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Subject: Coming to Magic Realm from Mage Knight rss

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Brian Bankler
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(This review compiled from a few weeks of postings from my blog, the Tao of Gaming. If you wish this wall of text was much much longer, then check it out).

Note -- I mainly play these games solitaire or co-operative, not with PvP combat.

I've played 300+ games of Mage Knight, and I burned out.

Reading a review comparing Magic Realm to Mage Knight piqued my interest in trying Magic Realm, since I wanted another solo/co-op game. I'd tried Magic Realm before, but it hadn't stuck. Still, I started reading the “Book of Learning,”: session reports that double as tutorials. Given the plethora of revised rules (I particularly recommend Magic Realm in Plain English) and the existence of Robin Warren’s brilliant Realm Speak program) the barriers to entry are much lower than they used to be the last time I tried to play. And I had tried.

Magic Realm retains a dedicated following almost forty years after its arrival, despite obvious warts like an Avalon Hill Rule Set that makes Up Front seem simplistic. There must be something to it, so I dove in. I now have a dozen games under my belt, mostly co-operative, taking two characters each.

Mechanisms

I don’t normally summarize rules, but sometimes you have to. Magic Realm’s basic ideas aren’t difficult:

In general, to do anything you roll two dice and take the higher. So a 1-5 roll is a five. This is an interesting idea that lets the designer assign weird probabilities. Some characters (or items) roll a single die, which represents skill.

The map starts fully built, but face-down chits determine what might appear. So you know the layout, but treasures could be in any cave. A flutter chit may indicate Dragons or Bats. The setup sheet lists which monsters can show up on which chits. Setting up the game is a huge time suck (the first time is about an hour, but with practice that comes down) which is why a computer moderator is such a godsend. One click setup.

Pre-programmed turns. Everyone writes down their turn and you resolve in random order. (Richard Hamblen also designed the classic Gunslinger, which shares this). Each character gets roughly four actions per day to move, hide, search, prepare, enchant, rest, trade, hire followers, and the like. The planning phase is called Birdsong instead of morning (a lovely touch that feels out of place in the rulebook, like finding a colorful Monet print your IRS auditor’s cubicle)

You resolve turns (daytime) in random order. Some actions are automatic, some have a die roll. Hiding is simple — fail on a six — others involve charts (typically lower is better). One roll determines which monsters are ‘prowling’ each turn. Prowling Monsters appear on the board based on the chits. Prowling monsters already on the board move if you end up on the same tile as them (unless they’ve already blocked another character).

After everyone has moved, you have evening. At night spells are cast and combat occurs.

Each character has twelve action chits which are mainly used at night. Each chit dictates its use (mainly Move, Fight or Magic) and a speed (a number, lower is better) and how exhausting it is (0-2 asterisks).

The rules for combat are non-trivial, but not as bad as I'd feared.

Each monster randomly attacks one unhidden character. (Characters can choose to lure monsters to them, and if everyone is hidden monsters won't attack until they become unhidden). Each character gets an action (maybe running away, or casting a spell, or preparing a weapon). These typically take a chit and may have some restrictions, usually your chit has to be 'faster' than the monsters that are attacking you this round.

After your action, you assign attack directions and defensive maneuvers for yourself and the monster, but the monster will roll to adjust. You set up which tactic it uses, but will roll and possibly adjust. It may also flip over (double sided monsters) which may change its attack or maneuver speed, or damage.

Faster attacks go first, and if it’s faster then the opponents defense? It hits. If it’s not faster, it hits only if the defense used fails against the attack. If you ducked when the attack was a downward smash, no help there.

So — there’s a Rock Paper Scissors aspect (as noted on BGG's page) but it’s intuitive: Faster attacks hit. Equal (or slower) attacks hit if the defender dodged into them.

Attacks (and weights) are rated on a scale of Negligible, Light, Medium, Heavy and Tremendous and if the attacker hits with damage equal (or greater) than the defender’s vulnerability — dead. A character who takes a hit less than his defense may wound a chit, but a hitting a Tremendous monster with a merely heavy attack does nothing.

