Everyone likes an underdog, the scrappy little team that comes from behind to win it all. Those stories warm my heart and make me think, “Maybe Earth isn’t the worst place in the universe.” Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it’s still the reason I root for the Utah Jazz. Come on, guys. You can win a championship ONCE before I die, right? What was I talking about? Oh right…Cheaty Mages.
Cheaty Mages is a small box card game that makes you root for the underdog because the weaklings could make you rich. Each player is a witch or wizard attending the big fight, a gladiator-style fight to the death between magical beings in an arena. You want to be entertained, but you also want to make some money off this battle. You and your fellow spectators can cast spells and curses on the fighters in order to push the fight your way, but be careful. Powerful judges keep an eye on the proceedings and won’t stand for TOO MUCH cheating. They’ll allow a little, of course. They want the match to be interesting too.
Each round of Cheaty Mages starts with five fighters being trotted out, each with different power levels and payouts. The stronger the monster, the less money they earn you if they win. You can bet on one, two, or three fighters, but hedging your bets won’t earn you as much as going all in on the goblin the weakest gladiator. GO GOBLIN! Don’t let me down!
The judges serving as referees can vary from round to round. Some will let anything go while others prefer a much cleaner match. The judges will deal out punishments to fighters if too much mana was spent, either dispelling all of the magic or ejecting the monster entirely. It is a delicate balance because you need cheat to win, but you can’t go crazy.
Each spell a player casts has a type, mana cost, and ability. Direct spells are played face-up on fighters for immediate impact, healing it to gain strength or even shooting with a meteor to make it less powerful. Enchant spells are less subtle and are played face-down, maybe used to trick others of your intentions or preferred fighter. Support spells give special effects to players, judges, spells or fighters, making this game highly variable with a lot going on. But after one round, it is easy to understand and figure out a plan for the next round.
For every round of fighting, players take turns casting spells until everyone has run out of cards or passed and then each fighter’s total is counted. The strongest monster eats the others and there is much cheering. Everyone reveals their bets and receive money for the next round. All mages draw more cards, but get to hang onto a few cards they may not have used in the last round. Saving key cards for later rounds makes for interesting decisions throughout the game.
I have a couple of issues with the game even though I have fun playing it. For starters, betting in this game can never lose you money, so there isn’t a whole lot riding on the outcome of a fight. You can never lose money from a bad bet, so you can’t risk it all for the chance at a bigger payout. And because of this, if a person wins big in the first round, it can be tough to beat them later on. There’s also a chance that you get stuck with some bad spells and can’t influence fighters like other players can. Being in that position is like bringing a knife to a magic fight. You aren’t going to do much damage.
Other than a few personal annoyances, Cheaty Mages is a fun card game that lets you bet on a skeleton beating up a minotaur. It doesn’t try to be anything deep, but you can still see an underdog take home the gold. Go Jazz! I mean…goblin! Maybe next year…