Mage Knight Review

Mage Knights
Design by: Vlaada Chvatil
Published by: WizKids
2 – 4 Players,
listed time 150 minutes
Review by: Andrea “Liga” Ligabue

I’m an avid consumer of fantasy adventure games like Runebound, Talisman or Prophecy and also I’m a real fan of Vlaada Chvatil production, as you can read in the interview I have done to him on this pages, so I’m been really excited about Mage Knight and I’m really happy about the final result. If I have to find something wrong in the game is just the length, but it is not really a problem since is nice to spend more than 2 hours playing something you really like!

Sometimes it happens to run into a board game, which by its very structure is more a game system than a simple game. Think titles Memoir’44, Commands & Colors, Runebound or Magestorm (unlucky Magestorm story seems to be ended together with Nexus). These games, I think, are designed with the idea and the possibility to be extended, expanded, enlarged.

Obviously when and how depends on many factors, not least the success of the basic game and the fortune of the publisher. Mage Knight jumped in the BGG top 30, ranked 3 in the thematic games special rank and WizKids seems to be a quite solid company so I hope the game will be probed to its full potential.

Playing my first two games of Mage Knight I got the distinct feeling of being faced with an “Epic” project and going on games after games I was able also to catch the great details, balancing, depth Vlaada ha used us. To mention also the nice graphics and first order materials, like: 240 cards, 8 painted miniatures, 196 tokens, 20 map tiles, 54 mana crystals, 7 mana dice, 2 game mats and 2 rulebooks! Mage Knight box is really full, something we are pampered by publishers like FFG or Days of Wonder.

Each player represents a Mage Knight, sent by the Council of the Void to invade the continent of Atlantis. During his mission he meet villages, caves, magic towers and wandering monsters. The aim of the mission varies from scenario to scenario: in the box are presented 11 scenarios and most of them are designed in the way you can play several times.

Each player has a deck of 16 cards from which he draws 5 random each round. The cards affect what a character can make the turn. Nothing really innovative, since deck-buildings seems to be one of the most used mechanic in the last years. The cards are not to be used every round: this allows a certain level of programming that is needed to prepare a particular action like a difficult combat. The decks of the 4 characters included in the box are equal except for a single card, but the characters really differs in the skills they are able to get advancing in level. During the game the deck of card will increase as that the characters gain advanced skills, spells and artifacts.

The cards generally provide the player movement points, influence points (used to interact with the civilized areas), attack or block points, used in combat.

In its turn every Mage Knight can first move and than perform a single action which may be a combat, an exploration of a certain site or interacting with a civilized place. Characters can renounce to the movement and action to rest.

Before going into the details of the game we take a look to the mapboard.

The map is constructed during the game drawing from a deck of tiles defined by
scenario. Each tile consisting of 7 hexagons: a central hexagon with 6 hexagons around. On the hexagons there are villages, monasteries, mage towers, monster dens, dungeons, ruins and towns. The hexagons are also characterized by the type of
terrain that affects movement (how many movement points are needed to enter).

The game is played in rounds: each round represents, alternatively, day and night and is characterized by a variable number of turns. In fact, a round ends when a player runs out of his deck and decide not to play additional turns: then all the other players can perform one last turn. This means that sometimes having an huge deck of actions and artifacts could be useless against an opponent playing a quick and small deck.

Firmly attached to the above this mechanism of exploration/action is the magic system, something I found really innovative and functional. Each round 6 mana dice are thrown and can be used by players to enhance the actions of their cards or to cast spells. There are 4 types of magic (color) and two special elements: the Golda Mana, wild card that can can be used only during the day and the Black Mana, which can be used only at night to perform enhanced spells.

So, how the game really flows ?

During your turn you have to decide what to perform and how: to move you have to play movement cards: the cost of the hexes vary and also some terrains have different costs during the day of the night. Movement is important to explore the map an d to be first to reach the locations or fight monsters since this is the way to get experience and, in the end, victory points.

Of course to fight a monster you need to have the right attack/block cards. How the combat works ? Every monster on the map has an armor value and an attack value and can have one or more special powers/skills.

The first part of the combat is the range phase where you can play range and siege cards to equal or exceed the enemy armor value. If you are able to do that the combat is over, otherwise is time for the monster to attack your character: you need to play as many block points as the attack value of the monster otherwise you are wounded. How many wounds depends on the monster attack value and you hero armor value. You take a wound card and than reduce the attack value by your hero’s amour value; is not zero take another wound and do it again. Wounds cards slow your deck since occupy one of the 5 slot in your hand. To get rid of wounds you need to rest or to heal, using cards, spells or special location effects.

