J. A. Keener

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

I’ve been working on this board game review for several months on and off, trying to find the best way to cover it. Because this is a pseudo-legacy game, I didn’t want to discuss advanced gameplay much, as it would spoil the discovery for those that want to go in blind. I will try my best to put later game mechanics and strategy discussion in spoiler brackets to avoid accidentally ruining someone else’s experience. It also means that I will not be posting any photographs of the game board at this time (mainly because I’m lazy and don’t want to dismantle my game state back go Game 1 for safe photos).

This board game has a bit of a silly name, but it is actually one of the best cooperative deck-building games on the market today. Competitive deck-building games have been around for years, the most popular of which is probably Dominion, but several cooperative versions using that mechanic have been entering mainstream board games more recently. While Hogwarts Battle uses the same basic mechanics of the original deck-builders, there are some key fundamental differences that make them more approachable.

Everyone I know who has played Hogwarts Battle has fallen in love with it and several have even elected to purchase their own copies to play with their spouses and friends. If you’re a fan of Harry Potter and cooperative board games, you owe it to yourself to try Hogwarts Battle at least once.

Theme

In Hogwarts Battle, between 2 and 4 players will take on the roles of Harry, Hermione, Ron, and/or Neville to face up against the various villains from the books and film. You win by defeating the villains. You lose if the villains manage to seize control over all of the locations. To do this, each player will use Influence (money) to learn new spells, acquire new items, and recruit allies to their cause (into their deck). As their deck grows in power, they’ll be able to damage the villains and defeat them, moving closer to victory.

It sounds simple, but each villain is tailored to make the heroes’ lives difficult. Crabbe and Goyle, for example, deal damage to a hero whenever that hero is forced to discard a card. There are also Dark Arts Event cards that are played each round that represent random villain activity throughout the world. These Events cause the heroes to take damage, discard cards, or add dark mark tokens to the Location (moving the heroes closer to a loss). As the players progress through the Games, they’ll unlock even more devious Events to make the game harder.

The game draws its imagery mainly from the movies, but does pull items, allies, and spells from the books also (in the cases where they didn’t end up in the movies). While the theme is consistent throughout the game, it is really just window dressing. You do not need to be a Harry Potter fan to enjoy Hogwarts Battle, although it might be the lever needed to get someone who typically does not play board games to play this one.

Just as the books grow in complexity through the years and grow with their audience, Hogwarts Battle does as well. Utilizing a pseudo-legacy system, Hogwarts Battle teaches players new to this game and to the deck-building genre of games in general by walking them through simple mechanics one book at a time. When you open the box the first time, you’ll be greeted by a board, an instruction book, and 7 boxes, labeled Games 1 through 7. Read the instructions and open the box labeled Game 1. When you win the first game, you open Game 2 and its associated game rules updates. When you win Game 2, then you open the box labeled Game 3, and so on. The first two games are very simple and are designed to teach the basic mechanics of the game. Players already familiar with deck-building mechanics can feel comfortable starting on Game 3, essentially skipping the tutorial steps.

This mechanic works really well with Hogwarts Battle because of the Harry Potter theme, but I expect to see something similar show up more often, since Legacy style games are all the rage at the moment. In Hogwarts Battle, all of the cards are printed with which Game they originate in, so it is possible to walk back the game to its original state should you so choose or if you find a group that would like to try it at an easier state. In fact, we have “dismantled” our copy several times to reset to previous states for multiple gaming groups.

Quality

Hogwarts Battle comes with surprisingly high quality components for the price tag. The board is a solid tri-fold (4-piece) board with a good finish. One side of the board is even printed as the Marauder’s Map, which doesn’t impact the game, but adds some cool flavor. The cards are well designed with a standard slick finish and shuffle well, which is good, because there is a lot of shuffling in this game. There are a number of pre-punched cardboard tokens for damage, health tracking, and influence, and these are thick and rigid with a solid feel. The dark mark tokens are pewter and solid and everyone comments on how awesome it is to get metal tokens in a game at this buy-in point. One downside is that they only give you two bags for storage: one for the dark marks, one for everything else. This slows down setup a bit if you’re like me and like your tokens in their own piles.

