Designed By: Frank Sronce
Published By: Daily Magic Games
Play Time: 30 Minutes
Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium games.
A magic duel conjures up images of supremely powerful beings waging war using their minds in a beautiful but deadly display of sorcery. Or perhaps you imagine such a duel as being more of an invisble meeting of the minds, less about flames, ice and sparks and more about a clash of the wills that goes unseen to the naked eye. Either way, a magic duel is pretty cool. Manasurge wants to capture this in a very simple card game where one player casts a spell and hurls it round the table. Every other player has to keep up or get struck, all in a bid to capture magical Shards.
Setup is fast and easy as befits a filler game. You grab either five of the six suits of Spells cards or all of them, depending on the number of people playing. These spell cards are all numbered from 1 to 8. Then mix in the Metamagic cards and shuffle. Deal out five cards to each person at the table, and then give them a randomly selected wizard that grants a bonus power, something which we’ll discuss later. Finally you hand the Caster token to a random player which is used to show that they cast the starting spell.
The player holding the Caster token chooses a numbered card from their hand and tosses it down onto the table, sets the Caster token and a Shard on it and then declares which direction they are sending the spell. This card sets the special rules for the round depending on the suit that was played; Lighting, Entangle, Quake, Fireball, Blades and Frost are all available and come with their own unique effects, some of which are active immediately and others that only come into play when Resonating, a mechanic we’ll get back to. The game continues with each player laying down a card of equal or higher rank to the last one played. There are a few exceptions to this rule in the form of other cards that reverse rank progression, but most of the time you’ll always be aiming to put down something equal or higher. There’s also the Metamagic cards which can be used instead of a numbered spell, except during the very first turn where a numbered card always has to be played. These come with a variety of effects, such as letting you draw extra cards and hand them to other players or even forcing everybody who puts down a numbered card to take damage. There’s even a Metamagic card that stops further Metamagic cards being played during that round.
If someone can’t make a valid play then the spell strikes them, dealing out damage and ending the round. When this happens the player struck by the spell must count all the Shards currently in play and then take damage in the form of facedown cards from the deck equal to that value, plus any modifiers from special effects that were in play such as the Fireball spell that adds another two points of pain to the total. If somebody ends a turn with five or more damage cards then they have to lose a Shard from their stockpile, ditch their current hand of cards and then use the damage cards to form a new hand to play with going forward, so obviously you want to avoid that as much as possible. As for the other people around the table they get to claim any Shards sitting on the cards they played during their turn, and the person who played the final valid card of the round gets a bonus Shard to boot.
The goal is to acquire 12 of these Shards to claim victory, and that can make the game drag on for too long, especially when you’ve got quite a lot of people sitting at the table, each with a possibility of winning the round or taking a heap of damage and losing a Shard. This is clearly meant to be a filler game and it doesn’t have the depth of gameplay needed to last more than 15-minutes, yet sometimes a match would last over half an hour.
So far so Top Trumps, then, but there are a few more things to consider that bring a very mild tactical layer to an otherwise luck driven game. Firstly if you play a card with a number equal to the current highest one on the table you can counter the spell, letting you reverse the order of play if you want. This can create fun situations where two people bounce the spell back a few times before it finally strikes one of them or carries on round the table. For a two player game this rule gets altered so that whoever plays the spell of equal rank gets to play another valid card if possible.
If you put down a card of the same suit as the caster’s spell then it Resonates. This means that you get to place a Shard on it, thereby potentially earning you more points, and activate its special power if applicable. This is where we come back around to the first card that was played in the round, since some special abilities are in play from the very start and others only come into the picture when resonating. If the first card played is a Fireball, for example, then whoever gets struck by the spell will take an extra two cards of damage. A Blades spell reverses the rank progression so that players must put down something lower rather than higher. Other abilities, however, only come into play when someone plays a card that Resonates. A Lightning spell lets you immediately play another valid card, which could also be a lightning and so on. Meanwhile Entangle lets you ignore rank progression entirely when Resonating. The key to Resonating is choosing whether it’s worth it or not, because if you have a crappy hand then there’s a reasonable chance you’re going to get struck by the spell and tossing another Shard into the mix just means taking more damage.
If at any point you manage to get rid of your entire hand of cards you get a Manasurge, letting you immediately collect 2 shard tokens and form a new hand out of any existing damage cards and the main deck, so trying to play out the order cards need to be played to leave you with the best chance of getting rid of them all is a vital strategy. Between rounds you’ll have a choice; keep your existing hand in the hopes of gaining a Manasurge during the next round, or draw an entirely new hand from the deck. If you’ve got a couple of high cards left or Metamagic cards then you might want to keep them so you can chase that surge.
Spicing up the gameplay are special characters given randomly to each player at the start of the game. These come with abilities like being able to give your first damage card to an opponent or flipping over the top card of the deck and playing it immediately if possible.
The quality of all the components is quite reasonable. The cards themselves have a lovely glossy finish and are made of decent stock, and the art that features on them is nice. It has a cartoon flavour with slightly off looking characters. I just wish that there was some variation in the spell suits – a level 1 fireball looks exactly like a level 8 fireball. The Shard tokens are made of good, thick card. There’s tip cards included as well so that you can quickly glance at what certain icons mean. The only problem is the rulebook which is a bit vague on a spell’s abilities, namely in regards as to when they become active. A number of my friends read the rules and became unsure of whether something like the Blades spell effect became immediately activate if played first, or only activates later on when somebody Resonates with it. A trip to the forums clarified this, but it should be much clearer in the rules.
Unsurprisingly there’s not exactly heaps of tactical play within Manasurge. There’s some consideration involved in deciding whether you should Resonate and risk taking the extra damage, whether you should reverse the order of play because you’re sure an opponent that’s currently leading has nothing left to play or perhaps if you should just put down a big numbered card right now. Except, of course, all of these are very easy decisions to make. It’s always clear what the best play is, often because you only really ever have one or two options available. Ultimately nothing will help if you’ve just got a terrible hand, either. To enjoy Manasurge you have to be able to accept that you’re going to win and lose more often than not simply because of luck. For a filler style game it tends to run a little too long for my taste, and so me and my group typically reduced the number of Shards needed to win.
So what did I think of it, though? And the answer is…..eh. There are a few neat ideas in the form of the Manasurge and Rebirth mechanics, and the small attempts at bringing some light tactical elements to the gameplay are appreciated. But regardless of these I simply didn’t find the game to be compelling. After just a single match against a few friends I felt like I’d experienced everything it had to offer me. There were no surprises, no moments of brilliance where somebody executed a cool move. There’s nothing particularly bad about Manasurge, but as a filler it doesn’t manage to persuade me to play it over many of the other quality games out there.