Mage Knight is Epic in Every Sense of the Word

I haven’t yet written about a game of Mage Knight I played a few weeks ago.

I received the expansion, The Lost Legion, for Christmas, and had some friends over during the break. I was able to convince them to play – even though I warned them it would probably take all day. As it turns out, that was a conservative estimate.

In an attempt to alienate both camps, I hope to write this in such a way that those who have not played before can keep up, and those that are experienced can treat it as an after-action report.

We selected our four mage knights. We were co-operating, in this scenario, against General Volkare and his massive army. Both the general and the mage knights were looking for the capital city. We had to find it first, conquer it before he gets there, then defend it against his army. Trust me. It’s a daunting task.

I had Arythea, the red mage knight. I had decided to try and build her as someone who could turn wounds to her advantage (card draws willing.)

Our epic journey began at 11am, after a late breakfast. Two of our players were new, but as I’ve said before Mage Knight is actually a very easy game to teach. I explained things as we went along and so set-up took much longer than initial explanation.

Things were humming along well, and the hours flew by. This is an incredibly long game, but you just don’t notice the time. Opening a Mage Knight box is a dangerous prospect. The lid clings desperately to the box, trying to contain that which is within. As the lid comes free you will hear a slight rush of air, as time itself is drawn in. You probably think this a myth, to scare the foolish from the treasures contained inside. When you play it – you will see, oh yes, you will see.

On the first night, Volkare attacked one of us. At the end of the game, after 3 days and nights, and we are high level and all four of us are working together, we expect to have a very difficult battle with Volkare. Trying to stand up to him by yourself on the first night is unheard of. And so they ran taking a few wounds for their trouble.

We proceeded as slowly as we dared. We wanted to explore every tomb, tower, and ruins but we also needed to make sure we moved fast enough that we would find the city before Volkare, and before his deck ran dry – if it did, he would rage and would be impossible to beat. Our slower pace meant he was able to recruit new followers to his army, but this is a trade-off we’d agreed to as our strategy.

My character was destroying her reputation in favour of more personal power. She burned monasteries for their artifacts (after intimidating them into teaching her a new trick), hired thugs who are actually more likely to follow a character with a poor reputation, and cajoled others to follow with magic.

We stopped for dinner and one player had to work a short shift. This gave us a break of 3-4 hours. We were just starting the 3rd day, and had just found the city. We were a pretty well equipped, but time was running short. We had to take the city as soon as possible, then brace for Volkare who would be arriving very shortly afterwards.

The original plan entailed taking the city at the end of the 3rd day, so we could fight Volkare during the final night… but we hit a problem.

Two mage knights approached from the west, and were effectively waiting for myself and Wolfhawk to rush back from the east. Unfortunately we were cut off by two dragons. One was a red and while challenging, he was beatable… if only I had got the right draw (and I did not). The other was a new summoner dragon who, with both physical resistance and arcane immunity, just couldn’t be harmed by Wolfhawk.

I had just  brought the powerful Altem Mages under my control (magic coercion of course), and they had the power to single-handedly dispatch that dragon – but I was blocked by the red who wouldn’t let me pass.

I discarded cards frantically while Volkare closed on the city in an attempt to get a winning combination on the red. It cost me a lot of resources, and I took a good handful of wounds, but I managed to dispatch the red. I moved up to the dragon summoner and, in what was ultimately a pretty anti-climactic end for a unit that seemed indestructible, my Altem Mages dispatched him with a wave of a hand.

This badly delayed our city assault, but now all four of us were prepared. We launched a four-way attack, and although most of us defeated our opponents, Wolfhawk had to leave one alive, and the strongest enemy defender (Altem Mages except this time defending against us) also survived. We were forced to wait until the first turn, of the final night to take the city.

After re-drawing a hand of cards ready for the start of the final night, I decided I had enough power to take the final two defenders myself. I did so, in a large part because my Altem Mages were able to dispatch one powerful opponent with nary a thought. This meant they were unfortunately spent for the upcoming battles with Volkare. The can destroy a single opponent, sure, but they also have the power to turn every one of my attacks into the most powerful forces of destruction in the game. If had that, anything I attack would surely die – before it even had a chance to attack.

