A creativity blog - including reviews, photographs and discussion on a variety of things; such as dragons and other things almost but not quite completely entirely unlike tea.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Tales of a packomaniac - Mage Knight

Apart from video games and roleplaying games I also like to play lots of different kinds of board games. I own a few myself too, like Small World, Ticket to Ride Europe & Asia, Alchemist, Mage Knight, Castle for All Seasons and Stone Age. I've liked board games ever since I was little, but I started really playing them regularly around the same time I started the roleplaying games in the university, because I found a lot of like-minded people to play with and much better games to play, as well. Last autumn I bought Vlaada Chvátil's Mage Knight the Board Game, partly because I wanted to buy one of the longer games (it takes from 3-6 hours to play, depending on the amount of players) and partly because it has a solo play mode, which I found nice when I couldn't always get people to play with me when I wanted. Anyway, I thought I'd write an introduction of the game here. It was published by Wizkids in 2011 and has already two expansions, neither of which I myself have yet purchased. Other sort of nerdy details of the game can also be found here.

This is what the box looks like. I like the art work in this game a lot, the same as in one of the previous games from the same designer, the Prophecy, which I used to play a lot at one point in my life. Now though, that game has moved on from my life, but luckily I've got this one to keep me company on the cold winter nights. As is almost visible in the pictures, the game is meant for 1-4 players. Each player takes control of a hero, who has been tasked to do whatever the scenario tells they are tasked to do - most often the task is to conquer this new land they've been sent to explore. This is accomplished by felling 1-4 cities, all the while being mindful of the other heroes and their rampage through the countryside.

The packaging is very neat and all pieces fit nicely into the box. It is really a dream game for people who like packing stuff, like I do. The plastic holders are a bit flimsy and when I get the opportunity to buy card sleeves for all the cards I'll probably need to chuck most of them away to fit the cards into the box again. The place for holding the cards is also really annoying, as it doesn't have straight edges, but is sort of dividing the cards, which worked really nicely when they were still wrapped in the plastic bags when you first open the game, but after make your packing life more difficult than it's worth. The game did come supplied with enough plastic bags for all the important little pieces, and the figurines and tokens have their own trays, which keep the stuff from running amok inside the box. Which is all manners of nice.

In the first plastic bag there are the score board, the night/day movement cost board, which doubles as the mana source, and two sets of rules. The first rule book is scenario rules for the very first game and the other one is an actual rule book. Now, this is a very good idea for any game to have, which has scenarios like Mage Knight does, but the problem is that there are some rules that are only explained in the first scenario book, and the "actual" rule book only contains the more advanced rules and special rules for other scenarios. One would think it would be better to have first scenario rules accompanied with complete rules - that way when you need to check some minor thing from the rules during play (in some other scenario), you'd know which rule book to look in.

Next up are the map tiles. There are three different kinds of map tiles in the game - the beginning tile, of which there is only one, although it is two-sided, so you can choose either a narrower or wider start; then there are countryside tiles with a green background and basic tiles with a brown background. When you begin the game, you put the beginning tile plus two (or three if going with the wider side) countryside tiles on the table. The beginning tile has the magic portal through which our heroes enter the realm. Each tile has seven hexagons, each of which represent a terrain of some sort. The cost to move through the terrains is found in the night/day board. There are also terrains you cannot move through, like lakes and mountains (unless you get special powers during the game). After the beginning tiles are laid down, you make a deck of tiles, where you put the correct amount of countryside tiles on top of the correct amount of basic tiles. The amounts depend on how many players you've got. In the first games especially you should rig the deck, so that the tiles come in their numerical order and you should always place them so that the small stars and circles in the corners connect with other star and circle designs - after few times playing you can start not doing this and just putting the tiles however  you wish, but always green tiles first and basic tiles on the bottom of the pile.

In the next picture are the figurines. They come pre-painted and ready to use, which is nice for people like me who don't have paints and brushes of their own - although I like painting - and even if they did, would probably take a really long time to paint even these four little figurines. Anyway, here they are.

The names of the heroes are from the left side: Arythea the Blood Cultist; Tovak Wyrmstalker, Head of the Order of the Ninth Circle; Goldlyx, Mightiest of the Draconum and Norowas, Greatest of the Elf-Lords. So, as a friend of mine pointed out when playing the game with me, the female character is again looked down upon, as she is a mere "blood cultist", compared to the rest who are all lord mighty leaders of somesuch. But as Arythea is the most badass and versatile fighter of them all, I guess we can let this one slide, this time.

