Thursday, 23 July 2015

Review: Mage Knight

An unconditionally free Saturday at home with two friends and a hankering for some high fantasy gaming; it was the perfect opportunity to play this game all the way through.

Six hours, I was warned. Six and a half wasn't too bad.

Was it worth it? Would I play again?

My head hurts.

I don't think I struggled as much with any game until Mage Knight - only the 8th best game on BGG.

This game is epic. So much stuff in one box. So much variety in spells and levelling up. Hordes of monster tokens to fight and acres of hex map tiles to explore. Exactly what you expect from an epic fantasy and it looks great.

After a modest rules explanation and a shower of reference cards (seriously, so many) we could begin our noble quest! I had a deck, some tokens and a hand of five cards. Let me at'em, I thought.

Our heroes sprawled across the map, discarding cards, borrowing "mana" from the communal dice pool and drawing more cards to build our strength. I managed to make a village first turn and threatened some local thugs into joining my cause. That reduced my reputation, making it harder to get followers in the future. This is interesting, I thought.

Then I headed into a fight, after planning for a few turns, and summarily defeated the monster without hassle. I levelled up, chose a new advanced action to add into my deck and a new unique skill token. This is so cool, I thought.

The game continued across three days and three nights until we captured the fourth and final city, winning the game. The map got bigger. Monsters got tougher. Rewards retained their shininess. This is epic, I thought.

But this isn't fun. I didn't actually enjoy doing any of it.

What's worse; I didn't feel like a hero.

Why? (Vlaada, why!?)

Besides the thrill of drawing cards, flipping monster tokens or rolling the mana dice, the bulk of the game was flashy arithmetic.

Do I have enough strength to beat this guy or don't I? How many wounds will I take? Can I manage it with fewer cards?

These were the basic three questions that preceded every fight and every interaction. I never felt worry, fear or anticipation because there was nothing hidden behind the curtain.

So many maths.

In most cases monsters remain impassive on the map until a player decides - having already totted up the numbers on cards in their hand vs the numbers on the monster's token(s) - to go in and kill it. Suddenly the fearsome dragon equates to an optional math exercise.

The vast array of monster's special abilities (e.g. brutal, poison, swift, etc.) are typical to the setting and help bring some variety and distinction to the denizens of the world. In reality they made the puzzle of combat more complicated without being any more fun. Nothing was ever a surprise, it was just a few numbers that needed to double here and there.

This game was co-op, but I felt remarkably lonely. Players share a central dice pool of 'mana' dice - which is one of the stand-out mechanics of the game - but otherwise end up on opposite ends of the map with very little to say to one another.

Turns come around quite reliably with only three players at the table. Some turns are refreshingly short and sweet, others are long and far more impressive with 5-10 cards being played in a flurry of rehearsed calculations.

One real issue lies in the game's infrastructure. Let me explain.

Whilst waiting for other players you can spend the time working out, from your cards, what to do next turn. The complexity of the challenge often means you can calculate how to achieve something just perfectly – and that’s a cool feeling. Problem is; everyone else is so focused on making their own game equally efficient and awesome, there is no reason for them to care about yours. Unless someone needs a bit of help with the maths of a monster’s special power, it’s useless to try and involve yourself in other player’s turns. It’s a case of too many cooks.

Mage Knight's sheer scale and daedal theme has made my pants wet more than once. I wanted to give it a another chance the next day - but my opinion didn't change. After over 10 hours of gameplay we had achieved two victories! But I cared about them as much as I did when West Ham beat Brazil at Rugby that one time.


After all the tropes, kills and levels - for all its grandeur, complexity and theme - Mage Knight left my head hurting and my heart a little empty.

It’s is a game for those who want to be the most efficient killers in the kingdom - not the most heroic.

Solid 6/10. Good ideas. Great production. Disappointingly dry.

Sorry, fans.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Review: 7 Wonders: The official game of the number

By popular opinion, 7 wonders is a great game. It's been recognised as both a game for beginners and a favourite for the veterans.

