A review of Magic Realm

by Eric Goldberg

A wargame company whose market shares are being eroded by some newly prominent part of the field it has not yet covered operates in a manner similar to a mythical feudal kingdom being ravaged by a fearsome beast. The Kingdom sends forth its champions to dispatch the monster, while the wargame company charges a designer with the task of delivering a game to meet the challenge. Some otherwise eminently qualified designers can succumb to the pressures of producing a flagship release, or a skilled individual can finish a game worthy of a niche in the marketplace.

Last year’s monster for Avalon Hill, the first and largest wargame company, was fantasy boardgaming. Other companies had already hastened to respond to Greg Stafford’s White Bear and Red Moon, leaving Avalon Hill no choice but to run the gauntlet itself. Good Sir Richard Hamblen became the first champion of that company, inventing the game of the Magic Realm.

Each player becomes one of sixteen fantasy protagonists, traipsing through all that remains of a once mighty kingdom. A vast forest has obscured the site of past glories, but there still exist long-forgotten riches, which have survived the depredations of time. The forest is now but thinly populated by humans, though monsters roam the countryside. Needless to say, the monsters do not take well to the intrusion of adventurers and will kill those they may.

The topography of Magic Realm is described by twenty large hexagonal tiles. Each tile is identified by a legend corresponding to its most salient feature, ranging from the innocuous Maple Woods and Borderland to the Bad and Awful Valleys (obviously not recommended by local tour guides) to the Nut Woods (every society restricts its mentally unhinged to an obscure corner of the land). A tile contains between two and six clearings, which are connected by various paths. The paths also run off the edge of all tiles, so that transit may be effected between clearings on separate tiles. The scheme of paths within a tile varies from its enchanted side to its green face.

The counters represent, among other things, all the living beings in the Realm. Each monster and native has its own counter, with no more than three pieces of information on a piece. An illustration of the monster or native enhances the look of the counter face. Other than a few references to standard wargame terminology – for instance, native leaders are coded “HQ” (headquarters) – these components are clearly intended for a fantasy game system, not an adaptation of a historical system with magical trappings. Dwellings use the largest sized counters. There are three separate sizes of counter, to denote either the importance of the counter or the size of the monster it represents. A group of “Warning” counters describe aural, olfactory and visual phenomena (e.g., Stink, Smoke, etc.) which alert characters to the presence of monsters and/or treasure locations. These are often used in conjunction with location counters (e.g., Cairns, Lost City, etc.). The rest of the counters are devoted to the characters. The position of a character on the map tiles is marked by his “Attention” counter, which displays that character’s symbol. Individual pieces of armor worn by a character also rate separate counters. Finally, the actions a character will perform in combat are printed on several counters also marked with his corresponding symbol.

No fantasy game is complete without magic spells. Each spell is described on a card and elaborated upon within the rules. Magic items, those handy tools of the wayfarer, are described on cards, which are held by the owning character’s player. The remaining few cards name the best treasure locations, which may include grisly surprises, such as the Remains of a Thief or a Mouldy Skeleton. The hardboiled players will probably be more worried about the accompanying curse than the reason for the unfortunate’s demise. All of these cards and the monsters are keyed to the Warning and Location counters by a well-organized Treasure Set-Up Card. Regrettably, this card is the only readily understandable part of the game.

Since a player controls only one character when the game starts, much of the support material is geared to the actions of that character and his acquisitions. Character cards, those hoary stand-bys of fantasy boardgames, include full-color pictures of the characters. The number of artists employed in the renderings of the characters ensures a variety of styles and competencies. If the subjects of the portraits were not fictional, some would sue for defamation of character while others, unwilling to take such a drastic step, would gripe about the preferential treatment given their peers. The backs of the cards detail the meaning of the character symbol, the special “advantages” for that character (though some are disabilities), the levels of development through which the character progresses, and the character’s standing vis a vis the inhabitants of the Magic Realm. Every player in a multi-player game starts with the depressing thought that his character has already made enemies.

