For a few years now I’ve been writing session reports over at Board Game Geek. I thought I’d expand on some of my entries—especially the ones where I dive into something more creative—and post them on the blog. Below is the first one I ever wrote, back in March of 2016, followed by a new section that describes the game a little more for non-gamers, then some thoughts on why I like it.
A game by Vlaada Chvatil.
Tovak paused in his weary trudge and lifted his helmet to look at the White City behind him. He was reluctant to leave his swordsmen behind, but they were spent, riding under the Banner of Fear, having expended their energies in conquering the beast guardians of the city. Now they were healing their sore limbs with drink, and perhaps other unsavory pursuits besides, and Tovak could not blame them: he had, after all, threatened them by his sword to join his company, and he was now known as a mage knight of ill repute.
Tovak turned to face the lake, the cold moon shivering on its surface. It was deceptively calm. The villagers had spoken of a rampaging draconum hidden in its depths, and Tovak warmed to the challenge, despite his weariness. He had battled its likes before, in a tomb just a few leagues away; the sepulcher had yielded a spell written on parchment, and four mana crystals, the greatest haul of his career. But slaying this draconum was his last chance to prove himself a mage knight of some renown, and to repair his tarnished reputation—one final attempt before the sun rose.
The great beast’s scales shimmered in the moonlight. The draconum hissed as Tovak approached the edge of the shore, lifting itself to its full height above the trees, its baleful wings glistening. But Tovak was ready, easily parrying the draconum’s attack with improvisation.
Tovak was weary, but more important, he was angry: angry at himself for taking too long to cross the mountains, angry at the orcs that stood in his path, angry at this monster he had once feared but now almost pitied. No more magic, Tovak said to himself. Only my sword, he muttered, and lifting his weapon, slew the beast with one swift stroke of steel.
The draconum writhed in the mud by the lake, its scream dying in its scaled throat, and behind him Tovak was surprised to hear a handful of city folk cheering his name. He turned, and raised a hand in greeting.
But in the east Tovak could see the first rays of the sun, and in the distance, past the hills, the towers of the White City, and he knew that he had lost.
Mage Knight is one of those games that comes bearing the burden of the highest of expectations. For five years running, it was voted the best solo board game by the folks at Board Game Geek—trust me, these folks know what they’re doing—at least until it was unseated in 2019 by the anti-colonialist island defense game Spirit Island. Mage Knight, as Jarrod from the 3 Minute Board Games YouTube series says, is “very complex.” (He calls it “exceptionally complex” too.) That’s putting it mildly for someone, like maybe you, the reader, who may be unfamiliar with so-called modern games but thought they should start with the best.
That would be a mistake. With its rather steep learning curve and a couple of inexcusably unintuitive rulebooks, Mage Knight sometimes feels like a mountain to climb. Just setting it up probably takes me almost 15 minutes; I would’ve already finished a game of Onirim at that point.
It took me something like a month to get Mage Knight out on the table the first time. Usually it’s because of the rules—I’m one of those people who actually RTFM before cracking anything open—but it’s the rare game where logistics is a primary obstacle, e.g. a three- to four-hour window between lunch and dinner so that the dining table was empty. (I am now the proud owner of a large folding table, thanks to my daughter.)
But I’ll be honest: it really was the rules that held me back, spread awkwardly across two rulebooks, in tiny, eye-watering type. At that point I’d already watched, and re-watched, Ricky Royal’s YouTube videos enough so that I could hear his voice in my head when I finally set up the game. I can’t say I’ve ever done more preparation before playing a game than with Mage Knight… and still I can’t say I was truly prepared. I’ve played Mage Knight many times and I still have to watch the videos as a refresher, with the nagging suspicion I’m forgetting some obscure rule. I always do.
I am not sure I can describe the game’s mechanics properly; it’s vocabulary I don’t quite possess yet. There’s a beat-your-own-score element, since you tally up the number of points at the end of the game (provided you won, of course). But there’s also a deck-building and hand management element, where your character starts with a standard deck of skills represented by ten cards. You can’t do much at this point, but then again you’re still a junior knight, fresh out of knight school. (That’s not in the rulebook; I just made that up.)
