Monday, March 27, 2017

Quick Review - Manaforge - Kickstarter Preview

Designer: Bryan Kline
Publisher: Mystic Tiger Games
2-4p | 45-90m | 13+
Quick Review - Manaforge - Kickstarter Preview

Recently it seems like the latest theme fad has been the four basic elements: Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. I recently reviewed both Element from Rather Dashing Games and Dragon Dodge from Hidden Creek Games and really liked both. There have also been a slew of similarly themed games on Kickstarter recently, and here I am getting ready to review yet another. There's a reason the four elements are a perennial favorite. Where as other heavily used themes like zombies, Cthulhu, farming, or dungeons have specific mechanical genres that they work best in, the four elements work in so many different situations, from abstract games to deep, thinky euros, to action packed amerithrash games.

Manaforge is the latest in a slew of games that use this theme to drive the gameplay experience. Does it stand out in the crowd? Does it bring something new to the theme? Or does it get lost in the alchemical melting pot? Read on to learn more about Manaforge.

Manaforge is a dice based resource management and engine building game for for two to four players that takes about 20-25 minutes per player.  It's available on Kickstarter right now (through April 29, 2017) and will be available for $40, including US shipping.

Mechanically, Manaforge is a pretty simple game.  It consists of nine rounds, in which you'll roll your dice for resources, allocate them to activate abilities, and possibly purchase a card for its points or abilities.  At the end of the game, whoever has the most points wins.  But under the simple gameplay lies a great depth that comes from those cards and how they interact with each other.

In Manaforge each player takes on the role of a magician or sorcerer.  However, unlike many magic based games, you aren't setting out to battle magical beasts, duel other sorcerers, or please the king with your spells.  Nope, your life as a magician I a bit more reserved.  You run a business selling magical items to those with more adventurous ambitions.  But you do have lofty aspirations of running the most lucrative magic workshop in the land.
Throughout the game you'll add items to your workshop that will increase your production and items to your
store that will gain you benefits and prestige.
To craft the magical items you wish to sell you need to procure the necessary mana energy.  Mana comes in four varieties: Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire.  You can also harness the arcane energies to produce mana.  Mana is produced on the dice that drive the game.  There are five types of dice, one for each type of mana, plus arcane.  Each type of die produces something different on each of the six sides: two of its own mana type, one of the two complementary mana types (never the opposite type, so a fire die never produces water, wind never produces earth, etc.), a mana gem of its own mana type (more about mana gems in a bit), or a special ability that is different for each type of mana.  Arcane dice produce different combinations of basic mana.
There are five different dice types: Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, and Arcane.
Manaforge begins with a quick draft phase to determine each player's basic Talents.  Each player will receive four Talent cards, choose one and pass the rest to the left until each player has drafted four Talents.  Then they will each choose two Talents and discard the others.  Talents give each player some unique abilities to start the game.  Some are more interesting than others, but all seem pretty balanced.  In addition to their abilities, most Talents will give the player an additional die in the mana the Talent has an affinity towards.  Players also start with one of each basic mana die die (not arcane though, unless a Talent uses arcane) and a few mana prisms, which are basically wild mana gems..
From 20 possible Talents each payer will draft four and play the game with two.
These dice and talents are your basic tools that you'll have to start building your workshop to construct items to sell.

The game plays over nine rounds, throughout three phases: Dawn, Noon, and Dusk.  Each round begins by adding six item cards to the market.  There are 18 of these cards used in each phase, randomly selected from a deck of item cards for each phase, so there's a lot of variety in the game.  Next, all players roll their dice.  Then each player takes their turn.  Once all player have gone the first player token is passed, any remaining items are discarded, items in players' workshops are recharged, and a new round begins.  After the ninth round, scores are tallied and a winner declared!
Technically I won with 52 points, but if you ask my friends they'll tell you I lost because I only got two points.  Thanks guys!
The complexity in the game comes in what players are able to do on their turns.  There aren't too many options, but the decisions you do make are pretty critical to your overall strategy.  Oddly enough, turns toward the end of the game go quicker, especially in the Dusk phase when you have your engine up and running.
Despite there being a lot going on, in the Dusk phase turns move quickly.
There are two types of item cards in Manaforge.  Workshop cards are added to the workshop area of your player board and provide abilities that can be activated for a cost that includes expending the card (turning the card sideways).  These can also be upgraded during the game to gain additional abilities, and you are limited to just four workshop cards total.  Store cards generally give you a one-time benefit.  Sometimes this is a special ability and sometimes points.  Sometimes it's a combination of both.  There are also Wand cards that are a special type of Store card.  Wands give you one to three victory points (Prestige) depending on which phase they're purchased in, plus one prestige for every other Wand in your store.  So as you gain more Wands each Wand becomes more valuable to build.
The Wand game is an interesting alternate strategy.
The cards in each phase have distinctive characteristics that match your goals for that phase of the game. In the Dawn phase there is an even split of Workshop and Store cards.  Workshop cards in the Dawn phase generate different types of mana whereas Store cards give you some small prestige boosts, and possibly extra dice.  Both the Workshop and Store cards are important early in the game to start building your mana engine that will allow you to purchase the more expensive cards to come.
Dawn cards are cheap, and a necessary foundation for a lucrative workshop.
The cards in the Noon phase are more expensive than the Dawn cards, and are 75% Workshop cards.  There are a few Wands, and a Store card that gives you some mana prisms, but the others are all Workshop cards that include more complex abilities.  Many of the Workshop cards give prestige when spending mana, and others have unique effects, like allowing you to spend more than four dice, recharging another card, converting mana into mana gems, etc.
The Noon phase adds a level of complexity to the card interactions that let you complete your mana generating engine.
The Dusk phase is completely Store cards.  In the Dusk phase it's all about gaining prestige.  Hopefully by this point in the game each player has an engine that is churning out a combination of mana and prestige that they can use to really boost their score.  The Store cards in the Dusk phase include the usual Wands, plus cards that give straight up prestige, as well as cards with more intricate abilities.  Usually in the games I've played 2/3 or more of a player's prestige is earned in the Dusk phase, so things really heat up and get exciting as everyone gets to see if their strategies paid off.
Dusk is all about prestige.  Hopefully by this point you have a workshop that is producing all sorts of awesome magical items.
The game ends after the ninth round and the player with the most prestige is declared the winner.

