Well, I’ve already covered last year’s SdJ winner (Kingdomino) another nominee (The Quest for El Dorado), and the kid’s SdJ (Ice Cool); makes sense that I should probably round out the SdJ nominees and talk about Magic Maze. I also enjoy real-time and cooperative games, so it follows logically that this might be a good game to talk about.
In Magic Maze, you control a party of adventurers that have met with unfortunate circumstances. They lost a huge battle, and along with that, they lost all of their money and equipment. They have since wound up at the Magic Maze (a local fantasy shopping mall) to get new equipment for their next adventure, but have no money. They’ve decided to help themselves to new equipment via the storied five-finger discount. The problem is, they don’t really know the mall that well, and they’ll need to abscond with their ill-gotten gains. Can you escape the Magic Maze?
So, to setup, you’ll probably want to place the Start tile in the center:
Once you’ve done that, shuffle the other tiles into a stack and place them face-down. For your first scenario, this should be tiles 2 – 9:
Now, take the four Pawns and set them on the center of the start tile:
You might notice another pawn that’s slightly larger than the rest:
Slightly. That’s called the Do Something pawn, and we’ll be using it later. You might also notice that the pawns pictured have stickers on them and the normal pawns do not. You should apply the stickers to the pawns to help make them easier for players with an altered color perception. Next, get out the Timer:
There’s a sticker that goes on both sides of the timer, as well, but you don’t have to do that, yet, unless you want to be thorough. Set aside the Out of Order tokens:
Won’t need those until later, so I’ll explain them, then. Lastly, you’ll want to use the appropriate Action Tiles for your player count:
As you can see in the photo, each Action tile has a set of numbers in the bottom-right corner; these numbers indicate which player counts you use that tile for. Give each player a tile (I’ll explain what the tiles do later), and have players with tiles with the same symbol sit across the table from each other, rather than adjacent. It’ll make sense later. If you’re playing Solo, you’ll want to set out the Solo Action tiles, instead, and shuffle them into a stack:
Also set out the Heist Tile:
Once you’ve done all that, you’re basically ready to start!
Honestly, I haven’t quite figured out how to do this within my normal writing style, but I’m kind of a “first draft best draft” kind of dude, so here we go.
Basically, in a game of Magic Maze you collectively want to help these four adventurers make their way through the mall to their stores, rob them at the same time, and then escape. As you get better at doing so the game will throw scenarios at you designed to make it harder for you to escape. I’ll describe the first two and leave the rest to you, once I’ve covered the basics of how to play.
So, you remember those action tiles?
Each player will have one and that’s their primary action. Orient all the tiles the same way so they all match the North arrow on the center tile. You’re not moving left, right, up, or down, you’re moving in cardinal directions. That makes your life a lot easier. Unlike most cooperative games where every player has their own piece (Now Boarding, for example), in Magic Maze you’ll all be simultaneously and collectively guiding these four pieces. That can be a bit hectic, so let me describe the actions:
- North Arrow: Move one space North.
- South Arrow: Move one space South.
- East Arrow: Move one space East.
- West Arrow: Move one space West.
- Magnifying Glass: You may take the Explore action. When a pawn hits a space with a magnifying glass that matches its color and symbol, take the top tile off the tile stack and orient it such that the white arrow points towards the center of the tile. Connect that tile to the current tile at the space with the white arrow.
- Escalator: You are the escalator master. You may move pawns up or down the fantasy escalators in this, the fantasy mall. You are the only player that can use escalators.
- Portal: You have the tough job. You may take any pawn on any space and move them to a portal on any tile that matches their color and symbol. Portals are exits, not entrances. Once you’ve robbed the stores, this ability is disabled – flip your tile over to reflect this.
Some Action Tiles have more than one symbol; you may use any or all of the Actions pictured on the tile (and honestly should).
You’ll use these abilities in tandem with your partners to move through the maze, discover new tiles, and look for your Stores:
Your stores are where you need to end up in order to rob the places. Once all four pawns are in the stores, you can begin the heist. Flip the Portal Action and the Theft Tile and start making your way towards the Exit:
Once a pawn lands there, you can remove it from the board. Remove all four pawns from the board in order to win!
