Magic Realm, Twilight Struggle, Talisman and Lords of Waterdeep

My ANZAC Day passed with a lot of board-gaming going on. Unusually, I didn’t play any pure wargames, but I did play some very good games spanning a few decades of gaming.

Magic Realm is an astonishing game. The first time I noticed it was when, as a teenager, I opened up the Military Simulations catalogue and discovered that their example of “most complex” game was Magic Realm. I didn’t have a clue what the game was, only that they rated it as being the most complex example of a game. It was only in the last decade that I began to learn what it was: a fantasy board game from the golden era of Avalon Hill games. You were a fantasy adventurer in a magical land, looking to slay monsters and gain treasure and fame. A few years ago, I was able to acquire a copy of it, and although I have played it a few times, it mostly sits unplayed.

The trouble with the game is that the complexity isn’t a myth. It is actually there. Added to that is that the game is actually difficult to play well. A lot of the monsters will just kill your character with no chance of escape. However, exactly what type of monsters they are depends on which character you’re playing! You do have fast characters who can run away from most monsters, but have great difficulty in killing any of them, and then the big burly characters who can kill anything, but can’t run away and will likely die to swarms of lesser monsters. So, it’s a very difficult game to introduce new players to, especially when you haven’t played that much of it yourself!

My copy of the game is the first edition version, and the rules are subtly different from what came in later editions. Some of these differences actually make the game easier, so I am loathe to actually play with the later sets of rules. For instance, monsters aren’t armoured, so sharp weapons will always deal extra damage. Alerting a weapon does nothing except in the case of the bow. And you don’t have to spread the monsters out evenly between the attack boxes.

We played this game with five players, and using the rules for the first four “Encounters” in the rulebook. Which is to say, we could move around the map, fight monsters and find treasure. We couldn’t hire natives or cast spells. If I manage to bring the game in more solidly, these things will come, but even the rules we used challenge my understanding of the game.

A few highlights of the game:

Michael’s Berserker discovered the Lost City in a cave system, only to be ambushed by two tribes of goblins. He slew four goblins (10 Fame and Notoriety), but perished to their blades. (In retrospect, the goblins should have appeared in other caverns, but I couldn’t find the rules reference in time).

Ben discovered an Altar, but the Demon guarding it discovered him as well, and slew him!

Tim and Ben returned to the Altar, and began to loot it. Ben was discovered by the Demon and ran away; Tim likewise ran, but found the Hoard, which he looted of almost all its treasure!

Sam’s Dwarf came across some Ogres, and slew them both.

Michael’s Woods Girl played run and loot with a Giant and its treasure.

Sam’s Dwarf spent about half of the game crossing the map, cursing our faster feet!

Four of us were on one tile, when the Imp came to chastise Michael for looting. We were in two clearings, some of us hidden, and the Imp finally decided to attack the clearing that had Ben, Tim and me. I was hidden, but Tim and Ben had failed their hide checks. Ben was cursed – twice – but was able to slay the imp. His character then died later as he tried to get back to the chapel to be uncursed, as he was unable to hide (one of the curses!)

My Captain found no treasures. He found one secret passage. He killed nothing. On the other hand, he didn’t die. This may be viewed as a success!

Ultimately, I think we all had fun exploring the game. We played for about four hours, which encompassed a month of adventuring. Sam came closest to actually completing his victory conditions, although Michael and Tim looted a fair bit of treasure. There is occasional talk of reprinting the game, but it seems a most unlikely candidate. Most of the classic games that get reprinted aren’t all that difficult to learn and play, something that does not describe Magic Realm! However, you can see aspects of it in many later games – the greatest of which is the Mage Knight boardgame by Vlaada Chvatil.

After our game of Magic Realm, most of my friends went elsewhere for the evening. This left me with Glen, and so I had to look around for two-player games. By some strange chance, one of the greatest was sitting in my car: Twilight Struggle.

(Ok, I admit it – there was no chance involved. No, I wasn’t expecting to play it, but I try to have with me games that fit a number of different player numbers. Any why wouldn’t I put the highest-ranked game in my car just in case?)

