Inside Pulse 12

Board Game Review: Magic: The Gathering –Arena of the Planeswalkers

Magic: The Gathering –Arena of the Planeswalkers
Publisher: Hasbro
Cost: $29.99
Release Date: 07/01/2015
Get it Here: Amazon.com

Once upon a time there was a company called Milton Bradley that had a collectable board game called Heroscape. It ran from 2004 to 2010 and had mild success, primarily due to using licenses like Marvel Super Heroes in addition to generic fantasy troops. In 2007, Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro took Heroscape over and turned it into a Dungeons & Dragons product for a few years before seeing it discontinued. Fans of Heroscape had very mixed EXTREME reactions to the game using D&D licensing but they were universally annoyed when Wizards nixed the game completely in 2010. Now, five years later Heroscape is reborn – now called Magic: The Gathering – Arena of the Planeswalkers. Make no mistake, Arena of the Planeswalkers may have the M:TG branding but anyone even slightly familiar with Heroscape can tell it is the same game with a face lift. It even uses some of the same exact parts as previous Heroscape sets. Now, repacking an old game under a new name is nothing new for Wizards of the Coast OR Hasbro. Shogun became Samurai SwordsIkusa. Duel Masters became Kaijudo which our own Aaron Sirois covered regularly for us. SO the name change is superfluous. What matters is whether or not Heroscape 2.0 can still stand up, especially in the face of many other miniature based games that have flooded the market these days ranging from Zombicide to Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. Let’s take a look.

The one thing Arena of the Planeswalkers has going for it right away is the cost. It’s only $29.99 and you get thirty-five miniatures for the game. That’s less than a dollar per figure, which is a great price. Most games that are miniature based are a lot more expensive. Things like Age of SigmarAttack Wing or Heroclix are also more expensive and while the figures come pre-painted, some of the collectible minis titles are randomized. So things tend to even out with different games having positives and negatives. With Arena of the Planeswalkers, you get thirty-five figures but only five of the figures (the Planeswalkers themselves) are painted. Unfortunately the paint jobs are terrible. I mean absolutely horrendous. I mean I paint figures for Batman Miniature Game, Malifaux, Warhammer, Reaper Bones and Robotech RPG Tactics, but I would consider myself mediocre at best. I’m not good at it. Yet I could do a better paint job that the five Planeswalker figures here even on my worst day. It honestly looks like the figures were given to monkeys that just happened to have some paint and brushes and allowed to go to town with them. The faces and hair are especially terrible, with colours running everywhere making the pieces look like amorphous blobs. Jace looks okay, but the others are terrible. Still, you get what you pay for and this is a entry-level miniature board game. This isn’t Warhammer, Hordes or Kings of War. The other thirty figures are not painted at all. Each side gets two different types of figures (three of each type, but all the sculpts are different, which is terrific!). The miniature quality varies. The Black figures for example, have very little detail and are more lumps of crappy plastic than anything else. The Blue and Red pieces also leave a lot to be desired in terms of sculpt and detail, but these pieces are translucent so the lack of detail is at least counter by a qausi-positive. The Green sculpts are decent expect for the faces which are lacking in any detail whatsoever and the White sculpts are actually really good. Especially the Rhinox (think were-rhinos). Why the quality gambit is so varied is beyond me. I used to collect and play the Dungeons & Dragons tactical miniatures game and both the sculpts and paint jobs there were superior to anything else being put out at the time. I’m not sure why what is in Arena of the Planeswalkers is so subpar compared to what Hasbro and Wizards have done in the past. Still, the fact you get thirty-five minatures, all of which are unique sculpts, for under thirty dollars is an impressive feat so something had to give. I personally would rather pay more for better quality figures but at the same time, this is a decent alternative to the higher prices premium tactical miniature games on the market today.

