Vlaada Chvatil is a brilliant game designer. But he’s not much of a storyteller. Like a lot of renowned Eurogame designers, his genius is mechanical instead of imaginative. Nowhere is this more apparent than Mage Knight, a mercilessly Teutonic exercise in optimization. Bone dry, personality free, almost completely non-interactive when played with others, challenging only for the clock counting down to an inevitable failstate. Mage Knight demands that you hurry up and optimize faster. That is its core gameplay. Take your time and you lose. Quickly optimize its clockwork interactions and you might win.
It fares a bit better when someone comes along to apply the imagination part. For instance, Andrew Parks and the Star Trek license. Parks’ Star Trek: Frontiers, an official Mage Knight game, applies a splashy coat of Star Trek paint. The hand management now represents tuning your starship’s performance. The cards are your crew members. The cities you’re supposed to conquer are mighty Borg Cubes. The diplomacy is actually diplomacy. Now the cardboard isn’t so bland. Design by Chvatil, flavor by Parks.
But no one has done more for Mage Knight than Walter Barber.
Walter Barber’s Champions of Hara, published by Greenbriar Games, isn’t officially a Mage Knight game. It’s obviously inspired by Mage Knight, but it seems to have some reservations about that game. I can relate. So it does a few things differently. Very differently.
For instance, it’s not a deck builder. Mage Knight will confound me based on what cards I happened to draw or, more likely, not draw. But Champions of Hara has no drawing and no decks. It has only a hand of four cards. I didn’t draw them, and I will never discard them. Instead, I will do three actions every turn, using the same four cards. Eventually, I can add more cards, one for each of the game’s three energy colors, which are like flavors of experience points. I might eventually have to choose among seven cards. Which three will I pick? That’s as busy as Champions of Hara gets.
This works because each card has two variations on a basic idea, one written on the top of the card, the other written on the bottom. When the card is in my hand, I can only play the top action. I lay it on the table and resolve the top action. Then, next turn, I can play the bottom action and take the card back into my hand. Next turn, I can use the top half again. Each card cycles through a one-two-one-two rhythm, top half one turn, bottom half the next, top, bottom, top, bottom. But I’m never getting rid of a card. I’m never using up a card. Nothing is ever taken away. In a deck builder, I use the card and it disappears into the discard pile, and now I can’t be sure I’ll ever get to use it again. Farwell, sweet card. Come back soon! Champions of Hara has no such parting sorrow. There is no drawback to playing a card, no penalty, no letting go, no wistfully wondering when it will come back. I never have to say “goodbye.” All my cards are always available.
Another thing Champions of Hara does differently from Mage Knight is provide a lot of choices at any moment. Both games are about moving characters around a hexagonal board, scooping up treasures and fighting monsters as you go. Mage Knight is often about setting up an attack against the one monster I can reach this turn. But in order to reach the monster, I have to use the card I need to attack it. And in order to attack the monster, I have to be able to reach it. It’s a dilemma without a solution, so my turn is wasted and now I’ve failed the optimization puzzle in which every turn counts.
Champions of Hara plays by the same basic premise. Any given turn can be an agonizingly difficult deterministic puzzle in which I have to wring as much as I can from a limited set of actions. I have enough to kill that monster, but I’m one space away from where I need to be to attack it. And if I move one space, then I won’t have enough to attack it. But Champions of Hara populates the board with alternatives, so it’s not as rigid or punishing as Mage Knight. Okay, so I can’t quite kill that Moon Sage this turn. I’ll have to settle for killing a Molten Mantis, or closing a rift, or allying with that Herald of the Serpent so everyone gets a free movement action, or moving onto a face-down event to see what happens. The longer a game of Champions of Hara goes on, the more crowded the board gets with opportunities, obstacles, and even unknowns.