Swonder's lack of dice rolling, smooth component management and gorgeous iconography makes it one of the most mechanically intriguing games that's not a deck builder or straight-up euro-game.

In fact, 7 wonders is such a good purchase it's hard to find a game better suited for 3-7 players that's playable in under an hour.

How do you play?

The game ends after three 'ages' of increasing potential where players will draft from revolving hands of cards to build their civilisation. At the end of the game the player with the most points is the winner.

Every turn you'll take a hand of cards from the player previous to you and pick one - before handing it on the the next player. Everyone else is doing this at the same time and will continue until you've seen seven hands of dwindling size and taken one from each.

After you choose each card you will either build it into your tableau or throw it away for a little gold - and then eagerly look around the table to see what everyone else has chosen.

Damn! You probably wanted that card...

Player's decision-making

Adding a card to your tableau is what you'll be doing most of the time - as long as you're prepared.

Almost every card has a resource cost - higher in the later ages. This doesn't mean everyone spends the first few rounds choosing cards which offer them resources - no. The role of gold in the base game is almost purely there to spend on -renting- resources from your neighbours. Instantly it has you keeping an eye on how the civilisations to your left and right are developing.

Likewise, building military buildings has you face-off with your neighbours at the end of each age in a battle for points. But it's still so simple; only the player with the higher amount of military might gains points - so the savvy player will try to stay just one step ahead. It keeps the element of war in this game of ancient civilisations in check and allows the other elements of the game to shine... science. The study of science in the ancient world was vastly important and you can win by taking these cards over anything else. The point-scoring of science buildings is the most complicated part of the game - but essentially; the right combination of science buildings scores points exponentially, with peaks and troughs along the way.

There are other simple ways to score points; like government buildings that score you a defined number of points, for example. These are things like shrines, museums and the coveted palace (for those who can acquire one of every-type of resource, of which there are seven).

Red are Military, Green are Science, Yellow are typically used for trading

Resources aren't everything 

This is another great element of the game you might not expect. Some cards, along with providing their benefit, open up a tech-tree from which you can build cards in future ages for free! Sometimes, if you're a risky player, you'll decide to build one of these cards just to plant the roots for future growth.

But what about the wonders? 

Well, instead of playing a card or throwing it away you can look at your unique civilisation and build a stage of it's wonder. Each wonder is different depending on what civilisation you have randomly chosen so building stage I, II or III of your wonder will determine the way you play. Some just give you points, other give you special powers no-one else can perform. The balance of these wonders, in my opinion, is debatable - there will be clear favourites at your table.

Gizah is an example of a civilisation you might play. The wonders are along the bottom and cards are tucked underneath when each stage is built.

Production & Themes

The game's iconography and complete lack of text on cards makes the whole experience feel really intuitive and encourages you to play again.

Rather than bogging down the more complicated cards with hefty blocks of tiny text it just offers a simple picture or icon which shares properties and syntax with other cards, ingraining the pictoral language of the game into your brain like modern hieroglyphics.

The player interaction isn't so intense making it feel a bit euro.

But the drafting mechanic - where every hand of cards after the first in each age has already been bastardised by your fellow players - adds some really complicated decision-making. Do you take the card that she might want or do you just take what might be best for you?

Something that might divide the crowd a bit on swonders is how; when you make a decision, it can quickly become very clear you made the wrong one - and you're stuck with it. This sense of instant gratification (or punishment) might have some newbies hating the game. It's certainly true that veterans of the game will have a better idea of how to control their civilisation throughout the ages.

Teaching the game

When teaching this game there are a few concepts which can difficult to grasp but should be made very clear for new players;
- Cards get better and more expensive as ages go on
- Resources are never 'spent' but each icon can be used once per player per round (for example, a single 'wood' can be used once by the owning player -and- their two neighbours in a round - potentially earning the owner doller doller).
- You can never build more than one of each named card. I mean, what civilisation ever had more than one 'Watchtower', huh?