Each chit you spend has an effort (0-2) and if you spend two effort in a round (the max) you fatigue a chit. Wounded and fatigued chits are out of play until you rest them, which is an action.

If nothing important happens for two rounds of combat, it ends, otherwise you keep going.

Combat can get much more complicated.

An argument against Magic Realm is "Combat is random." It is true that the monsters randomize their tactics. But even Rock-Paper-Scissors gets interesting when you have a different payout matrix. (How would the game be if you won double points with Rock?)

Well, combats in the realm can have multiple monsters, followers, weapon sharpness and armor, multiple characters, PvP, spells, horses, missile attacks, armor, weapon length (which changes the order of attack, in the first round only, and is a tiebreak in later rounds), special rules for tremendous monsters which grapple when they hit and then will autokill the next time it hits.

Some combats are random. Others decidedly not. Many characters have some monsters they can't defeat, and others they automatically kill (assuming they aren't fatigued).

Individual rules are usually simple. But there are numerous systems and frankly a few of them are complex. Even getting the basics takes a while.

Simple combats aren’t devoid of strategy, but they are simple. Your main questions are which chits do I want to play: Can I guarantee a kill? Do I want to run away? Do I want my attack and defense to line up, so that if the monster hits me I know I’ll hit him. Can I prepare for the monsters to flip over (an 11/36 chance).?

Combat feels backgammon-esque — Sometimes you play the odds, either relying on some lucky die rolls in bad situations or defending against bad rolls in good situations.

With experience you’ll learn to not get into bad situations.

Right now I’m applying a maxim of Go — Lose your first fifty games quickly. It isn't so bad in Magic Realm. Now I tend to survive more often than not. Dying is easy and losing is even easier.

Thoughts and comparisons between the games

First off, Magic Realm is definitely a lifestyle game. It does not shine out of the box. There are warts and not just the rules. This is not a game to play once every five years. You have to put in effort.

Secondly, Luck in Mage Knight is card luck. Draw a hand full of movement cards, you know the combat cards are lurking in your deck (or vice versa). If you fail a roll in Magic Realm, you can fail again and again. Very small hurray for dice! Dice can delay, frustrate and kill.

Third, Magic Realm and Mage Knight differ in scale and narrative. In Mage Knight, you start as a minor demi-god who defeats Orcs, raze villages, plunder monasteries for mystical artifacts, and two days later you siege a fully defended city. You play Jason Bourne, Lizard God-King. Encounters ramp up until the climactic battle vs Volkare or Capital City.

In Magic Realm, you might stumble into a monster’s lair on day one and die. Over the month you may recruit some followers or find cool new stuff, but you won’t level up. Your stuff will make you more powerful.

But you can fail hard, fast. You may find a great site on day 1, loot it, and then die because you weren’t hidden on day 3 (of 28) some wolves ran you down and kill you.

I'm a big fan of narratives that embrace failure, but its not to everyone’s taste.

Worse -- spending half you game rolling two dice, failing, getting blocked, running away, and then repeating. In Solitaire, this isn’t a big loss. In a 4 player competitive game I might get frustrated watching the next player's epic turn, followed by a battle. He gets all the loot as gaming groupies swoon and applaud. Then you roll two dice and fail again.

It makes Mage Knight seem Euro by comparison, which is an odd thing to feel.

But compared to Mage Knight, The Realm feels alive and lived in. On one level it is merely a collection of places to loot and monsters to murder, but the environment changes. In Mage Knight, you find an artifact and add it to your deck. In Magic Realm, you may find an artifact and keep it (assuming you can carry it), but it may alter the rules right around you. It can affect everyone on the tile its on, from the instant its discovered. You plan your move out, but finding an artifact may disrupt your plans, literally warping your reality.
It’s amusing, even when it hoses you.

Fourth, the Realm's characters feel distinct. Mage Knight packs a hell of a lot into 16 cards and 10 skills. Each character starts with only two variant cards, but leveling up and taking a critical skill and those cards mean that Goldyx is distinct from Tovak who differs from Norawas or Krang. But they all do the same things against the same things. All Mage Knights cast spells and share victory conditions (based on the scenario). A Lava Dragon poses the same number of wounds to them — assuming they cannot block.

