Some people want to play games about building trains or trading sheep for wood. Personally, I prefer to play a game as an epic wizard with the forces of nature at my beck and call. If you are like me (at least in that way), then Archmage might just be the game for you. Build an army of followers, gain dominion of the fundamental elements of the universe, and prove that you are the best mage in the land. What’s not to like?
Archmage is a competitive strategy game which focuses more on your successes than on harming your opponents. In Archmage, each player controls a mage leading one of a few rival schools. Your goal is to prove that you are the ultimate Archmage by taking control of the surrounding wilderness and gaining access to the most magic. With full visibility of your opponents’ powers and abilities, Archmage is a game that rewards strategic planning over deception and trickery.
Also, did I mention you get to be an epic wizard? Because you get to be an epic wizard!
The game is split between the territory hexes and your magic board. During your turn, you can spend movement points to move through territory hexes, kill followers of your opponents, and explore new tiles.
Depending on where you end your turn, you can perform a Journey’s End action, such as casting wards, gathering resources, or trading resources to add initiates to your magic board. Often, half of the strategy of a turn is figuring out how to accomplish the most with your movements while ending on a particular territory hex.
The magic board is the most unique aspect of Archmage. It includes a 6-circle Venn-diagram of magic schools, ranging from Time to Death. When you initiate new apprentices, they start in one of the six fundamental circles, giving you access to a basic spell of that type. For instance, when initiate apprentices into the Time circle, you will gain access to Quicken which can be cast to give you two additional movement points during a turn.
Once per game, you can also build your mage tower. The mage tower allows you to upgrade apprentices. To upgrade apprentices, you choose two apprentices in neighboring circles who fight to become the advanced apprentice. For example, you can take a Time apprentice and a Matter apprentice and make them fight to become the Time/Matter apprentice. When you do this, you lose both apprentices, but gain one in the advanced portion of the board, thereby giving you access to more advanced spells but possibly losing your access to the basic ones.
Your score at the end of the game is based on how much of the board you control and how much of your magic board you control. Each region on your magic board is worth points, with the more advanced regions being worth more points. Each territory type is also worth points to whoever own the most of that territory type.
Optimization is the name of the game with Archmage. You spend a lot of your time figuring out how to optimize your turn, from how to expand your board control to how to get the apprentices you need on your board. Do you end your turn on the mage tower now and get some advanced spells or do you get more initiates to increase your upgrade pool?
These trade-offs are most apparent in the decisions to upgrade. All of the fundamental spells are useful in their own way. Transmutation, for instance, can help you trade relics you don’t need for relics you do. The decision of whether to give up that spell to gain access to a higher level spell is not one to be taken lightly. In every game, I have had a moment where I regretted sacrificing a lower level spell for access to one of the higher level spells.
Aside from the locations of tiles, Archmage does not include any random elements. This means that most turns can be planned out to completion prior to moving a single piece. With so many choices to make and a focus on optimization, this sounds easier than it is. While some turns might take no time at all, some turns can also include a lot of staring and thinking as you try to maximize attainable benefits. I often found myself planning a strategy only to discover that I did not have enough relics or units for an action, which caused me to have to pivot to a different strategy.
Generally, Archmage is pretty well balanced, given that all players have access to the same abilities and cards. The only issues I had with balance were the magic spells themselves. While most fundamental spells were useful, none felt like they had the versatility of Quicken. In terms of master-level spells, Time Stop and Corruption felt like the most useful and the victors in most games I played had one or both of those spells early on.
One other issue in terms of strategy is the relative weakness of board domination. Early on in the game, a focus on conquering territory seems mostly pointless. Spells coupled with the ease of murder can quickly turn the tides of board control in the last two turns of the game unless a player is putting a lot of focus into warding their board. This leads to a competitive game where actively battling an opponent is often detrimental and can have little impact on their endgame score if they are focused on their mage board.
The expansion to Archmage, which I will discuss in a different article, alleviates some of these issues, added a little more versatility to the early spell cards and a few more benefits to maintaining board control.
In terms of design, there is not much more I could ask for from Archmage. The art on each of the tiles is vibrant and clear and the game pieces are high quality. I especially loved the magic board which feels sturdy and looks striking. With a quick glance at someone’s board, you can easily tell which areas of magic they control and how many runes of each type they have stored.
The Collector’s Edition of Archmage additionally includes wooden tokens for the planet pieces, unique mage and mage tower figures, and a game board for placing the tiles. None of these features feel essential, but they definitely add to the quality of the game. The game board is probably the nicest and most useful of the additions, as it gives the game a less chaotic feel.
The Collector’s Edition also includes gold foil bordered cards. While it is hard for me to resist the shinies, the gold foil is actually more of a detriment than a benefit. The unique colors of each card get drowned out by the gold foil border and it is difficult to tell at a glance which card corresponds to which color. That said, after a few playthroughs, the cards become so well known that the color of the card is relatively unimportant.
Who Is This For?
Archmage is a wonderfully complex game featuring interesting strategies and a lot of variation in its 18 spell cards. That said, this game is not noob friendly. Archmage is not the type of game one can take to a party or introduce to be played once in a casual game night. The learning curve is fairly steep early on as you have no frame of reference for weighing the benefits and detriments of different cards.
Given the complexity of the game, most of the later turns require a lot of focus and planning. People who don’t play a lot of board games can easily be turned off by the sheer difficulty in figuring out how to optimize a turn or how to ensure that their magic board is optimally filled. Most players will probably hit their stride in their second playthrough, though experienced board game players make adapt to the mechanics a bit faster.
I would recommend Archmage for a group that plans to play the same game a few times. It really helps when everyone is on the same level and has the same understanding of each spell. This is especially important given how much of the game centers around full visibility. Aside from some of the objectives in the expansion, every spell and territory owned by a player is visible to all. The game is less about surprising players with a hidden mechanic as it is trying to outwit your opponents and optimize your own board.
Overall, I highly recommend Archmage as a competitive strategy board game. The mechanics may be hard to pick up, but they are definitely rewarding to master. I often felt like a tactical mastermind when casting spells in conjunction with each other. Additionally, the game itself is gorgeous and well made. While I wish there was a little more balance in the spells, I am very interested in playing it again and again to see what new strategies come out of it.