Mage Knight: the Board Game Review

Designer: Vlaada Chvátil

Publisher: WizKids Games
Number of Players: 1-4
Playtime: long, 2-3 hours
Price (approx.): 70 euro
In Mage Knight: The Board Game, you are, yes, a Mage Knight. You will explore lands, conquer cities and slay terrible creatures in even more terrible places. But you cannot do it alone, you’ll have to learn all kinds of stuff from zealous monks and you’ll need to gather an army around you, because the night is dark and full off t.. *sigh*

Overview

What you get for your money

You’ll get loads of things. Cards, action card, spell cards, unit cards, tactic cards. You’ll get artefact card, wound card, city card and cards that describe things. And tokens, that too. Shields tokens and level tokens and skill tokens and enemy tokens and ruin tokens. You’ll get map tiles, twenty of them. A couple of boards. Lots and lots of coloured crystals. Dice. Four hero figures and 4 city figures. And the icing on the cake: two rulebooks. So what do we say? “Thank you, mister Chvátil!”

How do you play the game

MK3

I’m not going to tell you. Not that I don’t want to. But I can’t. I’ll try to give you an idea what the game’s trying to achieve. 

You’re a knight and you are trying to achieve something. You probably want to conquer a city. You are skilled, you are a decent sword fighter and you can do some magic. But not enough. To take that city you need to get better. Where is that city anyway??

The heart and brain of your knight is a deck of cards. With some cards you can fight enemies, others let you move and with still others you will intimidate and negotiate. Your knight will be moving from one location to another, revealing more map tiles, fighting enemies, assaulting keeps and mage towers. Every time you do something heroic you will become more skilled and more famous, you will add artefact cards, spell cards and action cards to you personal deck.
Every card in your hand gives you a basic action and a better action that you can activate with mana tokens, crystals or dice. 
MK7 
The more famous you’ll get the more knights, wizards and other creatures you can add to your army. They will help you in your quest.
You’ll constantly be building your deck of cards and every turn you need to find out what the best thing is you can do with the card you’ve been given.

Review

This review is (mostly) from a solo players perspective. I’ve played the game multiplayer, but most of my games were played solo.

Gameplay

MK2
The game is hard. Especially at first. In your first couple of games you will be going back and forth from your tabletop to the rulebook. You will do things wrong, sometimes in your benefit, sometimes not. But after a while it isn’t that difficult any more. At least, I think. You will remember the rules and the exceptions. Now you can focus on the game itself.
And Mage Knight is brilliant. You can do so much and how you do it and in what order, is your own choice. You are responsible for how the story goes. Ok, sometimes you draw only movement cards when you want to fight, these things happen. Sometimes you just draw the right cards and other times you draw rubbish. I do think that is only a big problem at the beginning of the game, when you haven’t build a proper deck yet. Once you start to gain the special cards you want or need, you always can do something cool in your turn. You’re constantly making plans and changing them and changing them again.
There’s luck in the game. On aspect of the game are the mana dice, but you don’t roll many of them very often. There’s only a bit of luck in drawing of the cards and enemy tokens.  Everything else is your choice.
The card text are clear and you have reference cards that tell what you can do where. The biggest challenge is to find the right combination of cards and mana. Many combinations of actions are possible; adding mana to this card, then playing that card. Or maybe this card first, then move that way and play these two cards to attack that orc. It’s like a big puzzle but with the picture on the box  constantly changing and, well, you’ve lost the box years ago, so you don’t even know what it looked like in the beginning!
As already said, the game is overwhelming at first, but after a while you can see how beautiful and well designed this game is. The battle system is quite simple and straightforward. I think the game itself, once you know the rules, isn’t that difficult. It’s the vast amount of possibilities that makes it difficult. You want to do everything, but you can’t.
One of best things about this game is it’s replay value. It is scenario based, so you can play different scenarios (cooperative, competitive, solo) and if you get bored by them, you can change the difficulty. The action, artefact and spell cards are different every time, so are the units that will be available.
The Mage knights themselves are also different, their starting decks are almost the same (they have one unique card each), but the ability tokens you can earn along the way are totally different for every hero.
If, at one point, you’ve played with every combination of heroes there is, plus you’ve won all the scenarios at every difficult level. You can make your own scenarios!
A disadvantage of this puzzily game, is the downtime. I mostly play solo, so I only have to wait for myself every turn, but in a multiplayer game, the downtime is very, very long. The game can be played up to four players. I would not recommend that. This game is at its best solo or with two players (or, maybe, if everyone knows the game very well, with three).
It also takes a while to set and clean up.
The one thing I miss in Mage Knight, in the solo scenarios, is an opponent. That sounds silly, I know, but let me explain. In the competitive scenarios you have an opponent, you have moving parts. He or she can do something unexpected.
The dummy player in a solo game, actually functions as a game timer. It is not a substitute of a real player. If someone attacks you in a solo game, you knew that they would, you’ve taken that into account. That is not a flaw of the game itself  but more a personal preference. I’d like a game to be able to screw you over a bit. The only thing this dummy does is speed up the time. (This is fixed in the Lost legion expansion that I’ll review later)

