Review – Wiz-War

                Created by Tom Jolly, Wiz-War made its debut in the early 1980s (it is often cited as one of the inspirations for Magic: the Gathering), and the recent Fantasy Flight Games re-imagining of Wiz-War marks the game’s eighth edition (FFG re-imagining led by Kevin Wilson). Wiz-War gives each player control of a (shock) wizard running and spell-slinging around a labyrinth in a chaotic effort to capture treasures and possibly inflict some damage on each other. Wiz-War retails for around $50.

The Quick Take: We don’t know. Wow, wasn’t that decisive? I’m certainly willing to go really positive or really negative on a game when appropriate, but I’m kind of up in the air on this one. The game is fast, chaotic, and swingy, and if you like that then you’ll probably like this, as long as you can let go of certain hang-ups (I’m just not sure if we can). Keep in mind that the game is more capture the flag than combat-oriented, as it’s very difficult to actually kill anyone.

Note: We have not played older versions of Wiz-War, so this review is going to take the eighth edition standing on its own.

Setup

To start the game in Wiz-War, each player gets a wizard and a sector board. A sector board is a 5 x 5 square section of a labyrinth, with exits in the middle of each edge. These sector boards are combined together to form the play area, with each wizard starting at the center of his or her board (a big square for four players, an “L” for three players, and just a line for 2 players). The sector boards are not identical, so while you get to pick your wizard, the color you get (which dictates your sector board) is random. Portals are set up at some of the exterior exits from the sector boards (see below for more on that). Each player’s treasures go on specific spots on the sector board, and each player gets a life counter that starts at 15.

There’s also a communal deck of spell and item cards. There are certain basic cards (cantrips) that are used in every game. Then there are six schools of magic, of which three are used each game – alchemy (magic gemstones), conjuring (tend to summon objects into the labyrinth), elemental (more damage effects than other schools), mentalism (card draw, discard, card theft, lots of spells worth a small amount of energy), mutation (transformations are here), and thaumaturgy (versatile selection, high energy). Which three schools are used can be random, group’s choice, or players taking turns choosing. Each player starts with a hand of five cards.

Winning

A player wins when he or she gets two points. Points are earned when you kill another wizard or when you have another wizard’s treasure on your home base (the starting space in the center of your sector board). Points for killing stay around forever, but points for treasure-stealing are lost if another wizards liberates the treasure from your home base.

The Turn

First up in the turn is “time passes” (sounds exciting, eh?). This is when all effects with duration count the duration down, and if the duration runs out, the spell is discarded. This is also when any effects that trigger once per turn happen.

The meat of the game is the “move and cast” phase. Each player can move up to three squares on the board (plus additional movement equal to the energy value of a discarded card), make one attack, and use any number of non-attack cards from hand. In addition to cards, a wizard can punch another wizard in the same or an adjacent space for one damage (random note: I originally wrote “punch” in quotation marks, but went back and checked and it actually is called punching in the rules; great light flavor). These actions can be done in any order.

Wizards can not only move from square to square, but can go out an exterior exit of a sector and pop into another sector. This can either mean going pac-man on the labyrinth (exiting to the right/left and walking back in the other way), or entering a portal and coming out the other end. The portals basically work the same as the pac-man travel, except they take swap sides so that (for example) there’s a direct route from the top left sector to the bottom right sector (if everything was pac-man movement, then non-adjacent sectors would get relatively little interaction).

This is also the phase where a wizard can pick up a treasure. Picking up a treasure ends the move and cast phase.

Last is the “discard and draw” phase. The player may discard any number of cards from hand, and then may draw up to two cards, so long as this does not take the player’s hand over the maximum hand size (default of seven).

The Cards (aka, the cast part of the move and cast phase)

There are five formal categories of cards – attack spells, neutral spells, counter spells, items, and energy. Everything that isn’t a counter spell can only be played on your turn. Attack spells (gasp!) take up your attack for the turn. Neutral spells don’t. Items go into play to indicate they are being carried (carried items count towards your hand size). Counter spells can be played on other players’ turns, and typically respond to another spell by canceling it, or at least having a chance of doing so.

Energy cards and some other spells have energy values. In addition to boosting movement, these energy cards can be used to fuel specified spells. The commonly increase range, duration of maintained spells (which go into play and count towards your maximum hand size), or damage – these spells sometimes default to one square/turn/damage if not powered, but sometimes have values like 2 + the number discarded (if any).

There’s some iconography on the cards. There are four ranges (self-targeting, adjacent, line-of-sight, anywhere), each with an icon, and each spell will have one (or more) of these. Spells also have icons for duration – instant, temporary, permanent.

Cards can have a wide array of effects – knocking down or creating walls, unlocking or creating doors, dealing damage, moving treasure, blocking movement, rotating sectors, drawing cards, stealing cards, transforming wizards, flooding the dungeon, destroying items, throwing items, and weapons for better repeat-use attacks.

Components

With a couple of provisos, I really like the Wiz-War component set (not a surprise for FFG, I know). First is the wizard pieces themselves. In a game with four players and four wizards, you might expect to get four differently-colored plastic versions of the same sculpt. But FFG throws four very different sculpts in Wiz-War, and then you plug the wizard figure into a colored base. When you use a transformation spell, this then lets you pull your normal wizard sculpt out of the base, and plug in a sculpt representing the werewolf/slime/whatever you’ve transformed into (while still keeping your color marker). The bases also have a slot to slide a carried treasure into, which his really handy.

