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Review: Magic Maze

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Adventuring is a hard business. One minute you’re delving into cavernous treasure troves, the next you’re being chased by fiery dragons or being stripped of your gear.

That last one is smarting now, because your only training is in adventuring, and you can’t adventure without gear, and without adventuring, there’s no hope of paying your cable bill.

The only solution? “Borrowing” it, heist-style, from the local shopping mall. But this isn’t an ordinary shopping mall. It’s a magic one, with vortexes, escalators, and a labyrinthine hallway system that even a map can’t help you untangle. And worst of all, to avoid suspicion, there’s no talking with your comrades. Can you get the goods and get out before alerting security?

You wouldn’t be an adventurer if you didn’t try.

How It Works

Magic Maze is a real-time cooperative puzzle game for one to eight players. Players control four fantasy heroes trying to equip themselves by pulling a heist at the local shopping mall. The players win if the heroes get what they need from the shops and get to the exits before the timer runs out.

Magic Maze set up for four.

To begin, each player receives an action tile. The players combine the mall levels for the scenario they’re playing into a draw deck. The mall entrance tile with the four adventurers is placed in the center of the table. When all players are ready, the timer is flipped.

Play is simultaneous. Players may perform their actions whenever and as many times as they want using whichever adventurer they want. However, while players are cooperating and may move any character, they may not communicate–either through pointing, gesturing, or talking. The only way for players to communicate is by either staring intensely at another player or placing the “do something” pawn in front of that player.

Actions in the game are either moving pawns in a single orthogonal direction, moving pawns to their matching vortex spaces, moving pawns along escalators, or discovering new room tiles. Each player receives a tile with one or more of these actions depending on the number of players.

The action tiles included in the game vary by number of players. (Many of these tiles are double-sided.)

There are several timer spaces in the mall that, when activated, force the players to flip the timer and pass their action tiles to the left. Before another piece is touched, the players may speak and gesture, but as soon as a piece is touched, the no-communication rules are back in effect. Each of the characters also has a special power that will help the players accomplish their goal.

Once all pawns are on their respective shops, the heist happens, and players may no longer use vortexes. The game is won when all the pawns have exited using the doors of their color before the timer runs out. The game is lost if the timer ever runs out of sand.

Mall Madness

Confession time: I don’t love cooperative games.

Whether it’s Pandemic or Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Forbidden Island or Forbidden Desert, I prefer to keep time around the table competitive.

Of course, I say this, and then come the counterexamples. Hanabi’s cooperative hand management is enchanting, the narrative in Robinson Crusoe makes the teamwork acceptable, and there are few thrills that equal solving a case together in Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective or exiting an escape room with skins intact. I think the key in each of these examples (and in the examples of other cooperative games I like) is that I like cooperative games with a strong hook, as well as a strong corrective for the problem of “quarterbacking” (or one player taking control over the game, making the other players superfluous).

Magic Maze, even though it is cooperative, is a game that I enjoy a lot given that it meets both of these criteria.

The starting tile. It all looks so…simple.

First, the strong hook. While the fantasy theming is almost enough to put me off, the melding of fantasy with the shopping mall setting is intriguing. But the real hook of the game is how it’s played. This is a real-time cooperative game with distributed actions that involves no communication. This is quite a hook indeed.

When a pawn lands on the timer space, it gets covered by an “out of order” marker. Managing your time is a key component in Magic Maze.

Most cooperative games rise or fall on the communication they foster, so being told from the get-go that no communication is allowed automatically shifts the footing for players. Beyond this, players do not control pawns but actions, and these actions are micro, often as simple as moving a pawn in a single direction. Magic Maze requires players to pay attention to what’s happening and to formulate a plan to get the adventurers where they need to be. Even if one player wants to control everything, he or she has limited control to effect plans.

The tricky thing is that each player must form their own plan, and there’s not really a way to get everyone on the same page. It’s not uncommon for a player to move a pawn in one direction, only to have another player move the pawn right back. The fun of Magic Maze is that everyone has the same goal, but everyone has formulated a different way to reach that goal, and players have to read each other’s minds–sometimes sacrificing the way they would have solved the problem–in order to get anywhere.

I must do something. But what?

