Full disclosure: A review copy of Fantasy Realms was provided by WizKids.
It’s often super frustrating how my ability to write is mostly just mercurially based on whatever mood I’m in. Last two weeks? It’s been like pulling teeth. Today, I’ve suddenly been on an incredibly productive streak, but I also conked out and slept for two hours in the middle of the day because I stayed up too late last night watching Ms. Marvel and finishing an audiobook. What an exciting life I lead. Beyond whining about that, I’m also talking about Fantasy Realms today, so that’s going to be a treat. Let’s get into that!
In Fantasy Realms, you wish you make your realm the strongest, most beautiful, and overall best in the land. There’s usually a poll or something. How you do that is up to you, though! The form of your realm will determine its strength, and fire, flood, or the magic of the earth itself may be how you prove your strength to all who would oppose you. But those folks, they’re strong in their own ways, too. Will their armies or wizards or leaders be enough to defeat you? Or will you prove that your realm, varied as it is, is strong enough to stand above all others?
Pretty much none, which is always nice. Set aside the score sheet, then shuffle the deck and deal each player seven cards:
You should be ready to start!
All things being equal, there’s not a lot of gameplay to Fantasy Realms, which is interesting. You start with seven cards in your hand, and your goal is to get the best seven cards in your hand, working with their various synergies (and antisynergies) to score the most points. Let’s talk about how you do that.
On a given turn, you can either draw a card from the deck or take any face-up card from the center. When you do, discard a card from your hand and your turn ends. That’s kind of it. Once ten cards are face-up in the discard pile, the game ends and the player with the most points wins! Scoring is where things get complicated.
Each card, when scored, may have one or more keywords, which affects how they score. Some examples:
- With: Cards with a “WITH” keyword give bonus points if you have the other card (or card type) in your hand. Generally speaking, you can only get these bonus points once.
- For each: This card works similarly to “WITH”, but it grants the bonus once per card (or card type) named that you have in your hand.
- Blanks: Cards can be blanked by other cards. A card getting blanked is considered to have no value, no suit, no bonuses, nothing. It’s essentially just a blank card in your hand.
- Blanked unless with: Similarly, cards can blank themselves unless there’s a specific card (or type) in your hand.
- Clears: Some cards can remove penalties or parts of penalties from other cards, called clearing. Cards getting a penalty cleared are not blanked; that penalty simply does not count.
Add up every card in your hand’s base value, bonuses, and penalties, and the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
There aren’t really a ton of differences, here, just based on the nature of the game. The big one is that with more players, you kind of amortize the random card draw: essentially, there are more players drawing cards, which means more cards are in play (instead of in the deck) and can possibly get discarded into the center. That’s good for you. However, there are more players taking turns between your turns, which increases the likelihood that any one of them will take one of the cards in the center that you wanted. That’s bad for you. With more players, there’s also more of a risk that the game can end before you get another turn (assuming each player draws a card from the deck on their turn), which can be a bit of a bummer, strategy-wise. This part in particular tends to push me towards the 3- / 4-player space over five or six players. That said, there are likely more players who would pull from the center in lieu of drawing, so I assume that, too, averages out, to some degree.
The game does have a two-player variant. It functionally plays the same as the core game, but instead of starting with seven cards, each player starts with zero cards and, on their turn, may draw a face-up card or draw two cards from the deck and discard one. After a player has seven cards, they continue to play normally. The game ends when there are at least twelve cards face-up, rather than ten.
- Watch out for getting Blanked! Getting blanked essentially ruins a card slot in your hand (sometimes multiple card slots). You only have so many cards available to you; it seems a shame to waste them on just dead space. Try to avoid getting your cards blanked; keep an eye out for what conditions causes one of your cards to blank and then avoid those.
- Also remember which cards that you have in your hand for their specific effects on other cards. This is the thing that commonly trips players up. When you have a card in your hand for its effect, rather than the card specifically, keep that in mind; you don’t want to discard your only Flood card and then get a bunch of your cards blanked, even if that specific Flood wasn’t earning you many points. Instead, try to draw a second Flood card that will earn you more or synergize better with your other cards and then discard the first Flood card. Swapping cards out is a safer way to ensure your score stays uninterrupted.
- There are an unbelievable number of combos in this game; keep an eye out for them. There are many ways to score, and many throughlines that can lead to a lot of points. Currently, the highest I have seen appears to be 380 points, which is frankly obscene, but you should look for cards that work well together without throwing a lot of blanks or penalties. There are a few cards that have bonuses of over 100 points!
- You’re not usually able to completely change your starting hand, so you’re going to have to pick some cards to stick with for the whole game. A few of your cards are going to inevitably stick around, so figure out how to work with them. You’re going to be able to sift through a few of them,, but unless every player is really getting what they need from the center, you’ll probably keep about half of your starting cards until the end of the game. May be worth figuring out which ones you can live with.
- The Necromancer and the Wild Cards can be pretty helpful, but they have a hefty opportunity cost to them, since they take up an open spot. Sometimes that’s worth it! Technically, the Necromancer doesn’t take up a spot, counts as a Wizard, and still gives you a few points, which is nice of them. But look for the right time to have a Wild Card; it may not be worth it, based on your hand (since some of the cards may actually be worth having the card proper for its bonus / effect). Other times, you may not want to deal with a card’s penalty, just its name. Then, the Wilds are going to work in your favor.
