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Cardboard Children - MtG - Arena of the Planeswalkers

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Hello youse.

Magic The Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers is a bit of a mouthful, right? But it's definitely a title worth saying, and definitely a board game worth ordering. I was surprised by how good this one was – let me break it down for you real quick right here in this column today.

MtG: Arena Of The Planeswalkers

I love it when something like this happens. It's a mass-produced, inexpensive board game from Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast, full of toys and dice. The five main playing pieces are all individual Planeswalkers. (Planeswalkers, for those who don't know, are the magical people from the Magic: The Gathering card game who do all the summoning and stuff. They can make tigers appear. Things like that.) All the Magic: The Gathering colours are represented – there's the guy who does all the blue magic, the scary lady who does black stuff, red for fire, white for white, and green for trees and shit.

The point of the game is to have a couple of these Planeswalkers go toe-to-toe, casting spells and summoning monsters, until one of them is dead. You, as a player, will want to not be the dead one.

I've told you all before about Heroscape, the old Hasbro game where miniatures battle on modular plastic hex tiles. It's a great game, and Arena of the Planeswalkers is clearly based on the bones of Heroscape – the hex maps are here, although in cardboard this time. (It's clear that old Heroscape tiles can be used, so anyone with Heroscape stuff can fly into this game with lots of map variety potential.) The combat is much the same – attack and defence numbers tell you how many dice to roll, then swords hit and shields block. It's very straight-forward. Each Planeswalker has a couple of army units – the black magic lady (look, I can't remember her name, okay?) has a pack of zombies and a group of big stinking ogre things. They smell so bad, these things, that opposition units can't fight properly when they're near. If you've been in a Dundee nightclub you'll know the kind of thing. The blue man has a really cool group of units – they're spectral projections of himself, and he can switch places with them and stuff. It's very great and annoying. The red fire lady has these flying phoenix things that can dive over all the terrain and really make a mess of everybody's plans.

But hold on! Isn't this based on Magic: The Gathering?

Yes, and that's why each Planeswalker has their own deck of cards too. These cards will be familiar to anybody who plays Magic, and they can be cast in a player's turn as instant spells or enchantments. The instant conjuring spells do stuff like fire firebolts at people and raise the dead, while the enchantments attach to your troops and the troops of others, modifying their stats or abilities.

Turns are super-simple. You draw a card from your deck, choose which of your army cards you're going to activate (Planeswalker, or one of your units), and then move and attack with that card's unit. The spells can be played from your hand throughout your turn, whenever it's most ghastly for your opponent. And then your turn is done.

The game plays beautifully. The basic 2-player map has a little bit of terrain for your Planeswalkers to hide behind (line of sight is key in this game – and it's proper get-down-behind-your-miniature-and-see-what-it-can-see line of sight) and some nice objective tiles to grab. The objective tiles offer bonuses to your units. Parking yourself on a Movement bonus tile, for example, will let your units speed across the map at an extra clip, which is hugely effective in a game about taking out an opposition Planeswalker.

Some games will end quickly, when a Planeswalker bites off a little bit more than they can chew and ends up mixing it in a big pack rumble. Some games will last a little longer, when the Planeswalkers are hanging back, flinging fire and eath from afar. The game's pace and flow is completely in the hands of the players, and that dynamic is a beautiful thing. It's a real head-to-head challenge. A real game of patience, and chicken, and zombies.

Up to five players can play – and it absolutely works at that scale too. Team play is particularly great, offering an extra layer of tactics as you try to make your colour's special abilities mesh well with your partner's play-style.

I think this board game is an absolute slam dunk, and the time I've spent with it has been a hoot. And I'm not even an owl. It's a hugely generous board game too, with lots of miniatures and a healthy amount of options for play. Sure, the components aren't anything special. The paint job on the Planeswalkers is crude, and the army units are single-colour, soft plastic cheapies. But you can't really complain about that, I don't think. There's so much in the box, and it costs so little. And it feels like an old school board game, back when they were still toys. Before they were Kickstarter funded collectibles, you know?

It's inevitable that this game will be expanded. They talk about army-building in the rulebook, but each Planeswalker is stuck with two units in this base set. And it's enough, don't get me wrong. But with some extra units in the mix, I think this game will just get better and better. It's just a hugely fun board game, with lots of action, lots of variety, and it also rewards players for spending time with it. As you get to know the Planeswalker powers and the units and the cards, you start to get better at the game. And that's the sign of a real good one.

Get this onto your Christmas list. It's a great one for the kids, and a great one for you and your horrible drunk friends.

Surprising. Brilliant. Bring me more.

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