Second, the corrective for quarterbacking. Perhaps the greatest innovation in Magic Maze is the “do something” pawn. The “do something” pawn is big and red, matching the color of the shame-faced players it’s placed in front of. I originally said that Magic Maze doesn’t allow communication, but that isn’t quite true. It just doesn’t involve conventional communication like talking or gestures. Rather, Magic Maze allows communication of just two kinds: staring intensely at another player, and placing the “do something” pawn in front of another player. The wonderful thing about this is you can’t say what that other player should do; you’re just telling them to do something; it’s up to them to figure out what. You’d think it would be easy to tell what another player thinks you should do, but it isn’t, especially if you are at odds in your plans for what needs to happen on the board. The “do something” pawn allows players to communicate in a fun, nonthreatening way. It also allows “alpha gamer” quarterbacks–the bane of most cooperative games–an outlet for their direction of the other players without the annoyance of actually directing their moves. The players are definitely working together, but even so, if there are five players at the table, there might be five plans for what is the best course of action. The “do something” pawn keeps the game fun and energetic without bogging down in feelings of futility.

Some tiles have special abilities that only the matching adventurer can use.

Magic Maze would be fairly easy if communication were allowed to flow freely or if players had all night to solve the puzzle. Instead, each game lasts as little as three and as long as fifteen minutes, depending on how the players are doing. The game is controlled by a timer, and the only way to add time to the game is to flip it. This means that if you flip the timer too soon, you don’t get the maximum time allowed. Then again, if you push your group to the brink of the last few sands falling, you might miss out and lose the game. The timer provides a great tension in the game, and it especially requires players to work together. If only one player is watching the timer and trying to get other players to take it seriously, even the red “do something” pawn will not save the group.

Yellow is on its shop! Now to get the other pawns in place.

The timer provides another fun wrinkle to the game: players are allowed to talk freely whenever the timer is flipped. This means there are at most four times during the game when players can decide together about what to do. These times are necessary, but they are never long enough because the sand is flowing during these mini-discussions, and players aren’t allowed to touch any pieces–if they do, talking time is over. So players have to gauge how worth it it is to discuss strategy versus just running through the maze and hoping other players will get what you mean. And a further wrinkle with the timer: whenever the timer is flipped, all players pass their actions to the left. Just when you’re getting comfortable with your action, you have to give it to someone else. The game is continually disorienting its players.

Once all the adventurers are on their matching shops, the “heist” happens, and the players can’t use vortexes anymore. Yikes!

As you can imagine, Magic Maze is often frantic, but it is seldom chaotic. Players really do have to work together to move through the maze and to spot the twists and turns where travel will be difficult. The player who controls vortexes has to be especially vigilant, as vortexes can save a lot of time if they’re used properly. But if you vortex a pawn to the wrong place, there’s no guarantee you’ll find a vortex back. I like that vortexes are included; I also like that vortexes are no longer allowed once the heist happens. Players can’t rely on a single trick to make it through the maze. Again, players have to cooperate.

The initiation campaign is a great way to orient new players to Magic Maze. You can tailor this to your group once you’re familiar with the rules.

The basic rules of the game are simple, but it can be difficult for players to wrap their minds around the novelty of the game because it is so unlike other games. The rules include an “initiation campaign” of seven scenarios to slowly teach players the rules. This is invaluable. It walks a new group through each rule change, only changing one or two things from round to round, but you can easily tailor it to your group. For my lunch games group, for example, I brought them through all of the rules in three or four games, knowing how much they could handle. With a completely new group, you might play some training scenarios multiple times until they win, just so they can gain confidence in the system. At any rate, the game ramps up in difficulty as you move along and as each pawn has its own special ability. I like this easygoing training approach.

Are you ready to proceed to the REAL challenges?

The game also includes ten “full-game” scenarios beyond the initiation campaign, each of which just tweaks the basic rules of the game a little to make it more difficult. One scenario might involve no talking at any point, or might have multiple dimensions to the mall, and so on. These scenarios will keep the game fresh, especially as players become accustomed to what they need to do.

The full maze. Each tile is oriented such that they all fit together, no matter where each one is placed. Making the labyrinth is satisfying, and it is a new challenge each time because the tiles come out randomly.

Magic Maze is simple and straightforward enough for most audiences, and it’s just plain fun, but it won’t be for everyone. For players who get flustered easily and don’t like timed or simultaneous action games, Magic Maze can be a frustrating and demoralizing experience, especially as players are banging the red pawn in front of them. For me, when someone places the “do something” pawn in front of me, it spurs renewed energy as I check and recheck the board to see where I’ve gone wrong. For other players, the big red pawn is a mark of shame or failure, and they shut down whenever it’s in front of them, only making the other players bang the pawn more. You know your groups and whether this is a good choice for them.

The advanced scenarios.

