by Moritz Eggert
Magic Realm was created by the fabulous Richard Hamblen, who co-designed or solo-designed many games for Avalon Hill, among them two all-time classics: Gunslinger and Magic Realm. Hamblen was a bit of a special character - I strongly suggest you check out Alan Moon's wonderful geeklist called "My Four Years at Avalon Hill at Boardgamegeek.com, in which he describes playing games with Richard. Hamblen's mind was, well - different - it worked in strange ways, and this I think is important to remember when you approach the monster game that is Magic Realm.
Magic Realm attempts and succeeds in being a "complete" fantasy game. It is the only fantasy game I know that not only simulates adventurous encounters with monsters and such but also a complete fantasy world with several factions like the Order or the Rogues. Like in a complicated computer simulation the inhabitants of the Realm have their own mind - they appear when disturbed, but one can never calculate who exactly will appear, the Giant Tremendous Spider or the Goblins for example. They wander around. They have love/hate relationships and they even wage wars against each other, if the player takes on their offer. They even leave on their own if it's the seventh day of the week, because also monsters need a little rest.
The Realm itself is comprised of several large hexes consisting of 3-6 "clearings" which the players move along. Everything - combat, negotiations, treasure searching etc. happens in these clearings. But the paths of the Realm change constantly - the players can enchant the tiles and have them turn to their enchanted side. Not only will the hex tile now suddenly produce magic, it will also have different interconnections of its paths. Many a Magic Realm player has despaired when the formerly so simple journey from A to B became impossible because of someone tinkering with magic. It's a bit like a three-dimensional Escher puzzle, you know the guy who drew Möbius strips and such.
Even better, when you play with the advanced rules you go through seasons like in real life. Winter is hard but easy on underground movement, where it's warm, whereas summer gives lots of opportunities for players to roam outside. And the tiles do turn over by themselves, on the seventh day of each week.
I could go on and on about the many unique features of Magic Realm, in fact I have already done so in my detailed review here. The combat system, which is like no other, the turn system, which like Diplomacy utilizes written orders, the only Fantasy board game I know that does so.
Even though luck plays a role in Magic Realm it is much less a game of luck like Talisman or Runebound but very much a game of skill, this makes it very attractive even to hardcore Eurogamers, who only touch a game if it has controllable elements, and yes, there are even victory points.
I thought a lot about why I like Magic Realm so much these days (my wife does too, by the way, it is a game that a lot of women enjoy; she loves to play the peaceful wood girl or the druid). And I think it has a lot to do with that it is so unique. The designer's mind was either under drugs or in another state of consciousness while he designed the game, but he made the game in such a way that it is like no other game. There is not one mechanic in the game where I could immediately say, "Oh, that's like in that-and-that game", each mechanic is absolutely unique to Magic Realm and exists only there.
This also makes it a very hard to learn game, not because it is full of chrome and exceptions in the rules (it is actually not), but because one just has to get in the Hamblen mindset. Being an artist myself I can see a certain kind of artistic beauty in this game, something that really is like a work of art, fuelled with lots of love and imagination.
The old Avalon Hill gave this game a "10" on their complexity scale, which says a lot, and many have compared it to "Advanced Squad Leader" because of this.
But don't despair, my friends, there is a good way to learn or get reacquainted with the game, and that is "Realmspeak", the wonderful and faithful computer version of the game, which is not yet completely finished but already fully playable online or even solo (as Magic Realm doesn't need a gamemaster it is perfect for solitaire play, and can be learned very well on your own). Robin Warren has really put a lot of work in this and should be rewarded with heaps of Geek Gold for this.
Robin belongs to a growing group of Magic Realm enthusiasts who go to great lengths making the game accessible for new players. These players have not only produced countless variants and expansions for the base game, they also have produced two completely new versions of the rules, both together with Richard Hamblen, so they're legit. This is the Third Edition Rules and "Magic Realm in Plain English", a good way to get into the game if the original rules seem too daunting. They are also available for free download.
I will stop rambling now, and just recommend very heartily that you try out this game. Don't be scared away by new complexities - I promise you, it all makes perfect sense. Download Realmspeak and get into online games with the designers, make the Magic Realm community grow!
©2007, Westpark Gamers