Tabletop Review – Black Rose Wars
Back in January of last year we put together a list of games that had us the most excited in 2019 and were promptly met with criticisms for our omission of Black Rose Wars. At the time, we knew very little about Ludus Magnus Studio’s newest game and would like to offer a retroactive apology for being so naïve. Black Rose Wars made its way into our collection and quickly landed in our top five games.
The order of the Black Rose has invited you and the other head magisters to the lodge to determine who the new head of the order will be. Tasked with the role of being the keeper of the Forgotten Spells, naturally you and your peers all want the role and will do anything it takes, including fighting to the death.
Black Rose Wars pits up to four players (six with future expansions) against one another as they compete to earn the title of Head Magister of the Order of the Black Rose. Naturally this means a lot of spell slinging destruction in what can frequently be a very chaotic but tight gaming experience.
Each player begins the game by selecting their preferred mage who have some small variations amongst them. The core game includes four mages: Tessa, Rebecca, Jaf’ar, and Nero, each with their own health and maximum hand size values which vary only by a point or two between characters. For example, Tessa has eleven total hit points while Jaf’ar only has ten, but to make up for it, Jaf’ar has a maximum hand size of nine where Tessa’s is limited to eight. While the stat differences may feel like they would have a significant impact, Black Rose Wars descends into magical chaos fairly quickly and these small differences are hardly noticeable and do little to shift the balance between characters. The governing mechanic that will determine a player’s performance is their deck building skills.
Black Rose War‘s varied library of spells are the real heart of the game. The base game has a total of six schools of magic, each with their own strategies for winning. At the top of the game, players will select a school of magic from which they’ll create their starting hand based one on of two options per school. As the game progresses, players will have the opportunity to draft cards from other schools and try out some other options.
While it would be tempting to try spells from every school, it’s not recommended that you build your deck from more than two, maybe three, schools at a time. Choosing from too many different schools of magic will ultimately make a player’s deck ineffective so it’s best to get a sense of how you want to play this time around before beginning. While there are only six schools, there are many ways to use them and tons of spells, so I’ve put together a simply summary of each one below:
Conspirators never run directly into battle. Instead, they use the cleverness and cunning of their magic to move around the board and activate room bonuses more frequently than their opponents. Conspiracy spells make use of traps that deal damage to enemies or protects themselves from damage. Better yet, players who favor this school can steal points by allying with the Black Rose or taking the points away from opponents who just fulfilled their own quests.
As the name suggests, the Destruction school is all about dealing damage to other models on the board be it direct or area damage. The very nature of these abilities makes Destruction the easiest school to master. By dealing heavy amounts of damage to opponents, anyone utilizing this school will be able to clear the board of other players fairly easily, earning them plenty of power points. On the other hand, they might find it particularly difficult to take on mages using Conspiracy or Divination spells as they block heal and block damage. Many of the Destruction spells will also make the rooms they are cast in slightly unstable, giving clever players more control over the board.
Divination is a more complex class that relies on healing, altars, and quests to get ahead. Divination spells can convert damage or heal a player, while simultaneously awarding points for the amount of health restored. Similar actions can be taken by summoning and destroying altars, earning points for each and creating instability. But arguably one of the most valuable cards in this spell class is Change the Past and Future. This allows players to either take a quest card from a previous moon phase and immediately earn its rewards or the spell’s reverse side to gain a new quest card from the current or future phase. The combination of abilities available in the Divination class allows players to stay on the board longer and earn points for it, all while earning points from quests faster than opponents.
Illusion is another complex school that utilizes tricks and summons to win. Using Illusion, players can prevent their opponents from activating rooms, gaining rewards from completed quests, or inflicting any damage. Illusion players can also summon the Andromeda evocation, which can be used to cast spells from or activate rooms during the evocation phase. Combining the range increasing effects of Andromeda along with a plethora of traps gives illusionists the opportunity to stand their ground against heavy damage dealers like Destruction Spells.