In Magic Realm, the White Knight’s a dragonslayer. If you tell him Dragons are over yonder, then a-yondering he will go. Terrified of bats, though. The Woods Girl could get lucky and kill a Dragon, but she’ll take her one shot from the bushes then run away. Unarmored, she can’t risk getting hit. Neither one will be casting Fiery Blast. After all, they aren't a Sorcerer.

The Witch gets a familiar that moves separately around the board (to spy on other players and examine the realm’s secrets). She won't be putting on the Knight’s Armor (should she get it). She’s too weak.

Magic Realm’s spells feel Tolkienesque. Yes, some do move and attack and block and influence, but you can transform yourself into a toad (who can quietly hops away from battle, usually) and then wander the forest ignoring the roads. You can curse others. You can fly across the board. Some spells affect only specific monsters. Some last for combat, or a day. Some are permanent.

Why does Magic Realm Feel alive?

Apart from distinct characters, you have the Combinatorics of World-Building.

Enter a Dungeon in Mage Knight and what will you face? A brown monster. o exceptions. You can analyze how many you can defeat and weigh that risk versus the 2/3rds shot at an artifact and 1/3rd shot at a spell. A simple enumeration will do. Can you defeat the Gargoyle? the Shadow? the Hydra? Medusa? Crypt Worm? Etc? You can’t? Check again. Have you missed some trick?

A puzzle, to be sure, but a well defined puzzle. One monster, one reward — each have a parameter.

What if there was sometimes no monster? Sometimes two? Sometimes you'd heard the monster and knew it was present (or absent). But other times...

Now imagine that the artifact had a small box on the bottom that might modify the rules slightly. Most of them don’t -- but you may go down and face a Whatever and draw your artifact and peer at the bottom and it says “The narrow walls prevent ranged attacks….” and your plans are out the door.

If you’ve played two dozen games of Mage Knight, you’ve likely faced every brown creature in a dungeon setting. But with combined effects — No way I’d have encountered all the combinations in my 300+ games.

I’m a fan of combinatorics, and Magic Realms systems all keep doing weird things to tweak the game. One characters movement may make your planned move much safer or more dangerous.

When you step onto a tile you could get a lot of different possibilities when the chits flip up. And yes the treasures may interact with the monsters (or friendly natives).

I’ve seen interactions messing with people in Magic Realm, and that’s before you consider players deliberately messing with you. You search for a treasure and get it, but boom! Curse. You start to buy something and boom — there’s a modifier that makes a combat likely to break out right away with people that were supposedly neutral! These aren’t even combinations -- just single cards -- but the game's systems interact.

In one game, I found the black book, which provided a sudden influx of black mana — and boom, I’m suddenly transformed into a giant octopus. That's the sort of thing that happens. (Thankfully, I’d planned on being a giant octopus later that day, so no big deal. If I’d been planning to try to hire some rogues it would have seriously cramped my style).

I like my puzzles, but have I been surprised in the last hundred games of Mage Knight? Not that I recall. Nor possibly the hundred before that. Its a different experience. I never chortled because I'd suddenly transmogrified unexpectedly.

BUT ... The Realm extracts a high price for surprise. You see ‘unfair’ results.

Unfairness has its charm, in a way.

I like puzzles, but I also like puzzles where you can’t enumerate the possible outcomes. (Even with full knowledge). Approximation and intuition are skills like any other. I don’t care for Tales of the Arabian Knights and I’m not sure it’s a game, but its a hell of Story-telling engine. Combine that potential with something that gives me actual decisions — even if the results could just be “lose a turn” — and I’m intrigued.

Magic Realm drips with combinations — Each map hex has a few chits that define what’s there. While you build the map in MK, once a tile is up its fully known. Until you know the chits on a tile in Magic Realm, it might contain treasures, or dragons, or spiders, or an Octopus Garden.

You play your twelve chits, but only two points of effort per combat round. Your items can combine. You may have one thing you can’t use at all, but if you get that second (rare) thing you’ll wield a powerful combination.