Glen was quite happy to play Twilight Struggle, and after a brief description of the rules, we were off. Twilight Struggle actually has a fairly simple set of rules. Once you understand how to place influence, perform coups, play event cards, discard cards to the Space Race and not start a nuclear war, you’ve got 90% of the rules in the game. The rest of the game comes from the actual card texts –and it’s in that area that the game becomes difficult for the new player. It’s not that the cards are difficult to know, but rather that a lot of the good strategy relies on knowing what events might come out in the game. A set of effective plays might be completely undone by a single event.

Of course, there are times you play knowing that a card can wreck your strategy, but where the pay-off is enough to make the risk worthwhile. In this game, I actually managed to gain control of all of Europe. Glen, as the USSR, was concentrating on gaining control of Asia, and didn’t fight me, the US, as I gained control of East Germany and Poland. Glen played Europe scoring before I could gain control of France, and then we struggled over France for a bit, with De Gaulle reversing my early gains and allowing Glen purchase into the country. Eventually I prevailed 7 influence to 4, and so all I needed was the Europe scoring card again. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in my hand when the deck was reshuffled and the cards for the third turn were dealt out, and Glen was able to play the “wrecker” card to remove all my influence from East Germany and Poland. He breathed a sigh of relief then, but my victory point total was now becoming quite high.

The Middle East hardly entered the game, unusually. Glen dominated South-Eastern Asia, but he didn’t make many inroads into the battleground states of Asia.

At the end of turn 3, I began placing influence in Africa and Central America, ready for the scoring cards that would come. The fourth turn saw both Asia and South-East Asia being scored, the first giving me a slight advantage (1 point!) as Glen’s position in South-East Asia meant we were level on countries owned, and Glen dragged back quite a lot of points with South East Asia scoring. This brought the total back to only 9 in my favour.

In the fifth turn, Glen had drawn the South America scoring card, but had no influence there, and no way to place it there. So, he began to perform coups in Venuzela and began moving south from there. Unfortunately for Glen, I’d drawn the Africa Scoring card, and had complete control of the country – all the battlegrounds, and Glen was hardly there. The scoring of Africa was enough to put me at 20 VPs, and victory.

I hope I get a chance to play more games with Glen of Twilight Struggle; it’s such a good game, and one that rewards repeated playing.

Glen had played with me in the strange game we’d played of Talisman with the Firelands expansion, and was very eager to see what the game was like when played without that expert expansion. I’m not overly fond of Talisman as a two-player game – a large part of the fun of Talisman for me these days comes from seeing the player interaction – but it was likely to play quite quickly using just the base game, so I set it up. Randomly choosing characters, I dealt Glen the Monk and myself the Sorceress. Glen then promptly got Cursed by a Hag, stopping himself from taking any followers and stripping me of one of my major powers – the ability to take his followers from him!

It was entertaining to see Glen’s first experiences with the core game. Talisman is an excellent game, and one that I played hundreds of games of as a teenager. It is not a game that needs much strategy; there are decisions to be made, but they are not as crucial as in a game like Twilight Struggle. It is far more about the experience. Talisman allows you to feel like you’re playing a heroic fantasy adventurer. This accessibility is a great feature to the game; you don’t need to know much to start playing the game, and is a chief reason why it’s still available twenty years after its debut and Magic Realm is not! (Magic Realm is likely a better game for experts, but trying to learn it in the first place is challenging).

This game we played almost entirely in the outer region; we found enough treasure and monsters there so that we never really needed to adventure in the middle region – we only went there when we were moving towards the Portal of Power and the Crown of Command. Glen spent about half the game cursed, managing to roll every number but what he needed to land on the Village Mystic, but he eventually got there. Of course, the only follower he then got was the Alchemist. I was delighted to gain the Maiden, but Glen found the Crown of Solomon, and thus we both managed to boost our Craft by a couple of points. Likewise, we split the rewards from the Fountain of Wisdom.

Talisman has a reputation as a game that can take a very long time to finish. This game took under an hour. Two players does tend to go by faster, but we had an additional advantage: I’ve played a lot of the game. I can instantly tell you where your die roll takes you without counting spaces. And, furthermore, I understand what you need to win the game. My rule of thumb is that you need 10 points of either Strength or Craft to successfully negotiate the perils of the Inner Region, and so the early part of the game needs to be concentrated on gaining what you need.