Also, with a game involving six or more players, logistics can be an issue. Because all players have to be able to reach the maze, finding places for players to sit can be challenging. It can be especially challenging if anyone has a disability that prevents standing and reaching. (I played with someone who had recently had foot surgery; we tried to fill in some gaps for him, but it was difficult for him to be as involved as some of the other players.) These aren’t so much problems with the game as things to be aware of when setting up. I’ve heard some reviewers say that they wouldn’t play with more than four or five players because of these logistical concerns. I disagree. I think the full 7- or 8-player game is a blast–it simply requires good planning. I will say, though, that there seems to be more for players to do and more careful planning required in a four-player game than in a seven-player game. Still, I don’t think I’d refuse the game at any count, which is saying something for a game that advertises play for 1-8.

Will you join the hall of fame?

The components in Magic Maze are mostly nice. The action and mall tiles are on thick cardboard, and the pawns are chunky and easy to move. The inclusion of “out of order” markers is helpful so you can remember which spaces you’ve already used. The one thing I’m less keen on is the stickers included to help with color blindness. These keep coming off the pieces and just get in the way. My recommendation, if you are not playing with anyone who is color blind, is to remove these stickers. However, they are a nice addition if you need them, and they do distinguish the pieces one from another. The illustrations in the game aren’t really my style, but they’re fine for what they are. This is merely a matter of taste: what was a turn off for me was a selling point to others in my group. I could do without the fantasy setting, too, but the mishmash of fantasy with shopping malls makes it a little more palatable. This is a nice package–a little spartan, but the game doesn’t come with (or need) extraneous components. The box is large enough to accommodate expansions (and one is already in the works), which will cheer some and exasperate others. And there is a poster to record epic wins for each scenario, which is a nice touch.

A deck of solo tiles is included with the game. It’s an extravagance and a nice inclusion.

The biggest extravagance that Magic Maze provides is a deck of seven tiles for the solitaire game. I suppose it’s becoming more common to provide solitaire components in game boxes, but it was still a surprise to find these tiles. And the solitaire game is fun. It’s still fast and frantic like the multiplayer game but in a different way. Instead of becoming frustrated with the other players’ inability to read your mind, you’re cursing your own feeble mind and meaty fingers for being too slow to accomplish the task at hand. The solitaire game plays quickly but takes up a good deal of table space. I’ve played several times, inching my way up to the full game, and I haven’t yet won without cheating. (The rules say to flip tiles using just one hand–you can’t hold the deck in your hand–and this one is too hard for me to police. It just happens.) It’s tough and just the right length to be addictive. I certainly prefer the multiplayer game for the energy it creates and the fun situations it provides, but the solitaire game is fun too–more maze than magic, but there are few “magic” solitaire games that are engrossing enough to want to play again and again and again.

Magic Maze’s “insert.” The box is far larger than needed, but it has room to grow.

The biggest question that remains for me about Magic Maze is will I still want to play it a year from now? I reviewed Escape: The Curse of the Temple (the game that most people think of when they first see Magic Maze) favorably when it was released, but I have since lost interest in it because frequent play resulted in a kind of rote exercise that made the spark of fun from the early forays and failures disappear. Last year’s Captain Sonar felt similar: it was fun until we got good at it. I fear a similar fate for Magic Maze. Even though there are ten different scenarios beyond the campaign tutorial to learn the game, I’m not certain the subtle variations in rules will hold my interest as groups continue to improve their tactics. Of course, when playing with different groups, a new learning process is required, so it can be fresh again just by changing the company. It plays differently with different player counts, too. And Magic Maze is quirky enough and fun enough that it’s a good game to show off to people wary of hobby games, so it has a utility beyond just games that hold my interest.

The fact remains that, even in the midst of longevity concerns, I have played Magic Maze sixteen times, and I haven’t lost interest yet. So while I can’t say, “I will always love this game!” or “This game will be an evergreen!” I can say that it is pure fun now, and if you, like me, are a fan of  cooperative games with a gimmick, you owe it to yourself to try Magic Maze. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Sit Down! for providing us with a copy of Magic Maze for review.

  • Rating 8.5
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Summary

Pros:

Solves the "quarterbacking" problem present in many cooperative games in a novel way
Has a unique hook (no talking or pointing!) for a cooperative game
The rules are simple and player actions are easy to understand
Game is pure fun to play

Cons:

Players averse to simultaneous actions or real-time play or players who are easily flustered will not likely enjoy this
Game gets easier as you play, even in more difficult scenarios
Longevity may be an issue

8.5 Puzzlicious

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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