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Subject: Mage Knight - A Positive First Impression. rss

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Antony Alexander
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So Mage Knight, eh? Hotness, one edition down and the second nearly sold out. What is it all about? Well, I know because I've got my copy. Nah, nah na naahhh, nah.

Sorry, couldn't resist.


DISCLAIMER: I am new to the geek and, while getting to be long in the tooth, am a fairly new boardgaming convert so I apologise if I step on toes, get things wrong or am trying to teach anyone to suck eggs but here goes....


The Components

Well, first lets get the components over with. Meh.

Right on with the game......

Actually it probably does deserve more mention that the components to what is, in scale, as grand and epic a game as you can encounter this side of the Imperium are somewhat disappointing. I think it best to divide this into four sections although you will find little new here.

Design/Artwork. This is fantastic. I love the artwork which is rich and evocative and the graphic design, in what is a pretty darn complex game, is top notch and helps with the setup and learning. The only slight criticism I have is that with the twin rule book idea. While it is quite nice in itself and I found the "starter" book to be pretty good at teaching the game, a good index referencing both books contents would have been even more useful than the usual missing rulebook index.

The Box. This is a decent quality box and they have at least attempted to include a well designed modular insert. Unfortunately, the design here isn't perfect and the quality of the insert sections is poor, very thin plastic and not perfectly moulded so I don't know how long I will keep it intact.

The Plastics. I have read some complaints about these but I found them to be pretty darn good. The prepainted models in the game are of decent design and manufacture and are as well painted as prepainted models always are - i.e. they'll do but need at least a black/brown wash to look good and would really reward a repaint. The mana crystals I thought looked tacky in pictures before I got the game but I have now come to love them and when I have some nestling on my character card ready for use I am as proud and smug as a teenager fitting an oversized chrome exhaust pipe to his crappy, smokey old car. But I digress...

Card Components. These are.....well, I keep coming back to the word, disappointing. The tiles and boards are thin and there are reports of warping and seperation. Some very slight warping of the fame/reputation board being the only issue I have with mine but I just have to look at them to know I have been pretty lucky and they are not very robust so I will have to handle them with care to prevent further detrioration. The cards themselves are thin and mine have a tendency to curl - all of mine are curling in the same direction at least. In fairness they are probably not any thinner than the cards in Lords of Waterdeep (although I have not done a direct comparison) but that game has a lot cheaper RRP and the cards do not have this alarming desire to imitate the shape of a banana.

As a rule I do not sleeve cards in games but I have now ordered sleeves for Mage Knight and would encourage anyone else to build the cost of 240 sleeves into the price of the game if they are contemplating buying. Finally, I'm happy with all the tokens but, as widely reported, the images on them aren't always central and there are issues where the die cutting has been alternated so the sloped edge is sometimes front, sometimes back. It will not affect my enjoyment of the game but it is sloppy and if you are a component watcher you may be able to learn to tell which tiles/tokens are coming up because of the discrepancy.


Onto the Gameplay.

I have heard Mage Knight touted as an evolution in the deck building genre but this is not deck building as you may imagine it. It is certainly not deck building as an innocent noob type like myself imagines it. When I hear deck building it conjures images of Dominion and a small shiver down my spine. I understand that Dominion basically invented the genre and so it is rightly legend but, to me, playing it is like having a newly missing tooth. You just have to poke your tongue in the gap and wiggle it, Ugh, its sore and unpleasant so you pull it out.......yeah, but you just have to poke your tongue in the gap and wiggle it, Ugh, its sore and unpleasant so you pull it out.........yeah, but you just have play the cards and then you buy the cards, Ugh, you wonder what you're doing, you could be having fun instead.......yeah, but you just have to play the cards and then you buy the cards......