The cities also have their own figurines, each with their own color. The color denotes some of the special abilities each city has, for instance, the green one gives all of its defenders the poison ability, whereas the oft-white city gives more defence. The cities also have a turny-dial on the bottom, where  you can choose the city-level, dependent of the scenario or of your own preference - higher level means more defenders, naturally, which can come from all of the enemy token stacks. The cities are the main multiple enemy combat venues, although some other possibilities also unveil themselves throughout the game. However, it is rare to meet more than two enemies on the world map, whereas there may be lots more enemies coming at you at one go should you choose to throw your forces against a city's walls.

Next up are some of the plastic bags and what they hold inside them. Mainly, the dice and the small shield and mana tokens. Dice are used as a magic source pool, which gets thrown again every time day changes to night or vice versa. The magic tokens represent the magic each character can either store for a longer period of time as magic crystals or have as an expendable resource during one turn only, as magic tokens. The shield tokens have two uses; firstly, they are used on the scoring board to track your progress and bonuses you get from there, and they are also used on the world map to mark off all areas of conquest, so you can see which towers are yours to use and which you should also count for your favor in the final scoring. Each character has their own crest on their shield, so the danger of mix up is minimal.

Magic or mana comes in four colours plus gold which can be used as any other colour during the day and black which can be used to boost spells during the night. During a turn, each player can use one die from the mana source, and after said use must reroll the die and return it to the source. The source is represented by the smaller cardboard board, which also notes the movement costs for daytime on one side and night time on the other. And as can be guessed, day mana cannot be used during the night nor vice versa; that mana is depleted during their respective phases of day and cannot be rerolled, unless special circumstances (such as playing a card) allow it. Other ways to get mana vary - there are cards for it and also some terrain elements, such as crystal mines. Any other mana you have, be it crystals or tokens, you can use as much as you want to during a turn.

Finally, we come to the cards. Here's a pile of them. Would be nice to get card sleeves for all of them, but that would mean some serious problems in packing the game... Although, when it comes to cards, I've already mentioned that packing them inside the box is a pain, so should just get those sleeves and make my life easier. 

The game is played mainly through playing cards. Each hero has their own deck, which are similar except for one card only, which is unique for the specified hero. In the beginning the player only has this deck of basic actions to work with and can draw five cards to play during their turn. Once the game begins, however, buying cards, levelling up, or taking control of places gives the player new cards to their deck. These cards include advanced actions, spells, units and artefacts. Also, there are wound cards which accumulate to your hand if you take damage and prevent you from drawing actions cards; turn order cards, which give you both special actions as well as denote the order of players' turns; the city cards which explain the specialities of each city's defence and use after conquest; and finally a handy deck of rule cards, which contain the rules of all terrain elements in handy, pass-aroundable cards.

Actions cards, spell cards and artefact cards all go to your deck and eventually to your hand to play, whereas unit cards go in front of you on the table and can be used once in a round, unless you can ready the units again by some other means. There is no limit to your deck size, and once you gain levels your hand limit increases too, although if there is a rule that says you can draw more cards, then you can ignore any limits imposed by your level. All of these cards usually have at least two options in actions which they perform; some units may have three or even four options, although usually only one of these can be used at any given time. Often the first action described is free to use but the other one costs mana, or in the case of artefacts, destroys the card from your deck. Units can be used similarly as your hero, so you can have them fight or defend for you, but if you assign damage to them, you cannot use them again before they are healed. That's why it's often better to take all damage to your hero, even though it will mean less actions cards in the long run. Wounded or used units can naturally be replaced by new units as well, so if you can, you can buy a new unit and discard the old one, if you cannot be bothered to use up those precious healing points for a peasant army.

And now for my favourites, in terms of packing the game : the enemy tokens and the characters' skill and level tokens. Just look at how neatly they go into their tray. Just look at them! Isn't that gorgeous?

The enemy tokens go on the board once you unveil places they go on - the above picture shows them in terms of their difficulty. The green ones are orcs and roam the countryside and will attack you if you go by them carelessly - the same goes for the red ones except that those are dragons and are much more capable of killing you dead. The grey ones defend forts, the purple ones mage towers, the brown ones are monster tokens that appear all around the place but mostly in dungeons and monster dens and such, the whites are the main city defenders and the yellows are ruins, where you can either fight monsters or sacrifice mana on an altar for great rewards. All of these, except for the orcs, dragons and ruins, can come up against you on city walls, so be mindful of what kind of enemies they are.

