It’s In Their Nature, After All
Over the last week, a few hundred of you wrote in to express your extreme disappointment that this most recent issue of Alone Time wasn’t about yet another Todd Sanders game. Thank you kindly for your ebullient correspondence. My only defense is that I’ve instead been playing some of Mr. Sanders’ two-player games, which don’t really fit the solo requirement of that series. Which is to be, ahem, solo.
The good news is that I’ve recently wrapped up a few plays of Mage Clash, one of Todd’s more recent print-and-play projects, and I’m ready to tell all.
I could start with a short description of Mage Clash’s backstory, but the theme of feuding wizards learning a bunch of spells so they can more simply blast one another’s bottoms into another dimension is so well-traveled that if you don’t know it by now, you’ve contracted amnesia and I beg you seek medical attention as soon as possible. I could also begin by explaining how the game’s tile drafting mechanism works, but there are only so many ways one can cleverly twist the phrase “You pick a tile from a set, pass the set to your partner, then repeat until you’ve collected enough tiles,” so I’m not even going to bother.
And in a way, that’s vaguely disappointing. Sanders’ games are usually so packed to the gills with flavor, with distinct geographies and a sense of place, that wherever Mage Clash’s “Seven Cities of Gray” reside, they’re far from Lassadar or the Grand Compact of his previous games, and slightly duller too. I’d much rather visit the shifting streets of Val Justinia or the cliffside port of Nem or the dust-swept Silk Road than any of the nondescript locales I’m tasked with conquering here.
But enough of the negativity, because once you get past the over-trod setting and the fact that the gameplay mechanisms aren’t quite as novel as the designs Sanders usually dreams up, what you’ve got is a fully competent drafting game with plenty of long-term considerations and a host of ways to prepare the downfall of your nemesis.
Mage Clash is divided into two phases. During the first, you draft your way through three waves of magical artifacts, cantrips, and spells, each wave more powerful (and costly) than the ones that came before. So while you’ll start by picking up resources — magical energy like necromantic, carbolic, fire, wood, that sort of stuff — and minor trinkets, eventually you’ll be filling up your spellbook with incantations powerful enough to depopulate a city. All the while you’ll be juggling multiple considerations: do you pick up more potions to mitigate bad rolls later on, or discard a tile for extra mana or followers now? Do you take an aetheric/ice resource tile that will make future purchases less expensive, or spend a wad of your mana on acquiring the staff that matches the type your opponent has been trying to acquire? Should you empower your spell with a cantrip and hope to find more matches, or take a casting ward instead? There are plenty of tiles to pick from, and wily opponents will be watching your picks every bit as closely as their own.
Once this phase concludes, you get bonuses from your selected tiles, stuff like extra followers, victory points, or artifacts if you’ve assembled the right equipment. Then it’s time to battle, deploying your followers into the Seven Cities and duking it out with all the cool stuff you’ve picked up over the last three rounds, empowering and flinging spells, forcing re-rolls, burning out artifacts, and swearing. Lots of swearing.
And while this last part is a little more hectic and dice-based than I’d have preferred considering the slow burn that leads up to it, and while I would have liked to see some sort of conflict filling the gaps between the three drafting phases rather than taking place end-to-end, it’s a surprisingly fitting conclusion, your followers giving their lives en masse so that you can realize your dreams of being a Really Rather Awesome Wizard.
Mage Clash brings a lot to the table, especially for a free game. There are loads of tiles to consider, plenty of matches to be made, and multiple ways to humble your opponent. It’s also loaded with typical Todd Sanders flair, both in terms of its crisp graphical design and in the sense that it’s familiar enough to get an easy handle on, but different enough that you haven’t played anything quite like it.
And to top it all off, every game ends with a city-rending Mage Clash. That’s a win in my book.