I’ve always been a fan of the miniature war gaming hobby. I’ve never been a fan of the price, however. I’ve never been a fan of spreadsheets either. And mini war games seemed to be heavy on price and on spreadsheets. So I struggled to either cobble a collection of minis to use or I struggled to find other gamers. Then in 2000, Wizkids announced they were solving both of these problems. The outcome: Mage Knight. And this blog post shows why I still have a touch of nostalgia for this flawed masterpiece.
1. The Perennial Champion: Warhammer 40K
Games Workshop does a few things extremely well. 1. they make exceptional looking minis; 2. they have kept themselves relevant for decades.
Games Workshop does several things horribly wrong. And while I could fill two blog posts with those details, here I will only mention price. A squad of Space Marine terminators (five 28mm figures) has an MSRP of $70. And that is unpainted and unassembled.
For those who are willing to abandon all other games to singularly pursue 40K as a hobby, this is not that much of an obstacle. But for the rest of this, this is a deal breaker.
But Games Workshop has maintained a strong fan base despite this. This is because they sell a hobby, not games. And they zealously guard their business model.
I was involved in 40K . I really wanted a minis game. And the fact that 40K had a built-in fan base meant I didn’t have to hunt for other players. But I was not loyal. I was on the look out for anything that was a serious challenger to Games Workshop.
2. A Challenger: TSR’s Battlesystems
TSR released a few different editions of what they called a “Battlesystem”. It was their version of a minis game. They used Ral Partha models which could give Citadel models a run for their money. And TSR was a large enough company to go toe-to-toe with Games Workshop.
TSR, living up to their name Tactical Studies Rules, built medieval combat rule set that was just as good Warhammer Fantasy. And Ral Partha found a way to sell minis for about 60% less than Citadel.
And I was hooked.
I was never a fan of painting or the assembly. But I did like the visual flair. And the universe of TSR was D&D and was thus much more recognizable than GW’s Warhammer’s universe.
But TSR did not support this game for long. And Ral Partha did not pick up the slack. And the game never really took off. Finding minis and finding people to play was a constraint. And few gamers were willing to migrate from Warhammer to something that was untested.
3. A New Company, a new vision
In 2000, a new company was founded: Wizkids. Wizkids was the brainchild of Jordan Weisman, one of the creators of the popular robot mini games Battletech. Mr. Weisman had an idea to solve what he perceived to be the gaping problems with conventional minis games. And as it turned out, his perceptions and my perceptions had substantial overlap. And the outcome of his vision: Mage Knight.
Mage Knight corrected the problem of the high costs of minis games. You could get the base set for $13.99 and a booster pack for $5.99. For $50 or so, you could make an interesting army.
Mage Knight also corrected the problem of needing extensive charts and tables. Each figure had a combat dial. And the dial dictated all the items you needed to know about that figure. The boot icon was how far the unit could move. The sword icon was added to your combat dice roll to see if you scored a hit. The shield icon was the target value of that dice roll. And the starburst was the amount of damage you scored when your hit landed. Simple.
And there were lots of special abilities. Special abilities were color coded squares or circles on the sword, boot, shield or starburst values. Learning the special abilities was easier than most historical mini war games.
4. Tons of Expansions
Mage Knight’s initial success was augmented by a slue of expansions. And each expansion definitely expanded the MK universe.
The first expansion, Lancers, included the mounted figures which were on double sized bases. There were dragonflies, cavalry and various fantasy steeds.
More expansions followed. These expansions included extra factions while also fleshing out the existing factions. The mysterious Solonavi and the gawdy Shyft were added to the Atlantis, the Orcs, the Elves and the Black Power rebels.
5. Mage Knight anew
After several expansions, Wizkids decided to streamline their game with Mage Knight 2.0. Wizkids made 2.0 largely incompatible with 1.0 rules. They did this to get rid of some of the troublesome special abilities and other unbalanced aspects the original game had.
Mage Knight 2.0 is a superior game to Mage Knight 1.0 if you compare them in a vacuum. 2.0 added “proficiencies”. The boot icon, sword icon, etc were labeled as proficiencies. And each had a small but meaningful power. Mage Knight 2.0 added a bow and arrow to some figures instead of the sword. Some figures had a wing instead of a boot.
In the original game, figures might have the special ability of “fly” and they could move across terrain and figures without hindrance. In 2.0, the same was true but
the figures had a flight stand. This allowed the figures to hover over the battlefield, literally separating them from ground combat.
Mage Knight 2.0 also had relics and spell books. Every booster had at least one relic in it. The relics allowed you to add a special weapon with some awesome power to one of your figures. You would break out the relic token from the styrene card and then place the token into the slot of the figure.
Spell books allowed some characters to have lots of spells at their command. This added many customizable options for army building at the cost of additional complexity.
6. The new addition adds mounts
And then there are the Mage Knight 2.0 mounts. They fixed the one problem I had with the original mounts: the dudes can be separated from the mounts. The rider has a separate dial and hit points from his steed.
The mounts came with a slue of new proficiencies, again adding to the complexity of the game. Mounts could overrun figures, knock back figures or impale them.
This was largely good for the game. And the minis were looking better than ever.
But all was not well.
7. The Cracks begin to show
Mage Knight released Nexus in 2005. This would be the last Mage Knight 2.0 expansion. This expansion, by all accounts, was one of the best. But Wizkids decided to abandon Mage Knight.
Wizkids had lost a large portion of its customers along the way. And the new expansions were not bringing new customers to the game at strong pace. There are several reasons why this was the case.
Wizkids promised they would learn from Magic: The Gathering’s failures when it came to obsolescence and errata. Then Wizkids sent all 1.0 figures into obsolescence.
The errata of many special abilities suggested the game was rushed to market. There is no better way of receiving biting criticism from gamers than sending their previous editions into obsolescence and then issuing extensive errata for your new product. The tournament scene dried up. Boosters that sat on the game store shelf for too long were put on clearance. The gaming crowd moved onto the next shiny game.
And Mage Knight was done.
Wizkids had to undergo substantial overhaul to stay afloat. Weisman left the organization. The company took some new direction. And now in 2015 they are much more robust then they were in those last several months of 2005.
8. Mage Knight the Board Game
Wizkids tapped Vlaada Chvátil, the JJ Abrams of board game design, for their reimagining of Mage Knight. The Mage Knight board game is a smashing success. It currently sits at 8 on the all-time board game list on board game geek. The game has spawned several expansions and has won more awards than you shake a stick at.
This reimagining takes some of the figures along with the MK universe and creates an epic (if dense) board game experience. Players must manage their hand of cards if they are to outwit their opponents and achieve the high XP level.
We certainly played the heck out of Mage Knight. My brothers and I played often. Dugas, Nate and Bubba and I played often too. I had tons of 28mm buildings to go along with my Mage Knight castle. Seen here is the City of Agippa from our Club Sternberg days.
It’s difficult for me to assess the impact Mage Knight had on the gaming world. Yes, it spawned the massively popular board game. But maybe we can give it more credit than just that too?
Relatively inexpensive miniatures that are prepainted is the true mark of Mage Knight. All gamers are lovers of toys. And prepainted toys superior to do-it-yourself-painted toys. And the game world has responded.
Fantasy Flight has taken this to heart with its line of Star Wars
toys minis. X-wing and the new Star Wars Armada boast magnificent miniature ships that are prepainted. And the price point is more attractive than Games Workshop’s dreck.
Can we credit this in part to the success of Mage Knight? I think so.
-Chris, on behalf of a nostalgic feeling Muskegon Area Gamers.