Each token has, naturally, a picture of the enemy as well as their statistics, special powers and the amount of experience you get if or when you defeat them. The number on top is their armor, or health, meaning basically the amount of damage you need to hit them with in order to defeat them. The number or symbol on the left tells how much will they hit you with and the number on the red flag is the experience. All special effects are either beside the armor, if it affects the way they take damage or on the right, if it affects the way they make damage.

Here is a representation of all the crap a player will have to deal with when they begin play. There's the figurine, level tokens, shield tokens, turn order token, character card, skill card, skill tokens and the deck of cards. So when playing, you need ample space for your stuff, as apart from these you will also need space for any units you get to fight for you - remember that those go on the table in front of you and not in your deck.

So, now we're finally ready to begin a game! Yay! First of all, lets make a deck of map tiles. We need the correct amount of green and brown tiles, and of brown tiles, the correct amount of city tiles and basic tiles. We'll put the brown tiles to the bottom and green tiles onto the top, so it'll take a while before we can even dream of finding any cities. Must clean up the countryside first, you know.

Also, let's place our shield tokens on the scoring board. The bigger board counts up your Fame - this is both points you need to level up as well as to win the game in the end - whenever you get to the next row during a game, your character levels up and takes up either a new advanced action and a skill or a level token, which allows them to get more units, increase their hand limit and their armor. The red and yellow score depicts your characters' Reputation. When it goes towards the yellow, you get bonuses in your Influence use (Influence is used instead of currency to buy stuff, such as units, action cards, healing, spell cards...) up to +5. When it goes towards the red, you get penalties to your Influences, up to the point where people will not deal with you at all. You get positive reputation when you clean the countryside from rampaging enemies, such as orcs and dragons and you get negative reputation whenever you attack a settlement of some sort, so forts, mage towers, cities, villages and monasteries. Also, there are some advanced actions which will yield you reputation when you use them; one of such cards is held from the beginning by Norowas, the Elf-Lord of many virtues.

The beginning position of the map looks like in the picture below, if you go with the narrower start. You put down the beginning tile and then take tiles numbered one and two (if you don't want to mix the order up) and set them next to it all symbols facing the right way (again, if you want to). The characters begin their journey from the magic portal on the first tile - Goldlyx here is in a bit of a hurry and has already moved four movement points north. Unless stated otherwise by a card, you can only move through adjacent hexagons. When it comes to rampaging enemies you can attack them (or they can attack you) from adjacent hexagons too, but with all the others you have to move into the spot where the enemies are - so the crossbowmen defending the fort will not come outside its walls to fight you - and you need to spend movement points to get to them. In the beginning this is a bit silly, as you don't have so many cards in your hand to speak of, and later as well many of your turns can become stunted just because you don't have enough movement points to spend. Luckily, you can also play any card in your hand (except for Wound cards, for those are eternal until healed) sideways, and count it as one of any following: Move, Attack, Block or Influence. It is not the most efficient way to get forward, but it will allow you to renew your hand as well as doesn't leave you standing there all stupid if you are missing only a couple points of Attack to defeat the golems, for instance.

The different scenarios in the game include solo gameplay, co-operation between players as well as armed-to-the-teeth and blood-coming-from-your-nose competitive scenarios. I've yet to play an aggressive competitive scenario myself, since I've mostly played a) solo or b) teaching the game to others, and it's been more fun to do that co-operatively or at least, not so aggressively. I have still to learn the rules for Player vs. Player combat, for instance. Maybe someday I'll get the opportunity to do that too. What I can say about the solo scenarios (of which there are not many, but it's not really difficult to play other scenarios solo if you wish) is that its fund to play by yourself, as you can plan ahead much more. The only special effect is that you also need to play a dummy character, whose only role is to use up the precious time, so you cannot just stay holed up in some village healing for three turns straight. Often you will have four or six Rounds to play through the scenario - here a Round means either a day or a night, so a six Round game would have three days and three nights. Whenever the dummy player exhaust their deck of cards, they announce the Round end - when playing with actual people, or even as solo, the human players can announce the Round end anytime they wish; this takes their whole current turn though and all other players will get one more turn to play.

This then concludes the introduction to Mage Knight Board Game. I like it a lot. The only faults I can really name is the packing of the damn cards as well as one actual gameplay thing - it would be nice if there were more options to draw or redraw cards, as sometimes you end up with really sucky cards and can do pretty much nothing, except maybe play them sideways and move one hexagon at a time... Gets really annoying if it happens too often. As such, the game manages to incorporate some of the best aspects of deck- and map-building games, but I suppose it could take some further tips from both, and be even a greater game than it used to be. But I cannot really say, as I'm not so knowledgeable about types of board games. I just like playing them.

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