A Review of Maiden’s Quest

Angry tabby cat posing by the Maiden's quest box.

Maiden’s Quest was designed by Ken Shannon and released in 2018 by Wizkids. It takes the cliché of the maiden held captive in a tower and stands it on its head. No brave knight has been able to rescue the maiden, so she takes matters into her own hands. As the player you take the role of this determined maiden and try to fight your way to freedom.

I found out about this game and the previously reviewed Palm Island at about the same time. The two games seemed to share a few basic concepts – the idea of a hand-held card game and the “four-sided” cards – but besides that they seemed different enough. I ended up reviewing Palm Island first and was impressed by how much game had been crammed into just 17 cards. Despite having a paradise island theme, despite having you beat your own high score to win, despite having a memory aspect to it, despite being very light – four things I tend to dislike in a game – Palm Island was enjoyable. I had fun with Palm Island, but Maiden’s Quest seemed to have some things going for it where Palm Island didn’t: a fantasy theme, a clear goal, conflict, some complexity – four things I tend to like in a game. After having such a good time with the least appealing of the two hand-held card games, I had high hopes for the one that really seemed like my kind of game.

What You Get in the Box

A tabby cat showing of the components of the game.
This is what you get in the box. The cat is not included and you don’t need the table for playing.

Maiden’s Quest comes with 160 narrow cards that are easy to handle. The cards have pretty nice illustrations and are of decent quality. Many of them are “four-sided”. This means that they have four different areas, one of which is active. The active side of a card is the front left side. Some cards represent your skill and health, some represent enemies trying to keep you confined to the tower, and some represent items. Some cards are “three-sided”, meaning that the front has two sides and the back only one. There are also a few two-sided cards. Some of these represent treasures, and some represent somewhat helpful but in the end pretty incompetent heroes that have failed at rescuing you and tag along when you try to find your way out of your prison. In the box is also a rule book and a quickstart guide, and that’s where this story almost ended.

It Usually Starts With the Rule Book, But in This Case: Don’t!

I think of a game as a set of rules. That’s why I have a hard time with the term “rules lawyer” being used pejoratively – if you like the game you like the rules. To me the whole gaming experience starts with the rule book. In the case of Maiden’s Quest the rule book’s where it would have ended as well if it weren’t for this reviewing thing I’ve gotten into. The rule book that comes with this compact, portable game is 28 pages. It has unfinished sentences and ambiguous text and it’s poorly laid out. As for the quickstart guide that’s included with the game, don’t bother with it. It just adds to the confusion.

The rule book lacks vital information about how the game is played. At least it is so unclear and confusing that it appears that way. Frankly, it’s probably the worst rule book I’ve read. There are ways around this problem, though, so I’m going to try not to dwell on it. The game designer, Ken Shannon, has been very active in answering rules questions on the BoardGameGeek forums and Wizkids have published a PDF with re-written rules. The PDF is a great improvement.

Stop looking at Mysan! See the rule book and quickstart guide in the foreground? Avoid these and use the alternative I’ve linked to above instead.

A good game with a bad rule book easily comes across as a bad game. While trying to learn how to play Maiden’s Quest using what comes in the box my hopes for the game were thwarted. I started preparing to write a very harsh review. When I found that Wizkids had listened to their customers’ feedback about the rule book and acted on it I postponed writing and gave the game another chance. Turns out it deserved it.

Update: Since I wrote this review I’ve learned that Wizkids will be doing another printing of the game with the updated rule book.

Playing Maiden’s Quest – A Brief Summary

Maiden’s Quest is a customizable game. The contents of the deck, the play-style and the difficulty of the challenge depend on which of the eight maidens you’re playing and which of the ten captors that has locked you up. Some captors are harder to defeat than others. Some maidens are easier to play than others.

Maiden Cards, front and back.
The eight Maiden Cards. The bottom four are turned over revealing the setup instructions on the back.

Setup is smooth. First you chose a Maiden Card. Then you add the cards specified on the back of the Maiden Card to your deck. Then you chose a Captor Card and add the cards specified on the back of this card to your deck. Some of the cards are added at random. This makes for some interesting surprises and variation.

