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Subject: An Adventure Game With No Surprises? A Negative Review of MK:BG. rss

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John Sizemore
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EDIT: I have added a new section to the bottom of the review, summarizing the points raised in the subsequent discussion thread. If you'd like to get an idea of what followed without reading through (so far) nine pages of not-always-relevant posts, check it out. We now return you to your regularly-scheduled programming.


I've seen a lot of games shoot up the charts on BGG. I haven't liked all of them, but I can usually see something admirable in each game to justify its popularity. Never have I seen a game so universally loved, which I have so thoroughly despised, as Mage Knight Board Game. After four plays, I'm willing to say that it's my most disappointing board game purchase ever -- I've bought games that I have liked even less, but never with such high hopes as I had for this one.

So what is it that I, and most of the people I have played it with, have disliked so much about everyone else's favorite adventure game of all time? I'm itching to tell you all about it.

Let me say up front that I know that I'm in the minority on this one. And I know that I'm going to hear the tautological "it's a game about doing the best you can with what you have", or the admonishment that "you have to plan for what's ahead" (thanks in advance for this advice, by the way). But I do believe that, as the game becomes more readily available to a wider audience of gamers, more people are going to find it to be a dull and soulless deathmarch of a game, as I have. Maybe this review will save a few of those people, who will now try it before they buy it, a few bucks. Maybe it will encourage others, afraid that they're the only ones in the universe who dislike the game that everyone else so loves, to request a different game next Friday night. Or maybe not -- maybe I just need to vent. Either way, enjoy.

Deck-Building?

It's great to see designers integrating deck-building mechanics into new types of games. It's a fun and flexible way to limit players' options, while at the same time giving them control over the tools they'll have available in the future. That said, it might not be a natural fit for every genre. It may be possible to create a good deck-building adventure boardgame, but I don't think Mage Knight succeeds in this regard.

The biggest issue with MK's deck-building mechanic is that the game is limited to a certain number of deck-cycles. Unlike every other deck-building game I've played, there are not many ways to speed up the rate at which you get through your deck, and there would be very little benefit in doing so. Throwing away a card means that you've lost the opportunity to play it this round; you won't get to draw it again until after everybody shuffles at the start of the next round. Adding a new card to a slim and well-built deck in (say) Dominion means that you'll get to play it quite a few times in the coming turns. In Mage Knight, it means that you'll see it (at most) exactly n+1 times, where n is the number of rounds remaining. A slim deck just means you'll likely be the one to end the round, which in turn means that everyone else will get at least one, possibly two (depending on turn order) more turns than you do this round.

Whether you'll actually get to play a card that you've added is another matter. It's depressingly common to find, after you've just spent all your influence (money) for this round on a sweet new spell, that you can't play it because the other cards you draw don't support what you needed it for. You can hold onto it, but this reduces your chances of getting another card that you could use next turn. It's often better to just play it sideways, augmenting some other action, even though you know you won't be seeing it again real soon. If there are three rounds remaining, then you've just wasted 25% of your potential usage of the spell.

It is true that, in the unlikely event that everyone gets about the same luck in a particular game, the winner will likely be the one who best manages his cards. But this doesn't add anything good to the game. The whole business of counting cards and watching discards, calculating the odds that I'll be able to do X before someone else does Y, just detracts from the theme. There's no thematically satisfying reason why my character -- who was so ready to fight last turn -- should only be able to go shopping, now that he's sitting outside the dungeon. Adventure games, for my money, are all about theme, and the deck-building mechanic of Mage Knight just doesn't help to immerse me in a mythical world of monsters and wizards.

If I could make just one change to Mage Knight, this would be it: make the rounds last a fixed number of turns. Let players shuffle and draw up when they run out of cards, just like every other deck-building game. Discarding and shuffling at the start of a new round would be optional. Throw in a few relatively minor deck-management abilities (discard, draw, seek, and trash), and Bob's your uncle -- you've got a real deck-building adventure game on your hands. Well, a real deck-building game, at least.

Moving

Like every adventure boardgame, MK consists primarily of moving to the next monster, killing it, and getting some cool loot and experience as a reward. Unlike every other adventure boardgame I've played, though, the mere act of movement is a difficult and time-consuming problem. The movement costs for most of the terrain types seems extremely high. Because you are required every turn to move first, then do something, you often need both the cards to move where you want to go, and the cards to do what you want to do when you get there, especially if you intend to fight. For most of the game, you'll only have five cards. Some turns, you may have cards that will let you fly over mountains; other turns you'll waste your whole hand crawling one space through a desert. Many turns you'll just hang out with nothing to do, because you couldn't find a way to get anywhere to do anything.

There is nothing really very realistic about Mage Knight to begin with, so I find the argument that "movement should be difficult, because that's how it really is" to be an unsatisfying answer. Why can't the game just be more fun, and abstract away the tedium of having to marshall my move cards for a big push to the next interesting spot? It reminds me a lot of the obligatory asteroid belt that was a staple of early space-piloting video games -- a fun-killing waste of time. Just because it's difficult doesn't mean it's interesting.