The magic of the dead is another great spell class for beginning players. The School of Necromancy allows players to summon a wealth of damage dealing evocations, damage conversion, and stealing of power points. Using spells like Bone Armor or Cowardice, Necromancers are able to block damage or convert damage to keep themselves alive and in the game while they steal power points from opponents with Evanescent Hope. While Necromancers can’t execute quite as many traps as Conspiracy or Illusion, they benefit from protecting themselves with traps and dealing damage in small amounts with many summons.
Lastly is the school of Transmutation which is my personal favorite. By creating and destroying mutant altars, Transmutation mages are able to create large amounts of instability in rooms, making them arguably the easiest class to gain points by destroying rooms. Transmutation spells can also be used to move players around the board which gives players the additional opportunity to get in close range of targets for the purpose of direct attacks. Spells like Stone Claws can give players the chance to directly attack all players in a room rather than an individual target. Combined with movement spells, Transmutation players are a quick and formidable opponent.
Each school of magic provides players a path to victory, albeit some more strategically complex than others. Players should feel free to explore combinations and possibilities in their first few games to familiarize themes with each school and how they interact with one another, rather than worrying as much about how to beat everyone at the table. Combinations like Destruction and Necromancy allow players to deal a crazy amount of damage from a single spell while also protecting themselves and gaining additional actions from their summoned evocations. Or if direct combat isn’t quite your style, combining Divination and Transmutation is a great way to control the board through the use of altars; sacrificing them for either health regeneration, instability, or gaining power points.
Additionally, there’s a symbol akin to the Black Spot on many of the spell cards (regardless of spell class) referred to as Instability. Casting a spell with that icon on it will make the room it’s cast in, or the target room magically unstable. To indicate that, players place one of their colored cubes into one of the room’s instability slots. When all of the room’s instability slots have been filled, the room is destroyed and can no longer be activated for its bonuses. Whichever player has the most of their colored cubes in a room when it’s destroyed, gets the room’s activation token and scores additional points at the end of the game.
A game of Black Rose Wars begins with players each drawing a quest card in turn order. These cards give players objectives to achieve in addition to competing for the newly opened position. Upon completing a quest, players are immediately awarded power points or an alternative reward as indicated by the quest card. These help provide players direction and an objective for the round.
After the quest cards, players will also draw an event card. The event cards will grant the Black Rose power points when the event both enters and exits play and can do things like deal damage to players in a certain type of room or reward a small amount of points to players when they execute X action.
The second phase of the game is referred to as the Study Phase. In turn order, players will draw two cards from their deck and place them in their hand. Players will then draw a total of four spell cards from any combination of spell classes they want. Of the four cards, two are kept and placed directly into the player’s hand and the other two spells are placed into the respective school’s discard pile.
After everyone completes the Study Phase, it’s time to prep some spells. Every character has a player dashboard with illustrated spots to place up to four spells per turn. One of those prepped spell locations is labeled “Quick Spell” while the others are Standard Spells 1-3. Players will select cards from their hand they want to use this round keeping in mind that cards placed in the standard spots must be used in sequence, while the Quick Spell can be played as an action any time during a turn.
When everyone has prepped their spells for the round, the action phase begins. Turn order begins with whomever has the first player token and runs clockwise around the table, granting players two actions each time their turn begins. Each turn, players will take two actions whether physical (move and attack or move and activate room tile), spell casting, or a combination thereof. Players can use a quick spell and standard spell, a physical action and quick spell, a physical action and a standard spell, or two physical actions. The only combination that is not permitted is using two standard spells on the same turn.
When players cast a spell or use a physical action, they’ll flip the card or token face up to indicate that it was used that round. After two actions have been resolved, the turn passes to the next player in clockwise order and they can perform two actions. Play continues this way until every player has used all of their physical actions and prepped spells.
The game then continues in the Evocation phase. Schools of magic like Necromancy and Illusion, as well as a few room activations will allow players to summon evocations under their control. During this phase, players who control evocations will have the opportunity to take additional actions dictated by the abilities on the evocation’s card. While each evocation’s abilities are limited, players are allowed to have up to three evocations under their control at any time. No matter how minuscule it may seem at first, consistently having summons on the board while your opponents have none has some pretty significant advantage in the long run.
