If a dungeon crawl is somehow the direct descendant of a mall crawl, then Magic Maze is getting back to its roots. Bereft of their usual equipment, your party of adventurers — which boasts the Plain Jane combo of dwarf, barbarian, elf, and wizard — must enter a magic mall, engage in some decidedly unheroic petty larceny, and then run while the running’s good.
Okay, so it may be a B-side adventure, the sort of quest kept on standby for when the more interesting members of your RPG group are on vacation, but at least it has a couple clever tricks up its sleeve.
The first and best thing about Magic Maze is that nobody has to play as the dwarf. Or the elf. Especially the elf. Instead, everyone is a sort of omniscient (if distractible) deity of movement. One guy holds the tile that can move your characters north, someone else ambles them west. There’s the tile that teleports a character to their class-appropriate restroom, or whatever those portals are, the one that draws a new tile when the correct character reaches the correct tile edge, and another for using escalators. Yes, escalators, because this game’s setting is, once again, a doofy magical shopping mall.
The goal, then, isn’t to control characters individually, but by acts of corporate stutter-step. Need to maneuver that wizard around a partition to the shop he’s going to burgle? I’ll move him left, then you move him up, then I move him left, then someone else moves him down. Three heads and three hands went into that act of corner-rounding. It’s every bit as awkward as it is vaguely delightful. Stressful, too, with everyone leaning so close around the mall’s expanding layout that they very well may conk heads.
But the real challenge lands like twin strikes of a dwarven forge hammer. First, the whole thing is timed. You’ve got three minutes in your sand timer and only a handful of spots that will flip it over. This will add some extra time to your frenzied pilfering, but also means you need to pass your tiles to your neighbor. Hope you weren’t accustomed to being the guy who moves the characters east.
The second blow is that you can’t talk. Surprise! Why does this make any sense? No idea. Magic mall security, maybe, or perhaps the movement gods are as mute as the one I pray to every morning. The point is, the only means of communication is a chunky red pawn that you can slam down onto the table in front of whichever sluggish deity isn’t performing their appointed miracle of dwarf-pushing.
This red pawn is a deity in its own right, a punitive creature that loves to make you feel like you’re fumbling a recitation in the class play and you just urinated yourself. There are very few feelings quite as shameful as being neck-deep in a game of Magic Maze and having that pawn slapped down in front of you, yet not having any idea what anybody wants from you. Prepare for a lot of passive-aggressive smoldering.
I’d say the characters’ special abilities make the proceedings less stressful, but that’s only barely the case. Not only must each character maneuver into the proper spaces for revealing new corners of the mall, stealing equipment, and eventually sprinting for the exit, but also for activating their special abilities. The warrior, for instance, is the only one who can disable the security cameras that lock you out of flipping the sand timer over. Meanwhile, the dwarf can scuttle through low passages, the wizard doubles the effect of an exploration move, and the elf randomly lets everybody cut through the silence and actually discuss their plans for once.
When Magic Maze gets going, there is a peculiar music to it. Trying to sync everyone’s brains to the same rhythm when they’d much rather feature a mix of classical orchestra, brassy jazz, and grunge rock is what gives the game its center, and it isn’t long before the whole thing either slides into place or careens off into oblivion. Either way, the game’s short runtime acts as a cool-down to its furious pace. Can’t handle a particular layout? No big deal. In ten minutes you can take a deep breath and try another.
That said, Magic Maze’s central conundrum can wear thin after a few plays, especially since it trickles its rules into play so slowly that it’s like waiting for a cup of water one drip at a time. Here’s the scenario where dwarves learn to crouch; here’s the one where cameras are introduced; now wizards can finally use their magic sticks; now learn to swap movement tiles when the timer runs out. For experienced players, it’s probably best to read through to scenario seven and start with the hard stuff right away.
Even then, Magic Maze is a simple game. Perhaps even a shallow game. It’s pleasant enough in short bursts, and clever in the way it employs silence and divided movement roles. But it often feels like it could have done more. More abilities, more layouts, more wackiness. More opportunities to fall flat on your face.
It’s possible that my love for Space Alert is showing its skin here, since if I’m going to raise my blood pressure playing a real-time game where everything can go wrong, then that’s where I’d rather be. If ever there were a game that felt like anything could go wrong at any moment, Space Alert was it.
But that’s a complicated game while this is a simple one, and as a way to get people to lose their heads while trying to put them together, Magic Maze does just fine. It’s clever, it’s fast, it’s easy. Ultimately, though, that sums up how I feel about it. Magic Maze: just fine.