Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month.
As in many games, my experience in the world of Mage Knight begins when I select a character. The base set offers four, each one more superlative than the last. I could be Norowas, Greatest of the Elf Lords, whose noble lineage gives him the edge in leading and influencing the rabble. Or I could be Goldyx, Mightiest of the Draconum, hoarder of crystals, who can friggin’ fly. I might choose Arythea, the Blood Cultist, who turns her own pain against her enemies. Or I could select Tovak Wyrmstalker, Head of the Order of the Ninth Circle, a knight with unmatched skills of shield and blade. For this game, though, I go with Wolfhawk, the Amazon, a new character introduced in Mage Knight‘s first expansion, Lost Legion. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to learn all of Wolfhawk’s tricks, but I know she’s a solitary warrior renowned for her swiftness in and out of combat.
From that moment, my goals and Wolfhawk’s are aligned. I want as badly as she to accomplish her mission from the enigmatic Council of the Void: to find and conquer the capital cities of the great Atlantean Empire. I want this desperately; I’ve failed at this task more times than I can count, and I’m beginning to lose my resolve. I know that I’ve got to move quickly to explore the countryside and push into the core of the kingdom, where the cities await discovery, before my mission comes to an end (the Council has given me only three days and three nights in which to conquer both strongholds). But I also know that I’ve got to make opportunistic stops along the way to gain power and fame, because the Atlanteans don’t take the defense of their capital cities lightly. I must train, learn new skills and techniques, and plunder powerful artifacts if I am to have any hope of defeating the Atlanteans; even then, I know I should be prepared for a beating, and I should allow ample time between the assaults to rest and recuperate.
Surveying the landscape, I see two rampaging orcs I might defeat, improving my reputation with the locals and providing a small boost to my fame (a catch-all attribute that covers endgame scoring and in-game leveling up, RPG-style). Near a swamp to the west lies a dungeon, hiding a powerful artifact and an unknown, monstrous defender. A blue crystal mine is dug into the nearby hills, and the profiles of several monasteries rise above the surrounding plains. Ignoring the immediate temptation of the mine, at which I could build up my store of mana crystals, I march to the nearest monastery. Forming a crystal of green energy from the latent mana around me, I concentrate on the empty promise of protection I will offer the resident monks in payment for their training. Under their tutelage, I learn to strengthen my resolve for the journey ahead.
Using that stout resolve against my hosts, I threaten a band of Red Cape Monks into my service. This negatively impacts my reputation, naturally, but that is quickly enough restored when I singlehandedly slay the Orc War Beast rampaging outside the monastery’s walls (okay, the Red Capes may have played a small role in this conflict). Ensuring that word of my deeds will spread, I march toward the dungeon and descend into its murky depths. A terrible Manticore guards the Sword of Justice. Absorbing the full brunt of its venom-laced strikes, I howl with rage and strike the beast down with a single blow, claiming the legendary blade for my own.
Thus endeth the first day.
Of all the writing that I do for Entropy, the Session Report series cuts to the core of what I’m most passionate about: the surprising and poetic ways sets of simple rules (“simple” in comparison to the complexes driving electronic games or real-world physics), tactile components, and the force of the player’s imagination combine just so to create remarkably vivid, lived narratives for the player of tabletop games. I’ve been generally pleased with how this monthly series has progressed since the first entry in April 2014, growing to encompass new voices and to intertwine the narrative Session Reports with the more theoretical Critical Take. However, as I mulled over my 2015 review calendar, I started thinking about ways I could make the series even better. My solution was to expand each game’s Critical Take section into a sort of case study, using the specific game as a springboard for didactic or theoretical musings on the subject of game design and interactive narrative in general. Hence the addition you may already have noticed of a critical theme alongside the game’s title crowning this month’s Session Report.
Czech designer Vlaada Chvátil occupies a seat of honor among the most important board game designers working today. His designs span the entire spectrum of audience and mechanism, from family-friendly party games like Bunny Bunny Moose Moose or Pictomania to the hours-long, brain-destroying civilization epic Through the Ages to the unclassifiable Galaxy Trucker. He has designed worker placement games, trivia games, abstract strategy games in the tradition of Go, and cooperative games that play out in real time against a deadpan soundtrack. Since this latter game, the groundbreaking Space Alert, served as the basis for my inaugural Session Report on Entropy, I thought it only fitting to revisit this prodigious designer for the first Session Report of 2015.
