Seiji Kanai is one talented guy. Not content with being responsible for the breakout hit of last Essen – Love Letter – he’s now returned with what I hope will be seen as the next step for gamers looking for something accessible but a little meatier to play. Released at Spiel this year through AEG, Cheaty Mages! promises to be another quality release from this partnership, despite the very silly name.
Now, while the name might be silly, it’s actually a perfect description of what the game’s about. You and your fellow players are mages, betting on which of five mythical creatures are going to win in a free-for-all battle. However, with magic comes great responsibility – or in your case, the ability to try and skew things how you want, turning the tide in favour of your selected fighters and making things difficult for the others. In other words, being cheaty, which is the best non-word of 2013. Forget selfies, it’s all about being cheaty, folks.
Before the battle begins – and you’ll play through three during the game – you must do a few things. First of all, see which of the fighters takes your fancy; each one has a Power number, essentially showing their strength, and whoever has the highest at the end of the round will be declared the winner. Second, look at the cards in your hand and see what abilities you have. Generally, you’ll be playing spell cards on the fighters that will have a positive or negative effect on their Power, but each card also comes with a Mana Cost – more on that in a moment. Finally, take your Betting Cards and decide who will receive your support.
Now, this is a big decision and you can either play it safe or go all in. You’re not actually betting any money in Cheaty Mages!, just putting yourself behind who you think will win. Your selected Betting Card (or cards) will go face down in front of you, and should you have made the right decision you’ll receive a certain amount of cash that is shown on each fighter. You can bet on more than one fighter, but doing so reduces the amount of money you’ll potentially get. Should you only select one and they end up victorious, you get double their prize value. Choosing two gets you the amount stated, and three cards brings in half the stated amount – basically, spreading your bets around brings in a lot less money, and in a game where there are only three rounds it’s tough to make your way back if you take an early bath.
So you’re looking to balance your chosen fighters against the spells you have in your hand. When your turn rolls around, you get the chance to add a card to the line next to any fighter you like, play an instant that may do anything from ruin the chances of a player to knocking one of the fighters out of play, or pass (in which case you’ll take no further part in that round). Oh, and there’s also the judges who need to be taken care of.
Did I not mention them? At the start of the round, a single Judge card is flipped that will have a major effect on how the Mages will play. Some outright ban the use of some spell types, meaning that you could potentially be boned for a round unless you do some clever manipulation of what you have in your hand. Others are a bit more relaxed, allowing for some crazy plays which can result in some excellent battles. Many of them also decree a Mana Limit, meaning that if any of the fighters have spells by them that equal or exceed this amount, they’ll either have the spells removed, returning them to their base number, or be exiled from the fight totally.
The mana limit is a brilliant idea as many of the spells you and the other players add to the table will be placed face down. You may discard a card on your turn to check out all face down cards next to one of the fighters, but you’ll find that keeping track of everything that’s going on can be something of a challenge. For what on first look seems to be a simple card game, there’s actually a lot of moving parts to take care of, so winning is far from easy.
The huge amount of configurations offers much replayability; combinations of different fighters and Judges along with what you hold in your hand brings to mind the cliche that no two games will be same, but in the case of Cheaty Mages! this actually rings true. Add in the fact that a full game, even with a maximum of six people, takes half an hour at most and you’ll find yourself setting up for another game the moment one comes to a close.
As you’d expect from an AEG game, the production quality is high – they’ve really made an effort in recent years to ensure their products are well made, and this is one that shines. Sure, it’s difficult to screw up a card game, but there are plenty of companies out there who have done so. Mercifully, Cheaty Mages! comes on a decent cardstock and the money tokens are on a sturdy punchboard. The art of the original Kanai Factory release has been largely kept, lending the game a really unique look and style that brings out plenty of discussion. The groups I’ve played it with have been largely positive about how the game looks, and I’m sure that it’ll win over plenty of fans when it becomes more widely available.
In short, this is another winner from AEG. Yes, it’s a small box card game that many people may overlook but seriously, if you see someone playing a copy, ask them for a quick demo. Sit in for a round and you’ll be hooked immediately. I’ve found that many people work their way through that first round, then have a moment of revelation where they discover there’s so many options at their disposal that their brain has a bit of a shudder. Then, once round two starts, everything gets cut-throat in the very best way, and everyone will want a copy of their own.
Cheaty Mages, designed by Seiji Kanai, was originally released through Kanai Factory back in 2008. Japon Brand brought it to Essen in 2012 and the AEG version was released there this year. Between three and six players can get involved, with games taking thirty minutes at most. If you’re in the market for a quick, nasty and charming little game that can go anywhere with you, I can’t recommend this one highly enough!