Final Thoughts:
I really liked Manaforge.  I really don't have any major criticisms of the game, just a few nit picky things that really wouldn't affect my general opinion of the game.  Overall though, I found Manaforge to be mechanically simple, strategically deep, thematically fun, artistically beautiful, a great balance between luck and strategy, and a very enjoyable way to spend about ninety minutes.
The board is really not necessary - it only tracks score and gives you a place to put the cards, but it's an attractive addition to the game.
The artwork throughout the game is really captivating and gorgeous.  It thoroughly evokes the elemental magic theme of the game and looks fantastic, especially when combined with the graphic design, item and talent names, and other flavor throughout the game.  Manaforge will look really stunning on your table.
Every single card has unique, gorgeous artwork.  That's 92 unique pieces of art!
Some of the artwork is really stunning.

I really only have two minor issues with the game, and both are already being worked on by the designer.  First, keeping track of earned and spent mana each turn can get a bit fiddly, especially later in the game when you can spend some mana to purchase a card that can then be used to generate more mana, or with other workshop cards that have various other effects.  Oddly enough, it seem like mana tracking is the most difficult in the Noon phase since the Dawn phase is mostly foundation building and the Dusk phase is mostly about maximizing your already built engine each round.  Fortunately the designer has come up with a mana abacus that can greatly ease this mana math.  It's not essential to the game, but it'll help a lot with the mental gymnastics sometimes needed.  The mana abacus will be a stretch goal, so hopefully the campaign will reach it, and beyond.
A mana abacus will really help with tracking earned and spent mana, especially later in the game when your workshop
items really start to create some complex scenarios.
My second minor concern is with the Wand game.  Wands are a very interesting alternate strategy, but they seem underpowered right now.  If you manage to buy a Wand every single round you'll get 54 points.  This is pretty good, since the games I played were won with 47 to 52 points, but getting nine Wands is super difficult.  There are five wands available in each phase, but since only 3/4 of the available cards are going to be used each game, it makes it likely that there will be at least a round or two where a Wand just isn't available.  Then you also have to hope that an opponent doesn't snag your Wand before you have a chance to.  Even if you get lucky and have the opportunity to buy a Wand every round, you also need to generate enough mana each round on only your dice to buy those wands.  That'll be very difficult in the Dusk phase.  Again though, this is something the designer is aware of and is still working on tweaking.  Bumping each Wand's basic prestige by one (or Noon to three and Dusk to five) would make the Wands much more valuable (63 possible points), whereas increasing just Dusk to four points would increase the max to 57.  Somewhere around there I think would make Wand collecting a viable strategy, and one that you might end up getting two players competing over.  Another possibility is to give Wands an ability (maybe re-roll one die of that Wand's element, or complementary elements for advanced Wands).  It won't take much to really make the Wands an exciting alternate strategy, and since it's being worked on, I'm confident that the final game will have a Wand strategy as compelling as the other strategies.
Currently the Wand game is a lot riskier than building up your workshop, but it'll only take a few minor tweaks to fix that,
and I'm happy to say the designer is working on balancing the Wand game right now!
Other than that I have no other concerns with Manaforge.  It played smoothly and everyone I played with enjoyed it.  It was pretty easy to learn and teach (the mechanics are simple and the rulebook is extremely clear, providing great references for all the card abilities and symbology used), and even with all new players every time I played it still went smoothly and only a bit longer than the stated time.  A few players did voice some opinions, generally good, but a few trivial critiques, too.  One player would have liked a slightly altered player mat layout.  Another player felt that another unique player ability other than the drafted Talents might help focus a strategy (however I think that, with experience, drafting the Talents is a fine way to focus your initial strategy).  Other players thought the theme was nice, and fit the mechanics, but felt a bit superfluous, more like a theme pasted onto an abstract game.  I quite liked the theme, and felt it was strongly present in the card interactions, flavor, and artwork.  Maybe giving the Wands a bit of their own powers might help bring out the theme a bit more.   At times the game can also be a bit AP prone, but not overwhelmingly so.  A mana abacus for each player will really help that, though.  But like I said, these were all super minor concerns and everyone agreed that Manaforge is a solid, fun game.
I know you'd love to have this on your table, so back it on Kickstarter now!  I did!
If Manaforge sounds like a game that would interest you, I encourage you to check it out on Kickstarter right now.  It's only $40, including US shipping (a great deal for a game with this many custom dice).

Preliminary Rating: 8.5/10

This review is of a prototype game.  Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends. Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games. Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play). I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game. Quick Reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first few times playing. Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

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