As much as he seems determined never to retrace his steps as a creator, certain themes tend to recur in Vlaada Chvátil’s game designs, making any entry in his opus recognizable as a Vlaada game. In particular, Vlaada’s designs tend to carry his trademark sense of humor, both on the page (his rulebooks are generally regarded as some of the funniest around) and in the game mechanics themselves, which delight in encouraging players to set up elaborate houses of cards just before swinging the doors wide open to a raging hurricane (many Vlaada games, including Space Alert, include some type of simultaneous preparation phase followed by a rollercoaster-like “see what happens” resolution phase). Other common Vlaadaisms include a separate walkthrough rulebook to ease players into his often complex rulesets and a razor-fine balance between chaos and control, strategic balance and thematic resonance.
That being said, Mage Knight is a significant departure even among the “anything goes” mentality of Vlaada’s design notebook. Based on a defunct series of Clix-based miniatures from publisher WizKids Games (the original Mage Knight line paved the way for their popular HeroClix line of collectibles), Mage Knight Board Game is a fantasy questing game, a genre Vlaada had previously tackled in his Talisman-inspired Prophecy. Unlike that family-friendly title, however, Mage Knight is one of the most mechanically rich fantasy games on the market today, approaching Through the Ages in strategic depth and length of play. Additionally, while Vlaada has tended to favor a fantasy setting in economic worker placement games like Dungeon Lords, its spinoff Dungeon Petz, and his recent abstract strategy title Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, those titles create a very guided (but competitively tight) strategic experience. In contrast, Mage Knight stands as the designer’s first and only sandbox title, offering players unparalleled freedom of movement and action in a richly simulated fantasy world.
As night fell, I sought refuge in the forest glade. Although navigation proved difficult by the arbor-shrouded light of the stars, I limped my way toward the pool of mystic energy to lick my wounds from the exhausting fight against the Manticore. Tirelessly, I rose to scout the landscape ahead before returning to the pool to partake once more of its therapeutic waters. An Atlantean keep lay ahead, ensconced behind a stout wall. To the west, some kind of maze left by an earlier, richer civilization. And to my north, in the desert, a deep mine stocked with red and white mana crystals. Crossing the cool sands, I stuffed my pouch with crystals while I looked to the west to see what awaited me there. An Orc Tracker hid in the forest beside a red crystal mine, a monster den dug into the hills to the far west. I slew the orc at range, grabbing a few more crystals before I departed the mine to the east, toward the Atlantean keep. Raising the mighty Sword of Justice against them, I slew the heroes who stood in defense of this Atlantean stronghold, resting there to await the return of day.
It’s hard to argue with the appeal of sandbox games. Since the early 2000s, variations on “Go Anywhere, Do Anything” and “Your Choices Have Consequences” have been the most overpromised and underdelivered features in the video game world. Sandbox and open-world features, thought to represent the gaming ideal, have become ubiquitous across all genres, from street racing to roleplaying and stealth, horror, or action-adventure platforming. Deferring judgment as to the true, objective value of such features–as a gamer, I generally prefer a linear and emotionally driven storyline to a do-anything title like GTA or The Elder Scrolls–I can’t deny that the promise of open-ended exploration and freedom of choice tends to sell games, suggesting that it’s a mechanistic landscape both designers and gamers want to explore.
The problem with many of these “sandbox” titles is that, while they may offer you freedom of movement across the 2-dimensional plane of the world map, they seldom allow for as much freedom of action as the advertisements promise. In spite of the enormity of its fanbase and unquestionable influence on the sandbox genre, Grand Theft Auto remains remarkably restrictive–if your concept of “do whatever you want” isn’t covered by stealing vehicles, shooting things, or participating in oversimplified, immersion-breaking minigames, you’re pretty much out of luck. Sandbox board games, from the classic dungeon crawls to 2014’s breakout hit Xia: Legends of a Drift System, tend to run into the same problem, restricting the breadth of a player’s choices to different ways to make things go boom.
Mage Knight, to a certain extent, falls into the same trap. While the game offers a variety of scenarios and ways to earn Fame, the game’s most crucial moments tend to involve combat–usually, the climactic conquest of great cities guarded by throngs of defenders. However, as I will demonstrate later on, Vlaada cleverly built sandbox gameplay into the basic units gameplay, turning simple movement around the map or melee resolution into an intensely variable puzzle. Rather than relying on the deterministic and non-interactive rolling of dice, he built the game on unique mechanics that allow player to feel as though they are in complete control of these actions. Furthermore, in the tradition of roleplaying games, the means by which you prepare for that climactic conquest–selecting skills, learning new abilities, recruiting allies–turn those big combat moments into the culmination of an exceedingly personal journey, defined at every step along the way by important player decisions. Even the game’s scoring mechanism emphasizes the diverse paths each player followed to victory or ignominy.
