This review is based on the preview version on Tabletop Simulator that was made available for the Kickstarter. For this reason it will not include any details regarding the physical components and will focus on gameplay.
Manaforge is a game in which 2 to 4 players take on the role of magic item smiths who run their own shops. Essentially you are an NPC from another game, making legendary magic weapons for the hero of prophecy/light/legend/convenience to come and purchase. You do this by rolling dice to generate mana which is then used to construct items for your workshop to help you make items or to make the items themselves(such as wands and magic swords). The game is played over a succession of rounds and at the end of the game the player with the highest prestige (victory points) is the winner. Let's dive in and see how it's played.
The game begins with a draft of talent cards which represent your particular artificer's strengths. This step determines two things: what two special abilities you will have during the game and by extension some of the strategy you will employ; and what two additional dice you will start the game with. Every player begins with one die associated to each of the four classical elements (Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire) and gains two additional dice based on the talents that they choose. Then a first player is determined and play begins. The game is played over a series of nine rounds broken up into three phases: Dawn, Noon, and finally Dusk. Each round six cards are dealt face up and everybody rolls their dice. In turn order the players can each claim one of the cards by paying its mana cost and add it to their player area. Some cards stay in play and can be used on future turns for their effects (generating mana, converting mana into victory points, manipulating card effects, etc) and others have effects that happen once (gaining points or an extra die for example) and then the card goes to one side. This continues round after round until the deck runs out after round nine and then the player with the most prestige is the winner. The game progresses through the phases of Dawn, Noon and Dusk and each phase has cards that are associated with it and play into the theme of the game. In Dawn there are cards which allow you to gain another die or to produce mana. In Noon more complex cards begin to show up with effects that include converting mana to victory points or manipulating cards. In Dusk the high points value cards start to come en mass and there are no longer any workshop cards.
The idea of crafting magic items is a lot of fun and the theme is present in all facets of the game. The place where you keep your long term engine building cards is called your "workshop", your one time use cards go to your "store" to be sold to heroes, etc. I was particularly pleased with the way the theme comes out in the dice. The dice are associated with the four classical elements and "arcane". Every elemental die has the same basic faces (one mana, two mana, etc.) faces that produce non-opposing elements (so Water would have an Earth face and a Wind face but no Fire face) a gem producing face (gems are mana that can be stored until later or used to upgrade cards) and a sixth face with a special ability. The ability is unique to that element so Water copies mana gems, Air readies (untaps if you are familiar with MtG) cards, etc. These themes of the elements come through on many of the cards associated with that element. For example there is an air card that readies cards like the power on the air dice does. The arcane theme is versatility and utility and that is also reflected in the arcane dice which don't have a power but rather have all sides depicting two different kinds of mana with a slash so that they can be used for either. The game takes a lot from the European style of boardgaming and so the theme isn't as strong as it might be in some American style games but is certainly not just "painted on"
The balance in this game is incredible. A ton of playtesting was clearly went into this game and it shows. At no point did I feel like there was one unbeatable strategy, nor did I feel like there were strategies that were doomed to fail. There were a couple of cards that were underpowered but I submitted my feedback to the designer and he is working on alternate versions of those cards so I expect the balance to be even better in the final version. Every game I have played so far (and I have played many) I was able to do something different and still either win or come close to winning. The only criticism I have regarding game balance is that the Dusk phase cards all give about the same number of points and players are typically able to generate points from their board and buy one every round so there isn't much change in relative position in the endgame and you can usually tell who's going to win (some cards help with this though such as elemental rods which lets you cash in one gem of each element for points or the cards that let other players give you gems for a couple of bonus points).
Game Length 8/10:
The game only takes 45 minutes to an hour to play and can go much faster with experienced players. The only issue here is that players have multiple sources of points and mana in the late game and figuring out the optimum way to play your turn can be a bit daunting if you're new. This means that the late game is a bit prone to analysis paralysis. If you have someone in your group who is notorious for taking forever on their turn, maybe take this game out when they aren't there. This game also has an addictive quality that, combined with the short play time has often led those who I've played with to immediately say "Wanna go again?". And you'll want to go again because you'll want to try a different strategy or combo that you did't try before.
The art looks really nice for the most part. The only detractions I have are that a couple of the cards (Wizard's Apprentice, Shapeshifter Mask) didn't really look as good as the others in my humble opinion. Over all the art looks good and certainly helps suck you into the world of magic item crafting by depicting epic items and mystical devices. The player mats and the mat for dealing the cards are well done with the former depicting the smith from the box cover and the later depicting an open book with sketches of items and arcane writing depicted within.
Learning Curve 9/10:
This game is very easy to learn and very easy to teach. I've found that players pick it up very quickly. The only reason this didn't get a 10 is the aforementioned AP issue in the late game and the fact that the game begins with a talent draft which can be daunting when you don't know how the game is played (you might consider playing without talents for the first game to correct for this).
Fun Factor 10/10:
This game is fun, make no mistake. I've not yet played a game where it felt like a chore or I didn't immediately want to play again. The powers granted by the talents give each player a unique feel, the card combos are awesome and who doesn't like chucking dice? Well worth your attention.
Needless to say I found myself backing this game after a couple of plays and can't wait to get my copy. It's a light, easy to learn, fast to play game that has a surprising depth of strategy to it. It reminded me a bit of Magic the Gathering, mixed with 7 wonders and [insert dice game here] but without the things that make me dislike Magic (like a lack of balance and getting hopelessly crushed by the guy who spent more money). I recommend playing it on Table Top Simulator and if you like it, buy a copy when it comes out.