Arena of the Planeswalkers: Shadows over Innistrad Review
by Brad Minnigh // Jul 27, 2016
Hi there, Magic fans. Let's take a look at the new Magic: the Gathering board game, Arena of the Planeswalkers: Shadows over Innistrad. But first a little about myself: I have been a longtime fan of Magic: The Gathering and collected cards from various sets over many years. I have played tons of other popular card games as well, but I have mainly been an avid board gamer. I have played games all my life, but I started really getting into games when I was in high school, and my interest has grown ever since. I have contributed to the gaming community in a variety of ways, including through many reviews, articles, and discussions, and have contributed heavily to a number of fan websites for my favorite games. If you’ve ever seen anything submitted by a user name of gamjuven, that was me. I have also been a playtester for a couple of games, including being a senior playtester for Plaid Hat Games' popular series, Summoner Wars. However, today I am here to talk about Arena of the Planeswalkers, and more specifically, the second expansion, called Shadows over Innistrad.
First, let’s delve into a little history: Arena of the Planeswalkers has unfortunately been under the radar of many Magic fans, mainly due to a lack of advertising. This comes as no surprise to board gamers, as everyone knows that unless the product is D&D or Magic the card game, you don’t get a ton of publicity. This is a crying shame, as Arena of the Planeswalkers is a very fun game. It has its roots in another board game called Heroscape, which is a longtime favorite of many board gamers whose fanbase is still very active. When I first heard of Arena of the Planeswalkers, I got very excited because it combined two intellectual properties that I really enjoyed: Heroscape and Magic: The Gathering. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, and when I finally did, I was not disappointed. It really did combine my love of miniatures combat with the card playing of Magic. The first expansion didn’t have the army / deck building aspect, and so for that it was lacking, but it was a great start.
Then, right around the time that we were adventuring in Zendikar in the card game, fighting off tentacle Eldrazi, Arena of the Planeswalkers received a much-needed expansion called Battle for Zendikar. We got new spells, new units, an increased army size, and more flexibility for a game we already loved. We still didn’t have a lot of army building, although with the inclusion of the game’s first multicolored planeswalker (Kiora) as well as some new colorless units (Eldrazi Devastator and Eldrazi Scions), we definitely had more options.
Then, early this year, it was announced that we would get another expansion. This would be a larger expansion that could actually be played all by itself—a second base-set game, if you will. This expansion would center around the famous Innistrad plane, which has always been one of my favorites. We finally got some more details a month ago, and I am fortunate to have already purchased several copies myself. I finally present to you Arena of the Planeswalkers: Shadows over Innistrad!
What's in the Box
Shadows over Innistrad gives you 24 miniatures, 8 dice, several 2-sided map boards, 48 spell cards, 3 funky-looking Cyptoliths, 9 sand terrain tiles, 2 glyphs, and lots of little red wound markers and augment tokens. The expansion is themed after the card set with the same name, so everything is dripping with that wonderful gothic horror theme. There are four Planeswalkers to choose from: Sorin (our friendly neighborhood vampire in white / black), Jace (Mr. Popular himself in blue), Nahiri (that one angry Kor who put the Eldrazi away the first time in red / white), and Arlinn Kord (lady by day, Werewolf by night in red / green). The planeswalkers figures are all prepainted and very well done, in my opinion. This doesn’t stop the more artfully inclined to repaint, but it’s a nice bonus touch. Also, Arlinn Kord also gets her Werewolf self in figure form to transform during the game, which is something Heroscape never touched upon but is an awesome addition.
The rest of the figures are separated into their various colors. We get the three-figured squad Avacynian Inquisitors alongside Avacyn herself for white. We get three Bloodline Noble vampires and a Mad Prophet in red. We get two Lantern Geists and a Necro-Alchemist in blue. We get a Ghoul Vanguard and three Skirsdag Cultists in black. And lastly, we get two Kessig Rangers in green that can transform into two Werewolves. All of these figures are mono-colored for ease of gameplay.
