First, a disclaimer. I received a copy of Manaforge alongside its Kickstarter backers for my promotional efforts on Tabletop Simulator (TTS). As the TTS experience has already been reviewed, I thought it best to wait to post a review until I received a physical copy. I did not financially back Manaforge's Kickstarter, and many thanks to Bryan Kline and Mystic Tiger Games for going above and beyond in their recognition of my meager efforts.
Some games throughout the history of gaming have been known for defying conventions so thoroughly that they create genres out of whole-cloth. Dungeons & Dragons wrote the book on modern roleplaying. Magic: The Gathering defined trading card games for a generation. Fans of deck building games owe a debt of gratitude to the team that developed Dominion.
So where does Manaforge fit in the gaming landscape? Is it a dice game? Sort of, but not really. Is it a card game? It has cards, but to describe it as such doesn't really do it justice. The first and perhaps most important point I can make about Manaforge is that it felt truly innovative to me. Others have pointed out that the game mechanics feel right for the theme, and I agree. But the combination of game mechanics and theme in Manaforge make something that feels fresh and new to me.
Game play in Manaforge takes place in nine rounds divided into three parts: dawn, noon, and dusk. Each part is represented by differently backed item cards that increase in power and cost as the game proceeds. Each of the three card decks contain 24 cards from which 18 are randomly dealt into the item deck, so the chance of playing the same game twice is virtually non-existent.
Further variance at the start of the game is provided by "talents," cards that are drafted and then chosen by each player to give them two unique edges over their opponents and extra dice to roll in their pool.
During game play, players use their dice and later, cards in their workshop, to forge new items with an eye to having the most prestige (victory points) after the item deck runs out.
As tends to be the case with games I enjoy, Manaforge has a lot of bits. The time it took Mystic Tiger Games to get everything printed turned out to be well worth it. The small workshop boards as well as the central item board are all very sturdy and the included cardstock and cardboard tokens are all first-rate.
One nice element of the game's hardware that I was not expecting was the gem cards. Individual mana gems are represented by cardboard tokens. The game's designer, Bryan Kline, explained to me that there were cards leftover on the printer's sheet and he was not able to ship as many cardboard gem tokens as he would have liked, hence the cards that represent multiple mana gems each. In my opinion, an excellent way to solve both problems.
There is a lot of symbolism in the game, but the instruction booklet includes a complete reference of anything on the dice or cards that new players may find confusing. All item cards are numbered and a reference in the instruction booklet explains their effects in detail.
Thoughts on Game Play:
Manaforge can be a frustrating game. Every round presents six item cards and each player gets a crack at choosing one. If an opponent gets the card you want, tough luck. If you have a chance to get more than one card in a round that looks good, you have to choose one. Leftover items are discarded and don't come back later (with the exception of one talent that I won't spoil). The good news is that your opponents will more than likely share in your frustration.
Experience didn't necessarily make the game easier for me, but having a few plays under my belt did make the game more enjoyable. After just a couple of plays I had a much better sense of how to prepare for late-game rounds, and such preparation is essential for ultimate success.
The Kickstarter Contingency:
I'll avoid going into great detail here, except to say that the heavy cardboard version of Manaforge is slightly different than the TTS version I played while it was being kickstarted. Some of the changes were trivial, including text on the cards themselves to clarify effects. Other changes were non-trivial, but still fairly minor. A buff here, a nerf there.
All of the changes were made in response to feedback from TTS players such as myself. I can't say yet from firsthand experience how the heavy cardboard will play as opposed to the digital, but the game's design and development team was very responsive last year to TTS player input. I have to believe that will be a net positive.
Not only is Manaforge an immensely enjoyable game, but I would also hold it up as an example of a very well-done Kickstarter. If you'd like to try it out, it's still on TTS. And if you enjoy it on TTS, it may be worth a second look as an addition to your heavy cardboard collection.