If the problem is board game overproduction here’s Exhibit A. I can’t deny that I fell for its charms. I’d never heard of Archmage before spotting it on the PAX showroom floor. While chatting with the designer I heard about a labor of love–a game that embraces the rich setting potential of a fantasy universe while providing the strategic decision making of the best euros. Unfortunately that game is buried underneath a pile of visual and mechanical clutter, suffocating.
I admit I’m a bit of a grump when it comes to kickstarter-deluxified productions. I have nothing against the idea of premium components and flashy-looking games, but I find that they frequently sacrifice the play experience in favor of the looking at the bits and pieces experience. See Pax Pamir 2nd edition or the Eagle-Gryphon/Lacerda games for how to do deluxe well.
The most immediate problem with Archmage’s visuals is that two of the terrain types are too close in color to each other. It nags at your mind as you play, as you constantly need to double check that you’re seeing the play space correctly. Each terrain piece does have an accompanying symbol to assist with recognition, but there are so many of these in such a dense area (all on top of background art!) that it overwhelms.
In fact, all of the background art may be the main culprit. The board itself has a sort of fog/mountain landscape on it, upon which the tiles are placed, each with their own landscape art. Additional pieces get placed on those tiles throughout the course of the game, often covering or obscuring necessary information, and it’s all so cluttered and hard to read.
The individual player boards are cleaner and far more legible. The complex Venn diagram displayed on them is the beating heart of Archmage. It portrays a tri-layered progression path of your mage’s magical abilities. Each player is given a hand of 18 different spell cards, but you have to invest time and effort into learning those spells. Level 1 spells are of a particular school of magic and contain useful abilities. Combine two adjacent level 1 spells in the Venn diagram and you gain the overlapping level 2 spell, which is strong. This culminates with the level 3 spells, which are truly powerful and will probably only appear towards the end of the game.
I love this idea, and if Archmage was a game much more focused on this magic tech tree I suspect it would be far more successful. The choice between having access to a number of low level spells or only one or two high level spells is an interesting one. Trying to chart a path through a limited but known selection of spells while accounting for opponent play could be great. But so much of my time and effort playing Archmage was spent on the main board shuffling pieces around and trying to harvest mana.
The main board isn’t much more than a way to collect resources and interact with others. Sure, it’s also used for a smattering of victory points at the end, but that’s not exactly world-shattering. As a resource collection system it’s laborious. As a way to interact with and disrupt opponents it’s…well it’s also laborious. My first game of Archmage took 3 hours and I think the core experience could have been about 45 minutes long in a slimmer game.
On your turn you hop around your little mage person, leaving apprentices in your wake on terrain pieces, which you can eventually harvest for mana (or whatever the game’s name for mana is). Soon the board gets crowded and you start stealing terrain from opponents. Then you go back and forth, over and over, taking terrain and trying to protect it. Spells can obviously help with this, but I never found them particularly exciting. Is this a spell-slinging game or a tech tree research game? The place it lands in the middle lacks the spark of either.
The fun I had playing Archmage was largely centered around theorycrafting various spell upgrade paths. I wanted to try out a bunch and see how they interacted. Unfortunately the game in front of me made that extremely difficult. There’s something unique and interesting hidden in this game but it’s not allowed to shine. Instead we get an overlong slog through dull area control with only the occasional moment of satisfaction. The overproduction in Archmage isn’t limited to its skin but infects its very bones.