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Mahokenshi Review

Deckbuilding tabletop strategy perfect for the digital playspace

Mahokenshi is the debut deckbuilding digital board game from Game Source Studio. The player is tasked with fending off demon invasions that are corrupting the airborne Celestial Islands by using the unique abilities, items and cards available to four titular samurai mages. Playing the game is closer to a board game driven by deck building, despite the recognisable, hex-based world units clash upon, generally a standard for turn-based strategy and tactics games. Unlike those games, you are responsible for one lone character and will make considered acquisitions and card upgrades to control, and power, your Mahokenshi (the playable mages) through this world. 

The game’s systems speak more directly to tabletop canon rather than popular, established video game franchises, borrowing card-driven board interactions akin to Gloomhaven or the deckbuilding heist game Clank! Players will begin on a nondescript land hex and be tasked with eradicating the area’s fiends, protecting the villages, or taking out an ever-growing demon lord before it becomes too powerful in later turns. By collecting card packs in the world and spending coins collected from defeated foes, the player expands their repertoire of abilities in each mission before being reset at the end, with some persistent experience being awarded which unlocks new cards for later attempts and missions. 

Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you can save-scum or come back to a mission in progress later. Bafflingly, there is absolutely no mid-game save systems. You commit yourself to a session or else all is lost. Also odd is a lack of customisation options. With no key rebinding or graphics options, it’s one of the most threadbare setting suites I’ve seen in a game for a long while. A shame, but unlikely to rattle those who are sold on the gameplay premise.

The overall presentation and art direction are terrific

Rather than tool up a character between fights, most missions begin with a clean slate of starting cards. These cards consist of strike and dash cards, providing basic attack and terrain movement options and are required for efficient traversal across various terrain types. An initial pool of five energy points limits what cards can be played from your hand on a turn, depending on the card cost. Cards cost between zero and four energy points, but shrines can be visited on the map during missions to provide character boosts such as increases to stats, energy pool, and card hand drawn at the start of each turn. 

There is also a persistent skill tree to play with between missions. As each mission is curated, there are specific challenges that can be completed in order to gain a special currency that can be spent in one of three skill trees. They provide the typical bonuses that the standard three-type skill tree does, such as boosts to basic attack values and movement, as well as increasing utility such as how many cards a vendor might stock. 

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Menus and UI are clean and informative while elegantly minimal. An objective banner is hidden away on the left of the screen and the hand of cards is partially tucked into the bottom until hovered over with the cursor. With the exception of the corrupted terrain tiles of the late game being hard to distinguish at a glance, the entire floating sky-world of Mahokenshi is immediately readable and has the glamour of a tabletop-devouring board game spread brought to life in a tastefully colourful digital space.

The flavour text thinly veils what are typically straightforward utility decisions

On the downside, the story and theme are pretty thin here. Our mages represent pretty broad and superficial characters that have no purpose or personality. They merely represent one of four unique mechanical wrinkles, with one mage having a deck featuring the ability to fly and bypass terrain restrictions, while another gets a defence boost for playing most cards. The Mahokenshi themselves are unfortunately generic archetypes of monk, samurai, ninja, and furry goddess archetypes. The game also uses symbols and cultural touchstones from the melting pot of the greater SEA diaspora and mixes them without any apparent thought or cohesion towards a greater sense of narrative or worldbuilding. 

Unless you come to your board games expecting a grand narrative, this may be forgiven. Further, the missions themselves often offer little more than the lightest of flavour text to cover the unique mechanic or objective of the mission. Fortunately, the mostly unique missions provide straightforward yet interesting objectives, presented with enough reason to indulge in another session regardless of the forgettable intro text and cutscene. These cons barely registered in my playthrough as they are mostly the same sins as the tabletop games it is inspired by. 

More tabletop-inspired games that cut down on the admin, please

Tabletop deckbuilding often builds a kind of comically random player story that requires imagination, and that sensibility is near perfect in Mahokenshi. As your beginning hand of basic strikes and dashes expand, a wonderful pragmatism is forced upon the player. In a difficult mission whereby the player is in a mad dash to a timed objective while fleeing goblins, you suddenly pull a hand of five simple dashes. They have no offensive capacity, but effectively turn your samurai mage into a Ford Ranger that cuts through slowing terrain. This means you’re shit out of luck in overpowering your surrounding foes, but you can cut across the nearby mountains and through a dense forest, putting entire turns between you and your pursuing foes.

Final Thoughts

So here I am, singing the praises of a mechanically ambitious but thematically lacking deckbuilding digital board game. The ambition of blending turn-based map exploration with deckbuilding is well realised, deftly avoiding hefty number crunching and accounting which would plague the appeal of this title were it a conventional tabletop game. Despite all this, why might you not click with Mahokenshi? Probably that disappointing writing and the lack of luck which often makes the tactical gamble of some turn-based games appealing. Samurai mages are a cool idea as far as they are presented as archetypal caricatures, but they lend little notable impression to the greater, fantastic game at its core.

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Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher

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Mahokenshi Review
Go, go, Samurai Mages!
Those that love Mahokenshi will adore the fully realised blend of deck-building and digital board game, but will forget the threadbare mythological Southeast Asian theming.
The Good
Mission variety
The amount of combos and utility within and between decks
Clean presentation and UI empowers the player
Ambitious digitisation of a compelling board game concept
The Bad
No mid-mission saves
Very limited settings, no keybind customisation
Weak theme, unengaging writing
8
Get Around It
  • Game Source Studio
  • Iceberg Interactive
  • PC
  • January 25, 2023

Mahokenshi Review
Go, go, Samurai Mages!
Those that love Mahokenshi will adore the fully realised blend of deck-building and digital board game, but will forget the threadbare mythological Southeast Asian theming.
The Good
Mission variety
The amount of combos and utility within and between decks
Clean presentation and UI empowers the player
Ambitious digitisation of a compelling board game concept
The Bad
No mid-mission saves
Very limited settings, no keybind customisation
Weak theme, unengaging writing
8
Get Around It
Written By Nathan Hennessy

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