Sunday, 22 July 2007

Wizard Duels

In the spirit of the Harry Potter book release, we played some games with wizards and spells this weekend.

The ability to smack an opponent with some random chaos from across the board has always been a hallmark of Ameritrash games. Lots of people hate that aspect of AT games with a firey passion. For others it's the best part of the game. It is so good, in fact, why not do away with all the other extraneous aspects of a the game, and just have an all out wizard smack down? I bring you two of the more recent offerings in a long line of wizard duels, from Flux to M:tG.

Lord of the Rings: The Duel

Gandalf encounters the Bolrog in the under mountain Caves of Moria. The result is a fantastic duel of their magical powers on a small bridge over a deep chasm.

Hey cool, a magic duel. It's a two player game. It has a nifty 3-D bridge. It's one of the most exciting scenes of the books. It's got Gandalf. It's gonna be great! Well, it isn't great, but it doesn't suck. The Duel is essentially a card game. The 3-D board is just a fancy way to keep score, you don't actually play on it. You could play the game without the board, if the scoring was a little less quirky.

The battle resolution is actually somewhat interesting. Each player receives their own deck of cards. Along the right and left sides of the battle cards are four spaces, some of which contain a "magic symbol," some of which are blank. The right side of the card is the attack. The left side is the defense. Players alternate laying down cards next to the card previously played by their opponent. A spot where there is a symbol on both the attacker's and the defender's card is a successful block. A spot where the attacker has a symbol and the defender doesn't is a hit.

Above you see that Gandalf makes a three dot attack. The Balrog defends with three diamonds, blocking two of Gandalf's dots, and taking one hit. The Balrog makes a two diamond attack. Gandalf blocks one and takes one hit.

You play four rounds of 18 cards. After each round you determine how many steps you get to move up or down on the bridge. Who ever is on the highest step at the end of the game wins. About half way through the second round, I forgot that I was in the middle of a "magic duel" - a battle of life and death between a great wizard and a terrifying monster. I was sitting in silence, staring at my hand as I played an abstract game of match the dots...

I take it back. This game does suck. I want that m****r f*****g Bolrog to burn. I want to throw his ass off that bridge. I want the catharsis of Gandalf triumphing, and to finally get over the trauma of the first time my father read "He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss.' Fly, you fools!' he cried, and was gone."

So, cool bridge, interesting battle mechanic, but ultimately a dry, abstract disappointment.

Harry Potter Trading Card Game

Welcome to Hogwarts! With the Harry Potter trading card game, you join the other new wizards at school in a duel. Then you summon creatures, use magical potions and cast spells to make their cards disappear first. If you do that, you win.

Looks cute. The kids around here spend a great deal of free time dressed in their Hogwarts Halloween costumes, speaking pseudo latin and waving sticks at things. Here's a way for them to play without putting someone's eye out. So I pulled out a couple of decks and played a round with one of the kids. It's been called "baby" Magic the Gathering. You build your own deck, which is made up of Lessons, Spells, Items and Creature cards.

You must have a certain number of lesson cards in play to play spells and summon creatures. The creatures do damage to your opponent, the spells can either do damage or help you in one way or another. You get the idea. It's fairly simple, it's a kid's game, but I'll be damned if it wasn't a hell of a lot of fun. We were summoning snakes and unicorns, casting spells, and yelling "Incendio" and "Stupefy" at each other. I didn't want to give up my deck to the kid who was waiting to play. A couple of adults came to watch and wanted their turn to play. I'm going to have to sit down and make up a few more decks.

Notice I didn't explain the game by saying you play cards with a numeric value whose suits match the suit of the lesson cards in play. These cards subtract the number of points indicated on the card, from your opponent. No, I said that we summoned creatures and cast spells, because that is what it felt like. The theme and the game play were tight.

So, Harry Potter TCG - fast playing fun with lots of flavor.

Here we have two games, that, when deconstructed down to their most abstract form, are quite similar . Each player has their own deck of cards. You play cards which subtract points from your opponent, or prevent your opponent from subtracting points from you. Why did one bore me, while the other amused me? A year ago, I wouldn't have thought too hard about it. My assessment of the two games would have been The Duel = bored now, put nasty game at bottom of game chest. Harry Patter TCG = spell-casting-goodness, put in pretty box on shelf. Beer now.

However, that was before F:AT. As I have said before, for me the most important contribution of the on going discussion of AT games is not the classification of games, but the introduction, and legitimization of new rulers by which to measure games. So I pulled out what I have now identified as my most important ruler : the ability to create narrative. Harry Potter measures up, The Duel not so much. Why? Really, the games are so similar. It's all just addition and subtraction. It would be easy to reduce the Harry Potter cards down to dots and symbols like the Duel cards... but ...they're not symbols. The Harry Potter cards have text. They have FLAVOR TEXT. There are no dots, and arrows and symbols. These cards are not language independent.