So enough talk about the pieces of plastic that litter this box. What matters is whether or not this Magic: The Gathering spin-off is any fun to PLAY. Well to be honest, I can say it wasn’t. I thought Arena of the Planeswalkers was poorly designed, incredibly slow paced and very boring. Now granted I’m used to higher end tactical games ranging from Necromunda to winning skirmish game tournaments. However I played a couple games of this with my wife and she was very outspoken about how much she disliked Arena of the Planeswalkers and she’s more of a D&D style person than me (I tend to be more Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun and Vampire: The Masquerade.) She thought the figures were pretty bad compared to what I buy and she didn’t enjoy playing the game at all. She thought it was repetitive, dull and felt the rules needed a pretty big overhaul. I can’t say I disagreed. So when someone relatively new to tactical miniatures games and someone who has spent twenty years playing them both found Arena of the Planeswalkers to be a pretty poor gaming experience, I was left to wonder who would like the game. Well the answer comes down to three possible categories: Heroscape zealots that are just happy their game is back in some form (even if it’s not compatible with the original game), very young children who are new to tactical miniature gaming and who don’t mind repeating the same exact turn over and over again without any change (what’s the definition of insanity again?) and finally, people who just happen to like it somehow. Hey, every game is someone’s favorite. Maybe you just want a very repetitive game that uses the M:TG branding and you’d rather have something without a lot of strategy. There is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes strategy light works. Look at Age of SigmarWarhammer FantasyArena of the Planeswalkers with though – NOBODY had a kind word to say about the game…which is very telling to me. So let’s look at why the game failed for us.

First up, there isn’t a lot of variety to the game, which makes playing Arena of the Planeswalkers get dull very quickly. Now this will no doubt change if and when Hasbro and WoTC release expansions. To be honest though, they’re pretty terrible about that. The Co-Operative board games only got three releases and then when years before the new Temple of Elemental Evil game came out – and even then THAT had to be releases by Wizkids. Remember Wotc’s attempt to reboot D&D miniatures with Dungeon Command? That was essentially the same board Arena of PlaneswalkersDungeon Command received a whopping five sets with absolutely no potential for customization or replay value. You had five options and games almost always played the same due to the lack of any depth or forthcoming support. It died as quickly as it appeared and like Arena of the Planeswalkers, the game needed a massive retweak of rules and balance.

Currently you have five armies to choose from. Each army gets the same six creatures each time along with their Planeswalker. So after you play a crew once or twice, you’re going to know its strengths and weaknesses and there won’t be a lot depth or surprise. As well, although you can set up the board in various configurations thanks to six interlocking pieces that can combine in any manner, the rulebook specifies one of three specific forms that you should/have to use. There’s a version for one on one games, one for tags teams and one for a three way/four way brawl. Instead of being so confining and limiting, the rules really should have been more inviting players to layout their own format and homebrew their own battlefields. Of course, the truth is that no matter how you set up the map, the game will play 90-95% the same way each time, exposing one again, the game’s lack of depth or any real viable strategies. I’m not sure why the designers didn’t embrace creativity and homebrewing as options, but again Dungeon Command had the same big problem.

There’s a tiny taste of terrain in that you have some hex pieces that you can link together and/or stack, but it leaves you wanting because there is only enough that you can’t really do anything with it. Even worse, the rule book examples of how to use terrain show more pieces than you get in the game, which is not only a bit lacking in thought, but probably not something you can ever achieve since hey, there isn’t any way to purchase extra terrain, maybe if you own some old Heroscape stuff. There are no expansions listed anywhere in the near or far future so what you see is not only what you get, it’s less than what the rules manual showcases. OUCH.

To play Arena of the Planeswalkers you pick one army. The game talks about a 500 point army, but honestly you only have the one option with your characters right now. With expansions you’ll be able to mix and match but not at this point. You can try and make a dual class “deck” but it’s not going to work out very well due to the lack of pieces and the fact the Planeswalkers and their actual card decks are designed for mono-color play. So at this point, you have an army of seven figures. That’s pretty normal for a skirmish game. Each player then takes their deck of twelve cards and shuffles them. Then they place their Planeswalker on the board and draw three cards. Each player draws a card on their turn (except for the first player’s first turn). Unfortunately, even though the game can last thirty turn to sixty turns (depending on number of players, your deck is only twelve cards (all enchantments or sorceries). So in many cases you’ll run out of cards before you run out of turns….which is not very M:TG.

Turns are very weird in Arena of the Planescape and it’s here where things slow to a snail’s pace and also get boring fast. First you draw a card. Then you cast a spell or choose an army card. You do these two in either order. The army card you choose will be one of your sets of three or your Planeswalker. You can only choose ONE card per turn. After you choose your card, you can move those figures. If the figures come in contact with enemies (either touching them for melee or in distance for characters with range). Now compare this to actual Magic: The Gathering where things can’t attack when you summon them, but after that turn, everything gets to attack every turn if you want them too. Once characters are stuck in melee, you really won’t be activating anything but those guys over and over again. Now there are exceptions (say where other figures are positioned on the board), but not many. So once combat starts you’ll see turns blur together as characters try to pound on each other, but often times fail miserably.

