The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Comparing Magic Realm and Mage Knight, Part I

Fairly often — though less frequently than my idyllic youth —  I play a game that feels miserable, bewildering, or just plain bad.

Mostly I note the poor decision and never play again. The first board game I played in college? Terrible — It lasted from 10pm until 6am (not a mark against it) with bewildering rules including a bunch of exceptions. The game didn’t actually end at six, that’s just when I lost. The “graphic design” made following the rules difficult but even then it seemed to contain obviously bad features.

It wasn’t time wasted — gaming with friends rarely is — but I quickly moved on to better games including the murderer’s row of Cosmic Encounter, Illuminati, Bridge and some others like Junta.

I rarely revisit bad games. Who would? Still, sometimes my judgement gets called into question and so it happened that four years later I gamed with a group that loved this title. I played it again.

That game was Titan, which I’ve played at least a hundred times, probably closer to 250.

In the past I’ve had a few encounters with Magic Realm, none of them good. So I’d just ignored it. But reading a recent thread comparing Magic Realm to Mage Knight piqued my interest again. After all, I’ve played three hundred games of Mage Knight in the last few years — I’m slightly burnt out again, but I’ll pick it back up.

So I wanted another solo game and this seemed interesting. I started reading the “Book of Learning,”  basically a number of session reports that double as tutorials. Given the plethora of revised rules (I particularly recommend Magic Realm in Plain English) and the existence of Robin Warren’s brilliant Realm Speak program) the barriers to entry are much lower than they used to be the last time I tried to play.

Remember, my M.O. for the last five-plus years is to ignore new games unless it still had people playing a year or two later, then give it a try. I make exceptions, of course. For designers I like, or games that just seem like they are in my wheelhouse. Hell, I didn’t even try Mage Knight until it had been out several years. So sometimes I’m late on great games, but I save a lot of time in the process.

Magic Realm still has a dedicated following almost forty years after it’s arrival, despite such obvious warts as an Avalon Hill Rule Set that made Up Front seem simplistic. I began to think there must be something to it, so I dove in. This review is still preliminary, but I have put in dozens of hours on learning this and playing (solitaire, via Realm Speak). This is part I because its not complete; I’ll probably add more thoughts as they occur to me.


I don’t normally summarize mechanisms in games anymore, because plenty of places that do that and I’m not a bleeding edge reviewer, but sometimes you have to. Magic Realm’s basic ideas aren’t difficult (not that you’d know that from reading them).

  • The map is fully built, but you place hidden chits to indicate what appears where. So you know the entire layout, but the Lost City could be in any cave. A setup sheet lists which monsters can show up on which chits. Setting up the game is a huge time suck (the first time is about an hour, but with practice that comes down) which is why a computer moderator is such a godsend. One click setup.
  • Pre-programmed turns. Everyone writes down their turn and you resolve in random order. (Richard Hamblen also designed the classic Gunslinger, which shares this). Each player gets roughly four actions per day (only two if they are underground that day) to move, hide, search, prepare, enchant, rest, trade, hire followers, and the like. The planning phase is called Birdsong instead of morning (a lovely touch that feels out of place in the rulebook, like finding a colorful Monet print hanging in your IRS auditor’s cubicle)
  • You resolve turns (daytime) in random order. Most rolls involve throwing 2d6 and taking the higher number. Some things like hiding are simple — fail on a six — others involve charts (typically lower is better). Some monsters ‘prowl’ during a turn and prowling Monsters appear on the board based on the chits. Prowling monsters already on the board move if you end up on the same tile as them (unless they’ve already blocked another character).
  • After everyone has moved, you have evening — when spells are cast and combat occurs.
  • Each character has twelve action chits which are mainly used in combat/casting. Each chit dictates its use (Move, Fight or Magic are common, a few other rare ones exist) and a speed (a number, lower is better).

The rules for combat are … non-trivial. But at its heart, there’s some order.

Let’s take a simple “One Character, one Monster” combat. You get a pre-combat action (maybe running away, or casting a spell, or preparing a weapon). These typically take a chit. You attack the monster and it attacks you (if you weren’t hidden. If you were, you get one free attack). You set your tactic and the monster’s tactic, and your maneuver (defense).

