One of the tabletop games I discovered late last year was Mage Wars. It’s a two-player game where each player takes on the role of a powerful Mage, using their Mana to summon creatures and cast spells, in an attempt to reduce the opposing Mage to zero life. That initial pitch might sound like Magic: The Gathering, and the influence of that game is evident. But there are a lot of innovations in the rules (which I’ll discuss below) which distinguish it from the famous Collectible Card Game (CCG) and other tabletop games.

Here’s one game mechanic that fits with the theme and is ripe for deep strategy: during the Planning Phase of every turn, players pick two spells from their spellbook. The spellbook is a four-card binder (a pair comes with the game) composed of cards you chose to comprise your deck. Every round, it feels like roleplaying when you rifle through your spellbook, looking for the appropriate spell to cast later in the game. Because you’re choosing which two spells to cast, there’s no randomness when it comes to determining what your options are. On the other hand, because you’re selecting only two spells, you’re limited when it comes to reacting to the cards your opponent plays this turn: if you want to reverse or foil your opponent’s plans, you need to pick in advance the spell you think you’ll need.

What Is It?

Part of Mage Wars‘s appeal is how it borrows elements from a lot of game genres. Like a lot of CCGs, there’s deck building involved as players customize their spellbooks. Mage Wars however follows the Living Card Game model of fixed sets (i.e. non-random), and the Core Set leaves you much room to work with. It’s also a light miniatures game where cards instead of figures represent your units, a concept popularized by games like Battleground: Fantasy Warfare. Then there’s the board game aspect, with the play area taking place in a large 4×3 grid, in addition to the counters and markers used to keep track of each player’s conditions, damage, and Mana.

It’s reminiscent of Summoner Wars in the way it merges elements of the various tabletop games into a cohesive, compelling package. There are a lot of CCGs that use counters for example, but Mage Wars embraces its board game heritage and doesn’t hold back when it comes to employing them–making the game an experience that’s clear and transparent. The usage of cards as opposed to miniatures and how it’s integrated with the binder as a spellbook is one of those conceits that in retrospect seems intuitive, but is a design concept that few games successfully pull off. And for those looking for a game that’s expandable but doesn’t require the investment of a CCG, Mage Wars satisfies that craving, even this early on in the game’s life cycle.

The Flaws

While Mage Wars is quite enjoyable, there are some caveats.

This would have been a very portable game, since all you need are the markers and your spellbook, if it wasn’t for the board. It’s quite large, even when folded, although the space is warranted in actual play.

The average playing time for the game is around an hour, but it can drag on for an extra hour or two if you’re not familiar with the cards and their corresponding special abilities, or if both players are playing poorly. When it comes to the first problem, the game rules are actually easy to teach, but because of its inherent exception-based design, new players will frequently need to look up the glossary page (called the Codex) of the rulebook.This also results in a prolonged Planning Phase (when players choose their two spells for the round), and while players don’t end up with analysis paralysis, a lot of time is spent evaluating options as opposed to quick but calculated decisions. For the second problem, it’s not a design flaw per se, but not realizing the optimum strategy in the game can lead to protracted duels. For example, both players might not be willing to commit (or gamble) to an offensive that could have won the game several rounds earlier, and instead focus on building the perfect, huge army.

Then there’s the rules, and while as a whole, it’s not overly complex, it definitely doesn’t follow the sensibilities of a Eurogame where everything is explained in a few pages. To the credit of Arcane Wonders, the publisher, they’ve released several videos to help players learn the game, but this is probably one of those games where getting taught the rules by another player is a much better way than reading the rulebook. And going back to exception-based design, while it’s easy to grasp the basic rules, there will be instances and specific scenarios which will give even seasoned players pause.