Killing a monster gives you experience points that can make you rise level. Leveling can give you new abilities (from a deck of counters specific for each hero), advanced actions (from the advanced actions deck) or just increase your amour value and hand capacity.

How the character change increasing level by level depends of many factors and vary from game to games: sometimes ad advanced action cards can influence your choice, sometimes the map and scenario. The 4 characters have real different skills that affects how to play them.

In the villages, keeps and towns and in the other civilized area you can hire unit to support your quest: units are special cards you can use both in combat, to prevent damage, or during the normal turn to get special actions. The type and power if the units are several and the number of units you can hire depends on your character level.

The final part of the scenarios usually are focused about the interaction and the conquest of towns, special locations. Town are click object and can vary in powers according to the difficulty of the scenario.

As told in the beginning Mage Knight is a such depth game you need to play a lot before being able to fully manage all the details: how to build your deck, how to organize the turn and so on. Also players vs players rules are provided and I think they need to be included if you really want to test the game to his full potential.

Of course playing the game every time with new opponents could be someway disappointing since the first time you actually need to play the “tutorial” scenario that is not the best one. The game length is the only drawback. Of course I hope the great success of the game will push Vlaada to design new characters and scenarios and WizKids to support this great game

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers:

Ted C: I think Andrea has really captured the spirit of the game. This is really a very nice game with some great elements and hand management. My real concern is length. I have “played” twice and due to time constraints, have never really finished a game. Let me say all this is after about 4 hours of playing. To be fair there were new players during each game and there is a bit of a learning curve. Also, I think it may be very difficult to catch up if you begin to fall behind in the game. The potential is great. I just wish I had more time to devote to it.

Brian: Gamers have a bad tendency to think that everything will be better with the full complement of players supported and most involved scenario. If you first try Mage Knight with four, or play anything other than the intro scenario when learning, you are likely to be in for a too-long-for-the-fun experience in my opinion. Not that you couldn’t enjoy yourself, but I recommend two or three players and the learning scenario for the first time a group plays, and no more than three players and a blitz scenario if any player in the game is new.

With that said, I’ve really enjoyed my games of Mage Knight. It is definitely a whole evening game, but it seems you can play in 3-4 hours even taking some time for the really tough decisions. The game has a development arc and tells a story while leaving lots of room for system mastery. The decisions you make are both highly tactical as you puzzle out what to do with a specific set of cards and board position, and also quite strategic as the decision to acquire, or even play, a particular card highly impacts future turns.

I enjoy the race aspect of interaction between the players, but the one occasion it came up found player versus player combat to be somewhat uninteresting and primarily a way for one player to ensure that a third party not in the conflict gets a relative advantage over the other two. Still, I can see why it is in there to prevent a player from camping a location someone else needs to access. Overall, if this game seems like it might be interesting to you, give it a try as I think you’ll like it. If you didn’t think it sounded interesting the first time you heard what it was, I won’t try to change your mind, it is long, detailed and complex, definitely not for everyone.

Dale Yu: Mage Knight is a pretty good take on the adventure game. I’ve only played it three times, twice with the basic learning scenario and once with a blitz 4p scenario, and I’ve certainly enjoyed those experiences with the game. I will definitely agree with Brian here that I think it’s best to start with the basic scenario and work your way up from there. Our first game, 3p, with the rules and only the basic scenario took almost 5 hours. Anything more than that would have been truly overwhelming.

There is a LOT going on in the game, and lots of subtle nuances that I’m sure that I haven’t seen yet. The number of decisions each turn is huge given your hand size, the cards left in your deck and the special ability chosen at the start of each round. For my first few games, I tried to simply choose a path and go with it rather than take 10 minutes trying to completely optimize my turn. I definitely like the puzzle aspect of the game, and this is made a bit more complex with the differing rules and action cards available in the day and night phases of the game.

Now I haven’t played the “full” game yet, and to be honest, I’m not sure if I ever will. The “blitz” game that we played still went about 4 hours – and in the blitz scenarios, your character levels up about twice as fast as it will in the full game. And for me, the development of the character was still pretty slow. I don’t know if I personally have the patience for an all-day game where my abilities take a long time to build up.  I also really do not care for the scoring system which appears to have been tacked onto the game though — but I’m at a loss of proposing a better system, so maybe it’s the best way to figure out who “won” the game.

I’m glad to have learned the game, and I would be happy to play it as long as someone more experienced is there to help move the game along — this is true of so many longer games for me including 18XX, Die Macher, etc.

