Buzzworthiness: 12 Realms

Thanks to MAGE Company for providing a review copy of this game.

Here’s a review of a cooperative game whose next expansion will soon be up on Kickstarter:

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

12 Realms was originally published as a print-and-play game in 2010 by designer Ignazio Corrao, and then was picked up and published by MAGE Company in 2013.  The game is for 1-6 players, takes 90 minutes to play, and is for ages 8 and up.  The idea is that you are playing different heroes of the 12 Realms, a fantasy land inhabited by Snow White, D’Artagnan, The Nutcracker, Joan of Arc, and others.  The forces of darkness are encroaching on the area, and it’s your job to stop them.

The base game comes with four realm boards, which may seem odd for a game called 12 Realms, but this way there’s room for expansions.  Each board has its own 19 card deck.  There’s also 8 hero miniatures, 4 Black Fortress miniatures, 41 town cards, 12 event cards, 4 invasion markers, 2 custom dice, 40 plastic coins, and over 200 tokens representing the Invaders, Treasures, Artefacts, and Dark Lords.  And no, I did not misspell artifact – there’s actually an explanation in the FAQs as to why it is spelled that way.

In the beginning of the game, you choose one Realm board per player – the Fairy Forest, Cherry Blossom, Silver Kingdom, and Isle of Bones are all available in the base game.  For a 5-6 player game, you still will only be doing four Realms because, well, that’s all there are.  Take each deck belonging to those Realms and remove the two Dark Lords.  Choose which one you want to fight, and discard the other one.  The remaining cards are shuffled together with those from all the Realms in play to form the Realm Deck.  Each player then chooses a hero – Red Riding Hood, Snow White, D’Artagnan, Robin Hood, The Nutcracker, The Sugar Plum Fairy, Siegfried, or Jeanne d’Arc are all available in this base game.  Each hero will go in the town area of one of the Realms, and collects the red Talent tokens to match the skills shown on their card.  An Artefact and two Treasures are seeded on each Realm, and then you’re ready to play.

The first thing that happens in each round is the Invasion.  First, you look to see how many Invaders are present in each Realm, then advance the invasion marker that many spaces.  If any present Invaders have persistent powers, you resolve them at this time.  Then you draw two cards per Realm plus one (in other words, five with two players, nine with four).  Each Invader, Treasure, or Artefact shown on each card is then placed in the appropriate Realm by rolling the Area die – this will tell you the number of the area the piece appears in.

Now the heroes take their turns, one at a time.  On your turn, you may exploit (spend) your Talent tokens to do various tasks.  The one you’ll be using most is Swiftness (a wing symbol).  Spend one to move to an adjacent area.  If in town, spend one to draw two Town cards, then you may purchase one.  The other Talents will generally be used to defeat Invaders and collect Treasures and Artefacts – each token shows what must be exploited to defeat/collect it.  For example, you may see a sword, a heart, or a star on an Invader.  In this case, you must exploit a Combat talent, a Charm talent, or a Magic talent to defeat it.  You can also choose to move from the town of one Realm to the town of another, but this ends your turn.

Once you’re out of Talents, or just can’t (or won’t) do anything else, your turn ends and it’s the next player’s turn.  Once all players have had a turn, the whole process starts over with the Invasion.

When the invasion marker hits 16 on a Realm’s invasion track, the Realm’s Dark Lord appears in a random area.  You must hold all three Artefacts from that Realm to defeat the Dark Lord, and must have the required Talents.  To be clear, the active player needs all three Artefacts, but another hero in his space can share Talents needed to defeat the Dark Lord.  Trades of Artefacts and Gold with players in your same space can be done freely.

If you defeat all Dark Lords from all Realms, you win.  If any invasion track reaches 20, you lose.

There are several variants in the game to increase the complexity.  One is a Dark Player who basically controls the forces of evil – instead of randomly determining where Invaders pop up, the Dark Player places them.  He also gets some event cards to further mess with the players.  Another variant involves the Black Fortresses, which appear when the invasion track hits 7.  The Black Fortress comes out in a random area, and all future Invaders will spawn from there.  Additionally, no Invader in the same area as the Black Fortress can be defeated until the Black Fortress is taken out – you need three Combat or three Magic to win that battle.

image by BGG user exa1zar2ius3
image by BGG user exa1zar2ius3

COMPONENTS: This game looks really good.  The art is really lovely, the miniatures are high quality, and the overall quality of the components is really good.  I especially like the coins – they are a light plastic, but make a satisfying clinking sound as you move them around.  In the picture above, you see some painted minis and buildings – these are available as extra purchases, but you certainly don’t need them to enjoy the game.  The included minis are very good – heroes and black fortresses.