What the rules don’t tell you — the monster’s actual tactic is random. You can set up which box its in, but it will roll randomly to move. It may also flip over (double sided monsters) which adjust its values. The faster attack goes first, and if it’s faster then the opponents defense? It hits.

If it’s not faster, then it hits only if the defense used fails against the attack. If you ducked when the attack was a downward smash, no help there.

So — there’s a Rock Paper Scissors aspect, but intuitive: Faster attacks hit. Equal (or slower) attacks hit if the defender dodged into them. Should have jumped aside as that warhammer came down.

Attacks (and weights) are rated on a scale of Negligible, Light, Medium, Heavy and Tremendous and if the attack is greater than or equal to defender’s vulnerability — dead. A character who takes a hit less than his defense may wound a chit.

Also, each chit you spend has an effort (0-2) and if you spend two effort in a round (the max) you fatigue. Wounded and fatigued chits are out of play until you rest them.

If nothing important happens for two rounds of combat, it ends, otherwise you keep going.

Now — combat can get much more complicated. You can have multiple monsters, followers, weapon sharpness and armor, multiple characters, PvP, spells, horses, missile attacks, armor, weapon length (which changes the order of attack in the first round only, and is a tiebreak in later rounds), special rules for tremendous monsters (which grapple when they hit and then autokill the next round unless they are defeated first).

Even getting the basics down is taking games (see my note on messing up in this post). I forgot another few small points last night. I don’t really understand followers and magic, yet. You can play the game using only movement and combat (for some characters).

Simple combats aren’t devoid of strategy, merely simple. Your main questions are which chits to play (can I guarantee a kill? Do I want to run away? Do I want my attack and defense to line up, so that if the monster hits me I know I’ll hit him. Can I prepare for the monsters to flip over (an 11/36 chance). While setting up one monster is effectively rock-paper-scissors, setting up multiples can get quite detailed. And it’s not R-P-S in the sense that its truly random. It’s just one (interlocking) system. One character may be hopeless versus a monster, when a different set of chits (or manuevers) would give you a shot or a guaranteed victory.

Advanced combats can be planned out, but I’m still not able to see things … like “Oh, if I do this I can probably kill Monster A but in the next round I’m going to die no matter what.” There’s a backgammon-esque quality to combat — strategy but you have to play the odds, either relying on some lucky die rolls in bad situations or defending against bad rolls in good situations.

With experience you’ll learn to not get into bad situations. (He said, as his latest game had one character trapped between three unbeatable clearings and another character died to a group of angry natives). Right now I’m applying a maxim of Go to Magic RealmLose your first fifty games quickly. I’ve survived two games, mainly due to luck and playing the easiest character. To be fair, that’s how I learned Titan and 1830 (although those losses take more time).


Most importantly, Magic Realm is definitely a lifestyle game. It does not shine out of the box. There are warts, and I’m not just speaking of the rules. This is not a game to pull out once every five years (unless you burned out and put it away for a while).

Secondly, Luck in Mage Knight is card luck. If you draw a hand full of movement cards, you know the combat cards are lurking in your deck (or vice versa). If you fail a roll in Magic Realm, you can fail again and again. Very small hurray for dice!

Third, Magic Realm and Mage Knight differ in scale and narrative. In Mage Knight, you start off as a minor demi-god who can defeat tribes of Orcs, raze villages, plunder monasteries for mystical artifacts, and two days later you are taking out a fully defended city in a quick siege. You are Jason Bourne, Lizard God-King. Encounters ramp up until the climactic battle vs Volkare or Capital City, as you grow in power.

In Magic Realm you could stumble into the boss monster’s lair on day one and die. Over the course of the month you may get some followers or cool new stuff, but you won’t really level up. (There are optional rules for that). Typically you kill a few monsters, loot their stuff, sell it and try to find a lost treasure. You can fail harder, faster. You may find a great site on day 1, loot it, and then die because you weren’t hidden on day 3 (of 28) and some bats pecked you to death.

I happen to enjoy ambiguity and atypical styles of narrative that embraces failure, but its definitely not to everyone’s taste.

You can easily spend half a game in MR doing nothing but rolling two dice, failing, and going onto the next day. In Solitaire, this isn’t a big loss. If it were a 4 player game? Could be very frustrating as you roll two dice and end your turn, and the next player has an epic turn, then a great/interesting battle, then gets all the loot as gaming groupies swoon and applaud. Then you roll two dice and fail again.

