Full disclosure: A preview copy of Studies in Sorcery was provided by Weird Giraffe Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
Coming round the bend on Kickstarter games! I think it’s really just this week and next week and then I’m going to be pretty done for a while. (This proved to be untrue, editor’s note.) I imagine there are a lot fewer Kickstarters hitting anyways, given COVID messing up a lot of timetables for a lot of things pretty end-to-end (shipping, publishing, even reviewing). But we’ll see! I keep hearing rumors of more Button Shy, and I’m always down to hop on that train, so, we’ll certainly see what I end up doing before the end of the year. But before we get there, let’s delve into the latest title from Weird Giraffe Games!
In Studies in Sorcery, players head back to school for their Master’s Degree in the Dark Arts. Graduate school? In this economy? Honestly, probably not the worst idea. I have a few friends doing that. Though it’s more business school and less necromancy. Related, but not the same thing. Anyways, you’ll need to complete projects if you want to get your thesis done by the end of the semester, but you’ve got loftier goals: you want to graduate at the top of your class! Why you don’t realize that will make you a target for a lot of hexes is beyond me, but hey I don’t exist in your narrative, so I’ve got bigger problems. Will you be able to out-magic your opponents? Or will you just end up being the one to get schooled?
This has a fair bit, so let’s go through it. First, place the two Moon Cards and the Semester Track in a row:
You’re then going to take the Project Cards:
Notice how they have three different versions (I / II / III)? Split them into those groups and shuffle each pile individually, placing the three shuffled piles above the Moon / Semester Track. Now, take 4 Level I cards and 2 Level II cards and make a 3×2 area below the Moon / Semester Track. Place the Candle and Vial cards nearby:
Take the Grave Cards and shuffle them, then make 3 stacks of 2 cards each below that 3×2 area:
Set the deck next to the grave piles. You can place the credit tokens nearby, as well:
Finish up by giving each player a Research Grant:
Then give them two Thesis Cards:
And finally, once they’ve chosen a Thesis, give them two Level I Project cards. Players choose one Thesis and one Level I Project card, returning the others to the box and the supply, respectively. You should be all ready to start!
A game of Studies in Sorcery takes place over one four-month semester. As it’s a magic school, you track your four-week months via the phases of the moon, for a total of 16 rounds. In a given round, you’ll have three phases. Let’s go through each!
Take an Action
On a given turn, you can take one of four possible actions:
- Cram: You may Commit up to two materials from your hand to active projects. This is in addition to the up to two materials you can normally commit from your hand to active projects in the next phase.
- Project Actions: Certain completed projects give you the ability to take a special action, denoted by a quill icon. You may take one of those actions, if you want, on your turn.
- Dig: To dig, take the leftmost grave pile and look through it. If you like the cards, take them all and add a card from the grave deck to the now-empty spot. If not, add a card from the grave deck to the pile, face-down, and look at the next one. If, after looking at all three piles, you don’t like any of them, you may instead take the top card of the grave deck or a Candle or Vial from the market, free of charge. As you might guess, if the grave deck runs out, shuffle the discard pile and put it back as a new grave deck.
- Buy: To buy cards, discard material cards from your hand. They each have a dollar value, and that dollar value can be used to purchase project cards and Candle / Vial cards from the market. Add project cards you buy in front of you, and material cards to your hand, and then refill the center market using cards from the same level as the cards you bought (if you run out of cards of a level, use the next-lowest level). You may have as many projects as you’d like. Keep in mind that materials used to purchase are discarded (except for Research Grants; they’re removed from the game) and the game does not make change; unused money is simply lost. The cost of doing business.
After everyone has taken their action, move on to Commit Materials.
Each player may now commit up to two material cards from their hand to any of their available projects. You may commit two cards to the same project or split them up; your call. Indicate that card has been committed by tucking it under the project so that only the symbol is visible. There are, as always, some restrictions:
- No useless commits. You cannot commit a material card if there’s no matching icon on the project or if that icon is already fulfilled by a different card.
- Cards with multiple icons only count as one of the printed icons. Your choice!
- You may only commit two cards. Certain projects will allow you to increase that number, though.
If your projects have the right number and type of materials, they’re completed! Flip them over and gain their abilities. Discard all materials used in the completion of that project.
