12 Realms: Gather Your Friends, Confront the Darkness, Become Heroes (a review)
The 12 Realms have come under attack by the evil dark Lords and their foul minions and they are bent on conquest and devastation. A call has gone out for valiant heroes to join in the fight to throw back these enemies and bring peace and prosperity back to the lands. In the game of 12 Realms, you control one of these heroes and, using your innate talents and gifts, fight evil to save the day. There are eight possible heroes to choose from. Some of the names are more familiar than others and some you might not have ever thought of in a heroic light... names like D’Artagnan, Snow White, and the Sugar Plum Fairy... but all have their specific uses in particular situations.
Before I go any further, I would just like to take a moment to say thank you to the awesome folks over at Mage Company games for sending me and my gaming group a review copy of this game. Alex in particular has been very helpful and very friendly and has always been there to answer my many, many questions. They have not done anything to influence my opinion of the game in any shape, form, or fashion and rest assured that if the game was terrible, I would not hesitate to tell you so. With that being said...
12 Realms is jam packed with content. The base game comes with 4 realm boards included (I am guessing there will be additional realms added in future expansions) and each of these realms comes with various cards, invader tokens, artefact tokens, and treasure tokens that are associated with it and it alone. In addition to the realm boards, there are also 8 character boards that players can select from. Each character has several talents that they will use throughout the game and there are a large number of talent tokens included with the game that are used to track this usage. Included are also several gold coins that are engraved with the 12 Realms logo, four black invasion tracker markers, an area die, and a talent die. All of the cards are of good quality card stock and all of the card board pieces are thick and sturdy. Everything is beautifully illustrated and really helps to set the mood thematically.
And then there are the miniatures. There is an unpainted, plastic miniature included that represents each of the main characters. There are also miniatures available for purchase that represent each of the dark lords (I will explain this term as well as any other unfamiliar terminology shortly). In the version of the game that I received, there were also 4 black fortress miniatures included. Each of these miniatures is very finely detailed. For instance, even though Snow White’s shoes are not visible when Snow White is attached to her base, great detail has been put into her shoes.
As if that wasn’t enough, I was also sent one of the available for purchase add-ons that added petrified monsters to the game. If you like a game with a lot of pieces, then you might like this one. You’ll certainly feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth.
TALENTS AND VULNERABILITIES
Each character in the game has a collection of talents that it will use to perform actions, fight things, and pick up treasure. Each of these talents is represented by a specific icon and, when this icon appears on a treasure token, artefact token, or enemy invader token, it is referred to as a ‘vulnerability’. If your character has talents available that match the vulnerability, then you can ‘exploit’ your talent to defeat the enemy, perform the action, or pick up the object and add it to your inventory. Before I talk about exploiting talents, it makes sense for me to tell you what the various talents are:
- Swift: represented by an icon that looks like a wing (used primarily to move around the board and to shop when you are in town)
- Combat : represented by an icon that looks like a sword
- Charm: represented by an icon that looks like a heart
- Magic: represented by an icon that looks like a blue star
- Craft: represented by an icon that looks like a book
- Gold: represented by an icon that looks like a gold coin (does not add a gold coin to your inventory, but can be used as if there were a gold coin in your inventory)
- Crown: represented by an icon that looks like a crown (this is a wild card talent that can be used to represent any talent other than gold)
On each character board there are a collection of talents icons. On top of these icons are placed tokens of the appropriate type and color. There are red talents and there are blue talents. Red talents can be used over and over again, but any blue talents can only be used one single time. To signify that a talent has been exploited, the player that is exploiting that talent, will move the talent token to the exploited talents area of the character card.
Here’s an example of how this would work. We will pretend that you are attempting to engage a monster who has a vulnerability of one swiftness OR one magic (this mean that the enemy invader token has a blue star in one corner and a wing in another - if it required multiple talents to defeat, those talents would appear side by side in the same area) and the monster is one area away on your realm board (each realm board is divided into 7 areas. The first six are labeled with corresponding Roman numerals and the 7th area is the town area). In addition to the monster token, there is also a treasure token with a vulnerability of one craft. First, you would exploit a single swiftness talent to move to the next adjacent area. This would put you in the area with the monster and the treasure. At this point, you can face down the monster OR you can pick up the treasure. You are never required to fight a monster if you don’t want to. For this example, though, we’ll fight the monster and then collect the treasure.
