Spellcaster University Review – Deck The School Halls
The fantasy of a wizarding world. The boarding school life some of us dreamed of having but have the classes be about levitating feathers for no practical reason instead of deriving equations for no practical reason.
So, do you think you can do a better job at running your own school for aspiring mages in a medieval fantasy world, as the headteacher? That’s what Spellcaster University, a building/strategy game from indie devs Sneaky Yak Studio, is supposed to be.
But there’s an unlikely twist in this magical tale.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We have a review format to follow.
Spellcaster University will have you build wizards schools that you only view one side of a 2D plane, but all the characters and items in the game world are rendered in 3D. You will see this in the scenery area, where the students and teachers will not just move side-by-side.
The art style is cartoony and simple, but also very readable. You can distinguish your teachers and students, each can have weird visible quirks. The teachers may have quite the visible round belly you could fit in a pumpkin, and the students may get into shenanigans turning their heads into pumpkins.
Students can also come from all walks of life. You may get students of different species, like werewolves and half-orcs, to come study in your prestigious academy. Or turn the human ones into vampires if you like.
Spellcaster University relies on cards for its gameplay (more on that later), and thankfully the card format is being made to full use in presenting information. Building cards show an outline of what the building shape will be, and you can see where the floor is connected, how big it is and other helpful stuff. Hovering on them shows more text, but you can toggle back to the other side of the card with a right-click, which is nice. All you need to know about what the card does are all there in one glance plus one click.
(Though placing gazebos is weirdly finicky and unclear. It’s the only building card that I have trouble parsing what it needs before you can place them, the others are much clearer by comparison.)
I do find some areas of the UI can still be improved. When you have too many cards in your hand, the handling of overflowed cards is a bit finicky. Grabbing cards from the rightmost side of the hand when you have an overflow of cards feel wonky.
The use of books on a bookshelf as buttons for some other options like access to stats, the headteacher’s room and… options… look nice but practically cumbersome. I spent too many times just waiting for the tooltip to tell me which button is which as I can’t distinguish which book is for which menu.
Access to adjusting your schools’ rules is also tucked behind too many layers for my liking.
I know that looking at the headteacher’s room is nice- you’ll get to see additional trinkets and stuff manifested as decorations that’ll get added over time- but I would much prefer not to have them in favour of direct access of the two submenus inside this room from the game screen.
As for the soundtrack, Spellcaster University has some good selections of original music that fits its fantasy theme well. It may be a tad short, and the transitions to a song playing may not be lavishly engineered, but it works and it’s fun background music, which is what matters most at the end of the day.
Don’t expect much voice acting other than the one on the intro cinematic.
Spellcaster University casts you into the world of fantasy where the forces of evil will always attack and be thwarted by the heroes, just as scheduled. Until it didn’t. A calendar mishap caused the evil folks to attack early, with the mages suffering from this the most.
Now appointed as headteacher, you are now set forth to preserve the arts of magic by rebuilding a school to teach young, aspiring new mages and wizards, before the evil forces come to a knocking and you have to flee and start all over again.
If you come into Spellcaster University thinking of building your best legally distinct portrayal of Hogwarts, be warned: there are deckbuilding and roguelike elements in the game.
The game doesn’t really refer itself to any of the two subgenres mentioned, but there are core elements of the game that involves cards, decks and a big dose of RNG.
Stack The Building Cards
Here’s the gameplay loop for Spellcaster University. In a campaign, first, you pick a location you want to start with. Then you are dealt with several default cards that will always be the same. These cards can be rooms you can build, artefacts you can put in the rooms for bonuses, special items and more.
After putting down the basic amenities (a refectory, a student’s hall, a dormitory), set up the two starting houses (the Hogwarts sorting hat/school sports house kind, not residential houses), you can then start recruiting students and draw your first card from one of six pools. The first uses gold, the others require mana. A random selection of three cards appear (one should at least give you a classroom), pick one, and then put the building card into the world.
