|Interaction||Components & Design|
You often hear people say that someone or something that just looks too good will have no quality at all beyond its looks. Nothing but a pretty face. In my experience, that doesn’t hold true for boardgames. The good-looking ones have the better production quality, and that includes better play-testing as well. But then, we never had a game that looked anywhere near as good as Fragor Games’ Spellbound. The board and card illustration are above average, but not exceptional. The game pieces, however, are amazing. The four Wizards-turned-gnome-thing are hand-sized, fully painted amazing-looking sculptures, so are the Troll and the City Watchmen. And the five Grimoires you’ll be hunting as well, they even have an individual look each. The pieces are enough to make you want to play before you know anything about what’s going on.
What is going on is that the up to four players, in their role as fledgling wizards out in the world for the very first time, got a leeeeeettle overconfident and challenged the evil witch Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga, being the witch that got kicked out of Oz for being too wicked, didn’t think much of that assault and cursed the young wizards into their current, disfigured shape. Your only way to get back to your usual shape is to do what student wizards hate most: research. You need the power of at least four of the five grimoires on your side before you can challenge Baba Yaga for a rematch and return to wizard-shape – whether that is an improvement or not.
Mechanically, Spellbound is a first of its kind: a cooperative deck-building game. All players share one deck of cards that starts out with a pretty pitiful selection of cards, only three different types are available. Mixed with those are four Wicked cards that advance Baba Yaga’s goals – she knows you’ll be coming for her, after all, did you think she was going to sit around baking scones? From that deck of cards you reveal new cards until five of yours are on display – this is the card hand shared by all players. Wicked cards don’t count here, they will merely have their effect applied. On their turn, each player may use or discard all of these cards if they wish, but they have to take at least three. Using more cards, quite obviously, lets you do more stuff, but using less lets you leave some useful cards for the next player and slowing down the cycling of the deck is one of Spellbound‘s challenges, as we’ll see in a moment.
The starting cards have all the basic actions you might need. Movement is always a good one, to start with. One movement card lets you travel in almost any way you like between the Wilderness, the four Cities and the twelve Villages along the sides of the board. The only exception is travelling directly from city to city, that one needs two Move actions because you have to visit a Village or the Wilderness in between. The Villages are where deck-building part of Spellbound happens by way of Influence cards. Each of the Villages has a card – most of them face-down in the beginning – that will show a potential ally in most cases. To recruit them into your deck, you have to pay their price in Influence cards, ranging from one for the weakest allies to five for the most powerful. Although powerful is a misleading term here: the effect of the more expensive cards is greater, but the cheaper ones add more cards to your deck. The Cities, on the other hand, are where the most work is done. In the Cities you may use the secondary effect all your starting cards have and do book research. For each Research action of the right colour – a different one per city – you may move the book one space along the research track until it reaches the end, where you have thoroughly conquered the book and may now harness its power. Or just put it with your collected book on the proper spot on the game board, whichever floats your boat. Surprisingly, next to the four Cities the fifth place for research is out in the Wilderness. Must be a waterproof book, probably druidic lore.
The final type of card in your starter deck is Magic, and has two different uses depending on where you are. In the Wilderness, they charge your marvelous magic wand. a useful device that, with one charge, gives you an extra move action, lets you research any colour of book with two and, fully charged, can negate some of Baba Yaga’s power before fighting her. In the city, however, a Magic card gives you a chance to push back the witch’s hat, a symbol for Baba Yaga’s minions who are after the Grimoires as well. When the witch’ hat – that is a rather disappointing wooden cone – catches up with the Grimoire, that book is lost for you. Lose two books and you lose the game. Even if you capture the book, when two witch’s hats reach the end of their tracks, you still lose. So pushing them back seems like a brilliant idea, doesn’t it. When using Magic to do that, you draw a stone from the gem bag: draw a yellow Sun Stone and the hat moves back, with a dark Moon Stone nothing happens. As the game progresses, manipulating the gem back becomes an even better use for the magic action: the bag is only refilled when it’s completely empty, so when you know there are too many Moon Stones left in it, you can (ab)use the magic to pull them out and refill the bag with a more favorable set of gems.
