple to score – they have a point value and that’s it. Other cards are a little more complicated and feature either variable or conditional points. Variable points are where the card’s point value depends on how many of another card you managed to play. So, for example, the points that a Dwarven Warrior is worth is 3 x *, where * is the number of Sky-Dance Dragons you have in play. Have none of them and your Warrior is worth nothing; have all 4 Sky-Dancers out and he’s worth 12. The cards with this type of relationship have the reminder icons I mentioned above to make it easy to tell what other card you’re looking for.

Conditional points are only found on the Chapter cards (remember that the other two types are Characters and Homes), and are end-game conditions that must be met for such card to award their points (between 6 and 9). For example, the 6-point Chapter 1 card for Dragonvale is only worth those 6 points if you have the most Dragonvale cards. If someone else has more, then that card is worth 0. Conditional scoring cards also use reminder icons to keep things straight.

Comments

Fairy Tale succeeds very well with its mission: it’s a fun, fast game that is easy to learn and very nicely recreates many of the hallmarks of MtG booster draft. Do you grab a card that you know you will need, or do you hate-draft a card to keep it away from someone else? Timing your Hunts is critical, as the Shadow minions that get Hunted are often nasty little creatures that will throw your careful plans into disarray. Satoshi Nakamura is to be highly commended, as this is really the first limited drafting game I’ve ever played that’s faithful to what it’s trying to copy. It is, of course, no accident that Nakamura is an accomplished Magic player who has been spotted on that game’s professional circuit.

To add more fun to the mix, it’s possible to play Fairy Tale as a team game (two teams of two) where the points for each side are totaled and the winning team is the team with the higher score – now watch the drafting decisions get agonizing! Do you hope your partner will notice the card you left for him, or will it get stolen beforehand? Do you draft the card that helps you best, or do you try and help the cards your partner’s played along? All sorts of interesting tactical options – and even more if you play with the variant suggested by none other than Richard Garfield (the inventor of Magic) himself: Each Shadow card has an extra effect on it called Exchange. Exchange means you take one of your cards and one of your partner’s cards and switch them out, so you can now play a Shadow card and use it to pass a card to your partner that helps him out more than it does you. Very cool idea that adds new tactical options to the game.

Honestly, I can’t think of anything I don’t like about this game. With experienced players, it’s a 20 minute game with all the tension and decision-making that go along with booster draft in Magic – and that’s no mean feat. The game lasts just long enough to be satisfying while not overstaying its welcome, which is also not something which is easy for a designer to accomplish. This is my favourite filler game, beating out even my beloved For Sale, and I don’t think I’ve ever turned down a game yet.

Conclusions

This is, in my opinion, one of the best card games to come along in the past 5 years. It’s fast and fun and doesn’t cost anywhere near as much as Magic does. I’m very pleased that Z-Man saw fit to publish this gem, as its status as a hard-to-get Japanese import would have otherwise made sure that few gamers got a chance to give it a whirl. I’m interested to see what kind of inroads Fairy Tale makes with the hardcore MtG crowd; provided that the game gets exposure in the types of stores that the Magic players frequent, I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t get noticed, played and enjoyed – and nothing like a nice cross-over game to attract the Magic crowd to board games, right?

I would recommend this game to anyone, period. It’s rare that I’m this taken by a game, but Fairy Tale is easily one of the most elegant and engaging designs I’ve seen. Do yourself a favour – pick it up and see for yourself! It’s a whole lot cheaper than the alternatives…

Scores

(Out of Five)
Components: *****
Balance: *****
Fun Factor: *****
Replayability: *****
Duration: *****
Overall Rating: *****
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Hilary Hartman
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Good review, Patrick!

I had one problem with the game, and you touched on it briefly:

Quote:
Some cards are very simple to score – they have a point value and that’s it. Other cards are a little more complicated and feature either variable or conditional points.


I found the scoring system inadequately explained in the rules. It took more than a few plays and a lot of head-scratching before my wife and I understood the gist of adding up the score at the end of the game. The scoring examples given at the end of the "Basic" game should have included an overall example of scoring, as well.

Also, the theme seems pretty tacked on to the game. It could have been anything, really, as there was no story and the theme really didn't add to the game itself.
 
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Richard Glassco
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Like Hilary, I was disappointed that the "theme" has no effect on the game. The game is completely abstract and there's nothing "Fairy Tale" about it.
I was also disappointed that the three non-black suits are functionally identical. That makes the game easier to learn, I suppose, but less interesting.
A final nitpick: Ther text on the bottom of some cards naming other cards that interact with it is often light-on-light, making it difficult to read.
 
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Patrick Korner
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Ocssalg wrote:
Like Hilary, I was disappointed that the "theme" has no effect on the game. The game is completely abstract and there's nothing "Fairy Tale" about it.
I was also disappointed that the three non-black suits are functionally identical. That makes the game easier to learn, I suppose, but less interesting.
A final nitpick: Ther text on the bottom of some cards naming other cards that interact with it is often light-on-light, making it difficult to read.


Thanks for the comments. I agree that there isn't much theme - but I tend to give filler-style games more of a free pass in that regard since so many of them are themeless. High Society, For Sale, Coloretto, Geschenkt, Fairy Tale - if anything Fairy Tale comes off looking good because of the more impressive artwork.

You're correct that some of the text is light-on-light, but considering the fact that the original edition had smaller icons completely devoid of text, I feel Z-Man went in the right direction. In play, I can't say I had any legibility issues, but it's certainly true that others may feel differently.

pk
 
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Lisa Z
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I am relatively new to gaming, but I LOVE Fairy Tale. I found it easy to learn, fast paced, and engaging. I like it so much, I even devised a solataire version for myself when no one else wants to play! Although the theming isn't integral to the gameplay, the artwork is great. QUESTION: Is there an element of story construction that can be worked into the game? The product description seems to hint at this...
 
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Jaffet Chacon
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there are some underlying themes to the story behind fairy tale. if you read the chapter cards, you can understand a bit of whats going on in the world of Fairy Tale.

I as well as my wife enjoyed this game very much. we are still playing the basic version (no chapter cards) so she can play. Its an extremely simple game for her, that requires just enough complexity that we dont lose her. She playes Ascension, Ticket to ride, Anima Tactics, and puzzle strike, so adding 1 more game to her list of games she can play with me is a plus.

This is a great side game game to play while waiting for rounds to start during tournaments or if your at a con a good lunch break game.

 
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