Board Game Review: Arena of the Planeswalkers – Pedestrian Miniatures

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Back in the day, I played a lot of Magic: the Gathering. And while I performed decidedly mediocre at tournaments, I had an absolute blast with my friends. Eventually, other priorities came into my life and I’ve been out of the CCG for over a decade. I also missed the Heroscape craze that some people speak so highly about. So when Arena of the Planeswalkers came to town, I was excited to give it a go.

The Basics. Taking place in the same world as the CCG, Arena of the Planeswalkers is a miniatures game. It comes with five summoners, one for each color, and two different types of monsters that each can summon. The summoners and monsters are represented by longish cards. And players also have a hand of standard sized spell cards that they can cast in the battle for particular effects.

The board comes in six pieces that can be mixed and matched – although there are only two terrain types (land and water) so variability is rather minimal. It also has a few plastic pieces that can be fit together to add some hills and elevation at various points, as well as two keeps that provide walls.

A short board of four tiles

A short board of four tiles

Once summoned, the player can activate groups of monsters on their turn. Typically, the monster groups will move and then attack. Melee attacks require adjacency. But ranged attacks require line of sight. Rather than a typical rule system measuring hexes, here you simply put your eye behind the figure’s head and try to see any part of the opposing figure. If you can, there is line of sight.

Combat is resolved with dice rolls. The dice have blank faces, swords, and shields. The attacker rolls and counts swords for hits. The defender rolls and blocks with shields. Any additional damage is applied to the target. Once it takes a certain amount, it dies and is removed from the board, never to return.

There are a few different scenarios, but essentially you want to kill the other player’s planeswalker. The one who does, wins.

If he can see any part of that blurry rhino, then he can hit it

If he can see any part of that blurry rhino, then he can hit it

The Feel. I wanted to like Arena. I really did. But, like my own Magic performance, it seems mired in mediocrity. In areas where the game should have depth, it has merely dice rolling. Where there should be strategy, it uses overly simplistic systems. And where customizability should reign supreme, it simply lacks the tools to allow it.

Let’s start with combat. The roll-to-hit and roll-to-defend system is extremely dated and unnecessary. Having two rolls for every combat just lengthens the game and not in a fun or exciting way. It also makes the game feel more swingy as a good attack roll can be minimized or negated by a good defense roll.

And the line of sight system is just absurd. Measuring from the figure’s head is not as easy as it sounds. If you’re even a few inches behind, it isn’t so difficult to adjust your head so that you can always see a leg or arm from the opposing figure. Unless one of those giant keep walls is in your way, you’re going to hit. It makes you wonder why they bothered with line of sight at all.

The miniatures are pretty cool though, with each of them having a unique sculpt

The miniatures are pretty cool though, with each of them having a unique sculpt

Movement is also much more important than it should be. This is especially true later in the game as slower units are trying to catch faster planeswalkers. With just a one or two hex advantage, the planeswalker can often outrun pursuers. The monster then spends his whole turn catching up. This is an extremely annoying tactic – especially when an opponent is just trying to run out the clock.

Even while combat leaves something to be desired, the spell system is actually pretty fun. You get a finite hand of cards and can use them at opportune moments to turn the battle to your favor. Better yet, each of the unique planeswalkers has a unique set of cards.

And, like all things Magic, the game allows you to customize. Each creature and spell has a point cost and the players are allowed a certain point allowance. Which is great in theory, but actually is a little clunky in practice. Each planeswalker has two units and some spells of their color. Each card has a value and the sets adds up to the same amount making for equal play. But the values among them are all a little different. So it can be difficult to mix and match and still use all the available points. Perhaps this will be better as expansions arise, but deckbuilding opportunities in the base game are limited.

The insert protects the minis but doesn't leave a lot of room for expansion material

The insert protects the minis but doesn’t leave a lot of room for expansion material

Components: 4.5 of 5. The pieces are actually really cool. Every unit has a unique sculpt and the planeswalkers come prepainted. The only down side is that I wish there was more terrain. Hopefully future expansions will provide more than the few plastic bits you get in the base game.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 3 of 5. The game isn’t without strategy. In fact, you generally want to be on higher ground (to the extent it exists) and it can be important to use movement to your advantage. But those opportunities just aren’t as prevalent as they should be. And the dice-based combat system means that it isn’t uncommon for strategy to be undone by a good roll – or a bad one.

Mechanics: 2 of 5. I just don’t like the systems included in this miniatures combat game. Line of sight is both silly and annoying. The dice combat leaves much to be desired. And the customization options are very few. This may be in part because they decided to use the older Heroscape system rather than come up with something novel and interesting. But the result is a bland mechanical experience.

Replayability: 2 of 5. Replay value with just the base game is fairly limited. Sure, you’ve got five planeswalkers to choose from and each has unique abilities. But once you get them to the battlefield, play continues pretty much the same from game to game. You move in, attack, and crowd around the minimal terrain or defend the few glyphs.

Spite: 1 of 5. As a two player game, there isn’t really any spite. There are a few spells that counter others, or unleash nasty surprises. And in the multiplayer version, you might see some ganging up. But those kinds of effects feel natural and don’t disrupt the flow of the game.

Five planeswalkers

Five planeswalkers

Overall: 1.5 of 5. I just don’t care for Arena. It felt like every other tactical miniatures game with almost nothing original other than the IP. The line of sight rules are obnoxious and certainly don’t enhance the experience. The combat feels old. And there are few “tactics” in this allegedly tactical game. Perhaps Arena will improve as expansions are added in. But, I’ll never know as it isn’t something worth pursuing.

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