The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Puzzlement and Wonder, Comparing Mage Knight and Magic Realm, Pt 2

(If this were a book I’d throw a colon in there. ‘Tis all the rage in publishing).

As I mentioned, Mage Knight & Magic Realm have little in common except theme. Thematically they aren’t even close, Tolkeinesque fantasy versus a high power-gaming bash fest.. While exploring the Realm I pondered the differences between them.

I call the first the Combinatorics of World-Building.

Enter a Dungeon in Mage Knight and what will you face? A brown monster. No exceptions.

You can analyze how many you can defeat and weigh that risk versus the 2/3rds shot at an artifact and 1/3rd shot at a spell. A simple enumeration will do. Can you defeat the Gargoyle? the Shadow? the Hydra? Medusa? Crypt Worm? Etc? You can’t? Check again. Have you missed some trick?

A puzzle, to be sure, but a well defined puzzle. One monster, one reward — each have a parameter. You may get the one monster you can’t beat. You may get the easy monster. You may get the Horn of Wrath, or your choice of two dud artifacts to choose from (I’m looking at you, Banner of Fortitude and Banner of Courage), but there you go. You knew the risk/reward ratio.

There are 8 brown monsters, 30-ish artifacts and 30-ish spells, but the numbers don’t multiply. You can assign an approximate value to the artifacts and calculate what percentage of the monsters you can defeat, and solve.

Now Imagine that each artifact had a small box on the bottom that modified the rules in the combat when you gained them. Most of them don’t do much, but you may go down and face a Whatever and draw your artifact and peer at the bottom and it says “The narrow walls prevent ranged attacks….” and your plans are out the door.

What if every card did that? If you face a Crypt Worm, you weren’t going range attack anyway, but if you faced a Medusa, you most definitely planned on it. If you’ve played two dozen games of Mage Knight, you’ve likely faced every brown creature in a dungeon setting. But with combined effects — No way I’d have encountered all the combinations in my 300+ games.

I’m a fan of combinatorics.

I’ve already seen several interactions messing with people in Magic Realm, and that’s before you even get into players deliberately messing with you. You search for a treasure and get it, but boom! Curse. You start to buy something and boom — there’s a modifier that makes a combat likely to break out right away! These aren’t even interactions, just single cards, but the systems do interact. In my current game, I searched and found the black book, which provided black mana. The sudden influx of mana turned on a spell I had inert and — boom, I’m suddenly a giant octopus.

Now, I’d planned on being a giant octopus later that day, so no big deal. But if I’d been planning to try to hire some helpers it would have seriously cramped my style.

The book of learning has an example of the Elf controlling all six bats with magic, a feat the author says he’s never seen in 200+ games but happened in a solo game he set up to demonstrate, with no cheating. Amusingly, I did it in my first game with the elf. But it does take some lucky chit interactions and some lucky rolls, as well as having the Control Bats spell.

I like my puzzles, but have I been surprised in the last hundred games of Mage Knight? Not that I recall. Nor possibly the hundred before that.

Can I be surprised by Chess? Yes. The unexpected move. The deep brilliance. These are usually based — again — on some combination (Chess even uses that phrase). Mage Knight has that; the core of the game is manipulating your hand of card to get the most oomph. So I’m not sure why it doesn’t surprise me that much. Then again hundreds of games is a lot. It may be that you always (always!) control your hand of cards. No monster shows up that says “Oh, discard one card before combat.”

To be fair to Mage Knight, The Realm extracts a high price for surprise. Gameplay suffers under randomness. You see ‘unfair’ results. Nobody would say that Mage Knight is less fair, I think.

Unfairness has its charm, in a way.

I like puzzles, but I also like puzzles where you can’t enumerate the possible outcomes. (Even with full knowledge). Approximation and intuition are skills like any other. I don’t care for Tales of the Arabian Knights and I’m not sure it’s a game, but its a hell of Story-telling engine. Combine that potential with something that gives me some actual decisions — even if the results could just be “lose a turn” — and I’m intrigued.

Magic Realm drips with combinations — Each map hex has a few chits that define what’s there. While you build the map in MK, once a tile is up its fully known. Until you know the chits on a tile in Magic Realm, it might contain treasures, or dragons, or spiders, or an Octopus Garden. (Also, the tiles can be flipped over, so its not as static as you think).

You play your twelve chits, but only two points of effort per combat round. Your items can combine. You may have one thing you can’t use at all, but if you get that second (rare) thing you’ll wield a powerful combination. Any Mage Knight can cast any spell. Any Mage Knight can get use any other’s skill, although Goldyx will get Goldyx’s skills the most often.

In Magic Realm, the White Knight will have a tough time learning spells the Witch can learn. (I’d say never, but …)

Jay Richardson has a review comparing Magic Realm to RPGs that’s worth checking out. One interesting (to me) point he makes is: Because the characters don’t level up, this makes the game less grindy and more interesting. That’s a novel point. You get better be looting good stuff, or working together with others. An interesting dynamic.

OK, so combinatorics. What else?

Magic Realm contains more hidden information (and randomness).

Part of that was discussed before — you have face down chits and monsters that can appear and disappear, and the treasures are put into piles but that’s really not that different than randomly drawing them (like in MK). But the hidden information causes a novel effect.

In Magic Realm, you make (some) decisions with incomplete or even wrong information. You plan your turn and then roll for monsters. This gives you — in effect — a huge fog of war effect. Do you hide before you move? Well, there may have been no monsters prowling the Deep Woods this turn. Was your hide wasted?

There aren’t any monsters on your path, but other players may move and monsters may follow.

You have to decide on much less information. But each sub system you base your decision on is understandable. Most characters fail to hide 11/36th of the time. The monsters appear on a known system (if you know the chits). Knowledgeable players can quickly determine if a monster is safe or deadly or risky (I can do this for simple battles, now). You can guess the price range an item will cost you, based on your relationship with the seller. You go first 1/n times (n= number of players, ignoring hired helpers) at which point the game state will match.

Each of these systems are calculable, but the overall impact provides remarkable breadth. From a game play perspective there’s a lot of “Why this” but it has a certain logic. The rules read weird, but feel right. In the real world if you were hiding from monsters, could you ever be certain you were successfully hidden?

Only in the negative and only too late.

I was trying to think of an example. Consider a game of chess where you wrote down your move and only then did your opponent reveal his prior move. (You’d have to cover White’s first turn advantage, perhaps they wrote down two moves and the opponent got to pick after he wrote his first move, and you’d have to deal with issues of failed pawn captures, etc).

This game would most definitely not be chess, even though it used a lot of the mechanisms of chess. You could make theoretically horrible chess moves that could work quite well.

Chess feels like chess, not because knights move two in one direction then one in an orthogonal one, or because of castling or en passant. To be sure, Chess has all that but if you switched how the pieces move you’d be a smilar game (like Chinese Chess). Chess feels like chess because it is a complete information game with alternating moves. Chinese Chess and Shogi feel closer to chess than my invented game which uses the exact same rules, but doesn’t reveal the moves right away.

Magic Realm feels like my chess analogy, a little. You don’t see your opponents move until after you’ve declared yours. In order to simulate this, MR uses lots of charts and randomness. At it’s heart, Mage Knight feels like a ruthless rush to exploit a world, and Magic Realm feels like avoiding the onrushing of a ruthless world.

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Written by taogaming

November 25, 2016 at 8:28 pm

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