Friday 1 December 2023


The Game

SpellBook is a 2023 game by Phil Walker-Harding (Sushi Go, Cacao, Barenpark). You are wizards competing in gathering gems (they call it Materia in the game) in order to learn spells. Spells generally help you gather gems more efficiently, so that you can then learn more other spells to help you gather even more gems even more efficiently. The game ends when a player learns all 7 types of spells. Spells you learn are worth points, and the highest scorer wins the game. 

During game setup everyone takes 8 cards. 7 of them are spell cards, and the 8th is just a reference card. The spell cards each list 3 levels of a particular spell. You need to collect at least 3 gems of the same colour to learn the beginner spell in that particular colour. 4 gems for the intermediate spell, and 5 gems for the expert spell. 

Every player also starts with a familiar. I think of it as your magical beast. One action you can perform in the game is to feed your familiar a gem. If anyone's familiar is full, i.e. you fill up all the spaces, the game also ends. You score points for having fed your familiar. 

The reference card lists the things you can do on your turn. You have up to three actions, for the morning, midday and evening phases of your turn. The basic morning action is to either take a gem from a public board or to draw two random gems from a bag. You have a hand limit of 10 gems and you may never exceed that. Once you reach 10, you can't take or draw any gem. You may forgo this basic morning action to cast a morning spell instead, that is, after you have learned one. Usually a morning spell is related to gathering gems, and it is more efficient that the basic morning action. 

The midday action is similar. The basic midday action is to feed your familiar one gem. Instead of doing that, you may cast a midday spell.  The basic evening action is to learn a spell by spending gems. The alternative action is, of course, casting an evening spell. Learning spells is not just for the purpose of giving yourself more action options. Spells are also worth points. 

The long thin board on the left is the public board. It will always have at least 5 gems. Every turn one more gets added. If it becomes full, all gems are discarded and it is refilled to 5. The gems in the game come in 7 colours and 3 icons (called runes), making 21 different combinations. The colour determines what kind of spell you can learn. The icons are for other game purposes. For example one spell lets you claim two gems instead of one from the public board, but the gems must have the same icon. 

The game comes with many different spells. In all 7 colours there are more advanced spells than what we played in our introductory game. You can mix and match and play with many different combinations. This is a game with many variations in setup. 

The Play

The gist of the game is collecting resources (gems), improving your ability to collect resources (learning spells), and ultimately scoring points. The flow is simple. There is some luck in the gem colours you get. Often you will want to draw from the bag because you get double the resources. That is very tempting. So you will leave things to fate a little to see where it leads you. Sometimes you do have to take charge if your own fate and pick a specific gem. You want to be purposeful so that you don't waste time waiting for a lucky draw. There is a nice balance between leaving things to luck and exercising choice. 

There are many different spells to learn. If you combo them well, they help you a lot. Learning spells is not always for the actions they offer you. Sometimes it's just for the points. Or sometimes it's for the sake of ending the game when you are in the lead. The game ends also when a familiar is fully fed. Players collectively have control over when the game ends. This is something to watch out for. 

I was unlucky with my draws. In the early game I mostly drew from the bag. My colours were too spread out. I needed at least 3 gems of the same colour to learn any spell. I ended up consistently spending gems on feeding my familiar. It is a basic action and it is not very efficient in terms of scoring points, but doing something is better than doing nothing. I became the human countdown timer in our game, feeding my familiar every single turn. I only learned one spell, and it was one which helped me in feeding my familiar. I could feed it two gems instead of one, if the gems were of the same colour. I felt like I was playtesting the game, trying to see if it broke if I applied this extreme strategy. I am happy to report that the game is well balanced. This basic strategy is not too strong or too weak. I was nowhere near winning the game. The winner was one who managed to learn quite a few spells and managed to make good use of them. I was not the last player either, which meant if I were able to execute this familiar feeding strategy with better spell support, it would be a viable strategy. So feeding the familiar is a good benchmark. When you decide not to feed it and use your gem for other purposes, that other purpose had better be more efficient than this feeding action. This is like buying Silver in Dominion

This was the only spell I learned, worth 2 points. 

My familiar was almost full now. I knew even if I fed it the last gem to end the game I wouldn't win. I went ahead anyway because the longer the game went on, the further I would fall behind the rest. Might as well get it over and done with. 

Too bad I didn't get to experience the proper spell learning part of the game. I played a rather extreme strategy. I could only see through the eyes of my competitors. There are many nifty spells. One allows you to take two gems from the public board instead of one. Another one allows you to discard a gem of a particular icon to draw 4 random gems. Yet another allows you to treat gems of specific icons as jokers. They are variations of collecting gems more efficiently and using them with more flexibility. There are many more advanced spells in the box we haven't tried. 

The Thoughts

SpellBook plays at a brisk pace. The overall flow is simple and easy to grasp, yet there is some strategic depth to chew on. You're just collecting gems to learn spells, and the spells make you more efficient in collecting more gems to learn more spells. But how do you make good use of the spells? How do you decide which ones to go for first? How do you make the most of the gems you happen to draw from the bag? I like the tricky balance between leaving things to luck and taking charge of your fate. Getting lucky feels great. Yet sometimes you want predictability and guaranteed progress. 

This is an entry level strategy game, good for gamers who have been playing casual games and want to get into something a little meatier. For experienced strategy gamers, it still offers interesting decisions despite appearing simple. 

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