There are a few design decisions and rulings that have been made since the original game that I disagree with. One of those regards the Monk – someone decided he needed to be “balanced” by having only his initial Craft score add to his Strength in combat rather than his full Craft score. The trouble with that is that it basically strips away the advantages the Monk has. His low initial stats – which requires him to gain one more point of Craft to win the game than other characters – are balanced by the ability to only need to concentrate on Craft. Strength in Combat, while nice, is no substitute to having actual Strength. So, when you play at my table, the Monk returns to his original greatness.

I hasten to add that I don’t disagree with all the rulings and changes that have been made. The revised versions of the Prophetess, Druid and Priest, for instance, are great changes that improve the game.

Glen got into position to tackle the Inner Region before I did – barely – and began his ascent, easily defeating the Sentinel to reach the Hidden Valley, where nothing bad happened to him. (Alas!) I had an axe by this stage, so I used it to build a Raft and cross to the Oasis, where I picked up the one gold that Glen had lost earlier in the game, shedding the Poltergeist in the process. Glen discarded the second Talisman the Hermit gave him in the Plain of Peril, thus giving me the chance to claim it myself, as I was lacking a Talisman, and then cast Acquisition on me to take my Magic Belt – if he’d just waited until I’d picked up the Talisman, he could have stopped me reaching the Crown of Command entirely!

It took him two turns to traverse the mines. The Vampires took only one life from him – he discarded the Alchemist – and he finally reached the Crown and spent several turns ineffectively casting the Command Spell at me.

I eventually gathered up the courage to enter the Inner Region, though I knew that Glen had a big advantage in the final combat. It didn’t help that he had finally worked out how to roll above four on the die, and so I was losing lives from the Command Spell as I made my ascent. The Vampires took only a lone follower from me (the Princess), but I was down to one life when I reached the Pit Fiends, and with only five strength! I cast a Healing Spell, but Glen responded with a Counterspell. I then died to the first Pit Fiend (of six) I faced, and Glen had won the game!

Our final game of the night was Lords of Waterdeep. Glen had mentioned that he’d only every played with the Skullport part of the expansion, never with the Undermountain side. As we were setting up the game, Glen then decided it would be a good idea to play with both expansions at once. He was to regret that decision.

Glen, quite rightly, said afterwards that he didn’t play a bad game of Waterdeep. He’s quite right, he didn’t. However, I played an exceptional game. It’s not every game you get to finish seven plot quests – or twenty quests in total – but I managed it this game. I was playing Piergeiron the Paladinson, who requires Warfare and Piety quests. My first action was to get more money, and I then constructed the House of Heroes (two fighters and one priest) which served me well throughout the game. I only built one more building during the game, the Librarium (two Wizards, place one Wizard on an action space), whilst Glen ended up building six buildings, mostly through the completion of quests!

Glen was playing Mirt the Moneylender (Piety/Commerce) as I learnt when I played the Blackmail intrigue card on him midway through the game, but was hampered by an early lack of Commerce and Piety quests. Of course, once I learnt which quests he was going for, I delighted in taking the Piety ones before him, and then purging the Inn of any Commerce ones that might become available.

Towards the end of the game, I was delighted to pick up and complete the Diplomatic Mission to Suzail: Now I was able to complete quests in the Inn without taking them first. I then began completing quests almost every turn I took. One quest – I forget its name at present – allowed me to take three of my agents back and play them again. This was effectively another half a turn I played over Glen. He was astonished at how many quests I was completing, aided by having some very good Plot Quests.

One of my last actions of the game was to play the Open Lord intrigue card, getting some verisimilitude into the game as the Paladinson is the Open Lord of Waterdeep. Glen didn’t have any intrigue cards to punish me with in any case, so it didn’t really affect things much. I was ahead on the scoreboard even as we went into final scoring – the lead only increased as I revealed I’d completed 18 quests of the Warfare or Piety type. That was a 72 point bonus, which made my final score 332. Glen had completed a mere 7 quests of the Piety or Commerce type for only 28 points. He’d also lost 9 points through corruption – I lost none, having repented of my sins – and he finished with a score of 188.

I’m not sure if Glen will play me again in a two-player Lords of Waterdeep game!

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