On the Table – SpellBook conjures up a good time

Posted on October 26, 2023

As we are still recovering from a bumper weekend at PAX Aus 2023, one thing that always stands out to us beyond all the awesome video games is the tabletop area, and this year we had the chance to try out some great new board games. SpellBook, designed by Phil Walker-Harding, is a simple yet satisfying game where you learn spells in order to become the greatest wizard of the Annual Grand Rite.

We had the chance to play a game of SpellBook with Phil, and talk to him about what went into designing the experience.

A game of SpellBook has you collecting various coloured tokens with different symbols on them, known as Materia. Certain Materia are used to feed your familiar character and learn spells. It’s simple to learn, with clear colours and shapes standing out so that you can match them with the appropriate spell cards. The trick here is that you can activate spells early by spending less Materia, meaning you can activate them fast to earn victory points. If you wait, however, you’ll be able to build them up to be even stronger. It makes for a balance that is simple to learn but has lots of strategies to consider.

Phil noted that making the game easy to learn was one of his main design goals, as it always is. “I strive to make my games approachable to a wide range of players, and a huge part of this is making the learning experience smooth and intuitive. So I usually aim for a ruleset that can be taught in a few minutes, and can also be mostly absorbed just by watching others play. With SpellBook, I was inspired by Rummy which is a very simple game. So I tried to keep the rules clean, and it was also important to have player reference cards, so the flow of the game was always easy to remember.”

“Within mere minutes, we were taking in turns to trigger spells and collect Materia, quickly finding a rhythm and thinking ahead about our next move…”

Within mere minutes, we were taking in turns to trigger spells and collect Materia, quickly finding a rhythm and thinking ahead about our next move, so in practice the game is definitely easy to pick up. But with so many potential paths to victory, I asked Phil how he went about balancing the experience, and he assures me that lots of testing was involved.

“In a game like SpellBook where there are different paths for the players to pursue and many different setup combinations, it is important that each strategy is fairly valued.” says Phil. “You want players to be able to learn the spells they want and not be at a disadvantage because one spell ends up being worth more than another.”

Switching Materia, collecting different combinations, using your limited actions each turn wisely, activating your collection of spell cards and earning points to be first to the finish line makes for a fun time, importantly banking what you need for later use while making sure you’re keeping an eye on what your opponents are doing. In our session, it didn’t take long for one player to get a strong lead early, while I was focused on more long-term spell-building, and I am keen to try out other tactics in future games.

From the box art to the colourful tokens to the gorgeous artwork on the cards themselves, SpellBook is extremely appealing visually. Phil notes that even from the beginning, this was important. “The original prototype I made for SpellBook used royalty-free illustrations from very old books. So each spell had an engraving-style illustration to go with it, which gave the cards the feel of being pages of an old book.” Phil mentions that publisher Space Cowboys brightened things up considerably and hired the talented artist Cyrille Bertin to do all the illustrations. “It was important that the seven different spell colours were very clear on the cards, and I think the vibrant colours in each piece really make the game pop on the table.”

I’m excited to incorporate SpellBook into my weekly board game rotation. Easy to pick up and play, with games lasting about 45 minutes, I can see it being a great addition to kick off the night. It has a lot of variety in how you tackle each game and what spells you can access, which means it’s just complicated enough when it comes to strategy to appeal to more serious board game aficionados.

SpellBook is available now. Thanks to the team at Double Jump and VR Distribution who provided much-needed coffee during our play session and chat with Phil.