There are a couple of design choices I question.  The one that bugs me the most is the use of Roman numerals on the area die.  Yes, it makes it unique, but you get the issue of confusing IV with VI.  It comes up all the time.  And since the boards are not uniformly laid out, you may have to hunt for the number you’re looking for.  The numbers are right smack in the middle of each region, and tokens tend to congregate right on top of them, so you’ll inevitably have to move stuff aside as you’re looking.

The other thing that could possibly have been done better is the layout of the Invader tokens.  Each Invader has a specific thing that is needed to defeat them, and this is indicated on the token.  Which is good – it’s a nice reference when you’re looking at the board.  However, some Invaders have other effects – you gain a coin when you defeat them, they spawn a new one next turn if not defeated this time, etc. – and the only way to know that is to keep the card nearby for reference.  There’s no indication on the token.  These tokens are not really big enough for all that information, and that’s fine, but if you have an Invader with several options to defeat them, those are spread out all over the token.  So it’s easy to miss something, or to get confused and think that you get a reward for defeating them.

There are a couple of other design issues I have that I’ll bring up in other parts of this review.  For now, though, the quality of components here is top-notch.

THEME: This is a game that is set in a fantasy storybook world, and that’s great.  It leaves the door open for a whole lot of creativity, and a whole lot of flexibility for future expansions.  But the character choices here are a little odd to me.  It’s like there’s no theme to the theme.  It’s a weird mix of fairy tale, literature, and legend.  Then you’ve got Joan of Arc, who was a real person.  And D’Artagnan and Robin Hood are animals, while everyone else is human.  It feels a little like a bunch of thematic ideas were thrown in a box, shaken up, and drawn out randomly.  This might be the point, but it kind of takes me out of the experience.  There’s nothing that really makes me say “This is why Snow White has these skills” or “This is what makes the Isle of Bones unique.”  The art is evocative enough to give you some sense of story, but I feel that the overall theme could use some tightening up.  I will say this may be a matter of personal preference as others I have played with really enjoyed the theme.

MECHANICS: This game is primarily meant as a cooperative experience.  While there is the potential for a dark player working against everyone, there’s no real traitor mechanism in the basic game.  Everything is out in the open, but the way the mechanics are set up, it’s very difficult to help others out.  You have to end your turn when moving between realms, unless you have some special ability that will help you out.  This increases the difficulty of the game, but it’s not really that complex of a game.

One of the most interesting parts of this game to me is the action selection method for each player.  The characters all have a set of permanent talents they can use on their turn, and once you’ve used a talent, you simply move the token to the side so you know it’s not available anymore.  As you play, there’s the capability to add new talents, and also the possibility of adding one-time use talents that can be saved until you’re in a pinch.  This is a kind of leveling up capability in the game, and I think it’s pretty cool.  Each character has a different set of talents, and possibly even a special ability they can use at the cost of some talents.  There’s a real resource management aspect that creates a kind of puzzle-solving atmosphere, and I like it.

The distribution of Invaders at the beginning of each round is random, but that increases the tension of the game.  Ideally, Invaders will be evenly distributed and will attack everyone equally.  But that never happens.  You’ll get one realm that only has treasures and artefacts, another who gets nothing, and another who gets slammed with monsters all at once.  Since there are 17 cards from each realm in the deck, getting nothing on a turn just increases the likelihood that you’ll get hit with a giant clump later. You do need the timer to advance because you can’t win until the big bad is defeated, but you don’t want things to get out of control so the big bad appears before you’re ready.  So this is another interesting aspect of the mechanics in the game.

Town cards can be purchased to give you benefits.  When you go shopping, you have to choose between two cards.  Some of these cards give you new permanent abilities, some give you one time abilities, some give you money, some help you travel.  Some can be burned in order to gain another benefit, such as taking out Invaders or moving between realms.  Sometimes you’ll draw cards that you can’t afford or don’t need, and it’s difficult to say no and keep your money, especially when you’ve spent a swiftness to go shopping – you don’t want to come away empty handed, but sometimes you need to.