Hand screwage

In general, the map will dictate what you need to do in MK. If you're in a place where you need to buy something, then fight and move cards are relatively worthless. If you need to fight, then excess movement or money cards do you little good. Most of the time, as mentioned above, you'll be needing to move -- you can't fight if there are no monsters where you are, or buy when you aren't near people selling things.

The cards that you draw will dictate what you can do, though, and they're completely random. At the start of the game, where you need to move in order to do anything, you might draw no move cards. Or you might draw just one, which is almost as bad -- you get to cool your heels in the next hex over, hoping that the one card you get to draw for your next turn will get you somewhere useful before another player beats you to it. You can squander your other cards to move, but chances are these are cards that you will want later in the round, and you won't get them back. You're dooming yourself to later playing the move cards that you wanted now for a much weaker buy or fight effect later on. The player who opens the game with just the right amount of move to get him to the first town or roving monster has a big advantage.

If there were other useful things that you could always do, this wouldn't be so bad. There is one card in your starting deck that will allow you to get a mana crystal, which is very handy. Another will let you either heal or draw another card or two. But even this is a mixed blessing: if the card that you draw doesn't help you, then you're worse off than you were. You'll have to discard something, losing the use of it for the rest of the round, or you won't be able to draw any new cards for your next turn. Most of the time, if your hand doesn't let you do what you want, you'll be stuck playing your cards sideways, resigning yourself to a weak round.


Wounds

There is no randomness to the combat in MK. You'll usually know going in whether you can win without taking wounds, or how many wounds you'll have to take. Sometimes taking a wound or two is your best strategy, if it will allow you to beat a significant foe, possibly advancing a level and gaining some sweet loot.

Wound cards gum up your hand, effectively reducing your hand size until you either rest (discarding them temporarily) or get an effect that allows you to heal them permanently (removing them from your deck completely). This is actually a pretty cool mechanic, by itself -- it makes sense thematically, and limits your options without actually knocking you out of the game.

But wound cards are a double-whammy in Mage Knight. You can find ways to work around them, if you need to take a couple, but you'd better spend some turns getting rid of them by the end of the game, or they'll cost you a significant number of points, as well. It makes no sense to me that a player who is able to do well despite wounds should be penalized for doing so, but those are the rules.

My first game, I took the character whose skills allow you to use your wound cards to get mana and other nifty effects. I could discard a wound every turn to get mana, whether I needed it or not. Wounds were still an irritation, but I was able to defeat a few monsters I wouldn't have bothered with otherwise, taking some semi-useful wounds each time. For a while, I felt like this had been a decent choice, although I was still quite a few points back from the leader.

Then came the final scoring. I had forgotten all about the point reduction for wounds, and I had taken a pile of them. I lost about a quarter of my points, enough to drop me far back into last place. The power to use wounds was almost completely worthless -- I'd have needed to earn more than two points for every wound I took, just to break even. Since two points is what you get for an artifact, spell, mage tower, keep or monastery, it was a losing proposition. The winner, who specialized in blocking, didn't take any wounds, and had nearly double my score in the end.


The Rulebooks

Anyone who has played Up Front will tell you that "programmed instruction" rulebooks -- however great they may be for learning a complex game -- are complete crap when it comes to in-game reference. Upon opening MK, I saw that its programmed instruction book was augmented by a second, equally-long, "reference" rulebook. I thought this made great sense, until it came time to actually play the thing.

Each of the two rulebooks contains rules that are not to be readily found in the other, so that you'll need to refer to both while you're playing. Each is typeset in 4-Point Squintman Microfilm Gothic, or something like that. Each is strangely organized, and neither has an index or table of contents. Finding the answer to a non-obvious question can take quite a while.

And, wow, there are a lot of non-obvious questions:

Andy: "What happens to this monster if I don't kill it this turn?"
John: "Depends on what kind of map space he's on. Let's see…"
Andy: "It's a monastery. I want to burn it down. Where will I end up if I don't beat it?"
John: "Still looking up your first question…"
Andy: "I figure I can't rewind, since I've revealed this creature now. Right? Will I take another 3-point reputation hit if I try to burn it down again?"
John: "Uh… Let's just say no to both questions, and I'll try to remember to get the official answers for next game. Is everybody okay with that?"
Bob: "Sorry, what were the questions? Hey -- can I move into another player's hex at the edge and explore from there?"
John: "I THINK so, give me a few minutes…"
Bob: "… because, what if I can't legally move after that, and we're playing without PvP…"
Charlie: "Were we supposed to start with mana crystals? Because I see little mana crystal symbols at the bottom of my inventory card. What else could they be for, if not starting mana?"
Andy: "If I do have to move back to my starting space, will I need to play more move cards?"
John: "Gah!"

The rules are admirably complete -- the answers are in there. Somewhere. You'll grow old, crazy, and blind trying to find them, though.


Cardboard critters in cardboard places

This is a more subjective point, I know, but for me it's a big problem in a game that sells itself as an adventure game: Mage Knight's theme just never shines through. Many reviewers disagree with this assessment, calling it a richly thematic game, but I find this completely mystifying. There is almost nothing in the game that gives me any sense at all that I am having an adventure.

