Peterborough, Jul 2019
I’ll start this review with a warning – Thinking Outside The Box are sadly due to lose their current premises in September, so if you’re reading this before then and you want to try their games (and you should), then you need to be quick. For Magician’s Apprentice our team arrived frazzled from a difficult journey up to Peterborough, not in an ideal frame of mind to start a game; but our host rose to the occasion and delivered the briefing with superb enthusiasm and energy.
Inside I recognised a couple of items from their earlier Merlin game (okay, I lie – I’m not nearly that observant, it was actually my teammate who spotted them), though the game style and atmosphere is very different to that one. The magic here is strictly of the rabbit-from-a-hat conjuring type; your job is to master the tricks left behind by the vanished magician in his dressing room, in time to carry out his performance in his place.
One notable feature of all the game I’ve played at Thinking Outside The Box is the frequent use of handmade wooden components. These are both charming and a bit fragile, often showing signs of wear and tear from overly rough players; but nonetheless give the venue’s games a distinctive appeal. That’s true of Magician’s Apprentice as well, though one particularly inventive physical puzzle is big enough and solid enough that there are no concerns about fragility. That puzzle was also perhaps my favourite of the game: instantly appealing, cleverly implemented, and with more to it than was initially evident.
The venue’s now-closed Merlin game had an outstandingly clever hint system with a ‘magic mirror’ that spoke to and interacted with players. Magician’s Apprentice uses a similar but more modest system, with advice dispensed from a crystal ball. Although this is certainly less impressive than its predecessor, if it weren’t for the comparison, I’d be praising it as a very imaginative themed hint system.
There are larger and more ambitious games in the U.K., but Magician’s Apprentice is consistently interesting and well-designed. I particularly noticed and appreciated that strong design at the game’s conclusion, where I briefly thought it was heading towards a particular type of weak puzzle, only to realise that in fact the solution used the final clues in a much smarter way. That was one of many small ways in which the game left a good impression; another was the skilful hosting. A third was the open game structure, which has a set of mostly parallel paths that each conclude in a reward item that made clear we’d reached the end of that sequence and also marked progress towards the game end. That all makes it a fun and rewarding game, and if you’re passing through Peterborough any time soon it’s certainly worth making the effort to catch it while it’s still available.