Review – Mage Tower: A Tower Defense Card Game

I’ve played a reasonable number of random free tower defense games on iDevices and in web browsers, so when Brett Brimmer (of Super Mega Comics) ran a Kickstarter for Mage Tower – A Tower Defense Card Game, I gave it a brief lookover and then dropped my $30 on it without terribly much thought (it’s $40 now if you buy it from Game Salute or your FLGS). In Mage Tower each player drafts 8 different cards, adds five basic cards to them, and then attempts to survive through a constant stream of monsters bent on his or her destruction.

Mage Tower Cover

What’s In The Box?

                It’s a smaller box, which I appreciate, since I really don’t need any more massive boxes to hold card games. There are 339 cards, 20 basic white d6, and 24 yellow plastic tokens. The cards include player cards – three different “basic cards,” 166(!) different normal cards to go with them, and a stack of three different prize cards – plus monsters, co-op monsters, confusion cards (the Curses of Mage Tower), and “created cards” for cards that use such effects.

Components, Art & Such

Mage Tower Body SnatcherThe art seems reasonably frequently commented on, so I’ll hit that first. It’s all public domain material, and mostly seems to be from old paintings. I’ve seen some folks bagging on this, but it seemed nice enough to me – maybe you don’t think it’s good, but I don’t see how it’s bad unless you’re downgrading it just for being public domain. Simple fact is that with needing 180+ different pieces of art (because of those 166 different player cards instead of having something like 16 in stacks of ten) there was probably no way they could afford to commission art for everything (or if they had commissioned that much art, it probably would have been some pretty low-end stuff that would have made this look amazing).

Component quality is mediocre. The dice and tokens are low-end plastic, and the cards aren’t great either – you will absolutely have to sleeve this if you want your cards in anything resembling nice shape, because the black borders flake like crazy (the card stock isn’t too hot either).

The rulebook is a bit oddly arranged (for example, it has the variant rules at the front of the rulebook, before you even know the standard rules), but was easy enough to use once you figured out where things were.

Gameplay

Mage Tower DemonSo here’s the basics – you’re facing down a deck of monsters. Every turn, new monsters come out, and you place them in a line away from the monster deck. Each monster has an attack value and health.

To fight these monsters, you’ve got a deck of 13 cards, start with 2, draw 2 a turn. Your deck is formed of five basic cards, and another 8 out of the selection of 166. These can be at random or, if you are a smart (sorry, “advanced,”) gamer who wants to have a better time, you will draft for them. Be on the lookout for GameStart cards, that have some effect before the game begins – starting in play, adjusting your deck, and so forth. This deck is fixed for the duration of the game, except that you also get 1 Gold per turn, and you can use these Gold to buy prize cards. The prize cards cost 3-4 gold – one does two damage, one creates two energy, and one draws a card. You get the effect right away when you buy the card and on later turns when you play the prize card you get the effect again, plus you get to draw a card.

These cards cost some amount of energy (usually from 2-5), and you have 7 energy to spend every turn (all of the prize cards cost zero energy, so they’re fantastic once they’re in your deck). The most common effect that these cards do is “arrow damage,” which is doing a specified amount of damage to the closest monster, with the damage carrying over to the next one once enough damage has built up to match the health of the first. Four of the five “basic” cards your deck starts with just do arrow damage. Damage on the monsters carries over from turn to turn.

Mage Tower MeltThe fifth basic card is a Defender, which is a card (let’s just use the Magic terminology, because that’s really what these cards look like) that, like the monsters, has an attack and a health. The Defender stays in play, and once per turn you can have it fight the lead monster (Defender damage does not carry over to the next monster). So, ideally, you use your Defenders in a way that they get to fight a couple of times and that they’re maximizing their damage (for example, if you have a 3/4 Defender, you’d much rather he hit a monster with at least three health left and no more than 3 attack). Like the monsters, damage to Defenders stays from turn to turn.

There are also non-Defender cards that stay in play – Equipment (that has to be used by a Defender to do anything) and Permanents (basically anything that stays in play that isn’t a Defender or Equipment).

So, you play your seven energy worth of cards, hopefully killing most or all of the monsters currently in the attack pattern. At the start of your next turn, any remaining monsters become “angry,” and you flip them upside down. Any monsters that started the turn angry deal damage to you equal to their attack. Then another set of monsters gets flipped up until you reach a specified point value, where tougher monsters have higher values (they range from 2-5). There are six different standard monsters – three that are raw stats, one that comes into play angry, and a couple that have extra effects when they become angry. You have 20 life, and when you get to zero you lose.

Mage Tower KnockbackThere are three modes to play Mage Tower – standard, solo, and co-op. In the solo mode, you face a deck of six of each of the monsters (so 36 total). You face 11-13 points every turn (monsters that would exceed this total are skipped for now but go back in the deck) and you win if you make it through the deck.