For a game about deterministic combat, Champions of Hara isn’t afraid to play with unknowns. But it puts uncertainty into its own corner. When a monster is drawn from a deck, it’s placed face up so I always know exactly what I’m fighting. I always know whether I’ll win. Health, or hit points — mine and a monster’s — aren’t affected by randomness. But when an event is drawn from a deck, it’s placed face-down. What could it be? Will it kill me? Will it be the turning point that wins the game? Will it be irrelevant to my current situation? I have to land on it to find out, and there will always be a choice or die roll involved. Similarly, when I close face-up rifts, which are like gift baskets of the energy I need to unlock more cards, a die roll determines whether I get the small reward or the larger reward. When it comes to these choices and die rolls, Champions of Hara gives each character a resource called spirit. Whereas a character’s health is used in deterministic fights against monsters, a character’s spirit mitigates the randomness in events and rifts. It’s the same intricate gameplay as Mage Knight, but without forcing you to squander your resources hoofing it hither and yon across blandly hexagonal terrain and more than willing to playfully throw a little mitigated randomness into the mix. Math puzzles and “gotchas!” living side-by-side. And hardly a fizzled out turn among them.
Where Champions of Hara is most different from Mage Knight, and where fans of Mage Knight’s rigid ruthlessness might turn up their noses, is that it’s not afraid to swing. It makes no apologies for flights of imbalance and dramatic pivots. I have to carefully decide and tune my actions each turn, and the numbers are small. Three points of damage is a serious wallop. Moving five spaces is practically unheard of. There are only two verbs. Move and damage. On any given turn, a character can probably move a few spaces and inflict a couple points of damage. Monsters are only ever two to seven hit points, and have to be killed in one fell swoop. There are no damage types, or resistances, or modifiers. There are only four adjectives to definte monster behaviors. The math is simple, the words are few. But Champions of Hara refuses to let this narrow the range of possibilities.
For instance, let me tell you about the Forest Ronin.
The toughest opponents in Champions of Hara are called Corrupted. Whereas the regular monsters sit and wait for you to attack, the Corrupted roam the map and proactively wreak havoc. They each have their own unique abilities, breaking the rules as surely as the player characters break the rules. Fights against the Corrupted can be won or lost based on how well you use Dreamstones. Everyone starts a game with one of these modest little doo-dads. By the text on the Dreamstone card, they don’t seem to do much. If you’re on an empty space, you can discard your Dreamstone to draw a card, which will usually be a monster. But you’re drawing blindly. When monsters are on the board, they’re face up, and combat is 100% deterministic. Simple math minus messy probabilities. Why take a chance drawing blindly and finding yourself on the wrong end of a simple math puzzle? Okay, maybe you really want to fight a monster, but you can’t quite reach one this turn. Use your Dreamstone. Voila, instant fight. Hope for a favorable math outcome.
But each of the Corrupted has a weakness that can only be exploited with a Dreamstone. In scenarios with Corrupted — most of the scenarios have Corrupted — one of the more important decisions is when and how to use your starting Dreamstone. You’ve got one shot. But some monsters, such as the Lorekeeper or Bog Witch, give you an extra Dreamstone when you defeat them. Some monsters only appear for two turns before they just up and leave, straight into the discard pile. These temporary visitors have one thing in common: they’re each carrying a Dreamstone. Available for a limited time only! Now you’ve got a second opportunity to take advantage of a Corrupted’s weakness.
But then there’s a monster called a Forest Ronin. He’s a beast of middling difficulty who only shows up during the night portion of the day/night cycle. This means he’s not limited to one of the six worlds, each with its own set of unique monsters and events. He can appear anywhere. He’s even a little benevolent, because he gives everyone a point of green energy when he arrives. Some monsters are like that. They offer a gift when they show up. In fact, some monsters have the keyword “ally,” followed by a gift. For instance, riftlings are weak creatures that give you a tiny sum of energy when you defeat them. But they all say “Ally: gain 2 health.” This means instead of fighting them, you can discard them and take the ally reward. It doesn’t even use one of your actions for the turn. Do you use the riftling to level up a bit, or to heal for free? Allies are like up-for-grabs power-ups, so long as you’re willing to forgo whatever energy and treasure you’d earn by fighting it.
