Designed By: Forrest-Pruzan Creative, Kami Mandell, Andrew Wolf
Published by: USAopoly
Playtime: 30-120 minutes
Review copy supplied free of charge by Asmodee UK.
The Harry Potter franchise holds a special place in the hearts of millions, especially my generation who grew up with both the books and the movies. I started reading the books as a child, and then the very first movie came out. As I moved through my teenage years the books and the movies grew darker, changing and evolving with my own personality and views. So in other words when a game comes out bearing the Harry Potter license I’m intrigued.
Once you lift the lid of the rather fetching box and check out the contents you’ll discover seven boxes representing each book in the series. The first box naturally contains all the cards you need to get started on this deck-building adventure, and after that each new box adds more cards into the mix, more villains to fight and even new mechanics. Boxes 4 and 7 alter the game the most, but even then there are no radical shifts in gameplay mechanics or rules, rather they just introduce small, new ideas into the mix that help keep things fun. Regardless, opening a new box feels exciting and interesting, and is best experienced by mixing the new cards into the old without looking. You want to beat this game so you can see the next one. It isn’t one of those posh Legacy games where you permanently alter the game by ripping up cards or anything like that and no progress carries over, so each new game means giving up all those cool new cards you bought, but there’s still a feeling of progress as you excitedly rip open a new box and examine the tiny rules sheet.
So here’s the gist; each game you must defeat a number of villains by purchasing new cards to make your deck better. The villains must gain control of the location cards, their influence being represented by wonderful little metal tokens that can be plopped onto the location with a satisfying thud. If you beat the pile of villains that grows with each new box opened then you win, but if they progress through every location before that happens then the bad guys win and you have to play it all over again.
Once the inevitable argument over who gets to play as what character has been resolved via good old-fashioned violence you can sit down to the game proper. Each of the four heroes – which means the obvious trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione along with Neville because the designers really wanted this to be a four-player game – gets a basic starting deck that is always the same regardless of how many of the game’s seven boxes you work through, because apparently despite attending a magical school for numerous years, battling evil wizards and even performing some pretty intense magic none of J.K. Rowling’s creations are capable of bloody remembering anything between adventures.
This basic deck contains ten cards, of which you’ll draw an initial five, work through your turn by playing those, discard them all them all and draw a new hand of five, remembering to shuffle your discard pile to form your new deck when needed.
That bit is important because many of your cards will show an icon telling you to collect some Influence tokens which you’ll then use to purchase new cards from the six face-up Hogwarts cards, buying the help of characters like Dumbledore, Hagrid and Ginny Weasley, learning new spells such as Incendio or Expecto Patronum, or grabbing potentially helpful items like Quidditch Gear or Butterbeer. Your new card/s get added straight to your discard pile which will eventually be recycled into your deck thus letting you play the new stuff. Yup, it’s typical deck-building stuff, albeit with some extra cards that when played will let you add a specific type of card straight to the top of your deck which can be hugely useful.
The other general type of card gives you special attack icons that you can distribute among the one, two or three villains on the board until they have been successfully punched/magicked/harassed and leave. It’s that simple.
And that’s basically the game. You buy new cards, beat the bad guys and go home.
Okay, okay, that’s underselling it, but I’m simply seeking to explain that Hogwarts Battle is a fairly typical example of the deck-building genre and quite easy to understand. No matter how many of the seven boxes you open it never becomes a complex or ground-breaking game.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into how the game works, then. At the start of every player’s turn they need to flip over a Dark Arts card, or possibly even more than one depending on what the Location card says. These cards are, somewhat unsurprisingly given their name, not good news as they’ll do things like force players to discard, add tokens to the Location card, or just lower a player’s health.
Yes, each character has 10 health points, and while death is impossible getting reduced to zero stuns the player, forcing them to add a token to the current location, discard half their hand and then get rid of any Influence or Attack tokens they have. It’s characters health that brings most of the game’s co-op nature together with many cards offering chances to heal up other players.