The character cards describe the character’s accomplishments before the player assumes his role, while the Personal History Pad becomes a written record of the character’s performance during play of the game. Magic Realm is a simultaneous movement game; i.e., players must record the activities they wish their characters to undertake, and then execute the activities at the same time. This mechanic hampers play in all but the simplest of wargames (e.g., Diplomacy), while the product at hand is assuredly complex. The choice of simultaneous movement is doubly unfortunate because it was not necessary; the game could have used a sequential execution of phases, with each player, in turn performing the activity of one phase for his character. The Personal History Pad is also used to record all goals achieved by the character, his victory conditions and his spells, and serves as a combat display on the reverse side.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the Age of Invention in America. Rapid strides forward in the arts and sciences created a wholly new technology and introduced many diverse art forms. No society could endure such upheaval in social dynamics and remain stable, and so in reaction came the Age of Imitation: the saleable product no longer necessarily belonged to the original inventor, but rather to the person or firm that refined the product properly. Charlie’s Angels, for example, was not the first action-combined-with-sex-objects show to appear on television, but it did modify the formula to have an especially wide appeal.

The design of Magic Realm tries to be all things to all people, and fails by being far too ambitious. It smacks of the Age of Invention in that there are many original concepts embodied in the mechanics of the game, but it also belongs to the Age of Imitation in that it seeks to improve upon fantasy boardgames and at the same time, the popular fantasy role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons. If the design had been given a narrower focus, the game could have achieved success within a particular category. As it is now, the game falls apart when it attempts to integrate innovation, fantasy boardgaming and role-playing.

A guided tour of the components, which promises a great game, reveals much of this flaw. The character cards devote a considerable amount of space to the various levels of the characters. An optional rule allows a player to reduce his character’s level from fourth (best) and thus cause a corresponding reduction of the goals required to achieve victory. This concept works well in fantasy role-playing, but in Iessening a character’s ability to perform activities, it disproportionately weakens that character’s chance of survival during play. The Search Tables, which must be consulted to find other characters and treasure, are used in conjunction with a die-roll but weighted towards high numbers. The problem is that several results may occur on these tables, but there is no guarantee that the result will have relevancy to the character’s activity. A character could, for instance, be prevented from discovering another character lying in wait by “good” die-rolls. The game system does try to correct the perversity of resolving these particular activities by letting players use one of several search tables, which alleviates the snag somewhat. Whereas a character is controlled by his player in the other game activities, the search procedure is a completely random method for having the character act. The proliferation of such inconsistencies mars the solid design concepts.

The rules writing also indicates that something is amiss with Magic Realm. The rules are explained in a rambling style, making comprehension extremely difficult. Almost every cardinal sin of rules writing is committed within any given four-page span. There are direct contradictions in succeeding cases, loopholes through which a Mack truck can be driven, and vague phrasing where precision is required. Discovering a particular rule is often an adventure in itself; the absence of an index or the burial of an important rule in a mass of type will frustrate those players who insist on double-checking that a game is being played as written. The butchery of the English language, one of the favorites of the author, is almost incidental in this morass of misinformation.

The above diatribe notwithstanding, the structure of the rules does aid in the assimilation of the design ideas. The rules are presented in seven encounters, with each adventure introducing new rules to play. This variation of the Programmed Instruction rules format, usually ignored by veteran gamers, is necessary for those who do not wish to re-write the rules in personalized note form.

The first encounter gives very little indication of what is to come. The characters simply explore the Magic Realm. Some basic concepts are introduced which will carry through the seventh adventure, if the players get that far. The hex tiles are distributed evenly among the players, and the Borderland tile is placed in the middle of the playing area. Each player connects one tile to those already in play, one at a time until all tiles are in position. This unique procedure virtually guarantees a different “map” each time a game is commenced. All character actions, other than movement, occur within the clearings; nothing may affect a character whilst he moves along a path. The Warning counters are used to signal the presence of various dwellings; the players become familiar with using these counters to bring monster and dwelling counters into play.

