Saturday 28 October 2017

Magic Maze

Plays: 5Px5.

The Game

Magic Maze was nominated for the 2017 Spiel des Jahres. Recently it won the most innovative game award at the Essen game fair. I had not heard much about it before, and even if I had seen the box cover, I would have dismissed it as a game I wouldn't like. It was in a cartoonish style, and it had the typical fantasy RPG characters. And I would have missed playing a wonderful game. Ivan brought the game to Friday game night at, and that was how I got to try it.

The premise is silly. A team of mage, warrior, elf and dwarf has lost all its weapons, and decides to raid a shopping mall to steal what is needed. These jokers are not familiar with the mall so they need to explore it to find the right shops. Naturally, each adventurer's favourite weapon is sold at a different shop. They only have a limited amount of time to pull of this heist, before they are caught up by mall security.

Magic Maze is a real-time, cooperative game. The players don't play any specific character. Instead everyone controls all four of the characters. Every player has one action tile which specifies the action or actions he can make a character perform. Actions include moving north, south, east and west, taking an escalator, teleporting, and exploring.

This is how a game is set up. The adventurers arrive at the central court of the shopping mall. They are unfamiliar with their surroundings and need to explore to find the weapon shops. They explore by going to the edge of the tile and then drawing a new tile to place next to the current tile. The spaces which allow exploration are colour-specific. The colour code refers to a specific character. Only that character may perform exploration in that space. In this photo, the space at the right edge only allows the orange character, the barbarian, to do exploration.

The round icons are portals. You can do teleportation here, i.e. move immediately to another portal of the same colour on another tile. Again, these are colour-specific - restricted to specific characters.

This is one of the action tiles. The portal icon means I can make a character teleport. The left arrow means I can make a character move westwards.

You need to explore the mall, you need to find the right shops, you need to get each character to their respective exits, and you need to do all these in a collaborative manner where each player can only do a few very specific actions. This sounds messy, but not exactly hard. The twist is this - you can't communicate with your fellow players! You can't talk. You can't point. You can't hint with gestures or winks. You can't give any directions. Everyone needs to stay observant and think on his own. You need to be alert of where each character is and what they should be doing next. When they need to do something which requires your action, you must do it quickly. The communication restriction makes collaborating difficult. It is not easy to keep up with all four characters on the board, since everybody is moving them about all the time. It's like trying to keep track of four hyperactive toddlers at a nursery. One difficulty is sometimes when you have a certain plan for a character, your fellow players do not understand your intention. If they don't know what you are thinking, they can't help you. They don't know how to. It can be even worse. Sometimes players have different opinions about what a character should be doing. You end up angrily pushing the poor old mage back and forth, insisting yours is the right way, clenching your teeth because you can't explain what you're trying to do to your slow friend across the table.

The rulebook says there are two ways you can communicate with your fellow player. #1 is to stare at him intently (I'm serious). #2 is this big red pawn in the photo above. You can place the pawn in front of your friend to indicate to him that there is something you want him to do. Hopefully he can soon see what it is you mean. Else you can try to stare at him more intently.

The timer is an hourglass, as you can see in the photo above. It's an approximately 3 minute hourglass. A game will last longer than that, unless you are horrible at it. There are some locations on the board which let you flip the hourglass over, giving you more time. Naturally, it is best to flip right at the last moment before the sand runs out, so that you will have more time. In the photo above, you can see a red hourglass icon at the top right corner of the start tile. Every such icon can be used only once. The hourglass icon appears again on other tiles. You need to find them before you can use them.

Hourglass icons have another important use. They give you a special break time in which you are allowed to talk. This is the only exception in the whole game. After you flip the hourglass and before you take any action with any of the characters, you can talk. You can discuss, you can plan, you can agree on what to do next. You can also scream at your teammates for being dumb, but while you are doing all these, the timer is running. Say what you want to say quickly, and resume playing. Once anyone executes the next action with any of the characters, break time is over and you return to being mute. You get to talk again the next time you use an hourglass icon.

