This 2–4 player combat game has been designed by Mihail Ivanov to use a playing card deck to initiate actions and a tarot card deck to represent players' armies.
A marketplace of 4 tarot cards (5 in a four-player game) is laid out. The relevant detail on each card are the roman numerals on the top. This represents the cost of the card to 'summon' (buy from the market) and the cost subsequently to 'activate' it (use it to attack an opponent). It also represents the number that has to be beaten to capture the card in an attack. When cards are activated to attack an opponent, the roman numerals used are interpreted to determine the dice to be rolled: four I's will give you a 4-sided die; eight I's gives you an 8-sided die; V's convert to a 6-sided die; X's give you a 12-sided die and you roll a 20-sided die for XX. The roman numerals are cumulative for the cards activated, so if you have in your army VII and VIII and you are able to activate both on a turn then you'd roll a 4-sided die for the I's and a 12-sided die for the two V's. Certain otherwise low-value cards give you re-rolls and dice 'explode' (you roll again and add the new roll to your total any time you roll the maximum number on the die).
Combat mostly targets the leftmost tarot in a player's army, so you will probably want to use a free 'move' action to reposition cards so that the stronger cards are to the left. That said, attacks from 4- and 8-sided dice are treated as 'ranged' attacks in that the attacker can direct them at any card in an opponent's army regardless of its position. The Fool tarot card has a value of zero. If you add him to your army, he can be used as a sacrificial lamb: discarded to disregard all the damage meted out on an attack. If you want to push your luck further, you can 'Risk the Fool' by drawing one of the two facedown joker cards. If you draw the red joker, you deflect all the damage back against the attacker. However, if you draw the black joker, your Fool's sacrifice is in vain and you have to take the damage from the attack.
Players each have a hand of four playing cards (Arcana Magica actually uses a slightly modified card playing card deck that adds a Knight [value 14] to each suit). The number on the card represents its value but whether you count it at full face value or half value depends on the colour of the card and the action for which you are using it. To use the cards to activate tarot cards in your army, black (spades and clubs; in this game designated pentacles and swords) cards count for their full value and red cards (hearts and diamonds; designated cups and wands) have their value halved. When you use the cards to 'summon' (recruit tarot cards to your army), this is reversed so it's the red cards that have full value and the black cards whose value is halved. For the first few turns you'll only be using your playing card hand for summoning because, for the first four rounds, no-one is allowed to attack a player with fewer than three tarot cards in their army.
As with the Fool tarot card, there's a push-your-luck option available if you don't like the four playing cards you have in hand at the start of the game. You can discard your entire hand but you're taking a 50/50 gamble on whether or not you can replenish it. Draw the red joker and you can pick up four new cards but draw the black joker and you lose your turn. This makes this quite a desperate gamble: you'd have to have a hand that's virtually useless (no viable option to either activate or summons) before risking this gamble.
Turn order can be important in this game (you'll usually benefit from having first pick at the marketplace) so it's worth noting that it rotates each turn. At first sight you might think this game just comes down to the luck of drawing the highest value cards and using then to acquire the highest value tarot cards. There's a subtle balance at play, however. You want of course to collect the most tarot cards but you probably won't be able to activate them as often and as easily as the lower value cards. Similarly, low-value playing cards can be surprisingly worthwhile in activations because of their compensatory re-roll capability: an Ace is always valued as just one but it gives you two re-rolls when you use it as part of an activation.
There are various end-game triggers (for example, being first to capture a XX card or being the player who summons the last tarot card from the marketplace). You pick up a token for any of these milestones, as they are worth 10 victory points, and, when the first token is collected you roll a die to determine how many further rounds you'll play. The rules offer a range of options but we mostly preferred to roll a d4 to avoid any risk of the game overstaying its welcome. Tho' there are judgement calls to be made, there's undeniably a lot of luck in Arcana Magica so it's at its best if its kept to a crisp 30-minute filler.
Your end-game score is the total value of any tokens, cards captured from an opponent, tokens and half the value of your remaining army, and the rulebook incorporates a bunch of optional rules suggesting variants to try. All the options we've tried so far at Board's Eye View work pretty smoothly, not least because this is a game with straightforward and mostly intuitive rules. Much of this game's appeal tho' is down to its stunning artwork: Dilyana Bozhinova's magnificent art is featured not just on the tarot cards but on every one of the playing cards. It's a game that'd be worth having for the cards alone! And, as a bonus, you can always use the cards to tell your fortune. :-)
Arcana Magica is due to go live on Kickstarter on 9 September. Click here to check out the KS campaign.