Wiz War, an American Classic

A board game by Tom Jolly, published by Jolly Games, then Chessex
These comments copyright 1998 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated November 29, 1998 [URL above updated Sep. 14, 1999]

What can you say about a classic? For over ten years now, Wiz War has been one of my favorite multi-player games. Standing firm against the European invasion, never once has it been dethroned from my top ten games list, even for a short while. Wiz War is the best example of what American games can do best, and what European games are sometimes lacking: atmosphere.

What I'm calling atmosphere can also be called mood, flavor, ambience - whatever word you want. All too many European games are simply good abstract games with a thin veneer of flavor tacked on. Mind you, that doesn't mean they're bad games - good abstract games are still good games! But there are times when I want a lot of atmosphere in my gaming, and I'm willing to forego near perfectly balanced mechanics to get that.

Please notice I said "many European games", not "all European games". There are indeed good Euro games with good mood-evoking qualities. Ursuppe and Settlers of Catan are very flavorful games, for example, ones I highly applaud. But to be honest, even my favorite games don't evoke a lot of mood: El Grande, probably my favorite board game as I type this, doesn't really evoke Medieval Spain. Still a great game, but there are times when I want to be transported from my mundane world into something more exotic, or at least different. El Grande certainly gives me a good time, but it doesn't transport me away from Mundania very well. Reiner Knizia is one of the worst offenders of this, by the way - there is so little mood in many (not all!) of his games I wonder why he even bothers pasting the little on he does in some of them. Quandary, with its pure abstract design, seems more honest than Durch die Wüste, which has nothing remotely to do with camels or the desert - why not use five different colors of Go stones, since it's closer to that game in spirit than to any other game? (Mind you, Euphrat & Tigris has enough flavor to entertain me, and En Garde really does feel like a fencing match with its back and forth, "distance is everything" approach. But Lost Cities or Members Only? Give me a break!)

American games tend to be better at mood. Unfortunately, they're often much poorer at mechanics - they tend to lack the clean elegance that typifies a good Euro game. So when I do find a game that is both good at mood evocation and also has elegant mechanics, I rejoice. Wiz War is such a game.

I have the Fourth Edition, the set with the "Mad Wizard" card, and which is compatible with both expansions and the blank card sets. The "Mad Wizard" card, for those of you who only have fifth or later editions, is a wild card which can be any spell in the deck! Unfortunately, this is almost always dealt at the beginning of the game to someone who has never played before, and has no idea what it is - what else would you expect of a Mad Wizard? So we usually play it can be a "6" number card, or you can play it out of turn to cancel any one spell that another wizard casts. It works.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me first briefly describe the game. The components of the basic set are four geomorphic mapboards, four different-colored wizard counters, each with two matching treasure counters, a whole slew of miscellaneous counters, and lots of spell and number cards. The first expansion includes two more mapboards, wizards, appropriate treasures, lots more spell and number cards and lots more miscellaneous counters. The second expansion includes lots more spell and number cards and lots more miscellaneous counters. Hence, it's a two-four player game if you just have the basic set, but up to six with expansions, and I've seen up to nine players using multiple sets and/or homemade boards and wizard/treasure counters.

Each board is very simple: 25 squares in a five-by-five arrangement. There are a number of walls and doors which turn the board into a small labyrinth. Each board has a space in the exact center for a wizard, two spaces diagonally adjacent for treasures (though usually separated by walls or doors from the Wizard), and a one-space opening in the center of each edge, so they all fit together in numerous ways. The walls and doors create one-space wide corridors - there are no open "lobby" spaces, unless created later by a spell. And, oh - the board is "wrap-around". That is, if you go off one edge, you reappear on the opposite edge.

The object is also simple: you win the game either by getting any two treasures (except one of your own) onto your home space, or by simply being the last wizard left alive. Everyone starts on their home space, is dealt seven cards, and the game begins.

Each turn you move up to three spaces, never diagonally (unless allowed by a spell). You may also play a number card, which range from 2-5 (plus one 6) and move that many additional spaces. Picking up an object, such as a treasure, ends your turn - you can only carry one treasure at a time, but any number of other objects. In addition you may cast spells. And what spells!

The spell cards are where the game really shines. There are spells for everything in this game - either in the game itself or somewhere on the web on someone's home page, lovingly collected. There are three basic types of spells: Attack, Neutral, and Counteraction. You may only play one Attack spell per turn, but any number of Neutral spells. Counteraction spells are used defensively, when someone attacks you. Many spells are "Line of Sight" use only (your wizard must be able to see the victim or object you are casting a spell on), but some aren't.

There are spells to help you move, to destroy walls, to create objects, to create monsters, to control monsters, to damage opponents (everyone starts with 15 life points - if you get down to zero, you're out of the game), to hinder opponents, to teleport self or objects or opponents, to intensify other spells, to change from a human form (both on self and others), to block corridors, to open corridors, to adjust the board, to create dimensional warps, to do just about anything, come to think of it. There are magic stones, too, and the expansions have magic sticks and magic amulets. There are numerous monsters you can create and control, and various objects to fill up the labyrinth with. In short, the game has so many different spells, and even different types of spells, that no two games ever play alike. Not even close, in fact. I call this high replay value, especially when combined with such a fun game.

And fun is the key word here. While it is a game of skill, there's a lot of chaos here which can impinge on your carefully laid out plans. You can formulate a basic strategy, for example, but it had better be flexible as the other wizards will be casting spells to change things, so your planned "run to the blue treasure, bring it back, then go get the nearest yellow treasure" will probably be aborted before you're halfway through it. And the game is certainly very tactical - you have a certain set of cards in your hand, and the board is in a certain position, how can I best maximize my position at the expense of others right now? So it's a satisfying game in that respect. But where it shines is in the pure fun department. The game is, frankly, silly. There are a lot of laughs, a lot of outrageous things to do to self and others, a true wackiness which runs throughout the game that, win or lose, you simply have a good time for an hour or two submerged in a fantasy world where mad wizards beat each other up in absurd ways. That is, unless you're one of those serious gamers, in which case Wiz War is not for you, and you have my pity.

Wiz War creates more stories than any other board game I know. Ask any Wiz War player - they'll tell you an outlandish, highly improbable story of how five players were only one turn away from winning, and the sixth player was at least eight turns away from winning, if no one interfered with him, and yet he won the game through an unconscionable, unethical, mind-boggling combination of one Attack spell no one suspected and five carefully played Neutral spells. Or how "I was once one space from my home, carrying the winning treasure, and all three of my opponents were at least fifteen spaces away, locked in an ugly three-way brawl, when they managed to ally temporarily against me and I ended up losing the game in a big way. I mean a big way - I never did get out of the closet they put me into, and had to watch my opponents take the treasure on my home space and my own two treasures ..." You get the picture. You can count on the improbable in this game, and you can never count on winning until you actually do it.

The game is fully customizable - make your own spells! Take some spells you hate out of the deck, and forget about 'em. Me, I've removed the Sticks and Amulets - I don't like 'em, so they're gone. There are so many spells, I don't miss them. If you do make your own spells, though, be sure to add some new number cards - you'll need them both for movement and for spell strength or duration.

So if you like to emphasize fun in your games, at least on occasion, and don't mind silliness, this is one of the best games made. I haven't found it to be very good for two players, to be honest - it plays best with four to six. (For a good two-player game by the same designer, try GOOTMU.) But the main thing is to play it - it's wonderful!

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