Fighting the monster is easy. You look at the talents that you have remaining. If you have at least one swiftness OR one craft, then you choose one and move the token to the exploited talents area. Then the monster token is removed from the board and placed back into the supply. Some monsters might have special abilities that fire off when they die and, if this monster were one of them, its ability would fire off now. Once the monster is dead, you can collect the treasure as long as you exploit a craft talent. Once the treasure is collected, the treasure token is returned to the supply and you place a gold piece into your inventory. You could then move to other areas, defeat other invaders, and collect other treasures as long as you had the talents to exploit to do it.
What happens, though, if you are unable to defeat all of the invaders for some reason? What happens then?
INVADERS, INVASION TRACKER, AND DARK LORDS
At the beginning of a new round, one of the players will flip a number of cards equal to the number of realm boards in play + 1 from the Realm card deck. Depending on which cards show up monsters may appear or treasures/artefacts may appear or some mixture of the two. In a multiplayer game, all of the realm decks for all of the realm boards in play will be shuffled together (minus the dark lord who is set aside).Players will then have until the end of the round to defeat the various monsters that have spawned.
At the end of a round (that is after all players have taken their turns) the invasion trackers move up by one for each invader left in each separate realm. For example, if there is one invader left in Cherry Blossom and two invaders in Bone Island, the invasion trackers would move up by 1 and 2 respectively. Once the invasion tracker has reached 16, the dark lord will appear. When the dark lord appears, the area die will be rolled and the dark lord will be placed into that area of the realm that the dark lord is affiliated with. Dark lords, by definition, are more difficult to kill than normal monsters and they will typically have some kind of nasty ability to further complicate things. It is crucial that the dark lords be dealt with as quickly as possible because once the invasion tracker reaches 20 in any realm, then the game is over and the forces of evil win. The good news is once you’ve killed the dark lord, all of his minions disappear and that particular realm that the dark lord occupied is free from invasion for the rest of the game.
There are several invader abilities in this game and some of them are nastier than others. Here is a list of what they are and what they do:
- Blast: When a player challenges a monster with this ability, they will roll the area die once for each level of the blast power. If the die comes up with a ‘1’ the player’s action phase ends immediately.
- Changeling: A creature with this power can only be challenged once per turn for each player. When challenged, the creature’s vulnerabilit(y/ies) is/are determined by rolling the talent die once per level of the power
- Curse: This resolves during the Resolve Powers step of the Invasion phase (I will cover these phases and steps next). For each level of the power, each player must exploit one randomly chosen talent
- Horde: This effect takes place as soon as the invader with this power is placed on the board. If the invader card reads anything but +1, then the invader PLUS a number of the same invader (the number after the plus sign) are placed onto their affiliated realm into the same area. For instance, if a skeleton were drawn that had a +2, you would place a total of three skeletons into a random area together
- Marauding: This power is also resolved during the Resolve Powers step. An invader with this power moves to another random area of the same realm.
- Sorcery: When a player challenges a creature that has this power, that player must exploit a random talent (this could very well mean the player will not be able to defeat this creature) for each level of the power
- Summon: This power is also resolved during the Resolve Powers step. If a creature is in play that has this power, a second copy of that creature is summoned and placed onto a random area of its realm
- Treasure: If a player challenges and defeats a creature that has this power, that player is awarded with a gold coin - Unyielding: After defeating an invader with this power, the area die is rolled for each level of the power. If a ‘1’ is rolled, this invader’s token is not removed
PHASES, STEPS, TURNS, and ROUNDS
A round is defined as "when every phase has been resolved". This game is played in a series of rounds. Each round consists of three distinct phases: Invasion phase, Perform Actions phase, and Refresh Phase. The Invasion phase is broken down further into four steps: Update Invasion Track, Resolve Powers, Draw Realm Cards, and Invaders Appearance. Here we will discuss each of these phases and what happens during each one.
