Piss Fight - A review of Wiz-War and its expansions.

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Piss Fight - A review of Wiz-War and its expansions.

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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.


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Feelitmon's Avatar
Feelitmon replied the topic: #207939 04 Aug 2015 13:06
Great article about a wonderful game, JonJacob. I think you're 100% correct about the necessity of player elimination in the game and the reasons for that necessity.

One criticism of the game that I do not understand is that "it's random!" one that you allude to. Granted Wiz-War revels in mayhem and excess, but what card game doesn't have that random element? If I'm approaching an enemy wizard who is acting strangely fearless, and I have noticed that they've never had fewer than two cards in their hand, well guess what? I shouldn't be surprised when they "randomly" throw out a counter to my counter to their counterspell! That would be like getting butthurt when I'm playing Texas Hold'em and holy cow, that opponent draws to a straight flush. The randomness!!!

In a game like Wiz-War you definitely delight in creating or watching amazing combinations, but you'd better be playing your opponents too or else you'll continue to be shocked by the chaos and randomness far more than your opponents are. Strange how that can happen...
Dr. Mabuse's Avatar
Dr. Mabuse replied the topic: #207971 04 Aug 2015 23:25
Yes, JJ, Yes! You nailed everything I really dig about this game. My only complaint I have is that there should be a variant where I can summon Big Man and have him last more than 2 turns. That's some weak game design bullshit right there.
Not Sure's Avatar
Not Sure replied the topic: #207974 05 Aug 2015 00:12
Most of the "optional" rules were not optional at all in the older editions.

"Deadly Treasures", wherein you lose if both of your treasures are down on opponent bases is one of those, and I strongly consider it not optional.

There is no reason to play defense without it, and it drastically changes the game. Obviously this game's a little close to my heart, but it's a fine review. I can nitpick for days about versions and changes, but there's no need. It's proven itself fun in many different ways and across a lot of printings and variants.
Not Sure's Avatar
Not Sure replied the topic: #207975 05 Aug 2015 00:17
Also, there must be some sort of in-joke I'm missing, because Big Man has always been a duration=number spell, so you can power that sucker up with whatever your best Energy card is.

Go big, stay big.
OldHippy's Avatar
OldHippy replied the topic: #207978 05 Aug 2015 00:40
Thanks everyone, this is my first review in a long time and I'm still not sure how to go about writing them. The couple I wrote before kind of sucked and I'm still trying to find my feet. But I'm going to try and go through some of the games I've played a lot and get a little something together for F:AT if I can. I even have a few other ideas that I don't think anyones touched before... shhhhh.

Feelitmon - Great point about playing the players in this... I should have mentioned that but I'm glad you did it. That is a quality I find in most of my favourite games. Thanks for bringing it up.

Doc - It's your copy I've been playing so thanks not only for that but just for being a cool gamer dude in general.

Not Sure - I've never played any other edition of this game and you made me realize that I should have made that disclaimer at the beginning of the review. This is a reasonably old game and that deserves to be stated. This review is strictly about the FFG version and nothing more... and there is an in-joke about Big Man going on. Whenever Doc plays him someone (usually me) cancels him right away... occasionally he lasts a turn before being cancelled but he's never really got to use him. None of us have actually it's the curse of big man in our lunch group.
Hex Sinister's Avatar
Hex Sinister replied the topic: #207982 05 Aug 2015 02:23
What side of the board do you guys think is better for 4 players?

-still a newb
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #207997 05 Aug 2015 09:10
I'd be interested to know everyone's standard "optional" rules. I'm our resident Dr. Orpheus (the title given to the last winner of our semi-regular games of Wiz-War; next one tonight!)


We play with:
Both expansions and all the cards, but we did thin out the number of counters and shields in the deck, such that there are only 1 or 2 of each (we like our games bloody and it tends to get frustrating when you pull off that bouncing lightning bolt through a wall and someone stops it with a shield spell every time...)
Permanent objects that don't need to be maintained (Uncluttered Minds.) So if you make a wall, it's a wall and it remains until someone destroys it and it doesn't take up part of your hand.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #208001 05 Aug 2015 09:30
I am also an advocate of using all the optional rules in the back of the rulebook. The only caveat of that is that Bestial Forces does rely on a lot of different card interactions that call upon the other cards in that expansion. Bestial Forces remains woefully underplayed by me (the game has a bad rap among my Texas friends), but the times I have played I have used the FFG setup to get more synergies with the cards. Do you still get some of that when playing with all the cards in one giant brick?

