More Like Rental Magician
Sorcerer has a great hook. Never mind that it’s also Smash Up’s hook. You take three decks — your identity, magical lineage, and domain — and shuffle them together to form one big wad of acolytes, demons, and spells. One moment you’ll be playing as a necromantic count from deep in a haunted forest. Half an hour later you’ll be mister flameface the shapeshifter of the lunatic asylum. In theory, no two decks will feel quite the same.
Too bad they nearly always blend together like a bowl of soggy oatmeal.
To understand where Sorcerer goes wrong, it’s important to talk about how games of this stripe get it right. And Sorcerer isn’t always at its worst, so let’s begin with the things it does well.
In essence, Sorcerer works best when its decks distinguish themselves. You command legions of spiders that bolster your attacks; your opponent slowly collects droplets of blood only to spill entire gallons for one-off abilities. You light everything on fire; your opponent is a shapeshifter who tears your minions limb from limb. It’s a game of dueling sorcerers, and the thing about sorcerers is that they can do, well, anything. The entire history of magic is your toolbox. And that means you have an entire warehouse of toys to play with.
When it works, it works. Or at least it functions. The most immediate problem is the game’s weirdly generic approach to most of its decks. Given the opportunity to go wild, it instead settles for the subdued. Oh, there’s plenty of what we too often crassly term “theming.” There’s artwork a middle-schooler could yelp about to his confounded parents. There are flavorful titles like “Purifying Widow” and “Zubata, Lady Death.” Who wouldn’t want to play a card called Zubata, Lady Death?
Therein lies the rotten core of the problem. I don’t want to play Zubata, Lady Death. Not now that I know her.
If you’ve been playing board games for a while, chances are you’ve played something like Sorcerer before. In the middle of the table sit three locations; control two and you win. Controlling a location requires dealing it twelve damage before your opponent deals it twelve damage. The shakeup is that opposing minions not only deal damage, they also soak damage. This means you need a healthy stable of minions hanging around to both stab and get stabbed, which in turn means doling out your resources in such a way as to deploy them to vulnerable spots, shore up weaknesses, and challenge your opponent.
Classic stuff, in other words. But the efficiency with which Sorcerer flubs the genre’s most basic beats is almost worthy of awe. There’s the pacing, regularly interrupted with one of Sorcerer’s oft-repeated “look through your entire deck for a card and then shuffle” abilities. There’s the pressing desire to combo your units to greater effect, made almost trivial by how simplistic and combo-light nature of most minions. The dice system is interesting in theory but misapplied in practice, reducing your minions to their roll value and little else. There’s the stuttering disappointment of spending half of your actions drawing cards or gathering energy, and sometimes your randomized deck of three attributes is barely even featured, only a portion of your 40 cards ever appearing. And before you assume I’m complaining that it’s possible for the game to conclude before you’ve seen a third of your cards, I’m absolutely not. This brevity is a mercy, like dying quickly after a gut shot. Better to expire than linger. Doubly so because Sorcerer tends to overstay its welcome thanks to its many pauses, creating a game that’s paradoxically both too long and too short.
Speaking of expiring, this brings us back to Zubata, Lady Death. Nearly every one of Sorcerer’s peers understands that its units need to serve some higher purpose than mere damage-dealing and damage-absorbing. In Omen: A Reign of War, your deck adopts the shape you give it, featuring multi-use units that can become the linchpin of your economy or leave your opponent impoverished and powerless. Haven positions its units as skirmishers in a larger war, always asking you to think about the fight after the one you were currently waging. Even defunct titles like Warhammer 40,000: Conquest and Guardians embraced the wild thrill of splashing mega-units into the fray and watching the waves upend the state of the board.
Minions in Sorcerer are almost the direct opposite.
Part of this has to do with your card abilities, which generally revolve around a few basic templates. I’ve already mentioned that many are deck-plumbers, nabbing the cards you aren’t likely to see before the game ends. Some deal instant damage, bestow a benefit when defeated, or even erase everyone’s ability at that location. Combos exist, but they’re generally limited to operating within a card’s same sub-deck. Even your avatar gets their hands and/or tentacled appendages dirty, applying three special abilities from your combination of character, lineage, and domain. Perfectly serviceable card powers, in other words, despite nearly always being geared toward the goal of piling onto locations like some sort of demonic clown car. Speaking of which, you can also expect a huge number of discounters, those spells and minions that let you play another card for cheap, from your graveyard, or by paying by an alternate currency. Zubata, Lady Death is a good example — in her case, you’re allowed to spend omen tokens to resurrect a deceased unit. Not that you’re likely to want to do that.
Here’s why not. Rather than attacking outright, units in Sorcerer roll dice. This is capped at seven per attack, a ceiling that’s bumped into far more often than you’d expect, especially once attachments are tossed into the mix. How these attacks are resolved is one of Sorcerer’s cleverer bits: both minions and locations can soak up hits, but pentagrams are assigned by the attacker and skulls by the defender, giving both sides some agency over how a roll’s outcome is applied. More than that, omen tokens permit you to reroll a die — whether your own or your opponent’s — creating little moments of one-upmanship where both players invest more and more into the outcome of an attack.
The thing is, this once again shifts Sorcerer’s focus. Rather than being a game about units, investments, and cleverly leveraging the former into the latter, it’s a game about tossing dice. This is chancy enough that eutychemaphobic players will want to stay as far away as possible. But the bigger issue is that it reduces everything to a roll value. Unit combos, avatar abilities, the game’s entire economy — all secondary to a chunky handful of dice. Contrasted with the examples I listed above, there’s hardly any finesse or long-term strategy. The value of a unit is nearly always obvious, tied directly to how many dice it gets to roll. Meet Zubata, Lady Death. She’s better known as “three dice.” For a cost of three energy, that’s a terrible investment.
Sadly, despite entire buckets of flavor, imagination, and icky artwork, the result is a game without much spark behind its eyes. Sorcerer features decks that barely bother to appear on the table, let alone differentiate themselves, minions who are more interested in their attack number than producing interesting combos, and gameplay that’s prone to interruption only to be decided by the result of some much-rerolled dice. Its hook is sharp — too bad everything else lacks bite.