There's an article comparing Magic Realm to RPGs that’s worth checking out. One interesting (to me) point he makes is: Because characters don’t level up, this makes the game less grindy and more interesting. That’s a novel point. You get better be looting good stuff, or working together with others. An interesting dynamic.

OK, so combinatorics. What else?

In Magic Realm, you make (some) decisions with incomplete or even wrong information. You plan your turn and then roll for monsters. This produces a huge fog of war effect. Do you hide before you move? Well, there may have been no monsters prowling the Deep Woods this turn. Was your hide wasted?

Each sub system you base your decision on is understandable. Most characters fail to hide 11/36th of the time. The monsters appear on a known system (if you know the chits). Knowledgeable players can quickly determine if a monster is safe or deadly or risky (I can do this for simple battles, now). You can guess the price range an item will cost you, based on your relationship with the seller. You go first 1/n times (n= number of players, ignoring hired helpers) at which point the game state will match.

Each of these systems are calculable, but the overall impact provides remarkable breadth. From a game play perspective there’s a lot of “Why this” but it has a certain logic.

The rules read weird, but feel right. In the real world if you were hiding from monsters, could you ever be certain you were successfully hidden? Only in the negative and only too late.

Consider chess where you wrote down your move and only then did your opponent reveal his prior move. (You’d have to cover White’s first turn advantage, perhaps they wrote down two moves and the opponent got to pick after he wrote his first move, and you’d have to deal with issues of failed pawn captures, etc).

This game would most definitely not be chess, even though it used a lot of the mechanisms of chess. You could make theoretically horrible chess moves that could work quite well.

Chess feels like chess, not because knights move two in one direction then one in an orthogonal one, or because of castling or en passant. Chess feels like chess because it is a complete information game with alternating moves. Chinese Chess and Shogi feel closer to chess than my invented game which uses the exact same rules, but doesn’t reveal the moves right away.

Magic Realm feels like my chess analogy, a little. You don’t see your opponents move until after you’ve declared yours. In order to simulate this, MR uses lots of charts and randomness. At it’s heart, Mage Knight feels like a ruthless rush to exploit a world, and Magic Realm feels like avoiding the onrushing of a ruthless world.

Magic Realm plays like an experience disguised as a strategy game, despite the fact that the long term strategy may be deeper. The games share a puzzle-like aspect to combat.

Mage Knight has the a more satisfying system. In fact, Mage Knight is a better, more coherent system overall. But Magic Realm has its charm. I imagine that an update that tried to streamline all of the Realm’s byzantine experiences into a simple core ruleset would fail, the same way that civilization does not compress. But if someone could convert this (or perhaps another genre that felt as lived-in), they’d have a huge hit.

Magic Realm is a great experience. I’m enjoying my time exploring it.

Update -- Fix some formatting errors, added PvP note.
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A K Vikhagen
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Fantastic comparison between these two games! I also developed an interest in Magic Realm through Mage Knight and I agree with just about everything in this review. Nice work!
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Carel Teijgeler
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Nice comparison.

On one point I have to differ, however.

Apparently, you did not play PvP combat in Mage Knight.

Because, to me, the combat system in Magic Realm is more consistent than in MK: whether you fight a monster or another character, whether you use weapons or magic, the sequence of combat rounds is for each type the same (preparation, combat resolution)

In MK a combat against monsters or against another player differs: in a PvP combat you could (IIRC) play any card to block an attack successfully [sic!] (thus even playing a Move card), a PvP combat has two phases which can be as long as the players want it to. And you play with the cards in your hand (hand size at start = 5) and the Group cards which you hire during your quest: two phases with n rounds of combat, with how many cards?

YMMV.
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Brian Bankler
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anijunk wrote:
Apparently, you did not play PvP combat in Mage Knight.

True enough. May games are solo or co-op. I will update the header.
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Joel Tamburo
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I wound up preferring Magic Realm to Mage Knight. I tried to like Mage Knight more, and as a game system it is okay, but ultimately it did feel a bit too deterministic and also (strangely) a little bland.

Then in Magic Realm I get experiences like the (super powerful) Witch King throwing his weight around in the same clearing as the Pilgrim, his supposition being that the Pilgrim had started the game with the "Small Blessing" spell. However, the Pilgrim had started with Exorcise instead and when he cast it the effect all but killed the Witch King outright.

