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.

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