One of the hottest booths at GenCon this year was run by the good folks at USAopoly. Now, you may have thought they only did Monopoly variants, but the massive Hogwarts-themed backdrop hinted at something a little different this time, ready to tap into one of the most popular and beloved fictional settings of the last however long it’s been since JK Rowling’s books really took off. With demo signups filling for the day within minutes of the doors opening each day, it was pretty bloody clear right from the get-go that USAopoly was onto a winner with their new deckbuilder, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle.
Yes, I’m using a stock photo of the box. I got all excited and cracked mine open before I remembered to take a pic.
Let’s crack it open and talk components! This is a game that, frankly, is very well laid out. High quality components with pretty art are always a good thing, but one thing to mark this game as different than other deckbuilders like Ascension, Dominion, etc, is that Hogwarts Battle tells a story. Each game escalates from the previous and walks you through the seven chapters of Mr Potter’s time at high school. Oddly enough, I haven’t seen any references to going through puberty or his voice cracking, so perhaps we can be thankful for small mercies.
Let’s start with the board. Continuing with the steamer trunk feel of the box, you’re greeted with the school logo.
Flip it open and you’ve found a bunch of nifty, but lets face it, I just want the chocolate frog.
Opened up, the board provides your play region, with watermarked spots for locations, villains, dark arts (oooh, spooky) and on the right, where you’ll find your options every turn to build your deck. We’ll get to that in a minute.
I want to take a moment and talk about this rulebook. Not everyone has the depth of gaming experience that some of us do. I can imagine many nascent gamers picking this up purely for the branding, without knowing much at all about gaming beyond the Milton Bradley catalogue. Whoever designed this instruction manual at USAopoly deserves a pat on the head for a job well done (Ross, see to that, will you?). You’ll see in the bottom left of the front page there it actively encourages experienced gamers to start at Game 3 in the series, while newer gamers can start with a step by step guide at Game 1, and then delve deeper with Game 2 before catching up with the rest of us.
Taking the time to explain everything to the new players while *at the same time* not holding their hands to the extent of controlling their first game, the Game 1 instructions do an excellent job of replacing the friend who already knows how to play the game and can teach you without all the complicated bits muddying the waters.
But surely, if the Instruction Manual is all about Game 1, there’s risk of getting lost in Game 2 and beyond, isn’t there? Nope. Each Game box, which adds more villains, locations, etc to the game as the stakes escalate, comes with its own little instruction manual defining new goals and explaining any new twists to the rules, new tokens used, or other accessories (dice!).1
But won’t we lose all of those little mini rules? Nope! Continuing an outstanding dedication to providing excellent quality coponents, the inside back cover of the main rulebook has pockets to keep them all in. Seriously, I haven’t been this impressed by a boardgame *instruction guide* in ages. (*fans self*)
Now, let’s get back to the game. On the upper left corner you’ll see a location, in this case Diagon Alley. In each game the villains are trying to take control of the locations, with the number of locations (and indeed, exact locations) changing per game to match the book the Game ties with. The skull markings along each Location cards represent villainous control; as the villains place enough tokens to fill the card’s row, the next location is revealed. If the villains successfully control all the locations in one Game, they win.
To their right are the Dark Arts cards. These represent the bad guys being bad. Attacking the heroes, messing with the do-gooders plans, and of course, taking control of the locations. Depending on the current location you’ll flip one, two or three of these every turn and enact their text.
Below the locations are the Villains. In this setup Draco is being all Malfoyish, while there are two more Villains face down. Every turn Draco will have an effect, and there’ll be a reward for the heroes when they defeat him. Once they’ve kicked him in his proverbial, he’ll be discarded and the next villain will be revealed. You’ll note that there’s three villain slots on the board. In later games the heroes will have to actively combat two or three different villains simultaneously, because nothing’s ever easy.
On the right we have the cards from which you’ll spend your moneys and build your deck, much like most other deckbuilders. There are six options available to you at any one time, and the slots refill as you add cards to your deck. As you advance through the seven Games, more and more cards are added to the Hogwarts deck to provide you with more powerful options.
As for our dashing heroes, you get to play as Harry, Hermione, Ron or Neville. I chose Neville for the sake of the unboxing because God knows I love me a dorky character. You start with a deck of 10 cards, and draw (and use) 5 each turn. The five I’ve drawn here will give me some coins to shop for cards with, the opportunity to heal if I’ve taken damage, or some lightning bolts to zap the villains with, damaging them and building toward their defeat.
Even though the game’s meant for 2-4 players, I walked through the rulebook with Neville to see how the mechanics worked. Draco managed to get a villain control point but I zapped him to two zappity bits, and used the Rememberall to remember something, but I don’t remember what it was.
In the end, each player’s turn takes no more than a minute – Flip Dark Arts, resolve villain ability, use your five cards for the turn, and draw five more. The end result is a game that plays fast enough that even with four players around the board, working together to achieve victory and to shove all He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Whatsisnamed back in his box, there’s little time to disengage. The game scales well, with more cards being added to the assorted decks and our four heroes keeping pace with the escalating threats as they gain new static abilities as they get older and become the masters of their craft. Even these are nicely thematic, with Hermione loving to cast multiple spells per turn, for example.
George and Ali were my guinea pics for a proper run through of the game. We started at Game 1 and bravely fought our way to the point where I was muttering expletives under my breath about Lucius frakshpfr2quhfr Malfoy.
Even the Basilisk turned up to play… and which hero put 6/8 damage on it in a single turn?
Why, this smug guy, unleashing all heckity darn as Ron. He had his own words to share about Lucius Malfoy after the big ruddy lizard healed up four points of damage before he could take another swing at it…
So it it worth it?
Frankly, it’s very affordable for a well-put-together boardgame with higher end components, at an MSRP of $49.95. Heck, the villain control tokens are even cast metal. As with any deckbuilder there’s a lot of replayability potential, and as a cooperative game it’s safe to pull out at family gatherings without fear of having Uncle Tom in a huff for the rest of the long weekend. Gameplay is smooth and intuitive, and highly thematic to appeal to fans of the Potterverse. The biggest thing for me, and I know I’m harping on, is how well that instruction manual is written to help bring non-gamers into a deeper boardgame experience. Damn thing’s fantastic. I’ve already taught my son to play, and I’d have taught my daughter if she wasn’t a teenager and therefore allergic to anything her dad things is cool.
I enjoy this game. I think there’s a decent chance you will to. Accordingly, I encourage you to source it out through your FLGS, favourite online retailer, or other venue for such things.