There are times when writing this blog that I feel like the worst kind of unreasonable grump. A sort of cardboard Grinch, angry and belligerent at the fun I see arrayed around me. It seems like I’m waiting for the one game that melts away my cold outer shell and replaces it with a warm sense of love and wonderment. It would be a beautiful story of redemption except that the sudden aortic expansion would just bring on a massive and potentially lethal heart attack. Magic Maze is the current trigger for this moment of self-reflection because it is a game that is obviously joyful and yet I have experienced absolutely zero joy from playing it.
There comes a point when you need to consider your exit strategy when reviewing a game. You need to work out when it’s okay to say ‘Actually, no – I think we’re done here’. Sometimes it’s when the game stops showing you anything new – when you’ve got the feel of the thing nailed down and no surprises are left to be revealed. Sometimes it’s when you decide that the surprises the game has are only going to make things worse. For Magic Maze, my bailout point is ‘I can see why people enjoy it, but I really don’t want to play it again’.
I’ve honestly tried here. I’ve played it solo – it’s a passingly entertaining experience. I’ve played it two players, and now Mrs Meeple pulls a face every time I suggest it. I’ve played it three players and didn’t feel any of the electricity I should have experienced. I’ve played it four players with two separate groups and the most enthusiastic anyone has been so far is to say, ‘I don’t know – it’s okay!’. I could keep on going beyond that until I’ve tried it in every configuration – five players. Six players. Eight players. I think though that all that will happen is that my experience would intensify and that’s not an appealing prospect.
Magic Maze just isn’t for me.
There are many reasons that people don’t like to give negative reviews of board games. I spoke about some of them in our last editorial. One I didn’t mention though is a little more personal – they really make you question your own judgement.
We’ve given a few contrarian reviews over the past couple of years. Hanabi, Hive, Love Letter, and more have all come under criticism for greater or lesser offences against our sensibilities. Each and every one of those reviews made me doubt myself before I hit the publish button – and I’m a pompous son-of-a-bitch who has a kind of viscous, fizzy arrogance where other people have blood. It’s much easier to just not write a negative review, especially when:
- Many people absolutely love Magic Maze, and even the ones that don’t love it seem to find it a fun experience.
- Fun is very subjective, and the fact I don’t like Magic Maze doesn’t mean that you won’t.
- If you’ve got the right kind of people around you I’m sure this is a blast.
It’s not my job here to tell you Magic Maze is a bad game, because I don’t think it is. It’s my job to explain why I don’t like it in a way that might help you work out if you will. The problem is when I tell you how it works you’re going to grin from ear to ear. Probably anyway, because that’s exactly what I did when I first heard about it.
It all begins with a board, and a set of four pawns:
These pawns represent the heroic adventurers who have broken into the eponymous ‘Magic Maze’ to steal replacement weapons after their own were… something. I confess I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the back story because this is the first thing I don’t like about Magic Maze – the fantasy theme is so soporific that it could be weaponised into a riot control aerosol spray. This would have worked so much better as a kind of cool, shiny Ocean’s Eleven style thing. But no – a dwarf needs an axe, the barbarian needs his swordsszzzzzzzzz. The maze is a mall. That’s all you need to know.
The task for the players is to navigate these pawns through this mall to the squares that contain the items they’re looking to steal. Those squares look like this:
Along the way players need to explore to find new tiles, make use of the escalators, deal with security cameras, and all the other day to day tasks that go into an act of petty larceny. The job is made a little more complicated by the fact that only certain coloured pawns can do certain things – only the green pawn can explore from a green passage, only the red pawn can go through tiny doors, and only the yellow pawn can disable security cameras. As such, this isn’t a smash and grab – this is a theft that needs meticulous planning. There’s someone, somewhere, with a spreadsheet showing an itinerary and schedule for every last microsecond of the heist.
Unfortunately for you they didn’t show up and so you’re going to have to wing it. Once all your pawns get onto the square that contains the loot, everyone steals what they came in to steal, and then you all need to make your way to the exits. If you manage that, you win and can go off and butcher a nest of sleeping orcs in celebration.
That’s the premise, but it’s not the game. The game is that none of you are controlling any of these pawns. You’re all controlling all of them, together, in real time, against a time limit. Wheee! You’re not one of the heroes – you’re a direction. It’s like being cast in a play as ‘the door’.
