At MMGaming we don’t just draw the line at video games. We’re geeks through and through and something we have slowly but surely be gaining a profound appreciation of over the past few years is Board Games. So it seems reasonable that now we have developed a decent repertoire of board games, that we could start reviewing them in the same way we video games.
Mage Wars by Arcane Wonders is one of the most stand out games I’ve ever played. Easily in my top 5, certainly in my top 3 and maybe even approaching the top spot of all the board games I’ve ever played. It’s no surprise really then that the game has been nominated for and won numerous awards since its release in 2012.
In Mage Wars two players (or more in later expansions) face off, taking on the roles of two different mage. Similar to games like Hearthstone and Magic the Gathering, the aim of the game is to kill the opposing mage before they kill you.
The game takes place in a board in a 4 by 3 grid, which is the arena for this combat of magic. The mages may move, cast spells, summon creatures and conjurations all in an attempt to control the board and defeat the enemy.
What you can do depends entirely on a deck of cards which are tucked into a spellbook, using the levels of the cards to reach a certain point value in order to ensure a fair fight. At the start of every turn, both mages draw two cards which are their chosen spells for that turn. They do not have to cast them, but are thus limited in that turn to what they can do (in essence it feels like the wizards prepare themselves to cast these spells).
These spells can be cast while on the move or require the mage to forgo all other things he can do on his/her turn in order to focus fully on casting the more difficult spell. These spells include, but are not limited to, healing spells, spell which increase the number of attack dice they can roll, curses to inflict damage over time on enemies, creatures both weak and powerful, spells which directly damage your foes, teleportation, powerful items for your mage, buildings which can then summon creatures on their own and conjurations which can increase the amount of mana the mage gains each round.
Each game last about an hour and a half upwards to three hours in case of some of the more intense and close matches, so it should say something that even after two dozen games of this, I feel like every single match has been different. As well as this, even now I still cannot remember exactly what all the various options and traits and effects present in the game actually do. It speaks volumes for the game’s variety.
The mages themselves are all brilliantly varied, and this a variation which only increases with the addition of the expansions (which are also in themselves excellent). The druid turns the entire board into a mess of vines which can be explosively turned into a dreadful and dangerous forest, capable of wiping out any who enter. The Priestess is a survivalist who relies on powerful heroes to do her damage whilst constantly healing any damage she takes. The Wizard shuts down the channeling of his opponents and slowly drains them of mana and life. The Warlock is a straight-up damage dealer who attempts to rush his opponents himself whilst throwing fire and demons.
This variation and difference in cards and mages actually makes the game feel like a genuine magic battle between powerful individuals. You honestly feel like a true spellcaster as you summon a creature and cast some enchantment to buff it or debuff and enemy. It feels intense and incredible, like you are truly in the middle of an arena filled with magical monsters battling each other whilst powerful spells crackle overhead. The simple use of the binders for use as a spellbook is fantastic as it genuinely makes you feel like you could pull any kind of magical surprise out of your ancient grimoire to thwart your foes.
It’s also worth noting that the game LOOKS brilliant as well as feels brilliant. The artwork on the cards is fabulous and the use of tokens to indicate numerous magical effects makes it feel like you are actually placing all these debilitating effects on your opponents’ creatures.
With all the variation in cards, mages, abilities and effects it is an absolute testament to Arcane Wonders how rarely there is ever any confusion about what exactly something is supposed to do. The rules make it very clear that the cards will only do exactly what they say. So therefore if a card says “deal one damage to all living creatures”, then unliving creatures, buildings, trees, all don’t take damage. If you can learn to take everything at face value, feeling almost like a lawyer in the sense that everything has to be done as written down, then it is only in the rarest of instances that one has to make a “house rule” for a specific effect or card. In fact after two dozen games I could probably count all the times it has happened on one hand, which is incredible given how even extremely simple games often end up with house rules after a few playthroughs.