Setup

The rulebook specifies the setup for each Game in very specific terms, so to avoid spoilers, I’m going to cover only Game 1 setup. The good news is that setup does not vary much from Game to Game, except to cover new mechanics, add new villains, dark arts events cards, and new spells, allies, and items for acquisition.

Find a decent size table for this game. While Hogwarts Battle doesn’t occupy as much space as a tableau building game like Terraforming Mars or Everdell, the board is fairly large and there are a lot of tokens.

Each player gets a player mat that tracks their life and explains (in very small letters on the bottom) what happens if they get stunned. They’ll also receive a portrait of their selected Hero, that Hero’s unique 10-card starting deck (identified by the name in the banner across the bottom of the cards), and a life tracker (a heart). That life tracker starts on the 10. Player aides are also included with Game 1 that outline the phases of the game and what actions are available.

The available spells, allies, and items are shuffled and placed in the appointed Hogwarts cards location in the market. The top 6 cards are placed face up on the board as the starting market.

The Dark Arts Events cards are shuffled and placed face down in their appointed location. Villain cards are also shuffled and placed face down in their location. For Game 1, a single villain is turned over and placed in one of the three slots on the bottom of the board. The Location cards are placed face up, in order on the upper left of the board.

Set the dark mark, damage, and influence tokens within reach of the players. Players shuffle their 10-card starting decks and draw a hand of 5 cards.

Rules

Each Player’s turn of Hogwarts Battle plays out over 4 phases:

  1. Dark Arts Events
  2. Villains
  3. Play Cards / Damage Villains / Acquire New Cards
  4. Clean-up

Order of operations is important in Hogwarts Battle, but it can also be very confusing, as some villain abilities trigger during the Dark Arts Events phase, but may not do damage until later. For the most part, you can resolve these villain abilities at the same time, but every now and then, you’ll find yourself having to pay close attention to what happens first.

Dark Arts Events cards are turned over at a rate equal to that shown on the Location. In Game 1, you’ll be turning over 1 Dark Arts Event card on each player’s turn. This may change if you lose control of a location. Resolve the Dark Arts Event by doing what the card tells you to do. If you’re ever given an option to do something where one option is not available (i.e., discard a card when you have no cards), you must take the other action instead. If neither option can be taken, then nothing happens. For example, if you’re stunned already, and a Dark Arts event tells you to discard a spell or take damage and you have no spells left in your hand, nothing will happen (you’re already stunned and can’t take any additional damage).

Once Dark Arts Events are resolved, resolve the villain abilities the same way: read them and do what they say. It is possible the Dark Arts Event or villain will not cause anything negative to happen to you. It is just as likely to take massive damage as several events and villain powers compound off of each other.

Once all Dark Arts and villain abilities are resolved, players can then play the cards in their hand. Unlike Dominion, there are no restrictions to the number of card plays (actions) or purchases, so long as you meet the basic requirements. For example, a player with a hand of five Alohamora spells (granting 1 influence each) can then acquire a single card with an influence cost of 5, two cards with a total influence cost of 5 or less, and so on. Hogwarts cards are split into three categories, denoted by color: allies (blue), items (yellow), and spells (red). These categories only matter when a Dark Arts Event, villain, or another Hogwarts card specifically triggers on cards of that category.

All cards played on this turn go into a “Played” area, which is essentially a holding area. Newly acquired cards will eventually go to the discard, but for now, are set in this holding area, which means that if a player is forced to shuffle their discard during their turn (not at the end), these cards won’t go back into their deck to be drawn again until their turn is completed.

Some Hogwarts cards allow the players to do damage to the villains, by which the players place the appropriate number of damage marker on the villain in question. If the number of markers ever equals the number of hearts on a given villain, that villain is defeated and the Heroes gain the bonus written on the bottom of the villain card immediately.

During cleanup, players discard any unplayed cards from their hand (there probably won’t be any), then put all cards in their play area and newly acquired cards into their discard pile. They then discard any unused tokens and draw up to 5 cards. If they ever cannot draw a card when instructed, they should shuffle their discard pile and draw the required card(s). Remember, if a shuffle happens in the middle of a player’s turn, any cards played that turn or newly acquired cards are not included in this shuffle.

