Tower Defense, Sans Towers
You’d think the tower defense genre would be low hanging fruit for board and card games, what with the board-style setup and the dumb “AI” behaviors that could easily be handled by the flipping of a card; but while there are a few contenders out there — Castle Panic pops into my head most readily — Mage Tower from Super Mega Games is probably the first I’ve seen to actually bill itself as a “Tower Defense” game. Even so, it’s going to take more than a genre-baiting tagline to convince me your game is worth its weight. How hefty is Mage Tower, you ask? Not to discourage you from reading the review, but this one is light.
I’ve noticed a few people taking umbrage at Mage Tower’s usage of the “tower defense” tagline, and while that seems a bit pedantic — they really should be more grumpy about the “mage tower” bit, because there isn’t a single mage tower in sight, and is nondescript enough to make the game inconvenient to google — in this instance I can sort of see their point. While much of what you do in Mage Tower is reminiscent of the goings-on of tower defense games, most specifically that you’re playing defenders and activating abilities to keep a horde of enemy monsters from whittling your life points down to zero, it doesn’t really convey any of the feel inherent to titles of that genre. You won’t set up defenses prior to enemy waves, for one thing; rather, the assault begins before you have a chance to play a single card. Your defenses are largely transitory, mostly composed of single-shot abilities, and even those defenders that bother to stick around for a while usually only last for one or two hits, and they don’t actually block enemy attacks against you. Which is to say, they’re hardly towers of any kind.
But those are minor quibbles. More importantly, although the game contains both cooperative and solo variants, the main competitive mode is won by the last man standing. It’s even possible for players to attack one another once their lane is clear of monsters, making “tower defense” less of a proper descriptor than, say, “mages in a lifeboat who are trying to kill each other but they’re rather distracted by their own personal set of demons, but once those demons are dead they can get on with the business of killing each other.” I suppose that would have been too hard to fit onto the box. It is a satisfyingly compact box, after all.
Since it really isn’t much of a “tower defense” game, let’s look at what Mage Tower has to offer.
The first point in its favor is that it’s one of those rare games that takes all of two minutes to explain to new players. On your turn you draw a couple cards and a gold piece, resolve monster attacks (which is refreshingly simple: angry monsters hurt you then run away, non-angry monsters become angry, and then new non-angry monsters appear), spend a limited energy pool to summon defenders and play abilities and buy prize cards, and that’s it. Super easy, super fast… super fun?
It can be. Super fun, that is. Mostly when you’re drafting cards. See, while you could play with a basic deck, which is five starter cards and eight randomly-drawn cards from the draft deck, no self-respecting gamer is going to want to play that way, because the part where you draft eight cards is easily the best part of the game.
The basic cards that are placed in each deck are fairly dull, but the 166 unique draft cards are incredibly varied and much, much more interesting. There are better defenders, like a Rampaging Elephant whose attacks trample multiple enemies, a Flame Thrower who excels at damaging non-angry monsters, a cost-effective Band of Heroes who are so disgustingly noble they’ll also help protect your opponents, or a Mana Eater who can heal himself by, well, eating your mana. There are better abilities ranging from powerful offensive spells to healing churches to quests that automatically take prize cards when played; equipment cards to beef up your defenders with improved armor or weapons; and gamestart abilities like the Unholy Chalice that gives you a few extra life points when you begin the game but gradually gets passed between players, dealing damage whenever it appears out of someone’s draw pile. There are even special monsters you can play onto opponents’ boards, like the Angry Mob that forces players to draw fewer cards, or the Harpy who goes out of her way to attack your friends’ defenders.
There’s so much variety on display, you could play a dozen games and never draft the same card into your deck. This makes the drafting portion of the game an unbounded pleasure, even though some cards are absolutely worthless (balance seems to have been an afterthought, sadly) and the art is often muddy.
Speaking of art, much of it is taken from old paintings, which I imagine was a huge cost-saver for Mage Tower’s development, though sometimes it leads to really dissonant cards — for instance, Abraham van Beijeren’s “Still-Life with Fish in Basket” has been transformed into the “Fish Scraps” card, which somehow deals 2 arrow damage and forces a weak 1-attack 1-defense Demonspawn onto everyone else’s monster board. Because fish scraps are smelly? Still, the combination of old art and strange abilities has a fun surreal feel to it, and that’s only complemented when you recognize some card art by William Blake or Rembrandt or Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch is easy. His are the ones with the indescribable sexual acts between man and strawberry.
Fun as the drafting is, I wish I could say more about the game. Since you only draw a couple cards per turn, and since there isn’t any deck-building mechanic other than three fairly uninspired prize cards (all of which boringly boost energy, damage, or card-drawing) you add to your deck in exchange for the gold you’ve saved, there’s a very limited decision space once you get into the game itself. On most turns, you’ll draw two cards and use both of them, killing a couple monsters and bracing for future turns. The biggest decision is often to determine in which order to play your small hand of two to four cards so as to maximize the damage dealt by arrow attacks that carry over between enemies, and defender attacks that don’t. Every few rounds, you’ll spend a few gold pieces to buy one of those dull dull dull prize cards. Now and then you’ll get enough of the “Summoning” prize cards together to afford a better card that you’ve been holding onto for a few rounds, and then you’ll play it. Most of the time, that’s all there is to it.
Of course, there are certain cards that complement each other particularly well, but since your deck is only 13 cards, and five of those are the incredibly boring Archer, Elite Archer, and Knight cards you’re always forced to take, there isn’t all that much chance of having the right combination of cards that will wipe clean your monster lane and knock off your fellow mages’ pointy hats. And if you do happen to have such a combo in hand, congratulations! — you’re the only one, and you win the game.
All of this is a shame, because Mage Tower could have easily been a full-fledged deck-building game instead of going off half-cocked. The hugely varied and interesting draft cards were already there; all it would have required was a gold cost printed on each of them, and then players could have tailored their deck throughout the match, instead of playing 80% of the game during the initial draft and then sitting around until a random draw and the strength of their draft determined the winner. It’s like the entire game is built out of that final segment of other games when you count up the victory points to see who’s won — only, in other games, that’s the last few minutes. Here it’s nearly the whole experience.
But hey, if you love drafting, Mage Tower can be a great time. Maybe skip the game portion and just do drafts over and over. Forever.