There are a couple of major downsides of the game though, to be certain. The trade-off for the high levels of variation is that the game is definitely not particularly accessible. I’ve already mentioned that even after two dozen games I still need to keep the rulebook handy for the more obscure cards and effects, so it should be obvious that if it is two people going in blind then you can expect a lot of mistakes and forgetting small important rules over a number of play sessions before you will get to grips with it.
Now this will come across as snobbish, but this does mean that the game is not for any casual players. It is not simple and straightforward but is complex and deep, so realistically you have to take that into consideration before you buy it.
Another problem with the game is occasional balance issues. Some cards which are extremely expensive in terms of mana cost are often significantly weaker than their cost would suggest. As well as this, it is absolutely the case that some of the characters are stronger than the others. As a gamer who has always had an affinity for fire magic and spells as well as charging-in, I often play as the Warlock, which means I haven’t won a game in bloody ages because the Warlock is by several degrees the weakest of all the mages.
Meanwhile, characters like the Priestess, Necromancer and Druid are all exceptionally powerful. On the brighter side, these stronger characters do at least tend to run into difficulties when fighting each other. Although I still always lose…
With both the core game and the Druid vs. Necromancer expansion it is also unfortunately true that attack spells tend to be extremely weak and consistently underused, except in very occasional situations. I would hope though that this is something which would be rectified by the addition of the Forcemaster (who I understand relies upon attack spells). Meanwhile other spells are absolutely vital and so when it comes to constructing and building your own decks for characters, spells like Dispell, any conjuration which increases your channeling, Teleportation, all feel practically essential. So despite masses of card variation, occasionally a bulk of a good spellbook can sometimes feel a little generic. Plus as everyone needs these cards, that means there are never enough to build all the spellbooks you want.
This leads me to by far and away the worst aspect of the game, the supply of important bits and pieces. This was something that was only slightly noticeable in the core set, but then infinitely more so with the addition of the Druid vs. Necromancer expansion. In the core set there is an ability which allows you to add “armour tokens” to your creatures, however the core set does not contain any armour tokens. You have burn tokens, stuns, dazes, mana and damage, all manner of tokens, but this one is conspicuous by its absence. Then in the expansion it asks for numerous other tokens, a number of which are again not present (such as “mist tokens”). In fact, it is my belief that one actually would have to buy the previous expansion of the Warlord vs. Forcemaster in order to have access to all the necessary tokens.
Plus, these expansions do not include more of the base necessities such as damage or mana tokens. Nor do they include extra pieces so that one could play a 2 vs 2 match, no for that you have to specifically buy the extra pieces. In essence it feels like both the main game and the expansion necessitated that you buy all of the other expansions and bits and pieces if you want to have access to everything.
Given then, that every single set in Mage Wars is honestly pretty expensive, it feels like you are being given incomplete sets. So while I would give exceptional props to Arcane Wonders for their ability to design a fabulous game, I would give them significantly less so for their attempts to supply players with what they actually need. Honestly, it just feels a little like money grabbing, which can be oh-so off-putting.
This latter is a significant problem. Not including everything a player needs to play a game and saying “oh you need another expansion for that” is absolutely unacceptable.
So it should be a true measure of how much esteem I hold the game in that I would still recommend it to any board game aficionados. It is consistently excellent, intense and fun to play, always with some new spell variation or tactic to try out and dazzle your enemy with magical brilliance. Honestly I cannot recommend it enough.
Mixing older ideas in a new and innovative way that is exciting and exceptionally good fun.
Brilliant art combined with the feeling of actually pulling spells out of a magic tome is something that cannot get old.
It contains so many bits and pieces that it feels vast and extremely good value, so it’s a real shame that it also still feels like there is a lot missing.
Aside from a few niggles with the overuse of generic cards and overuse of powerful Mages the game always feels different and exciting each time.
Social Score: 3/10
Playing with one friend on a quiet night with a few beers is ideal for the game. Considering how long it takes however, you are essentially guaranteeing that two people will be playing it separate from everyone else for a good couple of hours.