Developed by the small indie developer Sneaky Yak Studio, Spellcaster University first launched into Steam Early Access in 2019 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. This came after a first failed attempt to crowdfund the game. Now fully launched, Spellcaster University defies simple genre classifications, being a mix of a deck-based engine builder, a tower builder and a management sim. As a fan of at least some of these genres, I tried my hands on what is being referred to as a Hogwarts simulator.
Spellcaster University is now available on Steam for your regional pricing.
Story – Magic in the time of the Lord of Evil
As the new headmaster of your own magic university your primary task is to impart knowledge to the flock of students coming through the gate. To make them stay in the university and not waste precious learning time commuting from the nearby village is also useful to have facilities on site that can handle their basic needs. Of course you will also need to build classrooms and hire teachers for them to learn the various magic disciplines.
But don’t get too comfortable! Periodically the Lord of Evil will awake and destroy the university and you will have to pack up and rebuild from scratch somewhere else. Stopping him for good will require training the best students, while also making friends along the way with different factions encountered throughout the various maps available.
For obvious reasons the game setting will resonate particularly with fans of Harry Potter, though it does not subtract from the experience of those less magically inclined.
Some may dislike the fact that progress is reset every so often by the coming of the Lord of Evil. In reality this works both thematically and mechanically by providing a sense of urgency in completing the quests for each level, as the clock is always ticking. It also resets the engine built, which is a prerogative of engine building games.
Gameplay – A mixed bag of surprises
I played through a single campaign, on standard difficulty and length settings. This involves making a number of different schools in as many different maps.
The board game inspiration of the developers at the Toulouse based studio is clear. To build any room you have to select one card out of three, drawn from one of the six decks available. Five of those are assigned to each magic school, and the other is tied to the amount of gold you can generate. Mana is mostly created by student learning that specific magic type: light, shadow, nature, arcane and alchemy. Gold is mostly gained by students applying to the school, renting beds to sleep in, and eating in the refectory. Drawing additional cards from the same deck gets more expensive each time, but will also help you generate more of that same resource, creating that incremental gain feeling typical of engine builders.
Building a school
No matter the setting, making a big 2D tower by stacking rooms together feels great and never gets old.
Each card you draw can either be a room, or a bonus in the form of room decorations, student equipment or teacher training. You can place rooms in any buildable area provided the door layout is consistent with the existing building. For instance you cannot build anything directly above the greenhouse, given the glass ceiling. If you draw a card you already have built you get the choice of building a brand new room, or upgrading the existing one with a boost in performance or other bonuses.
The different maps add sufficient variety in setting though not in gameplay. Building on a beach or inside a volcano is basically the same. The whole process feels also quite easy. Only a couple of times I drew a card I was no able to place straightaway. This is possibly due to the fact that rooms can’t be moved or removed once placed down. This limit alongside the randomness of the card draw could prove too frustrating if tougher building restrictions were also applied. Ultimately the focus is not on tower building, but I still feel it could have worked even better.
Every so often you will also get the chance to contact one of the factions that coexist on the same map. These include the nearby village, the king, the inquisition and others, including a unique faction for each map. Random events will also help you develop your relationship with factions, sometimes netting you gold or mana in exchange for some form of aid.
Management for dummies
As the headmaster you get to manage the school both financially and educationally. First of all you can build houses with different traits and specialisations and sort each student to a house. You can also financially impact the school by increasing the amount of gold you gain by receiving applications, how much your staff is paid, how much to charge students for a bed and food.
Unfortunately, at least on the standard difficulty settings, most of the management side of the game feels inconsequential. When you first build a room you get to pick between two teachers with their pros and cons. These will be permanently assigned to that room and you will only be able to improve them through rare cards you can pick up from the respective magic deck. Despite this, after a couple of maps I started picking the teacher with best pedagogy and did not notice a significant change in how the game played out.
The same goes for the students. When receiving applicants you can see a student ‘DnDesque’ disposition, their flaws and their strengths. The idea is to combo the student abilities with the houses and teachers specific perks to reinforce them further. However, more often than not, when receiving 7-8 applications at once I just ended up assigning my students randomly and was able to finish and win the campaign on the first try.
Overall the management aspect of the game feels very light and sometimes superficial, giving the game an “aquarium simulator” feel: pretty to look at but with little strategic complexity.
A steep learning curve
All that I mentioned so far is marred by one of the worst tutorials I’ve played in a while.
When starting a campaign you get a number of static, read-only messages next to the elements of the game they are referring to. There is no interaction, you can’t physically play the cards the tutorial is telling you how to play. After that you are on your own, with most of the information, some of which crucial to understanding the game mechanics, hidden in a wall of text which are the help pages.
This results in a steeper learning curve than needed. Not because of the game complexity, which again is very low, but because of the lack of a hands-on explanation of the mechanics.
The game’s performance suffers greatly with the ever increasing number of students, staff and decorations on the map. At the later stages of a map, my game would run at a average of about 20 FPS on my above average PC. Some visual filters are available, highlight for instance how hungry each student is. Activating them always dropped my FPS to unplayable vales around the 10s.
There is an option that shortens the curriculum of the students, allowing them to graduate a year faster. I activated this option once during the campaign. The game ground to an halt for a minute, probably checking which students needed to graduate immediately after the change. I suffered one game crash over the course of an entire campaign and had some visual glitches with cards in my hand but nothing compared to the sluggishness of the normal game.
Graphics and Audio – Charm and other spells
The game looks really pretty. The different maps are well characterised, the models for the characters are well done and so are animations. The rooms are detailed and can be customised with a variety of bonus granting items making them look nicer still.
The same is true for the characters. While there are not many different models for students and teachers, additional cards like equipment, teacher training and random aberrations due to their magic studies help giving them a more unique look. Ultimately, there is a charm exuding from the art of the game that only small, committed indie teams can nail.
The soundtrack was developed in-house and is suitably unobtrusive. It provides a nice background ambience but it does not quite make it to my game music playlist. The sound effects are on par with the soundtrack. They suit the game well, especially those to do with the few instances of magical combat, and never feel out of place.
Spellcaster University was reviewed on Steam, with a review key provided by Stephan Meijerhof, PR.