Kulkmann's G@mebox - www.boardgame.de



Fraser & Gordon Lamont


No. of Players:
2 - 4

G@mebox Star



It's always a challenge for a reviewer to embark on the mission to write a text about a new FRAGOR-game because the Lamont brothers show a rather irritating tendency to come up with quite unusual playing concepts. Here their newest creation Spellbound is not different from its wacky predecessors, since the mechanisms assembled in Spellbound once again form a quite innovative playing experience.

First off, the background story: Several wizard apprentices (the players) totally overestimated their powers, and they challenged an evil Witch to a spellcasting duel. The outcome was as predictable as it was horrible, and so the players were changed into ugly gremlins with huge hands and noses. Now they have to roam the land in search of at least four of the five most ancient spellbooks, since they will need these spellbooks to face the Witch to a final duel in order to regain their former (handsome?) looks.

On the gameboard the players will find four different cities and a stretch of wilderness, and within each of these regions there is a track on which one of the five spellbooks is placed. However, behind each spellbook on each track a pursuer is placed (a Troll in the wilderness, Witch Hats in the cities), and whenever a pursuer is able to catch up with a spellbook, the book will be lost and is removed from play. So, it will be the aim of the players to move the spellbooks forwards until they reach the end of their tracks where they can be collected by a player who is present in this region.

The mechanism on which the gameplay is built uses a deck of Destiny cards which is available to all players. This deck includes both cards which are useful for the players (Mage cards) and cards with detrimental effects (Wicked cards), but in total the number of simple but helpful Mage cards is higher. Following a variant of a modern deckbuilding-mechanism, the players will try to add Mage cards to the deck, whereas the mechanisms of the game will force them to add Wicked cards as well, and when they are drawn from the deck these Wicked cards usually trigger a movement the pursuers of the spellbooks.

At the beginning of the game and at the end of each player's turn cards are drawn from the Destiny deck until a total of five Mage cards has been revealed and placed next to the deck to form the Destiny display. During this refreshment of the Destiny-display some Wicked cards will appear as well, and whenever a Wicked card appears the corresponding pursuer (Troll or a specific Witch Hat) is moved one step on his track. Provided this revealing of new cards does not cause the loss of a second spellbook, it will now be the active player's turn, and he may use or discard as many of the Mage cards as he desires. Up to two unused Mage cards may be left in the display, so that - when the display is replenished at the end of the player's turn - only three more Mage cards need to be revealed in order to refill the display for the next player's turn.

The different Mage cards available at the beginning of the game can be used to gain one movement, one use of magic or one influence for recruiting allies, and alternatively each of these card types also may be used for triggering one step of movement of a specific spellbook. However - and here the problems start - a spellbook cannot simply be moved by choosing a corresponding Mage card, but instead the active player also needs to be in the corresponding city (or in the wilderness) with his character. Thus, the movement action is needed to move player characters between the different regions. In addition, a total of 12 different villages also exists, with each village forming a region to which the players can travel. During game setup, nine of these villages were assigned random decks of ally cards, whereas the other three villages contain special locations (the Witch's Tower among them). The content of each village only is revealed upon the first visit of a player, and apart from the fact that the players need to recruit allies to strengthen the deck of Destiny cards they also need to discover the Witch's Tower because the final battle is fought there.

Talking about allies, they can be recruited by a player using Influence cards in the village where the desired ally deck is located (with the possibility to save up played influence to recruit more costly allies). The game contains 16 different decks of ally cards (Knight, Dragon, Dark Elf etc), and whenever the players are able to recruit a card from one of the ally decks the recruited card will be placed at the discard pile of the Destiny deck in order to be shuffled into the Destiny deck upon the next re-shuffling. If, at a later point the Destiny display is replenished and an ally is revealed, the ally effectively serves as a Mage card, giving the active player the possibility to use his powers. As a rule, all different allies have stronger positive effects than the basic Mage cards which are included in the Destiny deck at the beginning of the game, and the abilities of the allies can range from allowing multiple actions to special abilities which allow new kinds of actions. As can be seen, this element of Spellbound is close to other deckbuilding games, since the players have a number of special decks available which they can use to construct their common Destiny deck.

However, the uses of the cards from the Destiny deck are more intricate than the simple possibility to use them for actions and for triggering movements of the pursuers of the Spellbooks. Upon each exhaustion of the Destiny deck (and during the final battle) the players will have to face the evil Witch in a duel, and the strength of both the players and the Witch depends on a number of factors. Here it becomes important that each player starts his turn by placing one of the Destiny cards from the display into the Witch's Tower space, and he may choose either a Mage card (including allies) or a Wicked card for this placement. Such a placement lasts until the cards are returned to the deck after a duel, and Wicked cards placed in the Tower will increase the Witch's strength in the upcoming battle, whereas Mage cards will increase the players' strength. If a Mage card or ally is chosen, this card will not be available for a normal action, and so the strength value of these cards is higher if they would otherwise allow a more powerful action.

In addition, the game features an opaque bag containing Sunstones (amber) and Moonstones (blue). At the beginning of the game three Sunstones and two Moonstones were placed in this bag, and more stones may be added by game effects. When it comes to a battle against the Witch, stones are drawn from the bag corresponding to the Witch's current position within her Tower, and the amount of drawn Sunstones is added to the players' strength, whereas drawn Moonstones will strengthen the Witch. In a way, the mechanics around this bag remind a bit of 1960: The Making of the President from Z-MAN GAMES, since the players need to "feed" the bag with Sunstones in order to increase their chances. In addition, the bag is also used when a player decides to use a card with a magic-action while in a city, because the player then has to draw a stone from the bag, and if a Sunstone is drawn the pursuer in that city will be moved one space backwards.

But returning the battle against the Witch, the battle outcome has not yet been determined. If the Witch's strength equals or is higher than the strength of the players, the Witch wins and is moved one or more steps upwards in her Tower (with the number of steps depending on the difference between both strength values). If the Witch moves in the Tower, she will trigger detrimental effects like the adding of new Wicked cards to the Destiny deck, and in addition more stones will be drawn from the bag during the following battles. The game even may come to an early end through such a Witch movement, since all will be lost if she reaches the top of her tower and declared total domination of the whole realm.

If the players win a battle, the Witch will stay in place and the players will be allowed to move one spellbook one step forwards. However, the unforgiving Witch will take revenge on the players, and so she will summon her weakest available Minion card which now will add to her strength in the following battles. As a result of being beaten several times, the Witch may activate up to three (permanent) Minion cards which may add a total of 12 points to the Witch's strength (gulp!).

If the players were able to get four of the five spellbooks from the cities and the wilderness by moving the books to the ends of their tracks, they must meet in the village where the card of the Witch's Tower was discovered in order to trigger the final battle. This battle is fought as usual, with the specialty that the spellbooks now either increase the players' strength by one for each spellbook, or they can be used to destroy Wicked cards and Minions. In effect, the players now usually will remove the most powerful of these cards, because they need to reduce the Witch's strength as much as they can. Since the spellbooks only can be used in the final battle this may result in the situation that the Witch's strength now is considerably lower than in the last "normal" battle because her most powerful cards can be removed by the spellbooks, and this situation comes a bit unexpected because you would expect the final battle to be the toughest one.

However, despite this sideline observation the pressure on the players is considerable, and even though early victories against the Witch may buy some time, the players cannot really afford to waste many of their actions. As each victory against the Witch will trigger the appearance of a Minion, the players only can tackle the problem head on, and so they will need to gather the spellbooks quickly while at the same time not neglecting to build up enough strength to face the Witch. Good timing is quite essential for this, since it could prove disastrous if the players collect four spellbooks, but then are challenged to a duel with the Witch and her Minions because they have failed to meet it in the village containing the Witch Tower. Still the players are not without their own resources, and so they can gain helpful Spell cards and charge their wands with valuable bonus actions. All this may help them against the evil Witch!

The outline given above has left out quite a few details of the full rules, but nonetheless it should be enough to give a general impression of the game's mechanics. Although the Lamont brothers couldn't resist to include the one or other pun in the rulebook, the game presents itself as a very mature and well-thought-out final product. At first contact I was having some doubts whether the different extra mechanics like the opaque bag and a movement related gameboard would fit well with a deck building mechanism, but gameplay revealed that these factors come together in a quite harmonious way. Even better, the game actually uses the deckbuilding mechanics on a common deck in order to implement cooperative gameplay, and seeing the ever-growing number of deckbuilding games where each player builds his own deck it comes as a refreshing variant that Spellbound challenges the players to participate in the building of a joint deck. Of course, like all cooperative games Spellbound also faces a possible Wisenheimer-problem because one player may try to dominate the others, and so each player should try to focus on the actions of their particular character, thus giving everybody ample of room to do their own thing.

Finally, and that's the trademark of almost every FRAGOR-game, Spellbound once again contains a gorgeous set of playing figures, consisting of the four player "Gremlins", the Witch, her Hats, the Troll, a City guard and five different spellbooks. The figures correspond quite well with the design of the gameboard and the somewhat comical artwork found on the Ally cards, and apart from the interesting rules these great components once again contribute to make the game a real head-turner!

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Copyright © 2012 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany