Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Mage Knight (Board Game Review)
If you think of clicking dials and collectible miniatures when you hear the phrase "Mage Knight", you might have overlooked a board game experience very unlike the HeroClix predecessor.
In early 2011, WizKids released designer Vlaada Chvatil's Mage Knight Board Game. The game is a complex experience in which players take on the roles of Mage Knights. Using blade, magic and influence, they explore and conquer a fantasy world. The game can be played by 1-4 players and a winner is determined by total victory points at the end of the game.
Victory points can be gained in a variety of ways. Defeating enemies, acquiring spells and resources, conquering cities and other locations or recovering powerful artifacts. There is no single strategy or path to victory. In fact, the most successful players will be skilled at finding ways to make the best of the situation handed to them by their surroundings on the board and their hand of cards.
Each player has a deck of cards which they will customize somewhat and cycle through many times throughout the game, adding a small deck building element to the experience.
Decks replenish a player's hand each turn. Cards are used to generate movement points, attack points, block points and influence points. Each card is specialized to produce specific kinds of points. But all cards can be played sideways on the table to produce just one of any basic action point. (So one card may be made to produce two movement points, but if you'd prefer you could play it sideways for one attack point.)
The map is created by placing randomly ordered, hex-based tiles as you explore. Movement points are used to move from one space to another, with different terrain types requiring different numbers of movement points to travel through.
Enemy tokens are encountered on the board either out in the open or on dungeon spaces that players choose to explore. Attack and block points are used to resolve combat, meaning that there is no chance involved in combat itself. Victory is entirely earned through strategic use of cards and resources.
Defeating enemies reaps fame (the game's "experience points") and sometimes new constant abilities or resources that are added to a player's deck. Leveling up through increasing fame also adds to a player's hand size and defense capability.
In villages, keeps and mage towers (some of which must be conquered) players can use influence points to recruit support unit cards which remain face up in front of the player and assist in combat.
There is no risk of death to player characters, however taking damage adds wound cards to a player's hand and deck which do nothing but take up space in a hand and can only be removed through resting or healing in special locations by using specific cards.
In addition to regular, "free" benefits, each card also has an enhanced benefit that can be used by spending mana when the card is played. Mana can be produced a number of ways. Most often players will use mana from "the source", a common pool of custom dice displaying different mana colors on all sides. The dice in the mana source are re-rolled periodically as the game progresses and are possibly the most random element of the game. But their effect on game play is not so strong that they will determine the winner in most situations.
There are certainly a number of luck elements in Mage Knight, but the game is mostly strategic, with new resource puzzles to be solved every turn. The chief skill being called upon is a player's ability to look at the resources available to them and utilize them in the most economic and effective way possible. Finding that optimal use of cards on a turn is both challenging to figure out and empowering when done successfully.
There are multiple layers of detail and a lot going on in the game that I haven't mentioned. But players are not required to keep all rules and situations in their heads at once. Players only have to think about the rules relevant to the situation in front of them and the fantastic quick reference cards included make things fairly easy to keep track of.
If my description of the mechanics makes the game sound abstract, rest assured that Mage Knight is a richly thematic experience. The player character miniatures are painted and look great. And though I was initially concerned because all the enemies were merely art on flat tokens, the art on the tokens looks great and leaves me without complaint.
The card and tile art look great as well and the materials are sturdy with a water resistant finish that makes having drinks at the table less stressful.
I should mention that I hate games with head to head competition and even dislike the more passive style of "victory point" competition in games. My background is in RPGs and board game adaptations of RPGs (HeroQuest, Doom: The Board Game, Descent, etc.). If I'm not serving as "GM", I'm almost exclusively a "co-op only" gamer.
For this reason, I didn't even bother with the competitive options in the game, such as PvP combat and cards that thwart other players. (In any case, very little focus is placed on these elements and they don't seem to have been part of the core experience as it was likely conceived.) I've played four games of Mage Knight cooperatively and about twice that many solo.
Outside of the endgame (which usually involves conquering one or more cities) there is not much player interaction in co-op, except for talking over long-term strategy, agreeing on who will go where to accomplish what. And given the variation in decision-making speeds among players, there is also some potential for downtime between turns. However this is minimized somewhat by having players replenish their hand of cards at the end of their turn, allowing them to plan during another player's turn.