But even though the Forest Ronin brings a little gift when he arrives, he’s not an ally. He’s actually a pretty tough fellow. You won’t be able to kill him until maybe the second or third day. Maybe you can take him with help from another character (when playing coop, you can give one of your actions to another character if they can contribute damage to an attack). But one of the most notable things about the Forest Ronin is the little number in the bag icon on his card. It’s a 21.
These numbers reference items carried by a monster. Items you’ll get if you kill the monster. I’ve seen a few games play with the idea that loot isn’t something you should just get willy-nilly by drawing from a loot deck. The idea is that loot should be tuned, associated with something consistent and specific. “Hey, I killed a rat and it dropped a Vorpal Blade!” is fine if monsters are slot machines. What are you going to roll on the treasure table this time? Sweet, you rolled a Vorpal Blade! But contrast “Hey, I killed a rat and it dropped a Vorpal Blade!” with “Hey, if I kill a lich, then I get a Vorpal Blade!” Now the lich and the Vorpal Blade have a cause-and-effect relationship. They’re part of a gameplay and narrative ecology. They have more specificity and therefore more personality. Was it worth losing the thrill of a slot machine’s uncertainty and wildly varied possibility? Champions of Hara thinks so. Besides, it has other plans for wildly varied possibility.
So the loot deck in Champions of Hara has cards with numbers on their backs. You will never draw from it. Instead, you will always look through it for a specific number. The Skybrabian always carries Volume 1 of the Amrita (#1), which is good for three free actions. Bass Hunters always drop The Mark of the Hunter (#16) to let you damage creatures with ranged damage, even if they’re immune to ranged damage. The Forgotten Guardian has a Leyline Compass (#14) to help you find rifts. A corollary of this is that each item is only available from a specific monster. Do you want a Leyline Compass? If you’re playing Thomas or Ghuus, both of whom have unique uses for rifts, you bet you do. But the only way to get it is by taking it from a Forgotten Guardian. Do you want a Mark of the Hunter? If you’re a ranged attacker, it’s a real boon. Find a Bass Hunter in the Baiyu. If you want free actions — and who doesn’t want free actions? — rejoice when the Skybrarian appears. Do you want a Chromatic Converter (#5), which lets you turn any color of energy into any other color? Everyone wants one of those! But the only way to get it is to kill the Painted Duke. Do you want the Ice Phoenix feather (#9) that resurrects you if you get killed? Of course you do. But you’re only going to get it when you kill an Ice Phoenix.
So let’s get back to that number 21 on the Forest Ronin’s card. It’s the Ronin’s Satchel. When you kill the Forest Ronin, you riffle through the item deck until you find the number 21. At this point, you might notice there’s flavor text on the backs of all the cards. It’s the introduction to the card, after you’ve found its number in the deck but before you’ve flipped it over. This gives the other side of the card more room for the splendid work of an artist named Hannah Kennedy. If you care to read the text, it explains that the Ronin keeps a piece of the Great Forest in his satchel. If you’ve read other flavor text, you’ll know that the Great Forest no longer exists because it was torn into two pieces and put on opposite sides of the world. One piece is the Baiyu, a swamp alive with celebratory music. The other piece is the sorrow and silence of the haunted trees and moss in Oakenmoor. These are both areas for green energy, and the board is always set up so that they’re across from each other. Did you know you were recreating Hara’s backstory when you set up the board?
So you defeat the Forest Ronin, you find item 21, you flip it over, and now you have the Ronin’s Satchel. It gives you a Dreamstone at the beginning of every turn. You re-read it to make sure you got that right. A Dreamstone at the beginning of every turn? Yes, a Dreamstone at the beginning of every turn. The items you had to carefully manage are now coming at you as fast as you can spend them. Suddenly the pitched battle you were fighting against a Corrupted got, well, maybe too easy. Champions of Hara seems to think world-building is more important than fine tuning. It is the polar opposite of Mage Knight.