The first phase of any round is the Invasion Phase. At the beginning of this phase, all of the creatures that are alive on any of the realms are counted up and each realm’s invasion tracker is moved up accordingly. After this has been done, the powers of any creatures with the Curse, Marauding, or Summon powers are triggered (the Summon power only happens one single time per creature that has the power which means that its Summon power can only resolve once during its lifetime). After all of the powers have been triggered and resolved, Realm cards are drawn according to the rules laid out earlier. Any artefacts or treasures are placed on the board in a random location of their respective realms which is obtained by rolling the area die. If there are no artefact or treasure tokens left, then a new card is drawn to replace the item that cannot be played. The last thing that happens in the Invasion phase is that creatures will be summoned if there were any creature cards drawn. The tokens matching the card will be placed according to the card rules and then the card will be placed in the Realm cards discard pile.
PERFORM ACTIONS PHASE
Each player will take turns performing as many of the following actions that they want, as many times as they want, and in any order that they want. These actions are:
- Move: a player may exploit a swiftness token to move from one area to an adjacent area - Confront an invader: a player may choose to confront an invader that is in the same area that he or she is in. If that player is able to exploit the talent tokens that match that invader’s vulnerabilities, then the invader is vanquished and its token is removed from the board. Any invader powers that are triggered by its defeat will trigger at this time. Additionally, if there is another player in the same area, then they can assist you in your confrontational endeavours by exploiting some of their talents. If this happens, only the person initiating the confrontation is affected by any of the invader’s powers.
- Claim a treasure or claim an artefact: a player may exploit the tokens that match the treasure or artefact's vulnerability. If it is a treasure, the treasure token is added back to the supply and the player receives a gold coin. If it is an artefact, the artefact token is removed from the board and placed into the player’s inventory
- Trade gold and/or artefacts: players that are in the same area may trade any gold and/or artefacts between them. This might be important because to even attempt to confront a dark lord, the player that is doing the confronting must have all 3 of that realm’s artefacts in their possession
- Visit town: a player may exploit a swiftness token to draw 2 cards from the town card deck. That player may only purchase ONE of these cards at most. Any unpurchased cards are added to the town card discard pile. The player may visit town multiple times so long as he or she exploits a swiftness token for each visit.
- Travel: if multiple realm boards are being used and if the player is currently in a town area, they may declare that they are traveling to another realm. They will place their miniature into the town area of the new realm and their Perform Actions phase immediately comes to an end Once all players have finished their turns, they will then enter the Refresh phase.
During the Refresh phase, each player will move their exploited tokens back to their starting positions.
The only way to obtain talents that your character(s) does not/do not already possess is via acquiring town cards. Town cards have various usages, but generally, they will add some kind of permanent talent to your talent pool. Mage Company has provided an excellent FAQ on their website for this game that lays out every single town card and tells you precisely what they do. Here’s just a small sampling of some of the town card abilities that you will encounter:
- Travel to another realm without ending your Perform Actions phase - Discard the town card to add gold to your inventory (depending on which realm you happen to be in)
- Add a red talent or a collection of red talents to your talent pool - Discard the town card to defeat all invaders in a single realm
- Become immune to dark powers - Roll back the invasion tracker … and many more. I am not going to list them all here. The important thing to take note of is the first sentence of this section. You cannot acquire talents that you do not already possess without purchasing town cards.
Once every dark lord has been defeated, then the game is over. However, if any of the invasion trackers reaches 20, the game ends in a defeat.
Virtually everything in this game from the Realm cards to the player boards to the town cards has all kinds of weird looking diagrams drawn on them. These icons are an integral part of the game and it helps to understand what the various icons mean. I cannot really explain them here. Fortunately, though, the designers foresaw this need and have provided a handy reference that appears on the back of the rulebook.