To start with, the map tiles seem almost deliberately bland -- none of the features have names, and they all look very much alike. This one has desert and a mage tower, that one has forest and a monastery... There's nothing about the map to make the land feel like more than a random arrangement of generic features. The artwork for the various features are just glorified icons -- I have to memorize which little drawings mean "mage tower" and which mean "keep", but each keep is identical to all the others. Even the cities are just named "Blue City" and "Red City", et cetera. There are no roads, but there may as well be, since there is never a reason to hang out in a space without an icon on it. These "flyover hexes" are just barriers that slow the game down, forcing me to discard until I can get to the next interesting place.

In some spaces I can "have an adventure" by "exploring a dungeon", but this just means that I draw a brown token with numbers on it and (assuming I can) discard what I can to make it go away. Dungeons are differentiated from spawning grounds and tombs by the stack that I draw from, the treasure that I can get, and by a small set of hard-to-remember, one-off rule exceptions that differ from feature to feature.

The monsters, too, lack any real definition. Each type of token has a name, if you care to look it up on the back of the rulebook, but they still pretty much all feel like cardboard discs with a few numbers and symbols on them. The artwork is decent, but small, so that details are lost; there isn't much obvious but a splash of color in the middle of the chit. Instead of thinking, "ooh, this guy is nasty, but he looks cool -- let me look up his story!" I think "great, physically resistant, poisonous, and swift -- I'm screwed." Monsters don't move or "do" anything; they're just little algebra problems to be solved.

Worst of all, the heroes one can play are all fairly similar. You might expect that one character would be powerful in magic but weak in physical combat, while another might be the master of stealth and charm. This would give each character a totally different optimal path to victory, and make each game with a new character feel totally new. This is one thing I love about Magic Realm -- there are some tasks that are very easy for some characters, but totally impossible for others. Overlapping proficiencies are the exception rather than the rule. I'm forced to play each character completely differently.

The differences between the characters in MK are negligible by comparison. Each starts with one card (of sixteen) that is different from everyone else's, and each has a randomly-ordered stack of skill bonuses that are unique and have a different focus from those of the other characters. Some of the powers are nifty, but none of them really alter the play of the character that much -- one saves money when buying, another gets free mana, a third gets move bonuses. Whatever. If you want, you can even take the leftover skills from other characters, further blurring any meaningful distinction. With skills or without, though, every character is able to do the exact same things as every other character -- only the cards I need to discard in order to make it happen are somewhat different. Perhaps if I were to play the game dozens of times, I might begin to really appreciate the subtle differences between the four available characters, but so far they're just slightly different little traveling Euro-points-engines.

All this adds up, for me anyway, to an adventure game with absolutely no adventure to it. There is nothing to explore, really, no risk, no discovery, and precious few surprises of any kind. There is nothing even remotely immersive in the theme of the game -- nothing to give one the sense that one is really controlling a wizard in a magical land. The art, the flavor text, and the BGG game page can yell "adventure game" all they want, but I have to call shenanigans on them all -- there's absolutely nothing adventurous in the game itself.


One way to win

The road to victory in Mage Knight is paved with dead monsters. You will pick up a few points here and there from units and the other things that you buy from the locals. But most of your points will come from killing monsters and taking whatever they're guarding.

So, the game-winning turn algorithm looks something like this:

Can I kill a monster this turn?
Yes -> kill it
No -> can I acquire what I need to kill one next turn?
Yes -> acquire it
No -> go toward the next monster that I can kill

There's a little bit more to it than that. When you can't fight, you'll want to end your turn on a decent non-monster space if possible, so that you can buy or get something. But that's the basic outline.

Trouble is, there's a lot of space between those monsters, space that does nothing but eat up a lot of movement points to cross. And your opponents have the same victory conditions as you. They also want to kill those monsters. So there's no time to lollygag -- you've got to get there before they do. If you find yourself behind (physically) another character, then you'll need to spend a turn (and whatever movement cards you can muster) juking left or right. Otherwise, he's going to kill all the good stuff. If everyone ends up bunched together except for one guy, guess who will win? Because movement is expensive and random, the choice map areas tend to go to the players who draw what they need when they need it.

The more-or-less linear path through the map leads to a runaway leader problem, too. The Euro-points-engine (character) at the front of the map cone (and even the "open" map scheme is just a wider cone than the normal one) will get ahead in experience, and this extra experience will set him up to expand on his lead. The Euro-points-engine in the back is still looking for a spare low-level algebra problem (monster) to take out so that he can get his all-important (he hopes -- it's a random draw) next skill upgrade. The Euro-points-engine in front is deciding which of the next-level algebra problems (which you will also need to solve, if you ever want to catch up) he should solve first. Getting stuck in the back means a long trudge through picked-over ruins, mopping up the bad guys that weren't worth the leader's trouble to kill. It's less fun than it sounds.