As the game progresses, you will gradually scout out the terrain (i.e. the shopping mall). The game is divided into two phases. In the first phase you find the four shops and steal the four weapons. In the second phase you escape the mall through specific exits. The key difference is in the second phase you are not allowed to use portals anymore. The moment all four characters steal their respective weapons, portals go out of order. The characters need to run to their respective exits without relying on portals. You flip that large tile at the top left of this photo to remind yourselves that portals are no longer functioning.

The Play

When Ivan explained the game, I was puzzled. The mechanisms were unusual. They felt tedious for no reason. There was no game here. Only later I realised that Ivan had saved the best for last. He only told us that we could not communicate at the end of the rules explanation. Everything clicked then. There were five of us, and we played game after game after game. I am actually unsure how many times we played. It might have been more than five.

We played the scenarios in the rulebook one by one, progressing to the next one only after winning the current one. Some rules were added in each new scenario. Sometimes tiles were added too, with new features. We were introduced to more advanced rules bit by bit. The difficulty and complexity increased gradually. It was a smooth learning experience. We never felt overwhelmed. I peeked ahead at other advanced rules we hadn't reached. Even after learning all the advanced rules, there were variant rules we could play. If we had played scenario by scenario until we tried all the variant rules, we would have had many plays of this game - good value for money! A scenario does not have a fixed map like most games with scenarios. A scenario is just a set of rules and a set of tiles. You pick a scenario based on what difficulty and complexity you want to play at. The map you build during play will be different because the deck of tiles is shuffled every time.

Magic Maze is a stressful game. It is not just the time pressure. There is also the pressure of not wanting to let your team down. You need to keep up with the board situation, and you need to keep up with what your friends are strategising in their heads. You don't want to be the weakest link. When the big red pawn is slammed down in front of you, and all your mates are glaring at you with wide eyes, it can be downright nerve wracking. What am I not seeing?! On the other hand, when your team works together seamlessly, it is extremely satisfying. Your hands flit from character to character, and you watch the characters move about purposefully and without hesitation. You feel like a master level mochi team working in perfect unison.


We established one constant strategy when we played. We always explored the whole shopping mall before we stole the weapons, i.e. we found the exits for all four characters before doing the stealing. The reason was once we stole the weapons, the portals would be disabled, and we would lose much mobility. It was better to complete our exploration before that. The rules didn't require completing the exploration before phase 2. It was our own unwritten rule.

We all played standing up. It was simply too exciting a game to play sitting down civilly. It was a quiet rowdy game, if that makes any sense at all. We had to pay attention to all four characters all the time. We had to pay attention to where they were needed to further explore. All this while we had to remember to watch the hourglass and prepare to flip it. In one game we neglected that. We concerned ourselves with the more complex rules and tactics, and forgot about the basics. We lost that game very quickly.

The Thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised by Magic Maze. In the past few months I have had a long backlog of games to write about. I normally write about games in the order that I play them, so Magic Maze had to take a number like every other game. I have been looking forward to write about it. It was an absolute joy to play. Unfortunately it was close to impossible to take photos during play, so I do not have many photos to show.

Magic Maze will work with casual gamers, non gamers and families. It has a gentle learning curve, and the immersiveness makes it an attractive game. It has a hook. It gave me a new experience. I have never felt anything like it before. What comes close is Escape: The Curse of the Temple, specifically when suffering from the silent curse. Magic Maze requires an even higher level of collaboration than Escape. You are not moving your own pawn doing your own thing. Everyone needs to move every pawn on the board.

Magic Maze is a game of suppression and elation. For most of the game you are suppressing your eagerness to communicate. Then at the breaks you get temporary relief. You quickly catch up on the crucial coordination work, and then you switch back to suppression mode. Only when the game ends that you feel the final elation. This is a game that makes you want to laugh.

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