Expanding your mind

The expansions to swonders are just as innovative and add new interesting elements to the game. Since 7 wonders encourages you to play differently each game, adding opportunity and options to the game just enhances the whole experience - and these expansion do it whilst keeping the fluidity that makes this a replayable experience.

If you're not convinced, watch this review and hear how the dice tower and Lord King Vasel thinks it deserves every award it received.

Core Game -

Leader Expansion -
Cities Expansion -
Babel Expansion -

This review is also on Board Game Geek:

The current print of the game has different coin and military lose tokens but looks just as pretty

Monday, 15 June 2015

Comic Con: The Otaku's Dream

WEEKS. We'd spent weeks prepping our costumes - ahem, cosplays - and all of a sudden the day was upon us! We'd explored the darkest streets of Soho's haberdashers and delved the deepest corners of the Matalan sale bin to craft ourselves into a favourite pop culture character

I hear all the cool kids are doing it nowadays.

I was headed to spend the day at one of Britains' geekiest, but most engaging, events. Cool or not, my wife Kat was backing me up as a vivaciously convincing Baby Doll - so the hype only escalated as the train neared our destination; MCM Comic Con.

It was a mecca of unfettered nerdgasms.

More than 122,000 visitors attended the three days in London in May this year, which played host to everything from movies, videogames and comic books to anime, manga and cosplay – and a line-up of special guests from the world of film and TV.

These special guests were okay (James Cosmo - Game of Thrones, Sylvester McCoy - Dr Who/The Hobbit, etc.) but it doesn't compare to what you get at the London film & comic con in July.

Most of the ExCel centre (which is MASSIVE) was jumbled up with stores selling memorabilia from all your favourite anime and culture classics. It was Camden market with more Naruto. Unfortunately everything felt a little too busy and a little too expensive to justify spending.

After stopping to watch some amateur K-pop dance group for an unhealthy amount of time we made sure to check out all all the funky artists and authors that had come to show-off their original ideas. There was plenty of cool stuff but, again, a little costly - especially if you're a student or... say, a writer.

There were plenty of other little things to see (e.g. the queue to any video game preview, the queue to every in-house eatery) but after a few hours I felt like I'd seen it all. We were told about how the nearby pub, The Fox, gets lively with all the post-event hype of a Sikh wedding. so we headed there to continue the party.

MCM is really successful at bringing people together. In one day I had my photo taken, was serenaded and had my name called more times by strangers than I would usually be comfortable with. But that was happening all around me between everyone else! It tears down those barriers of everyday life so you could come together over what's important; fun.

I won't go at every opportunity because there is only so much to see but it is a place you should visit once and become part of the magic.

For some cosplays all you need is a lab coat and a bunch of bananas
P.S. If you need things to do try the lesser-known hobby of "cos-spotting". It's like I-spy but instead you're trying to name as many characters throughout the day as you can. At an event like this, where people get really creative, it settles the men (or women) from the boys (or girls). 

I didn't just make this up I swear.

Monday, 18 May 2015

LARP II: The unexpected value of ignorance

In my previous post I had written about how my first ever LARP event was a storming success. I’d left feeling empowered and energised. 

But, like a die-hard fan of ‘the original’, I was secretly concerned by the idea of a sequel.

Either way, I was back for a second go at it. I strolled onto the camp site ready to take on the (fantasy) world again and waved a keen ‘Hello!’ to a few familiar faces. A few hollered back.

I had perfected the art of carrying a tent, sleeping bag and tankard to make room for my trusty guitar. My rucksack contained less fodder and more socks. I felt like (and quite literally was!) a weary traveller whose journey was only just beginning.

It was a sunny Friday afternoon when I had arrived. It was still a couple of hours until kick-off so, after setting up my tent and settling into a bard’s outfit, I suddenly found myself at the mercy of pre-game hubbub.

People were faffing with tents, costumes and cars; all getting ready for the weekend. For some this went on late into the evening.

