Don DraperUN aid boardgamesmana puddingQuinns And Bat
Quinns: Readers, viewers, assorted junkies of SU&SD, I'm SORRY.
Mage Wars came out last year. I heard it was stunning, but seeing its box in my local game shop, with its non-standard dimensions and underwhelming logo, I was warded away like a vampire. Hsss!
If you're going to ask me to be a wizard, at least give me the style of Summoner Wars. The global scale of Mage Knight. The sense of humour of Wiz-War. Don't ask me to summon unicorns unironically.
But the praise didn't stop. This year I heard it was the Dice Tower's 4th favourite game of all time. Rab, of RPS's wonderful Cardboard Children column, assured me it was "the real deal." And oh, yes. Oh, baby. This game's just wonderful.
Mage Wars is a two player game of Some Mages Fighting In A Room, and oh god does it ever look drab. You could imagine that board in a UN aid package.
One redeeming feature of the board being featureless is that you're free to dream up the circumstances around the battle. Perhaps this is the last line of defence in a castle that's been overrun. Perhaps it's a wizard dining room, and a fight's just broken out over the last mana pudding. Your mileage may vary.
But here's what's important, though. Think of Mage Wars being featureless like chess is featureless.
Anyway, each wizard gets some 50 different spells with which to murder the other guy. Perhaps you'll be the Beastmaster, summoning foxes, bears, lairs and trees until the board resembles a very angry forest. Or maybe you'll be the Wizard, cooking these creatures with great belches of electricity.
Where things get awesome is that all of your spell cards are tucked into a book. An actual book, from which you'll be slipping cards each turn, doubting yourself before you've even finished removing them from the sleeve. Because once you cast a spell, it's gone forever. And more importantly, this is a game of good and bad choices. Like chess! Chess with bats. And imaginary mana puddings.
I'm just going to just walk you through the opening turns of the game we played yesterday. I can't think of a better way to sell Mage Wars to you.
These are our opening plays, after just a couple of turns. Already the room's bloated with magic, causing everyone's hair to stand on end.
(1) This is me, the sexy sexy warlock, master of demons, fire, whips and other things only ever found on heavy metal album covers. In a deeply unsexy play, I'm trying to get my economy going.
Looking through the pages of your spellbook in Mage Wars is like turning the pages of a mail-order catalogue. You're forever scheming and sweating not just over what things do, but whether you can afford them.
I've already played both of my mana crystals in the room, which increase my "channeling". I'm now getting more mana every turn, which is GOOD. Except it'll take five whole turns for these crystals to even pay for themselves. Did I think this through?
I did! I've spawned a couple of horrible little imps, to keep the Beastmaster's stinky menagerie at bay.
(2) THE BEASTMASTER. Master of beasts. Which is basically hifalutin, since if you look in the middle of the board you'll see he's summoned a Bitterwood Fox which isn't even a proper beast. He's also put down a mana flower, but mostly he's worried about getting his beasts out. Which sounds a bit sexy. I'm meant to be the sexy one! This is off to a bad start.
We skip ahead to turn four. My opponent and I are still juking playfully. I like looking at this photograph, because at this point neither me nor my opponent knew how horrific this game can get.
(1) In an exchange of fire and claw, my demon eradicates the Beastmaster's first mana flower, at which point the man and his pet wolf race across and kill him. Still, a victory!
Because remember, spent spells are gone forever, making Mage Wars exciting for two reasons. One, your options are forever dwindling, making you increasingly desperate when the game would otherwise drag on. Two, the only means you have of using the spells you love is by putting them in front of your opponent, who can always flatten them with magic.
(2) Over here, things are a little more embarrassing. I've got an imp locked in mortal combat with yet another flower. The flower's succeptible to fire, except it also regenerates every turn. C'MON, PAL.
(3) I've got my economy going! I'm like the Don Draper of wizardry over here. Two mana crystals, a pentagram, and a noxious bat to help me guard it.
The only inconvenience is that the Beastmaster enchanted his fox with the strength of a bear, and it's currently savaging my pentagram. In the Don Draper analogy, it's as if his offices were being... if... if they were being attacked by a fox.
This is turn six, or "The turn where Kieron and Quinns realise Mage Wars is amazing."