I almost called language independence, flavor text's evil twin, but that's not really fair. Language independence has many fine qualities; however I'll leave the lecture on the economics of game publishing and the purity of abstract puzzle solving to Professor Euro.
Evil language independent hieroglyphics. What the hell does this shit mean?

When I open a box for the first time and see those hieroglyphics, I groan inside. Now I have to learn a whole new language of pragmatic symbols, and none of them will translate into anything exciting or poetic or funny. In a language independent game there will be no heroic leaps, or fire balls, no "Horror at Groundbreaking" not even any "Go directly to jail." Instead people will be saying things like, "I'm going to shovel a circle," and "Any one got feet, we need feet?" I'll have to ask to see the rule book again to look up exactly what all the little arrows and pictures of Vienna Sausages mean, which pretty much negates any sense of immersion in theme.

However, when I open a box and see cards with lots of text, especially completely superfluous text in italics, I sigh with contentment. The designer wants to create narrative, and has provided the text for us. We just have to fill in the gaps with our choices and sometimes a die roll or two. It is so much more amusing to summon a Surly Hound, or transform a Raven into a Writing desk, than it is to play 3 dots against your opponent. Maybe, instead of banishing The Duel to the bottom of the game chest, I'll deface the cards with the names or appropriate spells and maneuvers. I have a friend who is a writer and has really good penmanship.

I know that many players ignores the flavor text in their rush to speed up the game. What's the hurry? I suspect these people say things like "I pick yellow," rather than "Mr. Fantastic transforms into a big bouncing ball." I'm certain that they never jump up on their chair, point at you menacingly and shout "Incendio," before slapping their card on the table.


Hancock.Tom said...

The first image made me spit water all over my screen. Hilarious.

Rliyen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rliyen said...

Excellent write up. As for the first game, the only thing that came to mind was, "Double or Nothing meets the bridge of Kazad Dum." The card mechanics are similar to the point of being unoriginal. Even using actual GW LOTR miniatures in the place of the Gandalf and Balrog meeples would be like putting lipstick on a pig.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, would be a game that I would be willing to try if someone had a deck to loan me. I liked the books (just picked up the last one today), but as for playing a game on it? *Shrug* I'll live if I don't. Any further comments on said game I leave to Penny Arcade:

Mr Skeletor said...

So has anyone read book 7 yet? Is it anywhere near as retarded as book 6 was?

StephenAvery said...

Good call Ubarose. I hate to see the most exciting part the series reduced to a staring match on a walkway. Where are the crumbling stones...where is the Fireball?!

There have been a bunch of games made about wizard duels though and I'll bet there are some old gems that I haven't played. Anyone have a favorite? Currently I'm tring to track down a copy of "Mystic War" and would like to try "City of Sorcerers". So Does any one out there have a favorite magic dueling game (aside from the obvious of course) ?

Mr Skeletor said...

Not quite a boardgame but a 2 player gamebook called "Challenge of the Magi." Each player choses one of 6 types of mages (a necromancer (evil black magic), a pyromancer (Red fire magic), a sorcerror (Blue illusion magic), a druid (Green nature magic), a white mage (good holy magic) or a wizard (gets a combination of all.) Plyers then rand around a multidimentional plane having adventures and powering up while trying to locate their opponent to battle them. Last wizard standing wins.

vialiy said...

I never played it, but the French game Shazamm! features opposing wizards on a bridge and playing spell cards.

Ken B. said...

Harry Potter. Pffft.

Did you know that the name of the Star Destroyer that pursues the Millenium Falcon is called Avenger?

mtlawson said...

Man, that first image was great.

Oh, and the rest of it wasn't so bad, either. ;-)

--Mike L.

Booder98 said...

"Any one got feet, we need feet?"

That was always my problem with the co-op LotR game: a lot of people at my gaming club love it, but it doesn't seem the least bit evocative to me. I sat and watched a 20-minute turn once, lost as to how _anyone_ at the table could have thought that this was any fun at all.

As for wizard dueling, it's hard to beat the oldie but goodie, M:tG. It carries a lot of extra baggage these days, but it's still a pretty awesome game at its heart.

Shellhead said...

Wiz War is the ultimate board game for simulating a wizard's duel. Sure, it's out of print right now, but that's after seven editions sold out. I downloaded my print & play copy of Wiz War from links Wiz War at BGG and used label paper and old Burning Sands cards for the backing. Wiz War is clearly the main influence on Richard Garfield's Magic: the Gathering. I also believe that Dungeon Twister borrowed some major ideas from Wiz War.

