Full disclosure: A review copy of School of Sorcery was provided by Dr. Finn’s Games.
On the plus side, if you’re reading this, that means we made it to December and I’m still running about a monthish ahead of schedule, which is rare. I’d say part of it is that I have had the advantage of a fair amount of free time, and the other part of it is that I figured out how to write and exercise at the same time thanks to the under-desk elliptical I now have. I’m not sure it’s the same as actual exercise but it feels like it is, and that’s most of the game, I think. Either way, we’ve got another Dr. Finn’s title, here, and after the fun I had with the last two, I’m eager to check this one out.
In School of Sorcery, you’re just trying to get by. Sure, you want to make friends; sure, you want to gain magical items of unfathomable power; and sure, you want to absolutely crush your rivals, but, I mean, who doesn’t? So take your crystals and cast them if you want to claim these artifacts of sorcery before your opponent can get to them. You’ll need to be tricky, though; you may know what your opponent might have access to, but they may be able to flip the script and still surprise you, if you’re not careful! All’s fair in magical combat, after all.
Not too bad. First thing you’re going to want to do is assign each player a color and give them the stuff in their color. That’s going to be the Cast Cards:
It’s also going to be the player board, scoring marker, and dice:
Give each player three reroll tokens:
Create a general supply of crystals of each player’s color:
Set down the Location Tiles:
Shuffle the red-bordered Sorcery Cards and deal each player 2. Players score VP based on the cards’ value, and they should indicate that accordingly on their scoreboards:
Shuffle the other non-Portal Sorcery Cards and place one face-up next to every Location but 6. The Portal goes next to 6.
Choose a player to go first, and they get the wizard token. You should be ready to start!
Decently straightforward goal. You want to score 13 points. If you do, you win! That’s about all there is to it. Naturally, the process by which you score 13 points can be a bit complicated, so that’s what this section’s going to outline.
Rounds happen over a series of five phases. Those phases continue until the end of a round in which at least one player has 13 or more points.
Phase 1 – Take Crystals
To start, each player takes 5 crystals from the general supply and places them in their personal supply.
Phase 2 – Cast Crystals
Players then roll their dice simultaneously! You can reroll any number of your dice once per reroll token you spend. Once you’ve done that, assign cast cards to each die to indicate how many crystals you’re planning to send to that location. You must always use three of the six, but you always have all six cards available to you.
After both players are ready, reveal the cast cards and move crystals to the appropriate locations.
Phase 3 – Use Portal
If any players cast to the portal, they may move their crystals to the location of their choice at this time. If both players cast to the portal, they must secretly indicate on a die which location they plan to cast to and simultaneously reveal. For the drama.
Phase 4 – Player Powers
So players have at least two red-bordered Sorcery Cards, at this point. Starting with the player with the wizard, they use all of those cards, in any order. Each power may be used once per round.
Phase 5 – Evaluate Locations
Now, check the Locations. Start from 6, move towards 1, and skip the Portal. A player has won the card there if they have least the number of crystals indicated in the top-left corner and if they have X more crystals than their opponent, where X is the number below the number in the top-left corner. If that happens, the winner takes the card and returns the crystals to the general supply. Their opponent, however, takes up to X of their crystals from the card (where X is again, the number below the number in the top-left corner) and places those crystals in their personal supply.
If a card isn’t won by anyone, skip it and move on. However, if a card has 12 or more crystals on it and nobody has won the card, return those crystals to the general supply and remove the card from the game.
After you win a card, you score the VPs indicated on the card.
At the end of this phase, slide cards from higher-numbered locations to lower-numbered locations. If the Portal ever hits spot 1, remove it, fill spots 1 – 5, and then replace it at 6. The Portal should never be on location 1.
Once any player has 13 or more points, the game ends after that round and the player with the most points wins!
For a longer game, play to 16 points, instead.
Player Count Differences
None! This is an exclusively two-player game.