Theme

This is a hard one. Currently Mage Knight is ranked number two in the thematic games list on bgg. In my opinion this is too high. This game is a very good game with a theme, not a very thematic game. I’ll try to explain.

Because the mathematical, brain burning nature of the game, you never really feel like you are a great knight, you never feel you are battling terrifying creatures. 

You’re in this world and then *SNAP*

You feel like you have to, first, block this 4 attack with this 2 block card and than with this mana I can make that block 5, so that’s enough. And then I will attack it with …

The hero miniatures are nice and the artwork gives the game lot of flavour. So theme is there, but the mechanics gain the upper hand and they push the theme to the background. 

I did have a great feeling of exploration in this game. You are revealing the map tiles. Not every enemy token is turned right side up, so, for instance, you have to get near a keep to find out how heavy it is guarded.

The slightly different game play during the day and night, is thematically nice. Here, theme and mechanics work together. The night is the time when magic is more beneficial. During the day you can’t travel through deserts easily, because they’re too hot and during the night forests are too dangerous.

Looks

Mage knight looks great. The illustrations on the cards, tokens and tiles are quite nice, but what I really like is how the game board evolves during the game. The map grows every time you add a tile to it and more creatures are placed on it. It’s very pretty, in combination with the cards on the table and the mana crystals in different colours.
 
MK4
The pre-painted miniatures are fine. Arythea looks a bit odd, though.
The iconography in the game is well thought off.

Quality of the components

The quality of the game parts is quite good. I did not sleeve my cards and the cards are still as good as new. That is because, although the deck building aspect in this game is important, the card aren’t shuffled as much as in Dominion for instance. 
 
MK5
The cardboard pieces are OK, only the big map tiles are warped in my case. The plastic parts are good as well.

Fun

I think Mage Knight: the Board Game is very fun. Especially as a solo experience. The downtime is non-existent, but a downside is, you don’t have the competitive aspect. 
The solo scenarios are even more puzzle like than the multiplayer ones. You have to love heavy thinking and deliberating.
The game takes a couple of hours, but in that time I’ve explored the lands, slain dragons, looted villages, battled wizards and finally conquered an enormous city. It sounds more epic than it really is, but that is simply what all the cards, tokens and dice represent.
I’ve completed the scenario. Without the help of anyone else. I’ve figured it all out by myself. I’ve really accomplished something here.
*Pat on the back*
Thank you.
Maybe I can do even better next time?
What makes it less fun, is that it is hard to convince other people to join in. The game doesn’t contain new or very difficult game elements, but the combination of them and the scale of the game is so daunting that it scares people away. Pity.. 

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