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Abracadabra


I like when a game has a bit of complexity, especially when the mechanics are something neat - something I haven’t seen before. Usually, the more complex a game is, it offers some more strategy. I don’t mind a game with a lot of luck, as long as I know ahead of time the point of the game. When I first opened up Abracadabra (DaVinci and Mayfair Games, 2004 - Domenico Di Giorgio and Roberta Barletta), I was intrigued, because there were many piles of cards and different rules in the game. It looked to be an interesting “board game without a board” type game; and I was eager to play it, having enjoyed the other games in this card game series (Bang!, Moby Pick, etc.)

Sadly, even though I enjoyed the mechanics of the game at first, I suddenly realized when scoring occurred that the game was utter and complete luck. It simply does not matter how well a player does in the game - whoever draws the best cards wins - period. There is no point in trying to even try to maximize your luck - a player who works hard to win can be beaten by somebody who is only half trying. I wanted to like the game - it had an interesting theme, but it just fell fairly flat for me.

A deck of forty cards is shuffled and forms a deck in the middle of the table. This deck includes twenty-seven enchanter cards. Each enchanter card is either a young Mage, happy Witch, or an old Wizard. Each enchanter also is from a specific school (gray, yellow, or red) - as shown by the color of their robe and has a favorite element (water, fire, earth) - as shown by the background color of the card. Some enchanters have white robes or backgrounds, which act as wild cards. The deck also has six “Trick” cards, which have special effects, and four elemental cards. On the side of the table, seven decks of smaller cards (Magical Objects) - lettered “A” through “G” are shuffled and placed face down. Another deck of cards (New Gathering cards) with “1” on both sides is placed near these decks, as well as an “Elemental Master” card. Three tower cards are placed in the middle of the board, in the “Magical Area.” The top four cards of the deck are placed in the middle of the table, three face down, and one face up. The owner of the game picks the starting player, and the game begins.

On a player’s turn, they must first draw two cards from the four on the table. They then can either play a Trick card or organize a gathering. Each trick card has some kind of effect - like drawing a card from another player’s hand, forcing them to discard an Enchanter, etc. When a player wants to organize a gathering, they must play three enchanters from their hand - one by each tower on the table. A player may use ONE of the existing enchanters at a tower for one of their three, if they can. A gathering must be valid, which means that the three characteristics of the enchanters (aspect, school, background) must all be the same, or all different. For example, a gathering may have a witch, a mage, and a wizard, or three wizards, but may not have two wizards and a mage. Gatherings are then categorized into one of seven categories, and a player takes the top Magical Object card of that category.
- A: A witch, mage, and wizard all with the same element and same school. (A player who calls this gathering may take an additional turn as a bonus.)
- B: Three enchanters with the same element and aspect, and one each from the red, gold, and gray schools.
- C: A witch, mage, and wizard with the same element, and one each from the red, gold, and gray schools.
- D: Three enchanters with the same aspects and schools, and one each using water, fire, and earth.
- E: A witch, mage, and wizard all from the same school, and one each using water, fire, and earth.
- F: Three enchanters with the same aspects, one each using water, fire, and earth; and one each from the red, gold, and gray schools.
- G: A witch, mage, and wizards; one each using water, fire, and earth; and one each from the red, gold, and gray schools.
If the player used all three cards from their hand (as opposed to using one already on the table), then they also get one of the “New Gathering” cards as a bonus.

After a player’s turn, they must discard down to five cards if necessary, and then replace from the top of the deck the two cards they drew. If at any time a player reveals the trick card “Periculum!” (or draws it, for that matter), they must discard all their cards, reshuffle the draw pile, and lose the rest of their turn. Play continues with the next player.

If a player gets at least three elemental cards in their hand, they can take the Elemental Master card, which is worth five points. The Magical Object cards are also worth points, from one to six or show a Sorcerer’s stone on them. If any player accumulates fifteen points (from Magical Objects, New Gathering cards, Elementals (worth one point each), they win the game! A player can also win the game if they have two Sorcerer stones and one other Magical object.

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The artwork on the cards is very thematic, if a little odd. We called the mage “chubby Harry Potter”, the wizard “D&D reject”, and the witch “anything but happy”. Still, it does make them easy to tell apart. The back of the cards shows the element of each card, so players do have a bit of knowledge when choosing the cards. The Magical Object cards are half the size of the regular cards - which is okay, because they aren’t handled much - but makes fitting them inside the plastic case provided in the box a pain. The box, with slide in plastic card holder, is nice - something I think DaVinci games does great! - so why did they use cards that were smaller? It doesn’t make sense... The card quality is nice, though, and it’s pretty easy to see what cards are which - although setup takes a bit.

2.) Rules: The rules are printed on fourteen small pages in a fold out pamphlet, complete with full-color illustrations and examples. They are rather lengthy, but much of that is because they fully explain and show the different gatherings, and explain in detail each trick. The rules of the game actually are fairly simple, but it did take me a while to explain the game to those I played it with. The special cards have symbols of what they do on them, but the rules will still have to be consulted for the first game, I'm sure.

3.) Periculum!: This card has to be one of the most annoying cards in a game, ever. If you draw or reveal it, you lose all your cards, and your turn is over. Whoever thought that this would be a fun mechanic wasn’t thinking clearly - because it’s not. And it’s especially annoying when you draw the card two or three times in a game, or in a row! Yes, a player can avoid it sometimes, by refusing to draw air cards (all Trick cards are in the Air cards). But it can still be revealed, and a player who doesn’t take air cards is hurting themselves, because they can miss wild cards.

4.) Sorcerer Stones: I like games that allow someone who is losing to come from behind and win. Liberte is a classic example of this, where a player can win with a special victory condition. But in Abracadabra, the special victory condition is ridiculous. If I happen to draw two of the five Sorcerer Stones after only a couple of turns, I've just won the game!

5.) Luck and Fun Factor: And that brings us down to the luck factor of the game. Each letter grouping of Magical Objects has a different range of points with some of them having higher points. But it’s still basically shooting in the dark. It’s a bit annoying to have finished three magical gatherings, and draw three “1” value cards, and then someone else finishes one magical gathering, getting a card at value “6”. Not to mention that if someone gets lucky and draws three of the elemental cards, they get an extra five points. Because they were good? No, simply because they were lucky. Luck doesn’t normally bother me, but in this game - I’m sorry - but it’s too much. I have yet to see someone win because of skillful playing. And the game doesn’t really promote fun that much; it’s just a matter of being lucky. The theme is there, and it works; but it’s just not fun.

6.) Gatherings: Lest I come across as entirely too negative, let me say that I did much enjoy the way that the Gatherings were handled. It intrigued me to see the seven different combinations that were possible and deciding which combination to play was interesting. Sadly, because a player has a maximum hand limit of five, and because the game ends quickly, there’s usually only one choice anyway. But it’s an interesting mechanic, and one I’d like to see explored in other games.

Abracadabra is an attractive game, with a theme that will appeal to the magic-happy populace. But it’s simply too lucky for anyone who is looking for some semblance of control over their game, and too complex for anyone who doesn’t care about strategy. Even the kids I played the game with told me that it was “too lucky”, and they were pretty apathetic during the games. Everyone enjoyed the different combinations of Gatherings, but that was really the only high bit. Abracadabra is too much setup and rules for such a simple, lucky payoff. Maybe you’ll find that it works for you, but I found no magic in the game. 

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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