Magic Realm (1979) epic review

So a while back I mentioned I was working on a couple projects, that I would eventually get around to making a post on one of them. Well, it’s time.

Rating: 5 / 5

It is meant to be a complete fantasy world so full of variation that the players have real choices to make, so full of diversity that no matter how many times it is played it can still surprise you with its situations, and so filled with detail that the illusion of a complete world is created. All of this is derived from the annals and possibilities of adventure fantasy. — Richard Hamblen, The General, Vol. 16, Issue 4

To talk about this beast of a board game, I’d have to start with it’s history, which actually begins a few years prior to when it was published by Avalon Hill. For those who are only interested in the game and gameplay, just skip past the Pre-History and History sections.

Pre-History of the Realm

ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is a game that is demanding for players and Dungeon Masters alike, but the rewards in terms of enjoyment are vast. There is nothing quite like a successful D&D campaign, and its success is based upon the efforts of all participants. The Dungeon Master is pivotal, of course, but the players are just as important, for they are the primary actors and actresses in the fascinating drama which unfolds before them. — Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player Handbook, Foreward

No matter how many times you read a book, it doesn’t bother you that it turns out the same way each time (in fact, it would bother you considerably if it turned out differently each time you read it). But you expect to play a game repeatedly, and you would be utterly outraged if it automatically turned out the same way each time you played it. — Richard Hamblen, The General Volume 16, Issue 4

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A new era had dawned in the gaming industry in 1974, when Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) entered the world. From there Tabletop Role-Playing Games (T-RPGs) became a rising genre, and grew in popularity. That, and the release of The Hobbit in 1977 and The Lord of the Rings in 1978 only pushed the popularity of the fantasy genre in pop-culture further. But this rising popularity worried traditional Christian leaders and families; worried that letting their children play these games would corrupt their souls and make them Satan’s little worshipers and cause all sorts of bad shit to happen. So the 700 Club among other organizations rallied against this abomination among the youth and released educational materials and documentaries warning of the dangers of playing these games. Most of this controversy came during the 80s, when the popularity of the game was arguably at its peak.  The franchise even got its own animated television show. Yet it wasn’t without incident, as there were one or two individuals who got too involved with the hobby, and committed suicide due to their disillusionment with the game, becoming too engrossed in the “role” of role-playing.  How ironic it is then that one of the earliest (if not the earliest) T-RPG was heavily inspired by J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, arguably the most influential novel trilogy of all time as far as fantasy lore is concerned; a novel trilogy written by a Christian man.

Thankfully these holier-than-thou delusional assholes didn’t do enough damage to prevent too many from wanting to give this hobby a spin (or, more appropriately, a roll). Like I said, the popularity of D&D was on the rise, gave nerds another outlet for their creativity and imaginations, and allowed for game groups and friendships and bonds to form through the experiences the game provided. And allowed them to put themselves into the shoes of warriors, rogues, mages, and everything in-between; to act as individuals accomplishing deeds that they never would’ve been able to do in reality, thus achieving their lifelong goal of acting as someone more likely of losing their virginity.

But I digress, the makers of D&D based their game on wargames of the time period (pre-1974). But the game makers, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, wanted a game that focused less on the armies and more on the individual. Then came first edition D&D, which expanded to an advanced edition (Advanced D&D) in 1978. But thanks in part to the Christian backlash of the 80s, the game system got a makeover with the 2nd edition in 1989 which removed much of the demonic and satanic stuff. In other words, now it wasn’t ok to play a game where you could strike down actual beings that represented evil; or listen to Rock and Roll or Heavy Metal.  And it didn’t end there.  The protests by Christian groups proved so great that it prevented the final episode of the final season of the D&D tv show (based on the T-RPG) to be cancelled, left unfinished, and un-aired.

I know of several people who are into these tabletop roleplaying games, and there were a few times in the past where I tried to get into it myself. And I understand the appeal. As mentioned earlier, it made gaming more personal on a number of levels, allowing for a stronger emotional investment/connection. You control a single character which you can customize yourself, provide them the traits you want, the abilities you want, and had to work as a team with others. On top of that, the replay value is infinite, only bound by their imaginations. The DM can create whatever world, whatever story, whatever encounter he/she wishes the other players to play in. And if the group is cohesive enough, they know how to make the right enough amount of a challenge and a good enough narrative to satisfy everyone, and leave them wanting more on the next play. On top of that, their character can evolve as the game goes on, become stronger, become more capable of taking out other monsters and assisting other heroes.