But your knight gets better. As the game progresses, you start acquiring new cards—more skills, artifacts, or spells—as rewards for leveling up (by killing rampaging monsters, or descending into tombs), or burning a monastery. (Hey, there are consequences to the latter: your influence decreases, making you less able to recruit new followers, which are utterly crucial to the end game when defeating the two cities, the main victory condition for the Solo Conquest scenario.) I love this palpable sense of advancement, with your hero becoming more and more powerful. By the time I get to a mage tower, ready for some rough and tumble with some monsters to acquire a spell, I feel like I’m finally good and ready. That is, if there’s a mage tower nearby at the right time.
You also explore. This is one of the many ways the game shines: the terrain is represented by tiles with different features: a crystal mine. Rogue orcs. A mage tower. A village. Deserts that are almost impossible to cross by day but takes far less movement cards at night. You draw these tiles from a shuffled stack, which mimics the feeling of the terra incognita revealing itself before you.
It isn’t a sandbox-type game though, but the limitation is understandable. I love dungeon crawlers; I really loved Diablo back in its 1996 incarnation and its 2013 one for Xbox. But I never finished the games, for a simple reason: I smash every jar and visit every corner of the dungeon before I consider the mission done. In Mage Knight, there’s a merciless ticking clock which inhibits this sort of exploration—you only get three days and three nights to conquer the two cities, which explains Tovak’s disappointment above—and so it doesn’t have the feel of a true RPG.
The catch is that almost all your actions are completely limited to what’s in that small deck of cards, and you can only have five in your hand every turn. If you’re wounded in combat, you take wound cards as well—and though you can be healed, i.e. the wound cards can eventually be discarded, it means your new options in the next turn become fewer and fewer.
This is where the fun lies; it’s also what frustrates beginners the most. Sometimes you want to move, but you have no Move cards. Sometimes you want to take a swing at the draconum lurking under the surface of the alpine lake near the city walls, but you have no Attack cards because they’re already in the discard pile—or they’re still waiting to be drawn. The cards in your hand are almost never useless: you can play one sideways to boost a card you just laid down, but if you really need that card later, you’re practically throwing it away until the next round comes. The heart of the game’s puzzle is optimizing your actions based on your hand—and, to a less obvious but equally important extent, anticipating the cards still left in the deck.
Some people associate the word “optimize” with fiddling with calculations in a spreadsheet, and well, you would be partly correct. Combat and the allocation of damage and wounds is, to me, such a complicated process that saps some of the fun out of launching an attack on a host of ice golems or orc summoners taunting you from the parapets because you have to do all these calculations upfront. Maximizing cost-effectiveness isn’t woven into the theme of Mage Knight as it is, for instance, in At the Gates of Loyang—a real gem of a game where you grow and sell vegetables (no really, it’s amazing)—but the game nonetheless prizes ruthless efficiency, Spanish Inquisition-style. And this mechanic engenders the most delicious kind of analysis paralysis—maybe not the sort of thing that floats your boat, but it sure does for me.
Mage Knight is a difficult game for sure. It may sound like a masochistic exercise, but unlike some games I’ve played (I’m looking at you, Nemo’s War), winning doesn’t feel impossible. Your small victories, with a little patience, do turn into big ones when your character becomes more powerful and influential. Few board games I’ve played offer this same epic sweep, both spatially and temporally, giving you that feeling of satisfaction when you look across the map after finishing the game and seeing where you started. And I love the idea of weary knights—constricted by scarce resources, sometimes too tired to walk or fight, sometimes paralyzed by indecision, desperate to gain followers to assist them—wandering the wastelands looking for a city to conquer, or a magical glade in which to rest. The act of constantly shifting tactics to address the game’s restrictions—or to be both literal and metaphorical, the hand which you are dealt—feels momentous and significant, and is reminiscent of narrative options that writers create for their characters. How might I make this harder for my hero? What obstacle will she have to face now? The game provides this overarching narrative structure that tickles my brain every time.
Mage Knight’s rewards are deep, with a satisfying brain burn by the time you emerge into the real world a couple hours later. It’s a game where each move is calculated, rehearsed, analyzed, and savored, delivering a board game experience like no other.