Leading up to my purchase of Mage Knight, I discovered an alarming trend among other gamers that I interacted with. It seemed like a surprising number of people had bought Mage Knight, but hadn't actually played a game of it. In fact, I would say it has built a reputation as being the game everyone owns but no one has played. After opening the box and running through a few games, it was pretty clear why.
Mage Knight has an incredibly steep learning curve. So steep, in fact, that the game comes with two full instruction booklets, each with large pages and very fine font. These are not optional. You must read both cover to cover in order to understand all of the minute rules for issues that you'll come across. One book is primarily a "Game Walkthrough", which is necessary to read just to get an understanding of the general workflow of a game of Mage Knight. It is highly recommended that whilst attempting to learn a game of Mage Knight to find an in-depth playthrough on YouTube. That alone won't teach you the game, as there are so many obscure rules and exceptions that you still must have the rulebook handy and know what section to use as a resource when you find yourself dealing with new situations.
Ok, so the game is kind of a slog to learn. Pretty much every review will tell you that. All that aside, I have to say that I hate this game. Let's examine why.
*** The gameplay is not compelling. ***
When I think of fantasy settings, my appetite gets whetted for many things. Generating "movement points" is not one of them. In Mage Knight, you receive a small deck of cards, and you draw about five or so at a time, which represent your cache of resources. The resources fall into about four categories: Movement points, Attack Points, Block Points, and Influence Points. There are times in the game where the only possible thing you must do is to move across the field, and if you don't have any movement cards in your hand, you must waste combat or influence cards just to move a minimal distance. I think there is a fundamental flaw in this system: the challenge of the game comes not from dealing with challenging hazards in creative ways, but from not having the resources you need in your hand on the turn in which you must have them. Conceptually, my mind doesn't grasp this. Why would my guy ever not have the resources he would need in order to walk across the battlefield? Why do I need to sacrifice better cards for other purposes just to get minimal movement points to move anywhere? This struggle does not make for a very compelling game.
The other big problem with the gameplay lies within its combats. Whereas all of your resources are lavish paintings on playing cards, the monsters you must fight are represented in tiny images about the size of a dime on little game tokens. The monsters don't have backstories or descriptive text; heck, they don't even have names. You can barely even see what you are fighting. Enemies have only a few statistics: "Attack Power", "Defense", "Fame Value", and a listing of a couple of common special abilities. Before you even enter a battle, you usually already know if you could beat the enemy that round. Thus, combats have all of the suspense of an algebra equation. Actually, they have all the suspense of an algebra equation that you can look at before you decide whether you want to try and solve it.
Finally, I feel like there is very little story or substance to rationalize where my character is, who he is fighting, or why he is doing what he is doing. I don't think it is necessary for a board game to emphasize a plot or storyline, but I find Mage Knight to be surprisingly lacking any sort of flavor text at all.
*** The game does not feel very well balanced. ***
One of my complaints with Mage Knight was that there are some enemies that are literally unbeatable without having certain special advanced action cards. There is a good chance that you will never come across the specific advanced action or spell cards that you will need in order to fight the final boss. This was the case with my most recent playthrough of the game solo. I got all the way to the final City tile (which is the final boss), and upon finding it, I had the option of fighting a fire dragon, an ice dragon, or another fire dragon. Unfortunately, all three of these enemies had very high elemental damage and very high elemental defense. This meant that I had no starting cards in my deck that would allow me to defeat these dragons, and I would have had to have been very lucky to get the advanced action or spell cards I needed to defeat any of them. Thus, I ended the game with an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and defeat, as I had over a full round of my game left, but I was too far away to get back to any place with additional resources and then return before the end of the game. So, there was literally nothing I could do, and I had about 1/6th of the game left to play. There was no epic battle that left me dead, a corpse on the battlefield. That I would have liked. Instead, I saw a wall I couldn't cross, so I had to pack up the game early, perturbed and angry.
*** Games start to feel repetitive fast. ***
The coolest thing about my first playthrough of the game was building the map as I went. I felt like I was uncovering new ground, and it was fun discovering what the new type of special buildings and enemies were. This feeling quickly dissolved on subsequent plays, as the feeling of discovery became waning. I already saw all the tiles, and even though I unlock them in any order, I knew there weren't going to be any surprises. The game became a routine of quickly unlocking all of the easier early tiles, just to get to the more difficult boss tiles by the end of the game. The more I played, the more I felt like all the little bits and card stacks and tokens were getting in the way of a rewarding experience.
*** You won't find anyone else that will want to play it. ***
In the few experiences I've had playing Mage Knight, I find that it is a horrible multiplayer game. Unless you play with a dedicated group of hardcore gamers, most people that you'll run into will not have the patience or dedication to spend hours to just learn the basics. The game is very unintuitive, and even if you do all of the upkeep yourself, the players will likely still see Mage Knight as a continuous stream of random events, rather than a game with a goal and a strategy that will help you achieve it. Plus, there is a lot of downtime between turns. I think the multiplayer version of this game is largely for multiple players that have already played the solo version of the game.
*** Some good things. ***
There are only a few things that make me feel like I didn't waste $80 on my copy of Mage Knight. First of all, I feel like the components are of very high quality. All of the little bits, the enemy tokens, the energy crystals, the dice, the miniatures...everything is pretty to look at. The artwork on all of the cards is beautiful, as is the gorgeous box cover. My favorite cards are the "wound" cards, which you never want in your hand on a conceptual level, but look so elegant and attractive that you will want to hold them. The game seems really stylish when laid out across your kitchen table, and truly looks like a work of art.
Plus, I can definitely see why people would enjoy the deckbuilding and "leveling up" elements here. Gaining experience, or "fame", and gaining levels, and thus getting new special abilities and cards, does make the game somewhat rewarding. Many players will trudge through all of the red tape of the game just to gain these evolving sets of abilities. I also liked the "mana pool", which uses dice to determine what elements are most in the cosmos that turn, so you can power certain abilities, making them more powerful. This element does add a nice feeling of randomness, and deepends the strategy of the game.
That's about all I can say in favor of the game, though.
*** This game isn't for everyone, especially me. ***
Mage Knight is an overly fussy game that uses far too many gameplay elements and genres. The game is mostly strategy, and uses luck in a very frustrating way, rather than in a fun, suspenseful way. The game has a very high learning curve, and requires a lot of setup time as well as tear down time to play. For these reasons, the game will probably remain unopened in my closet now that I'm done with this review. There are clearly many, many other players that love this game (it is currently the number 8 game on Board Game Geek), but that doesn't mean the game is for everyone. I think it is for hardcore, 20 year veteran gamers for whom a lot of fussy components is a positive thing.
On a related note, I have since purchased the Friedemann Friese game Friday. If you are looking for a great solo deckbuilding game, I much recommend that one over Mage Knight. The game has a stronger sense of theme and story, seems to require deeper strategy to play, but uses luck in a much more exciting way. Friday also feels much more intuitive and rewarding., as it has an automatic routine, with more focused decisions. Plus, the game has a much higher feeling of suspense. Additionally, the quick setup, quick teardown, and low learning curve makes it easy to pick up and teach to others. Once I added Friday to my arsenal of games, I felt absolutely no need to go back to Mage Knight. I suggest starting there, and then getting Mage Knight once you feel like you need a much larger game experience.