Academy of Magic was excellent. I'm not at all surprised that it placed in the top three. Hell, I wouldn't have been surprised if it had taken first place. It is polished, it is creative, it's well written, it's got a great premise and a fun atmosphere, and it is impeccably balanced.
This is not one that I got to before the voting was up (roll of the dice), otherwise, I might have voted for it myself. But given that it was one of the award winners, and that I'd already been impressed with the introduction, I took the time to run a whole play through for the sake of writing this review.
Sadly, with a work this good, there's just not that much to say. It's excellent. There. Go home, wash your hands, have dinner. You did a great job.
I really liked the character creation system, based around asking questions. I did find that Mind and Animation seemed to be a little more useful in the basic system than the other options, which isn't perfect, but certainly makes sense from a story perspective. I did not figure out the mystery of who was behind the sabotage of my homonculus, but it piqued my interest enough that I'm looking forward to playing through it again later to try and find out. I also really appreciated the balance. The way the system worked out was perfect, because it seemed hard, but in actuality, statistically, was balanced so that the player has pretty decent odds. I won most of my rolls, and the rolls I didn't win, I was able to spend ability points to pass--all except one, in which case, failure turned out to be interesting for the story. Perfect.
Another kudos I have to give is that there were almost no meaningless choices. No, I take it back... There were none. I did not encounter a single meaningless choice. Bra-fucking-O sir. Bravo. The decision of where to search for components may seem, at first glance, similar to some of the "choices" I've railed at in previous reviews, but my experience was that in this case, you actually have a lot to base that decision on. You know what items you need to find, so you can try to wrack your brain and predict where you're most likely to find each of those things. The answers were surprising, but not dissatisfying. On top of that, you also have to consider the fact that you're in an Academy of Magic and where you go may have consequences beyond what items you find. For example, for my third and final bell, I chose to explore the student dorms, with the thought that I might find out more information about the culprit there. Turns out I was not wrong; I found a very informative diary. It wasn't enough for me to solve the mystery, but it was a clue, and a clue that I wouldn't have found anywhere else.
This is in stark contrast to Guild of Thieves, where every direction you go is exactly fucking the same. You could erase all the cool flavor text without changing a thing in Guild of Thieves. You would still have a straightforward, and rather boring, game. But in Academy of Magic, the flavor text matters. It matters that I chose to go to the student dorm. I encountered a school prefect there. I found a diary. These are things I would not have encountered in the dungeon, for example. It made the world feel very alive, it made me feel like I had the chance to interact with an actual Academy of Magic, rather than simply seeing a portrait of it hanging in the background.
My favorite part? The last lines of the gamebook... "The End. You can continue your adventures in the next book, Academy of Magic: The Second Term." Great job Marty! I look forward to book 2.