Have you seen Treasures Untold: The Making of Disney’s The Little Mermaid yet? Honestly, somehow I missed it myself when it came out in 2006 on one of the many re-release of this Disney classic animated feature. This short five part documentary takes you behind the scenes to 1985-1989, a time when Disney Studios had lost its sure footing and and Disney execs weren’t even counting on this little movie to bring back the magic.
The inside look shows directors Musker and Clements at the top of their game, but even more so was the budding (and tragically short-lived) partnership between Ashman and Menken, lyricist and melody makers who had just joined the studio. Those songs! Part of Your World, Under The Sea, Kiss The Girl, they are all timeless classics that kids still hum today.
The Little Mermaid is a lot of things – rebirth of Disney animation, the melding of Hollywood magic and Broadway song, a new crop of animators and storytellers finding confidence and voices – but lost in all of the accolades is that it has one damn fine showdown of good versus evil.
Ursula, the sea witch played to the hilt by Pat Carroll, was as evil as they come, enticing this naive little mermaid into giving up her voice in search of true love. Facing off against her were only Ariel, a Disney-cute cast of misfits, and her brave prince, Eric (well at least until the dramatic end). Sure, the animation may be a little ragged by today’s standards, but seeing the chess match that is Ariel & Eric versus the evil squid was…dare I say it…an epic viewing.
And that brings me to today’s game review.
THE OP sent us a copy of Disney’s Sorcerer’s Arena: Epic Alliances Core Set (a mouthful that I’ll just call Sorcerer’s Arena, if you don’t mind) for review right around the same time that I watched Treasures Untold. I couldn’t help seeing the parallels between the animators’ struggle to find the best way to tell this timeless Anderson tale (one that even Uncle Walt gave up on many years earlier) and the finished result.
But, let’s get down in the seaweed and talk some cardboard instead of celluloid.
Sorcerer’s Arena is a 2022 skirmish game designed by Sean Fletcher for “two or four” players that plays in about a half of an hou. I’d tell you who the artist is, but it’s not marked in the BGG database, and besides, we all recognize The Nine Old Men and Glen Keane and Andreas Deja’s work, right? Right.
Sorcerer’s Arena is clearly geared to appeal to gamers like us, but yet be friendly enough that mass market gamers interested in the IP will check it out. That’s a fine line to walk, but we’ve seen it work previously in the Harry Potter’s deck building game.
Inside the box, you’ll find eight iconic characters from the galaxy of Disney’s animated features: Sorcerer Mickey, of course, but also Gaston, Aladdin, Malificent, Demona, Ariel, Sully (from Pixar, natch) and my personal favorite, Dr. Facilier (from The Princess & The Frog set right here in Louisiana!) Each of the characters has a little standee with a famous pose from their feature, and a deck of character cards and plenty of tokens. Plus, an arena game board, of course.
Right on the back of the box, like Sebastian telling Ariel how to get the prince to kiss her in only three days, there’s a note that says you can “learn as you go”, and mes amis, that’s a very true statement, indeed.
The game comes with four “chapters”, which take you through the very easiest set up and battle all the way to the full rule set. Even the newest members of our hobby will be up and running in no time — but those of you that are regular readers might be a little bored with the first chapter or two.
Apparently, this game is based on a very “popular mobile game”, and in fact, Jerod admitted to playing it a bunch on his phone when it came out. (Jerod and his bride share our love of all things Disney movies and theme parks, too.) I’m going to focus on the cardboard version, because I have no experience or knowledge about the electronic one.
The game plays out like your standard skirmish game – you’ll place two or three characters on your side of the board, and then take turns activating each character through the use of actions like movement and damage or playing cards for their effect. Plus, each different character has unique health and special abilities, too, upping the replay factor.
Cards, you say?
You will start with a large character card plus a deck of cards made up by smashing two or three decks together a la Smash Up or Bat Flip. Each deck is unique to its character, and players should notice that each deck gives some thematic flavor to the way the character moves, attacks, or powers up special abilities.
