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Review: Arcane Legions Mass Miniature Combat Game

July 26, 2009 | | Comments 4

Arcane Legions is the first release from Wells Expeditions and bills itself as a mass miniature combat game. On Friday, my retailer demo kit arrived and I spent the evening getting it ready for a Saturday run at my local game store. This is my review of the “Arcane Legions” demo kit. A retail version of this kit releases in September at a retail price of $35.00.

The demo kit is the basic box set for Arcane Legions without the box. The contents include a rules manual, 14 painted 25 mm miniatures and 110+ unpainted miniatures in plastic sprues, red, white and blue 6-sided dice, a stack of black plastic trays with peg holes in them in two sizes and cards for the plastic trays.

I unpacked the box and did a quick examination.

Arcane Legions Unbox

Arcane Legions Unbox

The overlay cards need separating to give you an overlay card and a reference card for the player. This took no time at all. Then I turned my attention to the pile of plastic to the left. In those sprues lie 110+ miniatures and I needed to get them ready for battle.

Roughly 60% of the sprue miniatures are complete and require nothing more than removal and flash trimming (excess plastic to non-miniature gamers). The remaining 40% required some kind of assembly.  Many of the miniatures had separate weapons and limbs that needed some glue also. 25 mm is a relatively small mini (at least for me) so this was somewhat tedious. It also required some x-acto knives and glue to get it all together.

Three hours pass…

Finally, I had my army completed and ready for battle. I dove into the rules and the first thing I discovered was that each type of miniature has a serial number and this number is critical to play the game. I then sorted the miniatures into plastic Ziploc bags based on this number. Once you have the miniatures memorized, this is not an issue, but it was a bit of work the first time. The serial number is printed in very tiny numbers at the foot of each miniature. Not on the bottom, so painting these miniatures will obliterate the number. I also had issues seeing the serial number at all and I have 20/15 vision. There is a small piece of paper (actually part of the miniature assembly instructions) with pictures of the miniatures and serial numbers. I suggest hanging on to this as it was much easier than reading the miniature’s tiny printing.

If it is not already clear, you cannot buy and play this game on the same day, unless you have some help cutting and assembling the miniatures. Frequent miniatures players with razors, glue and space could probably get it up and running much faster. My three hours produced a slipshod army that is not really pretty when you get up close. A quality job would take longer

There are three different armies in the demo kit, but I understand that the real basic set contains only two (this may be a mistake on my part, see comments). The current factions are the Romans, the Han Chinese and Egyptians. All the armies are a mix of historical units (legionnaires, Han bowmen) and the fantastical (Mummies, Terra Cotta soldiers and minotaurs).

I packed up everything and headed to my friendly local game store (Game Depot, Tempe AZ, if you are curious) for a couple of rounds with Haaldaar. Here is a shot of the game after  a few rounds.

Arcane Legions on the Battlefield

Arcane Legions on the Battlefield

The game mechanics are relatively simple. Each miniature type is assigned a serial number. These serial numbers correspond to peg holes on the overlay cards. You insert the miniature (they all have pegs on the bottom) into the correct hole on the overlay. Here is a close-up of a populated card. Take note of the serial numbers next to each hole and the dice icons, which I will explain after the image.

Formation of Undead Close-up

Formation of Undead Close-up

When a peg hole is populated, that grants the entire unit a specific benefit. Red dice icons are melee attack dice, a chevron is extra movement and white dice are defense dice. During the game you move miniatures around on the overlay to adjust the units abilities. For example, as you move across the board, all the movement holes are occupied. When melee starts you order the unit to reorganize, emptying the movement holes and moving miniatures to red dice melee attack holes. You move slower now, but hit harder. There are also some special ability holes that grant some boon when occupied and nothing when unoccupied. Populating holes is part of the game’s strategy, since you will lose units during combat and have hard choices about what you want to give up.

