I saw a post recently where Nick Hatzipantelis was giving away free copies of his game, Mage Master, to people so they could write reviews of it. I was lucky enough to be the first person from New Zealand to send in my details, and won a review copy. Well, 2 weeks later I have finally gotten it to the table, so here's my thoughts!
What's in the Box?
Mage Master is one of 3 games produced by Ratkins Games (www.ratkins.com) and is their first big title. It comes in a sturdy box with nice artwork on the front, and a back showing the game in progress. Inside the box are a set of pawns, 630 FFG sized cards (you know, the ones that are too small for shuffling!), a decent sized board, a book of score sheets, some paper tokens, the mystery d12 and the rule book.
Other reviews have mentioned that the rule book assumes the players know a lot about the game. It was obviously written by Nick himself, and proofread by other expert players, so it isn't the easiest rule book to get started with. Much of the content is presented in glossary format, which I found odd, but it has the advantage of being very easy to look up when you are playing. There are examples of combat at the end, and while some things are left out or are contradictory (mountains are impassable, yet there is a movement cost listed against them) I feel that it's easy to understand the game, and if you can't find something listed explicitly - house rule it.
The Game Itself
Players are junior wizards exploring the land, trying to win fame and fortune. There are different types of terrain to be explored, and depending on where the player ends up each turn, different encounters and challenges to defeat. You start as a Level 0 wizard with very little offensive or defensive capability, so you're best off sticking to the roads and forests, where the risks are less. With greater experience and skill, players can venture beyond the roads into the swamps, deserts and rivers of the land, encountering progressively more difficult challenges. As you move around and defeat creatures, you gain items that help you progress: Boots to add armour and help you move through swamps, ingredients to be able to cast spells, and the player's goal - magical tools that can help them increase their wizardly powers.
Magic is controlled by humans using the 3 magic tools: A cloak, staff and familiar. A beginning wizard that finds a cloak, for instance gets the ability to cast level 1 magical spells. When the wizard collects a cloak, staff and familiar they are ready to become a sorcerer, with even greater power. Sorcerers' spells have greater range and effect than a wizard, and when they collect a set of magic tools and shards of the power orb, they can progress to being a Mage. When a player becomes a Mage the game changes. Players that are killed now are gone from the game. The race is on to open the Arch Mage's tomb, or to kill off the other players.
Nick took a bit of a risk sending this game out to be reviewed by people - this game fits in the same category as excellent, well produced games such as Runebound, Return of the Heroes and Talisman. Mage Master could not be described as well produced - it simply hasn't got the money behind it that the other games in this category have. This shows - the rules need a proof read, the tokens are paper, and the graphics could use some work. I'm not sure what the d12 is for, I suspect the pawns and d12 came bagged together so it was just packed in the box like that.
The basic idea for the game is sound. It's nothing original, wander around gaining experience before you defeat the big baddie at the end. It actually felt a lot like Runebound to me, without the flavour text I would have enjoyed this much more 15 years ago, when I was in high school. I think it would do a lot better on a younger audience (12-16 years old) but don't have suitable adolescents to experiment on. A lot of my complaints would not even be noticed by teenaged boys. Of course, there's a high chance they'd be attached to a video game instead of playing this...
I like this style of game, but the level of randomness from drawing a card at the end of each turn wasn't for me. I also felt that the graphics on the cards, and lack of flavour text let the game down by not getting me more "into" the theme of the game. It would be hard to produce different artwork for the cards (there are a LOT of cards) but improving that, and the readability of the rule book would improve this game a lot. I would have preferred some choice in the player's abilities, for instance having some choice of starting attributes or spells, instead of everyone having 1 attack strength, 1 defence, 12 HP, etc.
As it stands, on the BGG rating I have to give it a "4 - Not so good, doesn't get me". I would rather play Runebound due to its deeper theme, more interesting characters and higher production values. Thanks to Nick for sending me a review copy, best of luck with your games! Oh, and anyone that says the rulebook is badly written has never tried Return of the Heroes.