Arcane Academy may pitch itself as a game for players aged 12 and up, but it’s really a game for kids that allows grown-ups to play along. It does so while managing to keep it competitive for all players. It’s lighter than most of the games I review here, but of everything I’ve played with my daughter (in some cases, against her better judgment), this ranks among her favorites.
Arcane Academy has a wizarding theme. Players are students at a wizarding school and must cast spells to complete their exams, but the gameplay is simple: using a 4×3 board of tiles that allow for various actions, players must collect two currencies to buy cards that confer one-time or ongoing benefits. The tile-laying part is secondary, although there is some strategy to it (specifically, there are clearly worse ways to do it). The key is building up something on your cards that get you more currency or points. Once any player has completed eight of these cards, it triggers the final round, after which players count up the prestige points on their completed cards plus any extra points they’ve picked up along the way.
Each player starts the game with a mat with the 4×3 grid on it, with eight empty spaces and four that already have tiles printed on them. Each tile gives the player an action – take a red shard, add one Will to the player’s Willpower dial, take a tile from the center of the table, use an Item the player has already completed, or complete an Assignment card by paying its cost in shards or Will. Some tiles available throughout the game give the player more than one of these things; the best tile gives the player two Will and two shards in one shot. But tiles can also be linked to other tiles so that activating a tile then triggers up to four adjacent tiles, so sometimes the best tile is the one that’s placed in the most advantageous spot on your board. After you use a tile, it is ‘exhausted’ with a black cube; you can spend a turn ‘resting’ to remove all your exhaustion tokens, although it’s also possible to do this via certain spell cards.
The cards are the real heart of the game, as they generate the prestige points that determine the winner and most of them let you do more things or gain currency more quickly. Item cards require payment in shards, and become a permanent part of your board; some give recurring benefits like gaining a shard every time you complete a spell, while others require activation via a Use Item tile. Items can also gain prestige points over the course of the game via their own actions (e.g., tell one opponent to give you one Will or you get to place a one prestige point token on the card) or via the actions of spells.
Spells cost Will and are one-and-done cards, although you save the cards to count their points at the end of the game. Many involve taking something away from opponents, the only real source of interaction with other players in the game. Others just tidy things up, like the card that lets you remove all your exhaustion tokens and immediately take a fresh turn. Your Willpower meter maxes out at 9, while there’s no limit on how many shards you can have (and cards can cost up to 10 shards).
The first player to complete eight assignment cards in total gets the Pencils Down card, after which each player takes a final turn including that player. Some players may get additional turns from certain Items, after which each player tallies up his/her prestige points – the point values for each completed assignment card plus any loose prestige point tokens on their items.
Complete games take about 10-15 minutes per player, and it plays as well with two as it does with four. My daughter is ten and had no problem picking up the rules and figuring out the basics of strategy, such as there is in a game this simple. I don’t think this is really a game for adults; I would never bring this out for a grown-ups’ game night or even just to play with a friend. But it was a big hit with my daughter and she’s eager to try it out with her friends who are similarly wizard-obsessed.