Mage Wars Game Review

The Basics:

  • For ages 13 and up
  • For 2 players
  • Approximately 60 minutes to complete

Geek Skills:

  • Active Listening & Communication
  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading
  • Pattern/Color Matching
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Risk vs. Reward
  • Bluffing and Misdirection
  • Resource management and area control

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Hard
  • Adult – Moderate

Theme & Narrative:

  • Wage an epic battle of magical supremacy in a closed arena where 2 shall enter but only 1 will leave!

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek approved!
  • Parent Geek rejected!
  • Child Geek rejected!

Overview

You have prepared for this moment. Countless hours of practice, scrutinizing the details of subtle arcane nuances, and testing yourself over and over again to remove any weaknesses in your strategy. You have organized your spellbook, know your limitations, and your greatest strengths. Your opponent enters the arena with a smile on their face. What are they smirking about and what have they brought to the table you are not ready for? Worry and excitement fills you as you summon your courage and focus your  magical power. You must succeed or perish. There is no second place in this contest of magical supremacy.

Mage Wars, by Arcane Wonders, is comprised of 1 large Arena board (where all the action takes place), 2 Spellbooks (that contains and organizes the Spell cards), 322 Spell cards, 4 Mage cards, 4 Mage Ability cards, 2 Mage Status boards, 8 Status cubes, 20 Action markers, 2 Quickcast markers, 9 Attack dice, 1 Effect die, 1 Initiative marker, 3 Ability markers, 7 Guard markers, 6 Ready markers, 20 Condition markers, 24 Damage counters (in values of 1, 3, and 9), and 8 Mana counters (in values of 1 and 3). All the components are of excellent quality and very detailed. A veteran game player will immediately appreciate the card  layout and the ease in which information is read.

Please Note: Mage Wars is a rather large game and can be very involved. The rule book is no less than 44 pages long and filled with detailed images and descriptive text. The game itself is not especially difficult, but the game mechanisms allow for a lot of player customization. As such, and to save us time, we will only summarize key points of the game here and highly suggest you read the full rule book if you want more detailed information.

Game Set Up

The game set up is actually composed of two phases. The first is each player organizing their Spellbook. The second is the game component set up. We are now in the habit of organizing our Spellbooks (phase 1) the evening or a few hours before play. This is something a player will want to spend time focusing on as it determines what a player can and cannot do, how they defend and how they attack. The second phase is rather straightforward and can be completed by a Child Geek who can read simple instructions.

Phase 1: Preparing Your Spellbook

The first and most important step in this game is organizing your Mage’s spells. In the core game, four Mages (Beastmaster, Priestess, Warlock, and Wizard) are provided that are all students of different schools of magic. No one school is better than another, but each school is sufficiently different enough to be tailored to a player’s individual playing style. The game comes with 322 Spell cards (focusing on attacks, conjuration, creatures, enchantments, equipment, and incantations) for the players to choose from. These cards are put in the player’s Spellbook and become theirs alone to use. Unlike other card based games, players have their spells available to them at all times. Whether they can use them or not is dependent on how much magical power they have available.

The game comes with suggestions for balanced, pre-built Spellbooks for each of the four Mages, but a player can build their own. In total, there are 8 “Primary” and 4 “Minor” schools of magic. Mages can dip into all of these, but they are naturally superior in those that are closest to their chosen discipline. When customizing a Spellbook, usually consisting of 120 points, the schools of magic that the player’s Mage is a member of only costs them the value of the spell’s level. For example, a level 1 spell will cost the player 1 point to place in their Spellbook. The associated school and the level is listed on every Spell card. But as a magic user and student of the arcane, the Mages have learned enough to know how to extract power from the schools they are not a student of. These cost more than the spells the Mage is naturally attuned to. Each spell the Mage chooses to learn that is outside their school is double the cost of the noted level. Therefore, a level 1 spell will cost the player 2 points to use if it is outside of their elected school of magic.

The rules to custom build your own Spellbook are not complex, but are rather involved as is the process of rolling your own arcane tome of knowledge. Luckily, the level of complexity can further be reduced by creating an Apprentice Spellbook that contains a pre-built list of spells that are also reduced in number. This allows the player to learn what their Mage can do and how the spells work using a reasonable number of spells that won’t blow their minds. The player can then add to this spellbook, adjusting it as they learn and improving it as they go.

For those players who want to customize and build their own Spellbooks, take the time read the cards. This is, in many ways, very much like a deck building game. Except, and very important to point out, the players have access to ALL THEIR CARDS at once. Anything the player adds to their Spellbook is automatically at their fingertips. Know your weapons before you engage in war.

Phase 2: Game Component Set Up

It is assumed that the players have either finished building their custom Spellbooks or have used one of the pre-built Spellbooks. Regardless, the time for choosing what spells are available is over. It’s now time to set the stage for the battle!

To set up the game, first place the Arena game board in the middle of the playing area. The board is large so make sure you have the playing space not only for the board, but also the many game bits that the game uses. Although, much of the game bits can remain in the box until needed.

Second, have each player take and place their selected Mage card, the Mage Ability card, and 1 Mage Status board in front of them. One player should now take the 10 red Action markers and the other player should take the 10 blue Action markers, as well as 3 Status cubes each. The 3 Status cubes are placed on the player’s Mage Status board, covering up the Mage’s noted starting Channeling point value and zero for the Life point value. Unless otherwise decided by the players, every Mage starts with 10 Mana.

Third, each player chooses which side of the arena their Mages will start. There are two entrances, one in each corner. Players place their Mage card (that depicts their Mage) in that space, along with one Quickcast marker and a one Action marker on the card.

Fourth, place all the dice to one side, along with the yet unused markers.

Fifth, have each player roll the 12-sided Effect die. The player who rolls the highest collects the Initiative marker.

You are now ready to begin!

Magical Warfare

A game consists of multiple rounds. Each round is broken down into 2 stages. These stages are further broken down into phases. The stages and phases are summarized here. For full details, see the game rules.

Ready Stage

The Ready Stage resets the game area for the next round, does standard cleanup, and upkeep. For the most part, both players will complete the individual phases simultaneously.

  • Initiative Phase: both players roll the Effect die – the player who rolls the highest gets the Initiative marker for this round.
  • Reset Phase: all the quickcast, action, and ready markers on the cards are flipped over to the active side showing they are now available.
  • Channel Phase: both players add Mana to their Mana supply by adding whatever their Mage automatically gains and adding anything in play that might also provide Mana. Mana is kept track of using the Mage Status board.
  • Upkeep Phase: any spells that have an upkeep cost are now paid for or destroyed. Players always get to choose if they want to pay or not. Some spells also have their effects trigger during this phase.
  • Planning Phase: both players choose up to 2 spells they want to use during the next stage from their Spellbook. These spells are removed from the Spellbook and placed face-down in front of them. These are the ony spells the players can cast, but the player need not cast the spells they selected. If a player has a familiar or another creature that casts spells, the player can select a Spell card for them to cast, too.
  • Deployment Phase: starting with the player who has the initiative, spells attached to a player’s “Spawnpoint” (think of them as extensions of the Mage’s influence in the arena), are placed and revealed. Mana is paid for the spells and the spell’s effects are resolved.

Action Stage

The Action Stage, as the title suggests, is when all the game’s actions take place. Up to this point, everything has been preparation and guesswork. Now the players will see if their strategies and tactics will payoff.

  • First Quickcast Phase: each player has an opportunity to release a spell as a quickcast, starting with the player who has initiative. Players need not use it at this time and can save it for the next phase. Only Spell cards that have the Quickcast icon on them are eligible for this action. To cast a spell, a player announces the spell to be cast. The player must be able to pay for the spell with Mana and the target must be in range. Note that spells can be countered.
  • Action Phase: starting with the player who has the initiative, the player activates one of their creatures. A “creature” includes the Mage on the board. When activated, the player chooses if the creature will move, take a quick action, or take a full action. To move, the creature shifts position from one “zone” to another “zone” that is adjacent. A “zone” in the arena is marked by lines and easy to spot. Traps and walls can hinder movement.  The quick action is noted on the creature card, but in total there are six available. These include a quick attack, a quick spell, guard (defensive action), move again, take the creature’s special quick action, or simply do nothing. The full action is only available if the creature does not move. These include a full attack, a full spell, the creature’s noted full action,
  • Final Quickcast: after all the creatures have had a turn to take their actions, the players may cast their quickcast spell if they have not done so already, starting with the player with the initiative.