The spoils in the race across the board isn't restricted to experience points, either. Spells, skills, and hirelings are out for everyone to see, and everyone draws from the same pool. Some spells, skills, and hirelings are strictly better than others; some may be just plain useless, depending on the situation in the game. The guy who beats you to the monster that gives him level 2 also gets to take the skill card that you need, if he wants it. And he probably does.

Comparing again to Magic Realm, MK falls short by a long margin here. In MR, every character has a different set of winning conditions, chosen by his player at the start of the game. Each characters goals are chosen with careful attention to the class being played, and each character has a different way of getting the particular flavor of points that he needs. There's still plenty of interaction, blocking, and PvP nastiness involved, but players never have to stumble over each other racing for the exact same stuff. Something like this would have made MK a lot more interesting, and could have offset the "race to the edge of the cone" factor considerably.


Downtime

All these frustrating, irritating, and downright boring things I might overlook, were it not for the downtime. The Mage Knight rules, to be fair, are very helpful in outlining the many things that you can do while another person is taking his turn. This helps, but not nearly enough. Most of my Mage Knight time not spent looking up rules questions has been spent twiddling my thumbs, waiting for another player to figure out what he's going to do this turn.

In most adventure games, I might take a minute to figure out what my odds would be of defeating a monster. What am I likely to get if I win? What if I lose? Is it worth it? Yes? My turn -- roll! I'm done.

In Mage Knight, though, every fight -- every turn, really -- is a puzzle. And while most of the puzzle pieces are right there in your hands, some are not. Usually, a plan for a big turn is going to involve taking some mana from the shared Source. If someone else grabs it first, then you have to recalculate. Or someone might move to your planned destination before you can get there. Or they might play an interactive ability that thwarts your plan. Or your plan may involve something you don't know about for sure yet, like the monster that's living inside a dungeon, or guarding a monastery.

Sometimes, you'll just make a mistake in your plan. This will probably happen every round in your first few games: a player announces what he wants to do, then starts laying out the cards for it. Right at the end he realizes that he already used his one mana from the source. Or that the mana he needed was red, not green. Or that he also needed a black mana to fuel his spell. Or a host of other small mistakes that can derail a long series of played cards. Rewind, repent, re-plan, while everyone waits.

If a player suffers from AP, forget about it. He'll lay out his whole plan, then realize that he could have saved a wound by powering his block card instead of his attack card. That means he has to do everything differently now, though, so give him just a minute... Wait! He might actually be able to take it out using ranged attacks, and forget about the whole block phase. Let's see... Yes! ... No! He had to take second mana from the source. There has to be a way, though... What if he played Mana Draw first, instead of using it to boost... You get the picture.


Conclusion and Recommendations

I really did not find much to like about Mage Knight: Board Game. It's dull, themeless, and processional. It offers very little fun in return for the great amount of time one spends learning it, setting it up, and waiting for others to puzzle out their turns. It's the least adventuresome adventure game I've ever played.

If fun and adventure are optional, and you really just want a card-counting, spreadsheety analysis-fest, you might find something to like in MK. But you'll do better with a good 18XX game. Or just play another round of Agricola and pretend that you're not having fun.

If you want to play a real adventure game, though -- a game with risks and rewards, perils and secrets, swords and armor and horses and a million other exciting (and obvious) adventurous concepts that Vlaada just couldn't seem to fit into this monstrously long and complicated game -- give Magic Realm a try. It's a job to learn, but not that much worse than MK. It has some of the faults typical in a game of its era. And you might pay a bit more for a copy of MR than you will for a copy of MK. But you'll find a whole lot more adventure in the box, guaranteed.



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EDIT: Two days in, we've accumulated nine pages of comments. Most of the conversation has been civil, and many folks on both sides of the issue have shared their insights. What follows is (what I hope to be) an even-handed summary of the salient points.


Experience

Everyone agrees that MK is a complex game that requires a good number (let's say 8-10, based on the numbers that have been discussed) of plays before it begins to really click for most players. Several fans of the game have agreed that they had many of the same complaints that I have had early on, but with increased skill they have found the game to be more satisfying and enjoyable. Some have even said that the theme gets better as one's gameplay improves.

Some of this, of course, is just selection bias -- who keeps playing the game? The people who most enjoyed their earlier plays! But MK is unusual in that even a task that players take for granted in most games -- movement -- is a puzzle to be solved. Everyone has to move if they want to get to the monsters and other fun features that lead to points and advancement. New players will, of course, find this puzzle more challenging than experienced players will, and so they will expend more time, energy, and in-game resources (cards) working out the mundane (but necessary) challenge of movement than they will on the exciting bits. This can make the game a frustrating and boring affair for many new players. Experience brings a better sense of what cards to play when, and of the many different ways to solve the current puzzle efficiently so that one can reach the next one.

My advice to new players, then, would be to stick with the game, if you can convince yourself that there is fun to be had up ahead somewhere. It will get easier, and more satisfying. I do believe that some folks will just never enjoy the game, no matter how many times they play it, and that I may well be one of these folks. You may find, as I do, that the movement puzzle just isn't rewarding enough in itself to be worth the time to learn how to solve efficiently, and that the game could have been just as challenging, and far more engaging, with a different sequence of puzzles and rewards. But I am also convinced that the game will improve for most of the people who are diligent enough to stick with it for 8-10 plays.