These four wizards also carry through into the card art, where they tend to feature on different sorts of spells. We really liked this. We also really liked the two different art sizes for the cards – cards with small text got big art, cards with big text get small art. Variable art size is much preferable to just getting micro-text and the normal art size.

The cards were, however, the biggest downside of the components. They were not very high quality for a game that’s going to require shuffling half the cards every game. The cards were flimsy enough that they got marked up just from flopping around inside the box. Which would be the other downside of the components – I like a nice insert with slots for card decks and other components. I don’t like everything just sloshing around in there (yes, I’m aware that I can do various custom things at home, but I prefer not to have to).

There are also scads of sturdy tokens in the game. When you drop a bag of tacks on the ground in the labyrinth, there’s a tack token. When you fill a square with thornbushes, there’s a thornbush token. The rules let you drop carried item cards, so there’s a token for every single one of those too. It makes for a lot of tokens to sift through to find the right one, but it’s rather nice. There are also tokens to help mark your ongoing spells with which enemy wizard you are affecting with them.

The sector boards, life trackers, treasure markers, portals, and all that were (like the tokens) also sturdy and attractive (to the extent you can make them, anyway – not a lot of ways to sexy up a treasure chest marker, after all). There’s also a single d4 that’s used for some cards.

There’s a rulebook of course. I was taught this one and didn’t have to pick it up straight from the rules, so I can’t personally comment on how well-written they are for that purpose (although I have seen positive opinions of the rules). Note that, for a game that’s pretty light at the end, the rules are pretty detailed (spell range, line-of-sight, canceling rules, movement, damage, etc.).

The rules also contain a variety of options, including enough to let you play classic Wiz-War (the rulebook tells you which combination of options makes up the classic game), and the sector boards have a classic flipside as well. We did not play with the variants.

Opinions

Basic specs: Wiz-War plays from 2-4 players, but is best with 4, and it doesn’t seem like it would be that create as a one-on-one duel, although we didn’t actually play it that way. I think the listed playtime was 60 minutes, but we never had a game take anywhere resembling that long (I don’t think we went over 30 minutes).

Wiz-War is fast and chaotic. The game state will swing wildly from turn to turn, and a lot of cards have big effects. The game has a strong theme, including cards that feel like they were top-down designs – that is, the design started from “what would a back of tacks do?” rather than “we have this effect, maybe we can concept it as a bag of tacks.” Pulling off big multi-card combos can just be cool (especially when they involve rotating an entire sector board). If blitzing a labyrinth throwing random crazy spells around while never knowing where things will stand on your next turn is your idea of fun, and then Wiz-War is probably a good game for you.

The biggest “flaw” in Wiz-War, at least as compared to what it feels like the game is aiming for, is that the actual combat is relatively unimportant. The game is quick enough, and health high enough, that death was never really a possibility. Being able to discard a 5 energy to move 8 squares to get to a treasure, and then next turn being able to walk through walls to get back to your home base to drop it off, were way more important than tagging someone for three damage (it doesn’t help that the targeted damage spells are vulnerable to many more counter spells). If you’re specifically looking for a game of wizard combat, that’s probably going to be a problem for you. If you’re not, then it’s more of an issue of the game missing its mark by a bit, and the plain old damage dealing cards will just be the ones that you hope not to draw.

For me, there was a bit of a dichotomy in how much to think when playing Wiz-War. On the one hand, long-term strategic planning is an exercise in futility – things can change so much from turn to turn that any sort of strategy other than “maybe try to get over there and get that treasure at some point” is probably unhelpful. On the other hand, on any given turn, you may have a lot of real tactical options about what to do on that turn. I think that really enjoying this game involves rather letting go of that level of tactical though. I had a hard time doing so, however.

That wasn’t really an issue for the rest of our group, however, although they did have various minor quibbles with exactly how different things were implemented – the biggest one being that they wished you couldn’t get quite so much movement so easily off of energy cards. This ties back into the general point I discussed above – movement is much more important than dealing damage.

So this brings me back to the ambivalence from my quick take. When I started my first game of Wiz-War, the first thing that happened was that someone got to look at and steal two cards out of my hand, and (especially coming from a heavy card game background where card advantage is king and where that kind of effect would be game-breaking) immediately commenced with some eye-rolling. And when we finished the session with a quick game of me just crushing with a bunch of good movement and disruption cards, I was thinking that I had no interest in playing this again.

But then, as the day went by, and later we did our audio review, I started to look back more fondly on our games. And maybe I just needed to be a bit more loosey-goosey and I would have had more fun. Especially because those games we played made for great stories. I could sit here and rattle off every move I made during that last game, and that was six days ago. I may enjoy something like Lords of Waterdeep or Through the Ages, but it doesn’t have that same kind of memorable. A big part of this, I imagine, is the strong theme.

So, hopefully, even though I’m not really sure what I think about Wiz-War right now, the reasons why I’m on the fence will help you figure out which side of the fence you’d be on.

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