Board Game Review: Mage Wars – Two Mages Enter, One Mage Leaves | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Mage Wars – Two Mages Enter, One Mage Leaves

Picture this in your head for a moment…

You are a wizard standing in a bloodied arena. The crowds around you scream your name. Ahead of you stands both a demon wielding a flaming whip and your main foe, a warlock of untold and exotic power. He stands there, cackling as you realize the power of the demon he’s summoned.  You look inside yourself, knowing you have a vast store of your own power at your disposal and you’re armed with any spell or conjuration you can think of. You smile… your foe has no idea what he’s in for…

Welcome to the world of Mage Wars by Arcane Wonders, a game filled with magic spells,  arcane wizardry, nasty combinations and clever trickery. It’s a 2-4 player game (though in the base set, you’ll have enough for only two players) with games typically lasting between 90 -180 minutes (depending on your familiarity with the game).  It’s a complex game filled with many rules, but what else would you expect from a game where you can be a total bad-ass mage? It’s a game where you will feel truly like a mage with power limited only by whatever your mind can conjure up.

The Rules

Mage Wars is a game of dueling wizards. While it quite literally says that on the box, it takes a deeper imagination to really think through that statement. You know that scene in Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone”? The one where Merlin battles Madame Mim, dueling by transforming themselves into various creatures in an effort to out think and battle one another? That is this game in a nutshell. Except with far more fireballs and lightning bolts.

You see, in Mage Wars you can cast any spell you’ve prepared in your spell book. At the start of the game, each player gets to select any set of spells they want for their spell book and each turn they’ll choose any two that they want to use that turn. That’s right, any two. There’s no randomness to what you have access to; it’s anything you want. If the enemy mage has some armor on that’s hurting your ability to damage them, cast Explode on it and blow it up. If you know they’re about to throw a  crazy Lightning bolt at you, reverse it back at them!  Not only can you literally cast anything you want, Mage Wars offers a ton of different types of spells to choose from. You can put powerful artifacts on your mage, summon all manner of creatures, put powerful enchantments on your foes, erect walls to block their paths and cast powerful attacks at them. Within each type of spell, there’s a huge variety to choose from. Currently, there is over 100 unique spells in the Mage Wars universe and I am constantly discovering new ways to use them.

Mage Wars features many different spell types. We’ve got incantations, enchantments, creatures, conjurations, equipment and the dreaded attacks

Ok, ok, we’ll get back to the variety in a minute. Let’s get back to the rules.

The game takes place in a magic arena, a 3 x 4 grid of zones, and each player has the sole objective of eliminating their opponent’s mage. A player can choose one of the four mages included in the game (Beastmaster, Warlock, Wizard, or Priestess) and each mage has a starting life total that you’ll need to whittle down to zero. Each mage also tracks how much mana they currently have and tracks their channeling level (channeling represents how much mana a creature will gain each turn).

The Mage Wars tracker, used to track channeling level, current mana, and current health

Each round is broken down into two parts. The preparation/upkeep housekeeping part where you’ll gain mana based on your channeling level, pay for any upkeep, refresh action markers, switch initiative and select any two spells from your spell book. Selecting two spells (preparation) is really the crux of the game. Which spells you choose to bring to the round depends entirely on what you have around you and what you hope to accomplish in the round. Do you bring out a creature to attack your opponent, do you buff yourself with equipment, etc.

Each mage has two cylinders on their character. One representing their ability to Quick-Cast a spell and one Action Marker representing their mage’s action for the turn. Each creature summoned will also have an Action Marker on them which can be used by that creature to take actions.  With an Action marker, you can either move and take a quick action, or take a full action. Quick Actions are usually a quick attack or a quick spell, but there are a few other things you can do after moving. The mage’s Quick Cast marker can also be used as a means to cast a quick spell.  I’ll be honest, there’s a bit of overuse of the word quick. It’s probably the only piece of terminology I would change in the game. Suffice it to say, an Action Marker translates to  either “do a move and quick thing” or “do one full action”. Spells and Actions either have a lightning bolt to represent that it’s a quick thing to do, or an hourglass, meaning it’ll take all of that creature’s focus to do the action this turn.

Players alternate using their Action Markers (the player with initiative goes first) to take actions with their mage or creatures. Typically you’ll use your mage to cast some of the spells you’ve initially selected but you can also use him to attack directly.

Because who knows? Sometimes your mage wants to just whip things with a Lash of Hellfire  (a great attack!)

The last thing to talk about before the basics are really covered is what makes up an attack. An attack comprises of a few things. A type (ranged or melee), a number of dice to roll in the attack, and any other modifiers to the attack (fire damage, additional effects, etc.). You’ll roll dice, count up total damage, subtract off any armor, add the wound,s and we’re done! While that sums up combat, the modifiers and status effects add all the variety to the game.

And here’s where the game starts to get complex. There are a LOT of terms in the game. From simple things like “Flame +2” to more complex terms like “Sweeping” or “Aegis”, there are over 4 full pages of terminology. Thankfully most of these are really simple to understand, especially given the context of the cards. “Aegis 1” gives your creature some sort of shield, (-1 dice to all attack rolls against them to be specific); Triplestrike, gets to attack 3 times; Sweeping hits all creatures in a zone, etc. There’s just a lot of them and your first game will involve a lot of rule book lookups. Status effects also add to this complexity but the game cleverly writes what the effect is on the token itself.

I’ll be honest, there’s a TON of things I haven’t explained above but that’s really one of the main  fun parts of the game – discovering all of it.

The Feel

While the rules section above is long and only begins to cover the vast extent of the game, much of the fun is in exploring this world of magic where each spell has new and wondrous effects. For example, digging through your spell book and realizing that you’ve got a fire spell that will annihilate an entire zone of creatures on the board, or dropping a wall in front of your opponent’s deadly archers.

Each mage also plays entirely differently. The Beastmaster focuses on nature creatures and swarming the opponent with forest dwellers; The Priestess has the power of healing and holy creatures (like angels); The Warlock has the power of curses and demonic creatures; The Wizard has arcane and elemental powers and loves to slow his opponent’s mana reserves. Whichever mage you choose also dictates what types of spells you can put in your spellbook efficiently. Ultimately, while your mage chooses a general direction, you ultimately have control over what you get to use.

The power to select any spell you want each turn ultimately means you have complete control of your character. This sort of freedom of strategy in a duel-type game is almost unheard of. The closest thing I can compare it to  is playing D&D, except that this game strangely offers even more freedom than that! The spells are all incredibly imaginative and cover all the types of “magical” things you might want to do. Do you want to throw your opponent to the other end of the board? Force Push is the answer to that! Want to trap your opponent if they walk into a zone? Hellfire or Teleport trap is the cure. Resurrect your strongest creature? Got that covered too with Divine Intervention.

I could go on and on with how vast the spell selection is in this game and quite honestly, I haven’t begun to explore the depth of combinations. For instance, in one of my most recent games, I had dropped a zone of poison gas that would constantly do damage to any creatures in the zone. When my opponent walked into a teleport trap, I dropped him right into the center of the zone and immediately cast a spell to bind him in place. He was stuck and took a fair bit of damage before he pulled himself out with a dispel. This sort of trickery happens quite frequently and it creates a stunning sense of epic moments.

Ultimately, I knew that I loved this game when after one particularly back-and-forth match, I had a vivid dream about the game where that description that this article started with actually occurred. The game just does a great job of making you feel like a bad-ass mage of incredible power.

 Components ( 5/5 )

The game comes with over 300 cards, a ton of tokens, dice, and a very large and well-produced board. The art on the cards is phenomenal and really captures the spirit of the spell they are illustrating. What really sets the game apart from its competition though is the spell books that it comes with. For me, the spellbooks complete the package. Each turn as you peruse the pages of your spellbook, you feel like an arcane wizard, carefully selecting how best to defeat your foe.

I’ve read criticisms online of the spellbook being a bit of a time sink, in initial setup, during the game, and even during cleanup. Don’t get me wrong, it does take time to slide 30-40 cards into and out of the spellbook, but the feeling that this creates outweighs the time cost for me. I love being able to look at a glance what each spell does and digging through a deck of cards wouldn’t feel nearly the same.

Overall, the components in the game are top notch and it easily has some of the highest production value that I’ve seen.

Mechanics (4.5 /5)

The mechanics in the game are all sound and solid.

The biggest question on my mind has been around balance. With a game that has such a large scope, is it truly balanced? With mages that have very different starting powers and spells that only they can use, is one mage dominant? Thankfully, from my limited set of data, I’ve seen all four mages win against each opponent. What’s more, no one spell has ever felt overpowered (though some of the legendary creatures truly are legendary in their impact to the game).

What makes the game really take the win for mechanics is the concept of hidden enchantments. Enchantments in the game are placed face down on creatures or zones. They only work their magic when revealed, but they can be revealed by the caster at any time. This creates great moments of looming threats in the game, where you have dropped some hidden enchantment on your opponent’s best creature or mage and are waiting to spring the trap. It gets even better when you realize that some enchantments are designed to do nothing other than trick them! A spell called Decoy is purely designed to force your opponent to dispel it. Once they do, you just get your mana back.

The only negatives I can really think of here are around the sheer volume of terms and concepts that you’ll learn while playing the game. From the rules for flying creatures, damage barriers, creatures guarding, extensible walls, and much more; there’s a lot of complexity here. And while it all makes sense and fits well together, there’s just a lot of it. It does take a full game to really appreciate all the ideas and concepts.

Strategy/Luck (4.5/5)

The spellbooks create a whole level of strategy that I’ve never experienced before. I’ve played a lot of card games in my days and one of the worst things about them is never getting the right draw to fit your strategy. Sure, there are always options and a good player has to work with what they have and what they know remains in the deck. You can always pray for the lucky card or use deck drawing mechanics to get to the core set of power cards. But there’s always a huge element of luck.

Mage Wars removes that from the equation. Your strategy in the game is limited only by your imagination as you always have the answer to any situation. And your opponent both knows this and equally has any option. That’s what makes this game shine. The power to completely optimize your strategy for any given situation.

Now, before this sounds too much like a completely abstract strategy game, there is still luck involved. All attacks are based on dice that range from 0-2 damage and status effects rely on a D12. I’ve had incredibly well thought out attacks completely bomb because of the dice and had very last-ditch attacks thrive.

Replayability (5/5)

There are hundreds of cards in the game with over 100 unique spells. Each of the four mages play entirely differently and the spells all feel different. There’s tons and tons of content here to explore and play with. Heck, I don’t think I’ve even cast every spell in the game! Spell book building is a huge component to the game and I don’t think I’ll have maxed this game out even with many many more plays.

If that were not enough, expansions for the game are starting to trickle out. The first of which, Mage Wars: Forcemaster vs. Warlord has just hit stores. It offers two new mages and another huge set of unique spells in the game. And there’s even more planned! I’ve heard rumors of a Druid Vs. Necromancer expansion in the works.

Spite (5/5)

It’s a straight up competitive duel, so spite is automatically present in the game. And man, is it fun to see the look on your opponent’s face when you spring a great trap or spell combination on them.

Overall (4.5/5)

Overall, I must say that I truly love Mage Wars. Whether it’s the vast variety of spells, the epic moments that it creates as your outwit your opponent, or just the feel of battling an enemy wizard with your army of magic creatures; Mage Wars just has it all. It’s got  tension, plenty of random dice rolls and a whole lot of surprises in store for your opponent.

I easily recommend this game to anyone who enjoys fantasy, thematic games.  While it has a lot of terminology and concepts, it really is designed around creating an experience that can support anything one can imagine. And that’s the real joy in it; the fact that you’re going to feel like a mage who theoretically can cast any sort of magical spell they can imagine.

 

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