Alternately cajoling and threatening the keep’s cowed defenders, I recruit a band of Utem Swordsmen and a team of Scouts, disbanding the Red Cape Monks, who have outlived their usefulness. Exploring further north, I sight a mage tower. In the light of day, I can make out its defenders, a pair of Ice Mages, from a distance. Allowing my loyal swordsmen to take the brunt of the mages’ icy attack, and letting my howling rage absorb the rest, I raise the Sword of Justice once more against Atlantea’s loyal defenders. The arcane energy rising off of the fallen mages allows me to master a new spell, the art of Burning Shield.
I march further north across the now-burning desert, provoking a roving band of Orc War Beasts into attacking. Invoking the ethereal mana inherent in my newfound spell, I make use of my scouts’ ranged attacks and my own natural swiftness to fell the beasts (trembling from the echoes of my ferocious howl) from a distance. At just the right moment before the sun sets, I summon a frost bridge to explore to the north and west. There, beyond a wall of water, I spot the turrets of my first city. I must prepare myself to lay siege to it this coming night.
Nothing in Mage Knight is simple; even the task of crossing a few hexes of forest requires intense planning and effort. At the core of the game lies a robust system of combo-driven cardplay. From your first steps to your final assault, you will rely on the 14 cards in your deck, bolstered by the abilities, spells and artifacts you select as reward for your deeds, to generate the Movement, Attack, Block, and Influence needed to cross the map and make your name as an enigmatic being of legendary power.
Cardplay in Mage Knight begins, literally, at the Source, a font of magical energies bubbling directly from the land itself. The Source contains a handful of custom dice called mana dice. Each face of these mana dice depicts a color of mana: the basic blue, green, red and white, plus special gold and black mana only accessible at specific times of day. Once during your turn, you may select any one of these mana dice and gain a mana of the matching color, which may be used to power up a single card from your hand, unlocking its most powerful abilities. At the end of your turn, you’ll reroll the mana die, returning it to the Source for the next player to consider.
For a simple example, the basic Stamina action card provides 2 points of Movement when played normally but 4 points of Movement when powered up with a blue mana. Other cards are less simple–Swiftness also gives 2 movement points normally but, when powered with a white mana, instead provides 3 points of Ranged Attack. If you chose to play that blue mana mentioned above on Determination rather than Stamina, you’d get 5 points of Block to guard against your enemy’s attacks, but if you left the card unpowered, you could have your choice of 2 points of either Attack or Block. Already, you can see how a single hand of cards can form a mini-sandbox of gameplay options.
Adding a final wrinkle to this textured puzzle, you can always play any card in your hand sideways to generate 1 point of Attack, Block, Movement, or Influence. While it’s that’s never as powerful as their printed effect, even unpowered by mana, those sideways cards can often get you that one last point of Attack needed to defeat the rampaging orc, or that last sliver of Influence needed to recruit those Foresters, or that last step of Movement needed to reach that mine or magical glade. The question, then, becomes which card to sacrifice in this way, since you’ll want to squeeze every last drop of usefulness out of each card in your deck, particularly because running out of cards to play means dropping out of the current round–you can’t reshuffle your deck until the group as a whole moves on to the next night or day.
And that’s only taking the basic starting cards into consideration. As you accomplish various tasks in the game, you can gain advanced actions, spells, and artifacts, new cards that are added directly to the top of your deck to be drawn the next turn (and remain with your deck through the remainder of the game). You’ll also pick up Units, cards that remain on the table in front of you and whose abilities can be activated once per round, as well as Skills, special abilities that can be activated once per round or once per turn. You may even hoard a few mana crystals, special types of mana you can save until you need them (and can be played in addition to your once-per-turn draw from the Source), or you might sustain some Wounds, cards with no effect other than taking up valuable space in your hand and deck. These cards and abilities, which expand your personal sandbox in diverse, deep and creative ways, never enter your game randomly–they arrive as a direct consequence of your larger choices: whether to assault that keep or mage tower, to train at the monastery or burn it down, to despoil the monster nest or worship at the altar. For once, the sandbox promise that your choices have consequences actually holds true.