Tuning the Engine

In Mage Knight you have a basic deck of cards that you cycle through. This is the engine of the game as playing the cards is what gives you the ability to move your character, fight, cast spells, etc. The deck also controls the length of a round as it will finish after the first player's deck runs out and any/everybody else has had one more turn. Through the game you do get the chance to influence what makes up your hand but not in the Dominion style. You will always have the basic action cards but by advancing through what is, in essence, an experience track and by individual victories or other actions in the game you get the chance to add more powerful advanced action cards, spell cards and artifact cards.

You do not, however, get total control over the cards. You generally choose from an "offer" - a choice of three cards that are laid out for you to study. The decks these cards come from are made up of unique cards so, while you get to make a choice and you do get to tailor your deck as you go through the game, there are a fair amount of variables involved in which cards you get to choose from. Some may decry this intrusion of "luck" in the game, I celebrate it as providing a different challenge and experience. It helps mean that the game plays differently each time as you have to deal with the variables on the board including which scenario you are playing, whether it is day or night in the game at any particular time, which tiles are drawn and so which building/areas you may encounter, what enemies you will face and in what order you will draw cards into your hand. Top this with the choices you face in the variety of cards you will get to choose from as you develop your deck and your character and you start to glimpse the complexity of the game.


Choices, Choices.

There are also more choices the game presents you with. You get to hire units of locals, perhaps just a peasant rabble or maybe a unit of trained fighters or some mystically endowed monks. You also get to use "mana" which is a kind of magic energy that you can use to supercharge the actions of an individual card. Mana comes in different flavours/colours and you need the right one for the job. You can choose only one per turn from a common pool of dice that are rolled at the beginning of the round or you may be able to generate it from card or game effects as you go but you need to balance picking the best moment to use that card that generates mana and having it blocking your hand up between turns.

Because this is where the cards can bite. You begin with a hand of five and this may be increased permanently as you level up or temporarily by game actions but it is very easy for it to get clogged. You want to hang onto that mana card to power up that cool attack card you have that will combine nicely with the two block cards and mean that the rampaging orc over there is toast. But thats four cards and you need to move into the right space to beat that monster down and for that you're fifth card needs to be a move card, please, please, please let it be a move card. It just has to be, I mean you haven't drawn one in a couple of turns so it just has to be.......another mana generating card. Now what.

Well you can play any card sideways to get a basic action (move, fight, block, etc) of one. But you need three move points to reach the Orc you want to biff. That means three of your gorgeous, hand tooled, brightly polished cards that you have been clinging to lovingly need to be played sideways for move.......one. It could be a mana powered rage card of fight 8 obliterating that Orcs ugly mug.... or a move one. Grrrr.....

Oh, by the way, if you take any wounds during your combats they are represented by a wound card that, yep, goes into your hand. So in a fit of pique you said to hell with it, attacked the Orc anyway having used all your block cards as move points and smashed it to bits with that powered up fight card. Beautiful. Except you took four wounds due to your rashness and now your hand of five cards is four big red blooddrop wound cards...oh, and that move 4 card you just pulled. Grrrrrrr.


The Essence!

And here we get to what, I think, is the essence of the game. The deck is the engine that drives it and there are loads of fun choices and nice monsters and dungeons and monasteries to burn and loot (thats right, you get to burn and loot monasteries! Ahh, Henry would be proud!) but the essence is that this game is a puzzle. Pretty much everything you can do in the game can be seen, weighed out and planned for. When you fight an enemy you will often know its stats in advance and if you don't you will still know the class of enemy and so roughly what to expect. You will also know what is in your hand, what mana you have and what units are under your command. This means you can pretty much know the outcome of any encounters before you start but what it doesn't mean is that the game is easy. There are so many different choices in the way that you can play your cards and other resources that you have to figure out the best way to wring every drip of effectiveness out of your turn. It is only by doing a good job at this that you will beat anyone else you are playing as well as the countdown on the current round and the timing of the game itself as there is usually a round limit.

