Bellwether: The School of Wizards Game Review

The Basics:

  • For ages 8 and up (publisher suggests 12+)
  • For 3 to 5 players
  • About 60 minutes to complete

Geek Skills:

  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading & Writing
  • Pattern/Color Matching
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Risk vs. Reward
  • Hand/Resource Management
  • Worker Placement & Area Control

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Hard
  • Adult – Easy

Theme & Narrative:

  • After defeating a great evil in the land, the wizards attempt to rebuild their kingdom, but danger still lurks in the shadows

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek approved!
  • Parent Geek approved!
  • Child Geek approved!

Overview

The greatest evil the realm had ever seen has been defeated but the land has been left in ruin, civilization decimated, and the great wizard school, Bellwether, is nothing more than rubble. As one of the last wizards who has survived the war that defeated the evil that corrupted the hearts, minds, and souls of the realm, it now falls to you to rebuild civilization. Food must be found, markets and homes rebuilt, basic infrastructure like roads and walls, must be cleared and raised. There is also need to establish a governing body, and a system of justice for the surviving people who have suffered so much. Last, but not least, the great wizard school of Bellwether needs to be rebuilt stone by stone. The land and the people are looking to you for leadership and protection for even though the great evil has been vanquished, danger still walks the land as the remnants of the dark scourge still exist. Use your wits and rebuild the realm, hunt down the sinister creatures that still walk the land, and find new magics to aid you. You will work with other wizards to accomplish this, but one wizard will rise above the rest and be the true leader of the people!

Bellwether, by Joe Magic Games, is comprised of 80 Midland tokens (plastic discs, 20 red, 20 green, 20 yellow, and 20 blue), 16 Dark Creature cards, 32 Spell cards, 2 six-sided dice, 1 main board, 1 building board, and 30 building cubes (6 per player in the colors black, white, red, purple, and red). For so many game bits, everything fits very nicely in a small box!

Game Set Up

Set the main and building board next to each other in the center of the playing area, with the main board to the left and the build board to the right as you face them. Shuffle the Spell and Dark Creature decks separately and place each deck, face-down, in the designated spot on the main board.

The main and the build boards used in the game

Place 2 Midland tokens of each color on the designated space on the main board (Forest tokens are green, Mountain tokens are red, Plains tokens are yellow, and Sea tokens are blue). The remaining tokens can be separated into their different colors or simply placed in a pile. Regardless, the remaining tokens should be close by. These unused tokens are referred to as the “supply”.

Give each player 5 building cubes of the same color, keeping the 6th cube at this time. Once the cubes have been provided to the players, randomly select one of the remaining cubes. The player who owns the colored cube selected goes first. All building cubes are now given to the players so that each player will have a total of 6 building cubes each.

You are now ready to play!

Wizards, Wise and Strong

On a player’s turn, they have a total of four actions to select from, but they can only take one of the four on their turn.  However, by using the Midland tokens, the player can pay to continue to take that same action again and again for as long as they have the tokens to pay for it. The available actions are Meditate, Study, Hunt, or Build.

Meditate – wherein the player communes with the troubled land

  • Player takes all the Midland tokens of one color off the main board and claims them
  • One Midland token of each color is taken from the supply and added to the appropriate space on the main board
  • The player can trade in 1 green token for 1 token of any color in the supply (not the main board), 2 for a second color, 3 for a third color, and so on
  • The player can trade with green tokens acquired this turn

Study – wherein the player searches through tombs full of long-lost magical lore

  • Player turns over 1 Spell card and places it face-up next to the main board
  • The player can trade in 1 blue token to reveal a second Spell card, 2 blue tokens for a third Spell card, 3 blue tokens for a fourth Spell card, and so on
  • Only the first Spell card revealed will remain in place for free, all the other revealed Spell cards will be put back in the Spell deck, but the player can trade in 1 yellow token to a keep the Spell card visible, 2 yellow tokens for a third Spell card, 3 yellow tokens for a fourth Spell card, and so on
  • The first revealed Spell card and all face-up cards that have been payed for with yellow tokens remain – all other Spell cards are placed back on the Spell deck, face-down, in any order the player wants
  • If the visible Spell card spawns a Dark Creature, determine the Dark Creature’s placement (see “Dark Creatures”)
  • If the visible Spell card spawns Midland tokens, add 1 token of each color from the supply to the main board
  • After the effect of the Spells cards are completed, all the face-up Spell cards are claimed by the player

Hunt – wherein the player searches for Dark Creatures and destroys them

  • Player turns over 1 Dark Creature card and places it face-up next to the main board
  • The player can trade in 1 blue token to reveal a second Dark Creature card, 2 blue tokens for a third Dark Creature card, 3 blue tokens for a fourth Dark Creature card, and so on
  • Only the first Dark Creature card revealed will remain in place for free, all the other Dark Creature cards will be put back in the Dark Creature deck, but the player can trade in 1 yellow token to keep a second Dark Creature card, 2 yellow tokens for a third Dark Creature card, 3 yellow tokens for a fourth Dark Creature card, and so on
  • The first revealed Dark Creature card and all face-up cards that have been payed for with a yellow token remain – all other Dark Creature cards are placed back on the Dark Creature deck, face-down, in any order the player wants
  • The player can now battle the revealed Dark Creature and any Dark Creature on the main and build board (see “Combat”)

Build – wherein the player uses their magic to rebuild the realm

  • Pay the cost of the building or advancement in tokens and Spells, making sure that any prerequisite has been successfully met by the player
  • Place the building cube is the highest valued space if no player has built in that specific location yet
  • Place the building cube in the second highest value if the highest valued space has a cube on it (players can build the same building and advancement twice)
  • The player can trade in 1 green token to build a second building or advancement, 2 green tokens to build a third building or advancement, 3 green tokens to build a fourth building or advancement, and so on
  • A player can never build a building or an advancement if it is occupied by a Dark Creature or it has already been claimed twice.

The Power of Magic

The Spell cards collected by the players serve four purposes in the game. In this way, Spells really are the most powerful asset available to the player, but they come at a terrible cost. A player can only learn about the ancient spellcraft by investigating dark and dangerous places. Magic and power will be there, but in the process they might release a Dark Creature on the land! Once the Spell is in the player’s hand, regardless of the consequences, it provides the following to the player.

  • Active Effects: the Spell will define a condition in the game, and once met, awards the owning player (for example, awarding the player 1 yellow token whenever any player takes the Mediate action)
  • Combat: each Spell has a numerical value and multiple Spells can be added together to create a powerful attack against Dark Creatures
  • Building Resource: when building, the player might have to discard a number of Spells in order rebuild the land
  • Victory Points: if not used during the game, any Spell cards held by the player at the end of the game might award the player points

The magical power of Spells is not limitless. Once used in combat or building, the Spell card is discarded for the duration of the game. Triggered active effects do not cause the Spell to be discarded unless otherwise stated by the Spell card itself, but can only be triggered once per player’s turn. For example, if a Spell card awarded the player with tokens whenever another player Meditated, only the first Meditation action would award points, regardless of how many times the other player meditated.

It should also be noted that a Spell’s Active Effect need not be used if the player does not want to.

Dark Creatures

The Dark Creatures that spawn in the realm are evil and will go to great lengths to cause confusion and fear, but mostly they just squat. The players will need to hunt down these vile creatures and destroy them using a Hunt action. Until they do, the Dark Creatures will continue to populate the board making any civilization building a cumbersome process.

Any number of Dark Creatures can  occupy a building or advancement location. They don’t actually “attack” or do anything other than just occupy the spot. Occupied spots on the main and build board are unavailable to the players to build on until all the Dark Creatures are removed from that specific location. Lucky for the wizards, the Dark Creatures are leaderless and randomly invade areas instead of attacking in organized groups. Additionally, if the Dark Creature attempts to invade a location where one of the player’s has placed a building cube, they are instantly destroyed by the wizard’s magic!

Whenever a Dark Creature comes into play, the 2 six-sided die are rolled and the matching location on the main and build board is found. The matching location is based on the dice face values rolled, not the total sum of the values. For example, if a player rolls a “6” and a “3”, they need to match these values to a location that shows the dice face values, not find the location where the total is a “9”. Once the location is found, the following takes affect:

  • If no building cubes are present, the Dark Creature is placed on that location (multiple Dark Creatures can occupy the same location at once)
  • If a building cube is present, the Dark Creature is destroyed by the wizard’s protective magic and is discarded for the duration of the game
  • If 2 “ones” are rolled (snake eyes), the Dark Creature is instantly destroyed and discarded for the duration of the game

Combat

Combat only occurs when a player selects the Hunt action on their turn. Once the Dark Creatures are revealed, the player can select any one Dark Creature they want to hunt. This Dark Creature can be any that were revealed at the beginning of the Hunt action or any Dark Creature currently occupying a location. To hunt, a player must use their magic and then completes the following steps:

  • Player selects one of their Spell cards to attack with
  • The player can pay 1 red token to add a second Spell card, 2 red tokens for a third Spell card, and so on
  • The white number on the Spell cards represent the Spell’s strength and damage – the player adds these values together to determine their total damage
  • The player can spread the total damage across as many Dark Creatures as they like that are currently face-up
  • If the total value assigned to any Dark Creature is equal to or higher than the Dark Creature’s value noted by the Skull and Crossbones icon, it is destroyed and claimed by the player
  • All Spell cards used are discarded for the duration of the game

For example, if the total of the Spell cards used is 10, the player can assign 3 damage to one Dark Creature, 4 to another Dark Creature, and 2 to yet another Dark Creature. Or, if they prefer, 10 damage to one Dark Creature. Once a  Dark Creature falls, it is claimed by the player and will provide Victory Points equal to the value next to the Star icon at the end of the game.

There are some Dark Creatures who are susceptible to certain schools of magic. These schools are represented by animal and insect icons. If the Dark Creature is attacked with a Spell that has the same icon, it does double the damage as normal. However, the Spell card and the damage it generates must specifically target the Dark Creature and cannot inflict damage to any other Dark Creature.

The Lightning Zombie must be hit with 6 or more damage from Spells – the Tome of Elements provides 3 and the Mind Spring provides 2 (doubled because of shared icon) – the player needs to spend 2 more red tokens to place another Spell card to defeat the Dark Creature!

After the player has completed their Hunt and removed any defeated Dark Creatures, any Dark Creatures that have not yet been assigned a space on the main and build board roll for a location to be placed on.

Endgame and Final Scoring

The game ends when one of three conditions occur. They are as follows:

  • Spell deck is empty
  • Dark Creature deck is empty
  • One player has placed all their building cubes

As soon as the condition is met, the current player finishes their turn, and then in turn order, every player is given one last turn, too. Note that some actions will not be available to the players. For example, if the Spell deck has been exhausted, a player will not be able to Meditate.

Once every player has completed their final turn, all players count their points. Points are awarded several different ways and added together. The players will count their points from the following:

  • Points for buildings and advancements based on their building cube location on the build and main board
  • The number of matching symbols on the Spell cards to complete “sets” award points from 1 to a possible 55 points in total
  • Points awarded from Dark Creatures destroyed during a Hunt action (each Dark Creature card has a point value on the card)
  • Any special victory points awarded by the cards owned by the player

Each player adds all these values up. The player with the most points wins the game!

To learn more about the game, visit the official web site. You can grab a copy of the rules from Board Game Geek.

Prediction

This is a tough one to call. Theme and narrative is spot on for my little geeks as they love fantasy and monsters. The game play itself is not difficult which will make it easy to teach and for my little geeks to learn how to play. No, what gives me pause is the progressive cost to continue to do a specific action and the number of different ways you can use the tokens. My little geeks are used to spending a fixed or known amount do so “something” in a game. Spending dice, money, workers, and the like. What makes this game different is how quickly it will tax the player for taking anything other than the most basic and free action.

I went about teaching the game in two steps. The first was showing my little geeks how the game played with the rules. I made sure they understood how to spend the tokens, what the icons on the cards meant, and the different ways you could score points in the game. This was a single game teaching session that pretty much took care of all the game mechanics except the progressive cost. That was a second session by itself and proved to be invaluable to my little geeks. For an adult, this is an easy concept to understand as we see prices fluctuate every day and appreciate how value shifts based on supply and demand. This is an alien concept to a 7 and 4-year-old who are just now starting to learn the value of money and what “buying power” means.

My 7-year-old caught on faster than I would expect. He has been learning all about math and money is school and was able to quickly absorb and associate the growing cost of actions based on how long you wanted to keep doing them. In his own words, “It’s like paying more and more for doing the same thing.” Exactly right! This concept, however, just didn’t stick in my 4-year-old’s head. He understood it cost him to do things, but couldn’t understand why he had to keep paying more. He was getting visibly frustrated so I told him we’d play as partners – he would be the head wizard and I would be his apprentice. This made him very happy.

After two game explanation sessions and a good number of demonstrations, we were ready to play! While I set up the board, I asked my little geeks their thoughts on the game.

“You wouldn’t think this game was to tough just by looking at what is on the table. I think I can play this game, though.” ~ Liam (age 7)

“If you are my apprentice, Daddy, we’re going to kick Liam’s butt!” ~ Nyhus (age 4)

There you go. One little geek shows guarded optimism and the other full-throttled enthusiasm! Let’s play the game and see how they do.