Also, I almost always use the old version of the map tiles (side B?). It has more straightaways and makes the players slightly less mobile, so that it's harder to avoid stuff.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #208009 05 Aug 2015 09:56
We've never run into problems playing with all of the cards. We still get tons of interactions and weird combinations. However, as with the counters and shields, we did take out a couple copies of the Bestial Forces card that lets you look through the deck until you find a creature, since there are only six creatures in the rather large deck. It just took too long. Creatures are a rare (and powerful) enough addition that, when they do turn up, it's exciting and unusual enough to still make it worthwhile, even if it's rarer than it would be while playing with a smaller deck.
Almalik's Avatar
Almalik replied the topic: #208045 05 Aug 2015 14:04
So is this on for the next Trashfest NW? I ain't coming out to play no Mysterium (or whatever the hell the Czech name was)!

Also, nice review JJ!
SixpenceGames's Avatar
SixpenceGames replied the topic: #208052 05 Aug 2015 15:29
I can't believe I've never played this. I've got to get on that!
Dr. Mabuse's Avatar
Dr. Mabuse replied the topic: #208058 05 Aug 2015 16:49
In terms of what board side we prefer, I honestly don't have a preference.

For our main deck, we use the white hand and three random decks. There seems to be a better chance of getting more of the environmental reliant decks ( looking at you Totems) in play, that could be lost in a bigger deck.

I've also played 2-5 player games to equal enjoyment. This game is pretty robust and can be tailored to players' tastes with little to no chance of breaking it. That says a lot to me.
Dr. Mabuse's Avatar
Dr. Mabuse replied the topic: #208059 05 Aug 2015 17:05

Almalik wrote: So is this on for the next Trashfest NW? I ain't coming out to play no Mysterium (or whatever the hell the Czech name was)!

Also, nice review JJ!


It will be, if you come out next year.
UniversalHead's Avatar
UniversalHead replied the topic: #208062 05 Aug 2015 17:43
Great article that makes me want to get this game out again.

Sorry to be a nitpicking pain, but watch those incorrect apostrophes - "it's" in the title, "combo's", "it’s objectives" and "DoaM’s".

I know, I know, but it drives me nuts and marrs the flow of the reading for me. :)
Almalik's Avatar
Almalik replied the topic: #208063 05 Aug 2015 18:40

Dr. Mabuse wrote:

Almalik wrote: So is this on for the next Trashfest NW? I ain't coming out to play no Mysterium (or whatever the hell the Czech name was)!

Also, nice review JJ!


It will be, if you come out next year.


I gotta wait a whole 'nother year for Trashfest? I thought someone was talking bi-annual?
Dr. Mabuse's Avatar
Dr. Mabuse replied the topic: #208064 05 Aug 2015 20:16

Almalik wrote:

Dr. Mabuse wrote:

Almalik wrote: So is this on for the next Trashfest NW? I ain't coming out to play no Mysterium (or whatever the hell the Czech name was)!

Also, nice review JJ!


It will be, if you come out next year.


I gotta wait a whole 'nother year for Trashfest? I thought someone was talking bi-annual?


Hmmm..food for thought.
OldHippy's Avatar
OldHippy replied the topic: #208070 05 Aug 2015 23:12

Hex Sinister wrote: What side of the board do you guys think is better for 4 players?

-still a newb


I really like both sides, and even more so I really like switching it up as often as possible and trying as many different combinations as possible. We try not to think about it unless the board looks too familiar then we'll switch it up. I don't think we've ever played with A and B mixed together but we've certainly tried out ever other combination possible. I hate to think that no one could ever get trapped in tiny room and I hate to think that it could always happen. Sometimes one person is really close and another is very far away (from the treasures) but I don't worry about it and you may be surprised to see that the closest person doesn't always win.

Universal Head... you're totally right, I know better and should have edited it better. I'll improve, just wait.
UniversalHead's Avatar
UniversalHead replied the topic: #208072 06 Aug 2015 00:17
Gracious apology accepted sir! :) Again, thanks for a great article.
Not Sure's Avatar
Not Sure replied the topic: #208073 06 Aug 2015 00:30
Mixing A and B boards might be bad for whoever has the A sides. They tend to be less cluttered with fewer weird pockets. I think some minmaxer on BGG counted the steps from door to treasure and declared that it averages fewer on the A boards.

I like the B sides, because I'm a Wiz-War hipster and they're the original boards. I was so happy when the MC expansion brought back the "Hallway of Death". Heave-Ho across ten spaces to kill a wizard standing on your home base (and win the game with two treasures) was a real thing. I have done it.

Maybe I can catch a cheap flight to Vancouver. I'd even bring my homemade old-school set, from the dark out-of-print days.