3 Chits, 5 Giggles
One thing I absolutely adore about board gaming is the far reaches of nonsense it will go to in order to create an experience. Most games will fit into this category believe it or not, even those that take themselves a little seriously (Pandemic Legacy, no matter how stern your box art looks, your B Movie plot and the fact you can still name your own characters still means you do belong on this list). For example, Animals On Animals is a game about placing creatures in unintentionally compromising positions. Then there's Rhino Hero, which is a game where you are tasked with moving a rhinoceros dressed up in superhero spandex up a residential block that you build as you play. Spaghetti is a game about spaghetti, Fabled Fruit has you concocting smoothies for the various creatures in the animal world, Rampage has you physically destroying the board you set up at the beginning, and there are many, many more. In case you hadn't seen where this is going in this review of Magic Maze, believe it or not, this game is the latest to serve up strangeness in a box.
What is odd about it? You are sharing control of four intrepid adventurers. The quartet, consisting of archetypal fantasy characters, include a mage, a dwarf, an elf and a warrior, and they all find themselves lost without their possessions inside the middle of a sprawling shopping mall. Working together, they must collectively explore it in order to find each characters item while being sure to escape before the time runs out. So far, so reminiscent of another game called 'Escape' except it's not that simple. In Magic Maze, you must do all of this with one added complication; you cannot talk to one another. A true challenge for most of us.
The game map is made up of various tiles. You'll place the starting one face up, with the rest creating a random stack from which to draw as the game progresses. Each tile has a grid like map on them, on which any of the four characters can traverse in orthogonal directions, with only minor obstacles like escalators and walls getting in their way. As they explore, the more tiles they can add to the map, eventually creating a long labyrinthian network of roads (with a dead end here and there). Once you've found the tiles with what you need on them, then it's a race to find the exit, and get to them before the sand timer runs dry.
However, while the adventurers may be able to move in all directions, the players are limited. Each person playing is given a tile at the start of the game that informs of what they can do, mainly which of the four directions they are able to move pieces in. So you may only be able to move characters North, while your neighbour to the left can only move bits East, essentially forcing you to cooperate in order to complete the game. Some of you will be given access to special abilities like being able to move up and down the escalators, use portals that send characters around the mall, and the crucial ability to add new tiles to the game. Because you are all sharing pieces, you will still need to keep track of everything going on in the game, because in not doing so you may hold the game up while people wait for you to do your thing. It's a terribly stressful experience.
Communication is the real key to this game, or its lack of it. No gesturing, making sound or pointing is allowed (other than to tell off a player for breaking a rule) and if you're anything like the dozens of people I've played this game with, everybody will accidentally break this rule several times before they know to behave properly. Therefore, your only means of communicating comes down to eye contact (not very common due to having to watch the map like a hawk) but also the use of a large, obnoxious red pawn shaped object. You're allowed to take this at any time and place it, or if you're in the midst of a game, slam it repeatedly down in front of another player, informing them that they must do something, but not tell them what that is. On paper, it sounds hellish, but it has provoked a lot of mirth when playing.
I've mentioned time in this game, but not how it works. You get a three minute sand timer, which you are allowed to turn over at three points during the game, giving your team a maximum of 12 minutes if you play perfectly, but rather than just turning it whenever you like, one of the playing pieces must get to special points on the board in order to do that. Each one can only be activated a single time, and because you're unable to talk, reminding everyone about this important part of the game, what should be easy becomes painfully annoying. If you turn it too early, you'll actually give your team less time to meet the goal too. The one reprieve though, is only after turning the timer over but before making the next move, you are allowed to talk, and these brief moments are usually just enough to give everybody their immediate goals before rushing off to achieve them. It's brutal, but it's clever, and is one of the many reasons that this game elevates itself above other real time cooperative games.
When opening the box, you are given a list of 19 scenarios to work your way through before leaving you with the full game to play on with, starting off at its easiest, before adding special powers and changing things up, generally making the experience more difficult one game at a time. You'll forget things and you'll make mistakes, this is inevitable, but you'll have a great shared moment out of it each time. I cannot count the number of times I've brought the box out and played now, for it's been a lot, because it's just brilliant fun and a perfect appetiser for a games night. It irradiates energy, even if not suited to everybody (one friend of mine had a hard time being 'shouted at' by having the red pawn thrown down in front of them repeatedly, but in my opinion you do have to embrace the stress of the game). This game also goes up to eight players, and is pretty great for everything except two, though I've yet to try the solo mode for I deem this very much a social experience.
There is so much going on in a game of Magic Maze, yet the quietness of the actual gameplay is incredibly misleading to any observers. After winning or losing, there's a real sense of disappointment for having blundered somehow, or pure elation for besting it. It's hard to imagine that there will be a game out there that will top this mix of mechanics, for I believe this to be one of my favourite games around at the moment. I would gladly be proved wrong though, and I am already chomping at the bit to get my hands on the expansion, which adds modular elements to the game to make it easier and or harder, depending on what sort of challenge you are looking for. So yes, in summary, you should buy this wonderful maze, and get lost in it.
Review by Russell Chapman