One of the things that I really like about this game is that it supports solitaire play. Not many board games support this style of play and I wish that more of them did. The game arrived on a Saturday afternoon and my wife and I spent several hours just punching out pieces and glossing over the rulebook. I did not have the opportunity to play the game until the next day while she was at work. That Sunday morning, I eagerly opened the box and began setting up the game according to the rules. The handy chart suggested that I begin by using the Cherry Blossom realm board, so I did. I then laid out all of the various heroes and blindly selected one. What I wound up with was D’Artagnan. Several minutes later, I realized that I had chosen an impossible combination. Here was the issue:
1. At least one of the artefacts in Cherry Blossom requires you to exploit a Craft talent to pick it up and D’Artagnan does not natively possess this talent
2. The only way to acquire talents that your character does not possess natively is to purchase town cards
3. All of the treasures in Cherry Blossom require you to exploit a Craft talent to pick them up which means that D’Artagnan cannot collect them. Additionally, D’Artagnan does not have the Gold talent natively.
This meant that as long as I played as D’Artagnan on this particular map that I could never purchase the talents that I needed to pick up the artefacts that I would need if I ever wanted to actually confront the dark lord when it inevitably appeared and, therefore, I could never actually win the game. Concerned, I looked over the other character cards and realized that The Nutcracker would also suffer from the same issue with this particular map. So, to recap, I broke the game on my very first play through.
Undeterred, I created a simple house rule and you’ll want to take a note of this. It’s two simple steps, but it will save you from running into similar situations.
Step 1: Look at your chosen character’s talents and then look at the treasure tokens for your selected Realm(s). If you do not have the requisite talents needed to exploit to pick up the treasures and do not have a native gold talent, go to Step 2.
Step 2: Look at the Realm cards for your chosen realm. If none of the creatures reward gold for defeating them or they do reward gold but you do not possess the talents to defeat them, then begin the game with a single gold piece.
That’s it. One gold piece is all that you need.
Having solved my gold dilemma, I began playing the game. It didn’t seem very challenging. After a while I was having to intentionally allow invaders to live just to allow the invasion tracker to move up. I will admit that, at this point, it seemed kind of pointless to even continue playing. Once your character reaches the point of having to intentionally allow the invasion tracker to move, the likelihood of the dark lord giving you trouble whenever it appears is virtually nil. Needless to say, my second play through was sort of disappointing.
However, this is where the genius of this game comes in. There are so many combinations of characters and Realm boards that you can pretty much customize your own level of difficulty. By simply adding a second realm board to the game, I nearly lost the game on my third play through. This ability to customize the game to suit your mood is amazing. I have never played a board game that allows me to adjust the level of difficulty like this before. And this is just with the basic game! If you add on the little mini-expansions (i.e. - the black fortress or the petrified invaders) you can custom tailor the level of difficulty even more. So, even though I had my doubts when I ran into trouble on my first game, by the end of the third game, my opinion had shifted dramatically in the other direction.
This is not to say that this game is without its flaws, though. There are several times that the rule book and the FAQ seem to directly contradict each other. Generally speaking, whenever this happens, the FAQ has the last word. I have been assured that this will be addressed in future editions of the game, so it’s more of a mild inconvenience right now more so than it is a game breaking oversight.
That being said, I really do like this game. It’s as fast or as slow or as easy or as challenging as you decide to make it. The artwork is fantastic and the game plays very smoothly. Every game that I have played since those first few has been a lot of fun. The ability to construct the game from whichever pieces you like ensures that no two games are alike and that the game play always remains fresh. While 12 Realms might not be my go to game of choice whenever I am in the mood to play a game, it is definitely one that’s not going to sit there collecting dust either.
By David McMillan
+++ additional comment in this review by Jim Ant
I'd just like to add a quick "second" to the above comment. You can simplify this beautiful little game to the point where a child could play with parents and the child could probably make his/her own moves without having to be coached. For example you could give a younger child his/her own realm to defend and you could just add one card per turn to that realm to make it really easy for them. This would not at all ruin the game for the parents who could be drawing two cards for their own realms.
And you could also play with very sophisticated gamers and add extra realms to make the game extremely challenging. Nice flexible system.