I want to start this review by setting a scene. It’s a Tuesday morning and I’m off work considering which game I will review next, but nothing is jumping out at me. I pick up the phone and ask my editor to find me a new game, but he tells me it will be a week or two until it gets here: sad times. That afternoon I get a knock on the door and see a courier van outside, and the driver is holding a rather large box. Thinking it’s for next door, I take the parcel inside only to find my name on the label alongside a games distributor. Now, this isn’t such an unusual thing as I receive a lot of games (my wife shakes her head as we speak), usually though I know the game is coming. This one, however, was a surprise. As I open the box, I immediately recognise the game inside as one that I followed on Kickstarter last year, watching prototype previews and keeping an eye on the campaign. I was delighted when the game didn’t just scrape its funding goal but bewitched its backers enough to smash it! A game of spells, demons, fire, and one that even takes you to an outer dimension. This is Gregory Carslaw’s magical story based, cooperative tabletop, Wizard’s Academy. Let’s find out if it will cast its shadow over the tabletop world or be an illusion condemned to the Cursed Room.
The Academy is under attack from a number of threats with its Apprentices charged to counter these threats and protect the Mana Crystal from the destruction that surrounds it. To achieve this, players must cast spells, create magical items, and defeat dark creatures who have infiltrated the Academy.
The theme of Wizard’s Academy is obviously magical fantasy, but for me the first plus point of the game is that this isn’t done in a bright, pink, & fluffy way which a lot of its predecessors have done with their cartoon characters and cute monsters. The initial look and feel of Wizard’s Academy is dark and serious, which can be seen immediately in the box art with its sunless background behind several magnificent looking characters standing in defence and defiance in front of the Academy. The character art is credited to Sean Andrew Murray who has achieved a really unique feel for each one; they complement the game superbly well and would certainly capture your attention if sat in a shop window. The box also has its own plastic inlay which is ideal for the components, a very nice touch.
The room tiles, which we will talk more about later, continue this dark, almost spooky theme with the artist Ludwin Schouten perfectly creating the sense of traversing through an ancient, magical monastery.
When preview material was first released on Wizard’s Academy, the prototype featured tokens for all the characters and monsters, so when the Kickstarter campaign was released, I was thrilled to discover that these tokens would be replaced with custom sculpted miniatures which are always more enjoyable than moving cardboard around the table. If you kill a demon, you want to remove a demon, not a token. Yes, Fantasy Flight, I am looking at you! The miniatures credited to Justin Bintz and Andre Ferwerda are of decent quality but are certainly not up to the level of detail of the more established miniature board games such as Descent or Blood Rage. The material used is also somewhat soft, resulting in some of the models bending at the weaker points such as the legs.
There are two game boards provided, both of which are good quality folding boards. The Academy board provides the base for the room tiles, so it is understandably devoid of artwork. The spell grid game board, however, is completely the opposite and shows a daunting Academy standing in contempt of an intimidating mountain background and broody grey sky. The spell grid is set out in an intelligent fashion meaning set up and use is extremely easy. The glyph icons that border two sides provide a bright vibrant colour to off-set the general feel of the game. That idea of adding colour continues with the glyph and threat tokens which are all extremely well manufactured and really stand out when set on the game board.
Players are provided with seven character cards that have a picture and quote of that character, as well as what School of magic they belong to, their Special Ability, of which each character has their own, and places to share glyphs or build magical items. On the back of the card is a handy cheat sheet providing information on turn sequence, actions, interactions, and threats, among others.
Whilst the rest of the components have unique artwork to make them stand out from one another, the game’s cards are the opposite, having been left quite plain with all 142 cards bearing the same background with little art or colour overlay. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the cards are well constructed and provide the player with all the relevant information required, but I feel there is just something missing that could have been added to the theme of the game.
You are provided with two booklets, the first being a Core Rule Book which explains the game, its components, and mechanics using clear and concise text as well as artwork, diagrams, and nice little sub-stories or quotes that help with the story and serve to lighten the mood of the game.
The second is the Grimoire, meaning Sacred Book or Spell Book (it’s thematic touches like this which I feel could have improved the cards). The Grimoire provides you with more specific information, such as the way the threats interact with the creatures or how individual spells effect gameplay. During the game, players will refer to this on a regular basis, especially the first few times you play. The Grimoire also supplies the game scenarios which will set the scene, tell players which components to use, give victory conditions, and even offer the players an easy and hard mode of play. There are ten scenarios (eleven including the quick start rules), all of which have two modes of play. Add the seven characters and the randomness of the room tile placement, disaster cards, spell cards and location cards, and you’ve got the recipe for a game with massive replay value.
We have discussed the theme, artwork, and the components in depth, and for the most part I have been extremely impressed with what I have found so far. Let’s find out how all these features fit together to create the most important aspect in board gaming: how the game actually plays.
As I have said, Wizard’s Academy has an element of story based play to it, so I will not go into a great deal of depth regarding the scenarios. But we will discuss basic set-up and walk through the turn sequence.
