Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Archmage is a euro-style, resource management and area control game by Tim Heerema where the players assume the roles of human magi, each with their own company of apprentices. The aim is to recruit more apprentices into your company, gain relics (resources) by exploring and controlling the wilderness hexes and send your apprentices into one of the six schools of magic by visiting one of the six races, each one being adept in a different type of magic. The player has to exchange one of the six types of resources with the race to persuade them to train one or more of the player’s apprentices.
Train your apprentices, upgrade them to Advanced level and then the highest Master level whilst controlling the board and you will become the Archmage. I remember the Spice Girls clearly telling me that ‘Two becomes One’, but in Archmage it seems that six becomes one! There are rather a lot of sixes in the game: planets, resource types, forms of magic and major races all come in batches of six. So clearly six is the magic number (and not three!). That said, it seems like publishers Starling Games missed a trick in making this a game for up to four players rather than six. Although, to be fair, with more players, this game would have suffered from excessive downtime. Commendably, however, Archmage incorporates a solo variant, with its own distinct spells and components.
The rules seem long because they cover all eventualities but they are reasonably clear, even if some sentences contain more jargon than NASA’s Saturn V Operating Manual. The player setup examples are good at providing clarity on the rules, it's just a shame that the setup examples are so small you need a magnifying glass to make them out.
The game centres on magic, and magic in the game takes the form of something that looks like a huge Venn diagram: each of the six forms of magic is a circle which overlaps with another magic circle creating an Advanced form made up of those two forms of magic in which your apprentices can 'duel' to become more powerful. Each player has a spell deck of 18 cards and each card corresponds to a space in your Venn diagram. Provided you have one of your apprentices in that space you get to have the corresponding spell. Trouble is that when they duel you lose one apprentice and if this would leave a space in your Venn diagram, then you lose that spell. So you’ll need to trot back to get some more of you apprentices trained…
As you gain spells from visiting races and promoting apprentices you can use these by spending resources corresponding to the type and level of the spell to give you additional benefits, like two extra movement points, or changing one type of resource into another, or dishing out some ‘take that’ punishment on your opponents. This offers some neat ways to extend your turn and get more done than is normally possible.
The game art, by Enggar Adirasa and Dann May is good. There are some great wooden components and it’s always good to see boards with indentations to prevent cubes scattering when someone jogs the table, although we’d have liked to have seen the colourful Venn diagram boards come with thicker backs. Shiny foil cards must have sounded like a good idea for this game’s 2017 Kickstarter campaign but they do seem to favour form over function: sparkle is not an aid to legibility.
Archmage is a game which isn’t difficult to grasp. It involves some chunky decision making: the spells, the movement and promoting those apprentices give you plenty to think about. Camps and Towns are super powerful, but they don’t score victory points at the end of the game. So whilst you want to have your followers on these super-helpful spaces, it ties up one of your limited resources and it does not give you an end-game benefit. This is a really good piece of game design. Players can pursue different paths to victory, although our plays did suggest that some strategies were better rewarded than others in terms of victory points. This is noticeable because Archmage isn’t one of those games where you are each going to be racking up three-figure VP totals: expect the margins in this game to be quite narrow.
Bottom line, however, the theme works well in Archmage and it comes across in what you are doing: you actually feel like a mage wandering the land, collecting spells and followers. And surely it makes a change to have an apprentice mage game that doesn't just ape the Harry Potter franchise. :-)
(Review by Jason Keeping)