Want to play in a fantasy world with characters very similar to those found in fairy tales? Want a theme that jumps right out of your Japanese RPG video game dreams? If you’re willing to fiddle around working out how the rules work, then 12 Realms might be the game for you.
12 Realms is a 1-6 player cooperative game by Ignazio Corrao that takes you and your friends (or you alone) on a journey to destroy the Lords of Darkness of up to four different realms with names like Cherry Blossom, Silver Kingdom, Fairy Forest, and Bones Island. These are just four of a promised twelve different realms (hence the name) that the publisher MAGE Company plans to bring out. In fact, there is a new Kickstarter out right now for the fifth installment of the 12 Realms series, Bedtime Story. The other expansions – Ancestors Legacy, Ghost Town, and Ghost Galleon – have all been successfully Kickstarted, so the series is clearly popular among the Kickstarter gaming crowd. Some of this can be attributed to the lovely art and miniatures that are included with certain levels of backing of the game, although all include player character miniatures.
It seems as though the Lords of Darkness have taken over each of the Realms. It’s the heroes’ job to rout their minions and defeat these Lords before it’s too late. Players exploit talents (like Combat, Charm, Magic, Gold) to complete different tasks around the Realms, and to jump from Realm to Realm to assist each other. Once a talent is exploited, it can’t be used until the player’s next turn. In the meantime, the more minions who appear in a Realm, the quicker their Lord of Darkness will appear, and the sooner the game will end in defeat.
The heroes don’t have just their own talents to use, however. They can trade gold for additional talents in town by buying Town Cards, which have knights, horses, Senseis, and more, who can give them additional talents and gold. Build up your talent resources, and you may have enough talents to defeat minions, gather the Artefacts (sic) necessary to attack the Lord of Darkness in that Realm, and save all 12 Realms (or in this case, 4 Realms).
In general, cooperative games are a revelation for general gaming. While there are still situations that could create arguments, in general competing against the game with your friends removes any issues that competition can add. This game, then, has that going for it.
From a complexity standpoint, 12 Realms is of the type of Arkham Horror. Although it is not quite as complex, owners will definitely want to come up with an organizational scheme that allows them to quickly set up, rather than spending time sifting through all of the parts just to work out which parts go with what. Which is important in this game, as each Realm has cards, tokens, and a board that go together. Mixing them all up when you store everything (as the included bags would require) puts you in a position of spending at least 10-15 minutes organizing before you can play.
Unlike Arkham Horror, which is heavily dependent on text to communicate rules on cards and tokens, 12 Realms chooses to use icons. This can lead to some problems, which can be resolved after a few play-throughs. For instance, I chose to play by myself (a nice option that is often available in cooperative games), and failed to understand a couple of important rules. The main thing I got wrong was how the Sensei cards worked. Since a red square on a card indicates a permanent talent, and this card has 6 of them on its face, I initially assumed I received all of those talents. Then, there is a black die that you roll (the Talent Die), and the instructions say you add a permanent talent to your character. Well… I did it wrong. Even though all the other cards that add more than one permanent talent have a square for each one, it seems as though the Sensei only adds one of the six possible talents to a character. I had three Sensei’s when I played, and with my misinterpretation, ended up with twenty-one talents to exploit. The text in the rulebook was clear, once I realized this, but the icons on the card made this confusing.
That’s a general note for the whole rulebook. Most rulebooks start out with a straightforward declaration of the goal of the game, followed by a description of the parts, then a set-up. This rulebook does things a different way, and so it’s challenging to find all of the rules needed to get going. For instance, it wasn’t until I had played about 7 turns and had almost used up all of the cards in the Realm deck that I started wondering when I would see the Lord of Darkness. The rule for that is there under, surprisingly enough, Lord of Darkness, but I was in a state of panic (as much as a game played by oneself can cause) for a minute or two as I searched for the rule that applied.
In fact, that issue occurs quite a bit throughout the game. There are Town Cards, for example, that have costs associated with them. One or two gold can get you one of these important cards. But then there are cards where the cost is a “?”. It took me about five minutes to conclude, after the rulebook didn’t state it explicitly, that those cards needed to be used right away at a cost determined by the player. I’m still not 100% certain that’s how it works, but it’s the only logical conclusion I could come to. And no, I didn’t look it up on the Internet. I shouldn’t have to.
What’s more, there are even some situations where the game can’t be played at all, at least as a solo player. I happened to choose the Silver Kingdom with D’Artagnon. It turns out that in order to get gold in the Silver Kingdom, you need the Charm talent. D’Artagnon doesn’t have Charm as a talent, so he’d have to buy some in town. Ah, but he also doesn’t have a Gold talent. Which means that, in this Realm, he could never win. He can’t get any Gold, so he can’t buy any Town Cards. He’s done.
One presumes that the designers have thought of this, and that this doesn’t happen often in the game. Still, it’s disconcerting to have it even be possible. It also suggests that the single player mode is an afterthought. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as this game clearly is intended for multiplayer cooperative play.
Other thoughts on the game: in general, the parts are of good quality, especially the box and the game boards. The miniatures, which one imagines are a draw for many buyers, have decent detail, although the type of plastic used is such that they are bendable. Leaving the game in a hot car doesn’t seem like a great idea. The cardboard tokens are of fine quality, but some are quite small, and their icons may be challenging to read for some. The box insert is sufficient, although the boards need to be placed underneath in order for the box to close flush. And the aforementioned issue with organization, which is pretty typical for games like this, is definitely an issue many owners will want to address with plastic baggies and rubber bands. Oh, and the printing on the Talent Die didn’t line up with the raised portions on the die itself. Perhaps this is because it was a reviewer copy.
Overall, though, this is a good quality game. The challenge does not draw players in to story as much as say Dead of Winter or Arkham Horror. This is mostly attributable to the paucity of flavor text. It does seem, though, that once the game is understood and the parts organized, that a group of players could get playing and address the challenges pretty efficiently, and work together to solve the puzzle that the game presents.
The question to ask, then, is this: buy a game that is a more complex version of other smaller games, or save that money for a game with more story and integrated theme? For the player who wants the Japanese anime RPG experience without all the pesky dialog, 12 Realms will surely satisfy. However, for a deep game play experience, other players should look elsewhere.
6 out of 10 Gold Coins
Plusses – nice art, good quality parts, easy to play once understood, cooperative
Minuses – somewhat confusing rules, tiny pieces, lack of full integration of theme
Eliot has been orbiting show business for over 20 years as an improv comedian, video director, and general guy you might barely recognize. Currently best known for his work on the comedy podcast Never Not Funny: The Jimmy Pardo Podcast. He wrote previously for MacEdition.com, and is working on a collection of short sci-fi and weird tales that will probably be published someday. He is also one of three principals in Modest Games.