Although not difficult to understand, Mage Knight takes a considerable amount of time to learn from the written instructions, but the included "play as you learn walk through" is extremely helpful and I enjoyed even the considerable time investment it took to learn the multiple aspects of the game. Still, the best and fastest way to learn Mage Knight is by playing with someone who already knows how.
I quickly discovered that I enjoy playing the game solo as much as I do with another player. Maybe even more so. I also imagine the game bogs down a bit with more than two players, as I noticed some downtime even in a two-player game.
There are a ton of great components to this game, but this also means setup takes a little time. (I'd estimate 10 minutes or less, depending on how well you organize components while storing them.)
A one or two player game will take about 3 hours to play the first time if one of the players knows the game fairly well (much more if no experienced players are present). Less if both players have experience playing the game.
The Mage Knight experience taken as a whole is fantastic. It makes me feel like I am a powerful being exploring and conquering a fantasy world, becoming increasingly more powerful as time passes. The level of immersion is so satisfying and the implied world so intriguing that it makes me want to explore more of the Mage Knight universe in whatever forms it may exist elsewhere.
The story behind the Mage Knight Board Game is both unique and thought-provoking, if you take the time to read the flavor text.
Near the end of the introductory game text players read:
You are a Mage Knight, sent to invade the Atlantean Empire at the behest of The Council of the Void. In a past you have long forgotten, you traded your independence for powers that rival those of the gods. In exchange, the Council asks only loyalty; and now you are being called on to carry out your mission without questioning their intentions. Your reward for your continued obedience: Fame, power, knowledge and treasure. Anything you encounter while on your mission is yours to keep, and you are free to work with, or against your fellow Mage Knights as you carry out the Council's commands. Perhaps someday you will regret your decision to join the ranks of the Void, but for now you march towards the silhouette of a city on the horizon.
It's unclear if the Atlantean Empire is supposed to be "good" or "bad", but the idea of invading and conquering it seems more inclined to the role of "evil" as we typically think of it in games and fiction. The Council of the Void is a mystery entity with unknown motives. It's not even implied what "The Void" might be. A force, a place, a philosophy? The answers aren't found here.
The Mage Knights themselves, at the very least, are power-hungry, even if they believe their intentions are good. And at least one playable Mage Knight, Arythea The Blood Cultist, serves a "bloody god" who loves violence and destruction.
These elements may bring to mind the question, "Is it morally wrong or spiritually harmful to play evil characters in games?" I would argue that it is not, unless there is direct evidence that doing so contributes to bringing about sin in the life of the player. And I think scripture supports a default position of freedom in all things that don't bring about something clearly defined as sin in scripture.
Roman 14:14- I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. (ESV)
Unless a given thought or action is identified as sin in scripture, or unless we believe that by doing or thinking something we will be sinning... we are free. Completely free. And the burden of proof lies on those who would argue differently. Not the other way around. (Incidentally, I don't know of any scripture that specifically warns against pretending to be an evil character in a fictional, entertainment context.)
However, there are still potential ramifications involved in choosing to play an evil character that we should think about carefully, such as the effect it may have on someone else playing with us that is uncomfortable with the idea. In all that we do we should be seeking to honor God and love and care for each other. So despite our individual freedom, we should be willing to restrict our own freedom from time to time in the interest of others.
For more on navigating the complex maze of being a Christian who loves edgy, dark, and weird geek entertainment, you can read a two part article on the subject at spiritblade.net/questionablecontent.
While these moral elements of Mage Knight's setting and premise are thought-provoking, they are likely to be completely missed or forgotten by most players, who will have plenty to think about already from just game play itself. But the potential for worthwhile introspection or conversation is there and it might not take much to strike up a worthwhile moral or spiritual discussion during downtime.
If you're a fan of fantasy that has a bit of an edge, as well as one who enjoys complex, richly layered thematic games with co-op or solo game play, give this one a try. You're likely to get hours and hours of fun out of Mage Knight and still only have scratched the surface of what can potentially be experienced.
What do these scores mean? Check out our review score system page for more information!