Over time, you’ll be accruing gold, as well as generate mana based on which discipline of magic that’s been taught in school. Gain enough mana and you can draw cards from the specific five magic discipline’s pool. Or use gold to grab cards from the general deck- assuming you have leftovers after paying for salaries and upkeep costs.
The cost to draw a card, either using gold or mana, gets more expensive with subsequent draws. But you should also be accruing mana and gold faster as more classrooms and bonuses are being placed into your “deck”- which manifests as school halls and buildings, stacked with multiple floors.
There will be duplicate cards (nicely labelled so when you draw one), which some can be used to add more copies of the rooms/items, or to upgrade existing ones to be either more efficient or unlock certain bonuses.
Each student will then spend their time in the classrooms, but will take breaks should any of their needs meters go too high. They’ll sleep in the dorms to reduce tiredness, lounge in the student’s hall to reduce boredom, and eat at the refectory to reduce hunger. So do the teachers, which requires their own specific buildings to fill these needs.
Should the amenities not be enough, they’ll simply leave campus to restore their needs and come back later. You’re not building a boarding school unless you are limiting the number of students that can enrol in your uni.
After enough years have passed, each student will graduate and based on their personality and what magic skills they have picked up, will get different kinds of fates.
Dabble in Light magic and students may end up being Inquisitors or Heroes. Have a gifted werewolf mastering all kinds of magic and they’ll emerge as a distinguished leader of the pack. Have a slow-moving student learn some dark magic and they’ll end up a zombie. The less-gifted ones (or ones who struggle with their studies) may end up with less glamorous jobs, like the village guard or mage.
Also, Spellcaster University is a cheeky game. One of the Light Magic classrooms is teaching “retribution” magic which involves a wooden puppet sitting in front of a table like it’s an interrogation room. The janitor’s room is tied to Shadow Magic because “you need a seriously dark temper to scare off the students”. There are many other silly flavour texts that accompany the standard information displays.
There’s a lack of levitation magic representation, but at least there’s levity in the writing.
Micro-Managers, Be Warned
Like any use of random generation, the card-based building system is a double-edged sword. For Spellcaster University, what this means is that you’ll be easily frustrated trying to play this like a building/management game.
This is not a game for those who micro-manage.
You can’t remove floors, they’re stuck there permanently, for example. And students aren’t following a strict class schedule, they just do what’s convenient and what’ allowed by their house’s rules. The only time you can pick the teachers is after placing a classroom- you can’t fire or hire new ones to replace the default ones. Thankfully, you’ll never be in the red when it comes to money, your gold pool will just drop to zero if the costs of salary and upkeep are more than you can afford.
You’re not here trying to ensure there are enough beds for each student and make sure they don’t go hungry. You just have to provide enough of it and hopefully, they use the amenities laid on campus instead of having to go home. Which makes them spend less time studying due to travel time.
And each “run” of an academy only lasts 10 or so in-game years (there are ways to extend your time, but only by inconsequential amounts), before the forces of evil catch up and you have to graduate everyone and also flee the university to start a new one. There’s no permanence, except for some bonuses you get to carry over should you play in the campaign mode.
You can rename your students and teachers, but because there’s not much permanence and the way the game really doesn’t want you to micro-manage stuff, you’re likely to feel less compelled to rename any of them. But at least there are options.
Stop Worrying And Love The Chaos
Spellcaster University is more fun when you just think about the big picture and play the macro-management game instead.
You can set school policies to ensure only the brightest of students (or the wealthiest ones, or both) can send an application. You can set students into houses that you can determine what school of magic they should focus on and which are off their curriculum. You’ll also be out and juggle the local politics, making sure you are sucking up to the right factions for bonuses that you want to be applied to your school. And make choices in (the often repeating) random events.
If the students are making graffiti because they’re bored, or should you see some magic anomalies break out and everyone is panicking, don’t worry. You’re the headteacher. You’re here to oversee the school and make the big decisions. Not be on the ground and be in touch with the student’s body or the teacher’s union. Those will sort out eventually, and maybe the next card pull will get the building to address those issues.