Volkare soon arrived. We counted up his army and divided the foes. Some of us felt we could better-handle the more dangerous white and red elite enemies, so we divvied up a few extras to Mage Knights Norowas and Tovak. Without the Altem Mages to help me, I wasn’t sure I could comfortably handle too many elites, but opted for a couple extra orcs and soldiers.

I did have an ace up my sleeve, though. For what turns we’d been able to prepare, before Volkare’s arrival, I had been saving up my strength with a tactic called Sparing Power. This allowed me to put an extra card away each turn, and then take all these saved cards into hand at the start of a later turn. This allowed me to have many more cards than my normal hand limit in preparation for the attack.

We flipped over our enemies so we knew what we faced, and simultaneously calculated and organized our tactics. In a typical game of Mage Knight you usually fight one enemy. Sometimes you might fight two. At the climax of the game, you may be forced to face three. In this battle, I was facing nine.

A quiet murmuring arose from the table as we each mumbled various ideas and calculations to ourselves: “To block them, I need 6. But it won’t be efficient blocking, because I don’t have any fire block, so in total I need 12. If block with these guys, then that lowers it to 4 – ah! But I could play this, with a bit of mana, and then that’ll just leave me with 1…”

One by one we announced we’d finished our attack. You really need to then call another person over to check your working, because the battles get that complex.

I think we were all pretty proud of our eventual defenses, but I really only remember my own:

As I said, I had many cards over my normal hand-limit.

The first thing I did was break my ring artifact – this gave me unlimited green and black mana. Green mana tends to be of the domain of nature, and healing. Black is the rare, powerful mana needed to augment the most powerful spells.

I also had an advanced action that allowed me to cast a spell I could see on the table, but didn’t actually have in my hand. I used this, with my unlimited mana, to cast a mighty earthquake, lowering all my opponents armour (effectively hitpoints.) In many cases this lowered them all the way to 1.

Next, I had to mount a defense, blocking what I could. I shot a few of the weaker enemies with arrows and I threw my thugs and other followers suicidally into the path of my enemies (by this stage, my reputation was so bad I was actually barred from interacting with NPCs :/) I still took a huge number of wounds, nearly stunning me, but that’s all I needed.

My counter attack consisted of just one card. Flame Wave. Cast using my unlimited black mana (and a dash of red I’d been saving.) It starts out powerful enough: Fire Attack 5. But it is increased by 2 for every enemy you face, for a total of… Fire Attack 21. With enemies already softened up with an earthquake, that single wave of fire wiped out Volkare’s entire flank.

In the end, everyone had done well. Tovak had to let one elite enemy get away, Norowas had to let one minor enemy slip through his fingers, and Wolfhawk couldn’t quite kill one of his either. Volkare’s army of about 34 was reduced to 3.

Yes, our hands were greatly depleted, but even so at least two of us were able to comfortably dispatch these final enemies, and Volkare was defeated.

We were elated. We looked around. It was 2.30am. For those that couldn’t be bothered with the maths, that’s 15-and-a-half hours, minus a 3-4 hours for dinner. We’ll just call it an even 12-hour game.

Mage Knight Expansion: The Lost Legion

As I said before, I had my Xmas a little early this year (as my family does every year.) One of my presents was the Mage Knight expansion: Lost Legion.

Now, Mage Knight is an ingenious game. It is challenging, flexible, thematically rich and its mechanics are, for the most part, pretty intuitive. So what can an expansion bring to the table?

Basically, more of the same. This isn’t a bad thing when you’re already on to a winner. A new Mage Knight to pick, a handful of new spells, actions and some new enemies make up the bulk of the meaty stuff. They also took the opportunity to tweak the rules but when you read the changes it’s a bit like reading a video game’s changelog when it says: “Increased the wizard’s damage output by 0.02% over 3 seconds, and reduced the cooldown on the fighter’s shield bash by 0.1.” Honestly, if you were noticing these figures you’re clearly autistic.

From here on out, if you aren’t actually familiar with the base Mage Knight game, it might all go a little over your head.

So: New enemies, and a new Mage Knight. Great. There is of course the titular Lost Legion. The Legion is utilised in a couple new scenarios that have one incredibly strong army. A bit like combining several cities together at once. Added to that, they have a simple AI and march around the map revealing tiles and looking for the one city in the scenario. Once found, your objective is to get to the city first, assault it, then defend your new city against the legion.

I like it. A lot. I like it a lot more than finding and assault cities, but it certainly hasn’t improved Mage Knight’s only remaining problems and it’s not perfect.