How could a board game ever hope to match that? How could a self-contained board game hope to provide such an experience?

Here there be dragons!

History of the Realm

Fantasy adventures capture interest because they are explained in enough detail to make the experience seem real and to account for the hero’s thoughts and actions. Books can do this because only one adventure is detailed and the narrative can handle that quite nicely. In a game all possible adventures have to be detailed without much narrative (after all, you want to play a game, not read it). — Richard Hamblen, The General Volume 16 Issue 5

Avalon Hill (themselves one of the biggest board game companies of the 70s-80s, with wargames being a large portion of their inventory) took notice of D&D’s rising popularity. They wanted in on the action, but they didn’t want to expand into T-RPGs. Instead, they wanted a self-contained board game to emulate the same feel. Of having players each take control of an individual character, and play in a somewhat open-world game where they could do as they wanted with few restrictions, without needing to follow the dictations of a Dungeon Master (DM). Thus they were hoping for something more accessible than D&D, and more profitable. So they got Richard Hamblen to design this game over the course of a few years. After a few delays and some compromises, Magic Realm was released in 1979. Unbeknownst to them at the time, this would only be the first of 3 editions of the game.

First edition rulebook. Source

Its reception was less than stellar. It failed to garner the popularity of D&D much like how, well, virtually every collectible card game (CCG) ever made failed to garner the popularity and profit of Magic: The Gathering. One of the reasons for this is due to the game being unlike anything the world had ever seen before. The other reason, an even bigger reason, was due to the first edition rulebook. The rulebook in of itself doesn’t seem all that bad nor all that complicated, at least not on a first read-through. Plus it’s only 36 pages in total (which is miniscule compared to the size of D&D rulebooks). But once you start playing with those rules, problems inevitably become apparent. They tried to take a complex game and make the rulebook simplified, which was a mistake, because there are ambiguities. Questions will arise that the rules don’t have an answer for. Thus players would be forced to make their own house-rules until an official FAQ or errata was released. Considering this was 1979, well before the Internet and sites like boardgamegeek.com, it would be a while before that happened. The main way players were able to get access to any form of FAQ or errata was via The General, Avalon Hill’s own magazine series. In it Hamblen made some clarifications and gave tips on strategy and tactics (and admitted that the rulebook itself was its own puzzle).

Eventually a second edition of the game was released in 1986, with a few errors corrected on some of the monster counters, and a new rulebook with more pages (83 pages in total) and clarifications. There was still some ambiguity, and it was still difficult to get a grasp on the rules (so difficult that there are urban legends of university professors with high IQs going mad trying to figure out how to play the game; which I guess makes me more than qualified to be a university professor), but it’s considered an improvement on the first edition rules. It wasn’t enough to allow the game the popularity it needed to succeed, so it remained a cult classic at best, left largely ignored by many while D&D and the T-RPG genre took off, and while other fantasy board games were released (such as Wizard’s Quest, Titan, HeroQuest, Warhammer, Pathfinder, Crossbows and Catapults, Talisman, and Dragon-Strike).

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However, while the game never achieved the recognition Avalon Hill had hoped it would, it did retain a cult following for those who did have and played the game. A cult following that was maintained into 2005. A cult following that had discussions in e-mail groups and online forums, conversations about the rules and clarifications, as well as house rules. Eventually, similar to when a couple of fans wanted to tweak rules of existing games to make something of their own in 1974, a group of fans (including Teresa Michelsen, Stephen McKnight, Jay Richardson, Daniel W. Farrow IV) got together (with some assistance from Richard Hamblen himself) to make erratas, indexes, and a greatly expanded rulebook. Thus came the unofficial 3rd edition rulebook in 2005, which comes in at a whopping 122 pages. But that wasn’t the end of the game’s rebirth, only the beginning. Software versions of the game were released, for free, by fans, such as Realmspeak (by Robin Warren). On top of that, there was even a graphical re-design of the game to make it more visually appealing to modern gamers released for free (as a print-and-play) by Chakroun Karim.