Virtually everything I have talked about in how to play this game has been to do with how you, as a player, deal and interact with your resources and the game. There are two reasons for this: first, I have only played single player games, secondly, because I'm pretty sure that that is what this game is. It is a kind of puzzle game about struggling with your resources and powers to find the perfect way to use them to achieve your own objectives. What I may not have managed to get across is that it is extremely clever, very complex and quite breathtaking in it's scale. It is, in many ways, video game like (many may say like a traditional RPG but I have never been a traditional roleplayer) in the way that you level up your character, interact with the inhabitants of the realm, gain new skills and powers and also how punishing it can be if you get it wrong and clog up your hand with wounds so that you then need to spend time and resources resting/healing them away to get back to full efficiency.

It is also, like an old style videogame, a fairly solitary experience.

Now, as I say, I have only played single player, but, while the game can be played with up to four as a co-op or a traditional opposed game I think it will always be about what you do as a player - it is going to be your own cards, resources and ambitions that you have to fight with to get anywhere. You are never going to be running around casting spells at Bob for fun because he beat you in that game of Frogger at the arcade when the pretty girl was there when you were both seven and....er,...just me then.

I think it would be fun to play with someone else as you can then both share in the depth and beauty of the game and it would help in enjoying the narrative your actions create as you cut a swathe through the land but, in game terms, I don't think you are ever going to really play with anyone else - in simplistic terms you're only going to add your score to theirs in a co-op or try to beat their score in opposition and the game rules even encourage you to take as many actions as you can during the other players turn so you just know down time is an issue. In that sense it is like the most clinical Euro game.

Except it isn't....because you get to burn and loot monasteries..... and convince locals to fight for you....... before then plundering their village - Hah, hee, hee, heh....good times...good times.


Conclusion

Bottom line, I currently love this game and it was, I think, a very wise purchase for me because it is a grand scale, long and complex game that is great fun to play solo and where most of the fun is in the actual playing of the game rather than the outcome. Unfortunately, in the real world, both the lives and interests of myself and my friends are such that it is rare I will get the chance to play this kind of a game with other players so its solo appeal is perfect for me. I think it could be perfect for two or three people to play as long as they realise that they are essentially going to be playing the game, not each other.

The main criticisms I have heard levelled at Mage Knight are the components are of a pretty poor quality, that it is not a game that encourages player interaction and that it does not carry it's theme. Hands up to the first two although I do think it carries its theme well but it relies on the players to help achieve this. As a player you have to keep an eye on the narrative you are creating as it easy for it to get lost amongst the ponderings, plannings and machinations as you struggle to find that perfect mix of skills, cards, mana, units and cold steel that means you can move through the swamp, assault that smug wizard's tower, place your shield upon it and claim the powerful knowledge held within......




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Mark O'Reilly
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loved reading your review :-)
 
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Brian Harmon
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Very good read. Great honest review.
 
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David desJardins
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Alabaster Icon wrote:
I think it would be fun to play with someone else as you can then both share in the depth and beauty of the game and it would help in enjoying the narrative your actions create as you cut a swathe through the land but, in game terms, I don't think you are ever going to really play with anyone else - in simplistic terms you're only going to add your score to theirs in a co-op or try to beat their score in opposition and the game rules even encourage you to take as many actions as you can during the other players turn so you just know down time is an issue. In that sense it is like the most clinical Euro game.


It's really not true. The Player vs Player combat rules can make a big difference, at least in 2-player games.
 
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Alejandro Rascon
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you can choose not to allow PvP, i do that with my wife, and it IS very enjoyable.

Cool review.
 
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David desJardins
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Sure, of course you can play without PvP if you want to reduce interaction. The OP was speculating that the game would lack interaction even if you include the rules that promote interaction. And I would say I haven't found that to be true.
 
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Martin Presley
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Alabaster Icon wrote:
As a player you have to keep an eye on the narrative you are creating as it easy for it to get lost amongst the ponderings, plannings and machinations as you struggle to find that perfect mix of skills, cards, mana, units and cold steel that means you can move through the swamp, assault that smug wizard's tower, place your shield upon it and claim the powerful knowledge held within......


THIS!
 