The Luck Factor

A lot of tabletop games include randomness in its game design. In Mage Wars, luck enters play in one of two ways:

Damage: Damage in the game is determined by rolling a modified six-sided dice (d6). Two sides are blank, two sides deal one and two damage, and the last two faces deal one and two Critical Damage (ignores Armor). Mages in the game have life in the 30+ range, while creatures can have anywhere from four life to low double digits. This is actually a good range of numbers (the most damage you’ll be doing per die is two) and for the most part emphasizes superior strategy and tactics over sheer luck.

Effect Die: Some attacks and special abilities are triggered by rolling a twelve-sided die (d12). This is probably the aspect of the game where randomness matters the most, and the different probabilities must be taken into account. Some results could sway the entire game: would a Mage be Stunned or merely Dazed by that Lightning Bolt? Did the Feral Bobcat’s Defense activate or would it be destroyed by the Darkfenne Hydra’s Triple Bite?

Strategy

One of my favorite quotes from The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design is by James Ernest:

“If you ask a Magic player why he likes the game, he will tell you about the game mechanics, and list his favorite cards, and bore you with tournament anecdotes. But what he probably won’t tell you is ‘Magic makes me feel smart.'”

Mage Wars scratches that “it makes me feel smart” itch. It does so in several ways:

The Spellbook: As I mentioned at the start of this essay, I really like the concept of a spellbook. A lot of card games include the maximum number of copies of a card because it’s trying to increase the probability of the player drawing those cards. Here, if I only need three copies of Dissolve, it’s because I envision only using three copies (and not one copy more). This also ties in to the deckbuilding aspect. Each Mage has a school of magic that they are Trained in. Each spell has a spellpoint value, and using spells not from your school costs twice as many spellpoints, while schools opposed by your Mage costs three times as much. So while every player has access to the same spells, this limitation encourages them to build their deck around a certain strategy, without ever saying “no, you can never include these cards in your spellbook.”

Economy: A lot of successful board game strategies revolve around managing the in-game economy. In Magic: The Gathering, this might translate to “card advantage,” while in the video game Starcraft, this tends to be your macromanagement (macro). Mage Wars has several variables which players can exploit. For example, because you only choose two spells during the Planning Phase, one strategy can revolve around card advantage: eliminating two of my opponent’s spells using just one spell nets me an advantage. Time can also be a factor: my opponent can only cast two spells in a turn, but if I can come up with a situation where I’m casting a third spell every round, that nets me an advantage. More similar to Starcraft macro is managing your Mana. Unlike Magic: The Gathering, Mages generate (or Channel) a fixed amount of Mana every round. When and where you expend your Mana can determine success or defeat. For example, during the first round of the game, you can cast spells that increase the Mana you Channel, but doing so leaves you vulnerable to attack. Or you could choose to forego your actions this turn, so that you have enough Mana to summon an expensive creature the next turn.

Hidden Cards: One of the distinguishing game mechanics in the game is how Enchantments work. They are paid with a fixed cost (two mana) and placed faced down on whatever Object (the Mage, a creature, a Zone, etc.) they are attached to. When certain conditions are triggered, these Enchantments and its corresponding effects are revealed, and the player pays the reveal cost of the card. Since this is the only way to interrupt an opponent’s actions (such as a “counterspell” or blocking an attack), Mage Wars adds that element of anticipating your opponent’s moves, and face-down cards means bluffing is a viable tactic. It’s reminiscent of Traps from Yu-Gi-Oh! but there’s more depth here since it’s tied to a complex economy.

Spatial Mobility: The game operates on a 4×3 grid, with each region called a Zone. The inclusion of distance adds another variable in the game which alters the overall strategy and tactics. For example, creatures with Ranged Attacks can attack enemies up to two squares away, and there’s an advantage to using creatures with the Fast trait, as they can move up to two squares and still attack in the same turn.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of meat and depth to Mage Wars, and provides several opportunities for strategic and tactical decisions on the part of players. For the most part, I enjoy it because it emphasizes skill more than luck, and correctly guessing your opponent’s tactics can net you an advantage.

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