Leading the Charge, the latest expansion to the skirmish game Disney Sorcerer’s Arena, has entered the fray, bringing with it three new commanding characters to control and a host of new playstyles to learn, master, and combine with the heroes and villains across all the game’s previous sets, not to mention those releasing in the future.
It’s expected that an expansion… well, expands the base game, and Leading the Charge does not disappoint in that regard: this is perhaps the most technically accomplished addition to the game’s mechanics yet. Elsa freezes the competition with her ice magic and protects herself with the new ‘Invulnerable’ keyword, negating all damage dealing effects. Buzz Lightyear blasts off with the widest array of ranged attacks in the game so far thanks to his laser (or is it a little lightbulb that blinks?). Finally, the dastardly Scar brings the biggest shakeup to Sorcerer’s Arena’s foundations with the ability to manipulate opponents’ victory points.
We saw in our review of the previous expansion that developer The OP Games - now that they’re clear of the starting blocks of the base set - are becoming more and more confident leaning hard into characters’ personalities and movie moments, matching these with intricate mechanics that make them feel truly unique.
It would be generous to say that Elsa *focuses* on card draw, but it’s certainly a key part of her combat style. Appropriate to her personality, it’s hard to melt the icy exterior of her more nuanced strategy to reach her true power beneath the surface. She’s definitely not a character for beginners, and it’s those she teams up with who will either enhance her powers or quash them altogether; her deck is almost entirely magic cards, but her once-per-turn Skill relies on revealing non-magic ones. She works best as a supporter from the sidelines, ramping up your squad’s card draw as the real heavy hitters like Sulley or Gaston charge ahead first. She therefore doesn’t really feel mechanically appropriate for the base set’s title, despite being a leading lady narrative-wise.
Buzz Lightyear, on the other hand, like the disciplined Space Ranger he is, feels by far the tightest to play of all the characters in the game so far. He’s arguably the first true ranged hero in the game, and the abundance of far-reaching attacks means you’ll always get some sort of hit in. However, because a majority deal only 1 damage (narratively reflecting his smaller size as a toy), his skill ceiling is dictated by your ability to effectively position him around the battlefield. Luckily, plenty of his movement cards allow for ducking into combat, pinging a few rivals with your laser, then darting out of harm’s way again. I can’t recall a single turn with Buzz where he didn’t feel nimble and effective, with pinpoint accuracy befitting a captain of Star Command.
Scar’s playstyle feels the most backstabbing by far, which is one of the most thematically appropriate things you could hope to say about this expansion! Where previously victory spaces sort of fell by the wayside in terms of a worthwhile path to success, acting more as a bonus couple of points here and there if you felt like it or positioned particularly craftily, Scar has single-handedly shattered that status quo, echoing his hostile takeover of the Pridelands. If there’s a card that truly embodies his villainy, it’s ‘Devious Plot’, which allows him to deal 5 damage to a rival *or* ally, giving that character’s summoner three victory points if it defeats them. I won a recent match by KO’ing my own teammate to secure victory; this top cat, without a doubt, feels like the most thoroughly evil character in the game, even alongside such iniquitous icons as Maleficent and Dr Facilier.
Bringing Up The Rear
My main issue with Leading the Charge is the fact that while the new characters certainly bring some zest to the arena, these character packs aren’t fixing any of the shortcomings the base game had, namely in the eponymous arena itself. With this marking the third of these small box expansions, and two more on the horizon, a second Starter Set is becoming not just a want, but a need. It’s hard not to compare this to Unmatched, as I have many times in my reviews; the two games are my joint favourites in my collection, and are also both arena skirmish games based on established fictional characters. For a while, the higher ease of access found in Sorcerer’s Arena - without compromising on strategic depth - saw it pulling ahead. But now, I compare the bland, function-over-form of Arena’s game board to the dozens of maps of varying size, shape, visual flair and mechanics offered by Unmatched, and see the latter live up to its name once more.
Card names in Sorcerer’s Arena, too, are becoming a bone of contention for me. For the most part, all the quotable lines and moments are there. But it can sometimes feel like some truly obvious opportunities are missed, such as the lack of a “Long live the king” card or ability for Scar, and no “Falling with style” in sight for Buzz.
This next gripe comes down to personal preference, but I think it’s a shame that Elsa is solely her Frozen 2 version. This robs us of any “Let it Go” references; surely a combination of both movies would have been a more complete embodiment of the character? This honestly might be the biggest boost to the feeling that something’s missing with Elsa; it feels like her snowy abilities are tacked on rather than truly explored. This, like slowly forming icicles, is truly crystallised by the unfortunate fact that ‘Immobilised’ has already existed since the base game, closing the door for the otherwise glaringly obvious opportunity for Elsa to be the one to introduce a ‘Frozen’ effect. ‘Invulnerable’, too - unless we’re going full meta and referring to emotional strength - feels a decidedly random choice for Elsa. This all amounts to one ice-queen who feels more has-been.
For some genre discussion rather than criticism: ‘living’ games like this are always evolving, with more and more intricate strategies. Some form of power creep - the phenomenon of older game elements struggling to stay competitively viable as later additions become more exciting and complex - is inevitable. Sorcerer’s Arena has managed to circumvent this somewhat, having gone the route of games like Unmatched, a similar skirmish game based on established characters, by making every character feel overpowered. To paraphrase The Incredibles’ antagonist, Syndrome: if everyone’s overpowered, no one is. But these three new additions come the closest to upsetting that delicate balance, being so effective at the niches they occupy. Victory point manipulation is a huge pandora’s box to open, and while the developers have handled it well here, it’s going to be interesting to see whether newly-revealed characters like the upcoming Robin Hood (who can steal victory points) are sufficiently balanced; the OP’s track record with Sorcerer’s Arena does suggest good things, though.
Flying The Standards
Having written three reviews of this game system now, I’m finding there’s also little more to say about the visuals. The art style isn’t seeing any new iterations (where a game like Unmatched sees highly-talented artists borrowed from collaborator Mondo for various sets), and there aren’t many standout card artworks here. Elsa has one which is genuinely just… some shapes… while Buzz in particular feels like all of his artworks could fit with any of his cards. They’re all just him jumping around or firing his lazer. Where’s some focus on his trademark primary-coloured chest buttons, or purple hazard-striped wings?
In terms of quality, I didn’t have any cards literally stuck together this time, but all the pieces of my acrylic standees had both layers of cellophane coating on a single side, instead of one on each, leading to a nasty scratch on Elsa’s base. I’ve turned a blind eye before, but it’s high time to address the overall component quality: it’s rubbish. The cards feel paper thin, and when they’re one of the only physical items included, it’s not a good look.
Leading the Charge draws new battle lines in the sand of Disney Sorcerer’s Arena, and while some are straight and true, it has to be said that others are looking a little shaky. Sorcerer’s Arena has now doubly, nay, trebly proved that it can do the things it does well; Leading the Charge just proves that it needs to start honing the things it doesn’t if it really hopes to continue clashing swords with the competition.