Monday, March 26, 2007

Magic Realm Part one - Why?

Following up on my theme of games that promote obsession1, I am left to recount the past two months2 of time spent with an old Avalon Hill flatbox. This flatbox happens to be Magic Realm.

I've broken my thoughts into two parts - this one covers why I remain interested in this game, and why i spent two months learning how to play (again note, that is learning -how- to play. Not actually playing.)

Awe-inspiring is the third edition rulebook. Over 100 pages (including index and reference sheets), this tome will consume not only your printer, but your mind. I spent at least a week pouring over the rules, trying to give myself a solid foundation in the rules. While I eventually succeeded, I am still incapable of finding the answer to a question quickly. The index is not as stellar as it needs to be.

So, why should anyone bother with Magic Realm now4?

Magic Realm is one of the first adventure boardgames release in the late 70s. It took on an Epic status early, primarily due to the incomprehensible first edition rulebook, later redone in a 50% better version known as second edition. The seventies had seen the rise of Dungeons and Dragons, and Magic Realm was Avalon Hill's response for a complex fantasy themed game. As a historical period piece, it is very interesting. But that's probably not enough to convince you to plow through a 100 page rulebook and then coerce your friends into a game.

Magic Realm has several features that are noticeably absent from most other adventure boardgames.

1) It has a wide range of truly different characters to play. Characters can be divided into four general groups - light armor, heavy armor, light magic, and heavy magic. While each character demands different approaches to the game, the differences between the general groups is particularly dramatic.
This is a strong contrast with games that followed. Most other games have only superficial differences between the characters, and each player will follow a very similar path towards the end of the game.

2) Cooperation and Conflict between players is open-ended. Players can cooperate to their mutual benefit, or choose to go on a spree of player killing. There are no game mechanics that enforce cooperation or conflict (like newcomers Descent or World of Warcraft), but the game system supports choice in player interactions.

3) Combat has a strong Deterministic component5. In most adventure games combat is directly tied to a die roll. In Magic Realm, depending on your character, you can predict the exact outcomes of a one-on-one fight prior to the encounter. For example, the swordsman (thief-type) can automatically run away from almost any enemy, but successfully kill very few.

4) As much detail is placed on Civilization as the Wilderness. In addition to the requisite wilderness filled with beasties and treasure, there are 'dwellings' and
'native groups', or factions of knights, rogues, wandering mercenaries and more. Players can attempt to hire or fight these Civilized enemies. Some of the characters are actually best utilized to fight natives, not monsters!

5) Extensive Magic system. Lots of spells, and a system of casting rituals, colored mana and more. A level of detail that you would expect out of an RPG, not a boardgame.

6) Random setup A full set of hex tiles and a slightly complex setup that allows for the semi-random distribution of monsters and locations. Good stuff, promising extended replayability. This is probably the least unique feature, with mention going out to Return of the Heroes for a similar concept.


If all these ideas have intrigues you, let's tease you some more. Here are what I consider the big myths of Magic Realm.

1) The game (or Setup) takes forever. Certainly not true for multiple playings, what really takes forever is the first person learning the rules. Gameplay itself moves at a good clip. Setup is complex, but is comparable to setting up all the different card decks in a game of FFG's Arkham Horror. However, compared to a modern boardgame, this game is not playable 15 minutes after the box is opened. I believe that this myth comes about from people attempting to sit down and play Magic Realm with only a passing familiarity with the game, or none at all. I have never successfully consulted the rulebook in under two minutes. In total, the two fully face-to-face games I played both ended after about 3 hours (including setup and rules)

2) The game is Hard. Actually, the game is easy. Again, it is learning the game from the rules that is hard. It's hard to define why. Here's a number of reasons that might be true: Poor rules, Complex non-intuitive rules, multiple subsystems, Poor graphic design (more on this later). Ultimately, Magic Realm played with one person who knows the game is fairly easy to grasp and play.


There's one item that I don't think enough is said about - and this is where my obsession breaks down and betrays me. The Counters. Magic Realm has a large number of counters, and when I sat down to inventory my copy of the game, I found that it was in fact First edition. Which meant that the errata for the counter manifest is about a page long. There's a recommendation in the rulebook to simply toss your counters and buy ones from Second Edition.

Instead of doing that, I tracked down a set of redesigned counters (easy enough - linked off the 'geek) and set about recreating the game of magic realm in cardboard and color printing. I'm not completely finished, but by the end of my second game, I was never so glad I spent hours on a craft project.

The redesigned counters take about a hundred pounds of rules weight off the players. I would not recommend playing this game without the new counters - they are simply that much better than the original avalon hill ones. Why?

1) The new counters contain all the information necessary for the monsters. Using the old avalon hill counters you are missing about 3-5 pieces of data about each monster, which you will have to look up in the rulebook.

2) The second thing they do requires some rules knowledge - which I've been avoiding because it's easy to find rules recaps elsewhere. In Magic Realm, when your character moves into an unexplored tile, they find either a site or a sound chit (or both). This chit determines what monsters could be present in the tile. On the original AH counters, the chit might say 'smoke'. When you roll for monsters, you will cross reference your die roll with a chart, look down the row for any instance of the word 'smoke', check back onto the board to see if you are on a mountain or Cave tile, then get the right monster.
The New counters say 'smoke [2] Dragons' When you roll for monsters, you look at your tile, and if the number you rolled matches the number on the chit, you grab the next available monster of that type. It's easier, more intuitive, and it lets relatively new players predict what is about to happen in the game.

If you are going to play Magic Realm, Get the counters. Make them. They improve the game.

Next week I'll get into what might stop you from playing Magic Realm, and how the age of the game presents some barriers to play these days.




1 To recap - games that suggest, or even demand repeat play to fully enjoy. The reason behind this can vary from deep strategy, incomprehensible rules, complex rules, or sheer fast and furious play. Magic Realm itself promotes obsession at first through incomprehensible rules, passing briefly through complex rules, and eventually settling into the new category - one million variants.

2 Two months, two face-to-face games. 3 Ouch. Ratio of play to obsession time is quite low here...

3 Okay, this is the requisite mention of RealmSpeak. RealmSpeak is a Java based implementation of Magic Realm. It turns the above boardgame into a computer game, either for a single player, or networked for multiple players. There are some incomplete sections (certain spells, etc), but for all intents and purposes it is fully playable.
I have played a large number of solo RealmSpeak games in the past two months. First to help figure out how Natives worked in combat, and then later to try to quantify the various parts of the game. It is kind of like playing Ticket to Ride online. It's tons faster than the board version, but ultimately leaves the player without a real understanding of how the game is played. I find this to be a general failing of computer implementation of games. Without the actual rules knowledge, some decision making becomes compromised (more true with Magic Realm than with Ticket to Ride).
RealmSpeak is okay. It is both better than the tabletop game, and much worse. Worse, because when sped up, Magic Realm becomes more pedestrian and sterile. It is better because it does all the work for you. Ultimately, I have to ask myself why I am playing RealmSpeak. Is it because I can't get anyone to play Magic Realm with me? then fine. If it is because I want to play a solitaire computer game for awhile, then there are probably better options...

4I actually found that MR had more buzz online than I expected. I think much of it is due to RealmSpeak (see 3).

5 For those 'in the know' I'm referring to the base combat rules, not the optional combat rules, which I'll eventually address.