In two-player competitive (which seems to be the default way to play), each player has their own deck of 24 monsters, faces 10-12 points of monsters per turn (monsters that are too big for this turn are discarded), and the game ends when only one player is left alive or when one player has gone through their deck twice, at which point the player with the most life left wins. With three or four players all of the monsters are combined into one 48-card deck, which means that players will (for better or for worse) no longer be facing the exact array as the other players. The competitive mode is the only one that uses the full array of player cards. Among those 166 cards are boons (giving you a more powerful effect than normal, but helping the other players), attacks (hampering the other players), and your own monsters to play in other players’ attack patterns. None of these exactly works in solo/co-op (officially, the game only tells you to take out the boons, but you should take out the attack as well – they don’t actually hurt your allies, but without the attack effects they’re generally super-weak cards).

Mage Tower HarpyIn co-op mode you face off against a tougher deck of monsters (you can play co-op solo, if you’d like). The more players, the more points of monsters that come out every turn, from 4+ for one player to 20+ for four players (no maximum per turn). The monster deck gets a “turn” to do the whole deal damage/turn monsters angry/put out new monsters thing, and then each player gets one turn. If you make it through the 29 card deck, you win.

Judgment Calls/Opinions

Mage Tower officially supports 1-6 players, but it plays quickly and if you keep it to  a more sensible 1-4 players it will play in no more than half an hour (frequently much less). It’s a pretty light game as far as strategy goes, but there might be a little too much going on with the cards for light gamers (here it becomes a drawback that there are 166 different player cards, especially since some individual cards are relatively complex; although these are marked off with an ‘advanced’ symbol as a heads up).

Mage Tower fails to impress, either thematically or in its gameplay. I feel kinda bad saying it, because it’s a small company and the designer’s first effort, but minimal gameplay choices and no thematic resonance leaves this one kind of boring (you can find a contrary opinion here).

Mage Tower Skeletal ApprenticeYou must, must, must draft in order to feel like you have some real control over what’s going on, and even the draft is less interesting that you might think because you don’t really see enough cards to put together that much of a strategy, and a lot of the draft is just trying to avoid the really terrible cards that will ensure your quick demise – there are a lot of cards that feel pretty balanced, but there are also a healthy chunk that you’d never, ever want to see in a deck (I’d suggest expanding the draft to include more cards so you can all actually avoid those really weak cards).

From a gameplay point of view, we felt like the game just lacked options. With only a couple of new cards each turn, you simply don’t have many choices. You have a reasonably efficient choice, and can take out all or most of the monsters, or you don’t. There’s a lot of “I’ve got 7 energy, so I’ll play my 4 and my 3, because just playing this 6 would doom me, and the 2 is really weak.” The thing that most felt like a real decision in-game was when to spend your Gold, because the ability to bring in the 2 damage from Gloryseeking now vs. some future turn, or actually going for one of the other prize cards, at least felt like options.

From a theme point of view, it didn’t feel like a tower defense game. One of the more critical members of the three different groups I played this would want me to point out that a “tower defense” game should involve setting up a defense and then letting the monsters roll in, rather than playing cards after the monsters show up. That’s true, I guess, but I certainly wasn’t expecting that kind of slavish devotion to the genre. I think that the reason why it didn’t resonate with the theme was not because of particular like that, but because there was no escalation. When I think “tower defense” and a central part of that is that as the game goes on my “towers” get better and more numerous and the monsters get nastier and nastier, increasing in number and/or finishing off with a “boss” (or ten, depending on the game). That’s almost entirely absent from Mage Tower. Your deck gets a little better with the addition of the prize cards, but that’s a very slow trickle, and the monsters never get tougher or vary at all. In a game like this there’s usually gameflow like cruising early on, and then it getting harder and harder and seeing whether you can hang on, or else it starts out really crushing and then you’re searching for that break point where you can turn it around. With Mage Tower, the whole game feels kind of “same-y,” and how things are going spends a long time feeling like it’s just a question of whether your decks spits out cards in appropriate combinations (unless you get down to very few health left, in which case you will lose to the monsters that come in angry and that do damage when they become angry).

Mage Tower’s best feature is that there are 166 different cards – we were not fans of the core gameplay, but if you do like it, there’s vast replayability. Personally, my favorite mode was co-op, if only because there’s (IMHO) more fun to be had in watching how the slow, uncontrolled onrush when you’re in it with a buddy than when you’re in it alone.

Ultimately, I don’t see myself bringing Mage Tower to the table again. I gave it a lot of chances, and it just didn’t work out. If I want the sort of gameplay feel that Mage Tower seems like it’s aiming for, I’d rather just play Thunderstone in solo or siege mode, which gives you a similar “neverending line of monsters” vibe, but incorporates that sense of constantly improving your tools, and sets up a much more tense gameflow where you’re getting crushed and crushed and then “whew!” you can just barely manage to pull it off (or you die horribly, as the case may be).

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