Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 10-30 mins
Setup Time: 5 mins
Value For Money: Mid
I have something of a soft spot for WizKids games, I don’t know why exactly, I suspect it comes from the fact that I enjoyed the concept of their Pirates of the Spanish Main (renamed to the snappy “Pirates of the Cursed Seas Pocketmodel Game”), a great idea cursed mostly with a terrible rule set. I know they have plenty of big successful titles to their name, but I do like their more misguided ideas for some reason. As such I have a little soft spot for Maiden’s Quest, a WizKids game that’s a little misguided sometimes and a little splendid at others.
The game involves the player taking the part of a vaguely fairy tale princess, locked in a tower. Having gotten bored of waiting for her prince to come she takes it on herself to affect her own rescue. In game terms this involves generating a single deck of cards that contains both the princess, helpful items for her and challenges to overcome. Players cycle through the deck until they hit an obstacle they can attempt to beat or occasionally the princess herself. They then pull a handful of cards and compare the symbols on them to the requirements of the obstacle, successfully matching the requirements generally sees the card upgraded, failure has it downgraded. If the princess manages to defeat her captor for that tower or find an escape route (opened interestingly by downgrading cards) she wins, if she takes damage with no cards to downgrade, she loses.
The system for upgrading/downgrading cards is certainly the smartest thing in the game, and its pretty clever and elegant. Essentially each card has up to four version, front left and right and back left and right. Upgrade a card and you spin it 180 degrees, down grade it and you flip it over, sometimes being able to downgrade it again with a 180-degree spin. It’s a smart, simple and intuitive system that allows each card to have a whole range of options contained on it. Its also a system that arguably deserved a better game to house it in.
The first problem with the game is one where practicality runs up against mechanics. Each time the castle is run through the deck needs to be shuffled before being progressed through again, which doesn’t sound like a huge ask. However, it really needs to be shuffled, and shuffled well. One reason for this is that obstacles act as blanks in a player’s hand when approached, if an obstacle is above the player’s current level its moved to the back of the deck automatically, which means that obstacles naturally bunch up in the deck. If more than three or four of them clump together they become effectively impossible to overcome. If you could take the deck each time and wash shuffle it that wouldn’t be too much of an issue, but the grading of the cards is based on their orientation and facing, so you really have to stick to a chop shuffle, which has a hard time breaking up those clumps. The cards are a slightly odd shape and size, which on the upside means that the fairly dinky box holds them all very neatly and nicely. However, that and the fact that both sides need to be visible makes sleeving a tricky task. To overcome this and the fact that the cards need to be shuffled a lot the cards are extra thick and chunky. Such that that a riffle shuffle means taking the life of the cards into your hands, if you can even pull it off. It also means that there is a higher than usual risk of cards kicking against each other during a chop shuffle and if a card does kick out of alignment its hard to know which way round it was for its upgrade status. It can be annoying when you realise that you’ll likely lose a game because all of the obstacles on the current run have bunched and you failed to shuffle them apart. A small but related issue is that when shuffling you can, of course, see the card on the top of the deck. If its one of your item cards you know it will be wasted this run, and its hard to know if the game wants you to keep shuffling until an obstacle that you’re likely to take on this run is top of the deck, or if that’s some form of unofficial cheating.
In theory the game has a lot of replay value, with a range of princesses to be trapped in the tower and a range of captors to face them off against. In practice though there’s not a massive amount of character to either and the methods of play will differ very little whichever is taken. Tougher captors are harder to take on, but simply because they have greater powers and tougher requirements rather than because they play with the game mechanics or throw the player’s rhythm off overly. Sadly, the game requires that the princess’ deck be randomly chosen each time, meaning that the possibility of offering a learning curve is seriously reduced. There is no possibility of building an escape artist deck or a fighting princess deck particularly and its not uncommon for a princess’ special power to hardly trigger at all from the deck that she’s randomly handed. More crafted opponents and the option to build a player’s deck and captors that told real stories would have really given more in the way of replay value, even if it resulted in less actual content. As it is its hard to muster the enthusiasm to start on the next captor after you’ve beaten the first handful.
The meat of the game revolves around two moments of choice. Firstly, whether to run from an obstacle or challenge it. If you run it automatically downgrades a single one of your cards, but if you challenge and lose you’re likely to have more cards downgraded. The problem is that since your deck is randomly built its hard to know if you can take on a given obstacle during the first pass through the deck (although the game doesn’t specify if a random built deck precludes learning it before beginning the run, it seems against the spirit of being locked in a tower) and failing to claim at least one or two obstacles on your first pass can seriously damage your chances on a second pass as more obstacles become unlocked. The second choice is how to upgrade and downgrade cards, which again is where most of the game’s smartness lives, since some cards are more powerful when downgraded, meaning that the right loss can actually fuel your princess’ fire. The problem is that there’s no way of knowing ahead of taking on a challenge if those cards are waiting to take the hits, so you simply take on the obstacle or not, find out if you’ve won or not and then generally have a small set of simple choices. If you have the option between a card that gets more powerful when downgraded or one that gets weaker, that’s not really a choice. At most a handful of times there is a choice between upgrading to add in icons that your deck might be lacking or ones that it has a few of but kicks more powerfully from, but again, its extremely tough to make that choice intelligently based on the random enemies and random items in your deck.
One thing that will attract some people to this game is the idea of a strong female protagonist. ‘Maiden save thyself’ being an interesting feminist call, but again how well the game works with that idea is a mixed bag. For example, the game has a genuinely funny and sharp sense of humour, but you’d be hard pressed to notice it during an actual game, buried as it sometimes is in self referential comments on the backs and in margins of cards. Sit down and read the cards and they’re quite clever, but during play the number of cards, the nature of the fan and the random decks tend to hide all of that. Instead what comes across is that since this is a game about a princess items take the form of hair extensions, high heels and make-up. Its done to make knowing in jokes about fairy tales and the games themselves, but when those jokes don’t land it just falls somewhere around the edge of sexist as you can’t help but wonder how often a game about male protagonists has a significant number of its power ups take the form of different sorts of shoe. This wrong step takes its most annoying turn when you realise that the only card you have actual control over including in your deck is what sort of pretty dress you’ll wear. The game is trying and it has its heart in the right place, but again its best intentions are buried under the practicalities of the actual experience of play.
I do like Maiden’s Quest despite myself, but that seems to fit with how I feel about this sort of thing from WizKids, ambitious but flawed. This is just an opinion, but it seems to me as though they often misjudge the appeal of their products, they seemed to struggle to keep up with demand for dice masters until they’ve now flooded the market until all my FLGSs have them heaped and remaindered. The last time I saw any of their Star Trek attack wing products they were dumped in the bargain bin. Maiden’s Quest has an immensely clever feature for when you’re carrying it around a convention and you see another person playing it, allowing you to roll up to them and have your Maiden’s Quest cross over with theirs in a ‘Serendipity’ moment, it even holds back some of its more powerful cards until you manage to do this. Its an immensely clever feature if Maiden’s Quest was the sort of game you constantly saw people pulling out at clubs and conventions, but its not. I attend (or did when they ran) a very high number of conventions and I’ve never seen anyone playing Maiden’s Quest outside of the WizKids stall, mainly because the idea of playing a primarily solo led game at a convention seems like a very odd idea, like throwing a party and then locking yourself in your own shoe closet. It’s a nice idea for a promo card at a convention, but including it in the base set just feels overly optimistic at best, out and out thirsty at worst.
As I say, I like Maiden’s Quest, I’ll probably pull it out again after I’ve forgotten about it to knock off a couple of captors. Its genuinely solo led and offers more choice and variety than a lot of solo games. Its rulebook has some holes (your first set-up will be a little quest all of its own) but nothing you can’t fudge your way through. Mostly it’s almost there and near misses. Those darn Kids, can’t help but love them.