You know when you sit in a new car, and you turn the key, and the ignition happens, and the cylinders begin pumping, and that causes the petrol to explode? I'm a bit hazy on cars but the way Mage Wars' rules work together is similarly powerful and well-engineered. Magic drives movement, which drives combat, which drives magic, which drives WHERE DID MY MANA GO
This isn't some dogged strategy game. There's no waiting around for your turn. Instead, the game's kept in a state of tension and high agility.
All those wooden cylinders you see on each creature? You and your opponent take turns to move any piece on the board, at which point you flip the cylinder and it becomes inactive. So you move a piece, he moves a piece, he uses his QuickCast to change that piece, you QuickCast to curse it, you move your wizard, he begins a lengthy incantation, you back off, unsure of what's coming. You're scheming, yes. But you're also fighting.
(1) This was the big play. Because I'd spent so much mana building my economy, Kieron was able to fund an attack on my pathetic defense. He ran forward and summoned Redclaw, some horrific legendary "Alpha Wolf" who makes all other canines in his space even stronger.
(2) Panicking, I teleported his pet Timber Wolf as far away as I could afford, trying to buy myself more time to summon something myself. Except...
(3) WHHH-BAM! Kieron had the same idea, using Force Push to shunt me out of my own base. I could go ahead and summon the demon I'd selected for this turn, but it'd now be far away. Argh!
(4) This is my imp continuing the eternal battle twixst man and flower. We don't talk about him anymore.
At the end of the turn, Kieron and I opened our spellbooks and immediately fell into a 5 minute silence. Because here's the other great thing about Mage Wars. Board games can get great mileage out of offering you difficult decisions. Mage Wars offers you an physical picturebook, packed with decisions. What do you cast? What can save you?
There I was, flipping through page after page of curses, muttering a few real-life ones of my very own. Until finally: Oh, yeah. You'll do...
My beleagued warlock comes jogging back to his base, which the Beastmaster is now dismantling. I've got spells that'll help me turn the tide of the battle. The mistake I've made is that I haven't realised the battle for my economy is already over.
(1) Continuing to control the tempo, Kieron wheels his wolfpack around and sends them charging at me, delivering body blows to my warlock with every waterfall-roll of far too many dice. You can conjure armour and weapons for your mage out of the ether, but like everything else, you do it with a turn's notice. You have to predict, and surprise.
Meanwhile, I try and turn my delayed summoning into an advantage. With my swelling mana reserves I bring out the biggest, ugliest demon in my deck: Adramelech, Lord of Fire.
(2) In something almost amounting to a clever move, I imbue my bat with bear strength. Yeah, he's a tennis ball with a paltry two health. But Kieron can't get at him, is the thing. He has Flying. So at least until the room gets filled with eagles or whatever, it's cheap (read: desperate) way to shore up my defences.
(3) Meanwhile, Kieron, knowing he's now forced me to give myself armour next turn, retreats. And of course, while I'm creating armour, he'll be able to summon anything else.
Sure enough, I spend the next turn conjuring a full set of armour and a Mask of Fear onto my warlock, turning him into the terminator. But it's too late.
Kieron's successfully broken the back of my economy and calls his forces back, the scene illuminated by the burning pelts of his wolves. Turns out the game's design can not only sustain assaults, but retreats. Maybe even feints.
Suddenly, we're back to that thoughtful pace we were playing with before. Kieron and I can take a breath, and I can hang out with my bat. Fat lot of use you were.
A full explanation of why Mage Wars systems' work so well will have to wait for our review, when the minds of SU&SD are able to reverse-engineer them, but hopefully this has expressed what surprised me- that Mage Wars combines two far extremes of board gaming.
On the one hand, it's supremely colourful. Something as simple as the fact that all the effect counters stack - so you're not just rotting, you've got four rotting tokens that are sloughing the flesh from your bones - paints a vivid picture. And then you've got these bulging spellbooks full of walls, forges, monsters, heroes, storms, equipment, tricks and traps.
But it's also incredibly thoughtful, with a chess-like implementation of tempo, distractions and bold plays. How rare is it that a game understands the pleasure of rolling HUGE handfuls of dice, but that also wants to coax you into getting skilled at it? And not just skilled- that you could play this game for years and always be gaining familiarity with the art of the thing.
Shut Up & Sit Down absolutely recommends Mage Wars. Maybe you're like me. Maybe you still don't quite buy the hype. That's OK. We're certainly not done talking about it yet.