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Co-op Case Study: 12 Realms

We played both well-known and less-known co-ops while preparing Meeples Together: they were both sources of inspiration. 12 Realms, which Shannon received as a review copy, was thus the game that introduced us to icon-cost tasks, though we didn’t nail them down as a design pattern until we played a few other games two years later! The pattern eventually made its way into one paragraph in Chapter 8, the “Players Undertaking Tasks” section of Meeples Together.

Remember that Meeples Together is now available for preorder.

This article was originally posted to the Meeples Together blog.

Publisher: Mage Company (2013)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Adventure, Resource Management


12 Realms is a classic fantasy adventure game. Each turn, new monsters and items appear across four realms, and players must use their renewable attributes to defeat those monsters and acquire those items — all en route to combats with the Dark Lords for those realms. If the players defeat all four Dark Lords they win the game.

Challenge System

The challenge system in 12 Realms is based on a simple card draw. Each card generates a specific monster (or loot) in a specific realm at a random location. The obstacles created by these card draws can then be overcome by using the renewable talents that each player possesses. The result is a turn-based tactical puzzle, as each player figures out how to move about and conquer obstacles in the most efficient way possible.

Undefeated monsters move the game toward defeat: each monster sitting around at the start of a turn causes an Invasion Track for that realm to increase. The general trend toward defeat can gain momentum if too many monsters end up on a board, causing the Invasion Track to increase very quickly. When the Track reaches 15, a Dark Lord appears, and when it reaches 20, all is lost.

However, this challenge system has one major flaw: if the players are doing really in a realm, then the Invasion Track never reaches 15, the Dark Lord never appears, and the players can never win! If the game is weighted well, this shouldn’t be a major problem, but it still causes some overly “gamey” responses — such as players ignoring monsters in order to get the Invasion Track exactly to 15, but no higher.

In fact, as experienced co-op players, this is exactly what we saw when we played the game.

Other than that flaw, there’s little to say about the 12 Realms challenge system: its random draw of monsters that accumulate to move the game toward loss is Co-op Design 101. There’s little that’s innovative, but that might be fine for a game that is clearly intended to be introductory.

Challenge System Elements: Round Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Exponential Cascade; Environmental Consequences; and Combat & Skill Threats.

Cooperative System

Much of 12 Realms is played out through strategic cooperation: the players will tend to split up among the four boards so that there’s someone dealing with the monsters in each realm. The fact that you have to end your turn to go from one realm to another enforces this strategic division.

However, there is some opportunity for tactical cooperation, and it should come up organically through gameplay: players can share their skill tokens to defeat a monster if they’re in the same space, and this is often required to face down the Dark Lords.

The result is an interesting game flow, where the players start out apart, but then come together when they’re ready to defeat Dark Lords. This is some danger of anti-climax at the end, when everyone is waiting around to defeat the final Dark Lord — an issue shared with Star Trek: Expeditions (2011). Nonetheless, players coming together for the ending is almost always good plotting in a co-op game.

Adventure System

Each player in 12 Realms plays a specialized character with a special power and specific attributes, which make them better at dealing with certain types of threats. As a result of these specialties, individual players can easily follow their own path in the game. There’s also quite a bit of evocative color in the characters (and generally in the setting of the game), which mixes together fairy tales, myth, and more frivolous fantasy.

However, 12 Realms’ biggest (perhaps only) innovation is how it models skill-tests using icon-based resources. This clever mechanism abstracts skill use into a simple icon-based language where players expend appropriate icons to match the formula of specific tests. Here, players get iconic tokens as listed on their character, and then must expend specific ones to move, defeat monsters, or collect loot. The tokens then regenerate at the start of the player’s next turn. More recently, Attack on Titan: The Last Stand (2017) and Masmorra: Dungeons of Arcadia (2017) used a similar idea, except the icons were generated by dice every turn rather than being based on each character’s attributes.

Expansions & Variants

12 Realms only depicts four realms. Supplements depict more lands based on fairy tales, legends, and myth, including: Ancestors Legacy (2015), Bedtime Story (2016), and Ghost Town (2015). Their next release, 12 Realms: Dungeonland (2019?) is intended to be a standalone game, but as with other recent Kickstarters from Mage Company, it’s been plagued by delays.

Final Thoughts

12 Realms is nice, introductory cooperative game. The mechanics are simple but elegant; it’s often obvious what someone should do tactically, but players nonetheless have to stay on their toes to manage the bigger picture because they never know what threats will emerge on each turn. Though this is all well-designed, it’s not particularly innovative; 12 Realms finds its inspiration not in its co-op system, but instead in its equally simple-but-equally-elegant icon-based skill-test system.

Ignazio Corrao

12 Realms (2010) is the first (and to date only) game produced by Italian designer and art director Ignazio Corrao. It was intended to meld fully cooperative board games with the style of Japanese roleplaying games. Since its release Corrao has continued to work on 12 Realms expansions of various sorts.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples