Saturday, September 12, 2015

Mage Knight and After the Flood

It only took me two weeks after moving to Doha, Qatar to find a board gaming group. Meetup is pretty amazing for finding people for whatever hobby or past time you're looking for. The group I joined (link here) plays every week, Simon is a very gracious host with a very large playing table, a very large collection, and a fantastic view of the Pearl. So if you're in Doha and you want to play some board games give a shout. Anyway, on to the reviews.

We decided to play two games that two of the players have never played before: Vlaada Chvátil's Mage Knight (2011 edition) and Martin Wallace's After the Flood (a 2008 game). I'll start with the latter however as that was the one we played first. After the Flood is set in ancient Mesopotamia and covers about 2000 years of history with the manual being full of wonderful historical information and trivia about the setting.
Picture courtesy of Dice Tower
At its heart, After the Flood is a worker placement, area control game. Workers are used to generate basic resources and to claim areas where these basic resources can be upgraded to progressively better and better resources. At the end of the game if you have the most workers in a given area you score the victory points for that area. Armies are used to deny areas to the enemy, sack enemy cities, or in lieu of workers when trading resources. Cities can also be upgraded for massive victory point boosts. The game has several unique mechanics to handicap the lead players, for example if one player passes the other players can keep taking turns but every turn they subsequently take requires them to throw away some of their resources. Also, the game is broken up into five turns and on turns 2 and 4 a great deluge (or as the game called it Decline Phase) occurs which wipes out most of the workers off the board, effectively resetting it. In each turn new empires open up for players to raise their armies in so you're constantly planning one or two turns ahead, looking to see where you will be able to raise armies and control vital resources. The other noteworthy thing about the game is that it is designed precisely for three players. Three shall be the number of thy counting, and the number of thy counting shall be two. Not two, not four, not two to three or two to four, three. This makes it a bit weird. So what I liked about it was the whole process of building an effective economic engine to steamroll your empire to victory. The way different resources provided different bonuses (such as upgrading your army or building a bigger army or giving you more workers or upgrading cities) was very well managed. I also rather liked the look of the board and the pieces although many people online apparently complain that the game looks boring - I don't agree, it has a clean aesthetic with Mesopotamian feel and the areas are very clearly delineated. However, would I recommend After the Flood? Well, no. And there are three big reasons for it. The first reason is how combat is resolved. Basically it's like Risk, but only the attacker rolls the dice and the probabilities are HEAVILY skewed in the favour of the attacker (7+ if your army has no upgrades, or 5+ if it is better equipped than your opponent, that means that even when you don't have equipment you'll be killing the enemy 50% of the time). Building enormous army of doom to completely disrupt your opponents' plans seems too easy and the dice rolling is too random and feels out of place in an otherwise Eurogame design. The other reason is that there isn't much replay value to it. It's quite clear what gives the most victory points from the start so as long as you try to occupy areas that produce certain resources (particularly Lapis Lazuli and gold) you'll be able to place more workers and have better armies than your opponents. Finally, After the Flood is - like Monopoly or Risk - a game where you can usually see who's going to win the game by the end of turn three, and yet it takes two more turns to make it a fait accompli. If it wasn't for these reasons I'd definitely recommend it. It was enjoyable enough for a 1.5-2 hour game, but nothing I'd really want to play again. Games such as Samurai, El Grande or Archipelago (my personal favourite) do the same thing but much better.

The other game we played is the esteemed Mage Knight, currently sitting on number 8 at Board Game Geek, which is quite a remarkable feat considering the competition. Mage Knight is a fantasy quasi-RPG game with tile-laying and heavy deck-building mechanics. Each player contains a hero and his or her entourage of followers, exploring randomly revealed tiles. They fight marauding orks and dragons, explore tombs, dungeons, monster lairs, and if you're feeling a bit more evil also storming wizard towers, forts and even cities (although cities may require more than one player to work together). Hero's basic and special abilities, spells, and artifacts are represented by a deck of cards that gradually grows throughout the game, and most abilities and spells have a basic effect that doesn't cost anything and a special effect that costs mana. Mana is generated randomly by rolling a bunch of dice, and it can also be acquired as crystals or tokens by going to certain locations on the map or playing certain cards. So it's also a resource management game as well. OK, to be honest I would do the complexity of the game a grave injustice if I tried to summarize it so just go and watch the excellent (and hilarious!) review of Mage Knight by Shut Up & Sit Down crew here to get a better sense of the rules. Let's just say that there are so many little systems all working together in ways you only begin to appreciate (and develop an awe for) towards the end of the first game you play. There are just so many options you have but the game never throws them all at you at once, instead slowly giving you the tools and awareness as the game progresses. And just look at it! It is one of the most gorgeous games I've ever played!
Image courtesy of Amazon.com
 The production value definitely justifies the rather steep price tag. The heroes are decently fully painted minis, the art on tiles and monsters and cards is excellent, the cities are heroclix like bastions and the way the tiles fit together... Unnnnnghhhhhh.

OK, but is it actually fun? Well... The design - both gameplay and artistic - is amazing, but there are definitely a few hurdles that made the first time I played Mage Knight a somewhat frustrating experience. So what were they? One is that since the map is randomly generated moving around can be quite frustrating and very slow, especially at the start. There are too many impassable barriers (at least in the early game before you acquire various spells of flying and such) that make moving about rather tedious. The other is a problem endemic in deckbuilders such as Dominion: the curse of an enormous chain of cards being played on one turn, and if the player plays the cards in the wrong order from the one s/he intended then they usually start the chain anew. Turns where a player took ten or even twenty minutes were not uncommon. There is also an enormous amount of rules to digest - if everyone already knows the rules then the game runs a bit faster but even so, there's already a huge errata and FAQ online for the game that the players need to be familiar with. The other problem is endemic to all of Vlaada's games (except for his party games) and that is a horrible manual. A lot of spelling errors, referring to the same concept by two different names throughout the manual, lack of a decent index, the way related rules are not always grouped together into logical categories, all make learning Mage Knight much more frustrating than it should be. Even after playing it for the first time I'm not altogether sure that we played it correctly, and I still can't easily tell you all the different ways in which victory points are scored. Lastly, most deckbuilding games contain some form of mechanic whereby you can 'trim' your deck or starting cards to make room for better cards. Mage Knight does not and I often found that I wanted to prune my deck of certain cards permanently but there was no way to do so. Maybe one of the expansions for the game (there are two currently out I believe) introduces this, but the base game certainly does not. However, despite these shortcomings, Mage Knight is the game I would definitely want to play again and again, to try out different heroes (each of which feels very different to play it would appear!), to try out different paths to victory and just to see more of it! I feel like during the first game we barely scratched the surface of different special abilities, spells and artifacts and that's just the base game!

So there you have it: one solid if unremarkable game, and the other an occasionally frustrating but clearly very promising experience!