Combat roles simply compare your attack dice (d6) against the defense dice on a one-for-one basis, with the higher dice winning. Ties go to the defender. If the attacker has more dice than the defender, then his extra dice go against “phantom” defense dice with a value of two. Each die does one point of damage and the defender uses the miniatures as hit points, based on the number of pegs it occupies. The skeletons above each have a value of 1 peg, so that formation takes 9 hits before extermination. The most pegs for a single monster in the demo kit was a Chinese Foo Dog with 4, with most miniatures having only one or two pegs. Here is a shot of the bases without the overlays. I included a standard WOTC miniature for scale. The odd gizmo on the bottom is the turning tool.

Arcane Legions Bases and Turning Tool

Arcane Legions Bases and Turning Tool

The turning tool allows maneuvers with the bases. It allows 90, 45 and 180 degree turns. I think I misread the rules on how to use this device, but here is my best interpretation. You line up the notches in the bases with the tool and then spin it around the turning tool to one of the opposite sides, based on how much you want to turn.

Each turn a player receives 8 command points to control his units. Each action costs X points and when you exhaust you 8 command points, your turn ends.

I am glossing over some key rules regarding ordering your troops, terrain and bonuses from flanking or attacking a weak side of a formation, but I think you get the idea how the game plays. The game is not very complex and the rule book is only 12 pages of text.

The game also includes 14 pre-painted miniatures. Here is a close-up shot of my Roman minotaur squad.

Arcane Legions Minotaur Sortie

Arcane Legions Minotaur Sortie

The pre-painted miniatures were the heroes and special units for each army with special abilities. I include this close-up so you can get a feel for the quality of the paint and sculpture. The pre-painted miniatures were adequate, but nothing special in both paint and sculpt. The sprue miniatures do the job, but I found them flimsy and hard to put together.

After we played, Haaldaar and I had a chat about the game and our initial thoughts. I thought gameplay was fun, but I could not figure out the intended audience. “Arcane Legions” lands somewhere between “Wizards of the Coast’s” miniature game with everything pre-painted and the time-intensive Warhammer products. It was quite a bit of work to get the basic game up and running, which will turn off the “I want to play now and hate dealing with miniatures crowd.” Conversely, the miniature quality is not up to the level of other games, so it is unlikely to really excite the hardcore miniature gamers. Hours later, I finally arrived at the demographic I thought Arcane Legions targets while writing up this review and added to the end of this post.

Haaldaar had a different complaint. At one point he got fed up fiddling with inserting miniatures back into the bases after his hero unit raised them from the dead. He just put dice over the appropriate peg holes and kept playing. I think the annoyance of having to deal with so many small miniatures with his giant hands in tight spaces wore him out.

The sprue units often looked very similar, so we had issues with putting the right miniature back onto the correct card when they rose from the dead. Since only certain units can be placed on certain overlays, we were forced to either remember which unit came from which overlay card, refer to the small instruction sheet with pictures or check the tiny serial number to figure out which one was which. Of course, with repeated play one would memorize the serial numbers for the units, but it was annoying for first-timers.

This post is a review, so it is time to get down to business. Haaldaar said outright he is unlikely to ever play Arcane Legions again. He found the miniatures sub-standard and difficult to handle. For my part, I enjoyed the actual game, but I did not like the long setup time for the basic set and the low quality sprue miniatures. That said, the price point is right for almost anyone at $35.00 for the base set. Since the base set is enough to actually play the game, Arcane Legions is the miniature gaming bargain of the year.

Please do not misunderstand this review; I had fun playing Arcane Legions even with the issues I have with the game, but it is not a game I will “buy into” financially going forward.  That said, I think this game has a real future in the greater gaming world.  I said earlier I could not figure out what demographic this game targets, but upon reflection I came up with an answer I think is correct. Arcane Legion’s low cost to entry, simple game mechanics and Wells Expeditions promising strong organized play support for conventions and game shops should draw significant numbers of younger (early teen)  gamers into the fold. Gamers with insufficient financial  resources for more expensive miniature games, but enough for Arcane Legions low price-point.

Arcane Legions is not to my taste, but I fully expect tables of young players at my local game store by Christmas.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer

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About the Author: Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

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