Final Word

You can sum up this game in two words: “deceptively complex”. The game really is very easy to play, but the limited resources and multiple ways to accomplish a task can really make your brain think hard about what you want to do. More importantly, when you want to do it. This was not lost on my 7-year-old who whimpered a few times as he started to lose track of what he wanted to accomplish. Lucky for him and for me, the game always, always, always provides the players with an action that can be beneficial in the long run – Mediation. The default action we all took was just cleaning a space out of its chips. This provided two benefits. First, it gave the player tokens to spend towards their next action and second, it gave you a warm fuzzy knowing you had chips to even spend! Turns out it costs a lot to be a wizard!

Speaking of which, I have played a number of games where you build things, find things, and fight things. But none of those games gave me such a deep and surprisingly real feeling of “spending” something or giving of myself to the game. When you want to build something as a wizard, you have to lose Spells and tokens, both very valuable items you worked to get. The same goes for Hunting. This made me think hard about what I wanted to do and balance risk vs. reward, cost vs. benefit for everything I did. The same could be said for my 7-year-old who I saw take his time and think about what he was doing and more importantly, why.

My 4-year-old had a great time playing with me, but would never have been able to play the game on his own. My 7-year-old was really on the thin line of not being able to play, too. As such, I bumped the recommended age to 8+ as I have no doubt he’ll be able to play this game very well in one more year. But did he like it? Despite my 7-year-old having small meltdowns during the game, walking away from the table a few times, and getting exceedingly frustrated, HE LOVED IT! When I asked him why…

“I don’t know what it is about the game but I really liked all the things I could do while playing it. I felt like a wizard fighting monsters. I felt like I was building a kingdom. Maybe that’s why I also feel so tired.” ~ Liam (age 7)

Him and me both! This little game took some serious brain power!

Serious little geeks are serious – strangely awesome to see them concentrate so hard

Gamer Geeks, this game is a great deal of fun and challenging. Light and fast, you’ll be surprised how quickly the game goes from 0 to 100 MPH as the players start to accumulate and then spend their tokens to grab key spots first for points. This game also provides the players with a number of different approaches to victory, each path using different strategies and tactics. Regardless of the approach taken, every player must carefully manage their resources as they collect tokens and spells throughout the game. The end result is surprisingly light but highly challenging game full of strategy and tactics with a very tight and efficient game play. A fun mix of worker placement and resource management that is going to make the most elitist of Gamer Geeks sit up and take note!

Parent Geeks, this is a fun game that takes up very little space and can be a real challenge for the entire family. The game play and rules are not difficult, but do expect to allow each player to take the time they need to figure out what they want to do. This game will challenge the players to really think ahead and adjust their strategy based on the actions taken by the players before and after them. At no time should a player be completely vapor locked, however, as there is always something that can be done that will benefit the player. Understand, of course, that those benefits might not reveal themselves until later in the game or directly lead to a victory.

Child Geeks, this is a difficult game to learn and a hard one to win. Collecting tokens will not give you a victory. Nor will hunting down creatures. You will need to do many different things during the game, but don’t let that scare you off. You will only need to take one action per turn which will make even the most inconceivable challenge into a simple step-by-step process towards completion. Collect your tokens, then collect your spells. Finally, use your resources to build civilization or hunt down the evil creatures that still walk the land. Regardless of your path, you will make a difference in the game!

Bellwether is a game that brings fun, excitement, frustration, and unbridled exuberance to the table. Seriously, the range of emotion I felt in one play alone ran the entire gambit from tears to hearty chuckles. The game is challenging but quick to start playing. I guess you could compare it to Chess in some ways as it is easy enough to learn how to play the game, but actually playing the game is a different experience altogether. The end result is an incredibly good time where you’ll be biting you finger tips as the players count their victory points. Truly a wonderful game I cannot wait to play again!

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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3 Responses to Bellwether: The School of Wizards Game Review

  1. Cyrus says:

    House Rule: The Return of Darkness

    We found it was possible for a player to win by only focusing on gathering Spell cards and not spending any of them on fighting Dark Creatures or building.

    Totally legal play but goes against the spirit of the game.

    We created a simple house rule to handle this type of play that states the game ends and no one wins if the board is ever fully populated with Dark Creatures. Themeatically, this works out very well, too. With the return of the Dark Powers and one player doing nothing more than grabbing magical power, it recreates the very condition that caused the wizards war to begin with!

    Give this a try the next time you try Bellwether if you want to add a slight cooperative feel to the game!

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