The place came alive as the field filled up with a weekend community of people, drifting unpredictably between themselves and themselves. Some had begun speaking in their voices that I recognised - others had changed colour altogether.

As the sun fell away we all gathered in the big tavern for the boss to call an official ‘time-in’.

Perhaps it was the frightened newbie in me that suffered from an unshakeable sense of awkwardness. Or perhaps with my previous experience and a greater sense of expectation, I became acutely aware that I didn’t have anything to do.

I brushed the vexing feeling away, sipping my trusty tankard of cider, and went ahead to perform as loudly as a bard should in a tavern crowded with people. I was making the most of it. A dodgy rendition of “The misty mountains cold” fit the scene nicely.

After yet more socialising - which had an atmosphere like that of your local on a Friday evening - we had the official announcements by the head honcho to mark the official beginning of story-time. It was the preface to a book I'd been waiting to open.

Everyone shushed and listened to the rules and restrictions like naughty children on the night of the school play. Of course, it wasn’t without some light banter. Though the sincerity of his subjects (safety, noise-levels & language) made the entire thing feel less... organic

I can understand the need for such a lecture. A crowd of grown adults running around dressed up as fantasy heroes clearly need their boundaries firmly set! Still, it was like being made to read the safety rules before your turn on a bouncy castle.

As I faded into my next tankard of grown-up apple tango we were issued our first challenge. Like a scene from Monthy Python and the Holy Grail we were faced with four riddles that we must answer as a group before we may pass beyond the confines of the tavern.

This quickly devolved into; a lot of loud people and a lot of silent people struggling to organise themselves - which takes a lot longer when people are waving swords and magic spells around! As a newcomer it was especially hard to get my opinions taken seriously - much like real life I suppose.

I tried resorting to more intelligent tactics (like suggesting to a goblin my answer might be his great idea in the hope he'll yell it out!) but, since all my guesses were off the mark, I'll remain thankful we got out alive.

So, we finally submitted the correct answer and everyone sauntered out into the wide world to discover where we had be transported to...

And then, what felt like, nothing happened the rest of the weekend.

I am certain that lots of stuff happened over the whole weekend. People around me seemed busy, anyway.  I just felt more like an observer to it all.

My previous experience had set a benchmark from which I had expectation. I played a dozen monsters last time. I witnessed three exciting missions last time. I half-understood where we were and why we were there last time. I attended a real funeral pyre!

Perhaps I had erred in expecting everything to be as fabulous as before but it still left me more than a little deflated. More worryingly; I wasn’t sure where to turn for guidance.

The experience I had at the event was definitely not the same for everybody else but I’m sure I am not alone.

It made me want to huddle back around a table with three or four close friends and start rolling dice. I wanted to let loose in a world where our imaginations could fill all the gaps and correct our little mistakes along the way.

I would encourage anyone who wanted to LARP to consider this until they suffer from word dissociation:

The more you put into the LARPing, the more you get out of it. And as a consequence, the more you expect back.

So, after an 'unengaging experience' like this, should you go again? Well, I guess that depends on how ignorant you are to the amount of rubbish that comes along with - what I still consider as - one of the world’s coolest hobbies.

A wise man once said to me: “If you hate getting hit with a paintball gun; suck it up or don’t go paintballing.”

And the same goes here for all cases .

I think it’s important I go LARPing again for a third time with the same group.

After all, I'm still writing about it!

Thanks to the Seaxe and Sorcery Facebook group for the photos

To find out more about the event I went to; visit this facebook group.

To get in touch with questions or get involved; send me an email.

To learn more; here is a 1 hour documentary on LARPing in New Zealand.

Monday, 11 May 2015

LARP: Swords, Magic and Carlsberg

As the flaming torches were ceremoniously fed into the heart of the funeral pyre I knew this was the coolest thing I had been a part of in a long while. The body that rested on the wooden structure was quickly swamped in flames as someone important, holding aloft his fourth tankard of booze, began chanting the fallen hero’s name. 

