Magic on Adrenaline: Black Rose Wars review

Black Rose Wars published by Ludus Magnus Studios in 2019, takes the magic theme and dials it up to 11 with unique ideas, deep game play and stunning components.  It’s a really great, really fun game, and has quickly become the 1670 group’s go-to game for in person game sessions.  We played it the last 3 times we met, and will continue to play it the next several times, minimum.  It’s probably one that will be in the regular rotation for years.

Mechanically, it’s a combination of programming, worker placement, and deck building.  I need another spell casting game like a hole in my head, but BRW has a fresh enough take on the theme that it’s very welcome — basically, this is the standard any newer magic-themed games need to live up to.  Another thing that stands out about the game is that even though it’s big and deep, it’s still very accessible.  The game play is actually fairly simple and also well-designed in that there’s a very “thinky” phase of the game early each turn, then the chaos ensues.

Black Rose Wars is a competitive game for 2-4 players, published by the appropriately named Ludus Magnus Studio, but also Ares GamesCzacha GamesLast LevelPegasus Spiele, and Rawstone.  The game is designed by Marco Montanaro with art by Fernando ArmentanoHenning LudvigsenPaolo ScippoGiovanni Pirrotta, and Tommaso Incecchi.

Overall Feeling

In addition to the magic theme, there’s a feeling of chaos and containment.  Chaos — once the magic gets unleashed, all hell breaks loose, complete with fire and demons and skeletal zombies, and this is seemingly on every turn.  Sometimes the event cards kick off some chaos but chaos reigns sooner or later, usually sooner.  Containment — the classic, 19-hex design (1 + 6 + 12) with the Black Rose Room in the middle of the board drives intense action.  You’re never far enough from others to feel safe, but they’re not safe from you either.

This game actually feels, and in many ways acts, like Adrenaline, the board game inspired by first person shooter video games that I’ve had high praise for on this very site.  Even the way you “respawn” upon death, and the way points are awarded for death, are almost exactly like Adrenaline.  I’d probably always prefer BRW to Adrenaline as it’s a better game, which is saying something.  Black Rose Wars is magic, on adrenaline.

Do you do something in this game?

You won’t be building or constructing much of anything, but you will do either complete lots of questions, or do lots of mayhem, damage and destruction or some combination thereof, with the quests often advancing your ability to do mayhem and destruction.  It’s not really a do-something game since it’s mostly a head-to-head competition, but I’ve never ended a game feeling like I didn’t get to do anything.  Everyone will have their moments.

In a 4-player game — which I recommend, though it plays well at 3 too — the 4 players start in 4 corners of the board, the 18-hex “Lodge” where all the mages meet, each with a selection of magic spells of their choosing.  There are many schools to choose from, such as the fireball-casting Destruction school, or the nature-loving Transmutation school or the School of Mind which lets you control others.  All have their strengths, weaknesses and unique abilities.  The rooms of the Lodge all have their own abilities and their position changes every game, but you play with the same 19 tiles every time unless you get into some of the expansions that swap in new rooms.

You battle the other mages by activating rooms, casting spells, and using your “evocations” which are summoned servants like the undead Bone Knight or a demon.  As you kill mages, complete Quests and destroy rooms in the Lodge, you gain victory points and move up the track, bringing about new moon phases that escalate the game events, and eventually triggering the game to an end once a player reaches 30.

In the meantime, the Black Rose Room is in the middle of the board, just out of reach of anyone’s starting point without using 2 turns (or a spell) to reach it and access the potentially powerful Forgotten Spells, which aren’t available until someone has earned enough points to trigger the second moon phase.  The Black Rose Room is also a player in the game, which at times does damage through event cards or some spells, it gains victory points and it can even win the game.

What does this game do that others don’t?

There are plenty of games with mages casting spells but this one does it in a confined area with an incredible assortment of spells, a wonderful assortment of creatures you can evoke to do your bidding, and solid mechanics throughout with a pervasive “confined chaos” feeling.  Sprinkle in some interesting room effects, some quests, some event cards, and a malicious magical AI, and you have a witch’s brew of chaotic elements to play in.

What separates from others is the depth of the magic.  With expansions, there are 18 different schools of magic, each with its own set of spells, abilities, and interactions with the other schools.  It’s enough to make your head spin but you can also just pick one school and really focus on it.

Anything interesting about the mechanics and game play?

There’s a really nice combination of game play mechanics, as mentioned there’s a deck building part of the game plus a programming part of the game.  Plus, the rooms themselves are all pretty interesting.  And, then, the “programs” play out and the mayhem ensues.

Each turn, you get 2 actions and with each action, you can cast a spell, or do a physical action which is either moving to a room and activating it (or activating the room you’re in and then moving) or attacking another mage in the same room.  Every room has an ability that can be activated, sometimes gaining you an advantage such as summoning an undead creature to control, or other times targeting another character.  Each player also has a Quest, which frequently consists of getting to a certain room and activating it.  This gets you going and helps drive the action and conflict.  So in short, you’re going to move around the 19-hex lodge and battle each other, mostly with spells.

But, first, you do the thinky part of each turn, consisting of adding to your deck, and then planning out your spells.  Early in each round, the players all draw cards from their deck, but also get to add cards to their decks by drawing from any of the magic schools, including the ones their opponents are using, if they wish.  As one might expect, cards from a single school tend to synergize from other cards of that school, but you can also synergize and form unique combinations with cards from other schools.

