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Preview: Spell Stealers

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Spell Stealers Dice

[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final, non-production prototype demo of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it; the final product may feature some variation in game play, art, and components.]

It’s no secret that I love dice. I revel in the randomness and there’s just something so satisfying about jiggling a bunch of dice in your hand and tossing them onto the table. That’s why I was interested in Spell Stealers, a game from Greg Santo, now on Kickstarter. It promised to be a press your luck dice game (a la Las Vegas or Can’t Stop), but with a stealing element that would keep all players engaged in the game, even when it wasn’t their turn.

So does Spell Stealers hold the promise of being another great addition to a dice lover’s collection? Here are my impressions after playing the prototype.

How It Plays

Spell Stealers is a press your luck dice rolling game for 2 – 6 players. You are a master thief racing to steal a powerful magic spell that’s hidden inside an enchanted temple. Be the first to get the spell and you will assure unlimited prosperity and power for your kingdom. All will sing your praises! (And you’ll win the game.) Fail at your mission and your kingdom will be, uh, worse off, and you’ll probably end up in the dungeon.

On your turn, you choose one of three artifact dice and roll it simultaneously with the success die in an attempt to obtain that artifact and its associated points. Each artifact die has a different probability of success and corresponding high or low points available. One is a four-sided pyramid (easiest), one is an eight-sided diamond, and the other is a twelve-sided orb (hardest). Each has green, yellow and/or red numbers on it. The success die is an eight-sided diamond with colored dots on it that match the colors on the artifact dice.

If the colors on the success die and the artifact die match, you have “obtained” that artifact. You earn the number of points shown on the artifact die and adjust your point tracker accordingly. (But do this quickly to keep the stealing window as short as possible, see below.) If they do not match, you have failed and your turn is over.

If you successfully obtain an artifact, you have two choices. You can end your turn and move your pawn ahead in the temple by the total number of artifact points you obtained on this turn, or you can press your luck. If you choose to press your luck, you repeat the rolling process. A successful match adds to your point total, while a failure means forfeiting any points you may have obtained up to this point and ending your turn.

While the current player is working to obtain artifacts, other players can attempt to steal any artifacts he successfully obtains. You may only attempt to steal once per round. (A handy, reversible steal token helps you keep track of whether or not you’ve used your steal for the round.)

Spell Stealers Steal Tokens
The Steal Tokens (front)

To steal an artifact, you roll your personal stealing die which matches the artifact die that the active player rolled. (So if the active player rolled the orb, you must roll your orb to steal, for example.) Your steal is successful if the number on your stealing die is higher than the number on the artifact die. You are awarded the points that the current player would have received and you move your pawn forward in the temple. The current player does not gain or lose anything, and may choose to either end their turn or press their luck.

Stealing must be timed correctly in order to be successful. The stealing window opens the moment the success and artifact dice leave the current player’s hand and you must steal before the current player finishes updating their point tracker and removes their hand from the point marker. Any steals outside of this window automatically fail.

Spell Stealers Steal Tokens (Back)
The Steal Tokens (back)

Steals may also fail for a variety of other reasons including stealing when you’ve already spent your steal for the round, stealing after another player has successfully stolen, stealing an artifact that wasn’t successfully obtained, and stealing with the wrong stealing die. If a steal attempt fails, you must move your pawn backward in the temple by the number shown on your stealing die.

The end game is triggered by the first person to reach or pass the 35th space in the temple. The final round is declared and all players get one more turn to try to pass the leader. The player deepest into the temple at the end of the final round is the winner. If there’s a tie, the tied players play one more round for the win.

 An Epic Heist or Petty Thievery

Spell Stealers is, as promised, a push-your-luck dice fest. If you hate this sort of game, you can stop reading right now because this game doesn’t change the genre. Even with the stealing component, it is still a luck-based dice game. The only things you can control or strategize are your decisions about whether to keep pressing your luck on your turn and whether to try to steal during an opponents’ turn. Whether or not any of your moves are successful is entirely reliant on the kindness of the dice gods. If this sort of thing bothers you, you won’t like Spell Stealers.

However, if you find this sort of game fun, Spell Stealers does offer a bit of a new twist with the stealing element that may set it apart from some other dice games. Whether you enjoy this twist or not is going to depend on your group and how much you enjoy chaos.