For as much as a simple trek across the hillside can burn your brain, assaulting a city is likely the most complicated action Mage Knight will ever ask you to perform (until you break out the expansion, Lost Legion, and face off against General Volkare and his roving army, which can include multiple dragons). Fighting a single enemy is tough–if you can’t finish it off with ranged or siege attacks, you need to figure out how to survive its attack and have enough oomph left over to kill it with your counterattack. At its most basic, this means generating enough points of block to meet or exceed the enemy’s attack strength; alternately, you can forego the block and assign wounds to your units and yourself. The amount of wounds you take is determined by the enemy’s attack and your (and/or your units’) armor value. This is generally a safe last-ditch option if you can’t figure out how to defeat the enemy any other way, but if you happen to take enough wounds in a single combat to equal your hand size, you’re knocked out, forced to discard all non-wound cards from your hand. This almost always means forfeiting your chance to counter, unless you have some feisty units saved for that moment. It also means skipping your next few turns as you slowly recover from a hand full of wounds.
Combat in Mage Knight is never at its most basic, though. Most enemies have some mix of special abilities, whether it’s swiftness (you need to generate twice as much block to avoid the enemy’s attack), brutality (wounds dealt by the enemy are doubled), the dreaded paralyzation (wounds from the enemy instantly kill units or knock out your hero), or a variety of elemental attacks and defenses. The terrible Manticore from Day 1, for example, has swiftness, poison, assassination (wounds can’t be assigned to units), and fire defense–not something you’d want to meet in a dark alley, or a dark dungeon, as it were.
Killing a single enemy with multiple abilities can be a challenge, but city assault means fighting two, three, or up to five enemies at once, further enhanced by the city’s inherent defenses. Even if you decide to pick the enemies off a few at a time, it will take your most powerful spells, skills and units to even survive to the attack phase. The cities’ level of defense can be augmented for an easier or harder game; I’ve never made it through a game of Mage Knight at the recommended starting city levels of 5 and 8, but even conquering a level 3 city, as I’m about to do, confers a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
Here’s how I took out the blue city: I didn’t. Not at first, at least. Weighing my chances at success, I spent Night 2 backtracking and powering up, recruiting another unit (now that I had explored deeply enough into the Empire, the more valuable gold units were starting to show up) and looting a few mazes I had revealed earlier in the game. The mazes, introduced in Lost Legion, are an intriguing twist on the dungeon terrain feature: like a dungeon, you’ll need to fight a random monster-type enemy, but in a maze or labyrinth, you get to choose your prize depending on how many points of movement you devote to exploring the maze. Since you spend this movement before revealing what you’re about to fight, it’s a bit of a gamble–can you afford to use a mana die or play a card sideways, or should you save those for the actual combat? Defeating a Crypt Worm and a Hydra from the mazes’ hearts, I took a couple of spells as my reward: Call to Arms, which allows me to use an unrecruited unit as though it were a part of my band, and Expose, an essential spell in city combat that strips an enemy of its fortification and resistances.
When it came time to assault the blue city on Day 3 (the penultimate round of the game), here’s how I did it: I crossed the otherwise impassible lake with Frost Bridge, powering it with a gold mana die from the Source. I then used my Howl of the Pack skill to beef up a sideways Threaten to generate 4 movement rather than 1, allowing me to move onto the city space and begin the assault. As a weak level 3 city, it only had 2 defenders: Fire Golems and Altem Guardsmen. Spending one of my white mana crystals to cast Expose, I stripped the Fire Golems of their fortifications (normally, enemies in keeps, towers and cities are fortified, meaning they can’t be killed by normal ranged attacks) and used my Crushing Bolt ability (powered by a green crystal) to generate 5 ranged attack, killing the golems. I then needed to survive the attack from the Altem Guardsmen; choosing to absorb their attack of 6 as two wounds, I sicced my Amotep Gunners and Utem Swordsmen units on them for 11 attack points (I had to wound the swordsmen to trigger their most powerful attack). However, the Guardsmen’s armor value of 7, plus physical defense, meant I had to generate 14 attack to finish them off. I played Rage for its basic attack value of 2, then played Crystallize sideways for an addition point of attack, conquering the city and earning myself 13 points of fame.
Writing it out this way, of course, can’t represent the minutes spent staring at the cards and abilities, testing out diverse battle plans to figure out which one would let me conquer the city with minimal personal losses. For tactically intense moments of introspection, you’ve never experienced the likes of Mage Knight.
A good sandbox consists of two equally vital halves. As described above, it must support a diverse range of inputs, the more the better. Of equal importance, though, a sandbox’s range of outputs must be no less diverse, so that every action feels like it has a unique and meaningful consequence. And in the realm of input/output systems, most sandboxes (but not all) function as simulations of some version of reality. The setting might include sorcerers or dubstep guns, but these fantastical elements are generally layered on top of a world that is otherwise bound by recognizable laws of physics. With a few exceptions, the more realistically a sandbox responds to your interactions, the more satisfying it will be to tromp around in. Indeed, a sandbox’s range of input can only be as rich as its range of output.