Expectations and Adventure

Many have pointed out that much of my dissatisfaction with the game stems from my expectations of it, and I agree that this is a fair assessment. Much argument has taken place over what expectations are reasonable, and to what extent the game should be blamed for failing to meet expectations, but this seems to me a fruitless exercise. Everyone will bring expectations to the table, wherever they came from, and some of those expectations are bound to be disappointed. Perhaps the highest aspiration of a good review, especially a negative one, is to help players know what they can fairly expect from the game, so that they will not be disappointed with it.

Like many others, I expected MK to be an "adventure game". I had believed when writing this that a reasonable set of expectations from an adventure game would be well-understood and uncontroversial to most people. Perhaps I was wrong in thinking this. Simply attempting to define a genre, and the usual features of games in that genre, will often cause more confusion than it alleviates, but I'm going to (very gingerly) take a stab at it anyway.

Adventure board games grew out of the role-playing games of the 1970's. Companies like TSR and Avalon Hill saw that dungeon exploring, character development, and nearly-unlimited choices for players were in demand. But many players weren't ready for the commitment that a full-blown RPG demanded to make it enjoyable. The adventure board game, then, was an attempt to capture a lot of the good qualities of fantasy RPGs within the usual constraints of a typical board game: a relatively compact ruleset, a finite play time, a definite end, and a definite winner. No one had to invest $50 in books, plus special dice, miniatures, and all the other stuff one normally wanted to play an RPG -- everything was right there in the box. And no one person had to be the rules expert and chief storyteller in one package -- everyone could sit down, learn the rules together, and play through the entire game in a sitting.

Adventure games have changed over the years, so that many games that are called "adventure games" bear little resemblance to those early experiments in the genre. As noted in the thread, the definition applied by BGG in defining the set of "adventure games" is so broad as to be practically useless. But one can still find newer games, like Descent, for example, that stick closely to the original formula. And one can still play the best examples from that first generation, like Magic Realm, and experience the thrill that TSR and Avalon Hill wanted for us.

All that is to say that it is still quite meaningful, to my way of thinking, to discuss how well a game succeeds in being an "adventure game". And I believe that MK is no true adventure game -- it just lacks (or barely implements) too many of the typical features of the genre to be properly considered a member of that set. Fans of MK agree that the game is nothing much at all like Magic Realm or Descent, so don't look for something like this when you try MK. It's fair to say that MK has as much in common with Vlaada's other recent dungeon-themed board games (Dungeon Lords and Dungeon Petz) as it does with Magic Realm or Descent.

If, like me, you are one of those Magic Realm fans who hoped that MK would be the new MR, then you just shouldn't even bother with it. Or, better still, if you're open to a Euro-puzzly, action-optimizing kind of experience with a comparatively thin fantasy theme to it, update your expectations and try to enjoy MK for what it is. If you've read this far, then you should by now at least know what to expect.


Theme

A lot has been said about the theme of MK; most of it I have discussed above. We all agree that theme is at least partially a subjective quality in a game, and that one's expectations of the game will play a big role in determining whether one appreciates the theme or not. If you are expecting an "adventure game", as discussed, then I believe you will find, as I did, that the theme is about as satisfying as a bowl of watery gruel ("Please, Vlaada, I want some more"). You will likely find, as I still do, that the featureless map, indistinguishable monsters, and artifacts that only kinda-sorta suggest the things they're supposed to depict, just seem lazy.

OTOH, if you expect a Euro game, or even better, a Vlaada game, then you will probably find that the theme works just fine.


Deckbuilding

Everyone agrees that MK is, in the very broadest sense, a deckbuilding game -- players build their play decks in the game, setting themselves up for future turns. But expectations of a deckbuilding game, if one has formed those expectations playing Dominion, Eminent Domain, Ascension, or even AFAoS, will likely be disappointed. Accept that your mad deck-thinning skills aren't going to get you very far in MK.


Starting Screwage

Most people agree that the luck of the draw can be significant in MK, especially at the start of the game. An experienced player can, with skillful play, come back from a terrible start to win the game. But a less-experienced player may be well and truly screwed from the moment he cuts his deck for the first time. Put on your brave face, do the best you can and try to learn something new that you will be able to apply next game (see "Experience", above).


Downtime

No one has discussed the downtime issue much, which was probably my biggest complaint. I am sure that, like everything else, this improves with more plays. But unless you always play with experienced players, you may find, as I do, that the game has an exceptionally high downtime to quality time ratio. Bring something to read.


Vlaada and the Fanboy Factor

It appears that fandom of games by Vlaada is probably your best predictor for whether you will enjoy MK. To what extent this is due to "fanboyism", consistency across Vlaada's designs, or selection bias is still under debate. While I certainly believe that Vlaada has some fanboys, I'm pretty neutral on this question.