Each player controls a wizard. Each player is defending two treasure chests while trying to steal two treasure chests from the other players. Alternatively, you can just win by killing the other wizards.

The map is made up of maze squares, one per player. During the course of a typical game, players will be summoning monsters to attack their enemies, setting traps, knocking down walls and even creating new walls, all in an effort to out-manuever their enemies.

No other game that I have ever played has captured the idea of a battle between wizards so well. The large, random deck of spell cards can be frustrating, but the seven-card handsize prevents excessive analysis paralysis and forces players to figure out creative card combos and tactics to win the game. The more players you get, the more chaotic the game becomes, which I love. Although the print & play version scales up to 12 players, the biggest game I played in was 6 players, and that went a little slow. Still, absolutely a great game for 2-4 players.

ubarose said...

I agree with Shellhead that WIZ WAR is the ultimate wizard duel board game. I guess I just assume all ATers have played it, because despite it going in and out of print, it is such a classic.

I only play M:tG if someone invites me to play with them and hands me a deck. As booder98 says, it carries a lot of baggage as well as cost. Plus, the game feels as if it is as much in the deck building, not in the actual face to face play. Deck building for me is a dull solitary activity.

I have always suspected that Richard Garfield must have played FLUX and decided to fix it. It is an old wizard duel game that sounds good in theory, but is so bad that Toad & Troll sells it for about only $30, despite the fact that it has been OOP for at least 15 years. In FLUX, wizards create "lands" and then use the "flux" generated from their lands to summon creatures.

With regards to the Harry Potter TCG, I should say that it is not a game that is so awesome that I would recommend you run out and buy it. However, if someone has it and suggests it as a quick 15 minute filler, it's worth a try. It was worth owning it for me because I have kids and grandparents that need to be kept entertained. Plus, it cost me a total of $10 for a starter deck and two boxes of boosters, which is enough to construct 4 decks. I was surprised that the game was actually fun, and plan on keeping a couple of decks on hand as a quick filler for adults. It sure beats TRANSAMERICA.

Ken B. said...

There is a game at the local bookstore called "Spellcaster". From what I understand, it is a 1-on-1 wizards' duel using an abstract map.

The problem is that it comes with two miniatures, a couple of player sheets, the (I believe unmounted) board, and instructions...for $39.95.

It sort of sounds interesting, but only one person on BGG has given comments on it, and it isn't good. I probably would've bought it if it were $20; for $40, that's highway robbery.

Ken B. said...

I should add that they've had this copy of the game for at least 3 years or more..."clearance" comes to mind, but I don't think they believe in that.

MWChapel said...

Everybody dies. The end.

StephenAvery said...

BTW, i heard that wizwar is getting reprinted (8th Ed.) This was of course right after I started assembling my own set...

~Steve "High Exaulted One Puddin" Avery~

ubarose said...

Booder98 said...
"Any one got feet, we need feet?"

That was always my problem with the co-op LotR game: a lot of people at my gaming club love it, but it doesn't seem the least bit evocative to me.

Symbols and numbers simply aren't evocative. Imagine playing an adventure game or a dungeon crawl where instead of getting a chainsaw or broadsword, you got a card with a melee symbol and a +2. Imagine Arkham Horror with no flavor text. Instead of going to the library and reading a book which makes you go a little insane, you would just get a card with the symbols and numbers indicating you needed to make a will check. Boring.

I have been wondering how many games that I find a bit dull, would be more enjoyable with the addition of a bit of text. What if the symbols on the paths in LOTR had a bit of description as well? For example, the name of the battle on the sword spaces. What if the cards had a bit of flavor text?

Ken B. said...

I think they did that to maintain language independance (same deal with The Duel).

Most of the cards are evocative of theme if you just take a second to look at them. The Fellowship members provide huge bursts of fighting prowress. Gollum can show you a shortcut...but he will likely betray you in the end. On Shelob's board, note where the two die rolls are--right beneath Shelob--and also note how the game encourages Sam to be the one to deal with her...just like the novel.

I could go on and on about how well the theme is realized in LOTR, just not in a way that beats you over the head with it.

Shellhead said...

Our group used to include this guy who didn't read the flavor text on his Arkham Horror encounter cards outloud. He would quietly read the card, make a mysterious die roll, and then announce that he had just lost one sanity or gained a spell or whatever. We dropped him from our group for being boring and for not reading those cards out loud even after we asked on multiple occasions.

Thaadd said...

I played AH with one person who did that 'Quickly play the game by efficiently doing what the cards say' technique.