Captor Cards, front and back.
The ten Captor Cards. The bottom five are turned over revealing the setup instructions on the back.

When you’re done you have a deck of cards representing the health, skills and possessions of your maiden; and your captor, your prison and your guards. All cards are oriented with their starting side on the left, facing the player. The deck is shuffled and the Rest Cards – cards that help keeping track of the level of opposition you’re facing – are put on the bottom of the deck. That’s it! Setup takes but a few minutes once you know the drill.

The goal of the game is to either defeat your captor or to find a door and a key and escape the tower. If you lose all your health you lose the game. The game has the narrative progression of a dungeon crawler – you investigate your surroundings searching for useful items, hidden doors and enemies that you think you’ll be able to take on. Your skills gradually increase. Once you’ve gone through your deck a few times you’ll be better acquainted with the tower that is your prison, you’ll have found useful loot, improved your fighting skills and perhaps found a door or two that you might escape through. If you’ve focused on fighting skills you might be ready to take on your captor. If you’ve found a few keys it might be better to try to escape through a door.

Maiden's Quest being played. The whole deck is held in the left hand.
The maiden is encountering a goblin. The other five cards revealed have the symbols needed to defeat the goblin. The light blue cards are Health Cards, the dark blue ones are Item Cards.

On a more technical level the game plays like this: you go through the deck one card at a time by putting the top card on the bottom of the deck. Once an obstacle or enemy shows up on top you decide whether to try to fight or to run away. Then you reveal the five cards below the obstacle. If you opted for fighting you check whether those cards can be used to win the challenge. If you succeed you get to upgrade some of the revealed cards. Upgrading represents discoveries you make or improved skills. If you fail you downgrade cards. Downgrading usually represents damaged or lost items or loss of health, but sometimes surprising discoveries as well. Cards are upgraded or downgraded by flipping or rotating them. If you opted for running away you do so at a penalty of one downgraded card.

Different card examples.
Some examples of cards. When an anemy is defeated the card is flipped. Look at the Goblin Card in the bottom row. When it’s flipped you increase your cunning (top left of the defeated goblin) and you also get to upgrade another card (denoted by the golden arrow). On the top right is an exit card that you might find after an an unsuccessful fight. On the top, second from the right, is a Health Card and behind that a Health card that has been downgraded due to damage.

Every time you’ve gone through the deck it’s shuffled and the opposition increases. Think of it as your captor gradually becoming aware of your attempts at escape and taking measures to stop you. You start at level one, which means that any threats of level two or higher will be removed to the bottom of the deck when they show up.

A picture of the rest cards.
The rest cards are used to keep track of how many times you’ve cycled through the deck. Each time the level increases, so does the difficulty of the opposition.

When you reach the Rest Cards the level will increase to level two. This means that you’re still safe from threats of level three and above. When you finally reach level four, all of the opposition is after you, but you’ve also explored your prison, found some useful items, learned how to handle a sword, and hopefully devised an escape-plan

The reference cards listing the meaning of the different symbols in the game.
The reference cards hint at some of the core concepts of the game. The basic skills that you improve over the course of the game are Melee, Magic, Charisma, Piety and Cunning.

Fighting, fleeing and discovering quickly becomes a rather smooth experience. I obviously had a rough ride initially, since I felt like I should focus on the printed rule book that was included in the product I was about to review. Once I realized that there’s a good game hiding somewhere behind all that confusion and editorial mess and figured out how the game was actually supposed to be played, I had a great time. The initial rounds of investigating and discovery, followed by some maximizing of important skills and finally your attempts at escaping or defeating the captor makes for a fun tactical adventure.

There’s more to the game, of course. This may be a game you hold in your hands and that plays in about 15 or 20 minutes, but it’s not a very light game. In fact it’s rather challenging. Some of the many things that I’ve left out of the above summary are the treasure cards, the multi-player rules, the failed brave knights that you end up having to save, and the different maidens’ unique abilities.

Pros

+ The game is highly portable and easily handled – no playing surface is needed.
+ The setup varies depending on which maiden you play as and who’s captured you. This makes it easy to gradually increase difficulty. Not only is the difficulty varied – the nature of the tactical challenge changes depending on your choice of maiden and captor. Variability of this kind is great in a solo game since playing against an automated opponent rather than a living human being sometimes gets rather predictable. Because of the variable setup this game has staying power.
+ The game plays smoothly and quickly, and you can easily pause in the middle of a game, put the deck in your pocket and continue later.
+ Even though Maiden’s Quest feels like a solitaire game at heart, rules are included for many different variants, both cooperative and competitive.
+ On a thematic level Maiden’s Quest both manages to take the familiar concept of dungeon crawling fantasy adventure and put it in a brand new package, and to take a tired storybook cliché and turn it upside down.
+ The game has a nice sense of progression and story to it as you discover more and more and the tension grows.
+ The artwork does a good job of adding some fantasy flavor to the game.

Cons

– The rule book included in the box is extremely bad. Even though Wizkids have made a way better rule book available online, this obviously is a big negative since you pay for a printed rule book and a completed product. Once the new edition that I mentioned above is out this will not be an issue anymore.
– Once you really get to know a deck many of the decisions tend to feel statistical rather than tactical. When I’ve reached that point I’ve just picked another maiden and captor and started anew, though.
– The cards don’t seem particularly sturdy. This might be an issue since they are shuffled a lot during gameplay.
– Since the cards get shuffled a lot sleeving them might be a good idea, but they are of an unusual size and finding the right sleeves might be difficult. On top of that some of the cards are rotated 180 degrees when upgraded. Shuffling sleeved cards that are oriented differently tends to damage the sleeves.

What I Think of Maiden’s Quest and How It Compares to Palm Island

The comparison to Palm Island is inevitable. Both games were released in 2018 and both are solitaire card games that require no playing surface. What these games have in common is that they can both be played in situations where most other board and card games can not. On the bus, standing on top of a mountain, sitting in the back of a car, in a canoe… Apart from this convenience the games are not much alike. Palm Island is a very light but surprisingly playable 17 card resource management game. It’s very easy to learn. It’s a highly portable solo game for anyone who likes playing a game once in a while. Maiden’s Quest, on the other hand, is a gamer’s game. It’s harder to learn than Palm Island. Even if you use the improved PDF rule book there are many rules and you need to know them to enjoy the game and to have a chance at winning. Maiden’s Quest caters to people who are fans of fantasy adventure and it’s a game for those of us who are into gaming as a hobby rather than a pastime.

Maiden’s Quest, the somewhat complicated game that came with the very bad rule book, is perhaps less impressive as a designer’s and publisher’s feat than Palm Island, the elegant game that felt complete despite only being 17 cards. But in my delve into the exciting world of solitaire gaming I’m not looking for games to nominate to some Elegant Simplicity Award. I’m looking for stuff that let’s me exercise the “nerd center” of my brain. Stuff like Maiden’s Quest. I’m not saying Maiden’s Quest is my favorite or anything, but it sure is my kind of game. And although I was very impressed with Palm Island I haven’t touched that game since I got past the rule book of Maiden’s Quest and started carrying both games in my backpack. Train rides have never been this much fun!

Other Peoples Opinions

Many reviews of Maiden’s Quest mention the problematic rule book. This review by Brian Hazard on BGG is very (rightfully) critical of the rule book. Brian also points out that playing the game can be awkward for left-handed people because of how the cards have to be fanned out. Another reviewer, Sheryl Nantys, finds the game addictive. I have to agree.

UPDATE

Wizkids have informed me that a reprint is due to be released “in a month or so”, so perhaps at the end of July 2019. The reprint will include the improved rule book. That’s good news – this game definitely deserves it!


Thanks for reading! The cats are now telling me to get some sleep before work tomorrow. They are usually right, so I guess I’d better be off to bed.

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