That seems pretty easy, so thankfully there’s also a three-minute timer:
If that runs out, you lose. Naturally, that’s bad, so you need to land on the Timer spaces in order to flip the timer. Don’t get me wrong — the timer is just flipped over; time is not restored. So if you flip the timer too early, you run the risk of still losing. That’s funny, but still pretty bad. Also, Timer spaces are single-use, so once you’ve used one, put an Out of Order X on it:
So the game’s pretty straightforward, right? You team up to move through the maze, discover new tiles, find your stores, rob your stores, and get the h*ck out before the guards catch you. Well, if that were it it wouldn’t be any fun, right?
I mentioned you aren’t allowed to talk, right?
No? Well, let me say it here. Any communication between players is strictly forbidden. No pointing, no coughing, nothing. You are allowed to interact with other players in one of two ways:
- You may stare intensely at them;
- You may tap the Do Something Pawn that I mentioned earlier in front of them. Just in front of them; no using it to signal that you want them to use an action (if their Action Tile has more than one).
There is an exception, though. Whenever you flip the timer, you may talk freely for as long as you’d like or until any player touches a piece. Once a piece is moved, no more talking.
Play continues until you get out or run out of time! Good luck.
I covered Scenario 1 in my description of the basic game above. If you find that that has become too easy for you, try Scenario 2. In Scenario 2, you’ll use all four Exit Tiles (one in each pawn’s color), and each pawn must exit through the exit matching its color (and symbol).
As for Scenario 3, well, that one’s too much fun for me to tell you about, so you’ll have to discover it on your own. It stumped our group for a while. If it makes you feel better, there are 17 Scenarios in the base game of Magic Maze; my group has managed to get up to (but not beat) Scenario 6.
Note that in a Solo game you basically play the same way, but you use the Solo Action Tiles:
These go into a little deck and you flip the top one face-up. If you want to use another action, flip the next one off the top of the deck. You can only use the face-up action. That’ll mess with you. You cannot shuffle the deck unless you move onto a Timer space, and if you choose to shuffle, you must do so while time is running, after the flip. Good luck!
Player Count Differences
Solo is surprisingly difficult, which I appreciated, especially because it feels the same as the regular game. I quite liked the solo mode, actually. 2 – 3 is a bit underwhelming since you can do so much on your own. I generally prefer the high-chaos levels that come with super-large groups (I’ve had a great time playing this with 8 people), but that’s definitely not for everyone.
If you are playing 8, try to have players with the same action (some actions get repeated) sit across the table from each other so they’re not fighting to do the same things. It makes your life easier.
Basically, solo is awesome, in my opinion, but other than that I wouldn’t play this with fewer than four people.
- Scan. You should always be looking at all the pieces and seeing if there’s an available move for you. If someone taps the Do Something pawn in your general direction, immediately look at all of the pieces and ask yourself if you can perform your action with that piece. Then, ask if you should. If the answer to both is yes, do it. If they tap it again, try another piece.
- Keep your eye on the timer. The Portal player should especially be doing this early on, as they can always portal Purple back to the Start and move it to that first timer space. That said, every player should make sure to keep an eye on the timer, as it’s everyone’s responsibility. Don’t forget!
- That said, don’t use up the timer spaces too quickly. You’ll generally need at least one flip to find all the stores and another flip to get out, at minimum, so don’t spend all your timer flips talking or planning stuff out. Just get in, get the stuff, and then get out of the Magic Maze.
- Don’t just focus on one pawn at a time. Sometimes you’ll need to do that, but you should basically be moving all four pawns always if you’re gonna get out of the Magic Maze successfully. Also, it gives more players more opportunities to contribute, which is always good.
- Try to keep your exploration centered. Don’t go down a long path, as then it’ll be hard to navigate back to an exit. Search breadth-first, not depth-first, essentially. If you’ve got a player going too far away from the center, have the Portal player reign them in.
- Portal player: Move players that can’t explore the current tile. If you’ve just had purple discover a tile that’s not 1) purple’s store or 2) a tile purple can explore, then pull them back to the closest tile that they can explore from. Some players will keep moving purple on the new tile, and that’s wasteful.
- Count tiles, sort of. You should know when you’ve got all the stores (and eventually, all the exits) out. If you do, you don’t technically need to explore more (though you might want to if you want those extra timer spaces). If you know what the next tile is going to be, you may opt to put it close to its store (if it’s an exit).
- At high player counts, split the board. Have the two “teams” handle moving and pass off pawns in the center. You shouldn’t have them trying to reach over to the other side of the table; that’s just silly.
