It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed any tabletop games. Just in case you weren’t aware of it, Action Force, I am a big fan of tabletop board and card games. I was writing reviews before it became a “thing”, and before Will Wheaton started doing it, I sometimes imagined I was the most famous board game advocate out there. This was probably not true, but I liked to believe it anyway. In an effort to regain my tabletop credibility, I’m going to start reviewing more games, and because I am something of a gaming hipster, whether I like it or not, I am going to review games you probably haven’t heard of but really should have.
Today’s game is Mage Wars by Arcane Wonders. (http://magewars.com/jsite/)
Mage Wars could probably be described as a tactical version of Magic: The Gathering. If you haven’t played M:tG or don’t know what it is, don’t worry about that. It’s really not important. Other than to say, if you’re a fan of M:tG, you will probably like (or even love) Mage Wars. It has all of the charm and strategy of M:tG, but without the blind collectible aspect and with a few board game elements like positioning and dice.
If you’ve never played M:tG, that’s not a big deal either. Mage Wars is thematically a duel between magically powerful spellcasters who summon creatures, hurl fireballs, and otherwise do everything you would expect magical wizards to do if they faced off in combat. The beauty of Mage Wars is that while it is a complex game with a lot of interesting interactions, the creatures, spells, and attacks all work on an intuitive level. The idea is that if you summon a killer plant monster into the arena, the rules will have it behave like a killer plant monster. If a guy in metal armor is hit by a lightning bolt, he’ll get an extra jolt. If you feed sacrifices to your dark masters, you can summon a wicked cool demon a little easier, etc. Add to this that each style of mage has their own strengths (while still having a customizable selection of spells), and you end up with a game with an incredible amount of depth and replayability.
The four mage types in the basic game are the beastmaster (master of . . . well . . . beasts), the warlock (fire and demons), the priestess (angelic servants and healing), and the wizard (traditional mythical monsters and resource control). Each has their own particular style, and the game offers suggested spellbooks for each mage to best represent their abilities. However, there are also nifty rules for building your own spellbook, and if you want to have a warlock who can heal a little bit or a beastmaster who plays with fire, you can do that too (if you’re willing to invest in those options).
The game might seem intimidating at first because there is a lot going on here, but it’s aided by a very helpful index of keywords, most of which don’t really need much definition. You’ll probably figure out what “flammable” or “slow” mean pretty quickly, and so playing the game is really as simple as sitting down and understanding the basics. It’ll take many games before you can grasp all the crazy interactions and infinite possibilities, but that’s what makes the game interesting in the long term.
But, putting aside all the rules, the question is how fun is the game? For me, a game like this works best when I can visualize what is happening. I have nothing against abstract games, but a game like this should be something I can see unfolding like an epic action adventure sequence. And Mage Wars succeeds brilliantly in this regard.
In one recent game, I was playing a druid versus a beastmaster. As the druid, I grew killer plants all through the arena as the beastmaster fired magic arrows and summoned wild animals to the battle. The battle ended as a rooted my opponent in place with stranglevines (exactly what the name leads you to believe) and hurled acid balls at her, thus cementing my victory.
In another game, playing as the necromancer, I unleashed an endless tide of skeleton warriors to destroy my opponent’s life-restoring tree and giant guardian ent.
Games are always full of such interactions, and it’s not difficult to see the arena as a chaotic jumble of monsters and magic, where opponents work to outmaneuver each other at every turn.
Mage Wars even has regular expansions (about two a year so far) that introduce new mage types as well as adding new cards to the base set. While strictly optional, these are great additions to the game. Unlike collectible card games, these are not random either, so there’s no chasing down cards to find that rare creature or spell.
The first expansion, Forcemaster vs Warlord, introduced the forcemaster (master of psychic powers) and the warlord (a magical general who commands armies). The second, Conquest of Kumanjaro, added a variation of the beastmaster and the priest. And the third, Druid vs Necromancer, added two more mage types. Each mage adds more options, more creatures, more everything, but they aren’t strictly necessary, and the base game of Mage Wars is already brimming with more choices than most players will ever need. Although I do enjoy a good skeleton army now and then.
Mage Wars does have a few weaknesses. First, it isn’t a great casual game for someone who has never played this type of game before. It’s not that the game is confusing or difficult. It has a lot of depth, but it can be played casually. However, most people who aren’t familiar with games of this type will probably be intimidated by the amount of options and the terminology (even though they shouldn’t be). Still, in a world where most people think Monopoly or Clue when it comes to tabletop games, this can be a bit overwhelming. My advice on that is to just sit down and start playing. Most people will pick it up quickly once they get over their initial impression.
Secondly, a game can take a while. A full came can easily take two hours (or more if neither player is aggressive enough). There is an apprentice mode meant to limit options and speed play. I’ve found that for quicker games, all I have to do is reduce each mage’s starting health and only use half the arena. The game then easily fits into an hour, even with new players.
Thirdly, there are obviously some supernatural themes at work. Some people might find that unsettling. Especially with the Warlock (who summons demons) or the necromancer (who brings animated corpses to the field). While I find these objections a little silly myself, if they’re something that bother you, the game might not be for you. Although if only certain aspects of the supernatural bother you, it’s easy enough to play without them, too.
Mage Wars is a hell of a game, and one I recommend highly. If the idea of taking on the mantle of a powerful sorcerer who controls monsters and commands the forces of magic sounds at all interesting to you, it’s definitely worth considering. It is, hands down, the best game of its type currently out there, and, yes, I’m including Magic: the Gathering in that category though M:tG has portability and near ubiquitous market saturation on its side, I’ll admit.
Bottom Line: I’d consider it a MUST BUY if the theme sounds appealing at all, and it remains a fantastic game in every sense of the word.
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