Head for the Golden Arches--A Double-Take Review of Archmage

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This town, errr, wilderness, errrr…uhmmm…realm! ain’t big enough for all of us! But you can bet we’re going to try and control the most of it, while also trying to learn our sweet new mage moves!

Archmage is an area-control game for 2-4 players. While you’re trying to control the most hexes on the board, you’re also trying to gain mastery over new spells from the 6 different Spheres.

So is Archmage an expelious Lumos? Or is it an a la peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Let’s find out!


The Components

This game is packed. We have the Collector’s Edition of this game, so the components we got may be a bit amped up from the retail edition. Also, because there’s so much in the box, I’m going to summarize them so we can move on with the review!

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  • The Game Board and Hexes - So there are a bunch of hexes that are shuffled and placed out somewhat randomly, they go on a board, and there are recommended setups for where certain types of tiles go.
    The types of tiles are: Wilderness, Towns, Camps, and Enclaves. The Enclaves are controlled by either Mythic races or Hybrid races (there you can initiate your Followers, so they can learn a specific Sphere of magic).

  • Spell Cards - There are 4 sets of these, 1 for each player. And the Collector’s Edition has sweet, gold foil cards!

  • Mage, Mage Tower, and Follower meeples - Four different sets of these for each possible player.

  • Tower (Player) boards - These track the available Spells and act as a sort of tech tree.

  • Tokens - There are a mess of different tokens that are used for the different Spells in the game—including Planet tokens that track the movement of the 6 Planets that align with the 6 Spheres of magic. These are also the timing mechanism for the game; once they all get to the center of the track on the player boards, it’s that player’s final turn.


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The Setup

One of the key concepts to know before we start is the resource that is used for Magic is a Relic, so as you move through the game you’ll collect Nature or Time Relics, these will move along the corresponding track on the Tower/Player boards.

The setup is fairly simple:

  • You pull out the right number of tiles depending on the number of players, and randomly shuffle and place tiles facedown, according to the table in the rule book.

  • Each player takes a Player board, set of Spell cards, and meeples (you’ll only have access to 15 of your 25 Followers to start).

  • Each player also gets a set of Planet tokens and cubes for their Player boards. The Planet tokens are placed randomly at the top track on the Player board and then a number are shifted towards the center, which moves up the corresponding Relic cubes in the Relic tracks on the board as well.

That’s pretty much it—you’re ready to roll!


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The Game Play

The player’s turn is broken into three different phases.

Phase I - Preparation: This step is easy. You make sure your Spell Book is in order according to your Tower board, and you’ll also move one Planet token toward the center space and take the resource bump for that, as well.

Phase II - Journey: Players get 5 movement points that can be spent on: Travel, Attack and Exploration.
Travel lets you…wait for it… travel (using their Mage meeple) to one adjacent hex. You can go anywhere you want, except where there is another Mage meeple, or another player’s Mage Tower. If there aren’t any opponent’s Followers on a hex while you’re on it, you can drop a Follower (thus taking control of that hex).
To attack costs one movement point, and you simply attack an opponent’s Follower that is on the same hex as you, removing it to the supply (not readily available any longer for that player).
You’ll explore if you move to a tile that is facedown. You can spend a movement point to flip it, which will allow you to gain sweet stuff depending on the tile you flip. For instance all the wilderness give you a Relic of the matching type.

Phase III - End Journey. Where you end your turn has a big effect on the game. You take an End Journey action and it can gain you Relics, help you initiate Followers into specific spheres of magic, or build your Mage Tower, and more! Here’s a quick breakdown of these actions!

  • End on a Camp and you can Recruit up to 3 Followers from your supply to your company.

  • Towns let you Gather Relics from every location you control (including towns, where you can gain a Follower or a Relic of your choice).

  • Enclaves let you initiate Followers into the matching color sphere of magic at the cost of 2 Relics each. When you do this you place Followers from your company to the tower board’s matching color, giving you access the the Spell of that level and color!

  • Wilderness hexes let you do a few things. You can place a Ward token, which protects your Followers that are there, or build your Mage Tower! If you’re on your Mage Tower, you can also initiate or promote a Follower.

Promoting a Follower pits two adjacent Followers against each other; only one survives and moves forward on the the Tower Board—thus affecting the Spells you have access to (this could cause you to gain and/or lose access to Spells).

One last thing! Casting Spells! You have to have access to the Spell you want to cast. Casting Spells costs Relics—Fundamentals cost 1 Relic, Advanced cost 2, and Master level Spells cost 3 Relics. These Relics either have to match the colors that make up the contributing spheres.

Players take turns, until all of the Planets have hit the center spot on each Player’s Tower board. The important thing to know here is that after a player’s final turn they score before the next player takes their turn.

You score points for controlling the 5 different Wilderness types (2 points for each one you control). You’ll also score points for each Spell in your Spell Book. 1 point for Fundamentals, 2 points for Advanced, and 4 points for Master level.

Player with the most points wins!


The Verdict

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Jeremiah—This game is REALLY good. The components are outstanding (yet another gorgeous game from Starling Games). This is not your casual gamer friend’s gateway game. Archmage moves and flows, almost like a story is being told. It starts with exploring the realm and discovering hidden towns and lost races, then it moves into controlling the wilderness and building your tower, and finally beginning to learn and master magic before leading up to the finale. It keeps moving and those 90+ minutes don’t feel long or drawn out…

Firestone—Area-control seems to be a genre that’s underrepresented in gaming. But I like it, and I like when designers do something new with it. The exploration element makes this more than just a Bash the Other Mages game, which is what many area-control games devolve into. But make no mistake: also bashing.