Some projects give you instant effects, ongoing abilities, or actions that you may use as a Project Action on your turn.
Additionally, some material cards have +1 or -1 symbols on them corresponding to certain icons. If you use the card for that icon, you gain the +1 or -1 token as additional points. If you don’t, you get nothing.
End of Month
After Completing Projects (if any), advance the Moon Token one step to indicate a new week. Once the Moon would need to advance past the fourth step, the month ends, and you do the following:
- Pass the first player token clockwise.
- Advance to the next space on the Semester Track.
- Place the Moon Token back on the first Moon Space.
- Add one card to each of the grave piles from the grave deck.
- You also update the market:
- Place the two cards in the leftmost column on the bottom of their corresponding deck.
- Slide all cards one space to the left.
- Fill the rightmost column with new cards according to the Semester Track.
End of Game
After four months, the game ends! Now, tally points from your projects, your thesis, and extra credit tokens from completed projects. Additionally, every $8 worth of unspent cards counts as 1 point (apparently, a PE elective).
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
The major thing I’ve noticed is that a third player can kind of break up the flow of the game pretty strongly. A number of effects in the game depend on the player(s) next to you or the player to your right or something, and having two players makes it so that it’s always you or your opponent; something’s always happening. With three players, it’s not. It’s you, them, or the other person, and the downtime isn’t too bad, but it’s definitely not the same as the two-player game. And you might need to keep track of more things. I think I prefer the two-player game, as the back-and-forth is most interesting to me? It feels tighter when you only really have to keep track of one opponent and edge them out for certain things in order to win or take from their discarded cards. You can strategize more effectively, that way, I think. It’s not that I think the higher player counts are less fun, though; I just like that the game feels tightest at two players, for me, so that’s where I would recommend playing this one the most.
- Go after your thesis. If you’ve got a 7-point thesis, that’s a huge amount of points (I think I won with high-20s or low-30s in a game?) and usually fulfilling it causes you to get a fair number of points just from the process of completing projects, so, generally try your best to align with it. If you fall short, and other players don’t, you’re probably somewhat hosed.
- You’ll need to combo your project abilities well if you want to win. There are many ways to bring good combos together, like stealing high-value card from the discard or getting cards that let you pull from the discard when you complete them and using those cards to complete other, larger cards. There are a variety of ways that your project skills can align and synergize; keep an eye out for them and use them to crush your opponents.
- Getting an alternative strategy for drawing cards can be pretty clutch. If you don’t have another way to draw cards, you’re going to be pretty stuck with whatever you can find in the graves. Even cards that add more cards to the graves help you and other people, but I’ve seen people with abilities that let them draw 10+ cards in one turn, before. The more cards you have, the better of a time you’ll probably have.
- Some of the Level 3 abilities are ridiculous. That 10-card draw was from a well-timed Apocalypse ability, so, keep that in mind. You won’t get them with much time left in the game, but a very good use of a Level 3 ability can often turn the game around, usually in the favor of whoever activated it.
- You’re going to want to cultivate a healthy supply of Stock Cards. The one thing I see players get tripped up on is that they don’t have the Candles or the Vials that they need at any given time, to the point that I now kind of loosely recommend keeping a Candle and a Vial around.
- Similarly, be smart about using a Buy action. Usually the thing that gets a lot of folks is that they forget to buy a candle or vial with their Buy Action, which puts them behind the 8 ball before they’ve even started thinking about the project. Make sure you’re buying a Project and the cards you need to complete it in the same buy action! It’s very inefficient otherwise.
- Cramming towards the end of the game may give you enough points to get an edge. That’s often how school works, and I appreciate that it’s well-represented here. You’ve got one project, it’s the end of the semester, and you don’t want to do anything except finish it so you just spend every waking action on that project. You can do that in this game, too! Hooray!
- Hoarding cards is okay, but it doesn’t pay off as much as you’d expect. That $8-to-1-point ratio is rough. You may not be making big money off of those cards, but it is often enough to tilt the game a little bit in your favor if you’ve been picking up a lot of the higher-value rare cards.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The Unstoppable Bone Sphere. I mean, it’s just … it’s essentially a skeleton Katamari? If a student ever made that in any class I taught, I’d give them an A+ on their way to jail forever. It’s a hilarious card, easily the funniest card in the game, in my opinion.