- If you’re playing the solo mode, get good at flipping tiles quickly. You need to learn and love the order of your tiles if you’re going to succeed. If you hate the order, then you’ll need to flip the timer when you can and shuffle it, but you’ll have to live with it for at least a bit.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Fun theme. You’re robbing a fantasy mall. What’s not to like?
- I really like the discovery aspects. It’s super fun to flip tiles and build a wildly different mall each time — means you’ll never play the same two games, especially once you start adding weird extra scenarios or including promo tiles or whatever you feel is best.
- Very easy to learn. I’ve played this with a variety of groups and they’ve all picked it up pretty quickly.
- Plays very quickly. Usually I play 5 – 8 rounds in one sitting. Nobody ever wants to play just one round of it, in my experience, which is super fun.
- The gradual increase in complexity is a good thing. I like games that teach you more about how to play as you play them. Fog of Love has a better tutorial, sure, but this is more of a “unlocking modules” as you play through, which keeps the games fresh. You keep playing until you can’t win, then you get better and you keep going.
- I like the idea of anticipating another player’s intent, which makes this game super interesting. This is a very good game of wordless communication and anticipation, and when you can fluidly complete the level with no miscommunications it’s a very good experience for the whole group. Honestly, I’d kind of recommend it as a team-building exercise even though there’s basically no talking.
- The timer adds a very real sense of tension. I generally kind of like games with timers — it’s stressful, sure, but it makes it kind of thrilling, as well. Even moreso since you can’t talk or warn other players once the timer starts to go down in any way other than mashing the Do Something pawn.
- Nimbly avoids a quarterbacking issue. The lack of talking is nice for that. Usually I give the most experienced player the Portal tile for the first couple games (usually that’s me) and once the Heist starts I just sit out and let the other player who has the same action as me exclusively do their action. It lets the newer players get the full experience and I can help by helpfully portalling when it’s needed without dominating the cooperative aspect of the game. I find that strikes a nice balance and lets players get used to the game.
- As with most games involving a forced communication change, there’s a lot of opportunity (and incentive) to cheat. It just kinda depends on your player group, but that’s often the case with a lot of these sorts of games (Fog of Love, Hanabi, any game where communication is limited in some way). If you’re having a lot of trouble with it you might just need to be a bit firmer with your group, but honestly, just play the game in the way that lets you have the most fun.
- It’s possible for two players who share the same role to have some issues. If you’re not careful the faster player of the two will sort of box out the other player (especially if the group tends to focus on moving one pawn at a time) and the other player will just sit around, kind of bored. Make sure if there’s another player who shares your action that you give them some opportunities to act, or make sure your team is moving multiple pieces at the same time so you both can help.
- Silent games don’t really always make you feel like you’re socializing with people in your group. Since the entire game is played silently (with the occasional moment to strategize), you may not feel like you’re playing a game that’s going to be a lot of fun. I generally don’t love silent games (this is my main gripe with Splendor), and I think that it hurts some of the social aspect of this game, but I appreciate that it’s silent to avoid any opportunity for quarterbacking and to force players to think through their options.
- Many players will find the “Do Something” pawn to be fairly passive-aggressive. It is, so just try not to be a jerk with it. That said, it can be hard to avoid being uh, vigorous with it when you’re trying to get someone’s attention and they don’t quite get what you’re suggesting.
- Some players will struggle with the real-time aspects of this game, as it requires you to be constantly scanning. I’d argue that’s a really tough thing to get for new players, so I’d recommend being kind to them. A lot of people don’t like real-time games, so check with your group to see if this is the right game for them, as it can be rough if it’s not your particular cup of tea.
Overall: 8.75 / 10
Overall, Magic Maze is super! It’s definitely not for everyone (which makes it kind of apparent why the SdJ didn’t work out), but that doesn’t mean in any way that it’s not a triumph of a game. I love the real-time component being used to add tension, and I love the elements of exploration and discovery. Normally I’m against silent games, but I think that works to its advantage here, as it forces an almost-tactile form of wordless communication between the players. It’s not just about seeing what they are doing, but the game becomes about anticipating and incorporating likely moves into your strategy, and waiting to help other players where you can so you can accomplish a shared goal. It’s a super-great cooperative game, and I’d highly recommend it if you think it would be a good fit for your group!