Plays: 3Px2, 2Px2 (including a cooperative variant).
Mage Knight is a dungeon crawl game by Vlaada Chvatil. The theme is nothing new. You start the game as a character with more or less the same abilities as other player characters. You explore the map to defeat enemies, kill monsters, conquer castles, recruit units, and as you gain fame, you level up, gaining new abilities, learning magic spells, improving your armour, increasing your team size etc. What is interesting about the game is how all these are implemented - using the deck-building mechanism. Every turn, what you can do is mostly determined by your cards in hand. On your turn you play cards to do things, and then at the end of your turn you draw back up to your hand size. Units you lead and special power tiles you have gained can let you do extra stuff, but mostly you are limited by your hand. To move and explore, to fight (which includes attacking and blocking), to heal injury, to recruit units, all require card plays. Your starting deck is fixed, so you have some idea about the distribution of the card abilities. As you level up, you gain more (and better) cards and your deck becomes more powerful and also more different from others' decks. You only play through your deck a handful of times. The game is usually played over 4 to 6 rounds, with day rounds and night rounds alternating. One round means one play-through of your deck. So at the start of every round, you know roughly what cards you have and how much you can achieve within that round. You need to plan accordingly.
Battles are deterministic and involve no dice. The main uncertainty is sometimes you don't know what you are attacking (e.g. you enter a dark dungeon). However there are different classes of enemies and a lookup chart showing every enemy in every class. You will know the enemy class, so you have a rough idea of what you may be up against. In some cases the enemy is known, and the only thing stopping you from determining whether you will able to beat it (or them) is it can be time-consuming to work out how to best use your cards. Often I just go ahead with the attack based on gut feel and work things out as I go. Combat is mostly straight-forward. You try to range attack your enemy first, if you can't kill it, it will then melee attack you and you can try to block, unsuccessful blocks resulting in injury (useless wound cards clogging your hand and your deck), and finally you can melee attack it.
There are dice in the game, but they are mainly used to determine the mana available to the players every turn. Mana is important. Every card has two powers, the more powerful one requiring mana of a specific colour to activate. Every turn you can get one mana for free from the pool, and after you use it, you roll that mana die and put it back to the pool. Other dice in the pool are not rerolled, so your opponents can still plan ahead somewhat. Some cards allow you to gain or store mana in crystal form, which is handy, because normally mana dissolves at the end of your turn. Storing lots of crystals allows you to make a big move later, activating the more powerful abilities of many cards.
You move and fight, recruit, level up, learn new tricks. Fame that you gain during the game are victory points. When the game ends, you do scoring for all your feats - castles conquered, dungeons explored, cities conquered, units under your banner, spells and abilities learned etc. You also lose points for wounds not healed. For each scoring criteria, there is also a bonus for being best in category (and a penalty for the most wounded category). The scoring is like quite a number of other Vlaada Chvatil games, where everything that you do well is rewarded.
There are a number of scenarios that come with the game, even cooperative ones. There are ultra competitive ones which encourage direct conflict between players. For normal games, it is probably not so worthwhile to fight other players because you don't gain that much from it. It is better to fight monsters and other game characters. You get more good stuff. There are rules for building your own scenarios, so the game is like a toolbox. You can adjust the difficulty level to your liking.
The game comes with four player characters. Each starting deck only has one card which is unique for the character, but whenever the character levels up, he will gain a unique special power tile from his own pool. So the characters have unique aspects, and players can also develop these characters to their liking.
On my first play, I wasn't impressed. It felt like just another dungeon crawl, going about killing monsters and leveling up, and I don't have any particular interest in fantasy role-playing games. I felt very restricted by my cards. I couldn't move when I wanted to move, I couldn't fight when I wanted to fight. However as I played more, I began to understand the rhythm of the game and how to make better use of my cards, sometimes holding some cards for a better moment to use them, sometimes adjusting my plans based on the cards I had. Leveling up was quite fun, much more interesting than just increasing numbers and stats to roll dice against. Many new abilities come in the form of new cards in the deck - advanced action cards, magic spells and artifacts - and it is fun to use them to make powerful plays. As I leveled up, I became more specialised in certain areas, and I planned my moves accordingly.
The game is a little solitairish, because most of the time you are doing your own thing. I guess it is up to the players how much they want to do player-to-player combat, but in my opinion it is not very beneficial (you may gain a little fame, rob an artifact or shove the guy away), especially in 3- or 4-player games when other players not involved in the fight can make better use of their limited actions to fight monsters and level up. There is a race element in trying to reach certain locations before others, recruit certain units, claim certain skills etc, but other than these, most of the time you are focusing on how to make the best use of your cards. There can be much downtime because working out how to best execute your turn can take some time, especially when you have leveled up and have more cards, more special ability tiles, and more units. It is best that you plan your turn beforehand. It'll save much time, but the game will still take quite long, 2 - 3 hours.
Most scenarios have some overall objective, e.g. exploring all dungeons, conquering a twin city, so the game builds towards a climax. You need to level up as much as you can, and then plan for that ultimate battle before the game ends.
I quite like Mage Knight. Although I have never been a fantasy fan, I quite enjoyed the character development in the game. It is deck-building put into good use, perhaps not as thematically fitting as A Few Acres of Snow, but still a very good implementation. The game is long, but I don't find it particularly complex. There are many rules, but in most cases you can just refer to the handy reference cards that come with the game. Every turn you just move and then do something at your destination. That's all there is to it. Making good combos of your cards can be complex, since the cards give you many possibilities. This is not a game for casual gamers. Building up towards powerful combos is very satisfying. Throughout the game as you gain new abilities, you build up towards an ultimate showdown. It is like trying to get all the stars aligned. When you achieve it, it is exhilarating.
I really admire how the fantasy dungeon crawl is implemented in Mage Knight. This Vlaada Chvatil fellow is a very smart guy. Despite all the familiar elements of the genre, the implementation feels fresh. Luck in dice rolling is replaced with luck in card draws and tile draws, but the latter is much less because of how much more deterministic combat is. The deck-building has a purpose to it and is not just chasing meaningless victory points.
Buy from Noble Knight Games. Status: restocking (at time of this post).