Playtest Review: Hearts of Magic

"This obviously can’t be a war. There are things out there, in the night and the dark, who notice things like war. To even suggest otherwise might attract their attention." 

Within the world of Hearts of Magic, the small city you live in is fraught with despair and conflict. The Lords and Ladies rule from on high, ignoring the Order's law and igniting a rebellion within the Witches that inhabit the city. The Order rules with suppression and fear, demanding loyalty. The Witches push back, carving out a space with their wild magics. The more they push, the more the Order suppresses.

It is a setting and world ripe with forbidden love, frightening magic, and fraught emotional spaces.

A few days ago I was lucky enough to get into a playtest of a pretty fabulous game on Kickstarter. I put out a call on Twitter for games coming to or on Kickstarter now for me to review because I miss talking about games coming out and chatting with designers about their products, intentions, and hopes for a game. Erika Shepherd replied and we began to talk about her game, Hearts of Magic. 

Hearts of Magic is super evocative. It's a table top rpg using the Firebrands system by Meguey Baker and Vincent Baker. Erika loves the system and it shows in her meticulous care for her own game. Everything is well thought out and dedicated to creating a thoughtful and enigmatic world for the characters of Hearts of Magic to exist in.

The beginning of the game starts with reading out the history of the world. It sets up a dire conflict between three factions: the Lords and Ladies, the Order, and the Witches. I had the chance to play a member of the Order. Because there isn't a lot of definition given, other than you're the essential military/police, there's a lot of space to impose your own constructs and ideas onto what the Order actually is. 

What flavour is provided is beautiful and nuanced. The game invites you to fight back against an oppressive regime while also playing an oppressive regime. This is part of the game that I found really great because it allows players to occupy the space of oppressor who is trying to fight back and is trying to make the world better, but is also caught up by duty and fear themselves.

We don't leave a lot of spaces in games to explore the nuance of villainy. It's part of why I think Star Wars is pretty great with its treatment of Kylo Ren. That it gives a nod to the fact that villains didn't get there on accident and sure, some people are rotten, like most of the Order, but some are, well, still struggling with humanity.

I set up a character who was struggling with her humanity and found her humanity challenged by her love of a witch. Witches in this world are wild magic casters who can manipulate the world around them, whereas the Order can only manipulate through ritual. It created an interesting contrast between the characters. And the Lords and Ladies? Well, they're weird ass fae people who find magic in true names and ancestral power.

Like Firebrands, you play minigames that create scenes which tell the story of your characters. If you're not familiar with Firebrands, it's a mech genre game where you make characters and then each take a turn using a minigame to frame a scene. These include A Conversation Over Food, Stealing Time, Meeting Sword to Sword, a Free-For All, and many others you'll recognize from the Gundam style anime genre. Players not in the current scene can play Solitaire, and discover what they were doing off camera. It's a pretty brilliant game.

In Hearts of Magic, some of the minigames are reskins of the originals from Firebrands, with a veneer of fantasy overtop. Some like Stealing Time are directly lifted from Firebrands. And some of the original Firebrands minigames have been removed, like an Animated Disagreement and been replaced with my favourite game, An Oblique Discussion.

An Oblique Discussion is beautifully designed by Erika to be a kind of Jane Austen style talk that says a lot while not saying anything. It's your chance to discuss the weather while talking about bringing down the Order. It's your time to conversationally explore how much the grain costs in the market while flirting ostentatiously. It's everything you want in a conversation designed to be about everything and nothing.

It's probably my favourite part of the game, and not just because I got to flirt shamelessly with Misha Bushyager during play. An Oblique Discussion is flawlessly written so you have guides on what you can and can't say, shame tokens when you fuck it up, and guides on what you really should be talking about. Then your conversationalist companion also gets to weigh in on what they think you were talking about and they can get it wrong. So. Good.

When I spoke to Erika about it, she told me she wrote it over the phone with her girlfriend. Game design that happens organically like that is probably some of the best that I see. It's intentional and exciting and I love that Erika's knowledge and skill in creating heated, flirtatious, and tense scenes really shines in this minigame.

Other different minigames include Weaving a Spell and A Wizard's Battle, both absolutely necessary to infuse the magical feel of the game into the world. I played Weaving a Spell with a robotic musical fae and it was every bit as infused with subterfuge and the sense of malicious control the Order had as every other scene. I was impressed by how the minigame demanded a lot from the magic users and from the players to come up with how and why and what they were doing with the spell.

At the end of weaving your spell, other players then get to weigh in and decide if you've paid enough. It's entirely possible that you frame this big scene with all these cool parts and the other players can be like "No way, nuh uh." It creates an interesting power dynamic that makes you want to overpay during play to ensure you get what you want. I ended up never being able to eat my favourite food again (which was any food made by the love of my life) and my companion couldn't laugh anymore. It was rough.

Hearts of Magic is a really beautiful mix of ingenuity and not fucking with some things that worked brilliantly in Firebrands. It blends seamlessly together to create this wonderful world that I find much more relatable and fascinating than the original Firebrands. Beyond the fact that you can play badass magic users, Erika decided to answer the question "but can you have mech?" with a resounding "yes!"

As a small supplement to the game, Erika forged a guide to creating your mechs in Hearts of Magic. Unlike in Firebrands where they are literal mech suits, in this case they are magical forgeries that are absolutely fantastic creations. Mine was a bloodhound made of maps that I rode inside and created maps and fed it to its brain every night to update it. Misha had this Roach Coach that created food so she could feed the people. And Erika had this amazing stage that spewed fire for her to perform on (very Mad Max. It gave me life).

These mech have their own questions you need to answer and strongly flavour the world. Our game ended in an all out fight between our factions and our mechs. It was glorious and sad and beautiful. I found the game deeply satisfying and didn't struggle at all to understand what we were doing or what was expected. The minigames were laid out in a beautiful, logical fashion and were easy to comprehend and do.

I spoke to Erika about the game afterward. I always want to know what was the intention put into the game, why the designer made the game, and what they were hoping it brought to the world. One of my favourite answers, Erika replied saying she made a game to give people a fun way to be gay and fight against the government. Fuck yes! Who doesn't wanna be gay while fighting the system?

Overall the game is beautiful, carefully crafted, and offers a world of depth and fascination to explore. It's well worth the time to check out the Kickstarter and support this gay AF game about fighting back and reclaiming space. And to help support the creator, you can follow Erika Shepherd on Twitter.