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Magic Board Game: History and Review


Hello, folks! Now, I know that Battle for Zendikar is out now and feeling a bit old-hat. But’s it’s not the only recently released product from Wizards of the Coast! I thought it would be time to give you my take on that other recently released Magic product: the Arena of the Planeswalkers board game.

I received my order of the Magic game from recently, and I’ve had a chance to give it a whirl. Are you interested in seeing it and trying it out?

Many of the folks who are looking at picking up the Magic board game may not be familiar with board games, the designer, or more. After all, the fact that you play Magic doesn’t mean that you play other board or card games. So one of the things I want to delve into is the history of the Arena of the Planeswalkers board game—many, in fact virtually all, design elements here come from other games. So let’s delve into the game, and I’ll give you a bit of a walkthrough, a bit of a review, and some history!

I play a lot of board games. I’ve been rocking them for a long time. Back when my mom and dad lived in London for three years, as my dad was working on a Master’s degree, they got big into the London gaming scene. They came back with a bunch of British games that I grew up on (The Hare and Tortoise and Waddington’s Business Game) as well as old-school games like Broadside and 1914. I’ve always liked playing board games.

Let’s take a looksee at this Magic game. Here’s my copy!

First, let’s begin by unpacking it. Here, I have opened it up and cracked it open. It’s like cracking open a pack of Magic cards!

So as you can see, you have these various miniatures and so forth. If you have them in your hand, you’ll notice that they suffice, and they work. But they aren’t amazing. Save for the ’Walkers, they are not painted or really detailed—that’s a little less than I would expect from a game like this in 2015. But they are perfectly adequate for the job at hand.

As someone who adores HeroScape, I remember when the Magic game was first spoiled, and I thought that it was really evocative of HeroScape. In fact it seemed that it might just be HeroScape rebranded as Magic. As the game was finished and reviews started to come in, it seemed that the HeroScape elements are received differently by different reviewers, so I needed to get my mitts on this game. Here’s one strong HeroScape element: the dice.

Each of these dice have three skulls, two shields, and one blank side. When you roll them to attack, each skull rolled is a hit. When you roll them for defense, each shield rolled is a block. So you roll a number of dice equal to your attack value and compare it to the defense value of your target. We’ll come back to these dice in a moment, but for now, let’s keep unpacking that box.

This is one of the cards that comes with the box, and this is for our good Zendikari Planeswalker Nissa. There are a few elements of this card that are important to see—here, we have her stats, her abilities, and a few other things, such as cost, attached. This is her basic card.

After cracking these cards open, let’s take a look at how some of the effects work, including this line of sight. This card is straight out of HeroScape. Again, we’ll talk about that in a while. Look at the card’s silhouette of Nissa. If you want to know if one of your characters can see another, you set up your eyes behind the dot on the character’s card (usually on its head). Can you see any part of the card that you are wishing to target? It just has to be the part not shaded white. You see Nissa’s card has her weapon shaded white—so you cannot draw a line of sight to that, you can only draw line of sight to anything else.

Now I’ve mentioned before that this game strikes me as very HeroScapey. There’s a reason for that. Let me introduce you to Craig V. Ness and, before him, Stephen Baker. Let’s pause the walkthrough and review for some gaming history

Let’s begin that discussion back in the ’80s with a person called Stephen Baker. Stephen was working in the U.K. offices of Milton Bradley, a subsidiary of Hasbro. While working there, he wanted to bring a traditional roleplaying experience to board games. Under his auspices, Milton Bradley teamed up with Games Workshop to create a board game called HeroQuest, initially released in 1989.

After publishing HeroQuest, Baker would move on to publish a pseudo-wargame for the masses called Battle Masters, and this, too, was set in the Old World of Games Workshop Warhammer series. It’s another game published by Milton Bradley.

Eventually, Stephen Baker would design a game called HeroScape with Craig Van Ness and Rob Daviau. Craig and Rob are a design duo who have made a lot of games together, and along with Baker, they helped to create a great game that was released initially in 2004. There would be a variety of expansions and standalone versions of HeroScape published for years.

And now Craig Van Ness has designed the Magic board game, Arena of the Planeswalkers. Why am I bothering with this? Because there are direct connections from HeroQuest to HeroScape to this game. I want to set that context since it’s really cool!

