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Subject: Boxfresh Review [Solo play] rss

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James King
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I had seen Mage Knight sitting on my FLGS shelf during their boxing week sale and had glossed over it without a thought. The box art and the name, "Mage Knight," didn't really catch my eye. It just oozed generic fantasy and knowing nothing about the game it passed under my radar.

Yet I saw the Miami Dice video review on the BGG and was intrigued (yes, I watch board game reviews for fun). So I read some reviews and watched more videos. I read critiques slamming it for the rules complexity, downtime, lack of satisfying conclusions; and I wasn't phased. I read blog posts praising it as the greatest solo game ever. I decided that this was probably a game I would be interested in after all.

The solo aspect intrigued me. I became a solo gamer early last year when my group of friends started getting exhausted with my obsession with boardgames and found myself lacking that scratch for my itch. I play games such as Death Angel, Castle Ravenloft, and Lord of the Rings: The Card Game as well as indie titles such as Legions of Darkness and Astra Titanus. I guess I feel I have some experience with solo games so when I heard praise from several sources that this was the best solo experience I had to have it!

Well I bought it today and sat down after work to give it a try (oddly enough all of the online sellers were out of copies and only my trusty FLGS had one)!

Here are my thoughts after playing through the walk-through scenario:

Components

It comes with pre-painted miniatures, custom dice, canvas stock cards, and plenty of cardboard chits and tiles.

I might need to sleeve the cards. While I doubt they will bend I found that the cards were prone to getting little scuffs and tears around the edges if you try to "pinch" them off the table. A table cloth surface might also alleviate this too... not terrible but there are better card stocks available that don't suffer this problem.

The tiles also seem to curl up a tiny bit around the center. It probably won't affect the game play if it doesn't get worse than it did after my first play. I didn't notice it until after I was done.

The insert is pretty decent. It is actually quite functional which is pretty rare for most games. After packing all of the different Mage Knights' cards and tokens into separate bags it left a few empty slots and such, but it is still pretty useful. Too many games just give you... well nothing. This is something and that counts in my books.

Overall though the components are great. The artwork is really good, the colors are clear, and it all feels like it will suffer a lot of wear and keep on ticking. The miniatures are the obvious eye-catcher and look really good. I'm quite satisfied with the component quality.

Overview

In a nutshell:

Players pick a scenario to play which sets the starting conditions and objectives for the game.

A game takes place over several rounds which are represented by day and night in the game.

Each round consists of several turns. A turn consists of one play of cards from a players hand. Once a player has exhausted their deck the round is over and a new one is begun.

Every action a player takes in the game is done on their turn by playing cards. These cards represent movement, combat, influence, and various special actions.

Players continue this way until reach their objectives (or fail to do so as may be the case). Along the way they will explore a vast landscape, explore dungeons, conquer keeps, fight marauding monsters, visit villages, recruit followers, and most importantly gain fame and reputation!

And that doesn't even scratch the surface -- this is a deep and enjoyable game.

Impressions

This game deserves every bit of praise it gets!

Keep in mind that I haven't delved into the full game or multi-player so my impressions are pretty fresh and vague.

First I really like the card-driven mechanic behind the actions in the game. It forces several constraints to contend with: the environment on the board, your objectives, a limited hand size, and a limited deck size. However, certain effects in the game can give you a little breathing room by increasing your hand size or more often giving greater effects to your cards. This can lead to several interesting options one can take on their turn and for me at least, keeps the game fresh from turn to turn. I feel this is because I'm not limited to hard-wired numbers on a character card -- if I have cards in hand that give me 4 movement I could potentially play a mana crystal from my inventory to boost one of those cards and even play non-movement cards to give me even more movement points. In a lot of other adventure/dungeon-crawl style games I get a hard-wired "movement points" system... I like that in this game if I need more movement I have the flexibility to acquire it while perhaps sacrificing some of my other resources in order to do so.

That being said; another constraint you have to contend with is the likelihood that you will draw into your hand the cards you need this turn. That can be pretty random and becomes a probability game. This is where the "deckbuilding" mechanic everyone points out in these reviews gets interesting for me. In the beginning it's possible to get a bad start if the goal is exploration and you draw a hand full of attack cards. But later on as the game develops you can manage the probabilities of your draw by picking the right cards... or if that doesn't interest you you can go whole-hog and not care. However I like that option.