The General, Volume 25, Issue 1

A rulebook that finally answered any and every question gamers would want to know while playing the game (though not being any easier to read, although some tutorial books have been written to resolve that issue). A graphics update (while there are some who prefer the original art, there’s no denying the counters made the game more user-friendly). It had become a game that has been given a face-lift for modern-day board gamers, in an age where the average board-gaming crowd has moved on from games like this. Also supplied now by an online user-base. The game was reborn.

The Appearance Chart, which could take up to an hour to setup.
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Karim Re-Design, still takes up to an hour.

While it hasn’t gotten the recognition its fans believe it deserves, that’s something that’s never going to happen. The game is too dense and complex for the average gamer to want to dig into. Especially in this day and age where everyone wants things to be easy, wants instant gratification, wants to know everything there is to know about the game right away; without wanting to work on it, to learn the intricate strategies and tactics on their own, without wanting to put much investment in the game. Some would say the game was far ahead of its time, but it’s also a game that wouldn’t fit in today’s market either. It’s an anomaly. It’s a niche game. It’s not for everyone. But for those who are interested in what is arguably the most influential fantasy board game of all time, and for those who are above-average, and who are curious about a game that gives back as much as you put into it, it is worth at least a peek.

Here there be Octopus!

The Gameplay

In a game the world has to be filled out from all possible vantage points, so the whole world has to be built right down to the nuts and bolts. Games based on particular works of fiction have an advantage here because only the parts of the world that are interesting in the book have to be built in. A game about adventure fantasy in general, a game such as MAGIC REALM, has to include all the aspects that are present in adventure fantasy generally or it does not invoke its world. — Richard Hamblen, The General Volume 16 Issue 5

Original game
Karim Redesign

Magic Realm can be played by 1-16 players. Yes, it can be played solo, and it’s enjoyable as a solo experience. However, the game shines brightest when played with others, preferably 4 or more. In my experience, it can get a bit too crowded if playing with more than 8, though this can be bearable if all players are experienced and know what they’re doing. Unlike virtually any other game I’ve seen, the game is designed to be extremely adaptable. If one player leaves, it doesn’t disrupt the flow of play because the game has been designed to take that into account. The player’s character is just assumed to have committed suicide (or you could come up with other thematic reasons for their death, such as a tree had fallen on them and killed them, or they accidentally tripped and fell and broke their neck; you know, anything to take people’s minds off the fact that a couple people committed suicide over another fantasy game), and their belongings are left behind for anyone else to try and claim. In addition, players can hop into the game without much problem, though the game becomes quite difficult for them to beat if they come in late, unless they utilize some sneaky tactics.

16 characters. Source

When the game begins, players are dealt out 20 hex tiles, which are then used to construct the board the pieces will be placed and move on. This allows for the board to be different each time it is played, making for its own form of random generation. However, as repeated plays will show, it is usually in player’s best interests to try and construct the map in a certain way. You could try bunching all the Valley tiles together (where all potential start locations are located), or you could try spreading them out; there’s pros and cons to both, and it depends on the character you choose (which happens after setup). Either way, you won’t know which specific valley tile you’ll start in until after you’ve chosen a character and setup your Victory Point distribution. Thus it is encouraged that Valley tiles are placed early on so that they have as many paths open as possible. Or maybe you don’t want very many paths open to valley tiles if you want to limit where the starting dwelling will be located on the tile. Then you may want to consider if you want certain tiles grouped together, such as grouping all the caves (which is beneficial for the Dwarf character who works best in caves), or the woods and valleys. It takes repeated plays and experience to determine what the best course of action is.

