Black Rose Wars is a 2019 release from Ludus Magnus Studios. It is a 2-4 player arena combat game where players’ will race around the Black Rose Lodge hurling spells at each other. Summoning various beasties to do their bidding and wizard punching each other until a winner is crowned. The winner of a game of black rose wars is the player who has the most points when the game end is triggered. Points can be earned by battling other players, completing quests, triggering events or destroying rooms within the arena.
The premise of the game is that the players are controlling mages who are trying to become the next chosen of The Black Rose, an ancient sentient artefact held within the Black Rose Lodge. Each player will start with one of 12 basic decks and over the course of the game will be able to acquire new spells from any of 6 regular and one special school of magic. Each of these schools have spells themed around different ideas such as destruction or necromancy with the special, forgotten, school having the most powerful spells in the game.
The manual gives you a nice background on each of the schools as well as giving some hints to which schools’ spells may work well together, though it is up to the player to figure out quite how. The cards themselves have 2 halves with only one half being usable at a time, think Gloomhaven. The two abilities are generally similar but offer just enough differences to be useful in several situations.
Spelling it out
Each turn will see the players gaining new spells to add to their deck. Choosing which spells from their hand to play and then in action phase moving around the arena and firing off these chosen spells. There is a fair bit of strategy to the game. As each turn the players must play the spells that they want to use face down in the order they will be used. With one extra card played as a quick spell that can be used when it is most opportune.
This gives the game an aspect of programming though it is not as rigid as that found in games like robo-rally or colt express as you do have the option to discard a planned spell card in favour of a single move if you find yourself in a position where your plans have gone sort of awry. Leaving your next planned spell useless or you always have the option to cast your quick spell instead. However, it is pretty awesome when you have the right cards then correctly predict your opponent’s actions and end up countering their attacks while unleashing all manner of havoc around yourself and scooping up more points than you could shake a wand at.
Each round you also have twophysical actions. These allow you to move or punch your opponent. Sometimes both, and then activate your current room. Each of the rooms has a special ability which range from sending players back to their starting room to allowing you to gain one of the single use forgotten spells from the central black rose room. It allows for some nice planning when you can chain your physical actions and room activation's to achieve that little bit more on your turn. Each room can only be activated once per round. You have to be quick to get to the rooms you want to use so you don’t miss out.
The players aren’t the only ones racking up points though. The black rose, the game itself, also gets points for damaging the players and when events come into and leave play. This means that the game keeps moving forwards between its different moon phases. The moon phases are the three gears the game though. There are three phases of these with game starting with new moon then moving to half-moon and finally full moon. The event and quest decks are split up into 3 smaller decks to match these phases and as the players or the black rose pass certain score values on the track, the decks are switched to the next level of decks and I do mean next level.
As each moon phase passes, the rewards for completing a quest get larger. But the quests that turn up are now trickier to pull off. The events which started off as a minor inconvenience can now really change up how the game plays. The event and quest decks are pretty large compared to the number that come out each game. This means there is a lot of variety here. There are several iterations of the same sort of idea. Such as “Activate a red room” or “kill this type of creature” but there is enough diversity to keep it fresh.
Not so miniatures
As this game was a kickstarter campaign I’m sure it will be shock to nobody that there are a lot of incredible looking miniatures in this game, big ones. And they are incredible. We’re not talking games workshop incredible, but I would definitely say that they are on a par with anything from CMON or Awaken Realms. Most of the models are for the evocations that the mages can summon to do their bidding. The base game has eight different evocations with 7 of them having their own models, the last one has a large cardboard token for it.
That said, a quick look on the kickstarter campaign page suggests that there is a model coming in the future for this omission, so watch this space! The evocations themselves are pretty standard fare, they can move and hit with a few special abilities thrown in to differentiate them. One problem I have noticed with them is that due to them all having only a few health points they tend not to last very long and as they activate after the player phase it is completely possible to conjure up your own little ghoulish task force only to have them all obliterated by an opponent before you get to use them, which can be frustrating. But you can always make more next turn!