The other interesting mechanic that I didn't see come up in my first play but interested me none-the-less was wounds. They go into your hand and cannot be discarded like normal cards. They stay there through-out a round unless you take some specific actions at specific places on the board. The combat I experienced in this first game was pretty easy and I didn't take a single point of damage despite the numerous orcs I killed and the keep I sacked during the night round... but had I been a little more zealous and took on a mage tower with a mediocre hand I might have had to contend with yet another constraint.

And that's ultimately what made this an interesting solo game for me: there were layers of constraints imposing on my limited resources. I also had a little bit more flexibility in the number and kinds of actions I can take in a turn compared to most games I've played recently.

If you're going to play this game solo, there are a few elements that don't make a lot of sense:

1. There are skills that only make sense with multiple players
2. Keeps don't provide as much benefit as they might in multiplayer
3. There aren't many solo scenarios -- as a solo game I'm hoping I won't get bored of playing the same couple of scenarios over and over. Obviously player-made scenarios and expansions can alleviate this.

However while I haven't played multiplayer yet I am looking forward to it. I think with the right group of players this would be an excellent game to play competitively. The reason I feel this way is that there are very few non-deterministic elements to this game: there are no dice and even though you draw your hand randomly from a shuffled deck; there are opportunities through play to control the draw in your favor. I think this puts it in the same sort of competitive realm as a popular CCG game almost everyone knows about because of that. Since I already like that game this is a big draw for me and I can't wait to try it out.

Conclusion

This is a great game. If you like solo games and have at least one or two friends who like deep, complex games: consider buying it. I'm expecting to play this one solo most of the time but I know one or two people in my circle of friends who would actually like it.

That being said: this is a heavy game. I didn't find anything about the rules very complex but I should disclose that I am a programmer and hardcore gamer so deep rules actually rather excite me on occasion. If you can get through a game of Arkham Horror or Sid Meier's Civilization then this game will be a walk in the park. If you have friends that ask you to play those games then they will be the ones you will probably be playing this one with. It's definitely not a game for people who don't like a lot of components and layers of rules.

I'm happy I bought this one and I hoped you enjoyed this boxfresh review.

If I really dig into this game I'll be posting a more in-depth look at some of the other mechanics later -- ciao for now.
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Chris Linneman
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Thanks for the review, and thanks for spreading the word of Maaaaaaage Knight!

j_king wrote:

If you're going to play this game solo, there are a few elements that don't make a lot of sense:

1. There are skills that only make sense with multiple players


You remove the "interactive" skills in solo games.

j_king wrote:

2. Keeps don't provide as much benefit as they might in multiplayer


Why not? They provide the same benefit regardless of the number of players--increased hand limit based on the number you control. If anything they are better in solo, since no one can steal them from you. devil

j_king wrote:

3. There aren't many solo scenarios -- as a solo game I'm hoping I won't get bored of playing the same couple of scenarios over and over. Obviously player-made scenarios and expansions can alleviate this.


There is already a long solo variant posted here on the Geek, but you're right, I wish there were more solo scenarios to keep the solo game fresh. One thing you can try is to increase the difficulty by raising the levels of the cities you have to conquer.
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Joshua Miller
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QBert80 wrote:
j_king wrote:
2. Keeps don't provide as much benefit as they might in multiplayer


Why not? They provide the same benefit regardless of the number of players--increased hand limit based on the number you control. If anything they are better in solo, since no one can steal them from you. devil

I agree with the original poster. Keeps are much more important in multiplayer - if and only if you are playing with the Player vs Player combat rules. Hanging around your own keep means no one is likely to attack you, and hanging around an opponent's keep can be very dangerous if they are within striking distance. Getting 2 or 3 extra cards in your hand off of your keeps makes you formidable in PvP combat.
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Richard Young
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Good review, thanks. One point we might discuss however is your assessment of the deck-building aspect of this game. Your take seems to be rather different than most other commentators. You see a stronger deck-building element here than most. You are adding cards to your deck true, but deck building as it is usually understood means tailoring your deck and managing it as you play (card pullers, cullers, drawers, that sort of thing). There are such combos in the deed cards (and when you consider the units and the skills) but you don't have a lot of control over where or when they might become available, or whether you would ever get them. Culling is not a strong feature as there aren't too many cards that you would happily get rid of, just about every card has a good use.