- Certain cards just take a lot of luck; you need to hope your opponents aren’t going for the same things (or related things). That 380 point combo? It requires you to have a perfect numerical run of a very specific set of cards that are each pretty valuable on their own, which many opponents won’t give up (like the Book of Changes). I personally try to discard the Candle late in the game so that most people can’t take advantage of it (even better if I haven’t seen its other scoring components), so it may be worth holding on to a few cards to make sure they can never be used against you.
- Some cards are worth it just for their base value! Keep an eye on those. There are some pretty high-value cards in the deck; those might be worth keeping in your hand. Just watch out; the high-value cards usually have a lot of penalties that can make them a bit less valuable. Don’t set those off if you can avoid it.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Easy setup is a thing of beauty. You really just shuffle the deck, deal seven cards to everyone, and you’re good to go. I love it.
- Similarly, the game is highly transportable. It’s only a deck; the scoresheet is a polite bonus, but hardly required. Once I can do a bit more travel, I’m looking forward to throwing this (or the Star Trek / Marvel edition) in a Quiver and taking it with me; my current Quiver still has Imperium Classics and Legends in there.
- I will say, for a combo-heavy game, the barrier to entry is pretty low. That’s kind of what I think is most compelling about this game. Usually, games that have a lot of combo-heavy play are a bit more opaque to players and difficult to parse, but this one isn’t too bad. I think that’s because Fantasy Realms wisely places the combo’s execution at the end of the game, so the whole game is more setting up a Rube Goldberg machine of scoring opportunities that all should execute perfectly, should you get the right cards. That’s surprisingly simple for players to pick up, and the cards all synergize pretty well with each other (beyond the specific cards that won’t). It makes for a compelling experience that’s strategic without being overwhelming.
- It helps that the core mechanical loop of the game is pretty simple. You draw a card and discard a card. That’s it. Not much else to keep in mind, and it lets players focus on the cards rather than trying to manage the mechanics and learn the cards at the same time.
- The idea of a timed variant of this game is deeply chaotic and funny. There’s a high-chaos variant that has a five minute timer and lets players freely trade cards, one-to-one. That’s nightmarish and whoever designed it should probably go to jail, but it sounds pretty funny.
- I am relieved, somewhat, that it is fairly easy to calculate your game’s score. The level of combo potential made me worried, at first, but it’s pretty straightforward to get a score for each card. There aren’t multi-level combos (though sometimes a card blanking another card causes a card to not get blanked, or a variety of other consequences), so it’s not usually a problem.
- I do wish the game didn’t end so abruptly, just from the perspective of someone who enjoys planning. It’s a bit jarring for the game to suddenly be over without you getting a final turn, but there’s some strategic advantage to doing that to other players. Plus, you have to take on some risk by drawing a card from the deck (you may not get a card that benefits you), so, it balances somewhat. I just don’t like it as much.
- There’s a misprint in the rulebook; the second scoring example earns, by my math, 380 points, not 260. That’s a truly disturbing score; I can see why they had to cover it up.
- Eh, the vague fantasy theme does very little for me. I think high fantasy is just a genre that I’m not quite as interested in? I can vibe a bit more with something more specific, like Arthurian Myth, but I’d rather have something closer to science fantasy, personally, and this isn’t that. Oh well.
- There are a lot of cards to remember, which can be a lot for some new players. I think there’s a desire to kind of know every card in the game, before you start, which is a great recipe for burning yourself out. I usually tell players it’s a quick game and to go with the flow, to some degree. Just kind of see what your starting hand suggests and figure out what direction you want to move in. I still haven’t done things like memorizing base strengths of cards or anything, and I find the game perfectly enjoyable.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, Fantasy Realms is a solid title! I think it’s one of the more impressive single-deck games I’ve played in some time, mostly because it manages to seamlessly and fluidly blend approachability with complexity for a game that’s challenging in its restrictions yet flexible in its strategy. That’s hard to do! I think what’s so cool about Fantasy Realms is that it’s very easy to pick up; there aren’t a lot of keywords or different actions or things like that; you just draw a card and discard a card to try and build the ideal hand, and even though you may not know what every card does, you might have sufficient visibility to build up a good strategy for your own purposes. It’s hard to make a game that does that while still being easy to pick up and play, and the needle is threaded pretty perfectly, here. The fantasy theme leaves a little to be desired, sure, but there’s already a Star Trek version and a Marvel version, so I have to assume more Fantasy Realms spinoff games will be produced until one that I fall in love with comes out (the Marvel version has Squirrel Girl, so they’re making a big play). While I’m lukewarm on the theme, I will still note that the art and graphic design are pretty nice (though I’ll be interested to see how they compare to the Deluxe Edition coming later this year). I normally find combo-heavy games a bit harder to approach, so I’m impressed with how easy and smooth Fantasy Realms feels. Gets a hearty recommendation from me. If you’re looking for a quick and portable combo game, you enjoy card games, or you want to try and find the ultimate play from a complex deck, you’ll probably enjoy Fantasy Realms! I certainly did.
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