Arcane Legions: great idea, questionable execution
July 02, 2009
Arcane Legions appears to be an interesting project by some of the former minds behind FASA and WizKids!, and was shown off at Origins this year. Robot Viking posted some early thoughts on the game, and admittedly, the premise of the game intrigued us. That’s because Arcane Legions has the potential to do for large-scale combat what Mage Knight did for smaller battles, though we’re not convinced it’s capable of that in its current form. Since the game as reviewed remains a prototype, hopefully it will evolve enough to further tempt us down the road. In the meantime, here’s our thoughts on where Arcane Legions falls short.
Firstly, Robot Viking describes the armies as having clear historical themes, though the game is clearly fantasy, what with magical attacks being included. There’s certainly no problems with a fictional army being strongly influenced by a real-life culture or society, but thus far, it sounds like Arcane Legions is too bland in its influence. It’s not that we think it’s uncool to stage imaginary battles between the great empires of yore, but unless some sense of historical accuracy is to exist, the concept is destroyed in its execution because of its blandness. That is to say, if the armies are accurate depictions of their historical influences, then maybe we can see history buffs taking notice, but since that doesn’t appear to be the case, we can only envision the potential audience for this game thinking that the armies are simply too bland. Compare this to the cultural influences in other games, which form the basis for an army’s feel, and are then added upon by rather fantastical concepts. Just look at Warmachine’s Khador faction for an example of real-life historical themes permeating a fantasy world done right.
Secondly, as intriguing as large-scale tray-based battles are, the scale of the units is off. Look, we did large-scale battles in Mage Knight (Conquest rules) well enough, without needing trays to configure troop formations. For tray-based games to be worthwhile, the scale of the miniatures needs to be changed dramatically. Based on what we see from Robot Viking’s preview, we see army trays consisting of approximately five to 15 units, which is not any bigger than what we would have found in our Mage Knight Conquest battles. For tray-based games to shine, we should see the smallest trays hold at least a dozen units, and scale up from there. Even if we don’t take large-scale battles to the extreme, where a player can literally field 100+ units, games like Flames of War have found solid ways to portray large-sized battles with smaller units. Sadly, Arcane Legions doesn’t seem to get this right at all.
Thirdly, and while acknowledging that the pics at Robot Viking depict prototype units/armies, the game just doesn’t look good. The units look “saggy” like many of the plastic units from the original Mage Knight, and simply don’t compare to heavyweight miniatures from Warhammer, Warmachine, etc. Similarly, the unit trays look uninspired, and not something we’d be proud to field. And really, if our units don’t look good on the battlefield, much of the fun is lost. And then there’s this strange bit on what’s painted and what’s not:
Special units and heroes will come pre-painted, while common figures will ship unpainted (a few commons seemed to have some parts painted, such as insignias on shields, but Iâ€™m not sure if thatâ€™s just because they were prototype pieces).
Given the paint jobs on most pre-painted plastic miniatures, it seems odd that it’s the common units that will come unpainted. If anything, we’d rather our rarer pieces be unpainted so we can make them look especially good, whereas the common units don’t need to stand out quite as much. The reality is that many wargaming fans won’t want unpainted figures in the armies for long, which means it will become rather aggravating for the special units to look worse than the commons.
Those three issues aside, Arcane Legions does bring a number of cool features to the table. For one, distribution of rarer pieces seems much better than other collectible miniature games, since there will be boosted specifically for uncommon units and heroes, and larger boxes for collecting commons. This means that collectors, in theory, won’t be spending as much money to complete armies, and similarly won’t have an unneeded number of commons around collecting dust. Additionally, the subscription option is a nice one, which allows members to purchase special units online, and even customize unit configurations on trays, with an online system tracking point distribution and recording these custom trays to an online database for any member to use. Effectively, the individual player can contribute to the game by submitting army ideas and being recognized for their strategic theorycraft, as other players can download these unit configurations for their own, tournament-legal, use.
So Arcane Legions seems like a fair mix of good-and-bad. The game is set for release this upcoming September, which makes us wonder just how drastic any changes can be at this point. In any case, it will be interesting to see just how fun the core mechanic is, and how well it works: reconfiguring trays to adjust army strengths/weaknesses each turn. It sounds intriguing in theory, but it may not be quite as revolutionary as the Clix system before it. Of course, for casual miniature wargamers, Arcane Legions may be just the thing to fill in the void since Mage Knight support dried up.