My Own Conclusions

It's been interesting to spend so much time thinking, reading, and writing about a game that I don't like. I've never done that before, and the results have been encouraging.

The thread has done a good job of helping me to better understand what it is that I have hated so much about MK. It hasn't changed my mind about much of it, but it has at least enabled me to see what set of expectations were brought to the table by those who enjoyed the game. I think now that, if I can force myself to look at the game with fresh eyes and sit down and try MK again from the beginning, I may at least be able to play a polite game without bitching too much about it. No promises.

It's also given me hope that experience with the game -- if I do one day decide to acquire additional experience with it -- will go a long way toward making it enjoyable.

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Wow! Thanks for such an exhausive look at some of the aspects of this game that you find unpleasant. I have been trying to make a decision on MK before it becomes available again, and this is just the type of review needed to put the "Buy this game now!" reviews in perspective.

Thanks for biting the bullet and writing a negative review of a very popular game. I hope you have thick skin because, as I'm sure you know, now comes the fun part. I'll be reading the rebuttals with great interest.
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Finally a negative review. I´m not alone devil
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jef stuyck
Belgium
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Waw that was quiet a read.

Good to see a negative review.

But now I want to buy it even more because you just told me its a big brain teaser How to solve a problem with the hand you get each turn .

I am wondering one thing though, did your group do any pvp?

ps: If you are looking for adventure games + randomness, I would suggest gears of war or the d&d adventure games.
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Jon D
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Thanks for the review - it was an interesting read.

I appreciate where you are coming from, even though I do not agree with many of your points, and I rate the game a 10.

One point I would like to make - playing cards sideways and 'sub-optimally'is a great way of screwing over a careful player. If someone is trying to optimise their hand by only playing cards for their 'full' effect I will definitely try and dump all my cards every turn and end the round early. If I played half my cards sideways, i'm certainly ahead of the guy who didn't even get to draw half his deck. This race element is one that I enjoy, being able to shuffle up would remove this aspect and a lot of the tension.
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G. Gambill
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I disagree with your conclusion, but you did a wonderful job of outlining your objections, and explaining your point of view. Well written and supported. I guess, for me, MK has always been, in many ways, a puzzle game. How can I accomplish X with Y? What combination of cards can I play, and in what order, to do what I want to do, or best prepare myself for what I want to do in the limited time I have. This kind of puzzle aspect agrees with me, but it most certainly will not be everyone's cup of tea. To each his own. Good review.
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Josko Tosic
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skipsizemore wrote:
In most adventure games, I might take a minute to figure out what my odds would be of defeating a monster. What am I likely to get if I win? What if I lose? Is it worth it? Yes? My turn -- roll! I'm done.


This part of the review explains why you didn't like the game. This game does not follow the usual concept of an adventure game, especially in terms of randomness. In fact, if you just read the rules thoroughly, you can realise that Vlaada Chvatil wanted to avoid the gameplay in which you can do whatever you want, go wherever you like, collect spoils after a battle which was decided by a good or bad die roll... As you mentioned a few times in your review, this game contains some concepts, elements or ideas from the world of Euro games, which makes a player approach the game in a different way. But this is another topic, there have been too many threads recently in which people forget there are a lot of masochists who like solving puzzles, cube pushing, calculating your odds while refusing to roll a die or seven of them to see what is going to happen.
Although I completely disagree with the majority of things in your review, I think this is a well-structured, informative review I enjoyed reading.
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Markus
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skipsizemore wrote:
All this adds up, for me anyway, to an adventure game with absolutely no adventure to it.


Thanks for an excellent review. I've been on the fence about Mage Knight for a while now and your comment above confirms my worst fear about Mage Knight - that the theme just isn't there.
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Tristan Hall
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Really well written and convincing review. I found myself agreeing with a lot of it and came away thinking 'this game su-ucks'. But wait, it's Mage Knight and I love it! And I can't stop thinking about my next game of it. Now I need to go and have a long hard think about why I love it.
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts - good stuff. thumbsup
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Paul S
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I don't agree with a good part of it, but this is a well-written, well-argued review, very impressive.
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Paul Grogan
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DeePee wrote:
Thanks for an excellent review. I've been on the fence about Mage Knight for a while now and your comment above confirms my worst fear about Mage Knight - that the theme just isn't there.


A good review John, well written. You have braved the internet to list what you dont like about the game and accepted that you are in the minority.

I personally disagree with almost everything you say, I find the game a lot of fun, very exciting and I always want to play. Yes, the combat itself has no random element to it, but if it did I would like the game a lot less (and probably actually not like it at all). There is unknown though - when you go down a dungeon, explore ruins, enter a mage tower at night, etc. I think it is just the right mix of combats that you can plan for as you know what it is, and random enemies where you need to improvise and it is risky.

I also find the game has a lot of theme in it - it is a bit concerning when John (who accepts that he is in the minority) say that he thinks the game has no theme, so then someone reads it and comes to the conclusion that the game has no theme. But, that is the internet for you.

