I came across Mage Knight early in my search for deck building games that did more with the deck building mechanics. Dominion is 100% deck building. No deck building, no Dominion. That’s not the case for Mage Knight. Mage Knight is first and foremost an exploration game. You might even call it a dungeon crawler. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to be clear about what I mean when I use these terms.
There are three terms I want to use to talk about Mage Knight: deck-building, engine building, and dungeon crawling. Deck building, as mechanic or part of overall gameplay, is when you start the game possessing your very own small, weak deck of cards, and use those cards to put more cards into that deck to make your deck stronger and increase your chance of winning.
Apparently, there is some disagreement over the definition of “engine building.” Basically, the divide is over whether the game can be called an “engine builder” if the “engine” requires input from the player. My position is yes. I mean, my car doesn’t work if I don’t fill the tank with gasoline. Anyway, the core take away for the definition of an “engine builder” is that during the game you create some series of mechanisms that generate resources for you, whether they require inputs or not. The key for me is that you improve these mechanisms during the course of the game. Suppose you have something that generates a victory point, and over time you can add “+1,” “x2” or “x3” to that option so the amount of points increase next time you choose that option. A good example of a pure engine builder would be Valeria.
That brings us to “dungeon crawler.” My first introduction to the concept of a “dungeon” was the Legend of Zelda game for the NES. I’m not sure if this is an official term, or just one fans made up to describe the difference, but you begin the game in a place called the “overworld” because you go down stairs to enter “dungeons.” The dungeons are maze like places of loot and danger, usually culminating into a boss fight. Whether the term “dungeon crawl” when referring to board games predates this, it’s the same idea: a place of loot and danger.
Phew, now we dig in. Let’s start with the pros. If we can call a game who’s map consists only of an “overworld,” a “dungeon crawler,” then Mage Knight is all 3. The overworld of Mage Knight is a place of loot and danger, culminating into boss fights. For me this is a plus. The idea of exploring a vast, imaginary world will always pull me into a game. And there’s lots to see and do in Mage Knight. In Mage Knight, you play as a, well, “Mage Knight,” whose actions are represented by a deck of cards. Your character starts with a deck of 16 cards, and each turn (until you level up) you’ll get a hand of 5 of these. The game also comes with a number of different colored “mana” crystals. Every card in the game has a base function, and a “mana” powered function, that basically does the same thing but is more powerful. You gain mana as a resource by rolling mana dice, and you can save up your mana and use when the appropriate card presents itself. Because there’s a lot to see and do, and the game is quite meaty, expect it to be the main course of your game night, not a side dish. That might be a con for some people.
In fact, let’s move onto the rest of the cons. And yes, for me, con number 1 is that rulebook. There are two versions of the rulebook. There’s the whole thing, and then there’s the walk-through. It’s a watered down version of the game meant to teach new players the absolute basics. That doesn’t sound so bad, but it takes upwards of a couple hours to complete. That means the first time this hits your table for game night, you probably aren’t going to do much more than play the tutorial. Ugh.
But it’s a deck-builder, and I love deck-builders, right? Well, to bring back some nightmares from English or logic class, all deck builders are engine builders, but not all engine builders are deck builders. And Mage Knight has non-deck building based engine building elements. These are not cons in and of themselves. None of the non-deck building based engine building mechanics bother me by themselves, such as leveling up, managing your reputation (basically whether you’re naughty or nice, AKA alignment) getting extra equipment, and recruiting underlings. No, what gets me is the slow crawl to amass all of these things. Despite being a long game, the number of rounds in Mage Knight is fixed. If the game is going to end on turn Y and you still have some work to do on turn X, the game is going to feel really punishing from turn X to Y. I don’t like engine building games with a limited number of turns for this reason.
I wanted to like Mage Knight. In fact, I still do. It’s just a hard sell to some of the more casual gamers in our gaming group. If Twilight Imperium is child’s play for your gaming group, you might get to play Mage Knight more often than I do.