Whether or not you like Xanth (Mayfair, £15-18) is going to be very much down to personal taste. Concentrating as it does on the best selling fantasy books by Piers Anthony which feature godawful and ingenious puns in roughly equal measure, I would imagine (though I may be wrong) that the game will be bought in the main by fans. If you are one of these people, you are in for a treat, not least because of the pleasing production. If not, I think you'll have to adjust to the environment a little or you won't get many of the jokes or identify with the characters or the map. Others will find it downright silly or even puerile, especially since the rule book is also heavy on daft wordplay.
Personally, having read three and half of the twelve or more book 'trilogy' years ago (they get progressively worse as the volumes roll out), I am familiar enough with the background and found playing Xanth a gentle if occasionally grating diversion, but one I would not like to repeat very often. A friend, who is still reading (well, buying) everything Anthony puts out, loved it. I'm happy, because it might replace those interminable sessions of Talisman. Somewhere in the middle will be most gamers and I am unsure how they will take it - full enjoyment of the game may only be possible if you take those puns on board.
But back to the game. Xanth is a game about performing missions or, as we are in fantasyland, quests. The first player to perform three quests is the winner and this should take less than an hour unless there are a lot of people playing or you are very unlucky with your characters. Fans will likely want to play longer; you must resist this for fear of brain meltdown. Each player takes the role of a major character (or 'Chair Actor' as the rule book would have it) from the Xanth books and is dealt a follower (a big centaur is ideal for combat) and an initial quest card. This latter is normally something like 'Visit Humphrey's Castle and then go to Isle of View' (I Love You, gedditt?). As you complete a quest, you take another card. Exciting stuff so far then.
The good bits are that the land of Xanth is weird if you actually want to move around in it and each of its inhabitants, including your characters, have a unique magical talent. This leads to some interesting planning of routes and trying to get the best from your characters. The rules handle these individual powers well and have skipped the unbalanced play problem that I foresaw by making each talent highly useful but also restrained in game terms. The most awkward feature of Xanth is the Gap, a geographical barrier that splits the country in two that happens to be manned by a large, indestructible dragon. This, in effect, can only be traversed one way so any trips have to be planned with this in mind. All this is pretty average fare, and hardly thrilling, but what picks the game up is that play is partly based on cardplay (hooray) and even better, you get to stuff your opponents.
In with the usual magic items and event cards are a number of hazard cards which can be played on any other player during your turn. This can be anything from a mild hindrance to a lethal group of monsters. Fortunately, play balance is good enough to avoid characters being frequently killed off and thus having to start over again. Either way, this all has to be dealt with as you perform your secret quest. Surprisingly, given the simple, but dice heavy, nature of the combat systems and so on, the game does put a premium on thinking about what you are trying to do and there are usually several ways to achieve it. I think this was the saving grace that makes me amenable to playing again if need be, otherwise it would have quickly been on the For Sale list.
What comes across more than anything is that this is not some game knocked out to milk a lucrative license by wrapping it around a crappy game. Xanth has been thought out, designed to an appropriate level and packaged in some style. The systems represent nothing revolutionary but they are not roll a dice and fight either - in fact, combat is the last thing you want to get involved with. Nevertheless, Xanth feels like a 'mass market' game and is only tolerable because of some well-meshed systems, a requirement for some thought and the high level of player interaction. You can take or leave the theme and the jokes. What this means is that the game doesn't lift itself much above the '£15 theme game' norm and accordingly I won't play it unless forced but it is a good enough standby or filler. It certainly has fast play and fun in its favour. A difficult one to call, but knowing your preferences I'm sure you will be able to judge better than I.
On to the review of The Return of Heavyweight Champ or back to the review of Robin Hood.
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