There is some determinism, particularly in the combat routines, but as for your deck and accompanying units/skills, you are at the mercy of the fates as to which of any specific things you might desire will become yours - and building mostly means just making your deck bigger. A bigger deck means you are less certain which specific cards will be in your hand from turn to turn. Granted, you hand size is growing slightly (or it should be), but the result is not deck-building as I understand it.

You manage your growth as best you can but the essence of the deed cards/skill tokens/units mix is to provide a puzzle to solve at the beginning of each of your turns in the round. Most people who like this game like that aspect in particular, but I've seen others hold that it creates more restraints than opportunities. Traditional deck-building wouldn't usually be viewed that way.
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Christian
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I see a strong db aspect too, because it structures the whole game. That you don't feel like deckbuilding when you play is in fact a quality, like when you don't see the FX in a movie!

And I love keeps in solo: they give you supply (more cards)!
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Matt
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Thanks for the review. I look forward to hearing your thoughts after you play the full game. You really don't start to feel the pressure of making everything work together until you are under that constraint of needing to become powerful enough to beat those two cities.

I liked the game after the initial play too, but it wasn't until playing the full game that I fell in love with it. There's plenty more for you to see

As far as the keeps, while solo play does miss out on some elements with those, I still find them very important in solo play. In the last game I played, I conquered 4 keeps. When the last city was drawn there was a keep right next to it! That allowed me to start my battle with 4 extra cards drawn. Talk about a power boost! If I had not been conquering keeps I would have missed out on that.

I too have seen people confused by the deck building aspect of this game. I can understand the comparisons because you are "building a deck" in that you are adding cards to your hand, but for the most part you are not getting rid of cards. You are adding to it to make it stronger.

Every additional card in your deck is something extra that you can do. You have a lot of options on what types of cards you can go after to strengthen your deck.

In a game like Dominion, you cycle through your deck repeatedly, replacing weaker cards with strong ones. A larger deck can really hurt you because it dilutes the effects of the stronger cards. In this game, it is advantageous to get as many cards as you can, and then the ability to draw as many cards at once.

I see it as you developing your hero and making them stronger and able to do more things.

As far as the other scenarios where you go into the mines or go after mage towers, they can be played solo from what I understand. I haven't tried it yet.

Matt
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James King
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Bubslug wrote:
Good review, thanks. One point we might discuss however is your assessment of the deck-building aspect of this game. Your take seems to be rather different than most other commentators. You see a stronger deck-building element here than most. You are adding cards to your deck true, but deck building as it is usually understood means tailoring your deck and managing it as you play (card pullers, cullers, drawers, that sort of thing). There are such combos in the deed cards (and when you consider the units and the skills) but you don't have a lot of control over where or when they might become available, or whether you would ever get them. Culling is not a strong feature as there aren't too many cards that you would happily get rid of, just about every card has a good use.


To be honest the only deck building game I've played is Dominion. Or if you consider deck-building a meta-game in CoC:tLCG or M:tG then I've played a couple others.

Which is why I put the word, deck-building, in "quotes."

I agree it isn't really deck-building as we know it. I've just heard other reviewers talk about it when describing the game. I was actually afraid to use it in my review for fear of implying the wrong ideas (which I think I've done despite the "quotes"...)

Mage Knight isn't a deck building game.

Bubslug wrote:

There is some determinism, particularly in the combat routines, but as for your deck and accompanying units/skills, you are at the mercy of the fates as to which of any specific things you might desire will become yours - and building mostly means just making your deck bigger. A bigger deck means you are less certain which specific cards will be in your hand from turn to turn. Granted, you hand size is growing slightly (or it should be), but the result is not deck-building as I understand it.


Well you're not entirely at the mercy of the fates. I don't know all of the cards off by heart but from what I've seen in my first play you have a few mechanics that play to your advantage. First when you acquire a new card it generally goes on-top of your deck, there are tactics cards that let you do mulligans (discard hand if you don't like it, shuffle it into your deck and draw a new hand) or draw extra cards, and there are units and special abilities that let you pick out cards from your deck.

Now I may be forgetting how healing works, but doesn't it allow you to remove wounds from your deck? I think I also saw some special action cards that let you move and heal. Seems like managing wounds is another sort of "deck management" kind of problem.