It makes Mage Knight seem Euro by comparison, which is an odd thing to feel.

On a related note, The Magic Realm feels alive and real. On one level it is merely a collection of places to loot and monsters to murder, but the environment changes. In Mage Knight, you find an artifact and add it to your deck. In Magic Realm, you may find an artifact and keep it, but it may alter the entire rules right around you. It can affect everyone on the tile its on, from the instant its discovered. You plan your move out, but searching may disrupt your plans, literally warping reality. It hasn’t happened often in my game, but it’s amusing. Perhaps this is part of the appeal of legacy games. It feels like literally anything can happen as you rip open a folder with new cards. I guess I understand that now.

Fourth, characters in the game feel different. Mage Knight packs a hell of a lot into 16 cards and 10 skills. Each character starts with only two variant cards, but leveling up and taking a critical skill and those cards mean that Goldyx is distinct from Tovak who differs from Norawas or Krang.

But at the end of the day they all do the same things against the same things. They all cast spells (if the take a Mage Tower to earn them). They all have the same victory conditions (based on the scenario). A Lava Dragon poses the same number of wounds to them — assuming they cannot block. Etc.

In Magic Realm, the White Knight’s a dragonslayer. If you tell him Dragons are over yonder, then a-yondering he will go. Terrified of bats, though. His armor slows him down. He’ll kill some, but they’ll tired him out. No killing blow, just death of a thousand cuts. The Wood’s Girl may be able to kill a Dragon with a lucky shot (missile damage is a random modifier), but she’ll take her shot from the bushes then run away. Unarmored, she can’t risk getting hit. Plays totally differently. Two different equipment chits, a few different special abilities (skills in Mage Knight) and a different mix of starting chits play totally different. I grok (somewhat) the White Knight. He’s very forgiving against huge monsters.

He just gets nibbled to death by bats.

Characters play differently, despite their similarities. Some have their own rules. The Witch gets a familiar that can move separately around the board (to spy on other players and examine the realm’s secrets). The White Knight can cast a single (white) spell, but he’s not able to cast anything the Witch knows, even if he learns the spell. He’s never getting a familiar. The witch can’t just put on the Knight’s Armor (should she get it). She’s too weak.

While there’s an elegance to having each spell’s rules on a card, Magic Realm’s spells feel Tolkienesque. Some of them move and attack and block and influence, but you can transform yourself into a toad (who can quietly hops away from battle, usually) and then wander the forest ignoring the roads. You can curse others. Some spells affect only specific monsters. Some last for combat, or a day. Some are permanent. It feels much more lived in.

Short form — Magic Realm feels more like an experience than a winnable game. I suspect that the long term strategy is deeper, there’s a similar puzzle like aspect to combat although Mage Knight is a more satisfying system. In fact, MK is generally a better system overall. But Magic Realm has its charm. I imagine that an update that tried to streamline all of the Realm’s byzantine experiences into a simple core ruleset would fail, the same way that civilization does not compress. But if someone could convert this (or perhaps another genre that felt as lived-in), they’d have a huge hit.

Magic Realm isn’t a great game. But it’s a great experience. I’m enjoying my time exploring it.

Written by taogaming

November 10, 2016 at 9:00 pm

Posted in Mage Knight, Magic Realm, Reviews

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3 Responses

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  1. Adding team-ups and the possibility of betrayal in multi-player adds a lot to the game also. Some characters work really well as part of a team, some don’t, and some monsters are much more defeatable by teams, while some characters need no help defeating monsters that even a team of other characters wouldn’t be able to touch. Then you have characters like the Elf who would be valuable to a team but who are so good at stalking and assassinating characters that you wonder if you want them around. Teams can fall on each other over loot. It’s a dynamic that obviously a bunch of players won’t like, especially since the rest of the game can appeal to the puzzle-y crowd that doesn’t like it when other players mess with their precious game planning. But the dynamics are nonetheless interesting, There are a number of characters that really only make sense when you’re exploring this dynamic.

    Chris Farrell

    November 11, 2016 at 7:49 pm

    • Once I’m feeling my oats I may solitaire multiple characters. I do think that it would be good to do multiplayer (especially with a few experienced players) as it would be easier to learn, but I make do.


      November 11, 2016 at 9:08 pm

  2. […] I think I did in my prior review. […]

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