Magnastorm: A four-sided game review

Magnastorm* is a thinky euro game for two to four players that takes 1-2 hours to play. It’s certainly at the heavier end of board gaming, despite its mechanisms being relatively straightforward, so I think the recommended age range of 12+ is about right.

This game is a real table hog: a four-player game leaves very little room for manoeuvre on my 5×3-foot table. If you like boards, you’ll be in cardboard heaven. Alongside the main board you’ll find four player boards, an action board, a research board and three more cardboard panels; alongside a cloth bag, around 150 cards, 30 cardboard chits, more than 200 wooden pieces and almost 50 plastic ones. The game will cost you in the £40-50 region, but in fairness it does weigh well over two kilograms…

There’s a theme there, for those who want one: you get a whole page of it in the rulebook. Each player is a different federation from earth that’s exploring/studying a new-found planet by deploying research stations to its surface (why they look like turtles remains a mystery). Unfortunately the weather isn’t the brightest, so your scientists are racing to stay ahead of the planet’s storms to build and use these stations. But in truth, this is a euro game pure and simple: take actions, move up tracks, complete objectives, earn points. However, it uses some interesting mechanisms to get it done.

Teaching Magnastorm

This is a relatively easy game to teach, in theory. There are usually four rounds, each made of of lots of short turns. The mechanisms are straightforward: use workers to get resources, then use them to move around the board and claim territory – and use those areas to gain points. So far so standard euro. The clever bit is how you choose workers.

Workers come in two types – a few in each player colour (you start with one each on the action board) plus 12/15 neutral workers (depending on player count). These workers are split between a number of commanders and you can choose any neutral worker (or one of your own colour) to do either a gather or move/claim territory action.

However, you can also choose to pay (read: spend one cube of their colour each) any remaining workers under a commander to claim that commander for yourself. They’ll score you immediate victory points, as well as giving you an ability while you control them. So, choosing which commander to take a worker from is also an interesting decision as you don’t want to leave them easily available to the other players.

If you take a worker to gain resources or move/claim territory, you place them on the next round’s action board (which is an exact copy of the one you take them from – so at the end of the round you simply switch boards and go again).

Again, placing in a column will mean they’re below a particular commander next round – but these spots can also give you immediate bonuses; while different rows see you either gain more resources, or pay less to move. Again, more decisions.

When you move and claim territory, guess what – it’s simple to do, but involves more tricky decisions. The colour of the space you claim will match one of several science tracks – each of which also has a commander: at the end of each round, whoever is the highest on each track claims the commander for the next round (again gaining points).

Additionally the main board is split into six zones, only three of which are active each round. Here you’re also looking for zone majority to score points; as well as knowing you’ll gain bonus resources at the end of each round for active areas you’ve claimed.

But the big points come from the four objectives (randomly drawn at the start of each game). There are two kinds: research (which push you back down science tracks) or recalling your labs from the board. Everyone can do each objective, but those in earliest get more points. But completing them loses board position (so potentially resources and majority points) and/or science levels (losing you commanders – and losing them loses points). So yeah, you guessed it – more tricksy decisions.

The game ends after four rounds – unless one of the players triggers it early by reaching a particular score. This can also add tension, as you may be holding out on doing something to get end of round points, resources and commanders; but if the point score is reached mid-round that end-of-round admin won’t happen. Decisions decisions…

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While Magnastorm won’t appeal to everyone, a lot of thought has gone into the final product. For example, forward movement around the board can be key. If you fall behind you can catch up by using a transmitter placed further around the board – but you pay whoever built it, and they score points for building it. Also, after a few plays, you may find one player in your group has won more than others; so they’ve included ‘artefact cards’ to level the playing field: you take one according to your position in each game, creating a handicap system that gives better starting positions to those who keep finish poorly.
  • The thinker: There is a lot of tactical play here, but I think you’ll only win by focusing on a strategy – you can’t just bimble along and hope for the best. You’re targeting around 25 points to win, with each of the four objectives weighing in at 4-5 points for the first player to hit them – so you need to focus on a couple and do them as quickly as possible. But on top of that you need to focus on a couple of commanders and try and move as fast as possible for those easy transmitter points. It’s a delicious mix, but you’ll have to accept other players are going to mess with your plans – so it may not be the game for you.
  • The trasher: While definitely a heavier euro game, which I’d normally avoid, Magnastorm is highly tactical rather than strategic. Especially with more players, everything can change between turns: a commander may become too cheap to resist, a transmitter may open up new movement options, or a board space you wanted may be taken. Also, cube management is crucial. Having cubes in other player’s colours is useful for buying off commanders (you pay a cube per worker, based on their colour) – but your own cubes are used for most other things: and again, what you may need can change from action to action.
  • The dabbler: this definitely isn’t for me. There’s way too much going on and while it doesn’t play that long, if you start poorly you can know you’re out of it quickly. I couldn’t even just do my own thing and not worry about the score, as things can change very quickly: you can’t get a commander combo you like and see it tick over, because it’s hard to keep them for more than a round. First I got frustrated, then bored, then I just switched off. Casual gamers need not apply!

Key observations

We’ve found Magnastorm can be a little anticlimactic: if a player gets ahead the last round can be a bit of a procession. I know this is a bit more common in heavier euro games and many players will accept that, but additionally this can cause issues if you intend to use the artefact cards. If you’re not going to win, why not finish as poorly as possible to get a better artefact card (meaning you’ll start with better gear next play)? Sure, that’s gaming the system – but unfortunately the system invites it.

A few people have complained about a runaway leader problem, and while I haven’t seen this in my plays it does often feel that the player hangs in there – if not by much. so while it may look like a runaway leader issue, it is more than likely simply better play – you can just see it clearer due to having all the scoring happen in-game rather than end-game. While claiming areas and competing for commanders creates interaction it isn’t the kind of game where you can really work together to pull a player back – it’s more about taking chances to advance your own position. If a player ends up doing things out of sync, or concentrating on things others aren’t doing, they can get ahead.

I think some players will also be put off by the strange disconnect between the game having relatively simple rules but being very thinky to play. This can leave you discombobulated at first, but I’ve found it more rewarding with more plays – and there’s enough variety in the box (several different commanders, for example) to keep the game interesting. But I can see a single play putting some players off.

Conclusion

Make no mistakes: Magnastorm is a medium to heavyweight euro game, despite a small decision space and simple mechanisms. While it won’t be for everyone, it has been slickly produced and well tested. But expect every action to bring difficult decisions, while your tactics will be called into question after every one. So while I won’t be reaching for the game that often, for now it will be staying in my collection and I look forward to more head-scratchingly tactical contests.

* I would like to thank Feuerland Spiele for providing a copy of the game for review.

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