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To encourage players not to get too specific with how they setup the map, characters are chosen afterwards, starting with the first player to use up his last map tile for setup. Getting first pick gives the player a more optimum choice for winning if the map becomes too specialized in any one particular character’s favor (ex: bunching all the caves together makes the Dwarf an optimum pick; spreading out the woods helps out magic users for ease of travel; linking all valleys together encourages picking characters who are better at winning by selling belongings, etc.). There are 16 characters in the game, and each are quite unique in how they play and win. It probably won’t seem apparent, upon the first play or two, as to why some characters stand out. For instance, characters with no magic capabilities, who only have Fight and Move chits, who are of the same weight; sure they have some differing special abilities (each character has at least 2 special abilities), but most of their Fight and Move chits are the same (similar force, similar speed). But believe me, even the smallest subtle difference can have a big impact on the character’s strategy. Plus that doesn’t even take into account that characters start with different equipment. The Amazon, for instance, starts with plenty of armor, encouraging her to take more chances in combat, just like the Captain. But she can maneuver with less effort than the Captain, and her special ability allows her to travel faster than all other characters (with the possible exception of the Wizard, or anyone who gains the ability to fly). The Captain, on the other hand, has an easier time hiring other natives, and starts out Friendly with 2 of the 4 native groups that start out on the map. The differences expand from there among each of the other characters.

What the Dwarf player will do if the caves aren’t clustered together.

Unlike T-RPGs, the characters in this game have preset abilities, preset starting conditions, and don’t have any stats to level up (not without some optional/advanced rules anyway). It helps to have a preset character for ease-of-entry into the game system, though you still have to learn to play that character well. And with 16 characters to choose from, well, that should give you some idea as to the extent of the replay value, especially if it’s going to take more than one play to get good with just one character. To emulate progression of leveling up a character, the game has treasures that can be looted from sites, or purchased from natives. Each treasure gives the holder an ability of some kind, whether it involves making their Fight/Move/Magic chits faster/stronger, granting another Fight/Move/Magic chit, making movement easier, granting the ability to fly, gaining a better weapon, etc. They usually provide ways for characters to become stronger so long as they hold the treasure, and emulate the feel of leveling up and/or gaining a new ability. And this comes without the hassle of having to erase and write down stats.

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That being said, you’ll still require paper and pencil for this game. But rather than for tracking stats (with the exception of gold, fame, notoriety, and spells, which are the only stats that really need any tracking), you use it to plan out activities in the game. The game has an emphasis on planning ahead, calculating, attempting to achieve victory by a thought-out plan rather than stumbling around hoping to come across something that will allow you to win, even if that could happen too. You have to write out where you’ll move, where you’ll search/trade/hide/hire/enchant/etc. If something happens that would prevent you from doing all of the activities you’ve recorded, then too bad, the other activities are wasted.

Enchanting the Borderlands

For example, say a character wants to moved through a Woods travel tile (travel tiles have less than 6 clearings), but another character enchants that tile (usually a magic user who either wants a supply of gold magic that the tile provides on its enchanted side, or wants to alter the paths for ease of travel), and this messes with the former character’s ability to move through the woods, the character becomes stuck at the last clearing he/she can legally move to. That’s one way other players can impede another’s progress, sometimes it’s unintentional, sometimes it is intentional.

Not to mention the Mountains are a bit difficult to trek, and so are the caves.

Whenever you end your turn on a tile with face-down chits (a warning chit and 1 or more site/sound chits), those chits could potentially spawn monsters on the tile, which will either appear on a specific clearing number, or go directly to the clearing you’re on. Each chit spawns specific monsters, but the monsters don’t spawn, or even move on the tile, unless they’re prowling. Prowling is determined at the start of each day via a random D6 roll. So even if the chits are capable of bringing monsters onto the board, those monsters won’t appear unless they’re prowling. So it’s possible to go through a tile without ever coming across a monster, or monsters might show up right away and flood the tile (though their numbers aren’t limitless, so they won’t keep piling on forever). In any case, it becomes a matter of calculating the statistics and determining how far you should push your luck. Try moving around the tile and finding sites without hiding? Or take your time to hide while moving around so that you’re safe from any monsters that do appear? How many days do you have left? How much are the mountains and caves impeding your progress? Are you truly prepared for what may come?

Goblins arrive courtesy of the “Patter 2” sound chit. Source

The player interaction is something quite unique in this game. The game truly is a sand-box style game with few restrictions given as to how characters can interact with each other and the other components within the system. It is at a player’s whim if they want to team up with others to make it more likely for them to not only survive journeys through dangerous tiles (which is mostly all of them), or if they want to go it alone without any help, or if they ally with others but then decide to leave them later, or if they ally but then back-stab and attempt to kill the other character(s) in the game. It’s all up to them, though there’s less incentive to kill off other players early-on in the game simply because there isn’t much benefit to it.

