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Cracked LCD- Hearthstone (IOS) in Review


After a lengthy public beta, a general release on PC and Mac and then an agonizingly long one week delay following a “soft launch”, Blizzard’s much-ballyhooed Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has finally hit the platform that could potentially make this free-to-play collectible card game a phenomenon. Hearthstone on iPad is a masterful implementation of a masterfully designed game rich with the kind of polish, refinement and attention to detail that has qualified Blizzard’s best work reaching back to the very first Warcraft. Bar none, Hearthstone is the best card game available on IOS and it may just be one of the most significant examples of video games finally repaying all of that debt they’ve had to tabletop games for all of these years.

Like most of Blizzard’s work, Hearthstone is built on a rock-solid design that is immediately approachable by the noobest of the noob, yet the myriad fine points of the design open the doors to tremendous depth and avenues for thoughtful gameplay. The rules are so simple and straightforward that many naysayers and hardline tabletoppers might decry it as a “dumbed down” version of Magic: The Gathering. However, as I always say, those who declare designs that are streamlined and accessible as “dumbed down” are the dumb ones.

There is virtually nothing mechanically fussy or procedurally complicated about the game from the deckbuilding to the highest level of online play. You either take out a stock deck or build a deck of 30 cards from your collection. Each deck corresponds to one of nine Warcraft character types, and each has a unique special ability. Because the deckbuilding limits you to 30 cards, you’re forced to keep decks lean and focused, selecting from class-specific cards as well as neutral options available to all. Those intimidated by selecting cards have some help on hand via a suggestion tool. With deck in hand, you can head out to practice games against fairly competent AI opponents, online casual or ranked games , or an Arena mode that is effectively a sort of sealed deck endurance mode.

Once you’re in a game, it’s about as cut and dried as CCGs get. Every turn you add a mana crystal to your supply- there are no resource cards, no “mana curve”, and you will never be screwed because you didn’t draw the right card. This mechanic keeps players on an even footing in terms of resources while also setting an escalating tempo for the game. Each card, of course, has a mana cost and you’ll be playing Minions, various spells that buff or debuff other cards, direct effect spells and Secrets that remain hidden until the opponent does something that triggers its effect, like immediately killing a summoned Minion.

Creatures have an attack and a defense value, can’t attack on the turn they were summoned, et cetera et cetera. The goal of the game is to reduce your opponent’s life from 30 to zero with Minion attacks or direct damage, blah blah blah. This is all very basic stuff, really, and anyone who has ever played a CCG will feel like they’re putting on a favorite pair of sneakers. Anyone who hasn’t will be playing with some degree of competency within an hour, even though they may not quite yet grasp the subtleties of when to play or not play a card, when to trigger an effect or when to use the extra Mana Crystal card the second player gets as a balancing handicap. Regardless of a small handful of keywords and the inherent intricacies of limitless card interactions, it ain’t rocket science.

But let’s be clear about it- Hearthstone, as a design, is not particularly innovative. It doesn’t break the CCG mold and it will not forever change the way we look at card games. It’s not a quantum shift like Magic: The Gathering was, at least in terms of its white papers. Hearthstone’s greatness doesn’t like in that direction. Where Hearthstone earns its greatness is in how Blizzard’s developers have dismantled the core CCG model and thrown out all of those rocket science elements that sometimes put off game players from more hobby-oriented tabletop games or “hardcore” video games. Blizzard has stripped everything down, wrapping it in a package that looks expensive, complete and inviting with completely intuitive controls and gameplay that is perfectly positioned for all audiences. Ease of play counts for a lot. Ease of play plus a virtually flawless, immaculately balanced and meticulously crafted game design that welcomes players of all skill levels counts for everything.

This game could be huge, as if it didn’t already have a enormous player base. Everyone with an iPad now has free access to one of the best card games in recent years, and it’s absolutely free-to-play so there’s no excuse to not at least check it out if you are at all interested in using your iPad as a gaming device. Hold on, I just hit the brakes there with “free-to-play”, didn’t I?

