I can only think of nine reasons Monopoly is terrible. But I can think of at least ten reasons Mage Knight is terrible, so it takes the prize as worst boardgame of all time.
Here are the ten reasons.
10. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock
Mage Knight is a ruthlessly time limited game, where the single most important factor is how much time you have. It is a vicious exercise in maximizing efficiency. Yet you’re often left in a position where you have very few choices and all of them are terrible. You might have a great hand of attack cards, but no way to actually move into the hex you need to attack. Here’s your mighty mage knight, sitting outside a castle, armed to the teeth but unable to budge. What a terrible place to find yourself in a game that’s essentially a race.
Furthermore, there is no provision for actually tracking the time limit. Many of the scenarios are on a clock, but there is nothing in the game that marks how many rounds you’ve played. Is it the fourth day or the sixth day? Who knows? Bring a piece of paper or something to note this, because Mage Knight can’t be bothered. Imagine a scoreboard for a baseball game without room to tell you what inning it is. You’ll just have to remember.
9. Mechanics and…uh, what’s that other thing?
You know that whole boardgame concept of theme and mechanics? Of course you do. You hear it all the time: theme and mechanics, theme and mechanics, theme and mechanics. Euros are all theme and Ameritrash is all mechanics. Something like that. Whatever the case, for a game with all sorts of Ameritrashy bits, Mage Knight can hardly be arsed to come up with any theme.
Consider the characters. In one game, you’ll play the green flying lizard dude. You know he’s the green flying lizard dude because he uses the green lizard figure with wings. In another game, you’ll play one of the guys who’s not the green flying lizard dude. Other than the pointless toy that represents the character, they’re distinguished by a single card. Each deck consists of the same 16 cards, but for each character, one of the cards is slightly more powerful than its counterpart in the other characters’ decks. You can buy an add-on that doubles the number of unique cards in each character’s deck. Now they’re each distinguished by two of their 16 cards!
Naturally, as you play and the characters level up, they get more powerful. But they get more powerful by drawing from the same wells. The same deck of spells, unique abilities, and followers. You might think each character’s stack of 10 unique-ish skill chits would distinguish them. But Mage Knight has decided that every character can use every other character’s skills. With the exception of the single slightly more powerful card, the green flying lizard dude is no different from any of the other characters. Those wings? They don’t mean a thing. Being a lizard? It doesn’t count for anything. Each character is just an assortment of stuff that any other character might as well have.
(Although the unique abilities and spells are given descriptive enough names, I have no idea what’s going on with some of the character skills. One of the characters has a skill called “I Don’t Give A Damn!” It adds an extra point to a card played sideways for its generic +1 boost to another card. Why is this called “I Don’t Give A Damn!”? What is it implying about this particular character? I couldn’t tell you. Theme!
The monsters you fight are similarly a handful of unadorned stats. Oh, look, I just encountered a fortified defense of 7 with an attack of 3 that’s worth 3 fame if I defeat it! Is it an elf? An orc? A High Nilfgaardian Berserker Chieftain? I suppose I could check the back of the rules where the monster chits have names. Okay, let’s see, defense 7, attack 3, fame 3. Here we go: it’s a guardsman. Oh. A guardsman. That was hardly worth the effort of looking through the little pictures for the right set of numbers.
This will be the case for pretty much everything you encounter in Mage Knight. At best, you get a small splash of artwork. You’re most likely to get a wall of text. The spells, which are supposed to represent awesome powers made even more awesome during the night, are just text crammed onto a card. The really awesome spells have to use smaller fonts so they can cram all that text on there. Awesomeness can be complicated.
Oddly enough, the best theming isn’t in the players’ characters or the monsters they fight or even their spells or powers. It’s in the recruitable armies. These are cards with decent enough artwork, and if you dig through them, you might find something that looks suspiciously like world-building. The words “Utem” and “Altem”, for instance. Sounds like backstory to me. There’s also some sort of “Amotep” thing. The add-on introduces something or other “Delphana”. Oh, and you’ll note on the character cards where you put your mana crystals, the characters have names that don’t appear anywhere else. These are similarly babytalkish: Norowas, Tovak, Arythea. To her credit, the add-on character brings a couple of English words to the theming party: Wolfhawk.
