Mage Knight: The rise and fall of one of the most successful miniature games ever.
Posted On January 12, 2023
A huge part of the hobby for me is to look for new games. I like to feed on “Top 100” recommendation lists for this or that kind of board games, then build my own opinion from various sources of board game recommendations.
I found “Mage Knight” in a list of underrated board games, and I thought “this has to be a mistake. If there’s a game that’s not underrated, it’s Mage Knight”. But then realized it wasn’t “Mage Knight, the Board Game”, simply “Mage Knight”. The original collectible miniature game. A game I had never heard about before, but which seems to hold a very special place in the heart of everyone who’s played it.
I’m always curious about games that have an almost cult following by a relatively small number of followers. This can sometimes indicate a hidden gem, other times an overhyped kickstarter pile of garbage. This time, I had uncovered one of the saddest wastes of a great game, in board game history.
A small disclaimer here before I start: I often use the term “board game” loosely to mean any kind of tabletop game. I usually don’t care to make that disclaimer, but here it’s important, considering we’ll be talking of Mage Knight, the miniature game, which happens to be a tabletop game, but not exactly a board game (hence why “Mage Knight: The Board game” is its own different thing).
Mage Knight – A novel distribution scheme
Wizkid launched Mage Knight in 2000. To my knowledge it was the first Collectible Miniature Game ever. Collectible Miniature Games (CMG), as the name implies, are tabletop games in which you collect miniatures. Think Magic the Gathering, but instead of cards, you get figures you can play with.
CMGs are different from, e.g. Warhammer 40K, because you do not know what figures you’ll get at the time of purchase. Again, we’re talking something that’s much more similar in concept to Magic the Gathering or Pokemon, rather than Warhammer 40k.
Another appealing point of Mage Knight is that all miniatures, called warriors, come pre-painted, something that is true for many Wizkids games. I know that for many of you, painting the miniatures *is* the hobby, but having pre-painted miniatures is actually very appealing for lots of gamers.
Mage Knight – Innovative gameplay
On top of the then novel idea of pre-painted, collectible miniatures, Mage Knight had a few great innovations that made it an almost instant success in the gaming community. A huge part of its success was how simple the gameplay was. In particular, the game uses a patented dial system named “Clix” that progressively reveals hidden statistics about a given figure. The dial allows a figure’s displayed statistics to change as it takes damage. This almost entirely eliminates the need to refer to rule books or sheets during the game, as everything you need to know about a given character is on the figure itself. (Wizkid would later release more miniature games with their Clix system, which has now been renamed Combat Dial System.)
Warriors are pre-assigned point costs based on their abilities. These costs range from 3 points (only the limited edition goblin volunteer Podo has achieved a point value this low) to over 500 points (for the tanks and the Apocalypse Dragon). To play a game, players will generally agree upon a point cost total, and then design their armies to maximize their strategic capabilities within the specified point cost total. Each player is allowed to take a number of actions per turn equal to the point cost total divided by 100. These actions include movement, combat, or the use of special abilities such as Regeneration and Necromancy. Game play is typically rapid, but often highly strategic, both in terms of traditional maneuvering and combat common to miniatures games and because of the unusual combinations of unit special abilities that make every army unique.
Mage Knight early years and popularity
Shortly after its release, Mage Knight quickly gained in popularity, collecting many boardgame related awards along the way.
Between 2002 and 2005, Wizkids released 13 expansions for Mage Knight. That’s not even counting Video Game adaptations, and standalone expansions such as Mage Knight Dungeons. It felt like Wizkids were going to the moon with Mage Knight. They also organized tournaments for the game and were prominently featured at game conventions.
In a 2006 Review, BoardGameGeek Member Jason Farris says:
There were these figures on horses, mechanical dragonflies, and mummified dragons. The Lancers expansion had been released and my interest in the game rose.[…] The game was surprisingly fun and only took about an hour to play. […] Within a few weeks I was getting every figure I could find and desperately waiting for new ones to come out. It was “plastic crack”.