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Antony Alexander
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DaviddesJ wrote:
The OP was speculating that the game would lack interaction even if you include the rules that promote interaction. And I would say I haven't found that to be true.


To be honest I would have to defer to your greater knowledge on this because, as I mentioned, I have only played solo.

The reason this opinion developed, though, was because this is a comment that I had heard about the game from a couple of different sources. Then, after having played it, I could imagine that, even playing with PvP, it may feel more like you were playing/fighting your own game with the other player as an added element rather than actively engaging them as you would in, say, a simple combat game or even a more involved strategy game like Game of Thrones.

This was still a supposition on my part and could be well wide of the mark - hopefully I will soon get the chance to test it out for myself as I do think MK is a game to share whether it is built for player interaction or not!

Thanks to all for the kind comments, thumbs and even GG (I'm rich, muahahaha!) to a first time reviewer.

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David desJardins
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Alabaster Icon wrote:
The reason this opinion developed, though, was because this is a comment that I had heard about the game from a couple of different sources.


One thing is, if you look at the poll thread, not many people have played the game much. Out of 118 respondents, only 13 have played Full or Blitz Conquest at least 10 times. So even the comments you're reading from other people, are mostly speculation. A lot of people have only played solo, and so of course they start to think of the game as a solo exercise.

Quote:
Then, after having played it, I could imagine that, even playing with PvP, it may feel more like you were playing/fighting your own game with the other player as an added element rather than actively engaging them as you would in, say, a simple combat game or even a more involved strategy game like Game of Thrones.


I would say, in my 2-player games, it often feels like two heroic figures rushing to achieve an objective, while keeping a wary eye on the competition and aiming to "get there first" rather than "get there fastest". If you can slow the other player down more than you slow yourself, it's a good move.

And that seems pretty thematic, to me.
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Antony Alexander
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DaviddesJ wrote:

I would say, in my 2-player games, it often feels like two heroic figures rushing to achieve an objective, while keeping a wary eye on the competition and aiming to "get there first" rather than "get there fastest". If you can slow the other player down more than you slow yourself, it's a good move.

And that seems pretty thematic, to me.


You'll get no argument from me on the thematic front - I think the whole game has a sweeping, majestic feel to it that ties in perfectly to the theme although, as I said, I do think it asks the player to work at keeping this front and centre and not be totally dazzled by all the choices and mechanisms at work.

The way you describe the interaction in a 2 player game is actually kind of how I thought it would be - it affects the gameplay and provides a different challenge. I would suggest that most thematic/adventure games, however, aim toward some kind of direct and hopefully climactic confrontation rather than a strategic race. I hope I haven't made out that I think the game would fail as a multiplayer, as I certainly don't, I just think that if it is approached it as a PvP adventure game expecting legendary battles and cinematic combats with each other then it may disappoint.

In regard to the comments here on BGG the reviews of the game I read were generally elsewhere on the web and more than one mentioned things such as PvP combat as a weak point, and players, even in PvP multiplayer games, not bothering to total up points but just enjoying creating/playing an epic tale as they went. This actually appeals to me greatly but I'm not sure it indicates a lot of direct PvP interaction. Incidentally, just about all were very positive reviews.

BTW, please don't feel that I am trying to prove you wrong - not only would this be daft when we are talking about opinions but, as I have said, I haven't played multiplayer and I am trying to show why, despite this, I felt it worthwhile to comment on it in my review rather than why I think you are incorrect.
 
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David desJardins
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Alabaster Icon wrote:
In regard to the comments here on BGG the reviews of the game I read were generally elsewhere on the web and more than one mentioned things such as PvP combat as a weak point, and players, even in PvP multiplayer games, not bothering to total up points but just enjoying creating/playing an epic tale as they went.


It's a long game, I expect most reviewers have only played it a couple of times. It wouldn't be surprising if they don't appreciate the PvP combat yet. I just wouldn't place any weight on such early reviews, which are more likely to be speculation than informed by experience. You can't really evaluate the PvP system until you understand the rest of the game well and then have played a bunch of games using it.
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