Next, the players have to “program” their 4 spells.  Three of them must be played in that exact order, and can only be played once per turn.  However, the one “Quick Spell” can be played any time, and can be played on the same turn as any of the 3 spells.

Even before all that, the round starts with revealing an event card, which can impact how rooms work, or how they interact, or how players interact.  Then the players will do the deck building part of the game, then they do the programming part of the game.  Selecting cards takes time but programming your turn is the most time-consuming part of the game since there’s no going back.

With all the think-y stuff out of the way, chaos ensues as players start taking their turns.  A typical turn consists of a player moving to a new room, activating it, often impacting other mages as s/he does so, and then casting a spell, enacting more effects that can impact the player and/or opponents.  Then the next player goes, and one turn in, all of your best laid plans are upside down as you got targeted by a room, got blasted by a spell, and walked into a trap.  But then you cast your own spell and turn everyone else’s turn upside down.

The Black Rose Room contains spells that you can gain (at a high cost) and we’ve seen some high variance to how good those cards are.  It and other rooms also tend to take damage anytime a spell is cast in that room, and the “instability,” as it is called, can eventually destroy a room entirely, gaining victory points for the mage(s) involved in destroying it.

How were the theme and components?

As good as it gets.  “Ludus Magnus,” you know?  The components are big, beautiful and highly detailed.  The game board hexes are high quality and colorful.  The cards feature nice art.  The figures are spectacular, and there are a lot of them.  Even small details like the Black Rose damage markers, and the 30-point markers, are all exquisitely done.

Was there anything I didn’t like about this game?

There are some NPE elements to keep aware of, and I’m addressing these not to complain, but to say that I acknowledge these elements in declaring it a great game.  It’s not a perfect game, and a first time player could have a less than ideal experience and need some encouragement to play again, though I have yet to actually see this occur.

  • The “programming” aspect of the game means, your entire plan can get completely blown up and your turn can get reduced to very little.  I found this especially true of Trap cards, which can be cool, but often end up frustratingly failing.  I actually tend to eschew traps now, and would not recommend them to a first time player, but they are fun and powerful for players who know how to use them.  There are other turns where I’ve felt like I’ve done just enough to walk into everyone else’s traps, and get blown up by everyone else’s big spells, and let them do killer cool moves to me, and hardly got to do anything in return.  That’s just how turns in this game can go, especially with some magic schools more directly and actively blowing things up than others.  But play it out, and you’ll get to do fun stuff, almost guaranteed.
  • Going first is a big deal.  This is an aspect of many games, but this one too.  There is a Throne Room that lets you go first if you want to prioritize it, but if you happen to be placed further from it than other players, it’s a disadvantage that forces you to put more resources into getting there than other players have to spend.  Last game, I was far from it, and only used it once, but I still won, so it’s not that big a deal.  The bigger deal was the player before me often prioritized going first, so I was just lucky in that way, and that might have been the difference between 1st and 2nd place.
  • Because there are so many cards, and so many schools of magic, a player sinking a lot of time into learning the game could gain an advantage over the other players.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing but some might.  I also think they might have gone a little too far with so many magic schools, failing to differentiate some from others, but that’s always better than not enough.
  • Finally, the spells in the Black Rose Room are pretty swing-y.  In one game, we saw one player prioritize the room early and get through the assortment of weaker spells, setting up the next player who entered the room to get all the good ones, which he (to his credit) did twice.  So even though 2 players each took 2 Black Rose spells, one got good spells while the other got super awesome spells.  The second player had the great experience of having the 3 other players gang up on him but still standing no chance against his accumulated might as he toyed with the 3 of us in cruising to a decisive and easy victory, but it was only on the final turn that he got to do these things, and the game was fairly even up to that point.  Nothing wrong if one player pulls away on the last turn.
To end the penultimate turn, the blue player summoned the game’s 2 top demons to do his bidding, and crushed all in his path in the final round.

Despite all that, you will have your moments this game and get to do some fun stuff, pretty much no matter what, which pretty much off sets the above.  Even in a game where I recently finished 4th place in, I completed the most Quests, gained a lot of points by doing so, got the bonus one gets for finishing the most quests, delivered the finishing blow to at least one other mage and had a hand in killing several others.  Even though I finished 4th I was pretty close to 2nd place and did a bunch of fun stuff, even leading the game in one important category.

How is the Replay Ability?

It’s top notch.  It takes a good 3-4 hours to play but it goes by fast, and I would play it again and again.  There are so many magic schools to explore, so many ways to combine cards.  There are so many neat figures you can summon and big things you can do.  No 2 games should be alike, with different rooms, different spells and different events and effects.  Some games, the mages will battle each other directly, others they’ll concentrate more on completing quests, yet other games will see many rooms of the Lodge destroyed.

Publication Notes

From what I’m seeing on Board Game Geek, there are 17 expansions already, and it has only been 3 years since the publication of the original, so I would expect many, many more.  Not to belabor the point, but you can go deep into this game.

Do you need to add this game to your collection?

Yes, as long as you have a group to play it with.  This game is an investment of time and thought and if you’re going to go full-bore with it — and I think you should — then an investment of money too.  This game is an endeavor unto itself, and should be treated as such.  Either get it to play it repeatedly, or don’t get it at all.  If you’re looking for a new game that your group can play every time out, this is a great one to consider.  Your group will have fun, pretty much every time out, and each game will be unique.  If you already have a regular game, and you’re just looking for something fun to bring out every once in a while in a rotation with other games, I’d probably go with something with less depth and less setup time.  This is more an epic, repeated play type of game.

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