Mage Knight is a beast. It’s a glorious monster, a vast mountain, and an unknowable foe.
Like a challenge? Read on.
Mage Knight Concept
In Mage Knight you are a mighty warrior, an enigmatic figure equally adept at slaying foes with magic or steel. You have been sent by your mysterious sponsors, the Council of the Void, to invade the weakened Atlantean Empire. The world itself is in a crisis; a catastrophic event has destroyed many of the world’s established empires, orcs and dragons ravage the countryside, and dragon-men are hatching in forgotten tombs.
Will you be a noble hero, recruiting warriors to your cause, or a brutal oppressor, raising settlements to the ground?
Mage Knight was designed by Vlaada Chvátil, the designer behind games such as Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilisation, Codenames, Tash-Kalar, Galaxy Trucker, and Space Alert. The game itself is an interesting combination of hand management, resource management, and exploration on a hexagonal board.
You interact with the world using a deck of cards. These allow you to move across the map, block monsters’ blows, attack back, or “influence” to interact with and recruit locals. The cards give you three choices – you can use the basic action, use a souped-up version of the basic action if you have the correct colour of mana, or turn the card sideways and use it as one of any value.
This gives you a little flexibility in your options but also presents a dilemma. Do you use your potent Rage card as one movement, or look to save it for combat?
As well as advanced actions, spells, artefacts, and troops, characters also develop skills as they gain experience and level up. These can range from additional attack or block, to completely new abilities to generate magic or do something unique.
This is where much of the individual flavour of each of the characters feeds into the game. Goldyx the dragon can fly, Arythea the sadist in the spandex can turn wounds into magic, Norowas the noble hero can spur his troops on to feats of valour, and Tovak the hard nut in full plate armour just discards wounds like a boss.
The game is very well balanced as you progress; your character improves, but you never feel overpowered. In fact at the beginning of the game, without a strong hand, your character is likely to get wounded from your first opponent.
But over time you will find a slow accumulation of mana crystals and new abilities turns your character into a mighty hero. That ice dragon that terrified you at the start of the game? You casually blew him to pieces before he even got near you – a fireball and an onager saw to that. That mighty city garrisoned by a small army? You tore them to pieces using damage-resistant golems to soak up their attacks and mighty fire mages to blast them to pieces.
However all of this glorious character progression, all of this diversity, this world that comes to life before you on the tabletop, comes at a price. That price is time.
It is no small investment in time to learn the rules; the rulebook and game walkthrough are 20 pages of text each. And yes, you do need to read both because there are some rules that only appear in one of the books.
Let’s get things straight; the core concept of the game, the card playing fundamentals, are relatively easy to pick up and play. A new player can probably pick it up in 20 minutes or less. The more difficult concepts are all the special rules like swiftness and fire attacks, the special abilities you gain for choosing to go last, fame, reputation, skills, understanding the difference between a mana token, a mana die, and a mana crystal. Each item on its own is simple, but add it all together in a single melting pot and you have a hugely complex game.
Let me give you some examples from my experience. After the first game I understood the card playing fundamentals, the majority of the mana system, exploration and the fame/ reputation track. After game two I understood most of the special abilities of enemies and how wounds were allocated. After game three I had fully grasped the difference between armour and blocking, and therefore the difference between the swift and brutal skills. I’m a self-confessed game rules geek, but even after game six I’m still finding things I’m doing wrong – for example ice resistance means your troops are resistant to ice damage. Simple. But ice block is only effective against fire attack. I find that rule so counter-intuitive, it took me six games to spot it.
After you’ve learnt the rules, the game is going to take you some time to play. If you play on your own at speed, you might be able to set up, play, and clear away in a couple of hours. If you play with two new players, you’re looking at a game that can take seven hours. That’s a lot of time and investment. You need to weigh up whether you can commit that much time to it on a regular basis, and whether other gamers in your group have similar dedication. In a game with two or three others there is also a significant amount of downtime even the simplest decisions in the game can take a great amount of thought.
But, if the greatest gripe I can throw at a game is that it immerses me in its world for too long, it’s doing well.
The components are all well made. The characters are detailed models, the card components are sturdy, and the playing cards have a textured linen finish. I’d advise buying some card sleeves for protection, and don’t play with the cards in direct sunlight as mine have bowed.
The artwork is fantastic and thematically very consistent. For the first few play throughs it was a treat just to reveal a new skill for a piece of artwork I hadn’t seen before. The box is well designed and makes the most of available space with a decent plastic tray insert, although the spaces for the playing cards can damage them a little. Overall the game is a quality package.
If you can stomach the learning curve and invest the time needed to both learn the rules and play the game, Mage Knight is an immersive RPG unlike anything else I’ve played. It is designed for gamers, requiring constant planning, navigation of difficulties, and careful calculation of the best use of your hand. It is not easy. It is not short. It is not even what some people would call fun. But I love it for its insane scope, its constant challenge, its character progression, its sandbox nature, and the sheer variety you get out of the box. This is a game with a huge amount of replayability that, if it hooks you, will drag you back for more.
I can’t wait to try the expansions.