Having the ability to steal does keep you engaged in the game when it’s not your turn. Rather than just watching what other players are doing, you’re trying to calculate whether or not you should try to steal. You want to balance the need to steal very quickly with seeing what the other player rolled before you try to steal. Sure, you can throw your stealing dice just as the current player rolls their dice, but you won’t know whether the current player succeeded (if they fail, your steal fails, too), or how many points they got. It’s in your best interest to wait until the dice hit the table to steal, but then you have to do it before the other player processes their roll and moves their point marker. You have to think fast and move even faster to steal.

Spell Stealers Components
The pawns, artifact dice, and success die

This leads to a lot of chaos. And the larger your group, the more chaos you’re likely to experience. The game plays up to six, so if all five other players were to challenge at once, you’d have a bit of a mess. There is no defined procedure for sorting out who tried to steal first. Players must work it out amongst themselves. If you’ve got a group that wants to argue and can’t just go with the flow, things might get ugly. On the other hand, if you’ve got a group that can embrace it all good-naturedly then it can be fun.

The good news is that you can mitigate the chaos by playing with the two included variants. The first eliminates the speed aspect of stealing. In this variant, all players have the opportunity to steal before the current player moves their point marker. Spell Stealers is also ripe for house-ruling the stealing in any way you want. If you can think of a way to steal that works better for your group, go ahead and use it. You can also play without stealing entirely, although that will reduce the game to just another push-your-luck game. However, if that’s what you enjoy then go for it.

The second variant does not punish players for common mistakes such as stealing with the wrong die, stealing after you’ve already spent your steal for the round, or stealing an artifact that wasn’t successfully obtained. Thus, no one is punished for an “oops” moment and the game is more forgiving.

If you employ one or both of these variants you’ll still have player interaction, but you’ll cut way down on the arguments and hurt feelings. The variants are also great if you’re playing with children who can’t think and roll as fast as the adults, or who have trouble keeping track of the stealing rules.

Spell Stealers Rulebook
A peek inside the rulebook

The only drawback I found to the game is that it doesn’t seem to be well suited to just two players. It works fine and isn’t broken, but it’s just not as exciting as it is with more. With just the two of us, we found that we hardly bothered trying to steal. Why? Because there’s little reward in doing so and a lot of risk. If a steal fails, you have to move backward in the temple, but if you press your luck and don’t succeed you stay where you are. With just the two of us, the safer strategy was just to keep pressing our luck on our own turns rather than risking a failed steal. If one player gets too far ahead because you failed to steal and took a big backward leap, you need miracle dice rolls to catch back up. One failed steal can seal your doom and it’s safer not to bother.   

With more players, however, the stealing component is more useful and more fun. It’s still risky, but in a larger group it balances out better. A failed steal isn’t necessarily the end of the world in a larger group because someone else will probably fail, too. It’s more of a back and forth race with more players than with two. I’d have a hard time recommending this game if you’re only ever going to play with two players, but if you have more and can embrace the chaos it really begins to shine.

The theme is a bit abstract. The “trekking through a temple” theme comes out in some ways, but not in others. The dice, which are supposed to represent artifacts, only feature numbers. From what I’ve seen on the Kickstarter page, there are no plans to change this in the final production copy. The board, however, does look like a temple and is well done. I’m told that this artwork is very close to final. The meeples are simple pawns rather than detailed minis. Functional, but not elaborate. If you want a game dripping with theme, this one’s not quite there. Theme may not matter much to you, though, if you just want to sling dice because there is a lot of that in the game.

Spell Stealers Setup
Game ready to play!

Spell Stealers is a simple game to learn and play. You can explain it to a non-gamer in less than ten minutes, maybe less than five if they’re fairly astute. It’s also very fast. The box suggests twenty minutes, but most of our two player games were closer to fifteen. I can see it being a good filler, or for getting non-gamers to the table. It’s very accessible to most age groups, as well. The box suggests ages eight and up, but I think younger kids would be able to grasp it, especially if the adults help them with the stealing and/or use some of the included variants that can make the game a bit easier. Kids would probably also enjoy the artwork, especially the characters on the stealing tokens.With the player interaction, chaos, simple rules, and large player count, Spell Stealers can also function as a party game.

If you like press-your-luck dice games, Spell Stealers might be right up your alley. It’s a good entry into the genre and the stealing twist gives it a little extra oomph over some other press-your-luck titles. With its easy accessibility, portability, and wide range of player counts and ages, it could have a home in almost any game group.

Spell Stealers is currently seeking funds on Kickstarter.  The project will run through Monday, November 17th.  If you’re interested in getting a copy of the game for yourself, head over to the campaign page and make at least a $34 pledge ($30 if you get in on the Early Bird Special), which includes U.S. domestic shipping.

This article is a paid promotion.

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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