Jeremiah—The scoring system really crystalized my love for this game. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it’s thematic. Many games of this sort of heavy weight, area control genre have wide and varied ways to score, and multiple paths to victory, which is fine and has its own place in gaming, but with Archmage the system is simple. Control types of Wilderness for 2 points each. And learn the most spells you can and score 1, 2 or 4 each. That’s it. Not only that, you score your game at the end of your last turn, grabbing as much land as you can and also hopefully making it more difficult for your opponents to score points as well. But. This takes the advantage out of turn order. If you were scoring only after all players had their turn, going last would have a huge advantage and also possibly (most likely) make that person the Kingmaker. After playing for 90+ minutes and trying to position yourself the best way possible only to have someone come in and decimate you after you’ve taken your last turn with no recourse would be miserable. But it’s not an issue here, well done!

Firestone—Yeah, I also like the simplicity of the scoring. And the end-game feels “weird,” but there’s really no other way to do it, without screwing over people who go earlier in the turn.

Jeremiah—It’s important to note that we have the Collector’s Edition of the game. Some publisher’s don’t send the nicer version of games out to reviewers, but Starling does. It’s smart, because I’m here to tell you, SPEND THE EXTRA DOLLARS! The components are outstanding, TONS of custom meeples, a sweet tower for the center of the board, and those gold foil cards! I will say it’s a bit tougher to read the cards because of the foiling, you just have to hold them a certain way. But once you figure out the angle it’s not big deal, and with replays of the game you are more familiar with the cards so reading every last word on them isn’t a big deal either. The artwork is fantastic, it’s top to bottom and outstanding looking game!

Firestone—This game is gorgeous. Awesome, evocative artwork, and those inlaid Tower boards are terrific. I will agree that the foil on the cards, while pretty, actually makes them muddy and difficult to read. Not a gamebreaker at all, but I would have preferred “boring” regular cards to the foiling.

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Jeremiah—This is not a casual gamer’s game. By no means is this a knock. There’s just a lot going on, and if you’re playing with someone who is very new to gaming, or remotely prone to analysis paralysis, Archmage may just take you several hours to trudge through. Just something to be aware of. However, if you’re a gamer and ready for the challenge, Archmage is fun, well designed, engaging and deeply thematic!

Firestone—Yeah, this sort of sits in a middle space. There’s too much going on for newbies, but it’s not as crunchy as other games vying for gamers’ attentions. I liked it, and I liked what I was doing, but this is a game that already needs that expansion that recently funded on Kickstarter. After a couple of games, you’re doing similar things. And I want more Spells! Those are fun, and more is better. But I know that’s coming, so it’s not a dig at all.

Jeremiah—Speaking of deeply thematic elements. If you haven’t guessed by the name, and my description of the game play. This game uses lots of magic/sorcery language, and themes. Including the 6 spheres of magic that all relate to some sort of element: Time, Matter, Nature, WIll, and of course, Blood and Death. In fact the only way to gain Blood relics (the resource you use for performing spells in this particular sphere) is by going around killing your opponents’ followers. And the spells within those spheres are as you would guess, pretty dark. My first play through I consciously made the attempt to play the game without using those types of magic. Thematically I wanted to see if I could be a successful mage without “giving in to” the darker spheres of magic. And I won. So it is possible. That’s not to say that the spells in those spheres aren’t good. They’re powerful. But realize they do come off pretty dark.

Firestone—I didn’t consciously try to avoid those darker edges, simply because I don’t think the game is in any way trying to subversively get you to cast Blood and Death spells. Thematically it makes sense, and they needed SOMEthing to fill those elements. Now, having said that, I didn’t bring this out with the kids. I’m not exactly consistent on what I let them abstractly act out in a game. (Dark Pacts in Eldritch Horror, anyone…?) But I also don’t think my 10-year-old is at a place where I want him seeking more Blood in order to cast a Corrupt or Decay Spell.

Jeremiah—The rule book is dense. There is a ton of backstory about the realm, the races, the mages. I haven’t even read through all of it because it’s so plentiful. The gameplay itself has a steep learning curve as well. They did include a nice quick play/reference guide that is a super helpful one sheet set of rules. Once we got about 3-4 turns into the game we had just about everything down and were playing at a pretty good pace.

I say all of those things not to slight Archmage at all. I REALLY enjoyed this game and will certainly keep it in my collection. It’s not going to show up at family game night, or on the holidays when I gather with family or friends, but it is a solid choice for a main event on a game night! (And I can’t wait for the expansion to arrive as well!)

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The Final Verdict

Jeremiah’s Final Verdict—Archmage is an absolute gem. A great design that is complemented by a succinct and well-thought-out scoring system. An immersive, thematic, and just plain fun board game from start to finish!

Firestone’s Final Verdict—Archmage is a gorgeous, aggressive game with cool ideas, thematic flourishes, and a unique design. Now bring on that expansion!


You can listen to episode 105 of That's How I Roll to hear more of Jeremiah's thoughts on Archmage right here!

We’d like to thank Starling Games for providing review copies of Archmage. This has had no influence on our opinions of the game.