STRATEGY LEVEL: There is a significant amount of luck involved in how Invaders are distributed – it’s entirely possible that they’ll come out in massive numbers for one realm and hardly at all for another.  But the major strategy point is just figuring out how to deal with the way the cards are coming out.  It’s cooperative, and it can feel like you’re by yourself in your own realm.  However, trying to figure out how to move around and help out in overly afflicted realms is a big point in the game.  How to use your actions may seem obvious in regards to what is on the board, but it is all about optimization.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is a fairly light game, on the gateway end of the spectrum.  Once you get a handle on how everything works, it’s pretty easy to understand game flow.  There are a few barriers to accessibility, and one of these is the iconography.  A lot of times, games will use symbols instead of text to make it more marketable in foreign languages – it’s a lot easier to reprint the rules than all the different pieces that need translated text.  However, sometimes this comes at a cost.  If you end up writing sentences with your symbols, it’s going to be a problem.  12 Realms falls into this trap with some of the symbols that describe actions, particularly on the town cards.  There is a guide in the rules as to what everything means on its own, but they’re not very intuitive, and you’ll be constantly referring back to the rules to make sure you interpreted something correctly.  I see this as something that might deter people from wanting to play what is otherwise a fairly simple game.

The other barrier to accessibility that I see is all the stuff.  I hate the word “fiddly” when its thrown around in game reviews, but I can see it applying here.  Each realm has its own set of tokens, and each token corresponds to the cards in that realm deck.  So when the card comes out of the deck, you have to find the matching token, then figure out where to put it out on the board.  My solution for this is to put one person in charge of each realm, and as the card comes out of the deck, they can find the matching token so they’re ready when the area die is rolled.

To the game’s credit, they do offer a number of ways to scale the difficulty.  There are a number of variants that might make things easier or more difficult, and there’s even a suggested setup for each level of difficulty you may want.

SCALABILITY: This game is for 1-6 players, but with the base game, I’d probably stop at 4.  With 5 or 6, you run into having two heroes in some realms, and that will make the game much simpler.  If you must play with 5, use the Dark Player variant (which I have not tried and don’t know exactly how that would change things).  I have tried the game solo, and it makes for a pretty good experience.  With 3 and 4 players, there’s a little down time between turns, but it’s not too bad, and you can use that time to strategize as a group.

REPLAYABILITY: Because of the variable setup, this game has some good replayability.  This includes the different levels of difficulty, the different ways the Invaders come out, and the different abilities of each hero.  However, it’s not infinitely replayable.  I think there will come a point where you’ve discovered everything the base game has to offer.

INTERACTION: As I mentioned before, direct interaction is pretty low until you start moving to other realms.  Then you can share talents and money.  Until that point, most of the interaction just comes in discussing strategy.  This is a game that will be prone to Alpha Gamer Syndrome if you have anyone susceptible to that, which is another reason I like to keep one person in charge of each realm.

FOOTPRINT: This game does take up some space, between each player’s personal area and the main board.  However, you can work it out and play on a medium size table.

LEGACY: This is a pretty light cooperative game, and probably falls into the category of being one that is acceptable to play with children.  I think kids would really respond to the theme, and the gameplay is simultaneously simple enough to understand while offering enough of a challenge that I think kids will enjoy it a lot.  It’s not as streamlined as something like Forbidden Island, but it’s also a different type of experience that can help teach skills of resource management, cooperation, and thinking ahead.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I really have gone back and forth with what I think about this game.  What it boils down to for me is, can I recommend it?  And where I’ve finally landed is that, for what it is, 12 Realms is a game I can recommend.  If you’re looking for deep, look elsewhere.  If you want a light puzzle type game that can be enjoyed by families, take a look.  It’s got a great look to the components, and I’ve had good experiences each time I’ve tried it.  There are certainly problems with it, but on my Yeah-Meh-Bleah scale, I’ll give it a


But wait, there’s more!

image by BGG user exa1zar2ius3
image by BGG user exa1zar2ius3

Ancestors Legacy was the first expansion to 12 Realms, Kickstarted last year and pulling in $107,571.  This expansion was originally due to be released in February, but has been pushed back to the end of this month.  As part of my review, MAGE Company sent me a prototype version of some of the components for the expansion.  This included a couple of the new realms, a few of the new characters, and some of the plots that will be included in the final version.  Because I was sent a prototype, I will not be doing a full review of this expansion.  However, I can give you my thoughts based on what I have seen.

Ancestors Legacy comes with 11 new Heroes – Achnaton, Andromeda, King Arthur, Merlin, Nefertiti, Perseus, Ruslan, Scheherezade, Sindbad, Prince Ivan and a Snow Wolf (these last two are companions and should be played together).  Each has their own unique special properties, and each has its own little miniature.  You also get four new Realms – The Kievan Empire, The Golden Caliphate, The Nile Valley, and Olympia – and a 19 card deck for each.  There are 100 new Invader and Dark Lord tokens, 4 more Fortresses and Invasion markers, 40 additional Talent tokens, and 10 poison tokens.  These can all be combined into the basic game.  But the main focus of this expansion is the new plots, and there are specific tokens to go with each – 30 squirrels, 5 nests, 6 Ninja cards, a Pantheon miniature, 12 Pantheon cards, one Pantheon token, 6 Witch tokens, a Pyramid miniature, 10 tablet cards, 30 pyramid cards, one pyramid token, 8 magic carpet tiles, 5 trap tokens, 5 talent tokens, and 2 magic lamp tokens.