For me, I really like the theme and enjoy playing the different characters. I'm not saying that we play the game as an RPG, but I really get into the game with my hero travelling around the board, recruiting Units, killing monsters, and blurring the lines between good and evil acts. You cant beat arriving at a monastery and getting the monks to teach you a new skill, then next turn staying a bit longer and recruiting some of them to fight for you. And then next turn, burning it down to get the artifact
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Wynand Louw
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I gave you a gg for " 4-Point Squintman Microfilm Gothic". Well said!

I did not buy any of Vladaa's previous fantasy themed games - they were too Euroey for my taste - but I caved in to the hype on this one and have it on order.

Thanks for the review!
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PaulGrogan wrote:
I also find the game has a lot of theme in it - it is a bit concerning when John (who accepts that he is in the minority) say that he thinks the game has no theme, so then someone reads it and comes to the conclusion that the game has no theme. But, that is the internet for you.


I guess I should explain my statement a bit more. Obviously Mage Knight has a theme. It has good looking artwork and components and even some kind of a backstory as to why these guys are going around recruiting monks, burning their monasteries and conquering cities.

But that's not what makes a game thematic to me. It is the integration of theme and mechanics which is what I'm not seeing in Mage Knight (a viewpoint that this review reinforces in several ways). For example, the fact that you know beforehand how a battle is going to turn out is a huge thematic disconnect. How could you know? You might have a fair idea of how easy or difficult the battle will be, but how can you know exactly what is going to happen? Or the fact that the longest, most epic quest lasts three days and three nights, no more. Doesn't sound like an adventuring game to me.

I'm pretty sure Mage Knight is a good set of mecahnics but based on what I'm seeing there is almost no connection between those mechanics and the theme of the game. And it is that disconnection that is making me not want this game.
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Ethan Nicholas
United States
Wake Forest
North Carolina
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An excellent, well-reasoned review. I happen to completely disagree with it (I have Mage Knight rated a 10) but you get a thumbs-up regardless.

Your points are completely valid, and I can easily see how someone might hate the game based on that. I (and my group) view the puzzle aspect as a good thing; we happen to really enjoy the process of figuring out how to kill this monster or how to get from point A to point B this turn. The downtime isn't so bad for us, because we often end up helping each other figure out how to accomplish our goals with the cards we have. And while I definitely agree with how difficult movement was, my reaction to that was different. To me, the extreme difficulty of movement helped to make it feel like a real adventure; desert travel during the daytime, for example, is a really big deal (as it should be!) and therefore feels much more epic when you actually manage to cross it. And the first time I managed to assault a city with a seemingly-impossible set of monsters and actually won was an incredibly satisfying experience.

But again, I can definitely see how it would not be to everyone's taste, and thank you for providing another view of things.
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Cracky McCracken
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Ohio
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You didn't mention how butt ugly the little castle pieces are shake

Seriously, if they want to save a little money on the next reprinting of MK, don't bother painting the little roofs on those castle pieces. They look like little birthday cakes or something. The base already identifies the piece.

But, they were easy to paint grey and wash with "Devlan Mud", so no biggie.
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Guido Gloor
Switzerland
Ostermundigen
Bern
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Great to see a negative review for an awesome game, too

Personally, I think that MK:BG is rather thematic. Castles work different than mage towers, which in turn work totally different than cities, despite large bits of rules that are the same. Wandering monsters are visible from the start, others hide inside walls at night. It's all those little things that make the theme come to life.

But to each their own
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David desJardins
United States
Burlingame
California
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The part where you didn't like the game is fine. (I could have told you before reading that you wouldn't like it.) The part where, after 4 plays, you've got it all figured out and you know the one true way to play, well, that's pretty much all wrong. There are a lot more decisions that you don't seem to even understand yet.
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Jay Moore
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I played once, for the first time, this past weekend, and had many of the same reactions you did.

- Movement is too hard and takes too many cards.
- The fighting is like solving a math puzzle, which is reasonably fun when I'm doing it, but no fun at all while I'm waiting for two other people to do it.
- There isn't enough real deck-building going on for it to be a "deck-building game," and I completely agree about not seeing your special cool powers often enough.
- The rules are so complex. I don't mind complex rules, when they all add something to the game. The one example that comes to mind is reputation - does it actually add anything to the game?
- I had the exact same reaction you did to the wounds problem. I took a couple, figured out how to deal with them and even make them work for me (using the same skill you did), and then got totally hosed at the end of the game on points. I would never play a "wound strategy" again and would refuse to play the character that has those powers.

No offense meant at all to those who like the game. If you have fun playing, more power to you. And I'm clearly in the minority here. So enjoy! But I won't.
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Thomas Koba
Faroe Islands
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I bought the game because of all the hype. I've started reading the rules a couple of times. They're a bit complex, but that's okay. But the game itself just seems like a bore. I've set it up a couple of times. Played a turn or two. But it just feels boring. I couldn't quite understand why the game didn't catch on, but reading your review, I finally understand a bit better.

This game should be good....it just isn't for me.
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M T
United States
Texas
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DeePee wrote:
PaulGrogan wrote:
I also find the game has a lot of theme in it - it is a bit concerning when John (who accepts that he is in the minority) say that he thinks the game has no theme, so then someone reads it and comes to the conclusion that the game has no theme. But, that is the internet for you.