She unbent, and played as we asked with flavour text, but man - I never want to play with her normal group. Sure, the game is under 2 hours - but why bother?

ubarose said...

Ken B. said...
I think they did that to maintain language independance (same deal with The Duel).

Most of the cards are evocative of theme if you just take a second to look at them. The Fellowship members provide huge bursts of fighting prowress. Gollum can show you a shortcut...but he will likely betray you in the end. On Shelob's board, note where the two die rolls are--right beneath Shelob--and also note how the game encourages Sam to be the one to deal with her...just like the novel.

I completely agree with you. I also know that language independence has made games more widely available at more reasonable prices. However, everything has costs and promises. The cost for games like LOTR and the Duel is that if you aren't a fan who has memorized the books, it is easy for the game to lapse into abstraction. On the other hand, I believe that those of us who read the flavor text are in the minority, and the majority of gamers aren't bothered by abstraction, so it makes economic sense to eliminate any text that is not absolutely necessary for game play. I still keep threatening to deface my copy of LOTR with a little narrative on the board to remind us why we are playing and what events we are symbolically recreating.

Ken B. said...

Well, thankfully each Event is labeled, so that helps. They could've gone TOTALLY language independant.

Just imagine:

^ 5 (shield icon) != ***


vandemonium said...

Great article Uba! I was utterly surprised by your inclusion of the HP CCG. I'll have to go back and take another look at it. Interesting.

The picture at the start is an instant classic. Love it!

ubarose said...

shellhead & thaadd

When we play ARKHAM HORROR, another player picks your card and reads it to you, so when you make a check, you don't know what is going to happen as a result. It adds some tension and excitement. There are several cards where if you pass a check you receive a reward, but if you fail, nothing happens. It's funny when someone fails a check and is expecting dire consequences, and nothing happens.

Casey said...

That sounds like a fun way to play AH. I'll have to try that out next time.

Shellhead said...


I have to admit that we used to play AH that way, but with all the expansions, we are now losing about 2/3 of the time. So we hate to see somebody waste clue tokens on an uninformed decision. Some of our players like to read their own cards aloud, others let me do my dramatic readings of the Arkham events.

Michael Barnes said...

On AH- Oh man, I hate those people who read the AH cards to themselves...that completely defeats the purpose of the game. Those are likely the same people who bitch about the game on the internet. I played once with some people who did that and I just about flipped the table. I imagine those guys' reading the cards in their mind- "Blah blah blah make a Lore (-2) check blah blah get a spell card". It really shows how so many boardgamers don't have a LICK of imagination.

On Harry Potter- if anything, I think seeing favorable comments and recommendations such as the HARRY POTTER CCG shows how much more inclusive we are here at F:AT...I can think of at least one other site where talking about CCGs, let alone licensed CCGs, just isn't the done thing. Oh, and I can't believe Vader turned out to be Harry's dad, let alone that Hermione was his sister. That's fucked up. And who knew that Ron Weasley was a dead woman all along? Crazy!

On WIZ WAR- I used to LOVE WIZ WAR and it was just last year that I finally got around to trading for another copy with the expansion. Playing it for the first time in some ten years, I was surprised at how it just hasn't held up. It wasn't fun, it was tedious, dull, and frustrating. But that's kind of how it goes with WIZ WAR- some games are amazing, featuring lots of back-and-forth, bad behavior, and awesome turns of events. But then just as mean are pointless, with one player stuck punching a wall for 20 turns or randomly moving around without much to do other than to wait for useful cards. It's a clumsy design that has some great ideas, I just can't imagine playing it regularly these days.

ubarose said...

Yes WIZ WAR is flawed, but there just isn't much that it is good in the way of magic duels out there, in print. Either wizards have gone out of style, or maybe designers and publishers are thinking M:tG is the definitive magic duel game, so why bother. I think that is part of the reason why I felt the Harry Potter Game was worth a mention. Sometimes I look over the stock of a game store and get that same feeling as when you stare into a full fridge and can't find anything to eat, so you settle for a bit of toast and jam.

Michael Barnes said...

Blame it on Euros...the whole LOTR/Harry Potter phenom really hit its stride when Euros were really at their peak and that's really unfortunate because it was a perfect time to get kids into those things into hobby games with similar themes and concepts. Now that's waned (even though Pottermania is at a fever pitch)and the AT re-emergence is just a little too late to catch 'em. Kids were walking into game stores back then and buying the CCGs and such that had those licenses...and right by the board games that had pictures of old European burgomeisters on them.

Online pharmacy reviews said...

I would be willing to try if someone had a deck to loan me. I liked the books (just picked up the last one today), but as for playing a game on it? *Shrug* I'll live if I don't.

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