Cheaty Mages is an earlier work of Seiji Kanai of Love Letter fame, and it reminds me of Reiner Knizia's Colossal Arena. Players are mages who make bets in three tournaments. Each tournament has five contestants, and only one will win. If you bet on the right one, you'll make money. The key idea in the game is you get to cast spells on contestants to try to sway the results. Whoever makes the most money after three tournaments wins the game.
Before a tournament starts, the five contestants are announced and all players secretly make bets. You can bet on one, two or three contestants. If you bet on only one, and you win, your reward is doubled. If you play safe and bet on three, your reward (if you win) is halved. After everyone has placed his bets, the tournament starts. Casting a spell on a contestant is just playing a card on him. Players take turns playing cards until everyone passes. Cards have various effects, the most common ones being increasing or reducing the strength of the contestant. Some cards must be played face-up, and some face-down. The face-down ones keep you guessing what your opponents have played, and whether they are trying to help or hinder the contestant. Some cards have a mana cost. You don't spend mana when playing it, but the total mana value of spells played on a contestant is an important number. At the end of a tournament, if the total mana exceeds the limit that is allowed by the judge, the contestant may get all the spells dispelled, or he may even be disqualified, depending on the ruling of the judge. So even if you want to help a particular contestant, it can be risky to play too many cards on him.
The judge of a tournament is revealed at the start of the tournament, so players can plan ahead. In addition to the mana tolerance limit and the judge's decision when it is exceeded, some judges also enforce additional rules, e.g. some categories of spells are outright banned.
The contestants have different characteristics. They have different basic strength values and reward values. Naturally the stronger ones have a smaller reward value. Some of them have special rules, e.g. with one of the contestants, positive cards played on him reduce his strength instead, while negative cards increase it.
The guy at the top left corner is the judge. The contestants are lined up neatly under their respective numbers. This is to facilitate betting.
During a tournament, many cards are played below the contestants, some face-up and some face-down.
These are some of the spell cards. The icon at the top left corner is the spell category, which determines whether a spell is to be played face-up or face-down. The number at the top right corner is the mana cost. The first and third cards simply increase the contestant's strength. The one in the middle doubles the payout of a contestant, if he wins the tournament.
Guessing your opponents' bets is important, but what's more important is using this information to help yourself win more than your opponents. If you find that another opponent has bet on the same contestant as you, it is not necessarily a good thing. If he has only bet on one contestant but you have bet on three, then he would be earning much more than you if this contestant wins. So you actually want to stop this contestant, not work together with the other player to make him win.
There are some tricks you can use, e.g. pretending to support a particular contestant to mislead your opponents. Since some cards are played face-down, you can use them to confuse other players. It is actually quite easy to make a contestant exceed his mana limit. So sometimes you can "help" a contestant get disqualified.
Deciding whether to bet on one, two of three contestants is not straight-forward. I have only played one game so I have not given the betting aspect a lot of thought, but I think when deciding which and how many contestants to bet on, there are many factors to be considered. The judge, the relative strengths of the contestants, the number of hand cards of your opponents, how much money everyone has, and your own cards, are all part of the equation. You need to weigh the risks and the rewards.
During play, observing how your opponents play their cards helps you work out which contestants they are supporting. That's generally the case. Sometimes you do get surprised.
Cheaty Mages is a lot about guessing your opponents' intentions. It is also about pushing your luck - how many spells do you dare to play on a contestant you are supporting? Sometimes you do get into win-win situations - both you and another player support the same contestant. These can be beneficial.
There is some luck. Sometimes you simply don't get the cards you need, or your bets happen to be completely misaligned with the rest of the players. You just have to make the most of what you are dealt. Sometimes that's the fun - making the best out of the worst.
Cheaty Mages should be a light game, but I think players new to the hobby can feel overwhelmed, because the spells, the judges and the contestants have some special abilities. The overall idea is simple though. It's just betting on a horse race, but you get to do some hanky panky. Yet you can't be too obvious because otherwise you'd get caught. This sums up the game.
The setting and the overall concept do not attract me. I feel a lack of control. It's not easy to make the game go your way. However this may be due to my inexperience. Possibly the game is actually more about making the right bets, rather than making bets and then trying to steer the game your way. There may be more than meets the eye in analysing the judge, the contestants and the players' positions.