Scotty Plays Mage Wars: Art Direction and S*** Sandwiches

The rise, or return (or simply the expansion of Scott's attention), of board games is something I've witnessed with a mix of joy and dismay. We're talking about a 90-10 split though between "these games are awesome" and "these games are expensive goddamn." From my childhood of playing Disney Ludo and Trouble! to my adult life of getting thrashed at Twilight Imperium and Settlers of Catan, I've always loved board games (except Monopoly) and watching them grow in popularity and complexity has been a delight. With the increase of interest in Kickstarter we have the privilege of some truly unique and creative board games. The quality of some of these games, not just in gameplay but physical assets as well, has become stunning. One such example that I found particularly striking was Arcane Wonder's Mage Wars.

I DO NOT OWN THE RIGHTS TO ANY OF THE IMAGERY of  Mage Wars  DEPICTED IN THIS POST and any such imagery is Used for the purpose of critique under the copyright fair use policy.  Mage Wars  IS THE PROPERTY OF  Arcane wonders, LLC © 2017.

I DO NOT OWN THE RIGHTS TO ANY OF THE IMAGERY of Mage Wars DEPICTED IN THIS POST and any such imagery is Used for the purpose of critique under the copyright fair use policy. Mage Wars IS THE PROPERTY OF Arcane wonders, LLC © 2017.

Pay close attention to the "was."

When I first decided to write this article it was going to be about the wonderful discovery of a game with amazing depth, presentation and gameplay. But as I played something became more and more apparent.

This:

Mage Wars - Druid.jpg

Or more precisely, this:

Mage Wars - Pixelated Cleavage.png

That, my friends, is pixelated boobage. It is also a non-step in contemporary fantasy. I want to say a step backwards, but we've been doing this for years. Decades, even. This is the kind of stuff that gives gamers the image of basement-dwelling troll-men with the social appeal of a used tissue.

Goddammit.

The thing is, I really enjoy playing this game. I want to praise it for its ingenuity but I can't without feeling like I'm cheating my values because of the archaic art direction. So bois and gurls, we're going to take a s*** sandwich approach in an open letter to Arcane Wonders. Your game is good but sexist, please fix it so I can buy it.

The top slice of this insistent metaphor is what first drew me to the game. Mage Wars takes full advantage of the fact that it has physical components. These beautifully designed assets give the game a presence on par with Risk, Twilight Imperium and the expanded versions of Settlers of Catan. These games tap into a tactile joy where your resources are physical things to be placed on the board, fiddle with when it's not your turn and arrange into formations when you're losing. Every move the player makes in Mage Wars is represented by cards that are stored in a literal spellbook. These card folios each have a cover design associated with the Mage the player controls. Combined with the flavourful thematics of each card and how they contribute to this image, Mage Wars almost becomes an accidental role playing game in a childishly delightful way. I feel like a prick more than a planeswalker when I play Magic (but that just might be my friends) but when I play Mage Wars I feel like a wizard, Harry.

Mage Wars - Game Board.JPG
Mage Wars - Character Info.JPG

Unfortunately it doesn't take long for that sensation to fade and I start to feel like a sleaze instead. Welcome, friends, to the proverbial meat of the matter. That fecal smell is objectification.

As I spoke about in my Bayonetta article; sexy doesn't automatically mean sexist. A lot of it comes down to how it's presented. One of the points I was exploring with Bayonetta was how a character's sexualization can be seen as positive or negative depending on how much agency they are perceived to have over it. When each card is limited to the flavour text (if it even has it), the sexual elements are purely eye-candy. I'm highly doubtful the Royal Archer's exposed bosom helps her fell a boar at fifty paces.

Mage Wars - Royal Archer.jpg

The biggest joke is the Priestess and her legion of showgirl angels. She's supposed to be a pious channeller of holy might, yet she's done up like some concubine. Dress like the job you want, honey. And whatever divine entity thought midriff and a push-up bra provide better protection than actual armour suffers from mortal stupidity. This is the kind of thing that causes eyes to roll and potential fans to keep walking by.

Mage Wars - Priestess.jpg
Mage Wars - Samandriel, Angel of Light.jpg
Mage Wars - Guardian Angel.jpg

So why do we keep doing this? If you need sex to sell your game (which Arcane Wonders does not - Mage Wars's gameplay alone is good enough) you're either in a specific niche or need to move to Japan. If it's fan-service then why are you pandering to perversion? It's disrespectful and holds the genre back. I've even heard the argument that that's how fantasy has always been; that it's meant to be unreal and dramatised. Don't even get me started on that neanderthal level of thinking...

As a society, we're slowly moving forward. We're actually realising women are people too (what?) [holy s***!] {I know right?} and that brings with it funny things like respect and equal opportunity. You could argue that something like Mage Wars is just a game, it's just a bit of fun, it doesn't need to be a symbol of social justice. In a way you'd be right. There is a time and a place for everything. But this isn't the time or place for blatant objectification anymore. Maybe gaming used to be a bit of a boy's club but that's not how things are anymore. It's detrimental to the growth of the industry and portrays it as vulgar, immature and sexist. I say we're better than that.

As I said before; there is a time and a place for everything. In the interest of fairness, having characters like the Siren and her minions is a legitimate portrayal of sexualised character design with purpose. Sirens are mythically known for being alluring, sensual creatures. Mechanically, the Siren's behaviour in Mage Wars matches this well-known mythos as she draws creatures towards her. It make sense for a character of this nature (regardless of gender) to be visually attractive.

Even within the aforementioned context, this could still be argued as over the top.

Even within the aforementioned context, this could still be argued as over the top.

Sexy art for the sake of sexiness isn't sinful. I've seen enough cringe-worthy game-mats and mousepads to know that's not my thing, but I've also seen plenty of sexy art that's been elegant, beautiful and even thoughtful. It just depends on the nature of the work and the context in which it's presented.

Look here! You can do it. a powerful and confident woman dressed appropriately for what she claims to be. This image is awesome!

Look here! You can do it. a powerful and confident woman dressed appropriately for what she claims to be. This image is awesome!

Alright. I've said what I needed to say. Let's wrap this sandwich up in a paper bag.

Poor art direction aside, Mage Wars is a superb game. I want to describe it as 'deceptively complicated' in that it has so much going on but is actually really easy to play. It's chock-full of mechanics that will have card- and board-gamers alike frothing at the mouth but handles transitions between different phases of the game in a smooth and simple fashion. Each mage has an array of spells to choose from that grants them multiple ways of approaching the actual war part in Mage Wars. It's incredibly satisfying to see the effort and strategising you put into the deck building phase come into fruition during combat. With multiple game modes and a plethora of mages and spells, there are hours upon hours of fun to be had.

I want to buy this game, I really do. I want to recommend it as one of the best board games I've played. But until Arcane Wonders gets with the times and changes how they represent women, I won't do either. If anything, I encourage more people to speak up about this sort of thing and call out developers on their crap. Perhaps do a revised version, a 2nd Edition of sorts. Or maybe hire more tasteful artists, I don't know. It's not about being prudish, it's about acknowledging and being respectful of half the population. There are enough barriers for women getting into gaming. Let's tear them down please.