Tabletop review: Magical Athlete

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Magical Athlete is a pretty mindless game. You roll a six-sided die and move your character a few spaces. First and second place get points, everyone else doesn’t. It’s the sort of overly simplistic design that people grow out of when they turn eight.

But it’s also sort of awesome, an incredibly reductive game that manages to provide the barest sketchings of strategy and enough conflict to make it feel worthwhile. Magical Athlete is dumb, but it’s the sort of dumb fun that has people cursing, laughing, and performing tons of exaggerated die rolls.

The key to making the game feel like more than pure luck is the short drafting phase before the races begin, with players taking turns to buy different mystical athletes. On their turn, players draw an athlete and place him or her on the drafting board, which is numbered four through zero.

If that player chooses to purchase the athlete for full price, they spend their four bucks on him. If they choose to pass, that athlete moves into a cheaper slot. The next player draws another athlete, having the option to buy the new one for full price or the rejected ones for cheap.

And if there’s an athlete chilling in the free slot, the currently drafting player can’t pass: he either has to buy an athlete or take the unwanted one for free. The drafting mechanics work well because players never have enough money to buy all the characters they want, and they’ll be left hurting if they decide to splurge on one character.

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But sometimes it’s worth it, because the athletes are completely unbalanced. That’s not a flaw with the game, but a central design conceit: some characters are massively better than others, and it’s tempting to blow all your cash on one solitary draft.

There’s the amazon, who can move forward five spaces instead of rolling the die. Or the merchant, who can switch places with another athlete instead of moving. Or the Medusa, who freezes athletes for a turn when sharing a space.

And then there are the duds. The ghoul steals spaces when any other athlete rolls a one. The necromancer can move racers back instead of moving himself forward. The siren moves other athletes one space closer to her.

Some middling characters are actually the most fun, allowing you to knock other racers back or challenge players to a dice-roll duel. It’s take-that gameplay at its best and least vindictive.

Depending on the number of players, there are four or five races with five or four racers each. The later races are worth more points, so it’s typically better to hold onto your key players.

But sometimes character interactions will wreck your plans, and these moments let the light strategy show through. You want to play your amazon last – but another player might be saving their cupid, hoping to gain ground whenever females and males share a space.

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Some races just pile up with crazy interactions, and it’s a madhouse, and the game really shines. But sometimes the pile-ups are too much, and the race grinds away at an unathletic pace.

Magical Athlete isn’t a deep game, so it’s odd that it can take over an hour to play. An hour’s fairly short by board game standards, but this sort of light fun feels more suitable to a thirty minute playtime.

And though it’s incredibly fun for the first few games, it starts to become repetitive. There are only twenty-five racers in the box, so after two games you’ll likely have raced them all. Magical Athlete is dying for an expansion, and it’d easily reach classic status with a hundred different athletes to choose from.

But it’s hard to argue with fun, especially when it’s so inexpensive and accessible, and with an amazing art style that perfectly fits the gameplay. The board’s just a cheap-looking dirt track, but it adds b-movie flavor to the game.

I don’t think Magical Athlete has true staying power, considering the game’s limited scope. But it’s a great game for reintroducing people to board games, and a genuine blast for the first couple of plays. If you’re only playing every once in awhile and you’re okay with a little mindlessness, Magical Athlete is a sure bet.

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One Response to “Tabletop review: Magical Athlete”

  1. Stephanie Carmichael Says:

    Such a fun little game!

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