This concludes the stage and the round.

The War Continues

The players continue to skirmish round after round until one of the two Mages falls. As soon as the Mage Status board shows the Mage has taken damage equal to or greater than their life, they have expired. The other player is declared the winner and their Mage leaves the arena victorious, if not borderline dead themselves.

Game Variants

The basic game is meant for 2 players only. Included in the rule book are instructions on how to play Mage Wars as a team game or as a multi-player free-for-all. There is also nothing stopping the players from adjust the total points allowed for Spellbook creation. A total of 120 points is the default, but players can pretend their Mages are true masters and raise the limit to 200! The only limitation is the number of available Spell cards.

I cannot stress enough how much we didn’t cover in this game. The level of spell use, the many different ways to use them, and how everything works together is detailed fully in the rule book. For example, you can attach spells to objects, create magical barriers to stop movement, and fly around the arena. To say we just “scratched the surface” is a gross understatement. For more information on Mage Wars and read the full rules, visit the game’s web site.

Prediction

After reading the rules, it would appear that Mage Wars is a much more complicated and involved version of Summoner Wars. Just from reading the cards and understanding how the game is played in context, there is a great deal of tactics and strategy involved. The game play is not terribly difficult, but the decisions the player is presented with are fairly numerous. This is especially true when we consider that the player’s Spellbook is given to them in its entirety right from the start. Unlike other magic themed card games, where the player is given a limited choice based on their randomly drawn card hand, the only limiting factors in this game are physical location in the arena and Mana resource restrictions.

From a Child Geek perspective, this game is going to be complicated. Any Child Geek who is already familiar with collectible card games, like Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering, will be able to pick up the basics fairly quickly. But that’s where any advantage a player might have quickly ends. The arena takes the game away from being purely abstract and requires the players to duck and dodge on a grid where place and time matters. That’s an entirely different kind of game and takes different kinds of skills.

The Parent Geeks are also going to have difficulty with this game. It takes  long time and only sits 2 players. That’s not very casual or family friendly. A single Parent Geek and a Child Geek will have fun with this, but that’s not usually the kind of game the Parent Geek’s go for. Unless, of course, it proves to be a great deal of fun for both parties involved.

Gamer Geeks are really going to enjoy this one. There’s a lot going on and much they have to think about. This type of game requires a lot of strategy and tactics, which Gamer Geek crave. It also requires a lot of resource management, which is just like icing on the cake. The only aspect of the game that might not be appealing is the time it can take to build a deck and the lack of cards to make more than just 2 Mages at a time, but that is more of a game component issue than a game issue.

Teaching this game to my oldest little geek took a long time. It also took a long time to get this game played with all of our test groups. The game is deep and it is not something you can explain in a few minutes. The game rules do come with a demo game, complete with a small Spellbook and play-by-play examples. This makes it pretty easy to understand the game flow, but not the game. Even when I took another player through the game, it still took about 20 or so minutes of explanation before the other player started to comprehend what they could or could not do. The learning curve was especially steep for the Child Geeks, but it quickly tapered off as the players became older and had more experience. The game itself is not terribly difficult. The complexity comes in the freedom the game gives the player.

And so, after teaching the game to my little geek for several days, we were ready to play our first “real game”, as he put it. We went over the rules one more time and we discussed his Spellbook in detail. This was actually a very rewarding exercise and let my little geek and I discuss the subtle details of our Spellbooks as we traded ideas and shared comments on various spells. When he was ready, I gave him the rule book and asked him to start setting up the game. As he did so, I asked him his thoughts on the game so far.

“This is a very complicated game, but I really feel like a Mage when I play it…casting spells..summoning monsters. What’s not to like?” ~ Liam (age 8)

And so, my little mageling is ready for combat. I have no doubt he’ll do all he can to succeed, but I doubt he’ll be a strong player. At the very least, I hope he is challenged and has fun. At the very most, he just might take his old man down. Let’s play and see if my little geek’s magic is about to run out or is just getting started.

Final Word

My little geek did as well as I expected. I had to help him a lot and we talked through much of his moves. Even after playing the game several times, he was still getting lost in the details. He was only able to focus on a few things at a time, which eventually put him well behind. A player needs to be able to think several moves ahead, constantly review their Spellbook, and make plans within plans. My little geek was only able to think as far as a few turns ahead. That was enough to keep him going, but not to beat me to the finish line. All the other Child Geeks shared the same experience, demonstrating game understanding but not the ability to play it fully. In all cases, the Child Geeks agreed it was a neat game, but too much for them.

Parent Geeks had a much easier time learning the game, but it still took a long time to get them feeling comfortable with it. Nothing about this game comes easy for a player who is not already very familiar with the more complex and involved games. The game play itself is very intuitive, but only because it is structured. What a player does within that structure is anyone’s guess. It all depends on what Spell cards are available and the conditions in the arena. In other words, variables. Countless variables, in fact. Because the Child Geeks showed waning interest in the game, so did the Parent Geeks. While they could play the game, they didn’t see much use in endorsing it if they didn’t have anyone to play it with. Mage Wars was too complicated for their little geeks and too involved to play casually with their peers. The Game just didn’t fit right with the Parent Geeks and they had to pass on the endorsement.

Gamer Geeks were all over this thing to a point where it was slighty obscene. First, this game has had some hype. It’s been discussed for over a year and every Gamer Geek I know has at least heard of it. Second, for the Gamer Geek, this game brings a lot to the table and doesn’t pull any punches. The learning curve is slight for the game elitist, but the mastery curve is fairly steep. This is what really drew the Gamer Geeks in. This was not an easy game to win, but all the tools for victory are dumped in the lap of the player right from the start. Sure, luck plays a part in it with the dice, but everything a player can do can be calculated for success. The Gamer Geeks only level of frustration came with the Spellbook building (they didn’t like the fact they could only really build 2 Spellbooks) and how cluttered the arena became (which is more of a statement on how well the players were doing in the game with their spell casting).

A Proud Father Geek Moment: watching my little geek set up a game by himself

Gamer Geeks, this is a fantastic game of tactics and strategy, of timing and bluffing, and of resource management and area control. Building your own Spellbook is a very worthwhile exercise as it allows you to tailor your own actions and how you want the game to be played. If you don’t have the time to do theory crafting and roll your own Spellbook, there are a growing number of Spellbook lists available to read and play with. If this game ever has any card expansions (which I’m sure it will), there will be even more possibilities. This is not a collectible card game, however, and will not drain your wallet with endless expenses to keep up with your opponent. The game box includes everything you need to play for a very long time. Your peer group had no problem endorsing this game enthusiastically.

Parent Geeks, this is a very challenging game. Too challenging and engrossing to be of much use on your table if you want to play a casual game with your peers or a quick game with your little geeks. If your little geeks already play collectible card games and build their own decks, I don’t think it’ll be hard for them to learn how to play this game, and it is well worth your time putting Mage Wars in front of them. When the time is right, and your little geek is showing interest, we think this will be an excellent and rewarding game for 2 players in the family. For everyone else, this will be an interesting conversation piece, but nothing more.

Child Geeks, this is not a game you can just pick up and play. The collectible card games you might enjoy are very structured with specific rules of card play. The same could be said about Mage Wars, but it is much more advanced. You must play the game not only with the cards in your Spellbook, but also with the cards in the arena. Where the cards are located in relationship to each other matters and what cards you play and when is all based on how you perceive the action in the arena. In short, it’s a very large game that can be learned, but will take you longer than you might want to fully grasp its expanse. One day you’ll play this game, but not today.

