I'm not a Harry Potter fan but I do love the concept of Hogwarts, a fantastical school where children can learn powerful magical spells and be exposed to unthinkable evil due to the utter irresponsibility of the faculty. Spellcaster University, now in Early Access on Steam, lets you build and run your own version of a delightful yet dangerously deadly magic school.
The gameplay trailer above will give you a little look at how it all works and just how darn charming the art and animation is. Spellcaster University is a management sim—you construct a school, recruit students, hire faculty, and manage your budget and relationships with the rest of the realm, which include factions like orcs, dwarves, merchants, and adventurers.
But it's also part card game that runs on mana and money. There are six decks of cards to draw from representing five magical disciplines plus a base deck that runs on gold. Drawing from any deck gives you a choice of three cards that you'll use to build your school, one room at a time, staff classrooms with teachers, and add relics that provide various buffs and effects. Like, say, a magical bed with teeth that chews on students while they sleep! (More on that in a minute.)
There's also a ticking clock: The Lord of Evil is growing his power in a nearby graveyard and it's only a matter of time before he rises up and destroys your lovely, dangerous little school. Because every Hogwarts has its Voldemort.
As you cobble together your university with cards, events periodically occur forcing you to make decisions that will shape your game. Most of these have to do with other factions. The neighboring orcs are hungry, for example, and now they're banging on your door. Maybe you've already drawn an enchanted wafflemaker card from the deck and placed it in the school, so you can feed them some waffles to make them happy. Or you can suggest they go eat some nearby villagers (whose disposition toward you will plummet, naturally). Maybe you tell them to scram, and they will—though if you keep sending them away with nothing, they'll eventually go on a rampage through your school. Hey, they're orcs. That's what they do.
The cards your draw will also let you choose what sort of headmaster you want to be. Are you the type of dean who adds a Child-Eater Bed to the dorms? It's a bed with huge, sharp teeth that will snack on your students while they sleep. It may affect your student's health negatively (surprise!) but it may generate an alchemical ingredient card you can use to craft potions. It's one of those moral dilemmas educators face every day in any school system.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Spellcaster University is zooming in close to see what's happening inside all the rooms you've built. You can watch students attend class (the assassin study room is my favorite, as you'll see your kids practicing stealthy movement and stabbing a practice dummy in a bed) and see your relics in action (if you acquire a little dragon, you can watch it flap its way through the school). If you're teaching classes about portal magic or alchemy you'll see experiments (and disasters) taking place. If the orcs or the undead raid, you can watch your students and teachers battle them. Unhappy students will tag rooms with graffiti, which is why it's important to institute some sort of discipline—like a jail cell or chains and shackles. It's for their own good, probably.
As years pass and your school grows, some of your students will graduate which can add to your school's reputation (or hurt it, if the learning environment was so poor it led to kids becoming peasants instead of mages). And eventually, the Lord of Evil will arrive to destroy your university and you'll need to rebuild in a new location—such as inside a volcano, where you'll meet some dwarves living under the mountain, or along the coast where a pirate faction will have to be dealt with.
You can try to delay the Lord of Evil's attack as you play by meeting with him and trying to raise his disposition—but that's difficult since he's, you know, evil. I haven't completed the game yet, but it sounds like there's a final showdown where your students have hopefully become powerful enough to face the Lord of Evil instead of just fleeing to a new location.
Spellcaster University is currently in Early Access so there are some bugs here and there—sometimes teachers get stuck in doorways, preventing a class from starting (saving and reloading seems to fix it). I've also had a few crashes to desktop, so make sure you save your game regularly since there doesn't appear to be an autosave system in place.
But bugs aside it's charming as hell, and there's a nice amount of depth in the traits of your students and teachers—each have personalities and alignments that make them ideal for certain magical disciplines and less so for others. The RNG of the card system and randomized students and faculty makes each school you build a bit different, and the dynamic way the rooms click into place always results in a weird and wondrous looking university.
Until the Lord of Evil shows up, that is, and you have to rebuild. On the plus side, maybe this time you'll get construct it on the back of a giant sea turtle.