The Ronin’s Satchel is an extreme example of the design’s willingness to trump itself, but it’s not the only example. Certain combinations will, by design, make things easier or harder. One of the Corrupted, A’shura, moves every turn towards the players’ starting space. When she reaches it, she activates one of her powers. Some characters have ways to move Corrupted, and they’re uniquely suited to keeping A’shura from her destination. Simply moving her back a few spaces means she takes that much longer to trigger her powers. Characters without that power are going to have a much harder time with A’shura. A Corrupted called Enoki drops spores onto characters that reduce their damage by one point. In a game where three points of damage is a serious wallop, a minus one really hurts. Ouch. But a character named Ayako does most of her damage with creatures made from molten lava called Forgelings, which move around the board separately. Since Forgelings aren’t player characters, they aren’t affected by Enoki’s spores. Most of Ayako’s abilities are still inflicting full damage. Not so tough now, are you, Enoki?
To me, this is the mark of a great game design. One that’s willing to trust its own narrative because it believes the mechanics should serve the story and not vice versa. The Forest Ronin doesn’t break the game. He helps make it what it is. He doesn’t compromise the rules. He plays into them. And if it occurs to you to wonder why, Champions of Hara will tell you that this Ronin has preserved a bit of primeval magic that doesn’t mind bending the rules, Tom Bombadil style. Mage Knight doesn’t have the imagination or whimsy to do this.
Another thing Mage Knight doesn’t have is dramatically different characters. In Champions of Hara, each of the six characters has a unique gameplay system. Persephone’s Fear builds as she takes damage, unlocking more powerful versions of her abilities. Leaf accumulates Momentum as he moves and then spends it on his attacks. Oric chooses one of his three fighting stances that changes the basic rules. Kaoru has four points of Grit to use every day, and if he wants more — he will want more — he has to take it from his health. Soff relies on mana, but to replenish it, she needs to build up heat. If she builds up too much heat, she burns out.
The characters are further differentiated as they unlock more cards over the course of a game. Every unlocking threshold poses a difficult decision between two mutually exclusive choices. If you want Thomas’ Disintegrator, you can’t take his Beam Saber. If you opt for Soff’s Flame Weaving to add an attack to her default movement, you can’t use the Blastwave that moves her farther as her heat builds up. Do you want Oric to take Art of War, in which he can heal himself and boost other characters’ powers, or you want Oric to take Dye!, in which he boosts his special ability to channel damage received into damage dealt? Oric is from a place known as the painted city for how it’s festooned with graffiti and ruled by the Painted Duke. Art of War? Dye? Get it? Champions of Hara has a playful way with words.
Hannah Kennedy’s artwork is equally playful, full of ebullience and color. It practically leaps off the cards, which are actually big hexagons designed to fit exactly onto the board’s big spaces. This shape makes the cards a bear to shuffle, but they’re well worth the effort. You didn’t plan on sleeving these, did you? Each deck sits in the middle of each world, and then each card completely fills out its space with lively artwork, leaving the information discreetly along the sides. Even the miniatures are gorgeous, and surprisingly faithful to Kennedy’s artwork. That can’t have been easy. One of the Corrupted is a man dangling from a giant set of spindly spider legs. I can imagine the sculptor’s dismay when he was shown that artwork.
Like Mage Knight, Champions of Hara uses its game design as a foundation for scenarios. The basic way to play is a head-to-head game, with players running around the board fighting monsters and each other. Whoever hits the level cap first wins. This makes for a complete game with pretty much infinite replayability, given all the combinations of characters, monsters, events, and items. Lord knows, I’ve paid more for considerably less.
The rules book suggests that this free-for-all is just the prologue. Once someone wins, you then play one of that character’s two scenarios. Five of these twelve scenarios are new twists on competitive rules. Team-based games, or one vs many with the one assisted by a Corrupted. One of the Persephone scenarios has her pitted against everyone else, but she gets to spend Fear to “blink summon” any Corrupted she wants, bringing it onto the board as an ally for a single turn. Another scenario daisy chains all the players into a string of hunters and hunted.