Luke Hedgren: So, I am a huge fan, and love this design, not despite its length, but more because of the depth allowed by the length. Much of what I like has been mentioned already, but I will add 2 aspects that bother me a little bit about the game.
1. As I “level up” by getting units, spells, actions, and skills, I often just feel as though I am grabbing the “best” option for me, rather than choosing a direction for my character. In Vlaada’s other fantasy adventure, Prophecy, there is room to choose your direction. I can be a weapon throwing hobbit, or a spell casting mage. Here, I just seem to grab great options, maybe slightly changing my choice based on earlier choices. But, that might be because I am not as sophisticated of a MK player as others.
2. Vlaada’s patented “achievement-style” scoring rears its head here again. In Dungeon Lords, Dungeon Petz, and even somewhat in Through the Ages (with Age 3 Events), players score at the end of the game, not only what the “goal” is, but also for a myriad of other aspects of what got them there. I would much rather have wounds, artifacts, conquests, spells, etc. be used as just a tool to accomplish the goal of the city-conquering, than have them all be part of the final score. It can create some weird min-maxing on the last few turns, though I guess it preserves uncertainty in the winner.
So, despite these two, somewhat minor, issues, count me in the “love it” camp.

Jonathan: I really enjoyed learning and playing Mage Knight. I don’t have much to add to all that has been said above, other than that the full game runs a bit long for me and I don’t love how huge the decision space is towards the end. That said, it is the best game using the deck-building mechanism that I have played in a while. I like theme, so I preferred some aspects of Thunderstone to Dominion, while admiring Dominion’s design more. Mage Knight scratches that big adventure itch while permitting clever plays. Don’t play with those who have AP/want to maximize every turn. Fewer players is better, especially for learning, so play with 2 or 3 at the start.

I am so glad Luke has the time to play this monster, but for me, it is a weekend or con game. I have a weakness for puzzle games and this one has that in spades. It offers arc, aha-moments, and theme, which are becoming what I look for in a game. I am really on the fence between like it and love it. It is one of my favorite games of the past year, but part of that is admiring how all the moving parts fit together.

Honestly, I don’t really care about the scoring system. It is an adventure for me. The scoring feels tacked on and I understand that it should affect my goals (and it does), but I really could care less if I win or lose, the fun is the trip.

Patrick Korner: I have played Mage Knight about 15 times now, ranging from several multiplayer scenarios (mostly the introductory one to get more folks into the game) to two-player scenarios (of which the Druid Nights variant is a special favourite). And I think it’s easily one of the best games I have ever played – Top 10 for sure, probably just missing Top 5. Why do I think it’s so great? Variability, thematic immersion, strategy and fun, all rolled into one.

I think the length has been overblown a little, but will concede that the majority of my plays have been two player, which helps cut the play time down a lot. I still think taking 4 to 5 hours to finish the basic scenario is insane, though – quite likely the issue is one of play style and not game design once you get into those numbers. Essentially: It’s your first game. You will make mistakes. You will learn more from those mistakes than you will from trying to waste everyone’s time puzzling out the ‘best’ option. So just go with your gut and, in finest Magic Schoolbus fasion, get messy and make mistakes.

One issue that needs to be addressed is the concern some folks have of imbalanced card draws leaving players with few options or being forced to discard useful cards in order to move. Yes, it is possible that you will get stuck with a hand full of non-move cards. No, it should not happen that often. There are a total of 7 movement cards in each character’s starting deck, which is little less than half if my math is correct. Plan accordingly and remember that a big part of the game isn’t just what you do on this turn: it’s what kind of hand you expect to see next turn too. If you know your deck is running thin on moves, perhaps save one and don’t move as far this time around. Or, if the mana’s there, jump ahead all at once and then accept you’ll be staying put for a bit.

Overall, Mage Knight is a huge, shambling monster of a game that really shouldn’t work. But somehow it does, as fluidly as any sprawling thematic game I’ve seen. Thanks to Vlaada’s usual skill, all the little rules details and fine points seem easier to remember than you’d think because they have a thematic foundation. Why can’t your supporting units help you in a dungeon? Well, ’cause it’s dark and scary down there. You might have sweet-talked those peasants into joining up, but ain’t no way they gonna help you kill a Minotaur…

4 (I love it!): Andrea “Liga” Ligabue, Brian Leet, Luke Hedgren, Patrick Korner
3 (I like it): Ted C, Dale Yu
2 (Neutral): John P
1 (Not for me):

About Andrea "Liga" Ligabue

Andrea "Liga" Ligabue is a game expert contributing to many games related international projects including Gamers Alliance Report, WIN, ILSA Magazine and Boardgamenews. Member of the International Gamers Awards Committee is coordinator of Play - The Games Festival and founder of the project Ludoteca Ideale.
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2 Responses to Mage Knight Review

  1. Don Johnson says:

    why not implement a time limit to a players turn. when fighting for example there’s little time to think.

  2. A thank you for the evaluation, I have heard comparable things about the game and will be testing it for myself during the next week!

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