Which is to say, you’ll like won’t sort out all the issues as soon as possible. Just get the three stars, whatever happens in the background is usually out of your hands and of no important consequence to you.
Having it play like a deckbuilding game rather than a tower-building game makes it great for short bursts of play, letting you experiment with different build choices and hopefully, see something different in each playthrough.
Spellcaster University contains a campaign mode. This is essentially a “run” where you build multiple campuses in various locations until you reach the finale. A full campaign should see a running time of about 7 hours or more, give or take.
The campaign does make use of some permanent bonuses that applies throughout the run (make sure to achieve the star objectives for better bonuses), making it kind of like a roguelike in some ways.
You can also do quick play, where you just build one university until the forces of evil come knocking.
Each map you can build your campus is supposed to have its own challenges, but I never feel like those debuffs or terrain differences impact my style of play in any shape or form. They just look cool.
But there is one cool addition with the 1.0 release version, which is the ability to partake in dungeon crawling. You get to pick four students to send to their peril. Whatever happens to them, you get to keep the loot (in the form cards of course), and the students’ magical skills are manifested here is as their moveset. You don’t get to control the turn-based battles, you only make decisions of where they should go and what buff card to use before a battle starts.
The feature is fun, but getting access to it can be frustratingly difficult as it requires you a bunch of gold or mana. And you essentially have one shot at doing it per level. You can’t go back again after you leave the dungeon. It doesn’t help that skipping this optional feature will net you a bucketload of resources to compensate, so some players might never even opt to do a dungeon run.
There is also a potion-making system, but like the dungeon-crawling feature, feels tacked on rather than something integral to engage in every run.
Spellcaster University is the sort of game where you don’t “finish” it. You just start new games. Beating the campaign once doesn’t mean you’ve seen it all, and the deckbuilding system does provide different challenges each time you start a new school.
There are hundreds of different futures requiring very different magics learned and different traits you can see the students can get when they graduate, for those looking for a reason to keep coming back. Finishing campaigns in modes with extra difficulty earn you permanent unlocks to more powerful artefacts to place in your school.
But if you just want a stress-free, endless game, you can actually do that too, interestingly enough.
Not going to lie, I was a bit bummed out about Spellcaster University has RNG built into its building mechanics. I’m usually not a fan of roguelikes and deckbuilding games, but after giving it the chance it should, I find it actually be okay.
There are a few niggles here and there that I have. And it’s not really about the design choice of it being a deckbuilding game.
I wish it’s easier to guarantee access to all the basic classrooms for each kind of magic. There were runs where I just screwed myself for committing to be specialising in one kind of magic, only to never get the building cards for it. Or maybe the game could use an option to change any of the three-star objectives mid-way.
It’s too easy to commit to the wrong objective, even the staggered rollout of the objectives is not enough as a solution.
I also wish it was made clearer that when a student graduates, which job or fate is more desirable, and whether the bonus will carry over across the campaign or a one-off bonus, without looking at long lists. And maybe display the learned magic levels of the student on the same screen instead of having to hit a very missable button.
Overall, I don’t feel like making is I am not making enough informed choices with visible impact. That’s what is holding back the game for me from calling it a really good experience. It can be fun, but just okay, above average.
There is a fundamentally sound game in Spellcaster University, which I do end up somewhat enjoying at the end of the day. Just be warned it isn’t catering to fans of building/management games, which it may seem to be targeting at first glance.
Spellcaster University tries to mix deckbuilding into a builder/strategy game, and found some success.
There is room for improvement, but there is definitely fun to be had by just dealing with the cards you’re dealt with and see if you can make a good school out of it. A charming world and the fantasy of running your own magic school is hard to come by these days, and Spellcaster University definitely fills that void well enough.
Fans of medieval fantasy wizarding schools should apply, but for traditional building/management game fans, I hope you like cards should you end up enrolling here.
Review based on PC version. Review code provided by the publisher.