There is so much wrong with this. I mean, we’re to believe this hunk of man meat is only Light weight as opposed to Heavy? And with that getup, it makes me think he skull-fucks people.

On that note, I should probably mention how a player can win this game. Players decide ahead of time how long they wish to play the game for (ie, how many rounds are played), with 28 in-game days (ie 4 in-game weeks) being standard, 56 days (ie 8 weeks) being about the longest most would want to go for unless in some specialized game session. I’d say for everyone’s first game, start with 28 days and see if you would want to extend it from there. The reason why the number of weeks matters, is because you get 1 VP per week in the game, plus 1. At the start of the game you have to distribute these VP points however you want among the stuff you wish to get in the game, thus setting a goal for yourself. You can use VPs to state that you want Great Treasures, new Spells, Fame, Notoriety, and/or Gold. No matter what your distribution entails, it almost always requires your character to go out and kill monsters/natives, loot treasures from sites, learn spells from sites/treasures, or a combination of some or all of those. Each of the 16 characters has a different optimal method when it comes to going about doing those things. And the more you play the character, the better you can determine how to more wisely distribute those VP points, let alone learn how to survive a full game session.

Karim version. At least now it’s left up to our imagination.

Despite the thickness of the rulebook, and the fact that it took me 2 weeks initially to learn how to play properly (it will be considerably less than that if someone helps you learn), the basics of the game really aren’t all that difficult to learn. You just need to learn what the activities do (most of the time you’ll just do Hide, Move, and Search), and how turn structure works. That’s all fairly simple despite the little exceptions here and there. Where the game really gets complex is with the combat system.

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Knight vs. Tremendous Dragon (roll of 1 on the Transform table)

Now, if it’s just one character vs. one monster, it’s not that bad. You try to anticipate where the monster will maneuver, and you act accordingly, with a 1/3 chance of intercepting it. And if you can attack fast enough, you may not even need to match your attack position up with the monster’s maneuver (some characters are stronger and/or faster than others, and thus better suited for taking on various monster types). And you try to maneuver either where you hope the monster won’t attack, or maneuver where you have armor protection (ex: helmets provide protection when you duck). First round, weapon length hits first, all other rounds it’s whoever attacks the fastest gets to hit first. Doesn’t sound so bad right? Well, it starts to get just a little complicated when you take into account the combat system is built to take on virtually anything, whether it’s one on one fights, character vs. character, character vs. denizen, character taking on multiple denizens, character with several hirelings taking several denizens, characters with other characters who each have hirelings and with other monsters in the clearing all duking it out with each other while riding horses and casting magic spells. That’s when the system gets complicated, and can cause an aneurysm (or cause university professors to go insane).

Combat is easily the most difficult part of the game to grasp. The other aspect that’s considered difficult to grasp is magic, characters who are primarily magic users. And to be honest, once it is demonstrated, magic didn’t seem all that complicated to me either. There are 8 different spell types in the game, and each spell requires a specific color of magic needed to power the spell (there are 5 colors of magic, each of which is closely associated with a spell type, with some crossovers here and there). Each magic user is limited to what spells they can cast normally by the magic chits they have, which determines which spell types they can cast. It takes time for magic users to recover after casting a spell, as using spells can cause one or two magic chits to fatigue. But if they are in a clearing that is enchanted (usually done by flipping a tile over to its enchanted side), and the clearing provides the right color, then it takes less out of a magic user to cast more spells.

Rolled a 4 on the Transform table.

And then there’s the natives themselves. Each character has a certain relationship level with each of the natives (enemy, unfriendly, neutral, friendly, ally). The better the relationship, the easier it is to buy/sell with them, or to hire them so they can accompany you. The more natives you have with you, the better defended you are, and the better you are at taking out other monsters and natives for fame/notoriety points without the help of other characters. However, it costs gold to hire them (let alone buy treasures/weapons/armor from them), and characters only start with 10 gold each at the start of the game, which usually isn’t enough to hire any of them, with the exception of the Rogues (and that’s assuming you have a decent relationship with them). So you usually have to go out to get treasures that you can sell back to a native group so you can gain the gold to hire the natives. Or, alternatively, kill a character who has treasures and/or gold that you can take from them in order to gain the gold to hire other natives (or to meet victory requirements for gaining great treasures and/or gold).

Getting transformed into a squirrel (on a 5 roll) isn’t so bad. Yes, that can happen in this game.

And on top of all that, it is easy to get killed in this game. This is not one of those games where you’re a one-man-army. If you go into a fight reckless without thinking about it very much, you will likely get slaughtered. All it takes is one hit against a non-armored character, one hit that has a force equal to or greater than a character’s weight, and they’re dead. It can be considered an achievement in of itself just playing to the end without dying. But surviving isn’t enough to get you the win. You will be forced to take chances to get the points needed to win, especially since you have a time limit (the number of days). But this is also what gives the game its replay value. While it is possible for luck to screw you over, it’s usually easy to see where you could improve your strategy for the next game. And considering the map layout and site/native/monster locations are different every game, you’ll also have to learn to be adaptable.

Demons, they will corrupt your soul and force the 700 Club to intervene. Source

So, yeah, this game has a lot to take in. A game where you can pick from a diverse list of characters, go off into the world and seek treasures to loot/sell, find monsters to kill, hire small armies, take on small armies, cast spells to alter the realm itself (let alone either yourself or other characters/monsters/natives), and choose your own path to victory. It did a magnificent job of emulating a T-RPG feel in terms of all the things that can happen, at the sacrifice of heavy narrative, and removing the DM from the picture. But that’s usually what separates board games from T-RPGs. T-RPGs are unrivaled when it comes to narrative in gaming. But at the same time, it comes at the expense of tactical/strategic gameplay. And both areas of gaming provide multiple choices players can choose from, while replicating the atmosphere brought forth from fantasy novels of which there is no choice provided for the reader (Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books aside). There’s always going to be a give-and-take. For those who want more from the gameplay aspect than the narrative aspect while still creating your own sense of narrative, Magic Realm is the way to go.

Rolled a 6 on the Transform table.

That all being said, despite the praise, despite the rating, this game does have some issues. Aside from the downtime between players (especially during combat), the biggest issue is with the Campaigns. Thematically they seem great, providing a way for characters to join a cause and fight battles against other natives while making it easier to hire other natives whom you’ve sided with. But the problem is twofold. 1.) It’s rare for campaigns to pop-up in the game. 2.) It’s usually not worth picking them up, considering you have to pay a fame and notoriety cost which you can’t get back without completing the campaign, and if you fail to complete the campaign (by wiping out the opposition), you not only don’t get those fame and notoriety points back, but you lose more of them. It’s safer just to ignore the campaigns altogether and just hire/kill native groups normally.

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The other problem is what is known as the sell-kill-loot tactic, where players band together early on to sell stuff to natives, kill the native group they just sold stuff too (which isn’t too difficult if enough characters of the right type band together), and then spend the next couple in-game days looting all the treasures/items the natives dropped after killing them. Rinse and repeat with the other native groups. This wouldn’t be a problem if it was a strategy utilized late in the game, but this isn’t the case; and Hamblen himself has admitted this goes against his vision, isn’t very thematic, and considers it a flaw. There have been a couple rules made in the 3rd edition to nerf this issue a bit, and it’s less of an issue if playing with 5 players or less, but it’s still there, especially with the Rogues at the start of the game.

But none of those kinks are enough to break the game in my opinion. Ignoring campaigns and still playing with the native-bashing in-tact, it’s still a highly tense game where players are usually on edge towards each other, wondering when the others are going to start looking after only themselves, or whether they should make a move against someone else (they are playing to win for themselves after all, not for each other; however the game is played, it’s still a competition, it’s up to the players if it’s going to be a friendly or cut-throat competition).

