Full Disclosure: Starling Games sent me a review copy of Archmage.
What is this game about?
In Archmage, the world is bereft of magic and in a generally terrible state. But, behold! Men and women with magical talents have reemerged and are once again learning to use their powers! And one of them, when the planets finally align, is going to become... the Archmage.
Archmage involves both area control and a truly fascinating magic system. Throughout the game, you will need to explore and control territory in order to acquire relics. You then use the relics to initiate apprentices into various schools of magic, gain the associated spells, and then use even more relics to continue to power those spells. On top of that, you can initiate your apprentices into higher levels of magic—something that can gain you a more powerful spell card, but can also cause you to lose the basic spells you had. And be careful, because you have a limited number of apprentices, and you need them both to control territory and to generate spells for you. The winner of the game will be the mage who has acquired the most points, and those points are determined by majority ownership of territory types on the board and—far more importantly—the number of high-power spell cards a player has acquired.
How does it play solo?
To play a solo game of Archmage, you must do battle with an automated opponent called The Warlord. While the Warlord doesn't cast spells, he does ravage your territory and starve you of the resources you need to gain and cast your own. His movement is controlled by two separate die rolls that determine the directions his path will take. To defeat the Warlord, you will need to have four master-level apprentices and control three out of five types of terrain that make up your land. You also have a limited number of turns in which to achieve this, so you'd better get going!
Setup for solo Archmage is slightly different—there are four solo-specific spells that replace the interactive spells in your standard spellbook. You also don't use the master-level spells in solo gameplay, even though you will have master level apprentices.
Archmage is a game that will stay with you for a long time after you play it. Although it seems a little complicated the first time you set it up, it's actually quick-moving and intuitive—but it also has enough depth to make you want to try it again, test out new strategies, and keep improving play after play. I'm still enjoying myself as I learn to combine different spells for maximum efficiency, and I'm not the only one. I tested this game out with students last week, and we had a blast. The kids were so into it that well after game club had ended, I found them waiting for their parents in the parking lot, still talking about strategy. When a game engages you that much, it's doing something right.
I do have a few cosmetic quibbles with Archmage. I have the deluxe edition of the game, and while the foiled cards are beautiful, they are also difficult for me to really look at. That caused me quite a bit of frustration when I was first sorting them out. The rulebook also has weirdly tiny setup diagrams, and I did not enjoy squinting at small images of the pieces while trying to figure out what I was doing. I'm not that old yet!
I also think that while Archmage has a serviceable solo mode, it's not a game you should buy for pure solo play. The Warlord can definitely put up a fight, but he doesn't cast spells, and his randomized movements are not as fun to deal with as your friends' active attempts to thwart you. Also, because the solo mode does not employ master level spells, you're missing out on game content in a way that is kind of a bummer.
That said, Archmage is definitely staying in my collection. It's one of the most interesting games I have played in a while, and I can't wait to get it to the table again. I'm also hoping for some interesting expansion spells in the future! (Dare I hope?)
Do I recommend it?
Yes, but not for pure solo. Get it if you want a really good mid-weight game with a decent solo mode.
Overall Rating: 3.5 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.