Friday, May 25, 2012

Board Game Review - Wiz War

A long time ago (well, it feels long to me), when my wife and I were kind of broke and lived in a crappy house in the country because the rent was low, we used to play a lot of games. It's a shockingly affordable form of entertainment, especially if you play the same game a bunch of times and don't feel a need to buy new games all the time. We played a ridiculous amount of D&D, which was funny because before she married me, she wouldn't have been caught dead holding a twenty-sided die, and then after we got married and I converted her to the gaming, she used to pester me to go down to this amazing game store in Orlando and buy used modules so we could play some more.

Anyway, this is not a review of D&D, which is probably good because my stance on that game has changed dramatically in 20 years. This is a review of a different game we played a lot. It came in a flat cardboard box with art that was campy and unprofessional, brown cardboard tiles, paper standups, and horribly cheap cards. We played that copy of Wiz War so often that every piece was frayed and gray at the corners, and there were a bunch of strange things in the box that had no business being there, like a button and a penny and a diaper pin. It was wildly chaotic and not particularly strategic, but we killed a lot of nights eating cheap food and hurling fireballs at each other while our children were neglected and forced to fend for themselves against the rats and cockroaches that made their homes in their cribs (just kidding, we were not that poor. The rats and roaches had their own cribs).

I haven't owned that old, battered copy of Wiz War for a long time. We lost it in one of the several moves we made over the course of the next few years, but I still had fond memories of stealing my wife's stuff and then turning into a werewolf so that I could rip off her limbs. Ah, nostalgia. So then Fantasy Flight comes along and reprints the game, and I admit to being hesitant to even try it.

See, nostalgic games are like movies you loved when you were a kid. Remember Clash of the Titans? It was stone-cold EPIC when I was a kid, exciting and magical and thrilling. I saw it last year on Netflix, and all I could do was laugh the whole time and make jokes. It's actually bad enough that it could have been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Games are like that, too - something you adored twenty years ago might be actual crap when you try it again.

But at the same time, I was really curious to see how it worked, to see if it could stand up to the memories. So I scored a copy and sat down to put it through its paces. Then, when it turns out that the game could not actually run at all, since it was an inanimate object and was completely incapable of movement, I went ahead and played it.

First things first - this is a pretty sexy game. Fantasy Flight has done a good job of staying true to the soul of the original, and still updated it to a seriously professional-quality production. The art is a little cartoony, but it's ridiculously good, and the boards are easy to read and very colorful. Where we had cardboard standups for our wizards, now we have sculpted plastic miniatures, and the counters are thick and sturdy and attractive.

The rules are a little lengthy, but unlike most of the games that this company produces, they seem to be quite comprehensive without becoming incredibly confusing. It might help that I read a Universal Head condensed version before I broke out the rules, but it didn't take me long at all to know how to play this one. It's a somewhat telling testament to how many games I've played in the last 20 years that I honestly couldn't remember the first thing about how Wiz War works, even though I played my old copy so many times that we had to tape the corners of the box, and a couple cards were marked because I spilled beer on them (I may have done that on purpose, to know when my wife was going to counter-spell me).

It's pretty simple, really. You have a hand of cards that let you pull off all kinds of nasty tricks, like teleporting or shooting lightning out of your nostrils or taping your opponent to a flagpole just before the first period bell rings. You move, play some cards, and try to either kill your opponents or steal their stuff. But every move you might make could be countered by a card, so there was always the chance that when you shoot electrified cow patties, they might explode in your face, leaving you both unconscious and socially unacceptable. The game is fairly fast, rather violent, and full of plays and counterplays and general unpredictability.

That part I remember. This is still Wiz War, a spell-chucking, bone-thumping festival of screwage that is long on action and short on what my good friend George likes to call strategery. And it's still as much fun as I remember. I was puking up magic walls and running with magical speed and setting unpleasant traps like the green slime they used to dump on the kids on Nickelodeon when I was twelve.

But I do have a bit of a complaint, and this is just pure curmudgeonly old-man speak, like when Dana Carvey would do his 'in my day, we would strap dead bodies to our feet and slide down the hill on bloody corpses!' bit. My overall impression of Wiz War is that they cleaned it up and made it more appealing to modern gamers - but in the process, they somehow managed to remove some of the game's soul. It looks like a million bucks, and it will take a long time before this game becomes as faded and worn as my old copy, but it just doesn't have the same child-like appeal.

