The Institute for Magical Arts* is an area control card and dice game for two players from Biblios designer Steve Finn. While the box and title suggest a thematic game of magic it is very much abstract in how it plays: I wouldn’t let the theme either sway you toward it or put you off, depending on your outlook.
Playing out in about 30 minutes the game comes with 60 cards, 70 wooden pieces and eight dice, along with instructions and a reference sheet – making it good value for around £20 (everything here is definitely of solid if unremarkable quality).
This is very much a one-on-one game, with the winner being the player with the most points at the end of the round in which someone reaches 20 or more. There are take-that elements that can’t be ignored, with the heart of the game being an area control mechanism (much like that in Smash Up) where you compete to claim cards and then use their powers.
Gamers looking for a reference should very much think of The Institute for Magical Arts in the same breath as small box games such as Jambo/Asante or Targi, rather than a less complex game such as Jaipur or Lost Cities – but if you like the cut-and-thrust of either it’s worth reading on.
While The Institute for Magical Arts has some relatively complex mechanisms at play, the game is easy to teach due to all the information/components being open when you need to discuss them – or at any point someone would need to ask a question.
Game-play very much revolves around the dice, or more accurately what you choose to do with them once they’re rolled each turn. Players have identical hands of six cards: two used to attain ‘power stones’ and four to assign them. Each turn starts with the players rolling their four dice simultaneously and assigning a card (face down) to each one – and yes, there are of course plenty of ways to mitigate the rolls.
Both players then reveal and use their cards simultaneously, taking/assigning stones to cards (in spaces – you guessed it – one to six) in the centre of the table. Most are ‘institute cards’, each of which has two requirements that need to be met to be claimed: a minimum number of stones spent, plus a clear majority it needs to be won by.
This means you may need to have laid at least three stones on the card, but also need to have laid two more there than your opponent – so if you lay three and your opponent two, the card (and stones) stay in play into the next round. In this way a card can have many more stones on it than required if it is hotly contested.
Cards won are added to a players tableau and their points immediately scored (each has a value between 0 and 7). Cards also give their winner an ability – either a once-per-turn or one-off power, all of which bend the rules of the game in fairly standard fashion. There’s a little more going on than that, but hopefully this gives you an idea of the game’s relative simplicity in terms of rules.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: I like a good bluffing game and The Institute for Magical Arts has the elements it should need to be one. The secret dice assigning leads to a lot of second-guessing, while there are several routes to victory hidden within this very small package. But beneath the potential of bluffing the game is really about logic and once the game is settling down in the middle stages it can become quite predictable. A little chaos would’ve helped for me – but then the game feels as if it knows its audience and that should be seen as a strength.
- The thinker: Possibly the game’s greatest asset is the potential game of chicken that awaits you as you choose whether to re-roll your dice. As turns are simultaneous, one of you has to decide whether or not to re-roll or stick – leaving your opponent the chance to act afterwards. It’s a highly unusual game state and one I thoroughly approve if, adding to the game’s one-on-one appeal and intensity. Ignore the fantasy sheen – this is a thinker’s game with a small element of luck and a much bigger dose of decision making.
- The trasher: I really liked The Institute for Magical Arts – in theory. Trust me: you do not feel like you’re casting spells. With the exception of a few nasty ones, most of the card powers are incremental rather than game changing – and as everything is open you can see it all coming a mile off, so even the stronger ones lose their ability to add excitement. The ‘character’ cards sum it up: they have none, beyond unique art and a name – no powers, just a basic set collection score.
- The dabbler: Sadly I didn’t feel the personality here at all and the game-play was just ‘meh’. There’s very little effort made to pretend the theme isn’t just pasted on – they didn’t even stretch to individual art for all the cards, or any flavour text. I’m not really keen on two-player games at the best of times, unless they’re a bit more raucous. This is more about keeping your poker face on, but after a few turns I’d lost my smile anyway so no problem! It’s like Smash Up without the smash (or the up).
There’s not much to work with in terms of opinion on The Institute for Magical Arts right now, but in terms of criticism the words seen most often are ‘boring’ and ‘unfun’ – things I think I’ve addressed above.
But as I haven’t been 100% behind the game so far, I think it’s also worth looking at some of the more positive comments – and there are many. Fans describe it as ‘light’ or ‘super light’ (both to play and learn), blending interesting mechanisms to create a unique duelling/area control game.
There’s nothing I can argue with there – except to say that this is very much a Steve ‘Dr’ Finn game. I was fascinated by my first game of Biblios, laboured a little through my second and am not interested in playing it again. This, for me, is a much more interesting game – and Finn fans seem to generally agree. But I still couldn’t get most of my gaming friends excited enough to want to play it more in future.
The Institute for Magical Arts is a good game: it is well designed, simple to teach, and everything holds together under scrutiny. It has that enforced battling element you’d expect from a two-player-only game and plays varied and fast; cleverly mixing bluff, dice and area control.
But is it fun? If you like thinky abstracts with just a dash of theme – or any of Finn’s other games – it is definitely worth checking out. Others may be advised to try Biblios (which is widely owned and available), as I think they have similar qualities in terms of theme and mechanics (Biblios is a card game where you are forced to ‘gift’ cards to your opponents as well as yourself, trying to amass cards in different currencies while also manipulating the value of those currencies).
Personally, if I’d found anyone who enjoyed playing it with me that I thought I’d play often enough, I’d have kept it. As it is, I’ll be moving it on – and I’m sure there will be plenty of Dr Finn fans happy to snap it up.
* I would like to thank Games Quest for providing a copy of the game for review.