For 32 years now and over eight editions Wizards have been engaging in magical combat in strange abstract mazes seeking mysterious treasures.
If I had one wish it would probably be to have all the powers of a 20th level mage in D&D … basically I want access to the complete spell lists in the Players Handbook. This has been the case since I was about nine or ten. Mages were always my favorite class by far, simply due to the sheer variety of things you could do. Spellcasters in general actually. So when I think fantasy gaming the thing I want to do the most is not level up and battle monsters in a dungeon (although that’s cool too) but cast lots of different spells, so many in fact, that even I’m surprised once in a while by what’s possible.
FFG’s Wiz War (originally by Chessex in 1983) does a lot of what I want in this regard.
The central conceit is that you are a wizard and you have two treasures that the other wizards want. You need to get two points and you get them either by killing another wizard or stealing their treasure and bringing it back to your home square. There are, however, several variations on how to play and the game is easily robust enough to handle it.
You achieve this by moving around the board and casting spells, lots of spells. Spells that turn you into a werewolf or a gnome, spells that let you cast fireballs and lightning bolts, teleport, astral projection, leaving hexes that hurt your opponents (and yourself!), magic equipment, summoning monsters to aid your cause, mind control, fire and ice walls, acid to dissolve walls, phantom forms… there is an incredible variety of things you can do in this game and it throws everything at you in a very short period of time.
The game is pretty simple, everyone gets a hand of five cards and you draw two each turn with a max of seven. You can burn through a lot in a single turn if you manage to get some good combo’s in. During your turn you will get to move three spaces, cast one attack spell and as many other spells as you like. You can move more by using energy from your cards or you can use those cards primary feature and cast the spell associated with them instead. Some spells, of course, let you move further. Basically if you can imagine an in-game effect there’s probably a card that does it. You may or may not see that card though because the deck you draw from is created before the beginning of each game. You have several different schools of magic (themed decks), grab the base pack that goes in every deck then pick three more schools. Shuffle and play. Simple.
There is a real narrative that can develop as you play this game, the actions that take place on the board tell the story all on their own… no text helpers are needed. This is all pretty incredible especially when you think that this design is from 1983… I say that as if it simply wasn’t possible to design great games that long ago. I hope you know that’s bullshit. From Cosmic Encounter to Dune to Aquire to I’m the Boss, to Survive… there are lots of great games from before Settlers of Catan and Wiz War is one of them.
Not only does a narrative develop but the game can be nasty as well, people can pick on you specifically, you can lose early and have nothing to do for thirty minutes while your buddies have all the fun (you get prime bitching rights though!). There is a lot of luck involved and while that does lessen the evilness of being picked on and knocked out early you can still get a little emotional or heated about it. I love that aspect.
Mostly I love the possibilities for creative play. There’s a treasure I need to pick up, and I’m not in a leading position because it is many turns of movement away from me. Fortunately I have some tricks up my sleeve. I move forward a few squares, cast astral projection… this allows me to cast a spell as if I were in a different location.. anywhere up to four squares from my current location ignoring walls and objects. So from where I am I can pass through three walls and end up in a place that would have taken me several turns to move to, from this new location I cast a line of sight spell that lets me pick up an object from any distance as long as I can see it… that’s the treasure – I’m about to save myself possibly five turns of work with just a couple of spells and clever placement and probably win next turn. Doc M however has a counter spell and ends up canceling the main event.. I’m astral projected but there’s fuck all I can do about it. SHIT! So close. Or you move into a space to pick up a treasure, your turn ends when you pick it up and someone runs around the corner and puts a wall in front of you (the other three sides already had walls in this case) .. you’re stuck. For how long you ask.. maybe one turn, maybe the remainder of the game. Draw cards and hope for the best. This can suck but it’s always funny when it’s not you. The card variety is incredible in this game and with the base game and two expansions in play I still, after maybe fifty games, see cards that I’ve never seen before. I see new combinations almost every game.
What people may criticize in Wiz War, the randomness that is possible, is also what is responsible for the creativity that’s possible. It’s a trade-off and one that I think leads to more interesting game play in general. You could certainly design this to remove some of the randomness but it would hurt the creativity and chaos that is possible in the design. It would hurt the game overall and that in turn would definitely limit the different types of narrative that are possible.
Wiz War marvels in these moments because they feel entirely unique to its world. The best things in Wiz-War I just can’t imagine happening in any other game. It’s the kind of design that shows me how we gave up on player elimination too quickly. People tend to not like that mechanic and they almost always bring up long DoaM’s to illustrate why, but in Wiz War it works beautifully. The chaos and short time frame make it feel just right and the game, it’s objectives, aren’t really possible in a post player elimination world. Just getting points isn’t quite the same thing. You need that risk to truly play differently. The plays that people make, the way they approach the game is a direct result of player elimination being part of the design and you just wouldn’t play the same way if it wasn’t in there.
We play a variant where if both of your treasures are on someone else’s home space you are knocked out of the game, this makes you play differently as well. It forces combat where it may not happen otherwise and it also speeds up the game. There are a ton of touches like that in the FFG edition (I don’t know if they were in the original or not) and it really helps the game feel like your own creation with minimal effort as you tweak minor rules to create the version you need at that moment.
Some boring details... it plays great with 2-5 players (one of the expansions is needed for that) of the two expansions it seems like Bestial Forces is the better of the two but in all honesty if you like the game get both as they are both fantastic. The game takes about an hour to play and probably five minutes to set up.
Wiz War, despite its age and the inclusion of player elimination, feels very modern and fresh. It’s a smooth design that is competitive with anything I’ve seen on the market. It’s robust and has plenty of room for creative play that makes it one of the best games I’ve ever played and further plays have not taken away from its charm but truly added to it. The more I play the more variations I’m interested in. Right now I’d like to try the version where there is one collective deck and each player gets a smaller deck to choose from of just one of the schools. This way each mage has their own specialization. There are dozens of ways to alter it and the core holds together just fine.