Tom Vassel of popular Dice Tower youtube channel mentions Mage Knight as one of the games that changed his life and ultimately got him into the larger board game hobby.
And as far as commercial success was concerned, it seems Wizkids had the next Magic The Gathering on their hands, so what could possibly go wrong?
The Downfall of Mage Knight
Mage Knight ultimately disappeared for multiple reasons, but many people point to a significant event as the “beginning of the end” for the game: in 2003, Card game manufacturer Topps bought Wizkids, and that seemed to have come with a lot of changes in the company’s strategy.
There’s a lot of speculation going on regarding what happened to Wizkids after they got purchased by Topps, but it seems like a typical story of a bad acquisition choice. People speculate that Topps tried to make Wizkids more profitable, and that this led to decisions that were ultimately the wrong ones.
Shortly after Wizkid was acquired by Topps, they announced Mage Knight 2.0.
Some players say that launch is what doomed the franchise, but history seems to disagree. Looking back at reviews from that time, It seems Mage Knight had already started to become a bit stale by that time. The simplicity of the game also meant it had little room to grow from gameplay perspective.
The 2.0 edition, which added some complexity and variety to the gameplay, was actually a welcome breath of fresh air for the game. Nonetheless, it didn’t seem to be enough, in particular it seems the gameplay suffered from balance issues, and 2.0 didn’t fix that.
For example, some of the most powerful figures in the game were limited edition figures that you could only get by winning tournaments or at conventions, or buy for an expensive price on the second-hand market. Most Limited Editions were more powerful than their “normal” counterparts and the game began polarizing between haves and have-nots.
There was also growing competition in the world of Collectible miniatures, with Wizards of the Coast’s own Dungeons and Dragons miniature game launched in 2003, but also Wizkids own different games based on the Clix system. Heroclix in particular, possibly the most known CMG to date, was launched in 2002, and so it’s not impossible some of Wizkids’ own sales started eroding Mage Knight’s popularity.
In 2005, Wizkids announced that the “Nexus” expansion for the game would be the last one. By 2006, Mage Knight as a “live” game getting regular expansions was dead, and the final nail in the coffin was Topps closing Wizkids on short notice in 2008.
Would it make sense to revive Mage Knight today?
A lot of games get a “remake” these days, and given the success of the HeroQuest reboot for example, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a relaunch of some of Wizkids’ older popular franchises.
But to be fair, Mage Knight already had its second chance: in 2009, Collectibles manufacturer NECA purchased the IP rights for Wizkids games, and released a new expansion in 2013: Mage Knight Resurrection.
Resurrection came out with two sets of rules, to make it either compatible with Mage Knight 2.0 or with Wizkids’ more popular HeroClix game system.
Unfortunately this release only met a lukewarm reception, in part because the game fans had moved on a long time ago, but also because the Mage Knight or HeroClix game system feels a bit outdated. A 2022 review of Heroclix says:
Unfortunately, the combat mechanism is bland and the majority of special abilities are somewhat restrained and flat
That unsuccessful expansion is probably why we haven’t heard about Mage Knight, the Collectible Miniature Game, in a long time.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a single mistake as the root cause of Mage Knight’s downfall. At the end of the day, it boils down to a combination of competition with other games (internal and external), an ill-fated acquisition and maybe a game that tried to grow too fast at some point, at the cost of gameplay balance.
But it’s actually even hard to call it a downfall: The Mage Knight franchise is still extremely popular thanks to the board game of the same name. More importantly, the Clix dial system has been reused in many games from Wizkids. And some aspects of the Collectible Miniature Game ecosystem that Wizkid designed are still alive, in particular with their HeroClix brand. As recently as 2022, a Marvel What If? expansion to HeroClix has been released, although it’s worth noting that the sealed boosters are now gone, and the expansion can actually be played as a standalone game.
But when we look at the success of some collectible card games, we can’t help but wonder if Wizkids somehow wasted a huge opportunity to be the Miniatures equivalent of Wizards of the Coast’s MTG.