The other components that really caught my eye were the player boards and room tiles. They are double layered with recesses to allow you to safely place all of your allotted damage cubes. And there will be a lot of those flying around the table. Spells will damage your opponents which will have you dishing out your damage cubes until there is room for no more and your opponent is defeated. Then the players are awarded points depending on how much damage they each inflicted on the fallen mage with a trophy going to the player that performed the final blow.
It is almost an area control game where the player them self becomes one of the areas that the other players are vying for control of. Then the mage will be born again in their starting room ready to get straight back into the thick of it. The rooms that make up the board can also be destroyed by placing instability tokens on them, with instability generally coming from powerful spells or some special abilities. Once a room is destroyed it can no longer be activated and the player who dealt the most damage will get a nice chunky bonus at the end of the game.
It’s not all magic
The box suggests that the game should take about 90 minutes to play, which I would say is a little bit of a fib. I would say somewhere between 2-3 hours is probably a bit closer to the mark. It doesn’t feel long when you are playing and it does rachet up in pace once the third phase quests and events start coming out. Unfortunately though, this isn’t the only component of the game that I had issues with. The manual had a few spelling errors in it, nothing major but it did make learning the game a little trickier.
Some of the cards also have errors or odd translations on them which can cause a bit of confusion. Luckily, the spell book reference cleared a lot of that up, but again, a bit jarring. There is a some symbology to learn on the cards that explain how the spell targeting works and if the spell is elemental, which comes into effect with certain gameplay events, or if it will make a room unstable. It can be a bit much to get started with which leads me on to something I felt the game really lacked. The one component I really noticed the absence of was a turn overview helper for the players. There are a lot of phases in a turn of black rose wars and six different combinations of action that can be taken during a players action phase.
It’s a lot to remember and a player aid with this printed on Along with a list of the symbology used on the spells, this would make those early games go a lot smoother and would have been very much appreciated. It’s made more noticeable by the fact there is a reference for the room abilities, but nothing else. Lastly, some of the components are tricky to read at a glance. The player scoring tokens and trophies earn for defeating a mage are very similar with the trophies having a big blood splatter across them which makes seeing who the mage is underneath tricky.
The setting is also a bit of let down, or at least the way it comes across in the game. The manual and the spell book paint a picture of a really nice setting of an alternate history Italy where magic users are chased by the holy inquisition of the Roman church and have to move in secret but you don’t get any of that coming across in the game. Also the four mages in the box all have very different looking miniatures with cool art work, but as there is only one unique spell for each of them and otherwise they play nearly identically, they just came across as generic fire guy and necromancer lady, which is a shame and a bit of a missed opportunity.
A rose by any other name
The game has a lot of things to keep track of. You need to keep an eye on the health of your opponents, looking for a time to strike to maybe try to finish them off for that sweet trophy or just damage them a bit more so you can get a few extra points. Especially as with some spells you can switch the colour of the damage cubes dealt to another player which can drastically move things in your favour. You need to watch the state of the rooms, you can reach pretty much anywhere on the board in a single round of the game.
Each room can only be activated once per round so you need to make sure it’s still available or that it won’t be destroyed before you get there. You need to finish your quests so you can draw the newer, more lucrative quests. You need to pay attention to the events which will switch up the rules of the game too. There are a lot of plates in the air. I don’t want to come across as if I didn’t enjoy the game, I did, I am planning to play it again very soon and everybody I played it with said they would definitely play it again if I brought it to the table.
The nice thing is that with the modular board and massive selection of spells, events and quests there is a lot of replayability here. But it is a pretty complex game for what is essentially a spell slinging arena combat game. It doesn’t help that another game, Adrenaline, does pretty much the same arena combat thing, albeit without the events, the quests and with the deckbuilding limited to just three cards. But it does do it in the 90 minutes that Black Rose Wars claims to take and you still get the same sort of fast paced, for a board game, combat.
I’ll be honest, if I was playing with somebody who was newer to boardgames and likes the idea of a deathmatch game, I would choose to play Adrenaline with them. The learning curve is not as steep and there is a lot less to keep track of. But, if they enjoyed that and felt like they would try something with a little more depth, I would definitely ask them if they had ever considered becoming the grand master of order of The Black Rose.