Digital Cardboard: Mahokenshi

Those ninja turtles are in trouble now!

It’s been a few years now since video games cribbed big time from the realm of cardboard with Slay the Spire, the roguelike deck-builder that spawned a hundred copycats, none of them more compelling than the wickedly glorious Monster Train (CHOOT CHOOT). As someone who weathered the Great Deck-Building Imitation that followed in the wake of Donald X. Vaccarino’s genre-establishing Dominion, I’ve followed this outpouring with some interest. My expert conclusion: both hobbies seem to be operating on the “flinging spaghetti at the wall” model. And too often, the noodles have yet to be wetted.

The latest case in point in Mahokenshi, a lavishly animated deck-builder that sees one of four heroes roaming a landscape inspired by Japanese mythology, poking goblins and hiding in forests. Its closest cousin is Vlaada Chvátil’s supernal Mage Knight. Unfortunately, its consanguinity is thrice removed.

Finally, a character I can identify with.

The best thing about Ayaka? Her thicket eyebrows.

Every scenario in Mahokenshi adheres to the same arc. Your hero warps onto a cluster of floating islands undeveloped, packing only a basic deck of moves and attacks. Their enemies are numerous and deadly. Their objective is significantly out of reach. So they journey across the broken terrain, using forests for cover and hills for a bump in combat prowess, visiting towns and castles to collect and upgrade new cards. These early stages are an exercise in risk evaluation. Your hero is tougher than the average goblin, but an ogre? Maybe gather a few cards before you tackle that one. Before long, you’ve gone from an above-average fighter to an absolute monstrosity. Even the toughest boss might collapse in one or two blows.

This is largely thanks to how the game’s four heroes develop. Each is compelling in their own right. The first, Ayaka, is a winged warrior whose flight allows her to strike and retreat with ease. Kaito is the bruiser of the pack, piling himself up with armor and spikes and letting his foes batter themselves against his shell. There’s the teleporter and ranged fighter Misaki, a glass cannon I never really came to grips with. And then there’s Sato. Ah, Sato. Sato poisons his enemies and gets lots of free attacks. He’s the equivalent of Mahokenshi’s cheat mode and I love him so much.

Mage Knight is an instructive comparison, not least because you could lay transparencies of both games’ character progression over one another and get an identical graph. Both games posit hostile landscapes, with the terrain itself producing some of its toughest opposition. Pack plenty of movement cards or you’ll likely flounder against the mountains. Both are most dangerous in their early stages, before your hero has found their footing and remembered how to detonate bandit craniums from a safe distance. Both like to clog up your deck and hand with injuries, requiring periodic layovers to rest and recover. Both are fully aware that you’ll shape into such a terror in short order that the only real resistance is the clock. Pretty much every mission is timed, and those that aren’t are pushovers.

It’s curious, then, where Mahokenshi and Mage Knight most differ. Often, digital deck-builders set themselves apart from their cardboard forebears by taking advantage of their superior number crunching. Digital games can boast higher integers across the board, producing crazier effects, grander battles, and more far-reaching combos. For example, as much as I adored Gary Dworetsky’s Imperium: The Contention, I have serious reservations that his upcoming adaptation of Slay the Spire will be something of a demake, stripping away the very reasons it works so well as a digital game. This isn’t to say that digital board games are superior; in fact, they often trade away the intimacy and systems transparency that set apart board games as a medium. But as a general rule digital deck-builders take advantage of their computing power by leaning into their complexity, not to mention handling the fiddly stuff that would be annoying to upkeep by hand.

But it is rather funny watching a whole wave of goblins die because you squatted on a mountain dressed in spiked armor.

Armor Guy’s strategy is, ah, armor.

On one level, Mahokenshi does exactly this via its combat system. Rather than shifting between the map and a separate combat state, these two layers are entirely folded over one another. As you traverse the map, enemies will detect you and move to attack; move far enough away and they’ll disengage. The game’s best moments arise from these interactions, spurring little sessions of cat and mouse as you reposition to favorable terrain, flee from dangerous foes, or pick apart mobs into more manageable clusters. There are a handful of scenarios that lean into this concept. One begins with four huge ogres already hot on your heels, prompting a fighting retreat that goes on for miles. Another asks you to wage a hit-and-run campaign against four cult mages awakening a nigh-invulnerable oni king — a level that’s as tough as it is breathtaking, to such a degree that it seems misplaced among some of its breezier successors. Others ask you to stop mages from burning towns, halt corrupted goblins from assaulting peasant warriors, or help a ragtag band of samurai hold out against wave after wave of attackers. In these fights, Mahokenshi makes good use of its medium, back-ending the initiative orders and movement priorities of its many foes and allies. It isn’t the sort of thing that would be strictly impossible to manage by hand, but it would be an arduous task. When there are a dozen moving pieces across a wide map, all crucial to the overall texture of your mission, that’s when Mahokenshi shines.

