In this Second Edition of Stew’s Rant Corner, Stew discusses a classic 1979 Avalon Hill Bookcase Game: Magic Realm, a game that was ahead of its time in many, many ways, but suffered from a fatal flaw.
Have you ever had that game where you love the art, like the basic premises of the game, enjoy the attention to detail, and the storyline takes you away to that awesome place, but the rules trip you up and leave you wanting to love a game that you just can’t? If you have ever tried or played Avalon Hill’s 1979 release of Magic Realm, then you know what I mean.
The Game is SOOOO Cool!
Before I dig into the details, let me make it very clear, I SOOOO want to love this game, but I just can’t. Ask me if I like Magic Realm, and I will say, definitely, “Yes!” Ask me if I like playing Magic Realm, and I will say, “Yes!” So, why can I not love this game; read on and find out.
Magic Realm was released in 1979, and as you can see from the cover art, it is a fantasy game of adventure, individual battles, and magic. Truly, Magic Realm appeared to be Avalon Hill’s attempt to capture a role-playing game in a board game. Magic Realm contains various playable heroes, many dangerous monsters, magic items, spells, enchanted locations and random encounters. What more could any one person want? Let me be fair, I think Avalon Hill did a splendid job with Magic Realm, and here is why. I loved the art work from the moment I saw it. I loved the random game board. I loved the combat system. I loved the random encounter system. I hated that some of the character adventurers could run into certain monsters and simply had no chance: your game was over. Read on and let me explain more.
Before Its Time: Campaigns, Double-Sided Tiles, Character Cards, and Random Monsters
First, Avalon Hill laid out Magic Realm into seven playable campaigns, meant to be played sequentially, teaching any potential players the rules a few at a time. Avalon succeeded brilliant with this, as the rules make sense, are easy to follow, and you learn them a small portion at a time: beginning with searching, then fighting, they monsters, treasurers, spells, etc., until the you are playing the entire campaign game looking for victory points to prove that you are the most experienced and fame worthy adventurer. In order to facilitate this, Magic Realm had, at the time, some new and innovative mechanics. First, the hexagonal tiles provided an ever-changing landscape, different with each game. Also, these tiles representing woods, caves, and mountain passes, could be “enchanted” and flipped over to a side where they not only changed the direction paths and roads led, but they also supported one of the three different colors of magic. I can not say if Magic Realm was the first game with hexagonal tiles that could be laid out randomly to create a different map every game, but it certainly worked and we all have seen that same random map structure used in many games today.
The Hex Tiles. The top 3 are examples of the “normal” side and the bottom 3 examples of the “enchanted” side.
Magic Realm also had Character Cards with the statistics, powers, weapons, and spells for each adventurer that a player could choose. These character cards also contained four levels that each player could be in their development of their craft, starting with a brand new adventurer to a seasoned campaigning veteran. Magic Realm also used a unique way to randomly introduced monsters onto the map by providing “Warning” and “Sound” counters that could be laid out at random, which when revealed interacted with the “Appearance Chart”. Other counters, laid out at random, would reveal the location of different buildings or places that could contain either more monsters, treasures, spells, or natives that could be hired to help. All of this was wonderful, easy to play, and quite enjoyable. Now, let’s talk about combat.
The mosaic above shows clockwise from top left: the campaign “Personal History Pad”, the “Treasure Set Up/Monster Appearance” Chart, the plethora of counters, and the Character Cards (examples in top row of art on the front and examples in bottom row of stats on the back).
A Truly Good Idea: The Combat Matrix Chart…
One of the best, and perhaps worst, mechanics was the fighting chart with the “Move” and “Fight” counters. The idea was for each combat the adventurer would choose a fight and a move counter; placing them on the combat chart into one of three locations. The monster would then randomly be placed on a place on the battle chart as well. This created a rock vs paper situation where two rules applied; if the speed of the monster was faster than the adventurer’s move, the adventurer was struck, the monster could also hit the adventurer by being placed opposite the location of the adventurer’s move counter. The attack for the adventurer on the monster was the same. Armor, weapons, and spells were then taken into account. This created a unique combat system, where sometimes no one was hit, and others both were struck. However, if the first strike killed the character, no strike on the monster would be made, and of course, vice versa.
The Combat Matrix
…That Went So Horribly Wrong!
Here, however, is where Magic Realm broke down completely. Take the “Black Knight” character. He wore armor, wasn’t very fast, and used a mace that was hard hitting, but not overly so. Now take a certain “Tremendous” troll. It struck faster than the Black Knight could possibly move, did the most damage possible in the game, and was too tough for the Black Knight to hurt it. What resulted was a situation where the Black Knight was struck every time, and if he had tremendous armor on, could survive one such strike, but the Black Knight could not kill the troll, and the troll was too fast for the Black Knight to run and get away. This combination ALWAYS resulted in the death of the Black Knight. And here lies the fatal flaw of Magic Realm: no one likes to play a game that they can just randomly lose. If the Black Knight runs into other monsters, everything is ok, but if he ran into the Tremendous Troll, he was dead. Sort of made me want to run the random encounter at the start of the game, just to see if their was any point in playing it.
This flaw, and a major flaw it is, does not exist for all characters, just some, but enough to make you not want to play. The more times I played Magic Realm–and I played a lot of Magic Realm, because I SOOOO wanted to love this game! I loved everything about it, but the random fatality of certain characters–the more I gave up on the game. So, in a nut shell, do I hate Magic Realm and wish I had never played it? No. I just wish it had been play tested better ahead of time. I encourage all of you to find this game in a hobby shop, or online, and give Magic Realm a try. You will fall in love with it, and you will be frustrated by it, all at the same time. It is a good example of why play-testing is so important nowadays, and obviously, back then.