- It actually pays to be slightly behind your opponent, points-wise, if you can swing it. This is true for two reasons. One is that you can take advantage of the fact that all of their abilities will activate before yours do, since the player with more points gets the wizard token. While that normally seems bad, there are plenty of abilities that only do anything if your opponent has more crystals than you, which they might after their ability activates. The second reason is that there are a fair number of persistent abilities that only activate if your opponent has more VP than you do. If you’re in the lead, they do nothing. It may be worth trying to aim to trail your opponent by a point or two so that you can set up a megaturn where you overtake them significantly.
- Don’t overpay for cards, if you can avoid it. Not only does that mean you’re spending more crystals than you want, but it also might mean that your opponent is getting the crystals they spent back, and can use them again to thwart you. In fact, it may be worth trying to annoy your opponent by always placing a few crystals on cards you know that they want so that they’re forced to pay more and you still get the crystals returned, eventually.
- If you can, bait your opponent into over-focusing on cards that give abilities but not that many points, especially in the late-game. That’s a trap I played myself into at least once. Good abilities are good, but they’re not points. While they can help you get points, going for them while your opponent is ahead is a pretty surefire way to lose unless you think that it’ll help you get the critical cards you need to win the game (and quickly!).
- It’s not always bad to lose cards, and it’s not always bad to not spend all your crystals, especially if you’re in the lead. You’re going to lose some cards; that’s just the nature of these kinds of area control games. You can’t shut your opponent out unless they have extremely misunderstood the game. Get comfortable losing cards that aren’t part of your strategy, and spend the money you need to spend to lock down the cards that are.
- Never spend more on a card than you’ll get back if you don’t get the card. You’re going to have to disregard this advice pretty frequently, but when you do, you’re sinking crystals into a card that you may lose. Keep that in mind and try to be methodical about which cards you really try to shell out for.
- Never try to spend more crystals than you have. The penalty for doing so is pretty steep (your opponent chooses which of your cards activate), and that’s mostly there as a penalty for doing something that you’re not supposed to do. If there’s that severe of a penalty and no material gain, maybe … don’t do that.
- Try to figure out what your opponent is going for, based on their dice, if you can. This is a pretty helpful bit of information; you know that they have a few cards that can flip the dice over and more cards that don’t, so from that, you should be able to intuit which cards they can reasonably go after. It’s really great when the dice turn out for your opponent such that even with flips there are certain numbers they can’t hit; when that happens, you can prioritize those cards pretty effectively (unless the Portal is in play).
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I normally don’t care much for area control games, but I really like the way School of Sorcery does it. I’m a big fan of two-player area control games. I think people think of Hanamikoji, pretty classically, but 7th Night and School of Sorcery both are interesting spins on that as well. I love the whole “roll dice and then assign how many crystals you want to place on those spots” mechanic. I think it absolutely sings. Just one of the niftier ways to manage this that I’ve seen, especially because it gives players a good balance between skill and luck, even moreso when you factor in the portal.
- I also think the Portal card is pretty clever. I like both the ability to bypass your dice by playing to it and the simultaneous challenge that happens if both players place on the portal.
- The catch-up mechanism is also very nicely done. I like that the ordering of powers matters as much as it does and that there’s a huge advantage to going later. It creates an interesting incentive to keep your scores as close as you can, but if you’re undervaluing your turns, you risk letting your opponent stay slightly ahead of you and win. It’s an interesting tension!
- I appreciate the variety of the cards. While I will complain about the game being text heavy, it is nice to have a bunch of different card effects going back and forth and a few overarching types of cards to watch out for. I think it keeps the game dynamic, especially since you only see so few of them each game.
- The challenge of managing your crystals is also pretty interesting. It’s something I struggle with, but it’s very cool! It adds a good constraint (similar to the other two-player area control titles I’ve mentioned) that’s very unique to this game.
- The reroll tokens being fairly generous also makes it easier to avoid having absolutely terrible rounds. I think that it allows players to strike the balance between strategy and luck, which is good! There are even cards that let you get more, so I think players are constrained by the dice but never completely screwed. That’s a tough balance to strike but I think the game largely hits it.
- The nice thing about the cards being randomized is that largely, some cards never come up (particularly ones I don’t like). I’m debating just removing the cards I don’t like from the rotation and just relying on them never coming up. Technically, that’s still a possible random configuration! It’s just eliminating ~42,000 possible configurations from the rotation? I’m not a hundred percent sure my math checks out, there, but this isn’t What’s Eric Calculating?, and nobody would read that.