So, here’s what happens in each of the plots:

SQUIRREL RAIDERS: The Realms have been invaded by Squirrels.  Not cute and cuddly squirrels, mind you, but evil warrior Squirrels with a thirst for blood.  Your job is to rid the Realms of these invaders before time runs out.  This plot requires 4-5 players, one of the active Realms must be the Fairy Forest, and Red Riding Hood or Robin Hood must be in play.  Once an Invasion marker reaches 7, the Squirrels invade the Realm (no Black Fortresses in this one).  The area die determines the location of the nest, and one Squirrel is placed in each other area of the board, including the town.  Also, one of the Dark Lords appears in a random area.  The second one will appear at 16.  These guys are NOT the focus of this plot, and defeating them is unnecessary.  Defeating the second one does NOT lock the area.

What you have to do is capture all the Squirrels of each Realm back to their respective nests.  You can’t take one to another Realm.  If you challenge an Invader with Poison, Blast, Sorcery, or Curse while carrying a Squirrel, you lose it.  If a Squirrel is in the same area as a Dark Lord, you must defeat the Dark Lord first.  Squirrels do not count as Invaders, but capturing them all does not lock the Realm.  The only way to stop the onslaught is to return all Squirrels to their nests.  This adds an extra annoying challenge that must be dealt with as you try to clean up the Realms.

DOUBLE CHALLENGE: You need 5 players for this plot, and must defeat two Dark Lords (and a Black Fortress) in two of the five Realms.  One of the Realms has to be The Kievan Empire, and you need either Ruslan or the Prince Ivan/Snow Wolf pair in play.  There’s a building in each Realm (except for the Kievan empire), which means there’s an extra town deck available for the Realms.  At the start of the game, you can roll the Talent die and area die for each player.  The Talent die will give you an extra Talent of the type shown, but at the cost of advancing the Invasion marker the number shown on the area die.  You don’t have to take it, in which case you don’t advance the Invasion marker.  Also, there’s two face up town cards you can choose from when purchasing, or draw two as in the usual game.

The rest of the game is basically the same as the base game.  The first Dark Lord comes out with the Black Fortress when the Invasion marker reaches 7, and the second Dark Lord comes out when the marker reaches 16.  As in the basic game, you must defeat the Black Fortress before defeating any Invaders (including the Dark Lord) in the same area.  This is a plot that could easily be used with the basic game, though you wouldn’t have The Kievan Empire.

FIND THE NINJA: One of the heroes has been replaced by an evil Ninja, and you must find him before time runs out.  This is a 5-6 player plot, one of the Realms must be Cherry Blossom, and the Nutcracker or Merlin must be one of the heroes in play.  You don’t use Artefacts in this plot – they are not needed to defeat the Dark Lords.  The game plays much like the basic game.  When the Invasion track reaches 7, a Black Fortress and Dark Lord appears.  When you destroy the Black Fortress, draw a Ninja card.  This will identify you as a good guy or the Ninja.  Keep it secret until you are ousted or until the Cherry Blossom track reaches 16, at which point you must reveal and go to that Realm to protect the Dark Lord.

To accuse someone of being a Ninja, you must roll the talent die four times and then exploit the matching Talents.  If you cannot, the accused player doesn’t reveal themselves.  If so, you know who they are, and must vanquish them.  You need to exploit eight random Talents to win the fight against the Ninja, so you’ll probably need a coordinated attack.  The only way to beat this scenario is to destroy the Ninja.  The Ninja wins if any track reaches 20.  You knew they’d have to find a way to get a traitor mechanism in there somehow.

PANTHEON PATH: In this plot, you are trying to collect Artefacts from different Realms before entering the Pantheon.  This is a 4-5 player scenario that uses Olympia as one of the Realms, and either Perseus or Andromeda must be in play.  As in the other variants, the first Dark Lord and Black Fortress appear at 7, and the second Dark Lord appears at 16, but defeating them doesn’t end the game.