To me the experiences don't compare.
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Bob Holmstrom
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For me, the biggest difference between MK and MR is fear.

I fear for my character in MR and that places me squarely in the world of MR. I like MK a lot but when I play it, it's about calculating the best way to be efficient and win and I don't put myself in the world but in the game mechanics.
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David desJardins
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Bankler wrote:
But even Rock-Paper-Scissors gets interesting when you have a different payout matrix. (How would the game be if you won double points with Rock?)


Not much different. Play Rock 25%, Paper 50%, Scissors 25%.
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Michael J
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This review definitely makes me want to try Magic Realm. It has always been on my want-to-try list. But your comment about how a new version would probably ruin it makes a lot of sense. Guess it's time for me to start looking in grandpa's attic and hope he had a copy from back in the day.
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Brian Bankler
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mjacobsca wrote:
This review definitely makes me want to try Magic Realm. It has always been on my want-to-try list. But your comment about how a new version would probably ruin it makes a lot of sense. Guess it's time for me to start looking in grandpa's attic and hope he had a copy from back in the day.


I don't necessarily think a new version would 'ruin' it, my more general point was a streamlined version would lose the charm of Magic Realm.

Similarly, I don't think you can really turn a 7-8 hour Civ game into a two hour affair. Its not that the new (compressed) games are bad, but they do not usually capture the feel of the old games.
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Chris Laudermilk
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Great review. For those of you wanting to try it out: do! There is definitely some effort required for this game, but it's worth it.

It is definitely a product of its time and has the wart to show it. But as the OP mentioned, that is just part of the charm. There are definitely some inspired, elegant sub systems within the game. Alongside those are wonky, weird things--but you accept those because it's all part of the experience.

That's really what this game gets down to. It's an experience and you end up telling a story. This is the kind of game where years later you will sit down & say "You remember that epic Magic Realm game when..." That's what makes it worth the effort to learn and work with the old, sometimes weird mechanisms.
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GodRob
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While primarily used for killing vampires, a wooden stake to the heart is also highly effective against most other opponents.
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claudermilk wrote:
This is the kind of game where years later you will sit down & say "You remember that epic Magic Realm game when..." That's what makes it worth the effort to learn and work with the old, sometimes weird mechanisms.


This is true even if you are learning the game and get stuff wrong. It is still a great experience and creates memories that last.

Don't be daunted by the complexity and just enjoy.
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Philip Hernandez
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Bankler wrote:
Because characters don’t level up, this makes the game less grindy and more interesting. That’s a novel point. You get better be looting good stuff, or working together with others. An interesting dynamic.

In the optional rules, characters can level up even beyond the four levels on the character card, to a limited extent. Each level above the fourth requires an extra "victory point", making it that much harder to win a particular session, and grants the character additional "stuff" at start. When a certain point is reached, the character can progress no further, and indeed players are challenged in the rule book to max out as many characters as they can. Adjustment of the VPs required according to the character's level allows for characters of different levels to participate in the campaign. It often takes time for a weaker character to build up everything needed to score those VP, which is balanced by the higher level character needing to score additional VP, which also takes time.

This is an excellent review, even though the optional rules get no mentions. Which is fine, as they are not necessary to enjoy the game, but they do add even more levels of depth, and that does not take into consideration the added quests that have been developed over the years.

Phil

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Ben Bosmans
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I bought MK in the hope that it could be an updated Fantasy adventure with Magic Realm as its basis.

What a bummer...

MK is simply a euro game, going for high scores, with a fantasy theme based on top as an after thought.

MK corresponds to a thematic fantasy world as Ticket to Ride relates to a railroad simulation...

MK is a terrible camouflaged euro game dressed with a fake fantasy wig ... while MR is an unplayable mess but AWESOME dream world.

The fact many BGG posters think that MK is the best solo game speaks volumes really, not about the game, but about the general knowledge of the posters...

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A K Vikhagen
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Ben_Bos wrote:
The fact many BGG posters think that MK is the best solo game speaks volumes really, not about the game, but about the general knowledge of the posters...


