I caught a bug from boardgamegeek that Mage Knight The Board Game was awesome and that I was missing out by not having it. So I recently picked up seemingly the last UK copy of Mage Knight – I couldn’t find it anywhere. Eventually I turned up a copy hidden in the RPG section of my FLGS where no board gamer would find it. Or so they thought!
I have to say I was disappointed when I opened the box to discover that the Torvak mini was entirely missing from the game, and that the Round Order tokens were packed so tightly I can’t envision anyone receiving a pristine copy of those – mine were badly scratched up. There were also errata in the rulebook for a couple of cards that should have been corrected before release. After reading positive reports about Wizkids’ customer service I put in my request for replacement bits and am keenly awaiting the results of that, although a week later the order request is still just showing as ’received’.
Limping through the rule book for the past few days I’ve been bumbling through the learning scenario, you know, making the requisite number of mistakes to really start learning it, checking the geek threads to see what I’m doing wrong, and then realising that underneath all the perceived complexities and idiosyncrasies there’s actually a rather simplistic and pleasing game in here.
So what’s it all about? Mages. Knights. Hard to say really. You have deck building sort of like Thunderstone, with similar 'no dice' card-driven combat. You have tile exploration like the D&D Castle Ravenloft games. An overland adventure setting like Runebound. The looming spectre of Magic Realm permeates the air, but having given up on learning that behemoth a long time ago I couldn’t comment further on comparisons there. And you have different ways to interact with all the different places you visit (monasteries, keeps, villages, cities, ruins, tombs, dungeons, mage towers), but mostly this is buying stuff or killing stuff. It's all very interesting, and at the moment I barely even consider long term strategy as I play. It's all about: what the hell can I do with these cards this turn??
In terms of theme it’s not really up there with any of the other fantasy games. I’ve seen other people attach narrative to the game but in my own experience (and maybe this will change with time) there are too many bits and pieces that detract from a narrative experience. This is not a negative, just a by-product of the semi-complex, semi-euro design. Plus the narrative itself is a little weird for those of us unfamiliar with the Mage Knight lore:
“You are a Mage Knight – an uber warrior with a ton of power and dubious motives given power and employed by people with dubious motives to alternately plunder, destroy and give gainful employment to a populace with dubious motives who will occasionally love you for destroying their cities and plundering their homes, although they may become temporarily narked if you burn their monasteries. But not necessarily. Oh, and you’ll conquer this whole country in 3 days or die trying.”
Three days just doesn’t feel very epic. Although the game length will – Mage Knight takes a looong time to play, at least whilst you’re learning the game still.
Just briefly, here are some stat types you’ll find used in the game:
Move : standard spaces cost 2 movement points, hills cost more, mountains even more, etc
Block : creatures usually attack first so you need to block before you can attack back
Attack : for when you do fight back
Influence : for recruiting units to join you
Reputation : a + or - to Influence depending on how nice you've been to the locals
Ranged Attack : kind of like ‘first strike’, lets you attack enemies first unless they're ’fortified', e.g. in keeps or towers
Siege Attack : like Ranged attack but also works against fortified enemies, unless they’re DOUBLY FORTIFIED – that’s right, fortified enemies inside a fortified place
Rangey Siegey Tunnelly Mega Godzilla Attack for TRIPLY FORTIFIED enemies : okay this one doesn’t actually exist per se, although with certain card combo effects you can make it seem like it does.
You get 5 cards from your deck each turn and you build your deck as you go to try and combo up your cards in hand to do cool stuff. An early turn might go:
“I use these two 'Move 2' cards to move 2 plains spaces (which cost 2 Move each) to get to that village and adjacent to those rampaging orcs, I challenge the orcs to fight, they attack me with 'Attack 3', so I use this ’Block 3' card to prevent that, then I use these two 'Attack 2' cards to give me 'Attack 4', they have 'Armour 4' which means I've just enough to kill them, they're dead. That gives me 2 Fame (VPs) and the locals like it when you kill rampaging orcs so I get +1 Reputation too. I think I'll lose that extra 1 Reputation to plunder this village since I'm here anyway, mwahahaahaaa...” Etc.
The more cards you get the more advanced the cards get until you're comboing out of your arse trying to figure out the best way to lay waste to everything and burn the most monasteries. Or you can be nice instead, your choice!
