There was a bit of mistaken identity when we booted up Mittelborg: City of Mages. In all preview materials, we were given the impression that it was a city sim – a kind of fantasy Cities: Skylines – but that put us roughly twenty blocks in the wrong direction. You might have had that impression too. Rather than a full-blown city management game, with all the traffic management and economic twiddling, Mittelborg: City of Mages is more a board game, and not a particularly complicated one, either.
More specifically, Mittelborg: City of Mages is a worker-placement game, which won’t mean much to many. It’s a genre of board game that originated in Germany, giving you a limited number of ‘workers’, and plenty of places where you can assign them. This is where the strategy lies: with plenty of options for placement, you’re both anticipating events and trying to stockpile for the future. Do you send a worker to a granary to make food, or a forest to cut timber? It’s all that kind of early-Warcraft stuff.
Mittelborg: City of Mages hands you magi rather than peasants. You are the Great Chancellor of Mittelborg – the city at the centre of the universe – and it’s your destiny to protect the Tree of Order at its peak. In order to do so, you shuffle about magi, moving them to a few selected locations in your city. You start with two magi, so you might want to send one to protect the Tower of Light, where magical attacks hit, and another to the Garrison, to protect from physical attacks. Then the turn ends, and these ‘events’ occur, with the magi reducing or removing the damage.
The events aren’t always negative, so you can also capitalise on them. There are Lull events, when no attacks occur, so you can send your magi on missions that bring back potions or potion components. Send a mage to the wind catchers and they can collect aether breezes that pass through the city, giving you currency. You can then spend that currency on upgrading your buildings, allowing more magi to work there at a time, or funnel the cash into your defences, allowing them to absorb more hits when an attack comes. You can make potions yourself, socket artefacts, make good or bad decisions in random events, and buy stuff from a marketplace.
Knowing which events are upcoming is vital. Upwards of two events can occur in the enemy ‘tempest’, and you will know a limited amount about them. You might know that a physical attack is coming, but not the precise slot it’s coming in. For aether currency, you can reveal the event, or you can build an Oracle to automatically reveal that information. If you go in blind, your magi could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and your Tree of Order will get a pruning from some goblins.
There’s a gossamer-thin story running through Mittelborg. The previous Great Chancellor, Magnus Wavebreaker, went missing as he searched the universe to protect the city. Your advisers will give you objectives to explore specific worlds through your Portal, which you can do on Lull events, finding journals which will keep you on a wild goose chase to find him.
It all gives the impression of a simple but strategic resource management game, and Mittelborg: City of Mages certainly is simple. But it doesn’t have enough confidence in the player to offer anything beyond measly scraps of strategy.
Mittelborg: City of Mages is in a permanent state of fear that you won’t understand what’s happening, or you’ll make a wrong turn. So, it puts you in a tutorial state that doesn’t really stop for the entirety of the game. You’re given constant hoops to jump through by your advisers, and they all feel like arbitrary tasks to teach you to play the game, or play it better. A few are story-related, sending you through the Portal to find old Magnus Wavebreaker, but they amount to little more than some journal ramblings from a madman, and they don’t really have any bearing on the game.
Anticipating the tempests should have been loaded with risk-versus-reward, tentatively committing yourself to actions knowing that you might guess wrong. But it’s never like that. Paying to view an event is cheap as magical chips, and you’d be crazy not to view it: the costs of failing an event are too high. Once you know what an event is, there is only one logical action: you go ‘all in’ with your magi to offset it. If an aether breeze is coming, you send all your magi to gather from it; if physical troops are arriving at the gate, you form a perimeter with your magi to stop them. It’s less guessing the weather, and more sticking your head out of a window, looking at the weather and acting accordingly. There’s no guesswork or strategy.
The list goes on. You can have a maximum of three magi at one location, so there is no point in having more than three; when you gain an extra mage, it should be a fantastic moment, but we shrugged our shoulders. There are potions and events that give you whispers of events that are upcoming, but it’s so cheap to just reveal them completely that you never bother to use them. It feels like, somewhere in Early Access, the developers got fed up with players complaining about confusion and randomness, so they said ‘stuff it’ and made the whole thing a walk in the park. There you go, not complaining now, are you?
There’s a tiny bit more strategy in what you upgrade and when. You don’t start with the ability to socket three magi into one location: you have to upgrade buildings to do that. So, balancing upgrading versus protecting the city is a legitimate question. But yet, as is a problem with many resource management games, there’s a clear optimal play: do the thing that nets you the most currency early, and everything else will follow. We upgraded our wind catchers early every time, and it set us up to steamroll the game over and over again.
We say ‘over and over again’, as Mittelborg wants you to play repeatedly to optimise. It’s got a mechanic where you hit a ceiling and have to be ‘reborn’, losing all city progress but keeping a lot of your own knowledge, including quest progress and exploration through the Portal. This kind of prestige would be fine if it didn’t feel arbitrary. Time and time again, we took the optimal path and the game couldn’t hurt us, before it decided that some inexplicable event would cause us to prestige-reset. We weren’t getting better each time: we were just experiencing a tedious form of Groundhog Day. Exacerbating this are quests, integral to progression, that ask you to do things like ‘Reach tempest 10 without using a potion’. When you’re on tempest 11 and you’ve already used a potion, you have that long trudge to reset all the way back to tempest 10, before you’re given the next objective which will undoubtedly ask you to do something similar. It’s just transparent makework, and we tutted every time.
That’s if the objectives work. There are numerous bugs in Mittelborg: City of Mages, and the most prominent is with the goals it sets you. Mittelborg stumbles whenever it wants to hand two objectives at the same time, or an objective that we have already completed. It ties itself into logical knots, and the objectives stop appearing, are invisible, or simply don’t trigger. Equally, achievements neglected to pop until the third or fourth playthrough, which at least had the comedic effect of going from 0 to 900 Gamerscore in thirty seconds.
We’re leaning hard on Mittelborg: City of Mage’s deficiencies because it’s a strategy game without strategy, and that sounds like a definition of insanity. But we’re playing down some of Mittelborg’s successes, and they should be noted. It’s a pretty game, nicely presented in all aspects, particularly in the interface design, which is a snug fit for console. It’s also reasonably engaging to go with the flow, moving your troops around and completing quests. It’s mindless, but not exactly unpleasant. Plus, when the achievements finally do pop, they’re extremely generous, and you’ll get a clean sweep after no more than a few hours.
Less a strategy game and more a three-hour long tutorial, Mittelborg: City of Mages on Xbox manages to remove pretty much anything that would lead to interest or a satisfying choice. If it was brave enough to hand the reins to the player, it might have gone somewhere interesting, but – as it stands – this is a lightweight board game with most of the pieces removed.