Fuelled by the immolation of a meticulously decorated polystyrene corpse, everyone joined in the chanting and, all-of-a-sudden this had become a real funeral.

It was on that dark Saturday night, looking around the ritual circle of sixty-or-so other peasants, lords and clerics that I found myself truly lost between worlds of reality and fiction.

With one hand I pulled a fur cloak tightly around my finest embroidered Viking tunic as I gazed into the dancing flames, and in the other I held a conspicuously modern can of Carlsberg lager.

The ceremony went on for ages, with people dressed in all sorts of outfit standing up to deliver heroic tales about their fallen comrade. I must have cheered to his name (and eagerly sipped some beer) ten times in one speech about the slaying of a demon.

And the great thing was; all of these stories I was hearing had happened. The body that I could see disappear into the increasingly unsafe bonfire was a real guy. The character for which I was a pallbearer in the procession to this funeral site had been a walking, talking (and evidently honourable) chap!

These dramatics held more depth than anything I had seen on Game of Thrones and more majesty than the best-constructed epic-level tabletop RPG. Saying that, there was just the right amount of awkward.

Amongst the congregation I could see a few bored faces - those who’s commitment had dropped along with the evening’s temperature - and there were a few slip-ups from the speakers which just made the whole thing feel so much more… real. Even at a real-life wedding there are mistakes that make you hold your breath in anticipation of absolute disaster.

This piece of theatre that I had been a part of was not rehearsed and that, alongside the enthusiasm of everyone who had organised and attended it, made that night one of the most enjoyable and moving -nerdy- things I have ever done.

The following morning, after a long night of drinking and theological debate about the undead, we rose sprightly to continue with another day of adventure and faff. Some rose from their tents more sprightly than others.

After a whole day on Saturday of playing (besides my character) a demonic scarecrow, bureaucratic zombie and tainted giant oak tree, by the Sunday I had found my rhythm. One last adventure before lunch ensured I had met over half the people at the event and had a good idea of the way things worked.

In downtime I was able to continue talking to characters, and players, and make sure I left with some certainty as to how I would continue if I came back at the next event later in the spring.
And that was the question on my mind as I sat amongst some new friends in their tent full of fantastical trinkets whilst diving into a can of pringles. Would this experience, as eye-opening as it was, be something I would want to do all over again?

One thing is for certain; the more you put into LARPing, the more you get out of it. Sitting in the corner expecting something great to happen won’t get you anywhere – you need someone or some way to become part of the shared experience. This isn’t to say everyone needs to make themselves as loud and friendly as they possibly can be, but everyone should have some idea of why they are there and what they hope to achieve as a character, in the world that everyone has a vested interest in.

To give you a couple examples; one character I met was a bodyguard, sworn to protect his beautiful elementalist friend, both far away from home. As a character I found him quite cold and arrogant but after seeing him volunteer to fight two bad-guys in a duel so his friend would remain unharmed, he had made himself part of the story! What a hero.

Another fellow I briefly met had clearly invested a lot of time and money into his costume (like many others) and, although he went on adventures calmly and quietly, had a large influence over the world and everyone else within it.

All the established mages, scribes, warriors, goblins and necromancers I met on that weekend made the place feel organic and, more than anything else, an interesting place to be. However, learning the world and not feeling like an outsider might take forever and I feel like there could have been a clearer process in place to help newbies get integrated.

Reflecting on the grandeur of the event, the diversity of the attendees and support of the administration I am certain it would be foolish for me not to give it another go.

My only fear is that it won’t be as impressive the next time around.

On a more basic level; spend an entire day wearing a cloak, drinking from a tankard and laughing about ‘how we almost died back there’…why wouldn’t you go again?

To find out more about the event I went to; visit this facebook group (their website is down a the time of writing)

To get in touch with questions or get involved; send me an email.

To understand what LARPing is; here’s a great video that started me off.