The summer of 2001 was a bloody season for me. I commanded squads in skirmishes and entire armies in campaigns. I took hills of stacked books and captured mystical ashtrays. I conquered living room coffee tables and dirty linoleum floors.
It was the summer of Mage Knight.
Mage Knight has become something of a footnote in the history of wargaming, but at the time, it was the coolest damned thing that 14-year-old me had ever seen. Black powder? High magic? Technomancy? Mage Knight had it all.
Reflecting after nearly two decades, Mage Knight caught my attention because it offered a material experience that other commonplace games of the day didn’t. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was an extremely creative approach to wargaming.
This post is my reflection on and elegy for my short but intense love affair with Mage Knight. If you’re unfamiliar with Mage Knight or HeroClix, the following 1,200 words will serve as a pretty good material introduction. And if your Mage Knight memories are as fond as mine, then I invite you to join me on this trip down memory lane.
Mage Knight’s core set, Rebellion, was my introduction to wargaming, and I suspect it served as the same inroad for many other young tabletop gamers. In my circle, most of us were playing CCGs and RPGs. We didn’t have a game shop in town, which put wargaming geographically out of reach. Most of us were also still in high school, which put the hobby out of financial reach as well.
Mage Knight changed that. It was not only affordable but also accessible: our local GameStop in the mall always had starter sets and boosters in stock, and the rules were extremely intuitive.
A huge factor in Mage Knight’s initial success was its fusion of to two major contemporary trends in gaming: collectible card games like Magic, PokéMon, and Yu-Gi-Oh!; and real-time strategy videogames like Warcraft, Starcraft, and Command & Conquer. It upped the ante by lending both a deeper physicality and tactile satisfaction.
And let’s be honest: it was way cooler to march miniatures across the table than it was to tap a summon card and declare your monster was attacking. And it was also way cooler than fielding pixelated animations from behind a computer screen (and usually across a 56k modem).
On the downside, the miniatures didn’t fit into nice, compact binders, and boxes and totes were cumbersome to carry around, which inhibited trading to a certain extent. This was especially true with my groups since we typically gathered at coffee shops, food courts, bookstores, and other semi-public spaces that weren’t necessarily friendly to teenagers and grown men playing with toys amidst “normal” customers.
As you expect in wargaming, the Mage Knight range is divided into sects. These factions share common thematic characteristics and can band together into formations for more efficient movement. But a single army doesn’t have to be composed of a single sect. You can mix and match, which opens up significant strategic opportunities but also poses strategic obstacles—particularly, moving your dudes around the battlefield.
Most units come in three ranks (weak, standard, and tough) that are color coded (yellow, blue, red) for easy recognition; they also have one, two, or three stars on their base to add another layer of differentiation. Better versions of a unit have different stats, damage, and point values; they’re stronger in combat but take up more space in your army. Unique characters come in only one grade, and they tend to be quite powerful but also costly.
The game’s centerpiece is the combat dial. Each miniature is mounted on a rotating base; a small, L-shaped window shows the current values for its four primary stats (movement, attack, defense, and damage; some units also have one or more ranged attacks, but that range is static). Damage is measured in clicks; each time a miniature receives damage, the player rotates its base one increment to reveal different numerical values and abilities. When the numbers are replaced by skulls, the unit is removed from the battlefield.
Abilities are designated by a colored shape around the number in each stat slot. Starter sets included handy reference cards that explained each ability (categorized by stat) in a relatively short paragraph, which makes them easy to consult and then use during play.
Overall, Mage Knight economized play and forewent the physical baggage wargaming typically carries: no hefty books, no army roster sheets, and no assembly or painting required. The complete rules were presented in a booklet of fewer than 20 pages, the miniatures were ready to use right out of the box, and they didn’t require any additional supplementary materials like codices. Each starter box and pre-fab army even came with a little tape measure and a pair of d6s; these, along with the minis, were all you needed to play.
A bit of basic lore was included in the rulebooks, but Mage Knight acquainted players with its setting primarily through the comicbooks that were included with the starter sets. This was another pretty innovative choice at the time, and one that dovetailed elegantly with gameplay itself: the illusion of motion and action by figures across panels complemented the same dynamic of miniatures on the tabletop.
Rebellion was a fresh take on wargaming hobby when it released in late 2000, and Mage Knight continued to innovate over its lifespan.
The first expansion, Lancers, introduced mounted cavalry with larger, peanut-shaped bases and some additional rules. The mounted units also notably introduced a combat dial that rotated from the bottom (rather than having to having to grab the miniature and twist from the top), which would be adopted for some units (those with minimal contact between figure and base) in later sets.
The next expansion, Whirlwind, expanded the roster of abilities. Previously, abilities were denoted only by colored squares; now colored circles were used to indicate new abilities. Whirlwind also introduced a new faction, the Shyft, that could organize Mage Spawn into formations (which they were previously incapable of doing on their own).
Lancers and Whirlwind released in 2001. The next year would see the release of two new core sets, multiple expansions, and a rules extension.
Dungeons converted the system from wargaming to dungeon crawling. Rather than a symmetrical player-versus-player style, it adopted the RPG format of a DM challenging a party. Dungeons introduced maps, treasure chest and door miniatures, and hero characters who could level up by adjusting their starting dial position.
Mage Knight: Unlimited adopted the CCG strategy of reproducing older, out-of-print units but with much better sculpts and paint jobs. Starter boxes included ring/keys that players could use to easily adjust the combat dials, which was a welcome addition.
2002’s first expansion, Sinister, introduced another new faction, the Solonavi, and these were cast in translucent green plastic, which complemented their celestial lore. It also introduced dual-faction characters, adding new depth to multi-faction armies. The next expansion, Minions, further expanded the Solonavi and dual-faction rosters.
But this year’s biggest innovation was the massive multi-dial units: war machines, chariots, and dragons. Each base included four separate dials with different values and abilities. Each also included some pretty massive point values; even at their weakest setting, the dragons don’t fit in a standard 200-point army. To accommodate these miniatures, a large-scale ruleset called Conquest was released, which enabled players to field large armies using modified, streamlined mechanics.
This is unfortunately where my personal acquaintance with Mage Knight ends. I was getting more involved with extracurriculars, preparing for college, and my gaming interests had shifted to D&D and Warhammer 40,000. (More rules means more fun, right? Right?) But Mage Knight kept chugging along steadily for a few more years with several more sets, a rules overhaul, and more material innovations like figures that could be swapped between bases to create more versatile cavalry and infantry. But although it burned brightly, it also burned quickly.
The Mage Knight brand ended abruptly after about half a decade. The combat dial became the basis for HeroClix, which enjoyed wide popularity thanks to licensing other popular media properties. Mage Knight, the brand that started it all, was adapted to a highly praised boardgame in 2011.
I still have a big plastic bin full of Mage Knight figures (organized in old styrofoam egg crates), though not as many as I once had, unfortunately. But my collection has found a second life in other roleplaying games, where they work passably well to represent characters, NPCs, and monsters. And every now and then, I still pick out some of my favorite units, click through their dials, and remember epic battles lost and won on the living room floor.
In space, no on can hear you yawn.
For partygoers who want to kill some time and themselves
A summary & discussion of my paper about RPGs and art