This one’s kinda weird, y’all…
Designers: Kasper Lapp
Publisher: Dude Games
Play Time: 10–15 minutes (per round)
Target Age Range: 8+
So a barbarian, a mage, an elf, and a dwarf walk into a magical shopping mall…
While it seems like the beginning of a joke set in the same universe as the old Gauntlet arcade game, it’s actually the premise of this week’s feature game: Magic Maze.
If you’re even slightly keyed in to the gaming community, you’ve probably heard of this game. It was a nominee for the 2017 Spiel des Jahres award, and it’s a game that everyone is talking about.
Naturally, I wanted to play it.
When I heard that one of my gaming buddies had picked up a copy, I was excited, and I played it as soon as I got a chance. I wasn’t disappointed.
So, on that note, let’s get this ill-advised shopping trip started.
The innovative gameplay is what really sets Magic Maze apart from other games.
In Magic Maze, the point is to get each character from the starting square to their individual “shop” spaces, execute a coordinated theft, then move the characters to the mall exit. This must be accomplished before an hourglass runs out.
Here’s the twist, though: each player is in charge of, not a character, but a direction. The game board has a set North/South/East/West orientation, and each player is assigned one or more specific tasks. For example, one player may be in charge of moving characters North and East while another is in charge of moving them South and West. One character is in charge of drawing and revealing new tiles as the characters explore the mall. Another is in charge of transporting characters to portal spaces that appear on the map. One player is the only one allowed to move characters up and down escalators. Magic Maze is designed to be scalable, allowing for player counts of anywhere from 1 to 9, and it does a good job of making that work.
The game is not turn based, which means that everyone is paying attention to every part of the board, working together to move the characters to the shops and the exits before the (very short) timer runs out.
Oh, and you’re not allowed to talk.
Let me emphasize and rephrase that a bit. You’re not allowed to communicate with each other at all. The game stipulates in very clear language that the only two forms of communication permitted are as follows:
1.) Stare intensely at another player.
2.) Give another player the “Do Something” pawn.
You’re not allowed to point. You’re not allowed to look or nod at a particular piece or spot on the map. You’re not allowed to whisper, whistle, cough, or quack to tell someone what you want them to do. You can stare at them, or you can give them the Do Something pawn. (The Do Something pawn is exactly what it sounds like. It’s meant to let one of the other players know that it’s time for them to Do Something, and if they can’t tell what that is, then they need to look harder, dadgummit!)
It’s not uncommon for the Do Something pawn to be placed in front of a player very loudly, and in a rapid-fire manner. It helps get their attention better. We’ve done the research.
The game is set up in several different scenarios, with each progressive scenario adding a new mechanic to increase complexity. For example, in the first scenario, players only need to get all of the characters to their respective shops and out a single exit. In the next scenario, however, each character has a color-coded exit assigned exclusively to that character. As the game progresses, more mechanics like security cameras, doors that can only be traversed by one of the characters, and more are added to create a more a more difficult, complex game.
I’m not going to lie—the premise/theme of this game?
But really, that only serves to add to its charm. I mean, you’re already taking on the role, not of a character, but of a direction. Only one of you is allowed to open doors. Only one is allowed to use escalators. In that sort of environment, what’s so unusual about a group of medieval adventurers sneaking through a magical shopping mall?
When it comes down to it, the theme really has very little to do with the game itself, aside from making it easier to discuss. (Outside of the actual game, that is. No talking, remember? Now hush, you!) But honestly, that’s fine. This game isn’t meant to be about the theme. It does give it an extra little bit of flavor, though, so it works for me!
Visual/Physical Appeal (7/10)
Magic Maze is very simple in its visual design, using featureless, wooden pawns to represent each character, only distinguishable from each other by their color and stickers on each pawn with that character’s logo. The “X” markers aren’t particularly sturdy, but they don’t really need to be. The hourglass feels particularly sturdy, however, and the “Do Something” marker exactly what it needs to be.
Meanwhile, the tiles players must navigate are brightly colored, featuring enough art to make them interesting without becoming distracting. Each player also gets a card to indicate which abilities they have that is clearly marked and easy to read.
While the components of this game are simple, they’re also very efficient, and they’re able to do exactly what they need to do without getting too fancy.
Setup Time (~1–2 minutes)/Play Time (5–8 minutes per round)
The most complicated part of Magic Maze‘s setup is separating out the tiles for the scenario you and your group choose to play, but that’s a matter of just a few seconds. Setup is very simple.
The game plays very quickly, which makes sense, as you’re all playing against time. A single round typically only lasts about 5 or 6 minutes. It can sometimes run a little longer than that, but never more than about 10 minutes or so in a single round. It’s a great pick-up game that can be used to fill the time between longer games, or groups can use it to fill an entire night by stringing several different scenarios together.
Complexity (Rank 5)/Teach Time (~2 minutes)
Magic Maze is easy to pick up after just a brief suggestion. The rules are simple to learn, but because each run-through is different, it still requires critical thought. It’s a great game for players of almost any age, though some of the later scenarios may be too difficult for younger players. Fortunately, the early scenarios work just great. If you don’t want to, there’s no need to increase the difficulty beyond your comfort level.
This is a game that’s meant to be played several times. Each play through is different. The tiles are shuffled, so no two maps are the same. Every group is different. Every scenario is different. Magic Maze can be played over and over and over again.
Magic Maze is a great game to have on just about any shelf, whether that’s a bookshelf at home or in the library of a game cafe. It’s quick and intuitive, but it’s not a game that your group can easily “solve.” It’s a good game to share with people who aren’t intense gamers, but it presents interesting puzzles and challenges to solve for long-time game fans. And it’s easily the #1 medieval-fantasy-shopping-mall-silent-heist-planning-with-modular-scenarios game that we’ve ever played—that’s for certain!