Hurricane Winds

Plus there’s the narrative that can be generated from the game, and I’ll give an example from one of my recent solo plays. I play the Elf, who starts at the Inn with the Rogues, during Freshet season:

I am determined to gain a high level of Fame (3 VP = 30 Fame) and a respectable amount of Notoriety (1 VP = 20 Notoriety), and some gold to fill my pockets (1 VP = 30 gold). Tempting to hire the Rogues, but I won’t chance it since they’re Neutral to me (ie less than Friendly). So I go on my way, through the woods, and into the Cavern. I make sure to hide as a heavy dragon appears. I try taking a sneaky snipe shot at it, but his tough armored skin is too thick. I need a better angle, which I continue to search for until the next evening when I try aiming at the Dragon’s weak spot. I fail again, and decide I’m wasting too much time on this creature. So I make my way through the Cavern, and discover a shortcut towards the exit. Before I reach it, a Tremendous Dragon shows up along with that Heavy Dragon that I must’ve pissed off. They know I’m around, but I manage to keep hidden out of sight, and decide to try my luck against a bigger target. Once again, I fail to successfully hit a weak spot. Well, no matter, I remain hidden and make my way out of the Cavern, and trek towards the woods, where I come upon the Company at the Large Campfire. Well, mine as well try my luck with these guys. I take my first shot at the Crossbowman, and successfully kill him. No one notices. I take aim at the Short Swordsman, and successfully snipe him while remaining unnoticed. I also manage to quietly kill off their leader before the night ended, which lead me to the location of all the loot they had been storing. A Flood suddenly hits, so severe I had to take shelter in the trees for 4 days. Once the flooding finally stopped and the weather cleared, I hopped down to find that loot. I manage to find some Hefty Gloves, but couldn’t find anything else (that blasted flood). When night fell, I decided to try taking out the remaining 4 members of the Company. However, the Pikemen were onto me, and discovered where I was hiding. I tried rushing past them while taking a shot at the Great Swordsman. I fail to kill him, but one Pikeman was smart enough to deduce my maneuver, and skewered me. My life has ended.

So yeah, narratives like that can be created all the time, sometimes with a happy ending (if you’re skilled enough and lucky enough). That’s the main thing that makes this game worth it, aside from the continual surprises that come about even after playing the game dozens of times.

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Optional/Advanced Rules, and Expansions

A game that entertains like fantasy each time it is played must therefore be able to surprise its players with unforeseen developments even after they have played it many times and have become familiar with its mechanics. — Richard Hamblen, The General Volume 16 Issue 5

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Ah, but the fun is just beginning. As much as there is to the main game alone, and there’s definitely enough to satiate any hard-core gamer’s thirst, there are also optional/advanced rules worthy of consideration in the 3rd edition rules (let alone certain house rules, and optional rules brought up in earlier editions of the game plus articles of The General). For instance, there are rules that make combat more advanced, for those who believe it is too abstract or too easy. It adds a bit more randomness to combat which still has a decent amount of fairness to it, and is currently my preferred way to play.

Seasons and Weather variant

There’s more, such as rules that give magic more uses (or even makes magic users stronger), rules that add in seasons and weather, rules for combining two game sets for an epic-sized game, etc. These optional/advanced rules go to show just how flexible the game system is, and how easy it is to make your own modifications to it. You know, like what a lot of people to for computer RPG games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, or Fallout, or The Witcher, among others. As anyone with experience modding games knows (whether they make the mods or utilize mods others have made), there’s a difference between playing the vanilla game, and the modded game. With mods you can customize the game however you see fit, while taking into account the reason why such mods exist, and how they aim to improve the overall experience. Some may prefer to play the vanilla version, which is fine. But for those who have played the game numerous times and want something more or different out of it, these mods boost the replay value (which is already incredibly high for this game) considerably. The 3rd edition rules come with at least 20 advanced/optional rules that can be used as players deem fit, utilizing some, all, none, or even just one of the modified rules.

The expanded realm, combining 2 game sets.

But it doesn’t end there. The online community has made no secret that there are members who have created their own personal house rules and expansions for the game. Aaron E. Steele made his own personal expansion. Glenn Pruitt made some add-ons. But the first true expansion I’ve seen with thought-out rules and additions is one simply titled Expansion #1, by Robin Warren and David Stegemeyer. The expansion adds more tiles, more characters, monsters, chits, rules, etc. It adds enough to be its own beast. Then there’s The Book of Quests by Jay Richardson, Kenny Blomberg, Michael Blomberg, and Michael Decker; a variant which completely revamps the victory conditions, doing away with victory points and substituting them with clear goals to achieve, making it a scenario-based game. Yep, there was plenty of fan-made content to make the die-hard Magic Realm gamer satisfied, tweaking the game to their liking with rules and add-ons in a similar way T-RPG gamers tweak the system to their own liking at times, especially the DM.

