SpellBook Tabletop Review - Monsters and Magic
The latest game from acclaimed Australian tabletop designer Phil Walker-Harding, SpellBook comes from French publisher Space Cowboys, best known for games such as Splendor, Jaipur, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and my personal favourites, Via Nebula and Hit Z Road. SpellBook slots nicely into the family weight niche designer Phil Walker-Harding has carved himself across such excellent titles as Sushi Go, Archaeology: The New Expedition and Barenpark.
Opening the SpellBook box, players are greeted with a large stack of tarot sized Spell cards including player aids, a small cardboard container they will need to construct, a first player token in the shape of a spell book, four ‘Familiar’ boards which give each player a distinct character and a small shared ‘Altar’ board to hold the most striking components – 105 acrylic tokens which show the different shapes and colours of Materia, the sole resource players need to collect in order to pay for actions and upgrade their Spells. Materia comes in 7 colours and each is printed with one of three shapes on them; circles, triangles and squares. No shape is necessarily stronger than any other, but players are able to use three circle Materia of any colour to act as a ‘wild’ token, taking the place of any other colour in a single action, while the other shapes factor into the function of the Spell cards at various points throughout the game.
During a guided teaching session at PAX AUS 2023, Phil said that SpellBook takes inspiration from Rummy, a factor which means some players will have a level of familiarity with the game from the get-go. SpellBook is quite simple in terms of structure, as each player’s turn is divided into three phases – Morning, Midday and Evening. These phases are spread across a set of seven Spell cards, two to a phase and a single-use spell when using the recommended starter set, which comprise the titular ‘SpellBook’ players are working to develop. During each phase, players choose one of two actions, the second of which relies on first unlocking the Spells for that phase during the Evening phase. To accomplish this, players will draw Materia tokens from the bag or take them from the shared board which sits in the centre of the play area.
Typically, the first few rounds are slow as each player attempts to utilise their two starting Materia tokens and those drawn to form a strategy; aiming for one colour will allow a player to unlock a single Spell during the Evening phase for the cost of three, four or five Materia of the matching colour. This rising cost dictates a few things about the way a Spell functions, from its efficacy to what matching symbol it will let players use as part of an action and how many points it gives players at the end of the game. SpellBook ends when a player has learned a spell from each colour (totalling 7 spells in all) or a player completely fills their ‘Familiar’ board, a ‘rush’ act which can reduce the game to roughly 17 turns per player as only a single Materia token can be placed once per turn on a Familiar board as part of the Midday phase. At the end of each players turn, the central Altar board is restocked with Materia tokens, generally increasing by one each time until the maximum of 10 is reached. Once an eleventh token would need to be placed, the entire contents is dumped into the Materia discard barrel and the board is reset back to its base number of 5. If the draw bag should ever run out of Materia tokens before the game has ended, the bag is refilled from the discard barrel and play continues on.
Production wise, Space Cowboys have found a good balance between component quality and price, as the Materia tokens definitely give the game a luxury feel over other ‘retail edition’ bag builders like Quacks of Quedlinburg or Wonderlands War. It can be a bit tricky to fit everything back in the box however, primarily due to the cardboard Materia discard barrel which is a touch too high to sit flat without careful arrangement. The full colour printed insert is nice enough that it would be a shame to have to ditch it, but some finagling with the components generally gets the lid on with little to no lid lift. Another interesting aspect is the tarot sized cards having squared edges rather than rounded edges; as they aren’t shuffled an awful amount, this isn’t too much of an issue but perhaps a production quirk similar to iello’s Uchronia which had square edged cards due to a mistake during production rather than that being the intended outcome.
SpellBook suits 1-4 players and playtime ranges from 30-60 minutes depending on player experience, the length of the up-front game teach and how comfortable/trustworthy the table is with simultaneous play, as much of a players turn could be done simultaneously after tokens have been drawn, but there is a good chance arguments could break out over the execution of actions in regards to phase order (somebody executing an evening ability to take Materia tokens while someone is still working through their previous Midday action which does a similar thing). At four, there is a bit of competition for certain colours and shapes, most notably when a number of players are aiming for the same spell making a certain colour scarce on the shared board. SpellBook works quite well at two and three players as well, with each lower count making the game faster and with less pressure on players aiming for certain colours compared to the four-player game. The solo game can be brutal and extremely swingy, as the included AI player simply collects Materia tokens on their board which ramps up their points quite quickly with some small adjustments for Spells that would otherwise grant another human player a token or action; the AI player gets a random Materia token placed at the bottom of their board to signify an extra point at end game. The upside is that a solo game can be played in 10-15 minutes so being brutalised by the AI thanks to bad bag draws doesn’t hurt as much as it would in a longer game. Resetting is as simple as dumping all the Materia tokens back into the draw bag and starting again, a boon for anyone wanting to get a few plays in when they have a spare 20-30 minutes.
Perhaps the best thing anyone playing SpellBook can do if they find the game lacking is to shift from the basic set of Spells as quickly as they feel comfortable. Within the stack of player cards are variants for each Spell, ranked in terms of difficulty from one to three. The basic set of level one Spells are fine for learning the game, but mixing up these randomly at the start of each game allows much more interesting combinations to come into play, with some colour Spell cards shifting their phase or even losing a phase marker completely. In this way, it’s quite possible to end up with only a single Evening Spell card to choose from alongside effects between Spells and phases that vary from extremely to barely synergistic. The playing field is always level, however – after the first player randomly selects a Spell card of each colour at setup, all other players search their decks for the matching cards. I didn’t have a chance to play using an asymmetric setup of the Spell cards and get the impression that it might be far too uneven in a game that already relies heavily on push-your-luck and blind draw elements in the early phases of the game. Designer Phil Walker-Harding confirmed there are tentative plans already in place for further expansions which will not only increase the pool of Spell cards but also add some asymmetrical elements, perhaps in the form of unique player powers. This is a more than welcome addition as to my mind, SpellBook becomes a much richer experience when delving into the higher-level Spell cards.
With a swift playing time alongside an easy setup and pack-down, SpellBook is another solid family weight title from designer Phil Walker-Harding that marries tactical decisions and ‘push your luck’ gameplay with a well-balanced production in a small box, the perfect fit for a family game night across a range of ages.
SpellBook was reviewed on a retail production copy kindly provided by the publisher.