If a villain was defeated during that player’s turn, a new villain should be pulled from the stack and placed face up. Also, if the Enemy Control track on the Location is full of dark mark tokens at the end of a players turn, that Location is “lost” (cleared of tokens and removed from the board). If all locations are lost, the players lose the game. As the players progress through the Game boxes, losing a Location may increase the number of Dark Arts Events cards drawn each turn or even force the players to take damage, discard cards, or worse.

Play them moves to the next player and continues until the game is won or lost.

Players that lose all of their life are “stunned.” Stunned players are not out of the game. Instead, they add a dark mark token to the Location, discard half their cards (rounded down), and cannot take any additional damage this turn. Note that cards that offer players a choice of taking damage or doing some other action will always be required to choose the other action as they can no longer take damage. Otherwise, they play their turn as normal, set their health to 10, and draw back up to 5 cards at the end of their turn.

Gameplay

Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle starts simple, but ramps up quickly. While each hero starts with three cards unique to their deck, their one ally card is effectively identical; each one grants a choice between doing 1 damage to a villain or gaining 2 health. The only difference is the name of the ally (i.e., Hedwig for Harry, Trevor for Neville, etc.).

The other two cards define the role that hero is to play in the game. Harry and Ron get brooms (deal 1 damage to a villain), but Harry also gets his Invisibility Cloak (can only take 1 damage from each Dark Arts Event and Villain). Ron gets Bertie Bots Every Flavor Beans (gain 1 Influence, gain 1 damage token for each Ally played that turn). Hermione gains additional influence or can give Influence Tokens to other players on her turn and can use her Time Turner to place newly acquired spells on the top of her deck (instead of in her discard). Neville gets an additional healing card that can be played on any hero, and his Rememberall, which gives him additional Influence if it is forced to be discarded.

One thing I’ve discovered is that Hogwarts Battle doesn’t scale well with the number of players. Because of the mechanics and the cooperative aspect of it, you would think that a 2-player game would be just as difficult as a 4-player game, right? After all, only 2 players are splitting the damage from the villains and Dark Arts Events, so they should stun more often. In my experience, the opposite seems to be true.

Yes, in a 2-player game, there are fewer people to share the damage with. At the same time, each player gets more turns and, therefore, improves their deck at a faster pace than they would in a 4-player game. The result is that 4-player games can be frustrating at times, especially once you hit Game 5 and beyond.

We’ve also learned that order of operations is very important when playing Hogwarts Battle. It is possible to short yourself tokens and damage if you’re not paying attention. At the same time, it is also easy to cheat and make the game much easier. There are so many compounding Dark Arts Events and Villain cards (where one causes something that triggers another, and so on) that you can easily ignore one or another completely by accident. My advice? Try your best, but don’t sweat it if you make a mistake. Games are supposed to be fun.

There are also no mechanics to remove the starter cards from your deck, which people familiar with the deck-building genre will find frustrating, or to clear/wipe the market if it is full of high-cost cards and you only have your starting deck. And yes, it is possible for some heroes (Hermione and Neville) to purchase a card with a value of 6 on Turn 1, but they have to have just the right combination of cards to do so. If this part of the game becomes frustrating (and it will happen at least once), consider implementing house rules that allow the market to be cleared/wiped.

That said, Hogwarts Battle is still a great game that deserves good press. If you’re interested, I’ve put my thoughts on individual Game boxes in spoiler brackets below.

