Review – Spellbook
|Publisher||Space Cowboys (Asmodee North America_|
|Category||Set Collection, Family Game|
|Release Date||Fall 2023|
If you asked me for my dream designer-publisher combos, Phil Walker-Harding and Space Cowboys would have been at the near top of the list. (Although, when’s Days of Wonder going to do a Stefan Feld game?) So, when Spellbook was announced, I was beyond excited. The packaging and components sure made it look like Space Cowboys was trying yet again to recreate the success of Splendor, although Walker-Harding himself described it as “Rummy with special powers”. Do they have another hit on their hands? Let’s take a look!
As is typical with Space Cowboys, the components for Spellbook are fantastic. The “materia” tokens could have been cheap cardboard, but instead are clacky acrylic tiles that feel great to rummage through in their bag. There’s actually very little art in the game, just what’s on your 7 cards in front of you and your player board, but it’s good. The player aids are fantastic (THANK YOU!), and the rulebook is thorough and detailed. It was a little weird to put a little piece of tape on the discard bowl, but you don’t really see it afterwards, and it looks nice. The MSRP of $45 is probably fine for these components; and I’ve just sadly accepted that prices are going up due to the state of the world.
Yet, as good as the components are, I think they might be the culprit of this game’s problems. I’ve played six games of Spellbook, and I have yet to find the fun, and I have struggled to figure out what’s missing. I’m going to compare Spellbook to its two most likely associated influences, Splendor and plain old Rummy with a 52-card deck of cards (at least, the version I learned as a kid), and then we’ll circle back to components.
While a big part of Splendor’s appeal was the “poker chip” gems, it was also a great light introduction to engine building. It also had the urgency of a race to 15 points, along with a fight over limited resources and the ability to snatch cards out from under the nose of your opponents with the “reserve” action. It remains one of my favorite games.
In Spellbook, while you’re collecting wonderful tokens to “claim cards” (broadly speaking), the cards are the same for all players, and the system for collecting the tokens is quite different. You can take 1 materia from a central altar, or two random ones from the bag. As you build some spells, this ability can improve quite a bit. However, there are several problems with this. The first is that it seems that the altar is clunky and uninteresting. It often didn’t have what I wanted, and the blind bag wasn’t much better. But even if it did have what I wanted, I took it, but never at the expense of my opponents’ moves. It’s clearly meant to be a source of interaction, in fact the only source, but it never felt like my interaction with it affected my opponents or vice versa. But also, making sure to refill it, or add to it even if you don’t touch it, but not until the end of your turn (long after you might have drawn with it), felt clunky. Additionally, refilling the bag with the discard box also felt like fiddling with components just for fiddliness’ sake. Compared to just taking a card in a game like Ticket to Ride and flipping a new one, it was much less smooth. Splendor’s fight over a limited number of gems was also much more interactive with other players, but also just faster. Taking three different gems feels a lot better than taking one. Spellbook does build up as you finish spells, but it feels like the arc takes too long for how short the game is.
The other issue with the materia, and the game arc, is the ability to store them for points. This is a key part of the game, and you need to do it a fair amount to be successful. But all you’re doing is losing a few of your precious resources to get points. It’s… boring. I’m collecting resources so I can build an engine and bigger and bigger stuff, but to do well here, I’m required to hamper my ability to engine-build so that I can put a token on a point track. Going back to Splendor, the Noble bonuses feel like a “chain reaction” of getting points for getting points, and that’s a great dopamine hit. It serves a similar game function to storing materia for points in Spellbook, except that one feels good and one feels bad.
One thing I kept thinking was that I wish the wonderful materia tokens were actually just a deck of cards. That brings me to another comparison, which was Phil Walker-Harding’s original inspiration: Rummy. My parents didn’t play hobby games unless I made them, but they were “gamers” in the sense that we had a 52-card deck out every day, ready to play. I played Rummy probably twice a week for about 15 years with my parents while growing up; Rummy, Hearts and Euchre were our go-to games. The problem is that by adding “special powers” to Rummy, he took away what made Rummy great.
The tension in Rummy is primarily of who’s going to run out of cards first, along with the push-your-luck aspect of holding for higher value cards (Aces are worth 20, face cards are worth 10, the rest are worth 5), along with the risk of digging through a pile of discards for a key card. You can dig if you can play the last card you take from the pile, but then you have a huge hand of junk that could end up as negative points. While Spellbook is a race to the finish, it felt too slow and serene (in a bad way) to actually feel like a race. The pace of a turn of Rummy is also incredibly fast: take a card, maybe play a set, discard a card, go, but the tinkering with the altar and the 3-part structure of a turn of Spellbook keeps it from that frenetic pace. Even though Spellbook is a fast game, it feels slow. You might spend your first five turns just taking one materia from the altar before you can play a set, and you might likewise spend your first five turns of Rummy just drawing a card from the top of the deck. But having to fiddle with the altar each turn and keep track of your phases and maybe store a materia make those five turns of Spellbook feel much less exciting, combined with the fact I don’t care about anything my opponent does on a turn. I at least care what my opponent is discarding in Riummy, even during those first few lightning fast turns.
And really, that’s the key differentiator: consumed materia go into the discard bowl, never to be interacted with, while discarded cards in Rummy are fodder for your opponents, and even your sets can be piggybacked (other players can “add on” to your sets even with smaller amounts of cards), and you’re forced to risk feeding them good stuff right away. The interaction is gone, the tension is gone, the speed is gone, and the special powers do not feel strong enough to make the trade worth it.
In that last paragraph, I started to type out ways that I would fix Spellbook, and I can think of several. But is there a more damning thing to say about a game than “here’s what I would really want to change?” I’m incredibly sad to be disappointed in a game I wanted to love, but the beautiful presentation and methodical ruleset of Spellbook sadly lead to its downfall. This could have been a fast and furious card game of set collection with special powers, and maybe could have been great, but sadly it sits far below its predecessors instead.
The Bottom Line
Despite great components and precise rules, Spellbook is missing the excitement of its inspirations.