A Fairy Tale Without A Story - 12 Realms Review

Kickstarter was a big deal for me in 2014. I started off being very hesitant to get involved in any games on the site, then went a bit crazy and started backing lots of items but 80% of them were only by reputable publishers. So far I’ve been quite lucky with what I’ve got with only one or two items either being delayed or not quite what I was hoping for but the high price points might make me hold back more in 2015.

One of the biggest fears I had with Kickstarter which seems to hold merit is that a lot of games published on the site seem to conform to “style over substance”. This is where the visual appeal of the game is blown up to epic proportions, but at the expense of having an actual decent game underneath or jacking the price up to impractical levels. How many copies of Myth do you see these days? How expensive was Cthulhu Wars just to receive the actual game? How much actual replayable gameplay is there really underneath the miniature glossing of Zombicide?

The majority of the times, these kinds of games don’t live up to the hype - certainly not in my books anyway. We do get some great Kickstarter games now and again, but they don’t go mad on visual spectacles (Alien Frontiers, Flashpoint Fire Rescue, Viticulture, etc).

12 Realms at first glance appeals to me by being part of the co-op genre with a solo play variant and also by having a cool thematic look to it. But it was a pricey Kickstarter at one point and it does contain a lot of “bling” so is this just another game that proves my theory?

 "Very striking cover, we'll gloss over the fact there's only 4 realms in the box!"

Designer: Ignazio Corrao
Publisher: Mage Company
# of Players: 1-6
Ages: 11+
Play Time: 90 Minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: 4573 / 6.07

The War of Imagination-Land

Depending on the number of players you will have several realm boards on the table. The premise is that dark invaders have infiltrated the twelve (sorry four!) realms and it’s up to the fairy tale characters of the world to fend them off. Players will take control of a classic character such as Snow White, The Nutcracker or Robin Hood and move about the realms defeating the invaders and collecting artefacts until eventually a Dark Lord will show up who must be defeated to win the game. Each realm has a timer track that increases depending on how many invaders are left to roam freely and if it reaches the end, its game over.

All the cards for each Realm are shuffled together and a pre-determined number of them based on player count are drawn at the start of the turn. Some will be treasures (grab for a gold coin) and some will be artefacts (win condition) but most will be various types of invaders – these are randomly placed in their respective realms. Each hero will then take their turn by performing actions based on the talents they possess. These range from Swiftness to Charm to Fight and more, but the former is what allows you to move around the board. The rest of the talents are required to despatch the invaders – i.e. some need to be charmed away, some can be bribed, others have to be physically fought etc. In order to despatch the invaders, you have to spend talents matching their vulnerabilities, otherwise they remain on the board and increase the timer track.

Heroes can switch to different realms to assist when one becomes over-run for example and can also visit their local towns to buy items and allies that boost their effectiveness in the game.

Play continues on in this fashion with the aim being to have a hero obtain all 3 artefacts within a realm. Once this is done, they and only they can attempt to defeat the Dark Lord of a realm in the same manner as the invaders when they eventually arrive on the board. The players win the game by defeating every Dark Lord and not allowing a realm to fall into darkness.

The Beauty of Wonderland

Now to kick-start this review (no pun intended) we’ll look at the components themselves. These were a big part of the original Kickstarter and they don’t disappoint. Every board is gorgeous and colourful, the cards have detailed fairy tale style artwork and the minatures for the player characters look fantastic, though can be a little “bendy” in aspects such as thin legs and swords.

"The coins are plastic, but even so, they look the business"

Each realm board contrasts in colour with another, one will be bright and pink with roses everywhere, the other will be vibrant green with forest motives for example. You only get four in the base game though which makes the title “12 Realms” a bit odd, but obviously this is intended for expansion in this area. The realm cards are easily associated with their respective realm following the same colour palette.

The miniatures are the best part though, giving even the likes of Fantasy Flight Games a run for their money. Each fairy tale character is represented in great detail and I’ll bet that painters have gone nuts with these. It’s always easier to identify with a physical model rather than a chit token.

So in terms of looks, so far we’re doing well, however things start to take a bit of U-turn at this point when we look at graphical design. The iconography in this game ranges from easily interpreted to downright obscure. “Talents” are easy to tell apart when the game refers to them, but then take one look at the player board and tell me if you can tell what some of those special actions/abilities mean before searching the rulebook. 7 Wonders is renowned for its intense iconography, but at least it’s pretty simplistic for the most part to interpret or at least hazard a guess. Here some abilities look like something I used to deal with in complex Algebra during math studies and it gets worse when you look at the town tiles which have “discard” abilities. They definitely seem beyond the immediate cognitive powers of most children without assistance.   

