Over the last 10 years, the Harry Potter universe has held a special place in my marriage. My wife and I don’t write fan fiction or have a dedicated HP room–not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se–but we’re big fans of J.K. Rowling’s best-known works.
We’ve watched the movies together countless times, read the books, visited Universal Studios mainly to experience the Wizarding World, and have even done Potter trivia. We’ve also passed this love on to our children.
So when I got the opportunity to play Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle: Defence Against the Dark Arts, I was really excited to get to share the game with my wife. Not only was this a fun thing for us to do together, but it would add a unique and meaningful element to a review.
Frequently, when my gaming group plays a new title that will be reviewed, everyone playing is familiar with multiple game styles and regularly plays board games of all varieties. My wife does not fall into this category. Her board game experience doesn’t extend much beyond Monopoly and, more recently, titles like Mouse Trap. But for a game so prominently featuring a popular intellectual property like the Potter franchise, I think the perspectives of someone who isn’t versed in board games are especially important.
Defence Against the Dark Arts Gameplay
Defence Against the Dark Arts, a stand-alone spinoff from a larger Hogwarts Battle game, is a two-person deckbuilder. For the life of me, I couldn’t find an “official” estimated playing time, but our game took more than 90 minutes. That said, I would attribute a good bit of that time to learning, and we went the maximum five rounds. I would say that once you get the hang of it, Defence Against the Dark Arts could be completed in an hour.
For Potterheads, the premise of the game is that Albus Dumbledore has arranged hands-on DADA lessons to prepare students for an increasingly dangerous world. By aligning with a house and helpful witches and wizards, players will use spells and items to conquer their dueling opponent.
For non-Potterheads, that Gandalf-looking fellow wants you to practice wizard fighting against your friends.
The winner is the first player to land enough attacks on his or her opponent to complete three “stuns.”
Staking Our CLAIM on Defence Against the Dark Arts
This facet of the game provided our widest range of feedback. The gameplay components were really well-done and unique, with the best being the small copper-ish skull stun tokens that are unnecessarily cool. The game board, or practice mat, is well-marked and appropriately simple.
Perhaps most importantly, there are two of every Hogwarts house player token, so both players can represent the same house. As anyone versed in Potter lore can attest, it wouldn’t be wise to expect players to choose a house other than the one they’ve been sorted into.
The cards are well-done, as well, and provide plenty of variety in attack and results, but more clarity would’ve been helpful. One card, in particular, called for one of the dreaded “hex” cards to be placed in the opponent’s discard pile, while the player takes one attack token and then another attack token for each hex in the opponent’s discard pile.
Because of my experience with similar games, I felt like the intent was for this card to essentially provide a guaranteed minimum of two attack tokens, but my wife read it as though the hex in question had already been represented by the initial attack token. This was an important decision, as that extra token would’ve allowed me to stun her for a third time, the amount required to win.
In the end, I deferred to the way I think non-experiences gamers would read it. But it would’ve been ideal to have an explanation for each card in the instructions, as card-based games frequently have. This also wasn’t the only case where we had to make a judgement call on things that weren’t explicitly covered in the instructions, so perhaps more time should be spent there in future releases.
Like any deck-builder, there’s plenty of luck at play in determining which of your cards hit your hand at a given time and which cards come available for acquisition from the classroom. But that doesn’t mean strategy has been eliminated.
Some cards allow a player to choose whether they’ll collect a heart token to move a step away from the Stun space or collect an Influence currency token to purchase a spell or item. Other times players will have the option to permanently Banish a card from their hand or the classroom area.
For the most part, the level of luck involved simply keeps the game moving at a fun pace. Tokens don’t carry over turn by turn, so there’s no hand-wringing over whether to save a token for whatever items might come up later. It’s not uncommon to simply waste an Influence token because the right cards weren’t available, so turns move quickly.
Defence Against the Dark Arts is a simple, yet attractive game. The box is styled to look like a small trunk that a young wizard would carry to Hogwarts, and the appropriate house logos are present on player items, character cards and more.
All the franchise’s most popular characters are represented as allies that can be played for an entire round, and the hexes, items and spells are all familiar from the series as well.
I’m not sure if this qualifies as an aesthetic quality, but the game is also a very convenient size. The box is actually not too much larger than the last couple books in the Harry Potter series, and it’s easy to store the components away. This would make it an ideal game to pack for a trip or game night.
This is where I think deck-builders have the biggest hill to climb compared to other styles. Too much luck, and it’s easy to get bored if none of the really fun cards come along when you want them to. Too much strategy, and a player can become overwhelmed with having to constantly think three turns ahead.
Defence Against the Dark Arts overcomes all that, though, in an intriguing way. The players keep building into the same deck for the whole game, but those decks reset at the end of each round. This includes allies, which stay in play for the whole round once used, as well as spells and items that go in the player’s discard after each use.
This allows for a player to rectify a mistake and prevents him or her from riding one excellent stroke of luck to an overall victory. As such, both players remain engaged as decks improve.
Further, the cards themselves are interesting to use. Some allies have an effect triggered by an action the player takes or by characteristics of the card that happens to be on top of the player’s deck. Some items have a special effect triggered by the Hogwarts house of a player or allies, so those combinations must be considered. And the rules are worded such that players won’t need to meticulously plan which order they’re going to play their cards, which is perfect for the game’s “ages 11+” classification.
This game becomes increasingly fun as it goes on. Like many deck-builders, it starts out slow with a very basic starter deck that doesn’t allow for much headway. But by the time you hit the third and fourth rounds, players can really see how the cards work together and start planning some fun moves to stun their opponent.
My wife and I are also incredibly competitive, and this game fuels that without leaning too much on any specific skills. But more than focusing on winning, I found myself enjoying the different cards and how they affected game play. In fact, I lost because of the aforementioned card confusion, but that didn’t hurt the game’s appeal.
Final Verdict: Accio DADA!
I had the pleasure of approaching this game as a fan of both board games and Harry Potter. On both accounts, I can’t recommend this game enough, especially since it’s selling for less than $25 on Amazon.
Potter fans will get a kick out of acquiring a favorite character for their decks and finding out how that character is represented in the card’s attributes. And while we didn’t get too crazy because the kids were sleeping, I’d imagine shouting “expelliarmus” at your spouse could be a lot of fun.
Gamers with no interest in the Wizarding World will enjoy a simple yet engaging deck-builder that combines common card mechanics with unique twists.
Regardless of whether you find yourself in one of those groups or somewhere in between, CLAIM your copy the next chance you get!
[Disclosure: Nerds on Earth was provided a copy of Harry Potter: Defence Against the Dark Arts by The OP in exchange for an honest review.]