After the evocation phase, the round ends and players begin again with drawing a new quest card. The game continues until either a player or the Black Rose order themselves reach thirty power points.
What makes Black Rose Wars so exceptionally interesting is that there are three main ways to earn power points: completing quests, killing opponents, or destroying rooms. In combination with different strengths and weaknesses of the different schools of magic, Black Rose Wars allows players to chase after victory with whatever approach they find most enjoyable.
While the Order of the Black Rose is seeking a new head magister, they refuse to take any risks and won’t give the position to someone who can’t exceed the current standards. For that reason, players will all be competing against the existing members of the Black Rose as well. The Black Rose gains points during the event phase and can even damage players through those events, gaining points for each kill. If the Order reaches thirty power points before any player, the game wins and all players have lost.
What make Black Rose Wars so much fun is the freedom of play. With so many different approaches to gaining power points, players can approach Black Rose Wars however they’d like. Players can spend the entire game killing their opponents, completing quests, stealing quests, activating rooms, or destroying rooms. That level of choice is what keeps pulling my group back to BRW. We can’t help but dissect our deck building choices after every game and brainstorm what we want to experiment with the next game.
But for that very same reason, Black Rose Wars is a very difficult game to teach. It’s so full of options and nuances that it can easily overwhelm new players. The overall number of game phases, unclear symbols, and number of approaches to gaining points forces new players to absorb a lot of information all at once. Each spell has a symbol on it that helps define what time of spell it is (trap, protection, instant), as well as elemental association (which has little to no impact on the base game), and range.
As a whole, Black Rose Wars makes itself unnecessarily difficult to approach. The core gameplay and execution is fairly simple and easy to grasp, but it’s layered under layers of technicalities and nuance that can easily overwhelm new players. Each spell card has two different functions to it, a “straightforward” and “reverse” effect. In order to play the side of the spell card you’d like, it has to be set down on the player board a specific way during a specific phase. It’s not impossible for a new player to pick up on after a strong explanation, but they’ll struggle to construct an effective deck of abilities that compliment each other.
Ludus Magnus Studios provides a Codex booklet that contains a detailed explanation of each spell and their associated spells. Using this guide does assist with closing some of the skill gaps, but, not without adding some additional time to an already lengthy play session. Teaching new players has typically extended game time from two and a half hours to three and a half.
But despite the game’s length and accessibility challenges, every game of Black Rose Wars has ended with excited discussions of failed strategies, different spell combinations, and scheduling the next game. While the first playthrough or two felt like a bit of a slog to get every player up the speed, everyone left the game wanting more. And how could they not?
Playing Black Rose Wars can be just as much as psychology game as anything else and there’s so much satisfaction to be found in a plan coming together. At once point, I spoiled one particular player’s plans so consistently that he made a point of making me his primary target during our last game. Knowing that he loves the Destruction class, I specifically chose the combination of Necromancy and Illusion, knowing that I could spend most of the game baiting him into traps. However, he left me alone for much of the game as he built a deck of high powered spells he planned to annihilate me with. Meanwhile, I was building up a repertoire of defensive spells that would turn the damage back on him. When he finally felt comfortable enough to come for me, he fell perfectly into my trap and his spell backfired, killing him.
It’s the moments like this that make Black Rose Wars worth every penny. I’ve managed to make BRW a staple game in our house hold and have no intention of changing it up any time soon. With a second wave of content on the way, including an expansion that increases the player count, it will be a long time before we stop feuding.
2-4; 5-6 with the Hidden Thorns expansion.
The game box says 90 minutes, but the shortest game I’ve played was two and a half hours.
Black Rose Wars is game that is easy to overload new players with information. While it’s not exceptionally hard to learn, there’s a lot to digest the first time around.
Overall, Black Rose Wars has some fantastic illustrations, but there’s nothing that stood out to me as particularly mind blowing. That said, miniature sculpts for the evocations are a lot of fun.
Incredibly high. With so many different variations of decks, Black Rose Wars offers a significant amount of content in the base game alone.