After taking all your actions, you refill the card display, again applying the effect of any Wicked cards you draw. These cards make the witch’s hats move in the first place. Each card moves the hat on the corresponding colour city forward, after you reshuffle the deck for the first time the Troll has the same function as the hats in the Wilderness. But that’s not the worst of it. When you have three or more Wicked cards in the display at the end of your turn, before you draw new cards, they are discarded but all hats and the troll move forward. This is the big dilemma of Spellbound, letting the cards build up there is bad for you, but the only way to get rid of them is to send them to the witches tower where they make Baba Yaga stronger. Each turn, you have to chose one card from the display to send to the tower. Pick one of your action cards, it makes your side stronger, pick a Wicked card and it helps Baba Yaga, but may prevent a more immediate disaster.
So far, everything was easy and under control. But when the deck runs out, bad things start happening, because every time that happens Baba Yaga comes to mess with you personally. At first, her minions advance in all the places that are still in the Wicked card display, and then again in all places that are not guarded by one of the Wizards or the City Watchman ally. Worse, you add another Wicked card to your discard pile before shuffling. Even worse, now you go fighting Baba Yaga herself. To the strength both sides gain from the cards sent to the tower a small random factor is added by drawing gems from the Gem Bag – that’s the reason why you want to keep track of and manage its contents. There is no real winning for you here, if you lose the battle Baba Yaga grows more powerful, but if you win she will summon increasingly more powerful minions to support her. Fortunately for you, this battle only happens three or four times during the game before it ends. But until then, you reshuffle your deck with your new allies in it and keep going. Once you made it through the first round, the allies actually make the game somewhat easier. While some allies have nothing more than multiple actions on one card, others are very, very powerful indeed.The mighty Warrior, for example, removes all witch’s hat Wicked cards from the display. The even more powerful Warlock removes all Wicked cards currently in the tower – Baba Yaga certainly pissed off some powerful people. Special mention goes to the Librarian, a brilliant researcher that allows you to take two Research actions in any colour, but is so incompetent in a fight that sending her to the tower counts as a point for Baba Yaga.
After you did all your research at some point in the game, you advance on the Witch’s Tower, hidden in one of the villages, and declare the final battle on Baba Yaga herself. This part of Spellbound is actually very, very anticlimactic. It works the same as the Witch Encounters when the deck runs out, only now you have the books on your side that count as a point in your favour each or, and this is the big one, allow you to remove one of Baba Yaga’s moon cards from the tower, no matter how much power it gives her. Yep, that 6-power minion she summons after you kick her witchy butt three times, gone, and you still have three books left to use. Four if you recovered all of them before challenging the Wicked Witch of the Wherever This Is. It’s safe to say that if you make it to the final battle, you won. But probably that’s fair, in a way, because there’s always the chance that you lost the game to some bad card draws before you even got here. That’s my biggest point of criticism against Spellbound, bad luck can make you lose the game without a chance to counter it. Draw two Wicked cards of the same colour and the hat in that city will most likely eat up any lead you had on it and steal a Grimoire away. We found ourselves in this type of situations more often than should happen in a well-balanced cooperative game, losing should always happen because you did something wrong, not because of bad luck.
Another point of criticism is that the game is mostly tactical, your strategy is predetermined. You have to end the round with one wizard in each city, or you’re almost certain to lose a Grimoire. Given that each player only has one turn before the deck runs out for the first time, that’s pretty limiting. You gain allies where you can, always preferring the same ones if they are present in the current game – because that’s another piece of luck, the best allies might simply be missing from your game. And when you get to a city, you do your best to do research and win the books. In that respect, the game is actually pretty static, you do the same thing every round and the sense of escalation is not as strong as in other coop games. But the tactical decisions you take are interesting, at least – what is possible to do with the cards you have, which cards should you leave for the next player, which card do you send to the tower? Those decisions are interesting and fun, and the quirky ally cards together with the beautiful sculptures and the vividly colourful board make the game world feel alive. Spellbound is not the next Pandemic or Forbidden Island, but despite some flaws it’s an interesting cooperative game and the prettiest game until, most likely, next year’s Fragor Games release.