Craig’s had two very successful and influential games: Risk 2210 AD and HeroScape along with many other designs that are very popular. Craig is also known for retaining design elements that work from one game to another. Craig did HeroScape, so its influence in Arena of the Planeswalkers makes sense. Plus, HeroScape was a property that was originally done at Hasbro and then moved to Wizards of the Coast for its swan song, so it’s a familiar property to the folks that be at Wizards and Hasbro. It makes sense to delve into it for Arena of the Planeswalkers.

I’ll show you just how much . . .

This is a card for a character in HeroScape. Note the huge similarities. Bot characters have attack and defense dice, health, range, and move. They have abilities on the card, they have a points cost to purchase, they have a size, and so forth. They even have the exact same line-of-sight guide, and here, the whole body is shaded red, so you can draw line of sight to any part of Ne-Gok-Sa to hit it.

They are eerily similar . . .  (In fact, many of the abilities on the cards in the Magic game are identical to abilities on some HeroScape figures.)

One of the major differences is that the HeroScape figures look better since they’ve been painted. Here’re two side-by-side images to illustrate that.

I’m not sure if my camera gives good view, so here are a pair of two-space figures—the top one is from Magic, and the bottom from HeroScape.

But even still, the miniatures are the same size. They are interchangeable. You could use Magic figures with HeroScapes ones, and vice versa, quite easily.

Here’s the next similarity.

This is the terrain from HeroScape Arena of the Planeswalkers. It is a perfect fit. That’s as designed. The HeroScape terrain was one of the most prominent and successful features. It’s a set of interlocking terrain that you can put together in order to build the game board prior to play, and it’s a lot of fun to do.

Remember those dice with the three skulls and two shields—the ones that would show if there was a hit or not? Here are dice from my HeroScape game . . .

And you know what? As I mentioned before, Stephen Baker brought concepts to HeroScape that Craig has retained.

Here’s my copy of HeroQuest.

So let’s drill down into HeroQuest, the next layer of the onion. I grabbed HeroQuest in 1990–’91 and played the crap out of it. I loved it dearly! It’s sort of a light RPG dungeon-crawl game. It’s set in the Old World of Warhammer, and it has a few figures from that (Chaos Warrior and Fimir are the best examples). Clearly, Hasbro wouldn’t do a board game with Games Workshop anymore since Wizards of the Coast bought out TSR, the company that makes Dungeons & Dragons, and then Hasbro bought out Wizards, so they have a competing property. In fact, there were Games Workshop sequels, Advanced HeroQuest, and then Warhammer Quest that were increasingly in the Old World. The enemy quest and miniatures in Advanced HeroQuest were Skaven.

HeroQuest was hugely influential, both then and now. It’s still heavily played and has a strong community. Just search up any auction site to see how expensive a game can be.

HeroQuest was a replayable game, with scenarios, and you would reset the board each time you played since it changed from one scenario to the next. You had players playing various characters, with 3-D plastic miniatures and 3-D terrain. Here’s mine opened up.

Let me show you why I’m going back to HeroQuest for this review of Magic. I think it helps to show the context of the game and the designer. Here’s one compelling reason . . .

Do you see it? First of all, I included a miniature of a Chaos Warrior and Goblin there, and again, they are of a similar size and concept. But I also tossed a pair of dice on the table . . . a pair of dice with a . . . skull and shield . . . hmm . . . (The dice are only slightly different, with three skulls, two white shields, and one black shield—good guys block with white shields, and bad guys block with the black shields.)

Remember that wargame I told you Stephen Baker did as well? He did a wargame set in the Old World as a follow up to HeroQuest in the early ’90s. Here’s my copy of Battle Masters . . .

And of course, the dice may look familiar . . .

And here are some of the figures from the game for you as well.

Think this is just an influence from HeroQuest to Magic via Stephen and, later, Craig and Rob’s games only? Nope! Right after HeroQuest came out in the late ’80s and revolutionized gaming and dungeon crawls in a variety of ways, there were a lot of clones. But even today, there are games that are influenced by HeroQuest, such as the dungeon-crawling Heroica line from Lego. Here’s my Fortaan set from that line of Lego games.

And that image above shows some more info about it.

And Lego is not the only one influenced. There was a clone made by Dungeons & Dragons called Dragon Strike, which was a virtual HeroQuest expansion the next year. Here’s my copy of that game, too, along with the board from that game.

I also grabbed a few miniatures from that game for you to consider. They are similar size to everything else.

In fact, let’s do a mega-comparison of these two games since they both involve Wizard of the Coast’s intellectual properties.

On top are the modern Magic figures, and on the bottom are Dragon Strike figures with their cards to review as well.

You can see how the fire has been sculpted over time from Chandra’s team to the Fire Elemental of old.

In fact, I have another clone, Dark World, set in the popular German fantasy world of the The Dark Eye, with novels, video games, and RPGs also set there. So from its initial release to 2015, HeroQuest is still a factor in gaming. Here’s a YouTube video series that’s currently being produced with episodes tracking the various scenarios for you.

HeroQuest had a huge influence on dungeon-crawling board games as well as other board games. Its legacy can still be felt today. Here’s one wargame designer’s take:

“We feel it (HeroQuest) strikes the perfect balance between satisfying the harder core gamers while still being playable and enjoyable for the entire family. Its level of depth and complexity is the perfect fit for our target audience.”

Rainn Studios (the makers of War of Kings).

So HeroQuest was a real thing. And don’t forget that Rob Daviau and Craig Van Ness made many other games, many of which were also put out by Avalon Hill or Hasbro. Risk 2210 AD, for example, was one of the first games in this train of taking an old classic and updating it with a new spin, and it led to many other games doing the same.

And there are HeroQuest aspects that made it to Arena of the Planeswalkers. Arena has boards and setup that change so it’s very replayable, with different scenarios, and it uses the HeroQuest combat system.

What about the other major influence, HeroScape? Well, it stopped being made a few years ago. There is a very active community, especially at If you like the Arena of the Planeswalkers game, grab some HeroScape stuff. I cannot recommend the terrain more highly—it’s well-crafted, fun to use, and the iconic part of HeroScape. Check it out.

In fact, you might want to try some other HeroScape properties. There was a Marvel Heroes version of it, too. Magic is not the first intellectual property to have the HeroScape iteration. It’s pretty good, too. Here’re my copies:

I know you want find out who wins in a battle between Jace and Silver Surfer!

In addition to Marvel, there’s a Dungeons & Dragons HeroScape as well—this one takes place in the Underdark of the Forgotten Realms.

As you can see, there are a lot of influences. And it didn’t end there. Here’s one of the pride and joys of my HeroQuest-influenced collection: the 2002 Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Board Game, with both expansions, only released in Europe.

Here’s a look into that box!

From HeroQuest and Battle Masters to HeroScape and now Magic, we have a lineage of games that has been quite influential and gaming metrics that we know work. For example, in the Magic game, there are these plastic glyphs that you can place on a hex space. When someone is on that space, that figure’s team gains a certain bonus that is written on the glyph. This gives terrain that forces people to fight for it, and it creates tension in the game. It works. I know, it comes straight from HeroScape and had the same value.

So where are the games different?

Well, there are a few differences. Movement works the same, and similar questions emerge. But the Arena of the Planeswalkers has the Planeswalkers themselves, and they are different, and in particular, they have the ability to cast spells. There is an entire spell deck dedicated to building and casting spells that are designed for your specific ’Walker. That’s new.

And after playing with it, that part works well. It definitely resembles the card game. In fact, you might even recognize the names of these cards from Magic ones! Cards like Corrupt and Incinerate are available for you to use, although in slightly different ways. For example, Liliana's Caress is a discarding sorcery.

They also removed an element from HeroScape that was tough, sometimes confusing, but very strong tactically. At the beginning of each round, you had four markers that were labelled 1, 2, 3, and X. You placed them by figures, without your foe seeing on the cards ahead of time, and then you each went around and revealed the 1s and took turns for those figures, and then the 2s, and so forth. The X was for bluffing. It was great tactically, and it gave you targets as well. But it created the feel-bad moment of having your character destroyed, so you missed a turn. They got rid of that system.

So there are some changes. And the game plays very smoothly and is easy to pick up. We already have the first expansion announced: Battle for Zendikar, to be released in 2016. If it follows previous HeroScape products, it’ll have some more glyphs, terrain, and figures, and it’ll give you another injection into the game.

So welcome Arena of the Planeswalkers, although in a long line of games by Craig V. Ness and his fleet of games. It’s a solid game, and it’ll be here for a while. Pick it up and enjoy it!

The Battle for Zendikar is here. Order singles, booster packs and more at today!