Magic Realm was released by Avalon Hill, with the specific purpose of . . . wait for it . . . competing head-to-head with Dungeons & Dragons! Magic Realm initially sold well, becoming Avalon Hill’s second best selling game of 1979. And many have continued to play it through the years.
Though long out of print, Magic Realm continues to attract and intrigue new players, and several game companies have quietly looked into the possibility of reprinting it. Recent years have seen the release of an outstanding fan-produced 3rd edition rulebook, and multiple Java applications that allow playing on a PC.
Set-up of the game, though, is well . . . long. Players set up a bunch of hex tiles, one at a time, into a complex map of a once-mighty kingdom, marked with trails and tunnels seeded with counters representing monsters, treasures, and human natives.
Magic Realm is undeniably a big, complex, fiddly game with a formidable learning curve. Why then do people continue to play it 36 years after its introduction?
The game’s fan seem willing to accept most of the game’s complexity in exchange for having no mandatory step process of character creation; All sixteen available characters exist fully completed, and are unique from each other in many s ways. Each character has action chits, which determine how fast you dodge and how hard you swing. The chits show how much effort an action requires. The concept of “hit points” is replaced with the necessity of spending your chits wisely, in combinations that allow for your strongest hits and fastest dodges — without tiring you out too much. Characters will often only be able to fight at full strength for a short time.
Fatigue keeps your chits out of play until you rest. And if you think that’s bad, well, getting wounded by the monsters is no picnic either!
Magic Realm’s biggest fans generally call it an RPG that is NOT about levelling up, complex mysteries, or emotional bonds between the characters — it’s about WINNING and LOSING. On every turn, you face two conflicting imperatives: 1) Play cautiously to keep your character alive, and 2) Take risks to take your shot at winning the game.
Most RPGs inspired by D&D are probably better classified as “interactive stories” than games, as they will have little direct competition between the players, generally no hard time limit, and little chance that their players could ever actually “lose” the game. To win Magic Realm, you must survive the deadly game world and outplay everyone else.
For many diehard fans of D&D — and they are legion — this is a very different experience from what they want. But it shouldn’t be so surprising that there are just some lovers of fantasy combat who don’t want to leave direct competition between the players off the table. In fact, they relish it. And for that group of gamers, Magic Realm is exactly what they want.
“A Critical Look at Magic Realm and Roleplaying”, posted in February 2015 by Jay Richardson on boardgamegeek.com’s review forums