Mage Wars is a miniature warfare game. No, it’s a card game. That’s not right either. An abstract strategy game? Or, perhaps a  collectible card game without the need to collect it? It’s all this and more. The game is borrowing a lot from other games and does a great job of doing it. Whenever I play it, I become terribly engrossed by it and lose track of the time as I focus on keeping my Mage alive and casting just the right spell at the right time. There’s much for me to consider. Do I keep a spell active I casted 2 rounds ago because I “might” need it or do I destroy it to save Mana for a spell I’ve been itching to cast? Move my creature into attack position or keep it in the rear as a reserve? So many things to think about…

The game’s difficulty is all based on choice. Or, better put, the number of choices a player has to make. It becomes even more complex as it becomes clear that players must set up their choices before they can make choices. Confusing? Yes, it can be. This is truly a game of thinking ahead and envisioning what might be so you can make it happen when the time is right. Simply outstanding and downright brain burning at times.

This is a Gamer’s game, through and through. It requires tactics and strategy to outmaneuver your opponent, focused resource management to keep the cards in play active, a steady flow of Mana to keep them going, and it requires a knowledge of the Spell cards and all the ways they can be used. The game, if played correctly, will surprise little but challenge a great deal. A prepared player, who designs their own Spellbook, will know exactly how to push their boundaries and when to quickly pull back. A novice knows none of this. And yet, the game does play well for those who are just now dipping their toe into the more complex games. Mage Wars is a game of layers that rewards you each time you dig a bit deeper. I have yet to fully explore it, but I have no doubt I’ll enjoy the journey.

If you are looking for a game with strategic depth and enticing tactics, where the player can customize their play and define their playing style, then look no further than Mage Wars. It lives up to the hype and surpasses all of my expectations. A truly interesting and challenging game I am most pleased I now have in my collection.

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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13 Responses to Mage Wars Game Review

  1. Craig says:

    I have to disagree with it being to difficult. I think it is difficult in strategy, but not gameplay. 20 minutes to teach someone is not that much time in my opinion. My eight year old took to it very fast. He even beat me the other day, he was priestess and I was wizard. The only training he has had is us walking through the example in the rulebook and me reminding him of rules if he does something incorrect. Love this game! Great review!

    • Cyrus says:

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Craig.

      As I stated in the review, this game is difficult because of all the choices a player needs to make. A player needs to constantly reevaluate their strategy and tactics (unless they are winning, of course). The game structure is easy to grasp, as are the phases. The game was designed for 13+ (oddly enough, 14+ in Europe), but that doesn’t mean a younger player can’t grasp it (as demonstrated by your talented 8-year-old little geek). This is a game, however, that takes time to learn to play fully. My little geek doesn’t want to put that time in at the moment, but when he does, I’m sure he’ll be at the table making me battle for every inch of ground in the arena! I, for one, plan on keeping this game on the table for a long time as it is simply excellent.

      Keep in mind that our reviews reflect a specific test group and are meant to generalize the group that they represent. The final endorsement is based on the collective “norm” from that group. Our Child Geeks couldn’t spend the time, nor had the patience, to keep going with this game long enough to get better at it. In short, the Child Geeks got tired of playing it.

      Every Child, Parent, and Gamer Geek will be different when narrowed down to an individual. That’s the big difference between “generalization” and specific player reactions. While I have no doubt your 8-year-old could “play for keeps” in the arena of powerful Mages, we have not witnessed anything after playing the game many times to suggest that your little geek’s awesomeness is the norm.

      And that’s something you and your little geek should be very proud of, Craig. 🙂

    • Craig says:

      Completely agree. Right now I am choking his win up to ‘he just got lucky’ 😉 I loved your review, didn’t mean my comment as a slight.

    • Cyrus says:

      Nor was it taken as a slight, my friend. 🙂

      And that’s not “luck”, that’s “skill”.

  2. Han says:

    If you fancy a less involved take on the same theme, you could try to get hold of a copy of Warlock, the Game of Duelling Wizards, prduced by Games Workshop in 1980.

    • Cyrus says:

      Much thanks for the suggestion, Han. I think Warlock would be a hard one to find here in the States and expensive. A better alternative to Mage Wars is Summoner Wars that is less involved than Mage Wars, but still has a good deal of tactics and strategy.

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