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Reviews - MagnetX
by Allan Sugarbaker

MagnetX in playMagnetX
Published by PsyX Games
Designed by Alfred Wenzl and Bruce Smith
20 magnetic stones, gameboard, and rulesheet

[Editor's note: This review was originally posted on 4/17/08, and was revised on 3/10/10 after packaging changes.]

Some game designs strike me as inevitable discoveries – eventually, someone was going to unleash the concept on the gaming world. MagnetX by PsyX Games is one of those designs, bringing to mind elegant strategy titles like Othello or Go. However, MagnetX brings an element of unpredictability like childhood pseudo-sport Marbles, making calm strategizing go right out the window, and pushing the gameplay experience more toward party games than its strategy-heavy cousins.

Magnetized game pieces certainly throw a twist into classic strategy.

Playing the fields
The game is made up of a small-but-attractive set of goodies. A set of 20 irregular-shaped, polished and magnetised hematite stones comes in a velvet-like drawstring pouch. PsyX Games goes out of its way to make sure no two sets will have the same selection of stone sizes/shapes, getting their stones from multiple sources. An 9" x 9" clear plexiglass gameboard, plain except for the MagnetX logo, provides the gameplay surface.

As its name implies, MagnetX is all about magnets – the placement of magnetized stones, to be precise. The magnetic field of each stone affects every turn, as the invisible and somewhat unpredictable polarity of each stone will either tug at or push nearby stones. Properly negotiating the minefield of magnetic fields on the gameboard is the main challenge of the game.

The basic rules are for 2-6 players. In the basic game, one player begins by taking the game's magnetically-linked stack of twenty stones, referred to as the "pile", and chooses a stone. He then places this stone anywhere on the smooth plexiglass board, and passes the pile to the next player. Play continues until a player gets a foul – that is, until two or more stones touch, or are thrown clear of the board. The offending stones are removed, and the player who caused the fault is out of the game. Turns continue until only one player remains as the winner. When three or more players are taking part, each player can choose to place two stones on their turn to reverse the turn order, a useful ploy when the board's just about to get crowded.

Naturally, safe placement of stones on the board gets more challenging as the board gets filled. Worse yet, the magnetic fields seem to amplify/feed off each other such that a new stone on one side of the board can accidentally manipulate a stone on the far side. MagnetX is subtitled "The game that's alive", and at times, that's exactly how it seems. Fitting all twenty stones on the board is so difficult that the rules include a solitaire version which encourages players to take a picture and send it to the publisher if they achieve the task.

Though an expected game length isn't listed for MagnetX, the basic game can take anywhere from 5-20 minutes depending on the number of players. It's in the advanced game, however, that MagnetX truly shines.

For the advanced game, play occurs in the same manner as the basic game, but elimination is no longer as sudden as a single misplayed stone. Instead, each player starts with 20 points, and any fault caused during a player's turn – each stone that's thrown clear of the board or connects with another one – deducts one point from that player's score per stone involved. In this manner, new levels of strategy come into play. For example, let's say you played a stone and it moved another stone off the board, without letting them touch – or even just waved a stone near the board and magnetically pulled another stone off – a one point loss might be the least damaging play to make, and could set an opponent up for a bigger loss.

A few variants are included in the rules. These range from having each player place two stones per turn, to being able to skip a turn and make up for it the next turn, to only placing stones with your off hand (the "Lefty" variant). Two other variants suggest a tournament format and solo rules, respectively.

The advanced game plays a fair amount longer – anywhere from 10-50 minutes – allowing more time for strategic thinking to set in.

It's hard to tell how any given game of MagnetX will go, and yes, this makes it more fun. A careful player could still cause a cascade of faults that takes him from first place to last, while a player that's too cautious will run out of "safe" plays and get stymied. MagnetX really is anyone's game, from beginning to end – even while in the lead, players should stay on their toes.

Then there's the kinetic side of the game – stones won't stay put! When stones spin, clack together or fly off the board, players will jump, wince, moan, swear, or all of the above. These are the reactions one would expect from a gameboard built of mousetraps (and I don't mean the Milton Bradley game). This can be great fun with a group of players, whooping and hollering their way through.

