Innovation is overrated.
Not that game designers should never strive to try to do something fresh and exciting, but by its very nature, innovation is often unpolished. Rare is the game that does something totally new in a manner that is also clean and playable. But one of those rare instances was Dominion, the smash 2008 game that launched a dozen expansions and far more copycats. Deckbuilding as a genre has come a long way in the last decade plus of development, but Dominion continues to stand toe-to-toe in terms of polish and playability with just about any other game in the genre.
It should be noted that Dominion’s originality is almost totally mechanical. Thematically the game is about as generic as it gets. While I’m generally fine with games that don’t innovate mechanically, I long for game designers to branch out into different themes. The nondescript aesthetic of Dominion is one of the things that eventually burnt me out on that game. Well, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is not a very innovative game, mechanically or thematically, but it’s now the only deckbuilder I own. That happens to be because I like Harry Potter a lot, and Hogwarts Battle offers enough connection to its license to overcome some very conservative game design.
Actually, it’s not totally fair to say that Hogwarts Battle offers nothing innovative. Taking a page from more long-form experiences like Pandemic Legacy, it makes the ambitious choice to encompass all seven years of Harry Potter’s schooling. The game starts in Year 1, with characters that you will recognize from the first book/movie. This is indeed a basic deck-building experience, instantly familiar to anyone who has played a single game of Dominion. You play cards, buy cards, then shuffle them all and do it all over again. It’s a cooperative experience, so there are villains who must be stopped and bad-guy events that must be dealt with every turn. But it’s not at all taxing, and could easily be played by most kids.
But once you beat Year 1, there’s a series of little tuckboxes labelled “Year 2,” “Year 3,” etc. With each victory you open the next box and add the components into the game. Mostly these are more of what you have already seen, new villains and events, and new cards for the players to buy. But every so often they introduce advanced mechanics into the game. Maybe it’s a new type of special ability you can utilize, or an upgraded form of an old one. To say more would be to spoil some of the fun, but by the time you get to Year 4 the experience has become richer and more complex, though still very accessible.
This basically makes Hogwarts Battle a legacy game, but it avoids some of my little annoyances with that genre. (My main exposure to legacy games is from the very good Pandemic Legacy.) First of all, no single year adds very much in the way of complexity. Impatient people who want to get on with it can safely add Years 2-3 right off the bat, giving some nice variety without much complexity. It avoids the feeling of continually adding new rules to internalize by keeping the whole thing streamlined. Also in the game’s favor is the fact that resetting the game is simple and easy. If you complete all seven years you can put everything back in the tuckboxes and start over, or maybe loan it to some friends to try for themselves.
Perhaps most notably, the legacy elements represent the most meaningful connection to the Harry Potter world. There’s a definite sense of progression and rising stakes with every successive year, and every new character added into the deck gives a little jolt of recognition. It should be noted that Hogwarts Battle uses stills from the film series, not illustrations from the books. While I’m sure a lot of Potterheads would have preferred to see the illustrations of Mary GrandPré or Jim Kay, this is probably the best move. It makes the game immediately recognizable and provides a wide range of stills for the production. That production totally nails the license too. The box is designed like Harry’s school trunk, complete with an illustration of the contents of Harry’s trunk when you open the box. It’s a very well-designed physical product too, with great spaces to store everything and some decent organization solutions right in the box. (A must for deckbuilder games, I think.)
One could therefore be forgiven a bit of disappointment at the simple nature of the game. While the Harry Potter universe affords great possibilities for thematic design, Hogwarts Battle plays it very safe. This is not an altogether bad choice though, as it keeps the game squarely in the grasp of anyone who would ever want to play it. It’s the sort of game you could sell at Target, and most Harry Potter fans, children included, will understand it. It generally uses the most straightforward solution to every mechanical challenge, and it proves to be a worthwhile trade-off. I’m now at a point in my game-playing life where learning a new game is a little bit of a burden, so new games had better wow me. I’m not altogether sure that Hogwarts Battle clears that bar, but it’s so frictionless to learn that it makes up for it. There’s something to be said for a safe design that can be played easily.
But there are places where the game could really use a little more precision in its design. For example, the card tableau very sensibly has one giant deck, and every type of card is all mixed together. You have six options at any given time, and that’s all. This is the simplest way to play, and it offers a lot of unique cards to the player. But it also keeps the player from refining their deck very much, since you don’t have a ton of say in what kind of card you can get. That dulls the unique qualities of the different characters. Not only that, but when all six cards are a little pricey it can bog down the game quite a bit while players wait for a draw with enough purchasing power. There’s no way to flush the card selection, so you’re out of luck. It has the double whammy of slowing down the game, and giving the player a lot of turns where nothing much positive happens.
I also take issue with the game loss condition. In each game there are two or three locations, and events put evil influence on those cards. When all of the cards have been filled with influence, the game is lost. That’s not a bad way to do things, but the game never wavers from this mechanic, and it pushes against the various climaxes from the stories that most fans will be thinking of. It’s adequate without being very interesting. There are a few places like this where the accessibility is wielded like a blunt weapon, bashing out smart design in favor of simplicity.
This design approach begins to take its toll in some of the later years. As the stacks of different cards grow thicker the experience grows streakier. It feels like success in the later games is contingent on getting a lucky break in all of various card decks. The easy villains need to come out early on, the right cards for your deck need to become available, etc., to have any real shot at success. And like the novels the game is based on, the later years get a whole lot longer. What started as a simple 45-minute card game bloats all the way toward the 2-hour mark by the time you get to year 6. It’s still very playable, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that with a better design and development team it could be a lot more enjoyable.
I don’t want to be too negative on the experience though, even in the later game. This is one of those games that has a couple of very specific niches for me. It’s a simple game I can play with my son, a no-fuss deckbuilding experience, and a chance to play in the Harry Potter universe for a bit. Even as the design begins to creak in the later games, it still ticks all those boxes ably. Sometimes recycling the ideas of others can make for a fun game, particularly if you slap a well-loved license on the box and do right by that license. Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle does just that, and as a result it’s one of my most-played games of 2019.