Bubslug wrote:

You manage your growth as best you can but the essence of the deed cards/skill tokens/units mix is to provide a puzzle to solve at the beginning of each of your turns in the round. Most people who like this game like that aspect in particular, but I've seen others hold that it creates more restraints than opportunities. Traditional deck-building wouldn't usually be viewed that way.


Again, I think deck-building gives a certain impression that doesn't really relate to what I was going after. Some reviewers liken the ability to add cards to your deck as "deck-building." I guess since the deck isn't fixed throughout the game it's quite easy to get this impression. However I put the word deck-building in "quotes" because I felt that it wasn't deck-building per se but it was a somewhat close analogy that people might be able to relate to.

I see it more as a deck-management game. You can buy new cards for your deed deck or acquire them by other means throughout the game. A well-timed visit to the monastery or even-numbered level-up will put a particular special action card on top of your deck. Maybe you will have another card that will let you draw it right away or maybe you save it for your next hand. Hopefully it's a heal action if you have some wounds in your hand.

It's not totally up to the fates which cards you get in my first impression. It seems to me that way in the first round or two. However I found that the rate of draw is important, that there are special actions and tactics that can tip the odds in your favor, and if damage becomes an issue it puts another constraint on your deck -- but there are actions to mitigate it...

To me it seems quite well balanced. It has some hints of the CCG experience more than the deck-building experience despite the fact that you're adding cards as you play. You don't get as many options for searching your deck, adding and removing cards, but they are there (and they are few I gather due to the relatively small deck size). It's an interesting game none the less.

I think restraints help us to see opportunities. In many card based games I've played the restraints are simply different. In Dominion you only get the money you draw in your hand to spend that turn and point cards are dead cards. Yet there are ways to mitigate that basic effect by the kinds of cards you draw through out the game. Mage Knight has some parallels to that but I don't think it's quite that strong.

I like the collection of mechanics that some people are describing as a "puzzle," not because I think of it like a puzzle... but because through the restraints I contend with I find there's a surprising amount of freedom compared to other fantasy games I've played where your actions on your turn are usually hard-wired to a fixed number on a card or chart. I like that in Mage Knight if I need extra move I have several options to boost my move action in a turn (which can suck if I don't have at least one move card in my hand.. happened once during my game). It's possible but I don't see that happening too often in a deck that probably won't get much bigger than 25 cards.

It's a fascinating game though and thanks for reading my review!
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Simon Skov
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Good thoughts, and I agree that is isn't really deck-building per se, but more of a game that has a deck-building mechanic.

Just wanted to clarify one thing:

j_king wrote:
A well-timed visit to the monastery or even-numbered level-up will put a particular special action card on top of your deck. Maybe you will have another card that will let you draw it right away or maybe you save it for your next hand. Hopefully it's a heal action if you have some wounds in your hand.


If you gain an advanced action card from a level-up, or another card as a reward from an adventure site, you can't immediately play a card to draw them from your deck, as you don't gain rewards until the end of your turn.
When buying action cards from monasteries, or spells from mage towers, I believe you will be able to play a card to draw them immediately, as those go on top of your deck during your turn.
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James King
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freudianslip27 wrote:
There's plenty more for you to see


This was definitely one of the best impressions I got after that first play through. I played a full game and if that was all there was to it, I would have still been impressed. However, knowing that there as still MORE left me with a sense of awe.

Playing this game feels a lot like the early days of PC fantasy strategy games. You play the first few levels and are delighted... but in front of you dangles promises of something bigger, better, and more exciting.

You don't have to know every single rule in this game up-front in order to play through a full scenario (at least with the walk through); which is really quite cool for a board game. As I play the game I can experience new elements that add more depth and learn as I go. It's pretty natural in PC games for them to get quite complex, why not board games?

I appreciate simplicity but sometimes you just want to delve into something that takes time to understand and truly appreciate. This is a game that can do that.

Thanks for the comment.
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Luke Hughes

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Got the game for solo play as well. Perhaps they will release a solo oriented expansion at some point
Would this be a good game for ipad?
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Mike Clarke
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In your review, you made three numbered points about keeps, skills and solo play. The first two have already been addressed. But regarding solo play, the solo rules state they can be applied to ANY scenario in the book so you can do them all solo.

I think this provides quite a bit of variety for a solo player and probably more then most games that can be played this way.
 
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