I think the sculpts for all of the figures are top-notch. They are made with decent plastic that can withstand a lot of abuse, and kids absolutely love them (I’m a 31-year-old kid at heart; leave me alone). We hit a lot of the cool Innistrad-themed checkboxes too, with an Angel, a Zombie, Vampires, Ghosts, Werewolves, Inquisitors, and Cultists. The art comes from our favorite artists, and it’s fun to have them brought into figure form.
We also get 12 spell cards for each planeswalker. Since we have dual-color planeswalkers, the spell colors are spread out, with 12 cards for the colors red, white, and blue, while green and black only get 6. These also use the same corresponding Magic art we all love, which fit into the game very nicely. Fun story: I brought my Arena of the Planeswalkers cards to the Gencon gaming convention last year and got several of the cards signed by the artists. One of the cards was Liliana’s Caress, drawn by Steve Argyle. When I gave him the card to sign, he got very confused and turned the card over and over, examining it. He had never seen the cards before. I was the very first person ever to ask him to sign cards from this game. He signed it in beautiful purple ink (as he does with all of the black cards he signs), and it was a fun moment.
And now, onto the gameplay! If you happen to have played Heroscape before, you are 90% of the way to knowing how Arena of the Planeswalkers is played. If not, no worries—it’s a very easy game to learn! The game has miniature combat with card playing, dice rolling, and army building, and is created for ages 10+. You start out by choosing a planeswalker and building an army within that planeswalker’s colors, up to a 500-point limit. You will then build a deck of exactly 12 spell cards, up to a 200-point limit, also within your planeswalker’s colors. After your gather your figures and army cards and such, you will choose a scenario, set up the map, including terrain, roll a d20 die to see who goes first, choose a side, and off you go! They also have recommended armies and spell deck compositions in the rulebook, if you don’t feel like figuring all that out your first time.
The goal is generally to eliminate the opposing planeswalker, although there are several different scenarios with different goals for variety, if you choose. The games last a number of turns, which are tracked with a token in the rulebook. You start out with three spell cards in your hand, and at the beginning of your turn, you draw an additional card. You then choose an army card to activate. In the beginning of the game, you only have your planeswalker on the map, but each planeswalker may summon the other units onto the battlefield after they activate. You then move with the activated army card figures, and attack with those same figures. You end the turn by moving the turn tracker marker by one, and then your opponent takes a turn. It’s basically that easy.
There are windows for playing spell cards, but they never get as complicated as the card game can get. The spells are pretty self-explanatory and do similar things to what they do in the card game. For example:
There are sorcery spell cards, which are simply played and then go to your graveyard, as well as enchantments, which are played on army cards and provide various bonuses. There is no resource management (pause for reader-recovery). All spells are free, but you can only play three per turn, and you only ever have those 12 cards with which to start. The spells themselves are a resource that you have to use wisely, because once those are gone, you have no more to play.
You have a variety of numbers on an army card: movement, life, range, your power and toughness, your size and height on the bottom left, and lastly, the point cost for the army card (with individual figure costs broken down for partial scoring, in case of a tie at the end of the game).
During your movement phase, you are simply looking at the activated army card’s movement value and moving the figures on that card up to that many spaces. There are terrain rules for water, cryptoliths, roads, and the sand tiles, but in general, they either cost more movement points to traverse or give you more movement points. Once you are done moving, you may attack.
Attacking is also very simple. You choose a target, see if you can see the target (from the figure’s point of view), and then roll your power dice for that figure. The defending figure rolls dice equal to their toughness. Spells, enchantments, special abilities, and terrain can all modify how many dice you roll, but you compare the amount of hits you have with the amount of shields your opponent has, then that figure receives wound markers equal to the difference. Unless you have a special ability that says otherwise, only the attacked figure receives damage, unlike the card game. If a figure receives damage equal to its life total, it is destroyed and the figure is placed in your graveyard.