And if a bunch of Dark Arts cards trying to ruin your day wasn’t enough the various villains also have abilities that activate at the start of a turn, like how a Dementor will force you to lose 2 health every turn until it’s defeated or how the Basilisk stops players from getting to draw extra cards which really puts a crimp in your deck-building if you’ve been stocking up on cards that do exactly that. The game is often at its best when villain abilities combo off of each other and the Dark Arts cards, like how Tom Riddle makes you choose between losing two health or discarding a card while Crabbe & Goyle make you lose another point of health if you do discard, creating an unwinnable decision. Better yet are the discussions that come from deciding who to deal with first. Of course, though, luck does play a big part in all of this, so while sometimes you’ll end up fighting against villains who bounce off of each other nicely you’ll also just battle ones who don’t.
Whatever happens, this is a surprisingly tough game at times. While the first few boxes were a breeze, by time we hit the fourth one things were getting tricky, and the final game will probably take you a few tries. However, this is also a problem because a large part of the reason that the game becomes difficult is that with every new box you open you add the villains to the existing stack, and thus by just game four you’re battling no less than fourteen bad guys and beating them can take ages. By box seven there are evil wizards, giant snakes and Death Eaters everywhere and the playtime jumps up to around 2-hours as you battle against the seemingly never-ending tide of villain cards. It feels bloated and overly long, and the difficulty begins to feel unfair because losing is less about poor deck-building choices and more about the fact that you didn’t hit your head against the wall fast enough. I disliked the final couple of boxes because the fun, fairly quick game had disappeared and in its place was this 2-hour long slog through a bunch of villains I had already beaten several times over.
And that brings us to the theme, which I’m pleased to say is largely pretty good, but you do need to put away your Hard Potter Nerd Hat because the designers have taken some creative freedom. You’ll still be battling Quarrel in the very last game, for example, despite the fact that he was only in the first book, while Hermione has her Time-Turner from the very start rather than getting it in the third book. It’s definitely a bit strange to be fighting the Basilisk while also fending off Barty Crouch, too. But if we push these things aside the guys over at USapoly have clearly worked hard to find ways to fit things into the theme, thus the Alahamora spell is your most basic Influence gathering card and comes in everyone’s deck, Molly Weasley helps heal everyone and the Lumos spell lets everyone draw an extra card because it lights the way, letting you see what was once hidden. I also really enjoyed the fact that you replace Harry, Ron, Hermione and Neville with older versions of themselves.
Where we might find a bit of derision is in the use of images taken directly from the movies or from promotional imagery rather than custom artwork. For the most part, everything looks pretty good, but there are a few cards that look…well, cheap. The item cards, for example, have stuff like the Sorting Hat awkwardly layered over a yellow background. And when the game does deviate from use film material it doesn’t look all that good, with the designs for the spells being pretty boring. However, the card stock is pretty reasonable, the board is nice and solid if a tad plain and the metal tokens are a wonderful touch.
But let’s get back to the gameplay, specifically the actual act of deck building. Is it satisfying? Mostly. I say that because there isn’t quite as much room for comboing off of other players or even your own deck as I’d personally like. I never really felt like I was building a deck full of cards that were all chosen to work beautifully together, but apart from that the card variety is decent, even if they do almost all revolve around gain influence/gain health/draw a card. By the time you’ve opened the last box the stack of Hogwarts cards is huge, and there is some nice discussion to be had about what cards each player should grab and where that extra Influence token should go.
And there we go, that’s how the game plays. There’s nothing that rocks the boat within Hogwarts Battle, its mechanics being instantly familiar to anyone who has ever touched a deck-builder. However, while Hogwarts Battle is a largely generic deck-builder we also have to consider exactly who the game is made for, and to me the typical yet very well executed mechanics mean this is firmly intended for Harry Potter fans who have never picked up a board game other than Monopoly or Scrabble. It’s easy to learn the basic rules and the gradual introduction of new ideas is well paced so that every player should easily be able to integrate the new stuff with barely a thought. In other words, it really is a good gateway game for Harry Potter fans and families, as well as being an overall solid board game.
My final verdict then is that Hogwarts Battle isn’t deserving of the recommendation sticker because I wouldn’t recommend everyone rush out and purchase it right now. It’s nothing something I think you really, really need to play. However, I would recommend that if you’re a Harry Potter fan who wants to experience what this whole board game trend is then go raid your piggy bank, and if you’re a board game fan AND a Harry Potter fan then you’ve probably already bought the game and are just reading random reviews to feel validated. Good for you. I hereby declare you validated. It’s a rock solid deck-builder that makes great use of popular IP.
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