Despite its age, Mage Knight is still going strong as one of the best solo games available to date so let us see if it lives up to the hype. The Ultimate Edition puts the core game along with all three of its expansions into one huge box. This leads to a huge amount of content to sift through when you first open the box and you may find, as I did, that it can be a tad overwhelming. It is certainly one of those games which is helped so much by being organised efficiently as there are a lot of components so take the time to get it sorted before you play it would be my advice.
Would I recommend Mage Knight as your first solo experience as I did, absolutely not! The rules are extremely in depth and the rulebook is not the easiest thing to get through, despite the Ultimate edition splitting it up into three booklets. However, if you commit the time needed to learn how to play Mage Knight, I think you will be able to appreciate its superb mechanisms and nuances even if you decide that it is not a game for you going forward.
In Mage Knight you take the role of a Mage who has been sent to try and reclaim a land by taking over a capital. There are numerous different scenarios which can vary the map layouts, number of city tiles that are used as well as the difficulty levels of those scenarios. The object of the game is generally to find the Cities in the deck of location tiles and then defeat however many are in the scenario that you are playing. This is just with the base game components. If you start delving into the expansion content, especially the Lost Legion, you then have a marauding enemy in Volkare, whose you need to try and defeat.
Regardless of which scenario you are playing, the core gameplay is till the same. You will use the cards in your specific character deck to move around the world that you are in, exploring new tiles, defeating mage towers, exploring ruins and dungeons as well as hiring new units as much much more. The options to you are vast and it is one of the aspects of Mage Night that make it so involved and so immersive. As you go around the map you will start to accrue Fame which unlocks more cards for you, new abilities to learn and more slots for units to be hired. However, depending on your actions you can both lose or gain fame which can influence how expensive it is for you o hire new units. All of this you are doing in order to get more and more powerful to stand a chance of defeating the Cities or Volkare.
The way you complete all of these actions is with the cards in your hand. All have two options. The top is a basic action which you can use the card for and the bottom is normally a more powerful version of the basic action but can only be used if powered with the specific colour of Mana. This is where the game really shines. At its heart Mage Knight is an efficiency puzzle. Figuring out the most efficient way to utilise your cards for maximum effectiveness as each time you go through your deck, marks the end of that day or night. You only generally have 3 days and 3 nights to complete your objective so the 15 card starting deck that you have can disappear very quickly.
In terms of the solo aspect, this differs slightly depending on whether you are playing with the standard scenarios or whether you are playing against Volkare. In the standard scenarios of Mage Knight you use a character deck that is not in play and at the beginning of their turn simply turn over three cards, sometimes this can trigger more if the third card matches a certain colour. That’s all you need to do. There is no moving around the board or complicated flow chart to see what happens. The @Dummy player@ as its referred to basically acts as a timer. When playing Volkare, this acts slightly differently. When setting up you compile a deck based on the difficulty level you wish to face and then, on Volkares’ turn, you flip the top card of his deck and refer to Volkares’ scenario card to see how he is going to act. This leads to Volkare acting more like another player rather than just a timer and I would therefore recommend staring with one of the core game solo scenarios until you are used to the mechanics of the game.
Now that is a high high level overview of how the game works in solo. Believe me, the rules of how everything works are much more in depth but hopefully that gives you some insight into how it works together.
What Makes This A Great Solo Game
The choices and options in Mage Knight are so vast that two games will never be the same. Each character deck is slightly different with a different focus which therefore can cause you to go in different direction. On top of this, the tiles that come out will be completely different which open different options for you to power up your character. Then the four cities that you could be up against are all different and you don’t necessarily know which one you are up against. All of this leads to there being interesting decisions that you need to make on each turn and you want to do so much.
Mage Knight also epitomises a “sandbox” game. One which doesn’t force you to do anything but allows you do whatever you want to try and power yourself up. You cannot complete everything on the map in the time that you have either so you have to decide what it is you want to do from the beginning but also be prepared to adapt depending on what becomes available to you. If you are not able to adapt and figure out the best way to efficiently use the cards in your hand with the locations you have explored then this becomes so hard!
The last thing that I will mention which really cements Mage Knight as a great solo game is the fact that you can play true solo. What do I mean by true solo? I mean you play controlling one character. A lot of popular solo games require you to play two or more characters to make the most of all of the game aspects which I find cumbersome. Mage Knight, although complex, only needs you to control one character. The AI for the dummy player is also almost non existant due to how it was designed so you spend the majority of the game playing your character rather than trying to figure out how to interpret what the dummy player is going to do! I love the fact that when I play this solo game, I can focus purely on playing the game and what it is I am doing rather than what the dummy player is doing.
What Doesn’t Work
Unfortunately it is not all good, there are plenty of negatives when it comes to Mage Knight. First let’s take a look at the games appearance and components. In terms of artwork, despite the release of the Ultimate Edition, the artwork remains the same as it did in its original release in 2011. Compared to games released today it looks very generic and dated. Other than the card quality, which is good, all other components are just functional. The dice a small, the tokens are bland and the tiles are repetitive. It has certainly not aged well!
It is also sprawling! It takes a long time to set up, initially taking up a fair amount of table space and it just gets bigger and bigger, taking up more and more space on your table. There are a lot of tables that would struggle to fit Mage Knight on it without everything overlapping. This causes a lot of issues, especially considering how long a game can take to play as it is therefore harder to leave out on a table to play over the course of a couple of sessions.
Finally, the rules. The main thing that stops me playing Mage Knight more often is that I feel like I need to re-learn it every time I want to play it and it therefore stops it coming to the table as often as I would like to. The rulebook is not the easiest thing to get through either, although there is a handy walkthrough for your first game. When I find time for a solo gaming session, Mage Knight is always in contention but most of the time it stays on the shelf because of the set up time, length of game and knowing that I am going to spend most of that time with my face buried in a rulebook checking and re-checking rules.
Mage Knight is an experience that I think all solo gamers should try. When playing it you can really immerse yourself into the game and you can see aspects of more modern games in its design. Personally, it remains one of my favourite solo game experiences and is one that I just wish that I could get to play more of. I would not recommend this being your first foray into solo gaming as it its so big and I can see a lot of people being put off by as the negative aspects of it will come through well before the positives.
Do I wish that it could have been streamlined with the Ultimate Edition? Absolutely, but even as it is, it shines as a solo game and I stand strongly in the group of solo gamers that put Mage Knight in their top games.