You will spend your turns activating various units / heroes / planeswalkers, maneuvering around the map, and attempting to eliminate the opposition with attacks and spells. It’s a fast and furious game filled with the highs and lows that dice rolling can give. One turn, you are sitting pretty on a hillside firing arrows down upon your enemies with your Kessig Ranger, only to be destroyed the next turn by a swooping Avacyn and then have your former compatriot brought back by the spell Ever After, and being attacked by it!
The games play very quickly for a minis game, especially with a 30-turn (i.e., you each take 15 turns) limit, as well as a frequent goal of losing whenever your planeswalker is killed. This game improved upon the original base set, in that that are army-building options available with just this set. The original set had five planeswalkers, one for each color, and two squads for each as well, but since everything was mono-colored, there was no army building. Shadows over Innistrad gives you a ton of flexibility. With the exception of Jace and the blue units, everything else can be mixed around. The same can be said with the spells. This is the biggest difference this expansion makes, and it’s a very good improvement.
Another wonderful thing that this base set has that the others didn’t is that there is more to buy if you love it. The first base set came out, and one of the biggest gripes was that there wasn’t enough yet. Well, there is another base set and an expansion filled with figures to expand your collection. I am so thankful that Hasbro has continued to support the game. We are getting exactly what we need with each additional expansion. I also really like that this expansion is a standalone. Everything you need to play is in this set. It’s very easy to dip your feet into the game and check it out.
The abilities are varied, thematic, and fun to use. It is thrilling to transform Arlinn and then run around pulverizing units. I laugh with sinister glee (is there any other kind?) when I destroy a figure with Sorin, play a spell, and remove four wound markers from him. The various colors and abilities feel like their Magic counterparts. Red is aggressive and frequently hurts itself in the process of killing its enemies, while blue disrupts and controls. White units never die, with their healing, while black resurrects and withers its opponents. Meanwhile, green boosts its units and moves them all about the battlefield, leaving no space safe. It’s all wonderful fun.
The ease with which the game is played is a boon as well. Kids really love this game, and it’s a great gateway to other board games as well as Magic: the Gathering itself. There is nothing quite like looking at a table filled with terrain and miniatures, and this is especially true when it also doesn’t require assembly or hobby skills. This game has easy access and easy setup. It attracts people to the table. Magic already has a very dedicated fan base, and this game could have it too. There is room for both at the table, I believe. This game is very cheap, even including buying the other base set and first expansion. The deals have never been better.
If I had complaints about the game, I would be neglectful not to mention that some of the cards still have rule ambiguities. This has been an ongoing frustration, and I’m not really sure why. It seems like FAQs in the rulebook or after release could have easily fixed the issues, but for whatever reason, they haven’t happened, and we the fans have been relying on contacting support ourselves. This, alongside the card game being so good about rules, makes it a little odd, but then again, like I said before, this game isn’t technically Magic: the Gathering or D&D.
The turn counter is also pretty dumb. It is in the rulebook, so if you have to look up a ruling while playing, you have the awkward job of trying not to lose your place with a turn marker that’s so tiny that some people probably have accidentally thrown it away. It wouldn’t have been too hard to include a separate turn chart or player aids, for that matter. Luckily, board game fans are resourceful, and there are free downloads to help mitigate these minor issues. One could also complain about the lack of prepainted miniatures all around, but hoping for Heroscape 2.0 is a little too lofty. The sculpts and the existing paint jobs on the planeswalkers are very decent, and as I said before, if one wanted to paint them, nobody is stopping you.
All in all, I really love this game. I especially enjoy what it does in terms of expanding what’s already there, but it works as a standalone just fine. This is a great addition to one’s library, whether one is a fan of Magic or board games in general, and it’s a fine gateway into that gaming world. Bring it to your next Magic night at your local gaming store, and watch both kids’ and adults’ faces light up at seeing their favorite card game brought to life on the table. If you made it all the way through this review, that is an amazing feat itself, so give yourself a pat on the back and then quickly go out and get a copy for yourself! Thanks for reading!