Designers: Eric M. Lang & Kevin Wilson
Graphic Design & Layout: Michael DeVito & Jon Conkling
Illustrations: Chris Wharton, Sarah Ellerton, Ander Zarate, Patrick McEvoy, John Rauch, and Michael DeVito
Publisher: IDW Games
Play Time: 30–60 minutes
Target Age Range: 12+ (suggested. I’d say 10+ would be fine.)
So Arcane Academy kind of came out of nowhere for me, and in a good way. I’d never heard of the game before, but after posting my review of XCOM, I decided to take a look at some of the other games Eric Lang had designed. When I checked out his BoardGameGeek page, I was surprised to learn that he had actually collaborated on a game with Kevin Wilson, the designer of Mistborn: House War, which—you may recall—I enjoyed very much. Based on this, I decided to order the game based entirely on my opinion of the two designers, knowing nothing else about it.
Though it took me a little while to get the game to the table, it was definitely worth the wait. The gameplay is simple to understand without being boring, players can follow a few different play styles, the art is appealing, and the components feel very good in your hands.
So, let’s dive in.
I’m going to go a little bit out of order and talk about theme first here. The concept of the game really jumped out at me when I first read it. Players take on the roles of students at a magical academy where people are taught to cast spells and craft magical devices, referred to as “assignments.” These assignments grant the students Prestige (this game’s version of Victory Points), and students are rushing to complete the most impressive assignments before the competition.
So essentially, we’re all at Hogwarts, but everyone is Hermione Granger.
… Sign me up!
*You may notice that I have no numerical score for theme anymore. After some thought, I decided that attempting to quantify a topic like “theme” in a game was essentially useless. It’s such a subjective concept, and I figured that any numerical value I tried to assign to any game based on its theme was really quite arbitrary. I’ll still discuss the theme moving forward, and even mention whether it’s particularly strong or not, but I felt a numerical rating would only end up being confusing in the long run.
Arcane Academy is relatively simple to learn, but it allows for multiple styles of play. The cards, which represent the Assignments players must complete, share similarities with card games such as Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering, in that they have a cost players must pay in order to receive an attached benefit. In Arcane Academy, there are two types of resource players can spend: Will and Shards. Will is used to cast spells, which have a powerful one-time effect, while Shards are spent to construct magical devices, which can be used repeatedly, typically at an additional cost for each use.
The twist, however, comes in the form of the player Slates, which are mats that players use to keep track of which actions they have used. Players can only use each ability on their slate once before it is exhausted. If a player wants to use an ability again, they must either complete an assignment that allows them to un-exhaust one or all of their abilities, or they must spend an entire turn to Rest and refresh the entire Slate.
As the game progresses, players can customize their Slates to include additional actions, represented by tiles. Some tiles can be linked together, based upon their orientation on the Slate, which means that if a player customizes their Slate properly, each action can have additional benefits. Players can use their abilities to gain extra resources or even use multiple abilities in a single turn. This is where a lot of the strategy within Arcane Academy hides, allowing players who strategize well to leap ahead of the competition.
Visual/Physical Appeal (9/10)
Visually, this game is beautiful. The graphics team really outdid themselves with vibrant illustrations, bright colors, and eye-catching effects. The art on the player mats, the tiles, and the cards is beautiful, hinting at a deeper world beneath the surface of the game.
Meanwhile, the game feels very good in your hands, particularly the Shards. While Will is tracked on a round, blueish dial, Shards are represented by irregularly-shaped plastic crystals. When you’ve gathered a decent collection of Shards, it just feels fun to play with the brightly colored pieces.
Setup Time (5 minutes)/Play Time (30–60 minutes)
While the play area seems complex at first glance, it’s really quite simple. The instruction manual even includes a recommended setup to simplify things—and it makes it look nice, too!
The game plays relatively quickly, too. With four players, it took our group approximately 40–45 minutes.
Complexity (Rank 7)/Teach Time (~5 minutes)
As I mentioned earlier, the game is pretty simple to learn, but there are multiple strategies players can follow. While most of us decided to slowly build an engine that would allow us to gain a lot of points toward the end of the game, in one playthrough, one of my friends was able to capitalize on some good card draws early on to play a fast game, completing eight assignments before anyone else had completed half as many. It wasn’t a strategy that would work every time, but in this case, it allowed him to destroy us.
I can see myself sitting down with friends to play this game over and over again. The cards and tiles are varied enough that you could play a fair number of times before seeing any sort of repetition, but because each player has the opportunity to choose from several cards and tiles on their turn, it doesn’t solely rely on randomness. Players still have to pay attention and plan a few steps ahead to execute an effective strategy.
I bought this game blind because I liked both of the designers, and I wasn’t disappointed. Arcane Academy was simple enough for everyone to enjoy without being boring. It kept all of us engaged, and seriously, it’s just a pretty game. I haven’t heard much about this game from other reviewers, which surprises me, coming from a collaboration between Eric Lang and Kevin Wilson. But as for myself, I can give it a strong recommendation.