The Pantheon is a building in Olympia.  In the Pantheon, you can exploit a swiftness talent and a gold coin to buy one of the 12 Pantheon cards.  You only get one per game. Otherwise, you’re traveling around to the different Realms, trying to get one Artefact from each location.  Only two players have to collect an Artefact from each Realm, then return to the Pantheon to turn them in.  As soon as you enter the Pantheon with all Artefacts and exploit a swiftness and a gold coin, you are done.  You don’t play anymore.  If two players do this, you win.  If any Invasion track reaches 20, you lose.  This is a plot that really encourages traveling around to different Realms as you play.

CHASE THEIR BROOMS: Witches are invading the Realms and attempting to block out the sun!  This is a 4-6 player plot, uses the Silver Kingdom, and you need either Sugar Plum Fairy or Joan of Arc.  The Dark Lord and Black Fortress come out at 7, but as soon as the first combo comes out, so do all the witches.  They fly to a random area of each Realm.  At the beginning of each round, all uncaptured witches fly to a new random area in the same Realm.  They also serve as an Invader, increasing the Invasion track by one.

To trap a witch, you need Pegasus or the Flying Pig (town cards) to bring her down.  Then Sugar Plum or Joan must go to that Realm and exploit a random talent to trap the witch.  Once all witches are captured, you win.  However, as always, if any track reaches 20, you lose.  The random movement of the witches adds some unpredictability, and you have to work together to beat the plot since Sugar Plum and Joan are not allowed to buy the Flying Pig or Pegasus.

PYRAMID OF TIME: This plot is all about getting the Invasion track to a particular number.  It’s a 5-6 player plot, uses the Nile Valley, and requires Ancheton or Nefertiti.  At the start of the game, one tablet card is drawn for each Realm.  This specifies the exact Invasion track number needed to lock the Realm.  Also, you will designate two players to be in charge of drawing the Pyramid cards, and one who will be responsible for activating them in order to trigger the Tablet for the realm.

When one of the two Pyramid heroes is in the area with the Pyramid in the Nile Valley, he may draw a Pyramid card.  Only one may be drawn per round.  They then must give the Pyramid cards collected to the hero responsible for activating them.  You then use the Pyramid cards to adjust the Invasion marker in order to complete the Tablet Spell – you need to use at least three Pyramid cards to do this.  This one seems really hard because of the amount of stuff you need – at least 15 Pyramid cards with 5 realms.

THE FORGOTTEN LAMP: The Forgotten Lamp has been split in two pieces and must be recovered.  Djinns are roaming the land and complicating things by putting magic carpets in your way.  This is a three player scenario, The Golden Caliphate must be one of the Realms, and one of the heroes must be Arthur or Siegfried.  At the beginning of the game, you put two carpets randomly in each Realm, as well as three face down plot tokens.  Magic carpets switch areas at the beginning of each round.  Whenever you move into an area with a magic carpet, it will whisk you away to a random area in a different Realm of your choice.  This also happens if a magic carpet moves into the area where you are.  Your hero stands on the carpet in its resting place, meaning it can’t whisk other heroes away if they enter that area behind you.

After emptying an area of Invaders, Treasures, and Magic Carpets, you may flip a plot token there.  It may be a new skill for you.  It may be a trap (poison, invasion increase, a new Realm card, lose a Town card).  It also may be one piece of the magic lamp.  One hero needs to have both halves for you to win.  This adds a ton of chaos to the system as it’s unpredictable where you’ll go and what will happen once you’re there.

From the look of this expansion, I think it fixes a lot of problems with the base game.  I think it really increases the replayability, and also the complexity in the plots.  Some plots are easier than others, which is good to keep it in the target market.  But that Forgotten Lamp plot seems brutal, as does the Pyramid of Time.  The Ninja plot adds a traitor element, and there’s opportunities to fight two Dark Lords per Realm in every plot.  So I think this is definitely a worthwhile purchase for fans of the game, as well as people who might have found the original a little lacking.

But wait, there’s MORE!

image by BGG user freeleash
image by BGG user freeleash

Bedtime Story is the latest expansion for the 12 Realms system.  The Kickstarter campaign launched today, and gives you more of everything – more heroes, more Realms, more plots, more miniatures, more more more.  If you want to see ALL the stuff that’s going into this expansion, you can check out the Kickstarter preview link.  You can get the expansion for $55, or you can get the base game PLUS the expansion for $100, or you can get the base game PLUS Ancestors Legacy PLUS Bedtime Story PLUS Ghost Town (which is another expansion I haven’t talked about) for $140.  And if you want all of that with hand-painted minis, that will run you $200.  The campaign runs until June 19 and is already funded, so check it out.

That will do it for this review.  Thanks again to Mage Company for providing a review copy of 12 Realms, and thanks to you for reading!


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