At the same time, the strategic element of MagnetX can't be ignored, and can lead to exciting gameplay. A few tips will help keep the faulty plays to a minimum: stone selection itself is a strategic choice, since you can pick whichever one you want from the pile. Grab a small one, a rounded one, or one you can set on its side to increase the risk for other players. However, those same tricky stone placement traps may still be lying in wait to go off when the turn comes back to you, so you might want to swipe a stone (or the entire pile – it's legal) over those anxious-looking stones and get them to lay down. Don't let your hand obscure your vision, leaving you blind to the small stone that's twitching as you move toward it; stand up, come in high, and make a trial run toward your intended spot to see if it's safe before putting your stone down. If your reflexes are quick enough, and you choose the right stone to fiddle with, you can push or pull it around the board with the magnetic field of another stone, making room for your next move. Finally, pay attention to where you place the pile – your turn isn't over until you hand off the pile to the next player, so hand it wide around the board, or risk setting off fault penalties.

The PsyX Games website clarifies the few minor rules misunderstandings that might crop up, and reprints the entire rulesheet. It also offers an 800 number to order additional/replacement parts, and provides plenty of advice on how to run a MagnetX tournament. If more game variants make their way onto the site, it could be an excellent resource.

I could see expanding on the MagnetX game with wooden or plastic bumpers of various shapes as an added strategic element, with or without imbedded magnets. Taking that a step farther, prepainted figures with strategically-placed magnets could be substituted for the stones, creating a combat game, or in combination with wall-like bumpers and treasure chests, a magnetic dungeon crawl of sorts. But adding all those features could ruin the game's simplicity of play (and cost a pretty penny to produce), so it might be best not to head down that road.

I found nothing significant to pick at in the game rules or components. The components look elegant, are quite sturdy, and easy to use. Gameplay is solid, with minor rules clarifications as proof that playtesting has taken place. It's the box that leaves something to be desired, though since I first reviewed the game, PsyX has made some improvements (see Balance, below).

The glossy black 12.5" x 10" x 1.5" box bears the game's title in silver across the top, but retailers will be frustrated by the lack of any identifying marks on the sides, making display on the shelf that much harder. Stickers might be useful to fix this problem, but could be prohibitively expensive.

Initially, the back of the box was frustratingly ineffective (though the issues I bring up here have mostly been addressed; see below). A product sticker on the back displayed six tiny pictures of the game, instead of one or two large, clear images (which evokes comparison to the early, flawed packaging of Dwarven Forge products). Some product information was conveyed, with a quick blurb about the game's style that didn't tell you much, and oddly, a headshot of each of the game's two designers was included. It's not often you see designers pictured on their products – few gamers are concerned with what designers look like, even well known names like Reiner Knizia or Alan Moon. For a fledgling company to put their faces on their first product – well, that seems like the very definition of "vanity press", which may not be the impression the company intended to leave.

An alternate MagnetX logo was employed on the back as well, each letter of the name placed within a different connected black stone shape. While this logo alluded to how the game is played, the "20 Magnet Stones" are listed under contents, the game's title has "magnet" in it, and there was even a warning about ingesting magnets, the original packaging failed to state the goal of the game – to safely place more magnets.

The problems with MagnetX are all packaging and presentation concerns, and most of these issues have been repaired since I first reviewed the game. PsyX Games has created a new product sticker for the back of the box with one large, clear shot of a MagnetX game in progress. The designer's head shots have been replaced by clear, descriptive text about an average game turn and the goal players strive toward. This sticker is infinitely more effective in giving potential customers an idea of what MagnetX is all about, and improves the game's sales potential.

The rest of the box presentation remains the same, however. Until the sides of the box have a MagnetX logo on them somehow, PsyX will still have room to improve the product.

The fact that the MagnetX name is extremely similar to the Magnetix construction toy line is worth mentioning, but no one's going to mistake one for the other.

While not the first game to use magnetic pieces (see Polarity, a 1986 release with Othello-looking pieces), MagnetX is less fiddly than reports of other magnet-using games. The game is attractive, extremely user-friendly, and the rules are so intuitive they're almost self-explanatory. If you could see yourself enjoying a strategy game that won't sit there quietly and let you think, that demands planning and coordination, MagnetX could be the game for you.



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