Part of the change is that I don't see the same counterplays being as prevalent. It's too straightforward, and one of my favorite things about the old Wiz War was creating elaborate traps that would allow me to reflect my wife's lightning bolt, destroy her counter-spell, and then turn her into a newt before I stole her treasure and ran off laughing. However, I may have just been using the wrong cards - the old Wiz War had a huge stack of spells, and you just pulled them as you played, but the new one has you choose schools of spells with different general effects, and it may be that one of the types is a lot better at the tricky stuff. So it might just be that I played it wrong.

However, the part that I can see, the part that seems to have drained the pure raucous joy out of the game, is exactly the part that will make people buy it. The plastic miniatures are great. The new counters are far more useful and attractive. The boards are an enormous improvement. And I would trade it all for the campy characters, the artless cards, and the flimsy boards that I knew as a younger man. Because for all their lack of polish, those old bits of gaming memory were distilled hilarity.

The new stuff is beautiful, but it'll make you lazy. We used to shop for miniatures we could substitute for our cardboard standups, and we made new spells on some of the blank cards that were in the box. We carved little treasure chests out of lumps of wax, and some of those stray bits of detritus that were in the box were actually markers for explosions and walls and weapons (not the diaper pin, though - that was just there because my kids were babies).

I am glad to have another copy of this classic madcap game. It is still a fun game, and I can see playing it a lot in the years to come. I admit that it's stupid to complain about a game being too pretty, and it's not like the new version of Wiz War has ruined my memories of the old one. This is a very fun, very chaotic, very pretty game, and if I had owned this one fifteen years ago, I would be telling those stories today, instead of reminiscing about cheap cardboard and a broken box.


2-4 players

Fun and fast
A vast improvement in quality
Sure looks good

Wildly random and chaotic as hell
All that polish seems to have rubbed off some of the soul

I got my copy of Wiz War from Noble Knight Games, and if you want to save some money on it, you can too:


Universal Head said...

Cheers for the namecheck! :) Fun game.

Enrique said...

He HAS to name drop UH, otherwise who'll read this filthy blog? Ha ha ha ha, JK, awesome as always. BTW,while recently visiting a close friend, I was, as usual, mmmm, "perusing" his bookshelf, not snooping at all for x rated comic books at all, I found there a small unattractive box like the one you described of WizWar. We haven't played it yet, but I can see the charm in that crappy looking thing. Hope to play it soon! Still will buy the FFG version though, you can't beat sexy!

Michael Shea said...

Interesting that you used to play with this game with two. We found it hard to play the original edition that way. One player would seal the other in a cul-de-sac with a conjured wall and run away with the game. With three or more players the old game was awesome. Some of the weird spell combinations you would get made it so chaotic. "I cast waterspout to smash you into the wall before you fall into the pit full of caltrops!" Making yourself ugly and forcing all the other players to run away from you was also fun.

Anonymous said...

How did Fantasy Flight stay true to the soul of the original while also removing some of it's soul?

Matt Drake said...

There was a lot of charm in that old, ugly box. It lent itself to house rules and customization on a level that is impossible to match with the new one. The new one has basically the same rules, but it lacks that raw kookiness element.

Basically, it's like the difference between a bowl your kid made in high school and one you buy in the store. They do the same thing - hold your spare change and keys - and the new one is a lot nicer, but the homemade one has more raw charm.

Wiz-War said...

I hear you about some of the charm being lost somewhere in translation.

I think that might be one of the reasons why Kevin Wilson was against putting art on the cards so that players were not shoehorned into thinking of the game on FFG's interpretation. Though I think they did a great job on their art and glad to see a departure from the usual copycat of GW centric art direction that they usually slap on their games.

Regardless, I recall playing 1st ed AD&D with that cool Erol Otus artwork and the fare put out nowadays pales in comparison to those great characterful B&W illustrations.

Hopefully FFG will be successful in creating a new class of nostalgia for younger generations to reminisce on in 20 or so years.

While I enjoy the new art style myself, but I can guarantee I would have kicked a few kids in the head in order to get a new Wizwar game with old as hell yet very characterful art design that we saw when we were kids in the late 70's and early 80's. Often campy, but always imaginative.

I guess that was a rather long winded way of saying "Yeah. What Matt Drake said".

Andrew said...

Matt, I just picked up my copy of Wiz-War at Origins. Three buds and I played three games and it was silly, frustrating, frantic fun. I too, am a bit wishy washy about the chrome treatment and can appreciate your fondness of more modest editions. Still, after only three plays my treasure chits are already showing signs of wear and tear. If my copy ever goes through as many plays as your old edition did, I'm positive my chits will look like busted up lottery tickets.