Published on August 6th, 2014 | by Luke Turpeinen2
It’s Fun To Be The Bad Guy: Mage Knight Review
I first knew of Mage Knight when it originally appeared in 2000 as the first collectible miniatures game to use “clix” bases. After buying a some minis, the collectible aspect of the game and the “pay to win” tournament scene turned me off to the game and I soon lost interest. Recently I was at the local game store/bar and was talking about wanting to play a game about crusading adventurers out to seek glory, a modern take on Talisman, if you will. I was pointed to Mage Knight’s new board game as something that would scratch that itch.
Before agreeing to get together to play Mage Knight, there were apparently rules that had to be laid down. It was made exceedingly clear to me that this game is hard. Jake and Nick, two of the most intense board gamers I know, told me that Mage Knight is the most complex game they’ve ever played. It was also impressed on me that I’d need the whole day free if we were going to do this. Nick said that before he committed to bringing it over and teaching me how to play, I had to promise that I’d dedicate at least six hours to it because that might be how long our first game would take. We scheduled eight just in case.
This review comes after playing one and a half games of the same scenario in one day. We did all the set up, explanations and did what amounted to a two hour test run before it became apparent that my character was holding the game back and we would inevitably lose. At that point another friend who had recently played Mage Knight for the first time showed up and we played a full three player game to completion, which was immensely satisfying.
I was not disappointed with the quality of materials that came with the game. Mage Knight comes with fully painted miniatures for its hero characters, and the sculpts and paint jobs are both very well done for a pre-made product. There are hundreds of different tokens, not just for enemies but level-up effects and character bonuses. Mage Knight’s symbolic iconography is easy to understand and intuit, which is good considering how many of those effects there are in the game. The material the cards are printed on is lower quality than some other games and they have a large, rough grain on them. Given that Mage Knight is so big and has so many components, I don’t feel that this diminishes the game’s quality and is probably a great area to keep costs down.
The art in the game is sufficient and at times pretty good but nothing really eye catching or amazing. The card frames and the general designs of the tokens and the board pieces are very well done, though based mostly on color recognition. Mage Knight also does a good job of utilizing its components effectively- many tokens serve dual purposes and the way they do so is simple but original. One example is part of your leveling up process: each character has a stack of tokens that have your default Armor Value and Hand Size listed on one side, and your Influence symbol on the other. When you level, you remove the token from the stack, flip it over and now you add that influence token to your pool to let you recruit more units (as part of the benefit for leveling). Dual usage like this is all over the place and it adds little bits of novelty through out the game.
Mage Knight might be the most complex board game I have ever played. It can be compared to an over-land Descent or a mechanically robust Talisman. Mage Knight is huge, complex and unforgiving. If you are not at close to peak efficiency through the while game, you will probably lose. There really is no part where you get to feel out your character, the board or the mission before dedicating yourself to a direction. In Mage Knight there is only one speed: GO.
When you break it down, Mage Knight is at its heart a deck-building game. While the over-land component is the most visually obvious one, it isn’t nearly as important as hand and deck management. Everything in the game from moving to attacking, blocking and gaining followers will require moderate to intense hand management. Taking damage in the game is represented by Wound cards getting added to your hand. You can’t discard them easily, they don’t do anything and even if you do discard them, they get shuffled into your deck again later. Don’t mess up.
There are four basic colors of magic in Mage Knight: red, blue, green and white. Gold/Yellow is used as a wild color during the day (but is useless at night) and black can be used to power up sorcery at night, but is worth nothing during the day time. The colors have some theme to them: red has more attacks and green has cards that heal wounds, but they aren’t hard restrictions. All basic style cards have an effect that you can play for free by just playing the card, but they also come with a different effect that can be accessed by paying a magic of a specific color.
Players in Mage Knight can acquire mana in a couple different ways. First there are a pool of 6-sided dice with a mana symbol (the four basic plus yellow and black) on each side. During your turn you can take a die from the pool and use the color that is face up for free, at the end of your turn you roll the die and place it back in the pool. You can also get magic tokens which are generated by spell or character effects and last for a single turn. Finally, a player can get magic crystals which persist between turns and can be found in mines on the board or can be given by card effects or for by exploring labyrinths.
Each character starts the game with an identical deck of 15 cards, to which you add two character cards that are upgrades to existing cards in the deck. The character cards are upgrades of different base cards and each character upgrades these cards differently. Every character also has a suite of abilities that they can choose from when leveling up and these abilities will greatly define your playstyle as you move forward in the game. The character I played was a kind of blood mage who could permanently remove wound cards from her deck for a bonus, which made taking damage less of a hassle. Other characters do better at generating magic tokens and crystals or are just better at fighting.
In the scenario that we played, the goal was to explore tiles until you uncovered the four city spaces, then take over the cities before your turn limit is up. Board tiles have different degrees of difficulty and you stack the deck so that the easier ones are at the top and the cities are randomly distributed in the more difficult sections. If you’ve ever played a game like the Castle Ravenloft D&D game you’ll be familiar with this idea. Each tile has different spaces that you can move into, and each different type of terrain has its own movement cost for entering it. The general idea is that you’ll go around, encounter dungeons, wizard towers and monasteries and level up until you get to a city and tear it down. If only it were that easy!
Pretty much every activity in the game is hard to do. Hand optimization is essential to performing almost any action effectively, and depending on the cards you’ve picked up so far and the wounds you’ve taken, this may be a lengthy process. The good thing is that there are cards and strategies you can use to be better at this, but they aren’t initially apparent. Resources like magic crystals or cards with dual effects are essential to being able to keep up with the board, and taking a turn to wait outside the dungeon gathering your strength before you go in to fight a dragon is actually recommended, even if it feels like wasting time. In Mage Knight the balance you strike will be between waiting to make the perfect hand and just pushing forward with what you’ve got.
Mage Knight is a rewarding game if you have the time to invest in learning and practicing it. Not only is is not at all a game for beginners, it’s a game that takes at least a couple of play sessions just to feel really comfortable with it. While playing my first game I felt like I understood my goal, but I had no idea how to connect that goal with what I did on a turn-by-turn basis.
In that way it’s a lot like Talisman: you run around, trying desperately to not get killed by a wandering dragon while you take out minions of lower levels, finally increasing your character’s potency to the point where you can trigger the end game and die a turn before reaching the final boss. That’s not to say that it’s bad or un-enjoyable, but it does mean that if you aren’t prepared to commit four or more hours to a grueling complexity just to lose at the end, this might not be the game for you. Mage Knight is hard, but you can get better, it just takes practice. That’s where Mage Knight’s strength is: it’s awesome enough that you want to practice playing a board game.