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Subject: A possibly too-lengthy review rss

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Dan Blum
United States
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Mage Master is an RPG-style board game, a genre which has become popular again in the last few years. This is an outdoor one, like Runebound or Return of the Heroes, rather than a dungeon crawl like Descent. Players play wizards wandering around the landscape attempting to get the tools of their trade (cloak, staff, and familiar) so they can cast spells. The tools will have to be sacrificed for a player to become a sorceror, who will then have to collect them again (along with magical stones) to become a mage. A mage can win the game by obtaining the ability to inflict 50 points of damage in one turn (I think).

The basic game engine is very simple. On your turn you move your wizard (how many movement points you have depends on how many hit points you currently have) and, unless you end on a special hex, you draw a card from the deck corresponding to the terrain type. This might be an item which you can take, an event which does something (good or bad), or a creature you need to fight. Combat is very simple - you do damage, the creature does damage (some of which will be blocked by your cloak and such), and see if either of you took enough to kill you or knock you out. If not, you'll have to stay another turn to continue the fight,
although you can also leave.

The simple turn structure combined with the refreshingly dice-free combat system means that downtime is fairly low for a game of this type. The magic system helps - you can only cast spells you find ingredients for (and that are of a level you have reached), and you can only carry four ingredients, so you can't spend a lot of time thinking about what spells you might want to have ready (you can cast some spells before you need them and they wait around until a target presents itself). Turns pass around the table quickly and everyone stays engaged with the game. This is certainly good.

However, this comes at a price, which is that there aren't many tactical decisions in the game. On many turns you make no such decision - you move somewhere, draw a card, get an item you have room to carry or defeat a creature without having to cast a spell, and you're done. On other turns you do make tactical decisions, but they are generally not that interesting - you find an item or spell ingredient when your inventory is full and have to decide what to jettison (or cast, in the case of ingredients), you find a familiar when you already have one, etc. In most cases the decisions are fairly obvious, with the occasional exception of deciding between two familiars with interesting abilities (generally when comparing items they are nearly identical or one is clearly better than the other, not to mention you can have lots of them).

Of course, the "move somewhere" I passed over in the last paragraph represents a decision - a strategic one. The game in theory has a structure which will provide players with strategic choices, in that you have a variety of things you need to accomplish, and other things you don't have to do but probably want to (e.g., you have to find or buy a staff and cloak, but you will probably also want to buy boots).

In practice, however, the strategic choices are not that interesting, for three reasons. One is that there is a fixed script for the game - you cannot decide you want to skip collecting magic rocks and build up your character some other way, for example. Another is that many of the choices don't mean much - e.g., at the start, should you go buy a staff or a cloak first? If one of the special locations selling these is much closer than the other, the question answers itself, if not you have to decide, but you might as well flip a coin, since there's no basis for a real decision.

The final reason is that when the exigencies of the game force you to delay the next step in the script, you are usually playing randomly. This isn't always the case - if you get an affliction, for example (you might be lamed, poisoned, etc.), there are specific locations you can go to for a cure - but if you need money you have no recourse except to wander around and hope you find gold, a creature carrying gold that you can kill, or items you can sell for gold. This can go on for some time.

The above is probably making the game sound dire, which it actually is not; it's reasonably amusing for the first hour or so. After that it starts to pall. It would have more legs if it had a richer milieu. Unfortunately the background is extremely generic fantasy, and just about none of the actual gameplay elements actually have any bearing on it - other than the aforementioned magic rocks, everything you encounter is either generic or just odd, without much rhyme or reason.

Interestingly, the game started to pall earlier in the second game I played than in the first. In the first we used the standard start, in the second (with different players, aside from me) we used the accelerated start in the rules. This removed some of the frustration from the early game, when you don't have the resources to tackle much of anything, but it also removed most of the drama - in the accelerated start position you have to really work at it to get yourself in a truly bad position, which is not actually a fun state to be in during a game of this type. Since the accelerated start position is about where you can expect to be after playing the game from the standard start for a few hours, I can't recommend doing the latter.

Despite all this, I like some of what the game tries to do, and I think with a considerable amount of revision it could be turned into a decent light adventure game. Here is what I would suggest for a new edition:

1. Beef up the background. Make it less generic and put more of it in the actual game. Lose things that are odd but not tied to the background (e.g., sand trout). Having some generic things (e.g., wolves) is fine but players get tired of encountering wolves every other turn.

2. Shorten the game considerably - shoot for a 2-hour playing time at the absolute maximum. Yes, people play Talisman for hours on end, but Talisman obsessives generally started playing it many years ago. (The game in general, not the individual game sessions. I think.) You won't be able to produce a second Talisman in today's market. People play Descent for hours on end but that is (by all reports) a very different gaming experience from this.

3. Have multiple paths to victory. My preference would be to drop artificial elements such as sacrificing magic tools and instead make it a bit more freeform. For example, if the ultimate goal is still to be able to deal a certain amount of damage in one turn, there could be special high-level spells that will deal a lot of that, which require that you train to that level and find special ingredients, there could be lower-level spells that can be boosted with special items, there could be easier ways of building up your non-spell attack abilities, etc.

4. Make the high risk/reward card decks reflect that on the individual cards, not on separate cards. This is something I didn't touch on earlier since it's a relatively minor point compared to others, but it is an issue. Decks for the more difficult terrain types such as desert have nasty creatures and events, but also have some excellent items and events which you obtain with little or no cost. In the lower-level decks this sort of thing is OK because neither the risks nor the rewards are too high, and players will draw a lot of these cards so they tend to balance well enough, but this is NOT true of the higher-level decks. It would be better to change the cards so that going into the desert or the mountains will ALWAYS produce something nasty, but with a big reward
if you survive it.

5. Clean up the rules. As others have noted, the rules miss a number of points and mention others only in passing. (For example, I just now noticed that whenever you defeat a creature you are supposed to get a carcass - this rule appears only in the combat example, as the glossary entry for "carcass" doesn't actually state it.) They are also very inconsistent in terminology, a problem that carries over to the cards.

The worst example is "D," which means something different for players than it does for creatures. For players this is defense - it is the number of points of damage you deduct from an attack aimed at you, with the remainder being what is deducted from your hit points. For creatures, it's more or less hit points, as it is the number of points of damage you have inflict to kill one. I don't actually see any difference between hit points and the "D" value for a creature, except that it's not clear if damage to a creature sticks around for next turn. We assumed it did, which a tenth reading of the combat rules leads me to think is incorrect, but it's just as well as the correct rule would make the game take even longer.
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