Let's see, so you mean that your opinion is right and everyone else that likes MK is wrong and stupid? OK then, moving on...
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Carel Teijgeler
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tilde72 wrote:
Ben_Bos wrote:
The fact many BGG posters think that MK is the best solo game speaks volumes really, not about the game, but about the general knowledge of the posters...


Let's see, so you mean that your opinion is right and everyone else that likes MK is wrong and stupid? OK then, moving on...

No, he did not state an opinion, but an observation: that those many BGG posters have not heard of or ever played MR.

Methinks they were playing Monopoly, Clue and Candyland in those days.
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David desJardins
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Ben_Bos wrote:
I bought MK in the hope that it could be an updated Fantasy adventure with Magic Realm as its basis.


How much sympathy should we have for people who don't find out what they are buying before they buy it?
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Sean Franco
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DaviddesJ wrote:
Ben_Bos wrote:
I bought MK in the hope that it could be an updated Fantasy adventure with Magic Realm as its basis.


How much sympathy should we have for people who don't find out what they are buying before they buy it?

To be fair, a lot of initial reviews positioned MK in this or a similar way.
 
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David desJardins
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logopolys wrote:
DaviddesJ wrote:
Ben_Bos wrote:
I bought MK in the hope that it could be an updated Fantasy adventure with Magic Realm as its basis.


How much sympathy should we have for people who don't find out what they are buying before they buy it?

To be fair, a lot of initial reviews positioned MK in this or a similar way.


Just no. No one has ever claimed that Mage Knight has Magic Realm mechanisms as its basis. Look at the rulebooks for 2 minutes and you'll see that the mechanisms are very different.
 
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that Matt
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logopolys wrote:
To be fair, a lot of initial reviews positioned MK in this or a similar way.

The problem starts with the box. Mage Knight, A Little More Honestly?
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Sean Franco
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DaviddesJ wrote:
logopolys wrote:
DaviddesJ wrote:
Ben_Bos wrote:
I bought MK in the hope that it could be an updated Fantasy adventure with Magic Realm as its basis.


How much sympathy should we have for people who don't find out what they are buying before they buy it?

To be fair, a lot of initial reviews positioned MK in this or a similar way.


Just no. No one has ever claimed that Mage Knight has Magic Realm mechanisms as its basis. Look at the rulebooks for 2 minutes and you'll see that the mechanisms are very different.

People have claimed that MK has the same expansive fantasy exploration feel with the same strategic depth and options. There were also claims saying that you don't need to dig out MR if you have MK. This is easily findable.
 
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David desJardins
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logopolys wrote:
DaviddesJ wrote:
[q="logopolys"][q="DaviddesJ"][q="Ben_Bos"]I bought MK in the hope that it could be an updated Fantasy adventure with Magic Realm as its basis.


People have claimed that MK has the same expansive fantasy exploration feel with the same strategic depth and options.


That claim seems true enough. Of course, different people will have different feelings, but it does feel that way to many people, including, presumably, those who claimed it. Measuring "strategic depth" is hard, but I think MK has about the same "strategic depth" as MR.

That's not at all the same as claiming that MK has Magic Realm as its basis, which, of course, it does not.
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Jeff Thompson
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I think we are back to the place where anything with cardboard hexagons is compared to MR.
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Tompy wrote:
I think we are back to the place where anything with cardboard hexagons is compared to MR.

Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition) is just Magic Realm in SPAAAAACE, right?
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Einmal ist keinmal
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Can we just agree that the "theme" is similar in both games?

Control a hero/character, move across the countryside, use magic and combat to fight enemies (monsters and townsfolk), recruit NPCs, acquire better stuff, do better than your opponents at all that.
 
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Desiderata wrote:
Can we just agree that the "theme" is similar in both games?

Control a hero/character, move across the countryside, use magic and combat to fight enemies (monsters and townsfolk), recruit NPCs, acquire better stuff, do better than your opponents at all that.

Perhaps, but that can also describe a number of other games, including Runebound, Return of the Heroes, and, to some degree, even Lords of Xidit (even if in an abstract way).

Yet I think all of those games are very different (though in some cases there are some similar mechanics).
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