Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Board Game Review - Wizard Kings

I have to do penance. Horrible, painful penance. Because I have done the thing that makes reviewers everywhere look like greedy douchebags - I asked for a game, got it in the mail, and never reviewed it. For, like, eight years or something. To express my shame, I will force myself to live with pygmy goats and eat only frozen waffles.

Eight years ago (give or take two or three) I requested a copy of Columbia Games' Wizard Kings. It looks cool, with a built-in fog-of-war element made possible by hidden blocks and a fantasy theme and geomorphic boards, and so I was thrilled when they sent it to me. Not thrilled enough to play it, I guess, because not only did I forget to review the game, I forgot I ever got one. I was reminded when, in a fit of unjustifiable stupidity, I asked for a copy - again. This was six months ago, and they reminded me that they had already sent me the game. So I went to look for the review, and it's not there. I never wrote it.

So I bought another one. And I have to say, I kind of wish I hadn't asked for it eight years ago. After receiving a review copy, then not writing about it, then forgetting I ever got it, I really want to write a positive review to make up for all that. But I can't, because I really don't like this game at all. I feel so bad that I'm going to have to wear a hairnet made of stinging earwigs.

Wizard Kings really does look like it has a lot of potential. It comes with seven different armies in one box, and after you finish putting stickers on all the blocks, you could play all kinds of battles with them. There are four different maps in the box, so you can build all different kinds of islands to fight over, and the rules are relatively uncomplicated.

When you start playing, it keeps looking cool. You're trying to take cities from your enemies so that you can win, and there's a lot of maneuvering and positioning and timing your attacks for maximum potency. There are stacking limits and movement limits and special terrain effects, and this makes for a pretty cool setup.

Until you get in a fight. It's all downhill after that.

This seems like it should be pretty cool. You set up, take turns whacking each other with sharp sticks, rolling dice and counting your dead. Only the odds of hitting each other is so ridiculously low with so many of the units in the game that you're practically sitting there watching the dice flip you the bird. We seriously had fight after fight where nobody ever got hurt and then someone had to go home because Mom was calling them for dinner. It was incredibly frustrating - you send a big stack of warriors into the woods to bust a cap into some enemy ass, and then you just take turns rolling dice and cussing.

The thing is, this dice thing is the only problem I have with the game. The maps work great. They could be prettier, but they work great. The blocks are awesome, because you can track unit strength just by turning the block. You can cast spells and shoot fireballs, raise skeletons and summon orcs, and do it all on a blood-soaked field... except that hardly anyone actually gets killed, so the only blood on the field happened when the amazon charmer cuts her legs shaving.

It's really not as bad as I'm making it sound. We did have casualties, every now and then. Not a lot, or anything, and not nearly enough to be satisfying, but once or twice, somebody did die. It just wasn't enough to make the game fun. You maneuver and position and wait for the right moment to strike, then realize that your entire battle plan was based on a bunch of guys who couldn't hit ground if they fell off the roof.

I'm actually kind of considering giving Wizard Kings another try, but just adding one to the combat value for every unit. This would make battles go crazy fast, and probably give too much advantage to the faster guys, but it would at least make the fights end in a body count. Plus, maybe then I would like the game, and I could come out here and go, 'Hey, it turns out, I don't actually mind this game!' And then I could take all the carpet tacks out of my pillow case.


2-7 players (yes, really!)

Cool maps that can be combined to make neat battlegrounds
Clever use of blocks means you can track changing stats without any kind of accounting
Mostly a pretty good game

Any pros are completely negated by the dice mechanic that ends in pacifism

If you want to give this one a whirl, you can get it from Columbia Game:


Christopher said...

I have played dozens of games of Wizard Kings, and cannot recall a single instance where battles were not replete with blood, casualties and tough decisions about who lives and who dies. In my experience, this is a brutal game.

I am playing the original version, with rules version 1.5 and have old and new unit blocks for all the races, if that makes a difference.

I love this game, and only play time and a lack of theme-interested opponents prevent it being played more. WAR and FANTASY detractors both leave themselves out of playing it, so there are only a few chances every couple years for me to find someone to get on board. The other person always has fun, though.

Matt Drake said...

Honestly, I am completely willing to believe you. It may just be that we were using the wrong armies. Maybe we just needed to be better at it. But I'm not making this up - we had many, many battles that made it look like our guys all showed up with foam-wrapped larper swords.

If you're going to BGG Con, maybe we can carve out some time and you can show me where I went wrong.

Christopher said...

The image of combat you painted was terrifically funny. I admit that I use older rules sets, but I read the 2.0 version that is current, and it looks the same with regard to combat.

The only things I would guess are:
1.). You bought lots of junk troops (hit on ones) instead of more expensive troops or mercenaries. Not a bad strategy, but the battles (intentionally) take longer as you have bulletstoppers (arrowstoppers) by design.
2.). Your rolls just flat out blew chunks.
3.). Your expectations were different. I expected Axis & Allies-style diced combat, and got that. I had also already played Hammer of the Scots, so I knew what I was getting into.

The weakness of Wizard Kings, to me, is that it's still more of a game kit then a full game. I enjoy it most when I mentally graft it on to my old D&D world from when I was a kid, and make it the game I wish existed back then. In and of itself, it offers very little in the way of narrative, which is odd for a fantasy game.

I appreciate the invitation, but I will sadly not be at BGG Con. A rain check for another time?

Neva said...

I've tried that game before and its really fun and fantastic.

Matt Drake said...

I am seriously glad to hear that, Neva. I don't know what I missed, and it's nice to know other people like it. Thanks for your comment - I hope more people chime in.