We’ve all seen abusive, exploitative and utterly repulsive free-to-play schemes in digital CCGs and everything from match-3s to AAA disasters like Dungeon Keeper. We’ve seen games that use “free-to-play” as a leverage point for psychological shenanigans like making players wait hours or even days to build something unless you pay some kind of scrip currency bought with real money. We’ve seen games where you are actually locked out of playing because you’ve run out of “energy”- but oh look, you can buy energy gems with your credit card! Hearthstone has none of that kind of nonsense, and it should serve as a shining example of how to monetize a free-to-play game in a way that respects the consumer and encourages players to spend money because the game is actually worth it.

I’ve spent about ten dollars total on the game, playing it on the PC since February (don’t worry, all of your progress from the PC/Mac version ports right over). And I’ve spent that money not because Blizzard has bamboozled me into paying for wilfully excluded content, features or any kind of “pay to win” con game- but because I love the game and I’ve ­wanted to spend a couple of bucks on it just for the spur-of-the-moment fun of opening a couple of booster packs. The incentive to spend money in this game is primarily because it is a quality product that earned my money, not because of pernicious design decisions.

A booster pack (five cards) costs 100 in-game gold, earned fairly easily by just playing online games. You can also buy two for $2.99, seven for $9.99 and so forth. In true CCG fashion, what you get is random so you might spend your way into the poor house and never get a particular card. So you can grind these cards into crafting dust if you’d like and use it to buy that card (and somehow validate your poor life decision). These boosters are the only real cost of the game, and it’s pretty easy even playing casually to earn enough gold to get a booster a day- particularly if you play the daily quests that give bonus gold for completing certain objectives. The sealed deck-style Arena mode has a 150 gold/$1.99 entry fee, but the rewards for surviving are the best payout in the game.

So yes, you can literally play Hearthstone for free, no strings attached. The core decks are great and if you prune your collection carefully you can make them very competitive. Sure, the “Johnny Suitcase” mentality is there and folks that spend hundreds of dollars on boosters will have a much larger card pool to draw from but it really doesn’t matter- if you’re playing casually or even in the ranked games, the likelihood that you’ll feel outspent rather than outplayed is extremely low. You might never even encounter someone that’s spent more than any reasonable person should on electronic cards.

If there’s anything to complain about regarding Hearthstone at this stage, it’s that it feels like there could have been another round of optimization before the general release. On my iPad 2, it plays fine but with a few seconds here and there of sluggishness. At first, it was very noticeable coming from the PC version but after a day of playing it whenever I had ten minutes (or three hours) to catch a game it doesn’t really bother me. The good news is that this is a game that will be broadly supported with technical fixes and additional content- it literally has nowhere to go but up, especially with an iPhone port coming later this year.

In the meantime, if anybody wants to take on my bad ass Hunter deck, I’m Zurenarrh on


Warage Review


You’ll realise, no doubt, that Warage is a clever play on words. Making a compound of “war” and “age” cunningly creates the word “rage”, conjuring the white heat of fantasy melees, the ancient and primal fury felt my elf for orc and vice versa. It’s a smart title.

The game underlying it is not smart. It’s a dumb game, but it’s dumb in a good way, the sort of way that an overly playful rottweiler puppy is dumb, full of teeth and fluff and eagerness. It’s a game where you slap down cards, gloat and chug back beer.

In this it is markedly different from most of its brethren in the Living Card Game fraternity. Most LCG’s are scrupulously focused on the two player experience, and consist on an intricate dance of variables in both deck building and card-by-card play.

Warage takes up to six players, and up to four can play using this introductory set alone. And the things you have to track are scores for magic, melee, defence and hit points, which are used as a sort of catch-all currency with which you sustain damage and pay to put cards into play. And that’s it.

Your deck consists of a character type and a race, which will give you your starting stats and a couple of special abilities, and 48 equipment cards with which you gradually fill your hand. On your turn you can sacrifice hit points to play cards from your hand into equipment slots for your character to use. Then you can either make one melee attack followed by as many magic attacks as you like, by simply adding your base score for the attack type, any buffs from weapons or equipment and a dice roll and comparing it to your target’s defence plus buffs and a dice roll. They take the difference in damage.

There’s more to the game than that – you can sacrifice cards in play or blind from your deck to regain hit points, for instance – but not a lot. And yet, in that curious way that Living Card Games have of being more than the sum of their mechanics, this pared down rules set manages to offer a wealth of possibilities by being as tricksy and imaginative as possible with the variables at its disposal.

There’s a card that allows wizard types to pay a few hit points to use their magic score in place of defence, for example, and an axe that allows the wielder to skip damaging his opponent in favour of blowing away some of his equipment instead. There are minions you can bring into play too, like the Merchant who is expensive to buy but grants you a higher payback when you sacrifice cards although he, like all followers, can be targeted and killed himself.


With enough cards, it’s amazing how many different combinations you can build. The majority are just simple stat buffs, it’s true, but there’s certainly enough to deck build with, although you don’t even have to do that since the game comes with four pre-built decks so you can just tear off the shrink and get down into the action. But just like the gameplay itself, there isn’t a whole lot of depth to deck building. You just string together cards that look fun and powerful and hope for the best.

Those who’ve been paying attention might have spotted some possible balance issues. Only one melee attack per round, but as many spell attacks as you like? Sounds like a recipe for disaster, as does the lack of a cap on stuffing your deck with ultra-powerful cards. But there are checks in place: warrior type characters have high attack and defence scores compared to magic users and lots of ways to buff them further, so their one attack is devastating and they can shrug off the repeated needling of their wizardly counterparts. And powerful equipment costs a lot to play, so wear too much of it and you’ll deplete your hit points until only one lucky die roll will bring you down.

The ability to cash in your equipment for a quick heal if you’re at death’s door can make games drag a little, but some common sense needs to be applied: in most cases if you’re at the point of stripping your gear and other players aren’t then doing so is just prolonging the agony. Better to take a quiet exit. And as long as the game is kept clipping along at a reasonable rate you can expect them to last about ten minutes per player, which is about on the money for such a lightweight brawl.

There will also be inevitable complaints about multi-player. There are two modes, team and individual but both allow players a free choice of targets from amongst their enemies and so positively encourage table-talk, alliances, banter, king-making and all the other deadly sins of modern gaming. Which would be a bad thing in an intricate four-hour plus game of empire building but is perfectly suited to thirty minute grudge matches.

One thing that doesn’t work so well is the amount of trivial maths it involves. Your starting pool of hit points is 100, and it’ll be going up and down in increments constantly as you buy equipment, heal and take the pain from your opponents. There’s a lot of adding and subtracting and it sits ill with the loud, brash nature of the play itself. This is a game I want get involved in when I’m too wasted to do sums. My copy came with some free card sleeves, but I kind of wish it had come with a free calculator instead.

Warage has balls. I admire the fact that it dares to be something a bit different in an overcrowded genre, and that it dares to make the differentiation the lowest common denominator of being simple and stupid, trashy and thematic. I like the way it features mechanics that seem designed to frustrate and annoy people who chose to try and play it optimally rather than obviously. It might well be that it’s too simplistic to maintain long-term interest, and that the inevitable expansions that attempt to address that problem will spoil the careful balance of light rules and fast games that make it work. But for now, it’s all the Warage.

Mage Wars Review

mage wars box

I’ll wager that anyone who ever played Magic: the Gathering more than once has, at some point, wondered how great it would be if creatures weren’t just static lines of attack and defense, but actively engaged in tactical manoeuvre. You don’t need to wonder any more because that, effectively, is what you get in Mage Wars.

Furthermore, I suspect that anyone who ever played Magic: the Gathering more than once has, at some point, been so annoyed by rubbish card draws that they pondered on a variant where you could have a bigger hand, or more control over the draw. Mage Wars addresses that problem too, with swaggering overkill. Because in Mage Wars you don’t get a bigger hand, or control over the draw, you can pick whatever you like from your entire deck each and every turn.

Of the people who’ve entertained either question, I believe that the majority rapidly dismissed them as being unworkable. They’d add too much time and complexity for the interest they added to the game. That didn’t put off the designers of Mage Wars though, who seem to be intent on proving the naysayers wrong by making a working sandbox into which you could chuck the kitchen sink of theoretical Magic variants and see what happened. And it turns out the stock answer is half correct.

Playing Mage wars does add astonishing amounts of time and complexity to the proceedings. The rules entreat you to start with apprentice mode and that’s what I felt like looking the game over. The archetypical Sorcerer’s Apprentice, staring up with mixed wonder and terror at their master’s tower piercing the dark clouds above. Wondering how frail humanity could possibly spend years internalizing all the mystical secrets of the cosmos without exploding.

Sadly this lovely metaphor was ruined by the intrusion of the game components, which are an unfortunate mix of competently executed but generic card art and horribly gaudy graphic design. But it’s an accurate picture. With you brain already overloaded by thirty pages of text-dense rules and over a hundred kinds of effects, opening your spell book – really just a stylised binder for your chosen deck cards – and trying to choose two from the entire selection is likely to precipitate meltdown. Not to mention the point when you realise you’ve got to do the same every single turn.

And so, weary apprentice, your journey begins. Trudging slowly up the spiral stairs of the ancient tower, your back bowed under the weight of card options and your footsteps dogged by rules exceptions. Some may stumble on the ascent. Those who reach the top must survive a vicious assault from a new set of advanced rules, and single combat against eye-watering downtime and a chaotically variable play time. Few will persevere. But those who do are blessed with power beyond imagining.

The end of the ascent is a collectible card game nirvana, the realisation of the hopes and dreams of millions of card game fans all over the world. The other half of the old saw was wrong – all the extra complexity adds a whole lot of extra interest to the game. Indeed so much stuff has been shoehorned into Mage Wars that it’s a marvel the game is not more bloated than it already is. It might be difficult and the learning curve might be close to vertical but it’s still the minimum required to deliver its extraordinary promise.

mage wars in play

Let’s check off that wants list, one at a time. For starters, there is enough variety in the box to stand alone. There are expansions, of course, and you may want them but you won’t need them in the way that, say, the Living Card Game model requires regular players to pitch in for updates. This is self contained. You can bake all your favourite play styles from the ingredients provided, from swarms of petty minions to specialising in ultra-powerful monstrosities from the nether dimensions. Or if you prefer the direct route, your choices range from neutralizing your opponent with counter-charms to buffing your own mage into a berserk killing machine. It’s all here.

Second, there’s a fully realised tactical combat model with just the right balance of strategy and randomness. Ranged and melee attacks, different kinds of armour to overcome, a slew of special effects like Rot and Cripple. It takes place on a board just big enough to be worth manoeuvring over, and on which you can manipulate the terrain and summon powerful features like spawnpoints, creating an ever-shifting map of strategic options and taking the focus away from your mage.

Speaking of which, a third realisation in Mage Wars is a distinct avatar. No longer are you limited to expressing yourself only through your card choices. Each of the four mages on offer here tends toward a certain spell selection – although no choices are ever entirely forbidden – but also has particular special powers that tie in with their forte. Beastmasters, for instance, can cast extra summons and bond one as a Pet for a special buff.

All of these things contribute to a final checkbox which is a brilliant evocation of a theme. All of the CCG’s I’ve played, with the notable exception of Netrunner, have generally failed to really communicate a sense of what they’re about through the play. Rich card art and clever quotes are not enough. As you sit, fuming over your awful hand in Magic, how often do you really feel like an omnipotent archmage? Well you will in Mage Wars. An archmage that you, yourself, have created and bought to the board to duel with your opponent.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed with such an obviously derivative game as I have with this one. Mage Wars wears its influences proudly, almost daring critics to lambast it for lacking a little imagination in the face of the mechanical brilliance it conjures forth. It’s living proof that recombining the best bits of older games is still a valid path to greatness. It’s not a game for everyone: learning is a struggle and frequent repeat plays and deck rebuilds are required to get the most out of it. But for those poor in cash but rich in time, it’ll repay the effort put in a hundredfold.

Cracked LCD- Star Wars LCG in Review



Fantasy Flight Games struck Star Wars paydirt in 2011 with X-Wing, and right there at the end of the year the company released its second Lucasfilm-blessed product, a Star Wars-themed Living Card Game. Announced some time ago, it had a somewhat troubled development with the original design hewing by most accounts fairly close to Nate French’s co-op concept for 2010’s Lord of the Rings card game. With Eric Lang billed as the designer, the title is now a rather traditional two player, competitive card game. Fortunately for Star Wars fans and the rehabbed CCG set, it’s a really good one that follows X-Wing’s lead in sticking close to classic source material (with just a smattering of Expanded Universe material).


You probably don’t need much of a high-level description. Player one, Light Side (Jedi or Rebel Alliance). Player two, Dark Side (Sith or Imperial Navy). There are resource and hand management elements. Character and vehicle cards, equipment, and locations from the flims. Said cards fight to blow up the other side’s objective cards. Preconstructed decks are included, but you’re really going to want to build better decks. I shouldn’t have to tell you these things.


However, it does get more interesting than all of the above. The core game may not be particularly innovative, but it is definitely rock solid, well-designed. It’s both comfortable for veterans and accessible for newcomers. But Mr. Lang- whom you may remember from my 2009 Game of the Year pick Chaos in the Old World- has a few tricks up his sleeve that make this game more compelling than it seems at a glance.


First and foremost among the more interesting things that the Star Wars LCG does is to completely rewrite how we build decks. Instead of going through and assembling your deck by meticulously picking each card, you select up to ten of your faction’s objective cards, resource-providing locations that often have a special function. Each objective card comes with a stack of five cards, so you are effectively creating your deck from micro-sets. This is a brilliant idea that makes the deckbuilding much more approachable and definitely quicker. Old-time “Spike” players may chafe at having some of the decision making taken away, but having to select from packets and work out the synergies there is totally satisfying.


Another element that feels fresh is a timing mechanic that keeps the game briskly- or ruthlessly- paced. Since it is a Fantasy Flight Game circa 2013, it has to have a dial of some kind and this time out it’s a Death Star dial. If it hits 12, the Empire wins. It goes up at least one every turn as well as when the Dark Side player takes out a Light Side objective. This creates a great thematic sense- the Dark Side gaining power that will eventually crush the Light Side, and the Light Side scrambling desperately to thwart Vader and company. There is a Light Side/Dark Side Force token representing the current balance of the Force that players contest by committing units to, reducing their battlefield utility. If it’s on the Dark Side, that Death Star dial goes up an extra tick per turn. The Light Side benefit is a damage marker on any Dark Side objective.


Commiting units to the Force struggle is just one example of how Mr. Lang has built in some very, very tough decisions. Deciding whether to pitch a really powerful card like Yoda to use its force icons or to hold on to it to deploy later can be agonizing. As in most CCGs or LCGs, choosing which units to attack and which to leave available for defense or other purposes is a prime strategic concern.


Combat offers a couple of unique concepts. Once attackers and defenders are declared, the game throws an auction at you. Yep. You read that right. The rules call it an “Edge battle”, but it’s really a blind-bid auction for initiative. Players take turns playing face-down cards until both pass. Cards are revealed, and force icons are tallied up to determine who gets to Han Solo and shoot first. What’s more, units may have increased combat abilities if they have the edge. As with any auction of this sort, there’s an element of bluffing. Does your opponent’s single card have one Force icon…or four?


Fate cards can also be played into the Edge stack. These cards might dole out damage tokens to combatants or objectives or do really mean things like restart the edge battle from scratch. Once it’s all sorted out, the edge winner focuses (this game’s version of “tapping”) units to trigger a string of strike icons. A blaster icon shoots a unit for a damage, a Tactics icon puts focus tokens on enemy units (delaying their refresh), and an explosion one deals damage to an objective. A player that loses the edge battle might wind up with their defenders completely destroyed, which results in another objective damage.


So we’re looking at a class act LCG that offers a strong foundation in traditional CCG-style mechanics but with some welcome perversions and of course all of that great Star Wars theme. Belay that bit. The Star Wars Card Game really isn’t any more or less thematic than any other CCG, all of which tend to be fairly high level and abstracted. Regardless, online complainants have already filed grievances about anti-thematic events such as a Rancor punching an X-Wing- as if that’s not awesome. If you’re looking for a highly narrative, canonical game wherein Admiral Ackbar can in no way be captured by Boba Fett, rescued from the Death Star, and then killed by an AT-ST then this may not be the game for you. I get it, the idea is that the objective cards are events or locations wherein the cards involved are meant to be interpreted as part of the larger story tableaux. It’s not intended to literally represent said melee between Rancor and X-wing.


The real issue, and the one worth getting internet upset over, is sadly once again tied directly to Fantasy Flight Games’ product strategy. I think that they’ve made some improvements to the LCG model and they’ve listened to some of the negative criticism, particularly after they willfully excluded cards that should have been in the core set, creating the need for players to buy multiple core sets to have enough cards to effectively build decks and get the most out of the game. The new deckbuilding model alleviates some of that and a single box feels like a reasonably complete and versatile game. But you’re still going to want a second core since you can have two of each objective set in a deck.


But why I am getting cards that reference multiplayer functions, and then being told in the rules that the multiplayer rules will be available in a later expansion…that I’m going to have to buy? Why am I getting “sampler” objectives for the Spies and Smugglers and Scum and Villany factions? Just to get Han Solo and Boba Fett in the box? I think not. I feel like I’ve been teased into buying more. I think it’s unfortunate that FFG hasn’t really worked out a way to sell its serial product lines without disrespectfully providing the customer with games that feel intentionally incomplete from the second you open the box for the first time. I’ve come to really appreciate the LCG model because it keeps games fresh, evolving, and it encourages players to explore but it is what it is, and it’s making the company money so the numbers are going in the right direction. It won’t change any time soon.


I’ll probably fall for the marketing scheme because I do really like this game and even moreso than past LCGs I think expansions are going to really make this game take off for both competitive and casual players. There are hints of larger ideas, like a mission card (Trench Run, of course) that lets the Light Side player attack that Death Star dial for an instant win. It goes without saying that there is plenty of material to work with and as a Star Wars fan it’s also awesome to see all of this new artwork and new interpretations. I’m excited about the multiplayer game, and I can’t wait to see what’s in the upcoming Hoth Force Packs.


Guess I’m a sucker.

Cracked LCD- Mage Wars in Review

When I first opened the Mage Wars box, I thought I was in for it. The signs were bad. It’s a game from a first time publisher and a first time designer. Worrisomely generic, Magic card-style artwork and terrible fonts didn’t endear me to the product at all. The rulebook was filled to bursting with esoteric keywords, extensive descriptions of multiple turn phases, complicated examples of play, and callout boxes galore explaining exceptions, situations, and subsystem mechanics. It looked like a hot mess, a kitchen sink kind of game. It felt like the kind of game that in the past I’ve found myself regretting that I requested a review copy.

The first session- well, at least the first half- was a slow motion disaster of hesitant cardplay and shot-in-the-dark tactical board play. But before all of that, I had to sort out the 322 spell cards and make two decks for two of the game’s dueling mages, putting all of the cards into these adorable binders that represent the players’ spellbooks. With the prep work done- and a head full of rules and a quarter-remembered glossary of status effects and special abilities- we stumbled. Lots of “can I do this?” and “I don’t think that’s right”. Rulebook consultations precluded by “hang on, let me check”. All of those speedbumps weren’t nearly the chokepoint that flipping through the spellbooks during play was. This is a card game where you get to look at your entire deck- no hoping for a topdeck draw. Hope you remembered what every card does!

But when it all starts to come together and the opacity of words like quickcasting and magebinding fades away, Mage Wars eventually reveals itself as one of the top games of 2012.

Bryan Pope’s first-time design is, in some ways, this year’s Mage Knight- a complex, detailed design that demonstrates the value of tasking the player with putting in the due dilligence to learn and master a game. Like many classic hobby games of eras past, it’s not one to buy and expect to play the same night in an hourlong session. With deckbuilding more or less required and many possible combinations of creatures, conjurations, incantations, and equipment to consider. And that’s before you get into weighing out in-game strategies such as flooding the 4×3 board with cheap creatures or buffing out your mage with powerful magic items to take on all comers.

There’s a lot of material to digest, and it’s not hard to feel a sense of information overload at first glance. But reading through the exceptionally well-written rules and brief walkthrough reveals a game that isn’t nearly as structurally complex as it seems, and any CCG veteran will likely pick right up on the process and flow of the game. Card knowledge is an important factor, and that makes multiple plays essential to get the most out of what this outstanding game has to offer for those willing to put in the time to learn its finer points.

Effectively, Mage Wars is sort of an ur-game that draws on the major forms of hobby gaming from role-playing to board games to CCGs to tabletop miniatures. It’s not dissimilar to Summoner Wars in some regards, but it’s a much deeper, richer game owing to its denser mechanical structure and greater range of tactical and strategic possibilities. I would stop short of calling it a refinement or a culmination of hobby game strains since there is a sort of reckless, slightly unpolished aura about it- something I find actually kind of exciting and compelling. That means it feels new, even if my initial kitchen sink impression wasn’t far off the mark.

The syncretic design is smart, and as with Mage Knight there is a lot of complexity deftly managed by the rule set. One thing I really like is that Mr. Pope very effectively uses restrictions to contain the decision matrix, keeping it from getting out of control. For example, on each turn both players have to select just two cards from their binder. Those will be the only two spells they can cast during their turn, barring special effects such as wands that let you store spells for later use.

On each turn, both mages get to activate every card they’ve summoned to the board, with each getting to either move and take a “quick action” or to make a full attack or cast a full spell. Some creatures, for example, have a weaker quick attack but a stronger full one. And then there are elemental effects, buffs, curses, area-of-effect spells, and tons of other considerations to weigh. One touch that I absolutely love is that enchantments- whether they’re helpful or hurtful- are cast face down on a creature. There’s a second cost to reveal them. So they can be used to bluff or to spring a nasty surprise.

On top of the cardplay, managing mana production and expenditure, mitigating lasting status effects, and coordinating on-board maneuver there’s also dice-based combat. Even the combat is more detailed than it seems at first with its simple hit-or-miss results. The rules also account for armor, guarding actions, counterattacks, and other factors. We’re still going to pull up short from Magic Realm on this trip, but there are definitely more specifics than other recent games like this.

There’s a lot to consider, and that’s kind of the sum of it- this is a content-rich game with much to explore and plenty of avenues for it to develop in future expansions. Mage Wars is a big, burly design that bucks the trend toward smaller and shorter but it offers committed players plenty in trade. I’m very interested in seeing more from these folks and seeing how this game develops as a product line.