The majority of the scenarios are cooperative games for two to four characters. And they’re all distinct for how they change the rules and apply different victory conditions. Each one is worthy of being its own game because each one is almost infinitely replayable based on which characters you use, which monsters flip up, which events come into play, and which Corrupted you play against. Each character also has a third scenario built to be played by that character alone. These tend to focus on some unique mechanic, almost like a chess puzzle. All told, you get the free-for-all plus 18 scenarios. Then there’s a $60 expansion called Chaos on Hara (only available directly from Greenbriar Games). It adds four more characters, each with three scenarios, along with more Corrupted enemies, more monsters, and more events. I hate to say this, because $60 is a lot to pay for an expansion, but the characters in Chaos on Hara are some of my favorites. They’re more complex than the base game’s characters, which makes them more gratifying to master.
Of course, you can just jump straight to any scenario, and this is how I’ve come to Champions of Hara. It’s ideal for solitaire play controlling multiple characters, which is easy to manage, given how each character begins with just four cards. The interaction among characters is a fundamental part of the design. Many of the character powers work differently with other players on the table. And not just in terms of helping each other. Soff, who has to manage a trade-off between heat and mana, can actually damage friendly characters if she burns too hot. Ayako’s Forgelings have a habit of exploding to the detriment of anyone nearby. One of the characters in the expansion, Icarus, is a Weird West magician from Greenbriar’s Grimslingers game. His role is almost exclusively support for how he “deputizes” other characters.
The rules book suggests a meta-progression system that will unlock two more cards for each character. I love a good progression system, but it feels a bit forced here, as if it’s worried those two cards might be too confusing for new players. Perhaps. But I’d recommend just adding the additional cards from the get-go. Especially the passive abilities, which give these characters so much more, well, character. Thomas, an inventor, begins with a card that lets him mimic another player’s item cards. Persephone can spend Fear to reflect damage. Kaoru’s bear sidekick protects him from monster damage, which means he can end his turn wherever he wants while everyone else has to dance around outside monsters’ attack ranges. Champions of Hara doesn’t need to be a game about leveling up over the course of several playthroughs. When you’ve got something this good at the table, there’s no reason to hold back.
I don’t mean to suggest that Champions of Hara is merely a better version of Mage Knight. In fact, to me, it doesn’t feel like Mage Knight at all. It feels like it was made by someone who admires Mage Knight, but has a lot more to say than the usual fantasy schtick. Walter Barber’s design and storytelling hold their own next to some of my favorite imaginative boardgames. A Study in Emerald, Spirit Island, Hand of Doom, and Shadi Torbey’s Oniverse games all come to mind. These are games that get their gameplay ducks in a row, and then use the spaces between the gameplay not to say their stories at me. That would be too simple. That’s not how this should work. They let their stories unfurl. Fantasy Flight writes a paragraph on a card to justify a die roll and thinks it’s a story when a bunch of these cards are shuffled into a deck. A more confident design will let stories emerge from the interaction among pieces and systems, as the cards flip, as the boards shift, as the expressive artwork and eventually even the flavor text comes into focus, fragments resolve, converge, deepen with new colors, and then show me something I didn’t see before.
A little man by a stream laughs and rides away on a giant stag. We’ll meet again and I’ll learn his name. Raucous apes steal things. A mechanical pirate offers me a drink and later a ride. Kierkegaard — yes, Kierkegaard — just got me my Blackwood Gauntlets. Hey, it turns out the Wayward Warrior was royalty, and a queen, to boot. A winged blindfolded woman named Atropos is doing something I don’t think I’ve seen a boardgame do. The Witch King rains Fire and Brimstone down on Lunaridge and now it’s gone for a turn, a swathe of the board out of play completely. Good thing I wasn’t on it. Where is that Forest Ronin? I could really use his satchel. All this isn’t just a thing to win. It’s a place to explore.