SpellBook asks the question, “What if wizards hoarded matching colours of runes to learn magic?”
A simple premise to be sure, and while that light bit of theming leaves much to the imagination, it also means very little fluff gets in the way of play. SpellBook is a set collection game about gathering matching sets of colourful, acrylic tokens called Materia. Collect a set of three matching coloured Materia to unlock that coloured spell at its lowest points and ability, through to a set of five for the spell’s best potential.
From renowned Aussie designer Phil Walker-Harding, father of breakout tabletop hits Sushi Go! and Barenpark, SpellBook continues his trend of modestly sized, well-presented family board games that play within an hour and take up very little table space. Like the designer’s other games, SpellBook is also quite simple to understand on the surface and is buoyed by an approachable manual.
Up to four players (with a solo mode included) will take turns going through a day in the life of a wizard. Each player will have the same seven spell cards laid before them (plus a reference card), with three variants of each card available in the box for increased complexity and variability. Completing the ensemble setup is a bag in the middle hiding all 105 coloured Materia tokens, an altar to display a publicly available rotation of Materia and a cardboard bin for spent tokens. With younger generations increasingly likely to eschew dining tables, SpellBook is an elegant and compact set-up that will even play neatly on the humble coffee table.
Despite the colourful presentation and many excellent components, SpellBook remains neat and compact
An individual player’s turn in SpellBook is broken into three phases: morning, noon, and night. Initially, each phase presents a binary decision around a simple concept. In the morning, the player acquires Materia. Midday allows players to refine their pool of runes by banking unwanted runes from their maximum pool of nine in exchange for points. The wizarding day closes off with the player being able to spend a matching set of between three and five coloured runes to unlock a spell of the corresponding colour. Three phases, three quick and simple decisions, and then the player on the left begins. Play continues around the table until somebody can unlock all seven spells before them, or a player banks 14 runes on their familiar board for points.
With the only visible difference between each player being their pool of Materia and which of their seven spells are currently unlocked (with a Materia placed upon the card), it is easy to glance across each player’s game space and see who is doing well. For a game that tasks players with reacting to the luck of their runes drawn from the bag and then puzzling out how best to translate them into points, there is an opportunity to grab that lone white token publicly available on the altar that would complete the sought-after set of your mate sitting across from you. At some point, the scrupulous player will pivot from building up a few spells to better let them acquire and refine their rune pool, to maximising how many points they can get before the game rushes to its conclusion. The sharpened competitors at the table will attempt that greatest of passive-aggressive conflict in board games, taking that thing another player needs before they have the chance to do so.
Where all players’ hubris is tested. Draw a random bunch from the bag, or a single Materia from the altar
This passive-aggressive denial of Materia that would complete other players’ sets is the gentle nudging competition that comes to the fore during a standard game of SpellBook. Among the 21 different cards available to each player in the box, there are deeper instances of risk versus reward that arise, such as being able to draw a handful of six Materia on your turn but giving everyone else a free opportunity to draw a couple for themselves also. Another spell that can be used in a game’s ensemble of seven allows copying another player’s learned spells. There’s no direct conflict on offer, but rather a shared riding of the waves of luck and being able to laugh at one another’s hubris as they risk it all to draw a bunch of runes they can’t use. It remains that gentle, cheeky conflict that Walking-Harding does so well.
This roundabout conflict is also what failed to set my excitement alight with SpellBook. The arc of each game played was predictable, with the first couple of rounds blistering by as folks tested their luck drawing runes until a set came together. But really, the only interesting decision that occurs in the early game is whether to draw two random tokens from the bag, or a single available rune from the altar. There’s no spice to thrill me in those first few rounds, meaning the first ten minutes of every game were filled with small talk until somebody broke through and completed their first spell. It can be frustrating to watch everyone else around the table begin to get their engines fired up, unlocking power-ups to increase their rune acquisition and refinement. You can simply find yourself halfway through a game still drawing runes, maybe unlocking a spell that doesn’t take advantage of your rune pool, but it’s better than nothing. In each of my games, there was usually one person who was left at the starting zone and couldn’t quite catch up. While they didn’t fail to enjoy the experience, they were usually disheartened to see themselves always a couple of spells behind the pack with first place completely out of sight.
Banking unwanted Materia on the familiar board drives the game towards its collective conclusion
SpellBook is another solid Walker-Harding joint with a thin, inoffensive theme that is elevated by its great components and ease of play. While the puzzle of learning spells with matching sets is immediately understandable, the real joy is the thrill of luck as players test their fortunes and plunge into the Materia bag. With hundreds of variations of SpellBook games on offer by rotating the selection of seven cards in play, those dazzled by SpellBook’s tactile components and fine fantasy spell cards will find great value in this box. It is just a shame that the full roster of spell cards missed an opportunity to add some much needed competitive edge to set my enthusiasm alight.
Review copy supplied by the publisher