Cheaty Mages is the latest Big in Japan import from Alderac Entertainment Group. In Cheaty Mages, designed by Seiji Kanai of Love Letter fame (although designed much earlier; Cheaty Mages hit the U.S. in 2013, but was originally published in 2008), each player is a spectator/wizard betting on – and attempting to influence – the results of arena battles between various monsters. Cheaty Mages retails for about $10.
What’s in the Box?
110 cards (72 spells, 10 monsters, 8 judges, and six sets of betting cards) and 30 coin tokens. The tokens are sturdy, the box is sturdy, the cards are sturdy (are you noticing a pattern here?). For card art you get the original illustrations, similar to the Love Letter Kanai Factory Limited Edition (same size box too, if you’re familiar with it).
Each game of Cheaty Mages lasts three rounds. In each round five combatants will face off under the watchful (or not so watchful, as the case may be) eyes of a judge. During the round, the players/mages will take turns playing spells in order to influence the outcome of the round. At the end of the round, whichever monster has the highest power wins.
Players succeed at Cheaty Mages by placing bets on the fighters, and then ensuring that the ‘correct’ result is reached. Each round, after seeing the fighters and the judge, each player places a single, double, or triple bet. Players do not actually wager cash from their stockpile – the value of a bet is determined entirely by the value of the monster, and whether the bet was a single, double, or triple. The higher the power of the monster, the less a successful bet on that monster is worth – both the power and cash values range from 1 to 10. If a player wins a single bet, he gets double the monster’s value. A winning double bet (either of the two monsters was the winner) gets the monster’s value. A winning triple bet gets half of the winning monster’s value.
Players affect the outcome of the rounds by playing spells. Each player starts the game with a certain number of spells, and gets a partial refill after the first and second rounds (the exact number of cards involved varies depending on the number of players). There is a hand limit, so a player can’t just stockpile everything until the final round, but players have flexibility to decide when to deploy their resources. For example, in a four player game each player gets 8 cards to start the game and draws another 4 after each of the first and second rounds, giving 16 spells to play overall between the three rounds.
Spells come in three types, denoted by a symbol in the upper left of the card. Direct spells are played on a particular monster and are played face up. Enchant spells are also played on a particular fighter, but are played face down (a player can take his turn to discard any spell card from hand to look at all of the face-down spells on a fighter). The most common effects for both direct and enchant spells are to raise or lower the power of the monster. The third type of spell is support spells, which can do pretty much whatever (draw cards, mess with the judge, neutralize already played spells, etc.), and then are generally discarded. Some of the judge’s prohibit the use of one of the three spell types during that round.
During a round, players simply take turns playing spells (whoever is winning at the start of the round gets stuck going first), or passing. Once a player passes, he can’t come back in. Once everyone has passed, the round ends.
At the end of the round, the judge will do their job – well, their interpretation of their job, anyway. Each judge has a mana limit and a punishment. Each direct and enchant spell has a mana value (note: the mana value has nothing to do with a casting cost for the spell, it only comes into play during judgment), and if the mana value on a particular fighter exceeds the judge’s mana limit, then the judge will intervene in the fight. Some judges will simply dispel all of the spells on a monster, but other judges will eject the monster from the fight entirely.
The winner is then determined, and bets revealed and winnings collected. A new set of monsters and a new judge are then determined for the next round. Whoever has the most cash after three rounds wins.
Cheaty Mages reports that it is for 3-6 players and can be played in 30 minutes. We found both of those assessments to be accurate – the game worked at all player counts, although at higher player counts each individual player will have more downtime and fewer opportunities to act. And that 30 minutes should be a maximum – much shorter games are very possible.
Cheaty Mages is a lot more tactical than one might think based on the title. It’s short, but it is not at all mindless. Within a round, players have to try to figure out who their opponents are betting on, whether that face-down card is meant to help or hinder the monster, whether it might be possible to push a monster over the mana limit, how many cards to hold back for later rounds, and how the different possible judges in this round and the next might impact what to hold onto and what to play. And, of course, at the same time each player has to try to mislead his opponents as they are making these same decisions. The underlying gameplay is quite fun.
The judges, in particular, can do a lot to liven things up from round to round. You get Tad, the Daydreamer as your judge? Just do whatever you want. Adoth, the Severe Judgemaster? Good luck with that. Or maybe you hit Ferine, the Capricious, whose mana limit and what punishment she’ll employ aren’t determined until the end of the round. They were probably my favorite element of the game.
Two detriments inject themselves into this mix. The first – and less important given the short play time – is that there is a lot of power level fluctuation in the cards. Do not expect life to be fair. Not only might cards be weaker, but there is also the possibility of an unlucky judge flip shutting your hand down. That’s not necessarily a “problem” – this presents as a light game, after all. But as noted above, there’s more tactics than you might think, so it can be slightly vexing to have your well-laid plans go awry because the other fellow just got much better, or more opportune, cards. As an extreme example, I once played a game where my initial hand and my draw after the first round yielded nine support spells out of 12 – and both of the first two judges disallowed support spells. Unsurprisingly, I was not in good shape going into round 3 and, even with lots of firepower in that round, could not possibly win.
Which brings up the actual problem – insurmountable leads going in to the third round. It is not only possible, but reasonably likely, that one or more players will be eliminated from contention before the third round starts. Because the monster values cap out at 10, and there will only be maybe 3 monsters in a round who are worth even five, the player in the lead has a very strong ability to place his bets so that whatever your possible options for catching up would be, the leader will be getting enough gold to stay ahead. It can be completely insurmountable at times, and even with only a moderate lead going into round 3 things are very bleak for those bringing up the rear. This can make the final round pretty lame for those players.
In many circumstances, a ‘this game v. that game’ in a review may not be helpful, but for those of us who had played Colossal Arena, it was hard to avoid a comparison between that Reiner Knizia gem and Cheaty Mages. The title of Cheaty Mages and the fact that you’re explicitly playing spells infuses the Seiji Kanai title with some more flavor up front, but the light-hearted flavor does not create as deep a difference in how the mechanics feel as one might think. The most significant mechanical difference as far as how the game feels, rather, is probably the increased bluffing in Cheaty Mages – in Colossal Arena it’s just what your secret bet is and what you might have in hand, while in Cheaty Mages all of your bets are concealed and there are also enchant spells. Ultimately, we found Colossal Arena to come out ahead in that comparison, mostly due to the two shortcomings listed above – not that Colossal Arena can’t have a runaway leader or that it doesn’t have luck, but the former is much less likely and skillful play can mitigate the latter more than it can in Cheaty Mages.
Still, Cheaty Mages presents clever but light gameplay that a lot of gamers will enjoy as a filler, and all in a cheap package.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.