- Letting the players always have access to all six of their cast cards is an uncommon feature, but it’s definitely good. It avoids that annoying thing in some games where you have a bad turn because you need to recall your cards or your opponent can predict your move. I think it’s wise for this game, though I appreciate why that’s not in place for other titles.
- Since most of the cards are unique, this can be a fairly text-heavy game for newer players. This is a bit of an issue for a couple reasons. I think that games like this tend to advantage experienced players, which is rough in a two-player game. It helps to know what cards are available and what their abilities are, and new players won’t know that. Additionally, since it’s fairly text-heavy, it is going to take a while for new players to read and learn to play, so your first few plays may be a little slow. If you’re both learning the game together, though, it won’t be that much of a problem since you’re learning together.
- It would be nice if there were a more explicit break between rerolling and casting. I worry only because I tend to look to see what my opponent rolled before deciding how I want to cast, and having them loosely able to reroll at any time makes it hard for me to figure out exactly when we’re “locked in”. We tend to call that a race condition at my job; it could lead to a weird deadlock where players don’t want to commit to not being done rerolling in case their opponent rerolls and vice-versa. It’s unlikely, but making the rerolling a more distinct phase makes that potential outcome even less likely.
- I very much don’t like certain cards in this game. One of them in particular is a permanent power that lets you roll two dice and remove opponent crystals from those locations. It’s not clear from the card, immediately, as to whether or not you get to remove two crystals if the same location comes up twice, but even if it’s not, it adds an additional (and significant) degree of randomness to an otherwise fairly-strategic little area control game and also is one of those “feels bad” things I’ve mentioned in previous reviews? It would potentially be fine if it were just a card that could come up and be used once, but my opponent got it as a permanent starting power in our last game and it made the game fairly frustrating. You could no longer rely on getting just enough crystals to take the card you needed; you may have to overbuy it to avoid losing the crystal and it junks up the high-efficiency system you need to do well in the game. Largely feel like it takes away from an otherwise quite fun game to a pretty high degree. The other card I’m not as big of a fan of is the Broken Wand, but that’s just because you can’t really comb through the card deck, so it’s either a Good Choice or a Bad Choice as soon as you take it and you won’t know until the other half comes up or the game ends.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think School of Sorcery is a great game! I will freely say that there are cards in it that I super don’t like, to the point of it mildly negatively impacting my score, but I think I’m largely going to just start leaving those out and calling it a weird consequence of probability. I’m still technically right, but in the “base-dealing yourself Merlin in Avalon so that the new player doesn’t have to be Merlin doesn’t actually impact any of the probabilities in the game so it’s probably fine” way. Mechanically, though, I think School of Sorcery does something very clever with two-player area control that I haven’t seen before and I quite like. By having players roll dice to determine which cards they can go after and allowing them to flip those dice, you add in some elements of randomness (but not enough to meaningfully mess up a strategy), and I think that’s just excellent. I’m by no means a fan of area control, largely, but this particular iteration of it definitely caught my eye just based on the mechanics. I love that part of it. I think the rest of the game is well-designed around that aspect but allows it to shine, and that’s smart. There are many places where they’ve added simple things that improve the quality of life for the game, like all players having a passive income and your Cast Cards not expiring so that every round you’re really only limited by your dice, your planning, and your reroll tokens. It’s really interesting, and it’s another nice example in the ongoing argument that a game can have dice and still be highly strategic, depending on how those dice are used. It’s got nice art, and I’m always a fan of most wizard games, so those are points in its favor, as well. I will gently complain about the reroll tokens, but that’s just because in games generally I don’t like “interrupts”, or events that happen without a clear delineation of when they can be expected and when they’re no longer allowed. It makes it harder to plan if your opponent can completely reroll after you’ve done a fair bit of planning, and the rules are a bit shaky about exactly when rerolls are no longer permitted. That said, I think the rest of the game comes together well, so if you’re looking for a solid two-player game, you like area control, or you just really want to go to a school for wizards, School of Sorcery may be worth checking out!