Before I even got it out of the box, I was impressed. Hasbro worked hard to make this a quality production. The Planeswalkers minis are prepainted (which I appreciate, even if Liliana and Nissa’s paint jobs are…spotty). What surprised me was that the army figures, while not painted (I’ll probably end up amending that), all have unique sculpts from each other. Even within a squad, there aren’t identical figures. The cards are all high quality stock and sport the same gorgeous art you would expect from a Magic game. The board sections are sturdy and feel like they’ll stand up to numerous deployments. There’s even a history of the individual Planeswalkers printed on the back of each board piece, which I thought was a nice touch. Really, my only complaints with the components are that there’s not a great way to store the damage trackers (which are cool, but tiny) and that there’s no turn tracker. While each scenario in the (very thorough) instruction manual has a set number of turns and turn trackers printed on the scenario page, it ends up feeling a bit cheap having the paper manual flopped open next to you to track turns. Additionally, it’s inconvenient when you want to go back and verify a rule. A separate piece (like Fantasy Flight Game’s Death Star tracker from their Star Wars Living Card Game) would have been nice to have.
No matter how well produced, a game can only go so far on shiny components. The good news is that Arena of the Planeswalkers is fun to play as well. After selecting a Planeswalker and gathering the associated spell and army cards, each player takes turns casting spells, deploying units, and maneuvering to control tactically important points on the map or take out enemy units. What I enjoy is that these aren’t cookie-cutter armies with different paint jobs. If you’ve ever played Magic: The Gathering, you’ll notice right away that there’s a lot of synergy between Arena and the play style of the various mana colors from the card game. Green plays fast and is focused on boosting characters and getting away when needed. Blue is great for breaking spells and countering moves. Red is all about taking and giving damage. Black’s strength lies in its seemingly endless cannon fodder and ability to weaken foes. While White is interested in keeping its units alive for as long as possible.
While the board is pretty big, gameplay is fast. My son and I have played a few games now and, while the included 2-player scenario has a 30-turn limit, we’ve only used maybe half that to destroy each other. Strategy factors in when maneuvering your characters; but low unit hit points means that your best move is often: when you have the shot, you take it. However, controlling power glyphs on the board can make or break a strategy. While diverse, the armies are well-balanced. Anything that gives units a bonus can tip the scales in your favor quickly. Planeswalker spells and unit enhancements are more than just another layer of complexity layered on the game. They’re vital to your unit’s survival. The game supports up to five players at once and I’m curious to see how it holds up when the board is knee-deep in summons.
Combat is handled with dice rolls (which means I get to use my dice tower, yay!). So unless you’ve managed to boost or weaken a unit, there are no foregone conclusions when it comes to survivability. Even the best-placed armies can fail to take out their objective and fall to the enemy as the result of a few bad rolls.
The core box comes with:
- 5 Planeswalker figures
- 30 squad figures
- 6 cardboard terrain boards
- Two 3-hex sand tiles
- Two 1-hex sand tiles
- 2 ruins
- 4 glyphs
- 30 damage markers
- 20-sided die
- 10 combat dice
- 15 army cards
- 60 spell cards
The manual promises more units in 2016, including neutral artifact units (which are not seen at all in the core set). I’m hoping that Hasbro follows the lead of Imperial Assault (another FFG game) and releases additional scenarios with the unit packs. While going for the throat in 2-player mode is fun, it won’t take players long to figure out the best way to defeat the various Planeswalkers. Being able to switch it up with new units will help that; but different play modes will be what ensures that this stays on the table in the long run.
I really want this to stay on the table, too. While Magic: The Gathering Arena of the Planeswalkers shares a lot of similarities with Heroscape, I never had the pleasure of playing the original, so I can’t say how similar or dissimilar this is. But I do know that it’s easy to set up and quick to play, both of which are much appreciated in my house. It’s obvious that Hasbro wants this game to take off the way Heroscape did. The care put into the components belies a much higher price point than the $30 retail price. If you’re a fan of Magic: The Gathering in particular or tactical miniature games in general, there’s a lot to love. You can pick up your copy from Amazon or retail locations everywhere.
Now on to the giveaway! See that adorable little Chandra vinyl up there from Funko? The fine folks at Hasbro want to send one to a lucky reader. All you have to do is fill out the form below before 11:59pm ET this Friday, August 7. Good Luck!