Mage Knight is my New Favourite Thing (until Game of Thrones starts up again - but the experience of playing Mage Knight and watching characters I've invested in die at a flick of George R R Martin's pen is not dissimilar).
Here's an expanded version of my review for Amazon.
Mage Knight is a Marmite game: those who love it are frothing addicts but the unconverted find it fiddly, over-intellectual and thematically muddled - more like filling out a tax return than heroic adventure gaming, they say. Now I love Mage Knight, but I'll try to give it a balanced review.
What you get for your money is a weighty box fairly packed with cards (lots of cards), dice, thick card tiles, painted miniatures, coloured manna tokens, circular counters, a score board and a day/night board. The cards are good quality and the art is nice - not eye-popping, but moody and atmospheric. There are miniatures and card decks for four different Mage Knights: a humanoid dragon, an elf, an armoured warrior (see box cover) and a be-stockinged Goth chick who looks a bit silly. Later expansions will add an orc and a barbarian lady who is also sexually objectified. Just sayin' is all!
The rules provide a walkthrough scenario which is quite clear and worth attempting a couple of times. After that you can cut loose with the MAIN rulebook which has half a dozen scenarios, including co-op and solo variants. More of them later.
The hexagonal tiles represent the doomed Atlantean Empire, beset by Draconum (dragons) and marauding Orcs and divided by civil war. The mysterious Council of the Void has sent you - a Mage Knight - to bring order to this world by conquering it. To this end, you will advance across this realm, subduing monsters and recruiting factions to your side, growing more powerful, until the Atlantean city states fall beneath your sword. Or spell. Oh, and you have 6 rounds (3 days and 3 nights) to make this happen. Fortunately, a lot can go on in a round.
The basic mechanic involves exploring tiles and laying fresh ones so that the world emerges differently every time. The inhabitants of dungeons, keeps and mage towers are randomly determined as are the precise identities of marauding monsters and the defenders of Atlantean cities. Never the same twice, the game has built-in replayability.
This is also a deck building game. Your Deed Deck has cards representing the Attacks, Blocks, Moves, Influence and Healing available to your Mage Knight - with slight variations between characters; Norowas the elf, for example, has an edge when it comes to using Influence to hire Units or buy Healing; Goldyx the Dragon is good at gathering manna to access the boosted aspects of normal powers. By adventuring, you get to customise your Deck, adding more powerful Actions, magical Artifacts and Spells. You'll need them when it comes to taking down those cities.
What makes Mage Knight divisive is the way you use your cards. You play cards to generate enough points in Attack, Block, Influence or Move to do what you want. If you have enough points, you succeed. Dice don't come into it, except that manna can boost your cards and you roll coloured dice each round to see what type of manna is freely available. Otherwise, everything is rigidly deterministic, without random factors. Fans point out how Mage Knight has a puzzle-like quality: it's all about using your cards optimally in each turn; you know what cards you've got and winning involves playing to your hand as efficiently as possible. Critics will say that this produces an excessively rational, even tediously mathematical, approach to play, characterised by "analysis paralysis" and quite opposed to the rip-roaring swords & sorcery themes the box art leads you to expect.
On the positive side, if you can cope with analysis paralysis, Mage Knight is intensely rewarding. It's great to feel a plan come together and, when you take down a city or blow up a dragon, you know that this was _your_ achievement, _your_ battle plan, a payoff for _your_ preparation.
On the negative side, this planning and calculation produces a _long_ game: allow 2 hours plus an hour per player, and that's assuming you have all mastered the rules. There are "Blitz" scenarios and Cooperative scenarios that shave an hour off this, but it's still a big investment of time and table space. Moreover, it's a game characterised by "finite fun" - while one player is taking their turn, there's nothing for other players to do, and with multiple players you can be waiting a lo-o-o-ng time for your turn to swing back round. There aren't many ways of interacting with each other: you can attack other players' Mage Knights but it's unrewarding; you can team up to sack cities but the timing is hard to pull off; there are a few powers and Spells that mess up your rivals, but frankly the game is challenging enough without that sort of mischief so most gamers remove those cards.
If Mage Knight is a problematic multiplayer game, it's a sensational solo player game. Indeed, this is what has earned it all the fans. In a solo game there's no thumb-twiddling while other players go over and over their maths, looking for missed opportunities. You play against a dummy player who turns cards automatically (or download an App to save yourself even that trouble) and the anguished plotting and exhilarating victories are all your own. An experienced player can complete a solo game in 3 hours, 2 for the Blitz version, which is much more manageable.
As a solo game, Mage Knight is just about the best there is. As a 2-player game, it's absorbing for gamers who take a generous interest in each other's plays and are happy with the time input. With more players, there are periods of great longueur ... or outright boredom.
On a final note, the Lost Legion expansion is excellent, hugely increasing the variety of cards and enemies while further differentiating the (slightly samey) Mage Knights. It's mandatory. It also introduces some cooperative level-up powers, reducing between-turn ennui and making Co-Op scenarios more interactive.
So, is Mage Knight really like filling out your tax return? Well, yes, if you do accountancy with a flaming sword. It's a brainy, challenging game that rewards strategy and planning, more like Chess than Hero Quest or Talisman. Those who give themselves over to its rigours will be enchanted, but it's not a family game or everyone's idea of a fantasy wargame.
Arythea. Maybe just a leetle bit sexually objectified.
Wolfhawk. Not sensibly dressed either.
Tovak Wyrmstalker. Note - sensible dress code.
Is this (a) a red-blooded swords & sorcery adventure game or (b) Accountancy For Dummies?
All you need for red-blooded swords & sorcery fun. Notice Goldyx (green dragonoid) is not sensibly dressed either, but may be female, so that's all right then.
A nice safe countryside tile from early in the game. Notice Magical Circle in the forest (lovely!), village (good for plundering!), Green Manna mine (sit on that!) and a cutlass representing Marauding Orcs that need killing.
A rather more challenging core tile from the end of the game. Notice the White City (your future home!) and nearby Keep (launch your attacks fro there!) and, in the inconvenient lake, a Marauding Draconum (let's hope it's one of the marginally less-awful ones)