Magic: The Gathering is still massive. Board game stores seem to solely exist by selling them and throwing tournaments, and the video game adaptations are as prevalent as ever, culminating in the recent free-to-play mobile version that’s likely crept its way onto your phone. But there’s one thing the game’s never been, and that’s a miniature wargame. Magic: The Gathering Arena of the Planeswalkers is here to change that.
Before those scary words turn you off with images of Warhammer-esque battles, understand that this is pretty much an entry point into this style of game, a Cryptic Gateway drug, if you will. Fans of Hasbro’s defunct Heroscape will likely have flashbacks looking at this, as it’s mostly the same game, with fast and simple combat and modular hex-shaped terrain. This is designed to be as easy as possible to set up and play, appealing to Magic fans who want to try something new, which is also what leads to a few of the game’s shortcomings. There just isn’t much substance here.
Arena of the Planeswalkers plays with two to five players, each of which chooses their favorite Planeswalker and takes their appropriate like-colored army. The game comes with familiar faces Gideon Jura, Jace Beleren, Liliana Vess, Chandra Nalaar, and Nissa Revane. Full disclosure- while my closet is stocked with an absurd number of board games I haven’t really played Magic: The Gathering since about 8th grade, when the craze that had swept over my entire school finally rescinded, never to return to mainstream popularity. Fortunately some of my more informed (read: dorky) friends have been on hand for playtests to inform me that all of these characters were big parts of the lore (which I didn't know existed), and as as close to main characters as you can get.
Each Planeswalker comes with two squads they can summon to fight for them, as well as a specialized deck of spell cards. The spell cards aren’t actually Magic cards but they feature art and names from old favorites- Twin Flame, Duress, Misdirection, etc. Your squads have abilities familiar to even the most casual Magic players as well, from Trample to Flying.
The plastic miniatures are pretty great, and abundant. Only the Planeswalkers are painted but the paint job leaves a lot to be desired (my poor Chandra has half a face), so you won’t mind that the 30 other monster figures are just solid colors of the faction they belong to. Most impressively each multiple of a figure is a slightly different sculpt. It’s a nice touch by Hasbro, who could have easily just kept things easier for themselves by doing just one for each.
Once you’ve chosen a color and grabbed up all of pieces and spells you’ll place your Planeswalker on perhaps the game’s biggest draw, the modular map. Huge cardboard pieces fit together to form a surprisingly large battlefield, and you are given two cardboard ruins as well, to block line of sight and offer a little strategy in figure placement. The game also comes with little plastic terrain pieces that snap together, adding a few higher places to rain down fire on your enemies from. The problem is that the game only comes with a measly two 3-hex tiles and two 1-hex tiles. This is seriously all it offers.
Another odd choice is that the back of each game board features a massive bio for each Planeswalker, rather than some more terrain. This could have been a great way to add more customization to the game right out of the box, especially because the bios are utterly useless, the kind of thing you'll look at once and never think of again.
Get the game set up (likely in the style of one of the Battlefields listed in the back of the rulebook) and you’ll place your Planeswalker on the board and prepare for war. The Planeswalker can summon as many of their (two) squads as you try to kill off your opponents’, with each turn letting you pick one squad and move and attack with them. Attacking is the simplest thing in the world- you roll as many dice as that character’s attack number (plus any extra granted by enhancement spells) and your opponent rolls that character’s defense dice. Get more weapons symbols than your opponent rolls shields and you’ll do that much damage. It's fast and easy, the same system that worked so well in Heroscape.
That’s pretty much all there is to the game! Choose what squad you want to move, move them, and attack. You can cast three spells every turn as well to change thing up a tad. There are also gylphs you place on the map that will give you bonuses if you sit on them, which leads to almost guaranteed battles for those locations. Their powers are too good to not try and stop an opponent from using it, giving whoever holds it things like extra attack dice, defense dice, or movement.
Most games see you trying to destroy your opponents but some have you trying to claim a specific territory in a number of rounds, but one big downside is that there is no turn tracker. In the rulebook there’s a turn tracker that you’re supposed to use, which seems like a decent concession until you realize that you’re supposed to be putting a chit down on the goddamn rulebook. You know, the one that you're going to be constantly picking up to refer to? Many times we just simply gave up on the turn system and played to total destruction. It’s a really dumb omission from the game, and a surprising one considering how well-thought the rest of the game’s components are. (One other bothersome thing is that the included d20 is actually a spindown die, but that's a matter for a dorkier fight.)
This also leads to the point that large-scale battles just aren’t as fun. Two or three players seems to be the sweet spot for this game, which gets too unwieldy and long the more players you add. At five the game will take up your entire night and lead to players likely getting squeezed out of the game much earlier than everyone else, forcing them to twiddle their thumbs till the rest of you finish. A two-player match can take you a half hour and offer a much more concentrated and fun experience. Four players with teams of two also works fairly well, although again, makes the game that much longer.
Since this is basically a starter set for what looks like will be a much larger game (they refer to expansions hitting next year in the rulebook) the game does feel small. Two squads of monsters per Planeswalker doesn’t allow for a ton of variety, although of course there’s nothing to stop you from mixing and matching the various colors, much like in the card game. Technically you’re supposed to add up all the squad’s cost points and make an army of 500 (each color has exactly this number in this box), but you can see this getting very fun with even bigger forces.
Magic The Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers feels like it will be an epic experience one day, but it’s not quite there just yet. The game left many of our experienced Magic players wishing they could just play the card game, but there's no doubt that as expansions pile up- new monsters, new game boards and most importantly, hex tiles and obstacles!- the game will really offer a ton. Of course, at that point it will be a full-on war game, rather than a lighter title for first-time tabletop gamers, as it's so obviously intended. As a light and easy game for fans of the franchise or tabletop newcomers, this will work just fine. As a $30 entry point into a potentially massive line this is a box packed with potential- we’ll just see if it ever gets there.