IMG_20180323_141400649

With that being said, there is another reason many create their own rules and additions to the game, outside of the game being one of the easiest to modify. Richard Hamblen himself has stated that his full vision for the game has remained unfulfilled, officially/publicly speaking. He couldn’t release the game in the format he wanted, so he scrounged together all that he could and fit as much in as possible into the main game we have today. One of the few resources out there that gives an idea of what his grand vision was can be found in an online interview he had with Steve McKnight. These vague blueprints that were given indicate the game would be almost twice as big as it currently is, with a slightly revamped combat system, twice as many map tiles, 50% more characters, over twice as many natives, twice as many treasures, and twice as many spells, let alone some tweaks to the rules. It would’ve made the game more ambitious than it currently is, though the game as is is ambitious enough, even by today’s standards. But I haven’t seen any individual make an honest attempt at trying to make this expansion based on Hamblen’s vision a reality. This encouraged me to get involved into the fan-created content.

Image from my fan expansion on Tabletop Simulator.

So for over a year I spent some time working on my own fan-made expansion, attempting to include what Hamblen may have wanted in the full game, convinced that his full vision may never see the light of day. And, well, I’ve made my own little addition to the game’s legacy. For anyone who’s interested in checking it out, you can print and play what I’ve done so far (though I’m not satisfied with the artwork, specifically regarding the tiles as of this writing), or you could try it out digitally on Tabletop Simulator (where others have also brought their own version of Magic Realm to the digital playing field, similar to RealmSpeak except you have to know what you’re doing).

Also from my expansion on Tabletop Simulator.

The Legacy (the good kind!)

I think there’s a real problem with games capturing the elements that make fantasy literature so enjoyable. There are some attempts that seem nice, but they are really not very satisfying. There are some attempts that capture the flair of fantasy literature but they have the problem of not being enjoyable as games. At the opposite extreme, there are some fine fantasy games that don’t really capture the spirit of fantasy literature. It’s a real problem that has not been solved in the field as yet. — Richard Hamblen

Fantasy became a very big part of the gaming industry recently, primarily due to the success of D&D, and we wanted to do a fantasy game to get into this market. I was the only one at AH who was well read in fantasy. — Richard Hamblen

Fan Expansion #1 on RealmSpeak. Source

Despite this game not being that big of a hit, it has left its mark on the board gaming industry in a big way. It was one of the first major fantasy games to hit the market, with mechanics that would influence many other games that would come after, including games coming out to this day. Soon after Magic Realm hit the market, a year later, Titan would also be released, another game taking place in a fantasy setting, albeit with more tightly controlled gameplay. But aside from Magic Realm and D&D giving the fantasy genre a good kick into nerd culture, there’s also the inspirational hex mechanic of Magic Realm, utilizing a number of hexes to create the map to be played on, similar to how the map of Settlers of Catan is built, or even the galaxies in Twilight Imperium or Eclipse, or the expanding map of Mage Knight. One could even say it inspired dungeon crawlers in terms of building up a map, albeit with different shapes than hexes. The most flexible combat system ever done that can take any number of units, large or small, and all the situations that can arise within combat. Mapping out an optimal route to take. How the theme matches perfectly with the gameplay, being abstract enough as to not make the game more about the theme than the gameplay, yet thematic enough to where a story is told (or at least implied) with each session, and not being bound by a scenario-based structure like most (if not all) wargames at the time. And to top it all off, it’s highly likely this is as close to a sand-box you can get for a board game. No other game I’ve seen has come even remotely close to having a number of possibilities and decisions available within a single gaming session, never mind the optional rules and fan-made expansions which can increase that number even further.

Whoever did this is a sick person. Thank God they exist.

If you’re willing to put in the time and effort to learn and play this best of a game, repeatedly, and are willing to try mitigating the luck-factor, I doubt you’ll find a more rewarding game to get invested in than this. A true board gaming classic that still draws board gamers towards it to this day, thanks in part to those who lived with it in the past.

 

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