My only game of it so far went a little like this:
We moved and explored, and avoided the legion (hereafter called “Volkare” since that is their leader’s name and the figure represents him.) At one point Volkare found and attacked me putting three wounds in my hand. Not great, but bearable. As the game wound down – some 6 hours later – I started to wonder if we were anywhere near strong enough to fight Volkare’s army. It was truely massive and we’d played on one of the easiest difficulties.

He had 2 white, 2 draconum, 6 green, and about 3 or 4 greys. When assaulting a big city, you might fight 1/3rd that and it is incredibly tough! I’d realised that by this point in the game we should have been somewhere between level 7 and 10, and we were actually level 5. The problem seemed to me that the scenario had too many country-side tiles which don’t grant enough experience.

My fears never came to fruition, though. We got down to the last tile. We knew it was the city. We decided that we had better use Space Bending exclusively to explore a tile so we would find the city near us and Volkare wouldn’t find it before us.

Unfortunately, despite picking quite high tactics, Volkare pulled the #1 round position, went first, pulled the exact card needed to move and revealed the last tile. This put him adjacent to the city and us on the other side of the map. He moved in next turn and it was game over.

On one hand, I was sort of relieved. The game had been going for 6 hours (barring a break for food) and probably would have taken another 1.5hrs to finish off if we’d revealed the city.

This brings me to Mage Knight’s problems. Gee it takes a long time. I saw a forum post on Boardgamegeek of someone exclaiming that Lost Legion took 5 – yes 5 – hours. I shrugged and thought to myself: “Our typical Mage Knight games take 8…” I’m sure we could speed them up a little, but I don’t see any way to shave 4 hours off to make it more acceptable. We love the game though, so we just set aside a day to play it. It doesn’t get played as much as it should, though (who has a day free to spend on a game?)

This could be a result of not quite being able to juggle all the rules – which is Mage Knight’s other major problem. The rule books are horrendous. Their structure is only passable as a first read-through. Trying to later refer to rules is pointless. They’re often in the totally wrong section. For example:
The game has turns and rounds. You have several turns to 1 round. I wanted to know the sequence of actions required to end a round. You might think there’d be a section on “rounds” that outlines the structure of a round and what to do when one ends. Nope.

You might think because the end-of-round is the last thing that happens (before we start from the top and do it all again) that it’d be at the end of the rules – just prior to special scenarios and appendices. Nope. Do you want to know where it is? I have no idea. I just went to look so I could tell you and I seriously couldn’t find it.

The thing is: I know what to do at the end of round, because I read it somewhere. The rules are really quite intuitive, so the rules are easy to remember, but if you need to know some niggly detail – do you put the spells at the bottom of the pile, or discard them when refreshing the offer? – good luck finding it.

Alas, Lost Legion followed the exact same pattern for rules structure. I had got all the Mage Knight rules down so I didn’t have to refer to the book any more… with Lost Legion I had to refer to it a couple times and woe betide the poor soul that dives into those books seeking answers.

Mage Knight an Adventure Game Done Right

So I was able to get my girlfriend to play Mage Knight last night (and at the last second my roommate too.) If you haven’t played this game, you really should. I describe it as “DnD compressed satisfyingly into one evening.” It does take all evening, don’t get me wrong, but DnD campaigns take months or years and yet this gives you close to the same level of satisfaction. So for my group who, as I described previously has trouble regularly getting together, it works great for those few times we can get together. In a later blog post I will go into full details of the game, but a bit of searching on Google will reveal all if you are impatient.

What I will say, though, is that this game – despite it’s complexity – works surprisingly well for new players or not-really-gamers. I attribute it to the exceedingly clever mechanics that make things inherently intuitive. You will still need someone who knows the rules well to clear up all the nitty gritty details, but honestly I explained the basic ideas in about 5 minutes to my roommate then just said “let’s start adventuring!” I was able to just explain things as they came up from there and, like I said, due to the intuitive nature it all just made sense.

I spent some time setting up the play area exactly like the rules say to do so. Behold!

The Perfect Set Up

Not pictured is the third player who joined us just before the first turn.

It was my girlfriend’s second game, and my roommate’s first – so it’s no surprise we failed to capture any cities (actually we called it half-way through the last day, so we might have captured one.) The end result:

blurred together

It’s such a pretty game.

I’m a dragon!