Review – 12 Realms

12 Realms is a fairy tale/fantasy–themed cooperative game that places each player in the role of a fairy tale hero defending one or more magical realms from invasion by nefarious forces. Each hero has a different array of talents to move around the realms, defeat minions, gather artifacts, acquire item boosts, and defeat the dark lords before the invaders overrun the realms.

Quick Take: A fun cooperative game with a unique flavor that has a healthy dose of tension and “we’re doomed!” before you manage to win.

What’s In The Box?

12 Realms come with 8 hero miniatures and matching player boards, 4 realm boards with about 20 cards and 33 tokens matching each realm, two dice, 4 wooden invasion markers, 4 fortress miniatures, 23 small town cards (plus about as many additional town cards for variants), and scores of circular talent tokens.

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Basic Gameplay

For each player in the game, there is one realm to be invaded. Each realm has seven spaces, one a town and the other just numbered spots. All of the cards matched with each of the active realms are shuffled together, and at the start of each turn the players will draw and resolve two cards per realm, plus one extra. Each realm has three treasures and three artifacts (one of each starts the game on the board), but most of the deck is invaders. When the invader’s card is drawn, the token for that invader is placed on a random numbered spot on the matching realm. At the start of the next turn, the realm’s invasion track increases by one for each invader still left on the board. When a realm’s track reaches 16 the dark lord of that realm’s invaders appears. When it reaches 20 the players lose the game (just one track needs to max out, not all of them).

The Silver Kingdom

Of course, in the meantime the players will have taken steps to defeat the invaders, pick up the artifacts and treasures, visited the towns, and so forth. After the invaders spawn, the players in order each take a full turn, and then the next invasion phase begins. The exact options available to a player are largely defined by his hero. Each hero has between six and eight talents, and talents are how you do almost everything in the game. There are six kinds – Swiftness, Combat, Charm, Craft, Magic, and Cash Money (sorry, Coins). The player gets a red token for each talent on the player board matching his hero – these tokens are “exploited” (used up for the turn) to perform actions, and then refresh after all of the heroes have taken their turns.

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Exploiting a Swiftness talent lets the hero move on a realm board, and so every hero sports several Swiftness talents. Each of the tokens on the board – invaders, artifacts, and treasures – requires one or more talents to remove. The weakest invaders require just one of three different talents, while the hardest normal invaders require two specific talents. Artifacts and treasures require one specific talent. Which talent is required varies from token to token, but all do the same thing – you get a blue coin talent for picking up a treasure (blue talent tokens are used in the same way as red talents, but they are one use only) and you must have all three artifacts from a particular realm in order to face the realm’s dark lord.

One of the many Bones Island invaders and one of the two Bones Island dark lords.
One of the many Bones Island invaders and one of the two Bones Island dark lords.

The final two actions can only be taken at a realm’s town. First, you can go shopping – spend a Swiftness talent, draw two town cards from the deck, and take home one of them if you’ve got the coin. Some of the town cards are one shots (such as getting a wild blue token or moving the invasion marker back), but many give one or two extra permanent red talents, which are a big deal. Second, you can travel from one realm to the next. Unlike normal movement, this does not require exploiting a talent, but it does end your turn, so it requires careful planning.

town cards
town cards

Defeating a dark lord is a bit different from defeating a normal invader. Each requires four specific talents to overcome (well, except for the one who requires three random talents), and the challenging hero has to have all three of the matching artifacts. On the bright side, not only can these artifacts be traded at any time that two heroes are in the same space, but if there’s another hero with you in the same space as the dark lord then that hero can also contribute talents.

When a dark lord is defeated, the realm it was invading is essentially in the win column. The invasion track never goes up, and you reduce the number of cards drawn each turn by 2 (with cards for the now safe realm being discarded and replaced). Defeat all the dark lords and the players win!

Flavor

12 Realms is a fantasy/fairy tale sort of setting, but the game has its own unique twists on everything. The four realms are:

–          the Fairy Forest, which is assaulted by invaders like gnomes, dryads, and faeries of various sorts;

–          Bones Island, which is infested with pirate-themed invaders, up to and including a monkey pirate king;

–          Cherry Blossom, with Japanese-themed invaders such as kitsune, tanuki, and ninja; and

–          the Silver Kingdom, which is attacked by a harder to pin down group of invaders including Valkyries, dwarves, ravens, and mouse guards.

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And, of course, there are the heroes, who are a diverse bunch. Anthropomorphic animal versions of literary characters? Check! Characters from the Nutcracker? Check! Fairy tale maidens? Check!

Individual Heroes and Invaders

So, aside from the general gameplay and flavor, what sort of things might you see a hero or invader doing in 12 Realms? Invaders might have a chance of stopping a challenging hero in his or her tracks with Blast, might cough up coins when defeated, might summon other invaders (or might come out in a group), can strip talents away from heroes in various ways, and might require a random selection of talents to defeat (there’s a custom die included with the talents on the six sides).

Half of the heroes just have 7 or 8 talents (Siegfried, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and D’Artagnan), but the others have ‘powers’ too – the Sugar Plum Fairy can cash her Magic in for wild card blue talent tokens, Robin Hood can turn his Swiftness in for a coin blue talent token, Jeanne D’Arc has a red wild card talent, and the Nutcracker can use his magic to teleport.

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Opinions/Judgments/Observations

12 Realms did a good job of consistently imparting what seems to me to be a key experience of a good cooperative game – giving you that “oh god, oh god, we’re never going to survive … wait, what, we won? We won!” train of thought. About the only downside to the game flow was that, although it’s possible to defeat one dark lord and then lose to another, we rarely had any difficulty finishing them off after the first one got taken down. Indeed, it’s possible to have the remaining board(s) so controlled that you have to deliberately let invaders stay around so that the dark lord can get summoned.

And with the variants in the box (extra buildings where you can buy item cards to make it easier, and black fortresses for the invaders to hole up in to make it harder) you can tinker with the difficulty to meet the challenge you like (there are also variants such as the Crab or petrified invaders that make things easier or more difficult, but those are separate promo packs). There’s also a variant where one player controls the invaders and also gets to use a separate deck of event cards to make everyone else’s life harder. This increases the difficulty, but I haven’t had the chance to play with it so I can’t comment on how it works out.

I have not played 12 Realms with 5 or 6 players, but unless I’m missing something the game will get pretty easy at that point – there is no scaling past 4 players (still 4 realms, still 9 cards per turn). So if playing with 5-6 you will likely want to invoke one of the optional rules to increase difficulty.

Some gamers do not like cooperative games that can end up with one player telling everyone else what to do. Be advised that 12 Realms is a game where this can happen.

Increasing your available talents through town cards seems very important. Heroes with coin talents have a leg up, and whether you have coin talents or not you should try to visit the town early and often if you can.

The rules are not superb, but the F.A.Q. cleared up the main thing I just couldn’t figure out for sure (how do you tell if an invader has Horde or Summon? Turns out that I had correctly guessed that all of the +1 guys were Summon and the others were Horde, but the icons look the same and the rulebook doesn’t say). The iconography on the monster cards and character boards is not really intuitive, but the back of the rulebook does clear up what (almost) all of it does.

We liked the flavor of the characters and realms. I don’t think any of us would have sat down and said “You know what would make a good theme? If a cat version of Robin Hood was working with the Sugar Plum Fairy to defeat a Japanese demon!” But it was kind of cute and amusing and, most importantly, just different.

In sum, 12 Realms delivers unique flavor and cooperative action that provides the necessary amount of tension to keep that oh-so-important ‘we’re doomed’ feeling going right up until the end.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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