September 08, 2011

Board Game Review: Magnifico

Magnifico (Dust Games/Spartaco Albertarelli and Angelo Zucca, 2008)
3-5 Players / 14+  / 120 minutes

1499 A.D.  The foreboding Castle of Milano ominously stood sentry over the north Italian countryside.  Many thought it impregnable as its monstrous walls rose to the sky, reinforced by massive towers at every corner.  Its lord boasted it would never fall - even against 100,000 men.  But in a rare moment that I would be foolish not to seize, the enemy emptied the castle garrison off all but eight infantry units.  So I would put that declaration to the test!  Gathering my armies from the surrounding lands, I march my legions of pikemen upon the fortress and begin the assault with my...


What You Get:
    Lots of plastic! The components are snazzy and well detailed, but a bit too small for a "dudes on a map" game, which will be fiddly by definition.  Da Vinci's tanks all look like flying saucers and his planes look like hang gliders - but theming alternate history is not an exact science.  The infantry are all halberd-bearing Swiss mercenary types of the Pope's Guard variety.  No doubt after being mowed down by Renaissance tanks, they found employment in Papal service far safer.  The mounted board is both practical and gorgeous.  The cards are sturdy, linen-textured, and with appropriately baroque artwork for the time period's theme. I do wish Dust Games had provided a reference sheet describing the cards and their iconography, though.  It is especially confusing for kids. It is now published by Fantasy Flight.

    Legions of plastic bits!
     The Quick Rundown:

    Magnifico is Ameritrash at is core with some Euro game elements.  You start with one territory, two dudes, a castle, and a pile of coins.  What makes this "dudes on a map" game unique is that your money is used to bid for certain project cards (all based on Leonardo da Vinci's inventions) which determine turn order, provide a variety of combat advantages, and give victory points.  The usual elements of any war game are here with some unique twists.  It costs money to invade other territories and wage war, plus you are limited to the number of times you can attack in one round.  Grunts are free.  You can only buy tanks and planes if you have one of the appropriate project cards.  Attacker gets to roll first and remove casualties before the defender can fight back.  However, you can also kill your own men while rolling (which I guess could simulate defensive return fire or perhaps friendly fire?).  Tanks are especially fearsome as each one rolls a handful of dice and can wipe out half a dozen infantry each time - but if you roll really poorly, a major malfunction will destroy your entire army!  Additionally, only infantry can be taken as casualties (with a few exceptions) and when all your infantry are dead, the enemy captures any remaining tanks and planes.  The other major Euro element are victory points.  You earn these by owning the most castles, conquering the most territories, building the most projects, and displaying Renaissance-era, pin-up models in your gym locker at the country club.  After expanding and fighting and waxing and waning, eventually some one will earn enough points to be declared Magnifico, which comes with a funny hat and your own personal Swiss guard sans Popemobile.

    T for Teens:

    Generally, I pay little attention to the age range on the box.  My kids get into a number of games even though they may be younger than that suggested.  However, with Magnifico I think that 14+ is accurate.  If this were the first war game introduced to my kids, I don't think they would have had as many issues.  However, there are enough twists in here on old, familiar mechanics that they stumble through play and constantly ask about rule clarifications.  The game is probably better suited for older children, even probably teenagers.  With that said, I think some of the mechanics that threw off my children will probably also turn off some regular strategy gamers

    An assault begins.
    First off, tanks are powerful.  Really powerful.  My kids think they're over-powered.  There are enough tank project cards in play for everyone to have one tank card.  You can only own one and you need it to build them (same with planes).  Which specific card you have will determine how many dice each of your tanks roll in combat and how many hits you score with a successful roll.  When a tank rolls all of its dice and does not roll any explosion symbols, that is considered a complete success and you score all the hits indicated on your card, generally 4-6 (plus additional hits for any tank upgrade cards you can bid for and purchase separately).  That's a lot of damage inflicted on the defender with just one tank, especially when you remember those defenders never get to even fire back!  However, this advantage is tempered by several things.  First, if you roll just 1 explosion, you only score half the kills allowed per your tank card and any upgrades.  If you roll 2 explosions, you score 0 hits.  And if you should be unlucky enough to roll 3 explosions (of which I often am), you're entire army is wiped out in a major malfunction - the "Mother of all Backfires," I suppose!  You can only build one tank per turn.  And if you leave yourself vulnerable to counter-attack, it is possible your tanks will be captured by the enemy and then turned against you!

    Beware the explosions...
    The other major issue my kids have with the game is that it is very difficult to catch-up if you fall behind.  Money and victory points are awarded based on owning territories, castles, and projects.  It is difficult to acquire those if you don't have money; and it is difficult to get money if you don't acquire those.  Fall too far behind and you don't have money to bid for projects which will generally better your combat abilities.  You can turtle and build up your castle defenses making it extremely difficult to lose a territory or two, but where's the fun in that?  You can't count on your infantry; they may be free, but you only get one per territory and they're weak beyond about round three.  You really need tanks to be effective both on offense and even in defending strong castles.  Otherwise, you're sitting and waiting for an opportunity to take advantage of two stronger neighbors weakening one or each other.  By then, it can be too late to catch-up in victory points.  The three attacks per turn rule is generally not enough to slow down the leader.

    The castle defenses can also pose grumbling among my kids.  The only real plausible defense against tanks is a castle, which then can swing the advantage to the other extreme.  A castle with four towers reduces all infantry and individual tank hits by five, making assaults upon these fortresses a dicey affair.  Many will think this too great a defensive advantage and encourages turtling.  But turtling earns you no points.  There are ways to increase your odds against these beastly cities.  Planes ignore castle defenses - but there is a risk they will be destroyed in the attack.  You can get the paratrooper project card which gives you're entire army a chance to ignore castle defenses - but you have to win one in an auction, pay to play it, and then roll successfully to even employ it in battle.  So mostly it comes down again to the backbone of the game: tanks.  The best way we've found to assault even the strongest castles is to build as many tank upgrades as possible in order to increase the number of hits each tank can score.  And then bring lots of them.

    I personally like Magnifico.  The game gives a fresh twist to almost all the tried and true mechanics you see with "dudes on a map" games - but you may need to get used to them.  Components are better than average.  The theme is original and well implemented.  Combat is unique.  You must save money to wage war.  The project bidding ensures that games vary from play to play.  Planning out how best to use your menacing tanks is challenging.  The tight economy, attack limitations, and unforgivingly quick combat mechanics keep turns relatively short.  The victory point system prevents needless all-day slugfests.

    Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

    In the end, I give Magnifico an 8 on the Geek scale (Very good game.  I like to play.  Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.).  It is not the best choice for younger kids, though.  My kids are willing to play it and it will probably grow on them over time.  But the brutal and sometimes bizarre combat results, along with the "weak get weaker tendency," leaves them preferring other titles.  For teens and adults, you may enjoy this one for what it is:  an original and lighter war game with unique twists on the genre.  If you prefer more old-school, traditional strategy games, this one may not be for you.

    The artwork is fantastic.

    1 comment:

    1. Hmm, still on the fence on this one. Would say it seems a better replace for Risk which I dislike. The weak gets weaker I think is just the nature of war/battle, chess? I mean you have to lose a war-ish game for a reason, isn't it because you reach a point where you can not function because of lack of resources. In any other themed game this would suck. The victory point system as you say seems to be the thing that makes the game given the "weak gets weaker" and doesn't drag it out all night long.