Dale Yu: Review of Witchstone

Witchstone

  • Designer: Renier Knizia, Martino Chiacchiera
  • Publisher: R&R Games / Huch!
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 12+
  • Time: 60-90 minutes
  • Played 5 times with review copy provided by R&R Games

witchstone

As the story goes from the rules: “Once every 100 years, eminent wizards and witches gather in a remote region, the location of which has been kept a strict secret for many generations.  The purpose of this meeting is to regenerate the energy field of the legendary Witchstone. Through the use of magic spells and rituals, you will ensure the maintenance and strengthening of your magic powers.”

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Each player occupies one of the four towers around the Witchstone and starts from there. Create your magic spells with the help of your cauldron, and put a network of magic energy around the stone. Send out your witches, scoop the magic crystals out of the cauldron, make use of the pentagram and the magic wand, and keep an eye on the prophecy scrolls in order to ensure victory.  Not all options are always available to you. Only if you cleverly make the most of your opportunities will you have the chance of accumulating the most victory points over the eleven rounds and thereby win Witchstone.

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Each player in the game has a personal cauldron that bears seven crystals (with their black crystal in the middle) and six pre-printed magic icons around the outside, and they share a larger game board that features a crystal ball that shows the entire landscape around the Witchstone.  Players will place their Witch meeple on this map to claim one of the towers for themselves and get the action of the Magic Chip found on that space.  There are also areas for a scroll display on the right side as well as a pentagram in the upper left corner where owl counters and other special hex tiles are found.

Each player has a set of fifteen hexagonal domino tiles; each domino depicts two different magic icons from the six used in the game.  (If you’re familiar with Einfach Genial/Ingenious, they are very reminiscent of the tiles from that game).  5 of the tiles are drawn and placed face up behind your screen; the remainder serve as your supply for the rest of the game.

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On a turn, you place one of the five face-up dominos in your reserve onto your cauldron, then you take the action associated with each icon depicted on that domino; if the icon is adjacent to other dominos showing the same icon or the matching pre-printed icon, then you can take that action as many times as the number of icons in that cluster. (If you are familiar with Einfach Genial, you’ll be somewhat familiar with this, but in Witchstone, the icons do not have to be in a straight line, they just have to be contiguously adjacent.)  You must complete the first type of action completely before taking the second action.  If you have a problem remembering how many actions you have, you can use the track on the side of your player aid to count down the multiple actions of each type.

With these actions, you can:

  • Use energy to connect your starting tower to other locations on the game board, scoring 1, 3 or 6 points for completing a connection of 1, 2, or 3 spaces.  For each energy action, you can place one Energy marker from your supply on to a path space on the board. You can only be working on one connection at a time, but  you do not need to finish a connection completely.  Once you have started on a path, no one else can work on that path.  All of your paths must connect back to your starting tower.

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  • Place witches next to your starting tower on the game board or move them across your energy network to other locations.   It is also possible to move your Witches over the paths of your opponents, but it is more costly to do this.  As you do this, you gain points and possibly additional actions to use the same turn through Magic Chips that you pick up if you are the first player to a location. You can also place a witch on the central Witchstone tower to gain immediate bonus points.  Each location can only accommodate 1 Witch of each player. And once a witch is placed upright on a location, it is fixed in place for the rest of the game.

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  • Move your token around the pentagram in the upper left corner of the board to collect owl tokens which score points and to acquire bonus hex tiles; you can use these tiles immediately for actions or place them in your cauldron to make future tile placement more valuable.
  • Move the crystals in your cauldron, whether to make room for future tile placement or to gain bonus actions by ejecting the crystal completely (via an exit spot on the rim which has an action icon on it). The crystal’s move must end on an empty space (not onto a space occupied by a tile or a space with something printed on it).  If you remove a crystal from the board, you put it on the matching shelf in the vial rack and gain 2 actions of that type OR put it on the bottom-most rack to pick up a Magic Tile with a specific action on it.
  • Advance on the magic wand at the bottom of the board to gain points and take additional actions, with the actions being doubled should you currently be the most advanced player on the wand.  The spaces which offer points give points based on certain criteria at that moment.  
  • Claim scroll cards that boost future actions or earn you bonus points at game’s end depending on how well you’ve completed the prophecy depicted.  There are 6 scrolls in the row, numbered from 1 to 6.  You will have more choice on which scroll to pick when you have more actions – you can choose from any numbered slot up to the number of Scroll actions you generated this turn.  Note that regardless of how many Scroll actions you get, you only take one Scroll card.  There are two types of scrolls: Reinforcing scrolls that give you additional actions when you generate the corresponding action in your cauldron and Prophecies which score you 3/5/7 points at the end of the game depending on how well you meet the criteria on it. 

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After each player has completed eleven turns — so you will still hae 4 of your hex tiles left behind your screen.  Over the course of the game, you may have taken as many as 60 actions depending on how well you’ve used your cauldron — the game ends and players tally their points from prophecies and Owl chips as well as unused Magic Chips and Reinforcing Spells to see who has the highest score.  Ties are broken in favor of the player further ahead on the Magic Wand.

My thoughts on the Game

Well, if you’re familiar with Einfach Genial, you’ll know that it is a well constructed but super-dry abstract game with a typically Knizian mathy scoring system.  Witchstone takes the domino laying mechanism and really puts a meaty game around it.  Now, instead of simply scoring points for placing icons in a line with like icons, you now get stronger and stronger game actions.  It really is an astonishing development of an abstract game into a complex thematic strategy game.

