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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- GOTY 2012 Expansions in Review


3-21-2013 9-52-59 AM

Among last year’s best games were Arcane Wonder’s first release Mage Wars, a complex CCG-on-a-board dueling game and Fantasy Flight’s X-Wing, the best miniatures game I’ve ever played. Naturally, great games that sell well (and some terrible games that sell well) tend to be the start of product lines, particularly when the titles in question have modular or customizable elements and “open” architecture. And so it has come to pass that both of these outstanding titles have received their first expansions, effectively giving us a first taste of how these games might open up and create new play spaces and options for those willing and able to stick beyond the core set.

Mage Wars has already had a couple of smart add-on purchases like a couple of “Core Tome” sets that give you the option to add more cards from the base game to your set and a package that gives you enough action markers in two new colors to table three or four players. But Forcemaster Vs. Warlord is the first actual content expansion, and it’s going for about $30 online. The set adds two new mages to the existing four, and provides a wealth of new spells, creatures, and equipment to use either with the included deck lists or custom spellbooks of your own creation. Two more of the fun vinyl spellbook binders are included, and it’s greatly appreciated since assembling them for play is one of the more labor-intensive parts of the game.

This is a fine expansion in particular because it further develops the Mind and War schools of magic as presented in the Core Set- and that means that these mages tend to play very differently than the four original characters. In Magic: The Gathering terms, the Forcemaster is a “blue” deck with lots of deflection, control, resistance, and trickery- not to mention the ability to pretty much jerk the other player’s creatures around the board at will. The Warlord is definitely a “red” deck focused on martial strength by way of lots of goblin soldiers, siege engines, and military outposts that can spawn units deep in the field. I’ve been playing mostly with the recommended spellbook lists and really enjoying both of these characters. Together, they make for an interesting match-up since the Forcemaster is almost alone on the battlefield all the time and the Warlord has tons of creatures and effects that benefit them.

If there’s a downside, it’s that this is already a pretty complicated, multi-faceted game with lots of information for a player to digest- particularly since it’s a game where you play with your entire deck open and there are tons of status effects, special abilities, combinations, and other intricacies. And this set gives you about half again what the Core offers, so if you’ve not fully digested what’s in that box then the expansion might be a bit too much. At least until later on, when you’ve got a better handle on the game and the wide variety of options that spellbook construction affords. Alternately, if you’re a red or blue Magic player then you might want to just start learning the game with one of these characters.

X-Wing’s new expansions, on the other hand, feel indispensible right out of the dock if only because they bring to the table more iconic ships to fuel your Star Wars (OT only, thank you) fantasies. If you’re playing this game or even remotely invested in it, I don’t see how you could not want the YT-1300 Millennium Falcon, the Firespray-class Slave-1, and a flight or two of TIE Interceptors and A-Wings. Each ship comes with a couple of new pilots and a small pile of upgrade cards but the sting of expensiveness is still felt. The new large ships are $30 a piece (but they look fantastic) and the fighters continue to retail at $15 each. Only the obsessives will likely want to field more than one of the big ships, but of course the sky is the limit with the small ships. I’m happy with three of each to allow for a player to take either a lead and a wingman or a lead and two wingmen.

A few new concepts are introduced among the new ships, chief among them is a new “Boost” action that gives the A-Wings and TIE Interceptors a surprising increase in agility by simply allowing the player to add a 1-straight or 1-bank to their move. The Firespray can load seismic charges or proximity mines and the YT-1300 has a killer 360 degree firing arc with its main guns. Needless to say, Boba Fett and Han Solo are among the featured pilot cards as are Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca. A new upgrade card allows ships to be “titled”, so that YT-1300 can be dubbed the Falcon for the sake of your scenario.

There’s a pair of much-needed scenarios included between the big ship packages. I’m really fond of the Bounty Hunter mission where the Firespray and an Imperial escort are in pursuit of a couple of Rebel ships- one of which is marked with a bounty. The Rebels- all under stress tokens- have to turn to fight and the Bounty Hunters win if they destroy the ship with the bounty token. It’s a fun, fast scenario with a touch of narrative. It’s also a natural fit for a Solo versus Fett showdown. It’s worth mentioning that with a Piloting skill of 9, Han almost always shoots first. This is Star Wars done right, as you remember it and as you love it.

Naturally, there will be more of both of these games coming in 2013 and beyond. I’d like to see both games expand laterally rather than vertically in the future. It’s great to have more units to play with, but I’d like to see other concepts developed to make these games more comprehensive and rich. I want to see Mage Wars develop terrain effects and maybe different arenas with unique layouts or effects. I’d like to see neutral creatures or other elements that create a larger sense of a game world. For X-Wing, it seems that a B-Wing and TIE Bomber are inevitable and very much wanted, but beyond that the core Star Wars ships in this scale class are few. Scenarios, campaigns, and card-based expansions would be greatly appreciated. And please, for Vader’s sake, can we get an official X-Wing playing mat with a Death Star surface on one side and a star field on the other?



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.