In addition to being a deep logistical puzzle, Mage Knight also manages to be a compelling simulation, one in which your actions actually feel as though they contribute to an ongoing, self-driven saga. It starts with the movement costs of various terrain–rather than paying a simple one movement point per space, your Mage Knight must spend movement points equal to the difficulty of the terrain you’re entering. Plains cost a breezy 2 MP, while swamps will run you 5 MP per space and mountains and lakes are inaccessible without the proper units, spells, or abilities. In a touch of realism that sums up the careful balance Mage Knight strikes between simulation and strategic depth, certain terrain costs vary depending on the time of day–deserts are easier to cross during night rounds, while forests are best navigated during the day. The varied and changing terrain costs turn a network of colorful tiles into a textured landscape, one that has palpable friction and gravity.
What’s most striking about Mage Knight‘s sandbox is the way that simulation and strategy feed off of one another–every rule makes sense as part of a living, breathing world, but every rule also makes sense as part of a balanced and interesting system of game mechanics. So it is that when you decide to raze a monastery, giving you a chance to add a valuable Artifact to your deck, “your Units will not help you in this combat, as they feel what you are doing is very wrong.” This presents a unique strategic consideration when attempting this action, but it also just makes good sense and helps you feel at one with your character’s actions.
Contributing further to the simulation aspect, many actions in Mage Knight will affect your reputation, a spectrum that could positively or negatively impact your interaction at civilized sites. Defeating a rampaging orc in the countryside gives your reputation a minor boost, while burning down a monastery means taking a major hit to this stat. Some actions, like clearing out a dungeon or monster den, don’t affect your reputation one way or another–the locals have no opinion about whatever beds down in that darkness, far from their fields and towns. While it’s another rule to learn and consider during play, this concept of reputation reinforces Mage Knight‘s narrative premise:
No one knows who sent them or why. Some celebrate them as heroes and liberators and are eager to join their armies, as they believe that they can bring about true stability with their might. Most fear them and close the gates of their cities, as the Mage Knights are strange and choose to remain silent on their motives.
I believe that it is Mage Knight‘s strength as a sandbox that makes it so satisfying for solitaire play. Indeed, no other game can come close, as evidenced by a recent polling of BoardGameGeek’s 1-Player Guild. Users were asked to compose a list of their top 20 board games for solo play, and the results were compiled and weighted to form a “People’s Choice” top 100. Appearing on 46 lists of the 85 gamers who participatedm and receiving 21 #1 votes, Mage Knight placed first in the overall rankings (to nobody’s great surprise), beating the #2 game by 100 weighted points and the #10 game by more than 500. If you’re looking for a single-player board game experience with real depth and meat, there’s just no contest. Of course, the multiplayer is just as nice, although it’s harder to justify spending ten minutes working out the possibilities of your cards while there are four other people around the table awaiting their turn.
As an extra cherry on top of this unparalleled experience, Mage Knight offers a destination that’s just as satisfying as its journey. Many games simply come to an end when a winner is decided; others peter out into dry point calculations. Mage Knight, however, invites you to reflect upon the epic quest you’ve just concluded, from your humble beginnings to your unstoppable final actions. In addition to the fame points you’ve accrued during the game, you receive additional points in a variety of categories and, in multiplayer games, the chance to earn some coveted titles. First, players earn additional fame for the spells and advanced action cards in their decks, competing for the title of The Greatest Knowledge. Then, they score their artifact cards and mana crystals for the title of The Greatest Loot. The Greatest Leader goes to the player who scores the most for his or her recruited units, while The Greatest Conquerer rewards players for the keeps, mage towers and monasteries they’ve conquered during the game. Sites like dungeons, mazes and altars give players points toward The Greatest Adventurer, and then–a particularly Vlaada category–players count up their wounds to score negative points for The Greatest Beating.
Aside from reinforcing the notion that all of a player’s actions matter, this endgame scoring cleverly encourages players to revisit their memories of the game. When you sort the spells, artifacts and actions out of your deck, you’ll reminisce on the moment you earned those cards or when you used them in a particularly clever way. When you scan the map for your shield tokens (conferring ownership of keeps, towers and adventure sites), you’ll be able to trace the key landmarks along your northward march toward the cities. And when you tally up your wounds, you’ll remember just how much it hurt to face off against that fire draconum outside the city gates.
And that, I suppose, is what makes Mage Knight stand apart from even the best sandboxes found in electronic games. Not just a series of moments that perfectly balance user input and unexpected output, but a way of capping them off that’s equally memorable, a steady incline toward a climax and an invitation to play again–that’s an element, perhaps, that more sandboxes need.