Here, you have plenty of options with how you want to approach the game.  In my first few plays, I really thought that those who were able to get their gem engine going early would succeed (because you end up getting all those extra actions from the jar bookcase) – I have actually managed to win while not drawing any of those early.  FWIW, in that game, I was able to get a huge energy engine, being able to place all of my energy pieces fairly early on, and those 6pt routes definitely added up by the end of the game!

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Each of the different actions provides you different ways to score, and I like that way that many of them give you ways to make combinations that allow you to move forward in other areas of the game.  The player aid does include a little chart where you can keep track of how many points you have left; but sometimes this isn’t even enough.  I’m seriously thinking of making a set of tokens for each of the action types so that you can keep track of how many action points you have left of each type.  Sometimes your turns can get seriously convoluted, and you need to keep saying things out loud to make sure you don’t miss anything nor take any extra actions.

I like the fact that it’s hard to have a set strategy. A lot is directly dependent on which tiles you have access to, and the timing that you can play them.  As I mentioned above, I first thought that I’d always want to play gems first – but having a recent game where that wasn’t an option – playing all of my Energy tiles early as well as Owl tiles (to get lots of bonus chits to make my other actions stronger) worked out just fine.  In every game, you’re only going to play 11 of your 15 tiles, though you’ll be able to see them all by the end of the game.

In the end, you’ll be able to score points from a number of different sources, and I do think you’re probably better off trying to specialize in one of them- because if you do, you’ll end up with a lot of actions of that type if you can group the icons together nicely.  Don’t forget about the scrolls – they are a guaranteed one point for grabbing a card, but they can be worth up to 7 points if you can fully fulfill them.  Also, it’s important to watch what your opponents are doing because while you may have multiple cards that don’t work for you, you’ll definitely want to hate draft when possible to keep your rival from getting an easy 7 points!

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Thus far, this has been one of my favorite games from the new SPIEL 2021 group.  It is a nice mix of a few familiar mechanisms, but rolled up into a very pleasing package. It’s a bit on the complex side of things, and games will likely be over an hour in length, but I think you’ll find yourself engaged the entire time.  There is a challenging puzzle of figuring out how to maximize your actions in your 11 turns, and this is a game that I think will definitely stay in the game collection.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Dan (3 plays):When I read the rules for this I was a bit hesitant as it seemed to be something of a point salad, and I often don’t care for such games. However, I do like it quite a bit after actually playing it. The different actions interlock fairly well so you don’t feel as if you’re playing several simultaneous mini-games (a common failing of some similar games), and everything rolls along pretty smoothly once everyone has the hang of it.

The game is often compared to Stefan Feld’s Bonfire, due to the similar action selection mechanism and probably also the vaguely similar theme. I like this much more than Bonfire: the different parts fit together much better, the system is simpler and cleaner, and if the cards are not perfectly balanced, they are still much better than the Bonfire cards appeared to be.

Joe Huber (1 play): Even playing this with fast players, the game dragged on interminably.  It’s not quite my least favorite new-to-me game of 2021, but it’s far closer than I would expect a Knizia game to be.  Unlike Dan, the game didn’t feel smooth to me at all, but instead fiddly and unfocused – I was relieved when the game finally ended.

Tery N (1 play): I had heard such conflicting opinions on this that I was very curious to try it, and I am glad I did because I loved it and immediately ordered my own copy. Sure, it is a point salad, but it is a well-coordinated point salad where each action is integrated with the others, and the luck of the draw mitigated by having several ways to access what you need to do. I am definitely a sucker for the theme, but I think I would like this even if it wasn’t wizarding world-adjacent.  I always wanted to like Ingenious, but it felt too dry to me. This improves the experience for me by keeping the matching tile aspect, but increasing the puzzly aspect of identifying the best placement for now as well as maximizing my future turns.

Craig (2 plays):I enjoyed this more than I was expecting to. I think the double hex-tile mechanism from Ingenious is interesting and worth exploring more, but I’m not sure Witchstone does that well enough. The myriad ways to score points was okay, but felt distinctly un-Knizia like. Gameplay definitely felt fiddly with actions leading to more and more actions slowing up the pacing of the game and making it feel uneven and disjointed.   I suspect this will make it to the 5-10 play zone, but ultimately unlikely to get to evergreen territory or hold a place on gameshelf long term. 

Mark Jackson (1 play): While I enjoyed this much more than I expected, I think this is the weakest of the three new Knizia games I played this weekend – I much preferred Mille Fiore in the same point-salad-y vein… and Art Robbery was an enjoyable filler card game.

Mitchell (3 plays) I opened this over the weekend with great anticipation. I love Einfach Genial and typically appreciate and enjoy Knizia designs. After the first play, I was intrigued. The domino action generating mechanism is terrific. But the next two plays left us uninspired and cold. There is very little interactivity because everything you do yields points hence the game becomes a maximization and counting exercise. The competition for the central network lacked excitement. The scoring cards are all pretty easy to fill. Although the choice to forge ahead and stay behind on the magic wand track seemed interesting, it became clear after the third play that everything you do is going to help you in one way or another. The chained actions at the end of the game are fiddly and ultimately tiresome. We just helped each other keep track of the actions, but were never worried that those actions would impede our own progress. I wouldn’t want to play this with 4. I could see how three players might increase the tension a bit and I would try it at that count, but there are too many better games out there. Ultimately the game suffers from inadequate interaction. I’ll give it a neutral simply because the domino placement is really fun. Too bad the actions it generates are mundane.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y, John P. Tery N, Steph H
  • I like it.Dan, Lorna, Craig, Mark Jackson
  • Neutral. Mitchell
  • Not for me…Joe H.

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2021, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

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