It is a very cool game. It successfully manages to combine deck building, tile drawing, a weird fantasy theme, dice (albeit weirdly – they’re used strictly to generate available mana for each turn), a card draw/battle system, and a developing sense of pace. I'm not sure how it works but it does and once you start playing it, it's nowhere near as complicated as anticipated. So much so that I had some kind of a mental break last night after my gaming buddy left and I played a full Solo Conquest game until 3.30 this morning.
At this point I need professional help...
Our two player run of the introductory scenario took about 3 hours, as did my Solo Conquest game afterwards. The two player basic game (Goal: merely find the first City) was competitive in the loosest sense in that I tried to convey the rules and give advice as we went. We both scored fairly low after the allotted 3 rounds and there were only a few points’ difference between us. I managed to leapfrog to the win at the end mostly by accident with some late game healing – my gaming buddy took a brutal pasting in the last turn which filled his hand with wounds and gave him the unenviable title of Greatest Beating, which dropped his score to just below mine.
I’m still learning the rules myself - and the Cities themselves can be mind blowing so I was determined to crack them last night. I tore through a Solo Conquest game with Torvak (using Norowas’ mini) because I hadn’t used him yet due to his mini’s absence. Goldyx was the elegantly implemented dummy player/timer and was consistent but never frantic – I managed to play all my cards before each round finished.
Time flew and after racing to explore the map, ducking into the occasional dungeon, assaulting three keeps and a mage tower, and slaying a ton of orcs; in the wee small hours of this morning I reached my first level 4 city, stocked full of angry people for me to destroy. You get about 4 enemy units in each city with defensive and offensive traits and skills coming out of their arses. But the Gold Units that you can gain in the later game help out a lot – with mighty catapults and crazy golems joining your army. Plus I nabbed this mega artifact with a one shot ability of "skip the block and damage assigning part of one combat". So the first city was a murder-fest because the poor bastards couldn’t fight back as my Mage Knight and his units stormed over the city’s defenses.
After appointing myself the new leader of the city I realised that defeating a city is a bit anticlimactic because there are no real immediate rewards other than the ability to trade there next turn. I thought I'd never reach the second city and was pleased just to have got as far as I did. Plus it was a level 8 city, which presumably was really tough. It was the last Night of the game and I only had a few cards left so I raced over to the second city to see what I could do. The city was near one of my 3 keeps so I was able to pull a few extra cards into my hand from the keep’s bonus ability. Then, invading the city I pulled out some badass enemies and threw everything I had at them, cancelling enemy attacks with my units, pouring crystals into boosted magical attacks and slowly but surely taking them down one by one.
After an excruciating battle I wiped out all of the white (harder) enemies and had one measly grey (weaker but still tough) Golem enemy left but no more cards or uninjured units. It was the last round of the game and at the end of my go Goldyx would signal the end of the game and give me one more turn to try and win. Sadly this meant nothing to me because I had no cards, crystals, useful mana or units to do anything with. I was spent. I pored over my skills and stared despondently at my hand full of wounds and all my decimated units with a wound on each of them.
They stared back, pleadingly.
I needed to inflict 5 damage but the Golem had physical resistance. I had a skill which I could use once a turn to get +2 Ice Attack that would beat his resistance, and another skill which reduced his armour by 1 for each resistance he had, so I still needed to rustle up 2 more damage to defeat the Golem and win the game.
It was then that I noticed my last unused Tactic card of the game, one which would allow me to reshuffle 5 cards from my discard pile back into my hand. There were some great Advanced cards in that discard pile, but also a lot of basic non-Attack cards and a crap ton of wounds.
Going through the motions I let Goldyx declare game’s end and took my final turn, gingerly shuffling and drawing 5 cards:
Not one attack card!
Luckily you can play any card except wounds for 1 basic effect, like Block, Move, Influence or, as in this case, Attack. So I put down the four basic cards for Attack 4.
The Golem’s physical resistance halved this down to just Attack 2.
And he fell.
I had just scraped it and lost or used literally everything in the assault. It was epic. I scored about 140 points (will check that figure when I have the game handy later).
There's a lot going on in the game but the fundamentals underneath it all are fairly comprehensible. It's just remembering all the little idiosyncrasies. e.g. "when you do get an artifact you always draw 2 and pick 1", or "monasteries put advanced actions in the unit offer, not in the advanced actions offer". It's not exactly intuitive.
It was awesome though, I had conquered both cities, and the second one was on the very last possible turn by the absolute skin of my teeth.
I may be in sore need of sleep and have a nasty crick in my neck, but I need another full session soon, Doctor Chvatil!
WARNING - this game may cause job-jeopardising sleep loss!