Other times, Mahokenshi goes the other direction. It isn’t only simpler than Mage Knight, but often more simplistic. The cards offer a prime example. Where Mage Knight reveled in its cards, asking players to employ specialized damage types against varied enemies, use siege equipment to break through fortifications, and make hard choices about whether to use their cards for basic actions or power them with mana to achieve greater effects, Mahokenshi’s core system is comparatively flat. An attack is an attack is an attack; apart from varying damage numbers, there’s little to differentiate one from another. There are special effects, of course, but they’re limited to a precious few keywords. Each character revolves around one or two archetypes and rarely feels hand-crafted so much as slotted into a predetermined role. Either Ayaka finds good flight cards or she doesn’t. Either Kaito accumulates enough armor and spike effects or he doesn’t. Either Sota throws poison or he throws kunai.

This flatness extends to the game world itself. Where Mage Knight used its finite components and processing power to generate as dynamic a world as possible, Mahokenshi wields its comparatively limitless possibilities to disappointingly static effect. Villages exist to dole out cards and not much else. Castles are vending machines for perks. Shrines, card boosters, and treasure chests pepper the wilds, and they dispense their contents without deviation. You’ll never raid a dungeon, recruit allies and mercenaries, betray the locals by burning a monastery for its stored treasures, select spells for their effectiveness under sun or moon, manage your reputation and infamy, or deepen your character’s innate abilities. This isn’t only to say that Mage Knight is the better game — although it is — but rather to point out that it goes out of its way to feel like a living, breathing space, while Mahokenshi never strives to be more than a theme park.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the scenario design itself. There are some whoppers in there, a few of which I’ve already mentioned, but they’re presented without variation. This recent crop of roguelike deck-builders is appealing precisely because they’re compulsively replayable, a feature Mage Knight shares thanks to its random maps and challenges, not to mention its multiplayer capability. By contrast, Mahokenshi lacks all emergence. Once you’ve tackled a mission and its attendant challenges, there’s really no reason to revisit it. These are puzzles to be solved, usually with preferred paths and all, and they lack the organic strands that make Slay the Spire, Monster Train, or Mage Knight feel bottomless. Nearly everything about Mahokenshi is shallow, from its card pool and scenario list to its gameplay.

Sota poisons the oni king and goes for a stroll. Sota wins.

Sota uses poison. Sota is cheat mode.

What remains is a polished proof of concept. Mahokenshi offers some thrilling rolling battles, but they’re set amid an empty world that’s begging to be populated. Next time, let’s hope the spaghetti comes out less al dente.


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A Steam key was provided.

Posted on February 7, 2023, in Video Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Paladin’s Oath is Mage Knight with the serial numbers filed off for PC. I wish the UX was better, and when playing solo I sometimes just reach for the Tabletop Simulator mod, but I find it very interesting that it exists.

    As someone who was an avid video game player, I’ve found that I generally wished video games were closer to board games in the design department. Games like Monster Train and Slipways are great, but then I fire up some 4X game and sigh when 2 hours go by without any real juicy choices. (Where’s the 4X that takes its inspiration from Twilight Imperium and Eclipse instead of Master of Orion? Spellforce: Conquest of Eo and Gladius: Relics of war are getting warmer. Or the city builder that takes its inspiration from Suburbia instead of Sim City?)

  2. Im playing too much Slay the Spire on my laptop – what else should I look at to scratch that itch?

  3. It’s telling that Mahokenshi’s name is a sort of gloss of “Magic Knight” in Japanese, isn’t it?

  4. I like the genre, but could never get into Monster Train. It’s over-hyped IMO. As an alternative, I would highly recommend Legend of Keepers! It puts a great spin on the roguelike family (though not necessarily a deck-builder). Thanks for the great read, as always!

  5. Have you tried Dicey Dungeons? My favorite sort-of-like-a-boardgame-but-would-be-too-complex-to-really-work videogame. It’s fun and breezy and gets a ton of mileage out of its mechanisms.

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