The first encounter is a diceless race game. The first character to visit all of the dwellings and return to the Inn (from which all characters started) is the winner. The locations of most of these dwellings are known, so it is largely a matter of strategy to determine the winner. There is some luck when a character discovers one of the hidden dwellings before the others do. However, a character may be blocked from moving along a certain path, so an overly fortuitous adventurer will be stalemated by his opponents until parity can be restored. This scenario is worth one play; it is, as mentioned previously, mandatory for comprehension of the ensuing scenarios, but becomes predictable once it is figured out.

The second encounter introduces battle – along with a rude shock for those who thought the game would be eminently playable. The combat system is diceless, depending instead upon the striking power of the attacker’s weapon, the maneuvers employed by the characters, and the vulnerability of the defending character. The maneuver used by attacker or defender affects combat; if the blow by the attacking character is not faster than the defense of the defending character, there is no damage. Since a character can only sustain one blow if he has no armor, and up to three if he does, combat is short and deadly. After a few games, a player will know whether his character can win or lose a battle against another character. Though victory is not based on killing other characters (but a character must survive to win), the strongest character can almost certainly kill at least two of his competitors before he has to worry about a fourth player winning the game. Technically, the strongest character can prevent all characters from leaving the Inn (where play begins), and kill them all, but only the worst rules-stickler will insist upon this short and boring version of the game.

The game balance problem caused by the combat rules beclouds the entire game. Quite simply, certain characters are better than others, and one character will be best, depending on which scenario is being played. Most people who play such games do care who wins, and thus the game’s value becomes minimal because the winner can be predicted very soon after the start of play (it remains to be seen whether most of the characters gang up against the strongest). The other problems pale by comparison to this imbalance, but it is interesting to note that a character being struck by a melee weapon can continue to fire a missile weapon.

The introduction of monsters in the third encounter exacerbates the imbalance. The strongest character no longer has the boring task of hounding the other characters to their death. Instead, he can go and hunt the monsters he must kill in order to win. Since the stronger character can kill more dangerous monsters, which are pro-rated by their difficulty in dispatching, he can end the game efficiently and early. Unlike characters, the maneuver of a monster is predetermined, which makes the outcome of combat relatively easy to predict.

Fantasy boardgame rationales maintain that characters lust for booty, and Magic Realm is no exception. The fourth encounter brings in treasure. The characters now may concentrate on something besides killing one another or fleeing from a powerful foe. A weaker character can use these treasures to defend himself from his nemesis, if he is fortunate enough to own a defensive item. Treasures are distributed randomly, and are not known to any player until found.

The fifth encounter is probably the most playable of all. The natives, which have been alluded to throughout the previous rules, may now be hired by the characters. This strengthens the position of the weaker characters, in that they can gain cannon fodder to place between them and the stronger characters. However, the odds are that the stronger characters can gain money and thus hire natives at a quicker clip. The players should follow the rules in this section very carefully, for there are some peculiar twists that require interpretation before the start of play.

Magic rears its lovely head in the sixth encounter (the seventh encounter contains some interesting “chrome” rules). The tile in which a spell is to be cast must be enchanted (flipped over) and the color of the magic in the tile must match that of the spell to be cast. On the positive side, the balance of power changes significantly as some of the magic-users can now wield their might at full strength. The spells themselves are poorly defined, and introduce a new caste system. The Berserker, for instance, one of the better characters in earlier play, is eclipsed by the Witch-King, who can “Absorb Essence” (take possession) of, say, a Tremendous Flying Dragon or a Demon (arguably the two best monsters). The spells require considerable tinkering before they can be smoothly integrated into the game system.

For all its faults, Magic Realm contains a wealth of excellent ideas. If the game had been realistically planned and well executed, it would have been one of the best fantasy boardgames ever produced. Unfortunately, the lofty goals set for the game caused it to fall flat on its face. The design remains like the legendary Don Quixote: forever tilting at windmills.