The problem is in the dice rolling. Arena of the Planeswalkers uses special dice rather than normal six sided ones. The attacks rolls his dice for attack. For every sword icon he gets, that counts as a hit. One hit = one point of damage. Then the defender rolls their dice. For each shield icon they getthat subtracts a hit. You will often see many turns in a row where damage simply doesn’t happen at all. You’re stuck in a slow stalemate. If you could move all your characters and attack with all of them each turn, that would be one thing, but no, you can only activate, move and attack with one set per turn. Again, this makes the game very plodding and dull. Out of EVERY game we played, each one lasted twenty-odd rounds for two player formats and forty to fifty for multiple player games. Every game almost ended due to reaching the maximum amount of turns. That is how slow Arena of the Planeswalkers is. It’s just monotonous dice rolling after a while. Now lots of wargames can hit this stumbling box but again with other wargames you can do more than use a single one of your sets each turn. Sure, you could house rule things to make the game go faster and smoother, but I don’t review house rules, I review the game as is, and right now, the game as is, is pretty terrible.

At least each army plays differently and close to how the actual card game plays. White is healing and defense. Rhinos (Rhox) get a ton of defense bonuses if they are touching. Add in your defensive enchantments and at times, I was rolling six to seven defense dice each turn. They were an unstoppable wall. Red is straight up offense. They have the only flying units in the game and also the only double length base pieces. Sure you’re just pinging damage with these guys, but a ping goes a long way in this glacial-esque game. Black is pretty worthless troop wise. Your figures are literally there to just died and get raised back. They act as a meat wall for your Planeswalker who can one shot kill something if it is already damaged. The difficulty is that her troops suck. So she is the most powerful Planeswalker but has the worst troops. That’s kind of a balance. Green has the best ranged attacks with its Elven Archers. Blue is perhaps the best overall though as its Planeswalker can take control of OTHER walkers and use them. His troops can also move around incredibly well. They can switch places with each other and one army can even leave combat which is a HUGE deal in this molasses paced product. There’s a good amount of variety ot be had, but it only lasts for one or two games per army before you realize there isn’t anything else to be had from this set. Maybe once there are some expansions, but this is a game you’ll try all of the armies out once with and then put it away on your shelf never to be used again. Again, the parallels between this and Dungeon Command are extremely eerie.

So yes, as it currently stands the core set (Only set?) for Magic: The Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers is incredibly shallow, offers little to no depth, strategy or replay value and there is little fun to be had. IF we ever get expansions like more boards, terrain pieces and boosters for your armies, that could really change the overall value of this game, but for right now it’s just too slow paced and incredibly monotonous. I love skirmish games but I didn’t have any fun at all with this game. It’s better not purchased at all unless expansions come out that actually give the game some options. There is nothing worth than a game where you and your opponent do the same exact thing for several turns only to having nothing at all change. Not even a point of damage. If you were able to have fun with Arena of the Planeswalkers, then my hat is off to you because this is a definite DO NOT PURCHASE from me. Sure it’s only thirty bucks, but there is a definite reason the game is priced so cheaply. At least Heroscape fans can get some new pieces for their game. That’s going to be the real way this game moves copies.

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  • Aaron Sirois

    Would rather buy the Origins clash pack for that money. Although I’d give this a shot simply because I’m an easy mark.

  • Alexander Lucard

    I’d rather see you get a game with better figures and that has more replay value.

  • Aaron Sirois

    Oh I could manage getting this for pretty much free if I felt like parting with a couple of cards. If I were going to get it, I’d go that route.

  • Alexander Lucard

    Do you want my copy? I will trade/sell you.

  • Aaron Sirois

    Potentially. Would have to wait a week or so though.

  • Terran Morrow

    You have a few things confused with game play. In the instruction book it is not very clear so totally understand your confusion. When we finally got the right rules my wife and I played four games in the time you played one. It really should only take about 15 minutes with two players. You can cast all your squads instantly if you choose or strategize with their release if they have abilities that are in effect when they are cast. You can’t attack right away but fire cats for example under Chandra have hast so they are able. Attack and defense actual does both block and attack each round like in traditional magic. If you read on, on page 12 it gives an attack example on both the attacking creature elf and the defending planes walker chandra. They both are hit with damage in the attack and they both defend. There are also further detailed rules on the Hasbro website.