The rulebook, despite looking nice and colourful is also rather disjointed. Since its early print days it’s gone through some revisions as I hear the original was impossible to follow, but it’s by no means perfect still. You can play the game from it, which I can hardly call a plus point as I kind of expect that from a rulebook, but the chapters are arranged in such an odd fashion that you have to constantly skip back and forth to piece it all together in the right sequence.

Have We Reached The End Of The Book Yet?

The biggest issue I have with the game however isn’t the graphic design. It’s the game play itself, which in one word is just……..boring. Every single turn is a quick-fire rinse and repeat affair of moving and removing tokens, that’s pretty much it. In group play this gets tedious quickly but in solo play it’s an alternative remedy for insomniacs. You spent some talent points, move your miniature around and remove enemies from the board, turn after turn……….that’s really it...............for 60 to 90 minutes!

Each realm despite having a different look also plays out very similarly to each other with the only variation being slightly different abilities on invaders. All the boards are the same with 6 zones for random invader placement and 1 town square and there’s no differentiation between the treasures or artefacts. The town tiles tend to just be “gain X talent” with an obscure discard ability thrown in, most of which tend to relate to moving across multiple realms which is pointless in a solo game where you’re only using one realm. And even the characters, which have the potential to be really flavourful and unique merely have slightly different starting talents (I have more swords, you have more hearts) and a slight variation on the special ability (typically convert X to Y each turn). The rulebook stipulates about some enemies needing to be charmed or bribed etc, but that just equates to “spend X talent to despatch”. And why does a raccoon need to be charmed while some turtle needs to be bribed, we don’t know, it’s purely mechanical.

Taking the above into account, for a game that appears to be thematic, it doesn’t half seem abstracted to me at various times. The strangest rule I have found is that the Dark Lord doesn’t appear until the timer track hits 16+. But the track only increases if you have invaders undefeated on the battlefield. But what if you’re completely on top of the game and never leaving anyone around? The timer doesn’t increase, which means the game never ends and it breaks! You have to actually let the invaders settle in so that the Dark Lord can appear and then by that point you just go and one-shot him with ease. My first game I was doing so well that I had to actually let my realm fall into chaos to bring him out but by that point I had harvested so many bonuses from the town tiles that I could have taken Superman on if he’d shown his face in the realm. It pro-longed the game to an un-necessary level and broke the immersion.

There simply isn’t enough to grip me in the game due to the over-simplistic turns by each player and constantly removing and replacing those talent tokens on your player board quickly gets annoying especially when by the endgame you’ve acquired another 5-10 more of them. Variant rules add in towers which are easily disposed of and a “dark player” to make life more difficult, but they don’t improve the overall basic nature of the gameplay and don’t even make the game that much more difficult full stop – it’s a relative breeze to win this game on most settings.

That being said, it’s going to be simple enough for children to play and if they like the theme, potentially enjoy, but given the obscure iconography and rulebook, it’s going to need parental supervision on standby and I don’t believe the parents will get as much of a kick out of this game as the kids, but at least it’s family time together I guess!

Verdict on 12 Realms

12 Realms conforms to the general fear I have had with Kickstarter in the past – style over substance. 12 Realms is an extremely pretty game with great miniature components; that cannot be denied. But sadly what could have been an interesting twist on the co-op genre ends up being fairly bland and boring, which when you’re talking about fairy tale characters fighting off invaders, is a wonder in itself.

The game is suitable for young kids who have a keen interest in fairy tale stories so there definitely is a market for it, but anybody else is going to left wanting more variation and complexity. But bizarre iconography decisions and a disjointed rulebook are going to mean that someone with gaming experience is going to be required to simply teach the game to them and I feel sorry for that person.

You Will Like This Game If:

  • You want something light and harmless for kids to play
  • You love the look of all the 3D miniatures and colourful board/artwork
  • You enjoy co-op games and don’t want anything even remotely complex

You Will Not Like This Game If:

  • You want a challenge – it’s pretty straightforward except on very hard settings.
  • You want interesting variation – tiles/bonuses boil down to “insert talent here”
  • You want a cheap experience – base game + expansions will fetch a high price.

Kickstarter Expansions

If you feel that 12 Realms is a game you would like or you already own and enjoy the game, you may be interested to know that Mage Company are introducing the next expansions Bedtime Story and Ancestor's Legacy on Kickstarter in April 2015. Check out their preview page here for more information.