Mage Knight, a bucket into which numbers are dumped, opts out of any meaningful theming.
8. At least it’s not called Thief Cleric
What’s a mage knight, anyway? What a terrible concept. It’s like a DPS tank.
7. You didn’t plan on playing any other games tonight, did you?
A corollary of a lot of the other problems with Mage Knight is that it’s slow. Some of the worst pacing I’ve ever seen in a game. And not just because it’s long. I don’t mind a long game. Some games need to be long. But I do mind a slow game and Mage Knight is one of the slowest games I’ve ever played. It is a slog playing solitaire. It is a hopeless quagmire of insufferable waiting playing with others. If you are a slow player, or if you have a slow player in your group, Mage Knight will push the bounds of patience like nothing else. Because…
6. Go make a sandwich when it’s not your turn. Take your time.
The best boardgames minimize downtime by giving you something to do even when it’s not your turn. Some input or some decision or at least some direct stakes in the action. At the very least, you can plan for your upcoming turn.
Not so in Mage Knight, a game that requires meticulous planning, but makes it impossible with excessive randomness. What you can do on your turn, which is often something you should do in anticipation of what you’re going to do the next turn, or even the turn after, is strictly limited by the cards you draw, and how you can use those cards is strictly limited by certain die rolls. And you don’t know what dice you can use until it’s your turn, because the player(s) before you will be rerolling some of them.
You can mitigate the dice a smidge with careful mana crystal management, but because you never know what the dice will be, you never know how important your mana crystals will be. Sure, you saved up three red crystals to make sure you can use your special red card, but oh, look, there’s a red die available anyway. Furthermore, you never know what cards you’re going to draw, which will determine what types of mana you need. In other words, don’t get too attached to any plans. Actually, don’t even bother to make plans. To paraphrase some German guy who probably lost a war, “No plan survives contact with Mage Knight”.
5. How about none for me, all for you?
Mage Knight makes no effort to balance itself as a competitive game (the add-on includes variants to force balance into the game, as if it just now occurred to the developers that being lapped during a race isn’t conducive to making someone want to race). Even as a cooperative game, you’re just as likely to be the guy stuck with a BB caliber hero while the other guy has a bazooka hero. This is a terrible design for a game that you’re also supposed to be able to play competitively.
Actually, it’s worth noting that Mage Knight isn’t even really a game. It’s a system that includes a handful of scenarios with no meaningful pushback other than the time limit (see above). The add-on adds a wandering monster. His name is Volkare. He’s basically a moving city in that cities and Volkare are just stacks of randomly drawn monsters chits. Hopefully you can get superpowerful enough to defeat a stack of randomly drawn monster chits before the time limit runs out.
4. Let me look that up
The rules are crammed onto a few pages in small print with almost no visuals to relate them to the game pieces. They’re also pretty finicky, because the design is pretty finicky. But they’re also incomplete. If you want to know important information, you’ll have to flip through a deck of cards. Don’t plan to lay these out on the table like a reference guide, because you need to check information on both sides. I’ve never played a boardgame with the rulebook printed in a deck of cards, much less two-sided cards.
3. Cool minis or not?
Mage Knight is expensive because it has little painted toys for your characters, which are just heaps of stats poorly distinguished from any other heap of stats. There are also little painted plastic toys for cities with bases that you can use to indicate how strong the city is. There is no reason this information needs to be a clickable part of a plastic toy. Other than making the game more expensive so the publisher has a larger profit margin.
2. A place for everything and everything in its…oh, wait, not anymore
The expansion ruins one of the few non-terrible things about Mage Knight: that it fits superneatly into a molded plastic insert inside the box. The expansion breaks this. You can’t even fit the new cards in the original box, much less the new plastic toys. I don’t mind long setup and breakdown times. What I mind is long set-up and breakdown times that are longer because of thoughtless packaging.
1. Thou shalt not
Mage Knight violates more commandments of boardgame design than any other game! Which is all of them. Every. Single. Commandment.
Anyone want to buy a used copy of Mage Knight?
(Editor’s Note: The above article is only partly trolling. Maybe 30, 35%. 40% tops. The author really does think Mage Knight is terrible, despite the fact that he has been known to “enjoy” or “play” it, mainly as a solitaire game.)