- In general, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek about the whole “horror” thing. That can cause some weird overlap, since it’s still vaguely horror (see Cons), but it doesn’t bother me that much outside of the Bone Naga. Don’t like that at all. I think the cartoony style helps the game feel more tongue-in-cheek, honestly, and I kind of like that?
- I like the focus on the moon. There aren’t as many moon-themed games as I would like, and I don’t really count Nova Luna because I don’t really know why it’s moon-themed. Moon Base is nice; I would just like more games about the moon, is all I’m saying.
- I also like how the projects progress over the course of the game. It has a nice, gentle motion to it. It kind of feels like a wave, I guess? I appreciate when games take the time to gently level up with the players. It gives your actions a greater feeling of progression, like you’d get from later courses in your degree track. I think it’s a smart move, and it fits well within the game’s narrative.
- The variety of card effects lend themselves well to multiple strategies. I’ve definitely seen two different players use the same card in very different ways, and that’s cool! They seem to do well to let you make your way up to whatever strategy you want to employ.
- I really like the way digging works in this game. The press-your-luck elements of it are very good, and I like that it rewards players who go after you! It’s especially fun in a two-player game if you skip a zone on the last turn of the round so that it gets two extra cards and you can pick it up at the start of the next round when it’s your turn again (since the first player token passes). There’s some interesting strategy to it.
- Games where you have to tuck cards always make me regret not playing them on a mat or a tablecloth. I think it’s just a specific mechanic choice that I find annoying, coming from the perspective of “I need to take photos so my cards always need to be as close to perfect as I can get”? This is the same problem I had with Fort, to be fair.
- I think it’s just because I got a Master’s, but I’m kind of confused why, from a ludonarrative standpoint, you have to spend your own money to buy projects. I think, in my mind, it would make more sense if instead of projects they were actual classes that you were paying “tuition” for by trading in some kind of skull or something? I’m taking this really seriously, but it’s definitely something that distracted me while I was playing.
- The card-drawing abilities can lead to massive hands of small cards, which can be hard to manage. I had a player Apocalypse 10+ cards into their hand, I think, since they were going first in a new round, and that made their hand enormous. They also had the ability to take a spent card that a player used for a Buy Action, so they just had an almost unmanageably large hand size. It would be nice to have some limit, but I suppose the limit is that it was the last round and there’s only so much damage you can do in 4 turns. Even then, they only won by 1 point, so, they needed those cards to stay afloat.
- The problem with horror games or games with even mild horror themes is that you can often lose a lot of players. And I think it kind of loses me, a b it, because of that? It’s mostly fine, I’m just occasionally like, oh, yuck, that’s a skeleton attached to a spine. Most of the other stuff is pretty fine; I usually laugh at skeletons because like, deep down, there’s a skeleton inside of all of us just waiting to get out, you know? I wonder what the line is for more squeamish players and if there will be elements of this game that will distress them? Not sure! That’s the risk you take with even mild horror themes, though.
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I think Studies in Sorcery is a lot of fun! I will freely admit that I’m on the cusp of “this game has horror elements and yikes”, but thankfully, not fully concerned about that. It’s really just the Bone Naga that I don’t like, for some reason. You’d think it would be the Abomination, but I feel nothing about that guy. I think this game does a good job distinguishing itself from many of the other magic-themed games I’ve seen recently. It’s not happy-go-lucky; it’s a darkly comedic game about the dark arts. It’s not a horror game, either, fully; it’s a bit too tongue-in-cheek with its own collection of puns and student-fueled inexorable bone balls. And that’s a good place for it to land; it keeps it fresh and memorable thematically, and the gameplay remains varied enough that there’s always something to do with the cards you get dealt. Weirdly, I think the progression element of the Project Cards cancels out my normal complaint about random markets; I never felt like a player was particularly benefited or messed up by the random card draws. They were just cards with their own unique powers that had to be understood, purchased, and then created recklessly. The dream. I can see places where this game could be extended, sure, but I think the base game is fairly robust as-is! It’s definitely a game where points are tight, as well, so be careful. It’s got interesting progressions, a fun theme, and wild late-game abilities, and that always makes for an exciting time, so if you’re looking for an interesting resource-management game, I’ve enjoyed playing Studies in Sorcery!