Overview: Powerful mages battle each other, each with their own philosophies of magic at the ready. Cast spells from your spellbook and maneuver around the arena in a fight to the death. The game is Mage Wars, and things will get ugly.
Ages: 13 and up
Playing Time: 45-90 minutes
Rating: I’m on the fence — some gamers may love it, and some may hate it.
Who Will Like It? It’s a bit like Magic: The Gathering, and a bit like Summoner Wars, but it depends on what you like or dislike from those games. If you like building up a deck and then battling with it, but would rather have your luck come in the form of dice rather than a card draw, this might just be the perfect combination.
Powerful mages, trained in different schools of magic, battle to the death in a large arena, summoning creatures and minions or just blasting each other directly. The artwork looks like you’d expect it to: a high fantasy style, lots of flames and crackling lightning, muscular men and well-endowed women. The core set comes with four mages: the Beastmaster, the Priestess, the Warlock, and the Wizard, and each one has particular types of strengths in the spells they can cast, though there are many spells that are common to all of them.
One thing I’m not sure I understand is the juxtaposition of very serious-looking artwork and flavor text with the occasional goofy humor. I’ve seen it in several games — 3012 and Conquest Tactics come to mind — but I’d prefer a game that either immerses you in the humor or plays it straight, rather than mixing mysterious prophecy-speak with things like the Regeneration Belt, which heals a mage and “holds up his pants, too.”
That said, if you’re a fan of typical fantasy tropes, Mage Wars will probably feel quite familiar.
The other way that Mage Wars ties theme to mechanics is with the spellbooks. In a game like Magic: The Gathering, the understanding is that you’ve got all these abilities, but for some reason you can only use a handful of them at a time — whichever cards you can draw into your hand. While this makes for a reasonable game mechanic, thematically it seems somewhat odd. Mage Wars lets you pull any spell you want out of your spellbook, as long as you have the mana to pay for it.
There’s a lot that comes in the box, which is roomy enough for expansions.
- arena board
- 2 spellbooks
- 322 spell cards
- 4 Mage cards
- 4 Mage ability cards
- 2 status boards
- 8 status cubes
- 20 action markers (10 red, 10 blue)
- 2 Quickcast markers
- 9 attack dice (six-sided)
- 1 effect die (12-sided)
- 1 initiative marker
- 68 cardboard punch-out tokens
The board is pretty huge: 24″ x 32″. The artwork on it is detailed and has the evidence of previous battles — abandoned weapons, arcane symbols, gruesome stains, and even a corpse and a few skeletons.
The spellbooks are key to the game, and each one holds up to 80 cards. My one complaint about the spellbooks is that the way the pages are arranged, halfway through the book the pockets face the back of the spellbook. So if you have all your cards facing you as you flip through the book, then the cards in back you’ll have to pull out from the backside of the sheet. Perhaps this is how all card sleeve binders are designed, but it’s a little inconvenient.
A note about the rulebook: it’s fairly well laid-out, with explanations of setup, a walkthrough that shows you how to play a few turns using specific cards, and an appendix that details all of the traits and effects that you’ll see listed on cards. It’s also a huge rulebook — definitely not for casual gamers. Before you can get started, you’ll want to sit down and read through it all for an overview, and then you can expect to be flipping through the rulebook as you play. Because of the sheer number of effects and abilities, it will take many plays before you become familiar enough with all of them to play without looking things up.
Since there’s a lot to digest in the 45-page rulebook, I’ll refer you to the PDF if you want to check out the whole thing, or go to the Mage Wars website for tutorial videos, spell lists, and other information about the game. Here, I’ll just give you a brief overview of how the game works.
Each person starts with one of the four mages and builds a spellbook by selecting spell cards and putting them into one of the two books. Of course, part of the game is assembling the spellbook — you can use the recommended “starting spellbooks” for each mage, or pick whatever spells you want, adding up to your mage’s maximum spell points.
Once you each have your spellbooks ready, you set up the board. Your mage cards are placed on opposite corners of the arena board, and put a Quickcast marker and an action marker on the card — these indicate whether you’ve activated your mage or Quickcast ability each round. You also take a status board and mark your life, channeling ability, zero damage points, and 10 mana points on it.
The goal of the game is to eliminate the other mage by inflicting enough damage to match the other person’s life points (or, conversely reducing their life amount to meet the damage).
On each round, first you have a Ready stage, which is where you reset all of the action markers so that everything is ready to act again. Mages and anything else that channels mana gets to add mana to their supply, and you pay any upkeep costs for spells already in play. You also pick two spells secretly from your spellbook for your mage, and also choose spells for Spawnpoints and Familiars if they’re in play. Finally, Spawnpoints can cast spells.
Then you move to the Action phase: this is where the mages and other creatures can take actions. Players take turns activating one creature at a time — each creature can only be activated once per round, after which its action marker is flipped over to show that it’s done for the round. Actions include moving, attacking, casting spells, and guarding. Some things are quick actions and can be done after moving; others are full actions and can only be done if you don’t move. Each mage also has a Quickcast action, which can be used for a quick spell once per round at specific times during the turn.
There are several different types of spells:
- Equipment is tied to a particular creature (usually your mage) — things like wands, weapons, and armor
- Incantations are usually one-time-use spells like healing, teleporting, or dispelling other spells.
- Conjurations are non-creatures that you can summon: walls, spawnpoints (which can cast spells), and mana flowers.
- Creatures are people, animals, and beasts that will help you fight.
- Attacks are, of course, spells that directly attack the opponent — either his mage, creatures, or even entire zones.
- Enchantments attach to creatures and can help or harm them.
That’s the basic idea — run around the arena with your spells and creatures, trying to take down the other mage while avoiding attacks. There are, of course, lots of details and specifics on how combat works and all of the various status effects.
I have not played Magic: The Gathering, or any other collectible, trading, or living card game — part of it is my reluctance to get started in anything that involves constantly buying more cards to build up an arsenal, and part of it is that I like games that don’t require me to spend a long time building an army or a deck before I can get started. So, keep that in mind as you read the rest of this review.
I have no doubt that gamers who play Magic and other similar games become familiar enough with their cards that they could, at any given point in a game, know specifically which cards would be the best to have in hand. I mean, even playing something like Dominion or Thunderstone, you know which cards you wish you could draw, and if you were able to pick and choose cards from your deck at any time it would be a very different game, eliminating the luck of the draw. So I can certainly see what would inspire somebody to create a game like this: imagine being able to pull any card from your deck at the moment you need it! Now it’s all about how well you built your deck and whether you can out-strategize the other player.
On the other hand, this is exactly the sort of thing that leads to Analysis Paralysis — when a game is bogged down because a player simply has too many options and can’t decide between them. If you thought your pal spent way too long choosing from a hand of five cards, just wait until you hand him a spellbook with over 50 different cards and tell him to choose two of them … every single turn. The play time says “45-90 minutes” on the box, but I think you’ll have to play a few times before you get it down to that. Except it to be quite a bit longer the first time. If, on the other hand, the Core Set isn’t enough, soon you’ll be able to add two more mages with the Forcemaster vs. Warlord expansion.
Mage Wars can be fun, with all the different spells you can cast. It’s still a combination of planning and luck — attacks use six-sided dice and some spells can have additional effects based on a twelve-sided die. The board is large but is actually only 12 spaces — the reason you need so much space is because there might be several creatures and other things within a single space, plus any given creature might have several enchantments on it. (In the photo above, my Beastmaster has six cards attached to him, which I had to spread out so I could remember all the effects.) It’s a little like playing a miniatures wargame, except instead of moving a figure around on the board and having a stack of cards off to the side to keep track of its stats, you just move a whole stack of cards around instead.
In the end, it’s one of those games that just isn’t really my thing. I can’t see myself playing it enough to be able to build my own spellbook, let alone know it so well that I could pick my two spells each turn without either bogging down the game or just pulling two at random, at which point I might as well just shuffle them and draw two. I can definitely see that for some gamers this will be a whole lot of fun, learning the best combinations of spells and creatures to take down their opponents, but it’ll take more work and preparation than I’m willing to put in myself.
That’s my take on Mage Wars. I may hang onto my review copy for a little longer and try it some more, but it seems to be best for players who dive into one game and immerse themselves in it, and I’m the sort of person who likes to dabble in a little of everything. For a more enthusiastic review, I found that the Drake’s Flames take on it is incredibly hilarious and a pretty spot-on description, even if the final verdict differs from mine.
Wired: A spell-casting game that works thematically, letting you pick any spell from your spellbook to cast. Great artwork, piles of cards and bits.
Tired: Unlimited choice leads to analysis paralysis; requires a lot of preparation to play.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.