You each get one of these tiles that shows what you’re allowed to do. One player might be able to move pawns left. One might be able to move them right. Another might be able to move them down and also trigger an exploration if someone is in the right location. Someone is handling escalators. Someone else is handling the vortexes that can teleport pawns from wherever they are to a vortex portal elsewhere in the maze. Don’t get too used to this though – whenever the hourglass flips over, you’ll trade these off to another player like the world’s most frustrating game of pass the parcel. Nobody can do everything, even in the solo game – you’ve all got to work together to make this happen while the sandtimer trickles an ever increasing multitude of grains of sand into the unforgiving bulb at the bottom.
Those are the rules, but it’s still not the game. It’s still not where you’re going to find the fun – the hook that generates that grin I promised you earlier. Are you ready? Are you sitting down? Brace yourself, because this is awesome.
None of you are allowed to talk while you’re controlling the pawns.
Can you appreciate now why I feel like an asshole writing a negative review of a game like this? Even just from that you can tell what you’re getting with Magic Maze – a hilariously frantic exercise in everyone getting in everyone else’s way without having the slightest idea what you’re all trying to accomplish. This isn’t like Hanabi, an amazing idea waiting for a game to be built around it. This isn’t Love Letter with its flawless execution of an almost content-free concept. This is a properly brilliant idea that has been beautifully executed. Magic Maze merits the praise it gets, even if it’s not getting any here.
It goes even farther than not letting you talk though. You’re barely permitted any opportunity to communicate. You can’t gesture or gesticulate. You can’t point or grunt or click out instructions in half-remembered Morse code. You’ve got two things you can do to get a message across to another player:
- Stare intently at them until they do whatever you’re trying to telepathically instruct them.
- Take the big ‘do something’ pawn and bang it in front of them, gavel style, like a passive-aggressive judge with a penchant for mime.
(Disclaimer: You don’t actually have to bang the pawn – you’re just supposed to place it in front of someone. In 100% of experimental situations where I have observed its use, it still gets banged about like a bongo on a hippy commune)
You can visualise it, can’t you? You’re scanning the board wondering what it is you should be doing. Pauline is staring at you, daggers in her eyes. Jasmine is banging the pawn in front of you, leaving you in no doubt you’re the weakest link here. Roz grabs the pawn from Jasmine, you assume to redirect attention to the real guilty party, then takes over the current shift of banging it in front of you. And then in front of Pauline. And then in front of you again. Pauline stares at Roz, Roz stares at Jasmine, and you stare at your action tile wondering what everyone sees that you don’t. All the while the sand keeps flowing, flowing, flowing…
It’s not all bad though – a few tiles in the maze are hourglass spaces and they let you flip the hourglass so that it starts flowing the other way. They’re one use only though, and every time you use one you cover it with a little cross that ticks off your future options. When you flip the hourglass, everyone gets to talk for as long as they like – but the sand keeps on running. As soon as anyone makes a move, everyone has to shut up once more. The green pawn, when exploring from a green space, also permits a few moments of snatched conversation. Magic Maze has a punctuated rhythm to it that combines periods of intense silence with moments of raucous frantic discussion.
What ends up happening is that everyone, when they can talk, desperately tries to balance speed of conversation against its information content and that leads to people talking over each other and misunderstanding plans. A pawn is moved and then everyone goes silent and starts acting contrary to what everyone else thought had been agreed. For some reason, Michael grabs the green pawn…
And moves it to a vortex for… why? WHY? WHY DID HE DO THAT?
Green was so close to the destination space and now you all have to get the pawn back to where it started before he did that. But he’s not helping – he’s moving green in the opposite direction. What is he up to? You all agreed, didn’t you? But what Michael saw that nobody else did is that the only way to find the orange exit is with a green explore action. He thought you all knew that – he thinks he’s following the plan.
But look at Pauline – she’s not even bothered about green. She’s banging the ‘do something’ pawn again and again and again and all she’s done is move the purple. That’s because she saw what Michael didn’t – that if someone would just move the purple pawn to the south it would land on a crystal ball tile that would permit two free draws of exploration tiles independent of colour. She’s also following the plan, but nobody knows that. And time is running out – nobody is near an hourglass, and you wasted so much time on this discussion only to have it all fall apart in the first thirty seconds.
It’s okay though – game session only last about fifteen minutes so while you’ll almost always dissolve into a mess of mixed signals and failure it doesn’t sting. You don’t waste an evening because of a crossed wire – if anything you make the game evening better because while Magic Maze does offer a satisfying puzzle it’s really just an engine for making people laugh.
I don’t like it, but I can see what it’s doing and I can admire it for that. Good hustle, Magic Maze. Good hustle.
The problem ends up being the same thing that I mentioned in our review of Codenames and Codenames Pictures – I’m not a fan of games that replace conversation with intense silences, even if those silences are full of comedy potential. I play board games for the social interaction and Magic Maze puts a massive barrier in the way of that. Sure, it removes that barrier periodically when the hourglass gets turned but you don’t get a better thing back as a result – you get a period of frantic negotiation rather than a chance to laugh and joke about what you’ve been doing. We don’t have time for that, jackasses – we need to get the orange pawn over to the other side of the board, NOW GO.
Codenames at least manages to convert silence into something that can later be the grist for more refined conversation after the fact. You get to talk and laugh about the successes and failures because they reveal something of you as a person and something of your relationship with the spymaster/spymistress. You can revel in shared glory, or comically bicker about who was responsible for your collaborative failure. Codenames at its best gives you something to talk about even if it does require long periods of intense cogitation in place of the conversation for which you might have been hoping.
The best Magic Maze gives you is the comedy of silence – to have an entire table staring at you waiting for you to make the obvious move that you can’t see. You need to find the fun in someone banging a pawn in front of you while you become ever more increasingly aware of the fact that you’re the bottleneck in the whole unfolding disaster – that nobody can do anything until you do the one critical yet entire hidden thing that unblocks everyone else.
There are two problems with that though. The first is that it’s frustrating rather than funny to be the source of everyone else’s impatience. In a turn based game where you have the luxury of time it would be bad enough, but here every second you spend is genuinely wasted. It would be one thing if you could all talk about what it was that was needed – but the problem here it’s often not just the means that you don’t see, but the overall goal. A pawn might be needed for its loot, or it might be needed to explore in a key direction. You might be focused on the theft, others on the logistics of revealing greater amounts of the stack. As such you’re often in a situation where you can’t do anything to progress the goal you have and are completely ignorant of the goal of the person angrily banging the gavel in front of you. You might have three people staring at you, each expecting you to do a completely different thing. That puts a lot of pressure on a person – and that’s entirely intentional. It’s where the fun resides in the game, if you can find that fun.
The second problem is that when you finally do get to relax and talk about the game, you haven’t really enriched the conversation that follows. There’s only so much grist for the mill in ‘I was expecting you to do X but you didn’t and that meant I couldn’t do Y’. Silence is a tricky beast to harness in a game – it needs to act like steam building pressure in an engine. When the pressure is released, it should propel the group forwards into new territory at speed. In ideal circumstances you’re not so much sacrificing the social side of the game as you are boiling it until the lid blasts off and kills someone.
In Magic Maze, it just feels like every second of time spent not enjoying the company of my friends is a second wasted. I’m not going to get it back in a more intensified form when the game is over – the conversation that follows isn’t going to be meaningfully better than the conversation that preceded it. The social energy doesn’t build up, it just dissipates.
In the end that’s my problem with Magic Maze – it doesn’t manage to shape silence in a way that leads to a more enjoyable evening. If a game is going to take away the social context of a game, it better be planning to return it later in a better state than how it found it. I’m prepared to invest my time in silence if it’s going to accrue compound interest for my evening. I’m not prepared to sacrifice it in exchange for the frustration, however comical, of missed opportunities.
In some ways Magic Maze reminds me of those endlessly tedious memes that get shared around about arithmetic or language or algebra. ‘There are three words in the English language that end with gry…’.
There’s a sense of cleverness that you feel in overcoming the traps someone puts in front of you by virtue of their intentional obscurity. Really though all you’re doing is compensating for their wilful attempts to trip you up. Magic Maze feels like that to me – a game that expects me to delight in miscommunication and misunderstandings. There’s certainly potential in that as a concept, but I don’t think Magic Maze really captures it. When I look at the game bereft of that central concept thought I don’t see something that’s much worth playing.
Usually in ending a review like this I’d say something like ‘I’ve had some fun playing this under the right circumstances’. Unfortunately I’ve not had any fun playing this under any circumstances. I haven’t hated the time I’ve spent with it but I wouldn’t choose to play this over any other game in my collection – including Catan. Take that as you will but consider that I have a cyanide capsule installed in one of my back molars as a safeguard against someone bringing Settlers around to game night. That’s not a ringing endorsement for Magic Maze regardless of how you look at it. This is a game many people could love and I won’t begrudge them an atom of their affection. Just don’t expect me to play – I’ll be too busy over here, trying to steal Christmas.
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