Once players have chosen a character (rules state at random, but we all know that doesn’t happen), then the seventeen room tiles are shuffled together, rotated, and placed randomly on the Academy board while leaving the outer dimension tile to one side. Players will then connect adjoining room tiles using corridor tokens that will allow their characters to move from one room to another. As this is a modular based system, this room and corridor placement will alter from game to game as some tiles may have two entrances and others three or four. Players will now draw location cards to decide where glyph sources are before placing threats and guardians onto the board (bear with me, explanations will follow).
Spells are levelled from 1-4 with each level of spell shuffled and placed randomly, face down on the spell board. Some of the spells have to be found and used to win the game, others are there to have adverse effects creating new challenges for the players, and these are called botched spells.
Players will then create a Disaster deck which ‘interfere with players’ plans by introducing new threats or intensifying existing ones’ (quote from the rule book).
Each scenario will state the number of mana crystals that will be placed on the mana crystal room tile. The mana crystal is the heartbeat of the Academy and will protect it as well as the apprentices by expending mana to save them from threats. Mana, however, is not unlimited, and once exhausted the game is lost. Your apprentice wizards are also placed on the mana crystal, and then it’s time to begin.
On a player’s turn, the first thing that they must do is play a Disaster card which may have a number of consequences including the opening of portals or limiting their character’s movement options. Once this is resolved, the player will draw another disaster card ready for the next round of play.
Players will then perform a Move Action, a Room Action, and a Magic Action. These can be done in any order, and there are ways in which you can perform two of one action per round. A move action is obvious; it allows players to move between rooms using corridors in order to find glyphs, deal with threats, etc.
The majority of the room tiles have text written on them that allow players to build magical items such as robes, wands, and staves, as well as allowing them to move creatures or boost spells. Some rooms will be a source for glyphs which act as a kind of currency that allows players to cast spells and pay for magical items. To gain these, players will need to use a room action.
The last type of action available is a Magic Action which allows players to cast spells. Spells can cause damage to creatures, teleport characters to other rooms, or raise Guardians who help protect the Academy from creatures and unruly apprentice wizards alike. The usual way for a player to cast a spell is to choose two glyphs in their collection, trace a line between the glyph representations on the spell board, and flip over the spell card. Regardless of what is written on the card, whether it has good or bad effects, the player must resolve that spell and place the card face down in its original position on the spell board. There are ways to boost spells, either by turning a negative into a positive or increasing the power of the spell depending on the school of magic which your character belongs to or which room that character is standing in.
Players can also bind spells by visiting the library and memorising the name of the spells used, allowing players to reveal those spells for the rest of the game. Binding spells, however, does come at a risk. If players fail to guess correctly the location or name of the spell, then mana is lost and players move one step closer to losing the game.
Once a player has used their three actions, it is time to endure threats which could include ending your turn in a room of ice or in a room containing a creature or other dangers. All have consequences that could risk the Academy’s precious mana.
The last thing a player could do on their turn is share a glyph, this means placing one of your glyphs in a box on your character sheet which will allow other players to use them during their turn.
Players will continue in this way until they have either achieved the victory condition (this will change depending on the scenario), burnt through a set number of disaster cards, or lost all of the Academy’s mana.
That is a brief walkthrough of a player’s turn, but there are so many aspects of the game that I have only touched upon or even forgotten to mention, such as fire spreading through the Academy, rooms flooding, or rooms becoming haunted and so on. The magical items as mentioned above give characters an extra special ability throughout the game such as being immune to a certain type of threat.
The game box states that Wizard’s Academy is a 2-6 player game, but it can easily be played by a single player, although it is nowhere near as fun. I have found that playing with three people is a far more satisfying way to play as each player can control two characters. A game will take between an hour and a half to three hours, although sometimes a heavy loss will come much sooner. A lot of the scenarios are progressive, meaning that the threat might be slow at first, but once it gets a head of steam players will find themselves firefighting for the rest of the game.
I love the look of Wizard’s Academy with its dark, sombre backgrounds brightened with vivid tokens that complement each other perfectly. The surprising thing for me was that the feel of the game completely changes when you start to play it. That dark, serious tone soon becomes a fun, interactive experience which will get players involved very quickly. Players will stay focused and tuned in throughout what is a very challenging cooperative board game.
I mentioned some of the deficiencies of the miniatures, but don’t let that put you off, they enhance the game and do not detract from it.
One thing that jumps out at me when reviewing Wizard’s Academy is that Carslaw and 3DTotal Games have not cut corners to keep costs down. Evidence to back this up comes in the way of the Corridor Pieces that join the room tiles to one another. They serve no real purpose in the game, but they do allow players to immediately identify which room connects with another. This may sound small, but it improves and speeds up gameplay. The game also provides plastic bags for separating and storing all of the components of which there are over 300. Another classy touch by 3DTotal Games that some of the bigger boys could learn from.
Try Wizard’s Academy yourself by visiting HERE
Designer: Gregory Carslaw
Artists: Sean Andrew Murray & Ludwin Schouten
Publisher: 3DTotal Games