Mage Knight (Game Review)

Mage Knight box

Mage Knight

I’ve explained before that I don’t generally like dungeon-crawler board games. Usually too in love with their cool setting to make the rules fun and fair, they are victims of the trade-offs between theme and mechanics. I had high hopes for Mage Knight, though. In games like Galaxy Trucker and Dungeon Lords, Vlaada Chvátil has shown that he can come up with innovative, fun ways to bring out a game’s theme. But while Mage Knight is well-designed in many ways, it just doesn’t work for me.

Each player is a morally ambiguous “Mage Knight” roaming the countryside: You kill the wandering monsters that threaten civilians, but you also sack towns and fortifications, and most scenarios require you to capture cities at the end. The board is a series of tiles which don’t offer a lot of variety from game to game, but do keep individual turns unpredictable as you explore the edges and reveal more tiles. These tiles, along with everything else in the game, are beautifully made: The oversized box is full of custom dice, hundreds of cards, a wide variety of different tokens for monsters and abilities, as well as a few painted figures.

Some of the beautiful, varied cards.

Some of the beautiful, varied cards.

Those cards are especially important. Instead of traditional stats and dice, your character’s abilities are determined mainly by a deck of cards. This mix of deck-building with role-playing is a concept that I’m starting to hear about frequently, but I doubt many games will do it as well. Mage Knight is one of the very few deck-builders with mechanics that fit the game, instead of just unsuccessfully cloning Dominion. In this case, each card has two possible abilities (with the stronger one generally powered by one of four Mana colors), and any card can be played to give a single point in one of the basic needs of a turn: Movement, Attack, Blocking, or Influence. This variety of options keeps your character’s abilities fairly balanced regardless of what you draw. Sure, you’ll sometimes find yourself with little movement on a turn, or lots of combat ability when you wanted to spend Influence peacefully in town, but it’s not nearly as arbitrary and random as other systems.

Not one deck-building element seems to be directly lifted from Dominion. Money and “Buys” are gone, and Mana powers cards when they are used. Players optionally keep or discard any unused cards at the end of their turn. And like some other games, wounds are represented by useless cards that can’t be discarded easily. The biggest innovation is in the pacing of the game: Each round ends once one player has gone through their deck, and then everyone shuffles for the next round. Decks generally grow slowly, as card Trashing is rare, and no cards (other than Wounds) are so bad that you would want to get rid of them just for the sake of deck efficiency.

With only six rounds in most games, and no guarantee that you’ll go through your full deck on a round, Mage Knight doesn’t offer a lot of time to build and modify your deck. However, you gain other improvements as well. With every level-up, your character either gains a skill (from a pool that grows throughout the game) or a slot to recruit an additional supporting unit. The units and skills offer almost as wide a variety of abilities as the cards do. Though it’s not pure deck-building, the combination of cards, skills, and units combine to make your character feel unique and powerful by the end.

Midway through a solo game. There are a LOT of components, and a multi-player game barely fits on a large table by the end.

Midway through a solo game. There are a LOT of components, and a multi-player game barely fits on a large table by the end.

So why did I say that this game disappointed me? Everything I’ve explained so far is true: This is beautifully produced and features creative, well-balanced game design. There are two huge problems, though.

The first is the complexity of the rules. Though the rulebooks are designed with Chvátil’s typically thorough, clear explanations and even provide an introductory scenario to teach it gradually, this game is complex. It took me hours just to prepare to teach that introductory scenario, which I don’t think has ever happened before. Every rule has a logical reason, but there still too many quibbling details to remember: Gaining Artifact cards works differently than other types, because you draw an extra and then give one back. When fighting multiple enemies, you must play cards to block them individually but can group them for attack card effects. Remember that any enemy you attack in a Keep gains the “Fortified” ability, and that after killing a rampaging monster you move up in the Reputation track! The introductory scenario doesn’t even include all the rules, including the many ways that player vs. player battles differ from normal combat.

A close-up of the same game a little later, once the city figures are out.

A close-up of the same game a little later, once the city figures are out.

Also, while the range of options offered by each card makes the game structure work, it also makes it long. Each turn is basically a puzzle, trying to figure out the optimal way to move to a new location and accomplish something there. Many cards can combine with others, and spending Mana on one might make you unable to afford another, so the possibilities are incredibly broad. Add to that the fact that your units and many skills can be used only once per round, so you have to decide what to spend this turn. And of course, you may have three or four possible targets close by, so if one doesn’t seem possible, you can consider another. It’s not uncommon to see someone spend five or ten minutes figuring out what to do on their turn, and the people I play with are normally very fast.

These two issues make a bad combination: We spent hours playing that teaching game, and if we wanted to keep playing it within the group, we’d need to do it again to bring other friends up to speed. Going through it once is somewhat interesting (if full of way too much downtime), but the fact that every new player needs hours of training is the real killer. I’ve only played it once with others, and since then have just played it solitaire. The solo game does a remarkable job of maintaining the experience (Chvátil’s design skills are impeccable), but because of that I can also say that the problems never quite go away: My games continue to take a very long time, and even though I’m not waiting on anyone else, the puzzle-after-puzzle feel makes the game seem slow and draining.

Mage Knight has a lot going for it. The production quality and rules are among the best of 2012, but none of my friends are interested in playing it. I can’t say I blame them; I’m very glad to have experienced this, but after a few solitaire sessions, I have no desire to try it again myself.

Grade: C

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