06 April 2018
A lesson in Defence Against the Deck Arts
If you had told us that a new Harry Potter spin-off would turn out to be one of the most surprising and satisfying gateway deckbuilders of recent years, we would’ve assumed you had been chugging one too many pints of butterbeer. Then Hogwarts Battle apparated onto our table and cast its spell over us.
Hogwarts Battle is in so many ways deckbuilding by the numbers. Taking control of Harry, Hermione, Ron or Neville, players start with a small selection of spells, items and allies (slightly tailored to each character, so Harry gets Hedwig while Hermione has the Time-Turner and Crookshanks, for example) and magic up influence (resembling knut coins) in order to acquire cards from a central board and gradually bolster their power. Hardly revolutionary, we’ll accept.
More powerful cards can be used to attack a gauntlet of villains who, along with Dark Arts events drawn each round, will dish out damage to the heroes and gain control over a series of locations. The heroes can’t die, but getting stunned means another control token going on the current location – if the final location falls, it’s game over. As more villains combine powers and things chain together, the action can get surprisingly tense.
There’s a good variety of events and abilities that can pop off, but they’re all grounded by an easy-to-grasp flow that means player turns and spells bounce back and forth with a joyous swiftness – a single match can be got through in under an hour easily, and you’ll immediately want to continue.
Part of the reason for this is that, unexpectedly, Hogwarts Battle has taken a leaf out of the spellbook of legacy games. There are seven boxes to open over the course of the game’s campaign-like structure, loosely following the plot of JK Rowling’s seven novels (despite the visuals being based on the eight films) and steadily introducing new cards and even gameplay mechanics.
While locations are specific to each chapter and represent the main set pieces of the movies, each fresh batch of villains, items, spells and characters are mixed into their respective decks for future matches and drawn at random, resulting in a kind of remixed 'greatest hits' feel to proceedings.
Without giving too much away about exactly what each box contains – that’s half of the fun of playing through, after all – following the rough structure of the books works perfectly with the deckbuilding action. As the heroes progress through Hogwarts, their character cards are eventually replaced by their older selves, unlocking more advanced innate abilities and other surprises in addition to the growing reserve of cards available for purchase. Things never go too far into left field, but there’s a real sense of reward and progression to opening the next package after a hard-fought victory.
All of this is delivered with an outstanding presentation that puts most TV and film tie-ins to shame. Even opening the main box is a pleasure (we won’t spoil why), with the cards making generally admirable use of screenshots from the films with very few exceptions. The components are all of top quality, especially the weighty metal skull tokens that represent the villains’ control – you almost feel the tension notch up every time one is added. In a particularly pleasant detail, the back of the rulebook includes slots to store the additional rules from each opened package, while dividers are supplied to keep all of the cards neatly organised. Even the tokens come ready pushed out!
Hogwarts Battle doesn’t evolve the deckbuilding formula, but it comes close to perfecting the essentials. What you get here is an impeccably-made package that consistently goes beyond simply being a solid card game or serviceable spin-off to delight with its evolving gameplay and interwoven theme. With the magic of Harry Potter as enchanting as ever, it could well be the next great gateway game.
We’re as shocked as anyone that a Harry Potter game could be this good! Hogwarts Battle earns its place in the deckbuilding pantheon with a gameplay loop that can’t be resisted, surprises that keep things constantly exciting and fresh, and a presentation that nails it at almost every turn. It’s magical.
Designer: Forrest-Pruzan Creative, Kami Mandell, Andrew Wolf
Artist: Joe Van Wetering
Time: 30-60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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