Sometimes it’s good to be the bad guy. Who hasn’t dreamt of being a nasty evil lord ruling over the populace with an iron grip of fear… ok probably most of us. But that doesn’t mean you can’t give it a whirl. As that’s the theme of today’s review of Bellum Magica, a light engine-building game published by Blue Orange Games. This 2-5 player game will have you building out your empire on the backs of recruited minions hoping to become the biggest of the big bad evil guys.
Bellum Magica is played over a series of rounds until one player has collected 10 treasure chests. Each player starts with a castle and two goblins upon which to build their empire. Each round is played out over a series of phases:
1. Choose an active horde – The first player rolls a die to determine which line on everyone’s castle will activate. Once players are done forcing rerolls, the phase ends.
2. Gather resources – The active line on your castle board produces food, scrolls, runes, and swords.
3. Call back scouts – Whoever produced the most scrolls will receive a free treasure chest.
4. Attack – Using swords you’ve produced, you can either attack one of the towns in the middle of the table, collecting the spoils it provides; or another player’s castle, stealing several their treasure chests. You will need enough swords to equal the target’s shield value.
5. Recruit Creatures – Spend food and/or runes to recruit creatures. These slide into one side of your board to increase your production on a given number(s)
Rounds go by in this manner until a player has their 10th treasure chest, triggering the end game. The player with the most points wins.
As I’m a big fan of engine building games, I had high hopes for Bellum Magica. I also really enjoy this type of streamlined gameplay. Get a card, add it to your castle, increase your production. And what’s nice, is that game sends you down the decision tree of how to build your engine. Do you add to the left side, increasing resource production, or to the right side to boost your attack power? These will probably be the most crucial questions and decisions you will have to make throughout the game.
And that also creates a satisfying ramp for the game. In round one, you might get a couple of pieces of food and a few swords to use. But near the end of the game, you will be getting tons of resources and be able to attack the strongest cities. And since this is somewhat of a race game, your decisions of where you place things and which monsters to recruit will be crucial.
Yet on the other hand, Bellum Magica is also fairly light in the overall decision making. Outside the above choices, most of the rest of the game is fairly straightforward. Which makes sense, as publisher Blue Orange Games has always targeted the family market. This can easily be a game you play with the family or non-gamer friends.
While I’ve been mostly positive so far, there are a few issues I had with Bellum Magica. The first is that I don’t like the attacking of other players in this game. Especially at the two-player count where it becomes a zero-sum game. If we both have 3 treasure chests and you attack and steal 2 of mine, suddenly you have 5 and I have 1 chest. That’s a four-point swing that will be really hard to recover from. In addition to that, it just feels wholly unnecessary, especially for a family weight game. It’s almost as if the designer was trying to force in some player interaction. We were not a fan.
The other issue with the game is that it’s just very random. Your production on a round will depend on a die roll. While there are ways to mitigate that, those all cost tokens. And since everyone uses the same die roll, you might get stuck with a roll that’s great for one player and terrible for another. This can lead to a “rich get richer” type of situation. If you get a few good rolls early, it can set you up to steam roll your way through the rest of the game as you’ll be scoring better chests and more powerful monsters.
The other issue with the reroll system is that at higher player counts it can really bog down the game. You roll the die, then go around the table to see who is forcing a reroll. Then do it again, and again. The whole game has the potential to grind to a halt as players for roll after roll.
While Bellum Magica had some great ideas, it still had a few wrinkles that held it back for us. We really liked the engine-building nature of the game but were not a fan of the direct attacks or reroll system. If you are ok with dealing with that, I think it could make for a good family game. However, I don’t think that there is enough depth to this one to satisfy players in your gaming group. If you are looking for an engine builder for game nights, there are better choices. But for family game night it’s worth a consideration.
Final Score: 3 Stars – A light engine building game that offers some interesting decision points but has a few rule quirks holding it back.
• Enjoyable engine building mechanic
• Easy to get to the table
• Solid ramp up for the gameplay
• Can be swingy
• Attacking other players doesn’t always work well
• Rerolls can bog down the gameplay