That is one of my gripes, however. There are a ton of effects that each character can do to themselves and each other, some good, some not so friendly. Each one of those is marked by a “status effect token”, and separating them all and remembering when to put on and take them off, while tracking the status counters that geaux with each, is a mite too fiddly for me.
But that is offset a bit by the fact that each character is just plain fun to play. Sure, it’s a card game with random draws, which means you may not always have the cards in your hand that you want to play on a certain character, but with each play, you’ll learn that hand management is the key to winning this game.
Each time players knock out the other characters, or grab hold of the strangely important center spots, points are scored, and first one to the set amount wins.
Yep, it’s pretty straight forward, but the twists in this game are what makes it stand out a bit from its cousins.
First, it’s Disney. For certain gamers like me, getting the chance to play with a character like Ariel or Dr. Facilier is an instant-try for me. The game also includes skills that can be used from the player board, so thinking through which characters to pick for your team is not only about picking your favorite Disney hero, but also what skills and health they bring to the table.
Second, it plays pretty quickly. We were able to turn around the set up and get a game going in about 30-40 minutes especially once we had the rule set down cold. And since the game will even teach those brand new to the hobby how to play, there should be no shortage of opponents (although honestly, if you are reading this, you probably already play skirmish games or hobby games – and if so, just skip ahead to the end because, as I said earlier, the first two chapters are going to be pretty slow and easy for you.)
Finally, I love how you can upgrade the characters during play. Each card you play has “magical objects” called “gears”, and your character will need some or all of those gears. If you have enough played in your discard, you can flip the card over and make Gaston even more of a tank than he already is! It’s tense to decide whether to play cards that help you now or play cards that let you upgrade your character, but it’s a good kind tension that rewards multiple plays.
Not everything in Sorcerer’s Arena was as perfect as the undersea scenes of the opening montage of The Little Mermaid, unfortunately. The punchboard we were supplied was not quite crisply punched, meaning we had lots of irritating little tears to clean up. And we had some production errors including a missing standee and a missing character card (two Aladdins!). We made it work, but ended up sleeving the cards because the quality of the cards that came in the box felt more mass market-y than hobby style. So combining the production misses with the fiddly nature of the status tokens dampened our enthusiasm a bit.
Looking back to the documentary about The Little Mermaid, I was surprised to learn how much the folks at Team Disney fairly (or unfairly) compared themselves to the animators that came before them. I felt the same way in my plays of Sorcerer’s Arena.
Unfortunately, it’s tough to play a game like this without call backs to Shadespire or the Unmatched series. In terms of fiddliness, Sorcerer’s Arena is definitely easier to set up, teach and play than Shadespire, but not nearly as elegant as Unmatched. It’s a ‘tweener, as the basketball scouts say.
I know where the designer was going, trying to thread the needle of giving a unique take on skirmish games while being true to the appeal to non-hobby gamers of a Disney version of a battle game. I think they succeeded, and honestly I think newer games might not even notice, but we did. How much of that feeling comes from playing other skirmish games? There’s no real way to know.
Ultimately, the success of a game comes down to either the enjoyment of experience or the desire to play it again. Or both.
After we had played around with each of the characters, I asked my nephew and frequent gaming partner Jerod if this is a game he thinks we should keep on the shelves at The Gumbo Pot (where we live stream board gaming each Tuesday night at Twitch.tv/boardgamegumbo) for more plays down the road.
To my surprise, he said “well, yeah”, which shocked me since we both love playing Unmatched so much, and I figured that might be enough.
But like he said – the promise from The OP that there is more content on the way means more characters, more decks, more skills and more upgrades. After thinking about it, I realized that Jerod is right — I might not be ready to play Sorcerer’s Arena again this weekend in its present format, yet I do want to keep playing one-on-one battle games that feature even more Disney characters.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
Thanks to The OP for providing us with this review copy.