Game 1
As I’ve mentioned before, Game 1 is super easy. I’m not sure there’s any way to fail. But at the same time, it misleads players in setting priorities for card purchases. Because there are no ways to remove the Dark Mark tokens from the locations in Game 1, players have to invest heavily into their ability to damage villains in order to win the game. This strategy works for a little while, but once you reach Games 4 and beyond, you’ll need to modify your strategy to survive.
Game 2
Game 2 adds a pair of new villains, some additional Dark Arts Events cards, and more Hogwarts cards for players to purchase. In my opinion, Game 2 doubles down on teaching players the “damage is king!” strategy, which can cause the transition in Game 4 or 5 to a more nuanced approach to card-buying to be harder and result in a few losses. Let’s be clear, Game 2 isn’t any harder than Game 1. In fact, because you’re only facing one villain at a time, by the time those extra villains come out, your deck will be strong enough to handle anything thrown at you.
Game 3
Game 3 introduces hero abilities above and beyond the starting 10 card decks. These abilities further define the roles these heroes play in the game. Harry gains the ability to give a damage token to a player the first time a dark mark token is removed that turn. Neville is able to give additional healing the first time each hero is healed on his turn. Hermione gains additional Influence when playing 4 or more spells on a turn. Ron can give 2 health to any player on a turn where he dealt 3 or more damage. While it is easy to see the potential combinations (give Neville all the healing cards, give Ron all the allies, etc.), the downside is that if you specialize too deeply, you will lose the game. These specializations help, but to win the game, players need to be fairly diverse. Otherwise they fall prey to a Dark Arts Event of Villain that completely negates their specialization. In addition, you’ll be facing 2 villains at a time from this point on, so players will need to make some active choices on where to assign damage and which villains are the most dangerous.
Game 4
Along with the new villains, Dark Arts Events, and Hogwarts cards that are standard in each of the boxes, Game 4 adds a new mechanic: Hogwarts House Dice. There are four dice, one for each Hogwarts House. Like the Houses in the book series, each die is specialized, although their specializations are a bit contrived for the purposes of game rules. For example, Gryffindor gets 3 influence (money) faces on it’s die, making it the go-to when you need a little extra cash. Additionally, these die grant the bonus to all players, making them very powerful in a 4-player game.
Game 5
Game 5 is where things get serious. The new mechanic in this box is Voldemort, which is a special villain played face up at the bottom of the Villain deck. Once he is exposed, players will have to contend with him as well, except they can’t damage him until all other Villains are defeated. At the same time, this is the first time the players will have to take on 3 Villains at a time (before Voldemort comes out). At this point, taking on 3 Villains + Voldemort in the final turns of the game isn’t so bad. If you’ve made it that far, you shouldn’t have a problem handling them. The real difficulty in Game 5 is in the early game, managing the Dark Arts Events and 3 simultaneous villains with only a starter deck. It can result in a downward spiral really early on that is difficult to recover from.
Game 6
Players get access to Proficiencies in Game 6. Each player will search the deck and select a proficiency card to replace their player aid. These proficiencies allow the players to synergize with their own Hero ability, or to shore up a perceived weak point in their strategy. In addition, Voldemort gets an upgrade. It becomes much more difficult to try to “face-tank” him with 3 other villains in play at the end of the game.
Game 7
All of the Hero cards get an upgrade to their abilities in Game 7, making them much more powerful. The final mechanic added to the game is the Horcrux system, which is a stack of 6 small cards in the center of the board that have requirements that need to be met before they can be removed. These Horcruxes act identically to Dark Arts Events or Villains in that they damage the players in some capacity, but there are specific requirements that need to be met before they can be removed (unlike Dark Arts Events–which are one-offs–and Villains–which can be damaged by spells). Mainly, these focus around rolling the Hogwarts House Dice and applying the benefits to the Horcrux instead of players gaining the benefits. Not to mention, Voldemort gets another upgrade. The difficulty of the final game in the box is exponentially harder than the previous 6. All of the strategies learned in Games 5 and 6 still apply, but now timing and progress become much more important. It can be useful to stall a game with 3 relatively benign villains in play (who don’t have compounding abilities, for example) to build up the player decks. Another useful strategy is to attempt to defeat multiple Villains on the same turn, especially right before Voldemort is revealed. For example, if you can defeat 3 Villains on the same turn while there’s only a single Villain face-down on top of Voldemort, you’ll only have to contend with a single Villain before damaging the final boss. Oh, and all the Horcruxes have to be beaten before Voldemort can be damaged too. Intimidated yet? It took us like 10 tries to beat Game 7.

Conclusion

Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle is HARD!!!  That said, every group I have tabled it with has loved it and was inspired to keep trying instead of feeling discouraged and wanting to quit.  In my opinion, this is because of their “stun” mechanic, which lets players stay in the game after they’re defeated.  As far as I know, this mechanic is unique among the cooperative deck-building games on the market and I’m hoping more will come out that innovate upon this mechanic in their own unique ways.  

If you’re looking to pick up your own copy, you can find it on Amazon for $35 dollars pretty regularly (MSRP is $50, and in my opinion, it is worth that much).  If you’ve beaten the base game and really want a challenge, you can also try the Monster’s Book of Monsters expansion.

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