Cheaty Mages Review

Cheaty Mages is a recent card game release from AEG and that Seiji Kanai guy. You might recognize that name from another recent Japanese import of his that had a modicum of success, Love Letter. 

Cheaty Mages is a fairly simple almost area control type card game with some wagering, hand management, and "take that" thrown in. The premise of the game is that the players are all mages, watching an arena battle and betting on the outcome. And, as referenced by the title of the game, the players are not just spectators, but use their magic to take an active role in the battle. 

During each round of the game, 5 fighter cards are dealt to the table to participate in the current battle. The top judge card is also drawn - this is the judge who will impose rules on the current round.

The first thing a player does, is choose 1, 2, or 3 bet cards from her hand to play face down in front her. If a player bets on 1 fighter, and it wins, the player will receive double the prize money printed on the fighter card. If a player bets on 2 fighters, she gets the printed amount, and betting on 3 fighters will net the player half the printed value on the fighter. After 3 rounds, whoever has the most money is the Cheatiest Mage!

Enchant Cards                      Direct Cards                   Support Cards

During a turn, players cast spells on the fighters. There are 3 types of cards - Enchant (face down spells), Direct (face up spells), and Support (event cards that will usually affect the other mages instead of the fighters). 

In turn order, players will either play one card, discard a card to look at all the face down cards that are affecting a fighter, or pass. Once a player has passed, she is out for the remainder of the round, which will end once all players have passed. 

At the end of the round, all cards are flipped face up, the winner of the battle is determined, and any successful bets are paid out to those mages. To begin the second and third rounds, players are dealt (in a 3-4 player game) 4 new cards from the deck, but not more than the hand limit of 8.

That's basically the game! The judge for a round can affect a lot, as each spell card comes with a mana value, and if a judge's mana limit is exceeded on any one fighter, the judge will usually either disqualify that fighter or discard all spells played on him. The judge for a round may also not allow certain card types to be played at all during a round.

Cheaty Mages is loads of fun. If you've ever played Reiner Knizia's Colossal Arena, the gameplay should sound pretty familiar to you - and it is very reminiscent of the good doctor's now 15 year old game. But Cheaty Mages adds a lot to that game.

First, a few things that I didn't love about the game. I like the idea of the judges, but I don't like when they disallow certain card types. If a player has a hand full of Direct cards, and the judge that gets flipped for the round doesn't allow any Direct cards to be played, how is that fun? I also wish there were more fighters in the deck. There are 10, and only 5 are needed for each round, but I think it would be more fun to have a bigger variety. 

One of my favorite things about Cheaty Mages is the hand management aspect. Knowing you are going to get 4 cards to start the next round, give a huge incentive to only play 4, so that you can have your hand completely replenished for rounds 2 and 3. But when it comes down to your turn, and you have 4 cards left, and no one else has passed yet, what do you do? This goes to another point I like about the game - Cheaty Mages is chaotic, but there is definitely some strategic play to be found here. A good deal of it comes from seeing the odds, and the fighters, and how certain card combinations will play out, but most of the strategy in the game comes from playing the other players. Working out temporary alliances with the other players - that may be based on either lies or incorrect assumptions about shared bets - is where a lot of the fun comes from in this game. 

I also love the hidden betting mechanism. I like hidden roles in general, but I really like that in this game, players not only have hidden agendas, but they also get to choose those agendas, AND have to decide how much risk they are willing to take, in terms of betting on 1, 2, or 3 fighters.

Something I generally despise in games is "take that." But another thing I like about Cheaty Mages' hidden roles is that the "take that" aspect of the game is somewhat blunted in the game, because any attacks are not against any player in particular, but against a fighter...that your opponents are hopefully supporting.

I would rate Cheaty Mages 8.5/10. It is a short, simple game, with a lot of subtlety and delicious backstabbery. During my first game of Cheaty Mages with a group of close friends, and after playing a 10 mana card on a fighter (thus disqualifying him from the round), my best friend stood up from the table and shouted, "I friggin hate you!" That moment was so laugh-out-loud funny, and the whole game was just so much fun, I knew immediately that this was my kind of game. 

Jim would like to thank AEG for providing him a review copy of Cheaty Mages.

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