I guess I should explain my statement a bit more. Obviously Mage Knight has a theme. It has good looking artwork and components and even some kind of a backstory as to why these guys are going around recruiting monks, burning their monasteries and conquering cities.

But that's not what makes a game thematic to me. It is the integration of theme and mechanics which is what I'm not seeing in Mage Knight (a viewpoint that this review reinforces in several ways). For example, the fact that you know beforehand how a battle is going to turn out is a huge thematic disconnect. How could you know? You might have a fair idea of how easy or difficult the battle will be, but how can you know exactly what is going to happen? Or the fact that the longest, most epic quest lasts three days and three nights, no more. Doesn't sound like an adventuring game to me.

I'm pretty sure Mage Knight is a good set of mecahnics but based on what I'm seeing there is almost no connection between those mechanics and the theme of the game. And it is that disconnection that is making me not want this game.
This is not true. The only battles that you know what will happen are with orcs. All the other enemies are face down and hidden to the player beforehand.
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Scott Lewis
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Thornton
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NBAfan wrote:
DeePee wrote:
PaulGrogan wrote:
I also find the game has a lot of theme in it - it is a bit concerning when John (who accepts that he is in the minority) say that he thinks the game has no theme, so then someone reads it and comes to the conclusion that the game has no theme. But, that is the internet for you.


I guess I should explain my statement a bit more. Obviously Mage Knight has a theme. It has good looking artwork and components and even some kind of a backstory as to why these guys are going around recruiting monks, burning their monasteries and conquering cities.

But that's not what makes a game thematic to me. It is the integration of theme and mechanics which is what I'm not seeing in Mage Knight (a viewpoint that this review reinforces in several ways). For example, the fact that you know beforehand how a battle is going to turn out is a huge thematic disconnect. How could you know? You might have a fair idea of how easy or difficult the battle will be, but how can you know exactly what is going to happen? Or the fact that the longest, most epic quest lasts three days and three nights, no more. Doesn't sound like an adventuring game to me.

I'm pretty sure Mage Knight is a good set of mecahnics but based on what I'm seeing there is almost no connection between those mechanics and the theme of the game. And it is that disconnection that is making me not want this game.
This is not true. The only battles that you know what will happen are with orcs. All the other enemies are face down and hidden to the player beforehand.

The draconum are also face up when placed.

And during the day, all Mage Tower and Keep units are face up when you move next to them, before you decide to attack. And city units are face up when you move next to them anytime, day or night.

The only units that are consistently unknown are the tan Mage Spawn monsters. There are cases that the other colors can be too (monastaries for purple ones, for example), but they are the exception.
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Rich P
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I enjoyed the review but a couple of the points you made seem to contradict each other. Perhaps you could clarify. You claim that there's a runaway leader problem, with the rich getting richer, but earlier in the review you say that improving your deck is of limited benefit because you won't see those new abilities often. How can that be?

The thematic disconnect for me is with the system of levelling up (and I find this to be the case in most games with such binary advancement). In Mage Knight, you can learn new skills and abilities after just a few hours of adventuring. I'd find it more believable if a turn represented several days or weeks of adventuring, after which time you get some benefit of experience. But the day/night distinction ruins that idea.
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Tristan Hall
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Just reading these comments - is there an award for "Most Well Received Negative Review"?
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John Sizemore
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woodnoggin wrote:
I enjoyed the review but a couple of the points you made seem to contradict each other. Perhaps you could clarify. You claim that there's a runaway leader problem, with the rich getting richer, but earlier in the review you say that improving your deck is of limited benefit because you won't see those new abilities often. How can that be?


The runaway leader, in my (admittedly limited) experience, arises more from opportunities on the board than from cards added to the deck. And it may be more of a "fallaway trailer" issue, as the board widens out in a cone shape.

If another player gets significantly ahead spatially, it can be very difficult for a player in the rear to catch him. He'll wipe out all of the stuff that I need to kill on the tile that I am on before I can get to it, meaning that I have to traverse a lot of empty land to get to the next place where I can do something meaningful. It may take me an entire round to get to the stuff I need. Meanwhile, he's cleaning out everything I'm going to need next round, and so forth.

The extra cards and abilities he picks up along the way may not be game-tipping in themselves, but they help to widen the gap a bit.

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David Debien
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woodnoggin wrote:
I enjoyed the review but a couple of the points you made seem to contradict each other. Perhaps you could clarify. You claim that there's a runaway leader problem, with the rich getting richer, but earlier in the review you say that improving your deck is of limited benefit because you won't see those new abilities often. How can that be?


Runaway leader comes into effect more due to higher levels than any improvement of your deck. Higher levels grant more followers, skill tiles, a larger card hand and damage reistance as well as more effective cards added to your deck.

That said, I think the OP did significantly miss the mark when implying that improving your deck does not significantly improve your character. Without an improved deck, there is no way a character would be able to take on a city in the late game.

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