Let me preface this article with a quick confession. Despite it being one of the most visible elements of our tabletop hobby, I have never played Magic: The Gathering. The ludicrous collectible card game business model is not one that I want to be drawn into. So I came to Arena of the Planeswalkers completely cold, this really is a first impression.
It doesn’t begin well when you pop those utterly awful pre-painted plastic planeswalkers from the games insert. Then you pull together your see through plastic monster and leaf through your deck of spell cards while the game’s owner puts together the terrain before turning to you to explain the rules.
You’re aiming to capture the objectives. You get a new spell card each turn and you can activate a single unit of monsters or your planeswalker. The planeswalker can summon new monsters or cast any number of spells while the monsters can run around and take big bites out of enemies or use the special abilities on their cards/any spells you’ve attached to them. Oh, you think to yourself, this game’s pretty simple.
It truly is a simple and elegant game, yet the decks of spell cards along with the spatial nature of a tactical miniatures skirmish offers up a rich bucket of strategy to drink from. The rate at which you draw cards means you are never overwhelmed with options, and not knowing what your opponent’s have drawn makes engaging in combat a genuinely tense prospect. Yet there were some issues with my first taste. Firstly, the blue faction had a whole load of surprise “screw you” type cards that were not fun to play against when you aren’t familiar with the game, but that’s an issue that familiarity will eventually overcome.
The bigger issue, which may be connected with the scenario we were playing, is inherent in the all vs all style of game. The most sensible strategy is to defensively turtle and let the other players beat each other up. While monsters are easy to summon back*, which somewhat mitigates this, you want to avoid creating enemies as much as possible if you are playing to win, and that’s not fun!
I won our game by taking an outer objective and camping there for the entire game, with the threat of overwhelming violence made against anyone who came near me. A couple of players could and should have combined to stop me, but the group dynamics didn’t really allow that to happen. I literally spent half the game doing nothing, then won because all the other planeswalkers killed each other off! It wasn’t fun, but it was effective. That sucks…
I hope this was an issue with the scenario. It is also a major issue for any mutli-player war game, but Arena of the Planeswalkers hasn’t done anything to resolve this issue. On the other hand, as a two-player game or in two teams I can really see this game shine. The variety of factions and how they might interact is really interesting, and I love how smooth the gameplay is. One to watch.
*Edit: It has been pointed out to me that we were playing this wrong! (Thank you @BoredgamesCo) You actually cannot summon back dead monsters.