Wiz-War and the Monumental Task of Updating Games

Roughly eight to ten years ago, Fantasy Flight was known for reprinting classic experiential games like Merchant of Venus, Dungeonquest, Talisman, and Cosmic Encounter. Of course they were also known for bungling those reprints. To be sure, there were some missteps. Their original reprint of Dungeonquest integrated a cumbersome combat system totally at odds with the breezy stupidity of the old-school dungeon crawl absurdity. The height of this absurdity was their reprint of Merchant of Venus, which through a mangled wreck of rights ambiguities, included both the original classic game and a totally redesigned version.

While the criticism was partially justified, I can’t help but think that in hindsight, it was a tad unfair. For my own part, Fantasy Flight served as my introduction to almost all of my favorite games. Cosmic Encounter, Talisman, and Merchant of Venus are all among my most beloved designs, and that can largely be credited to the handsome reprint jobs done by Fantasy Flight. The most grievous changes were almost always presented as optional (Merchant of Venus), purely cosmetic (Nexus Ops), or later corrected (Dungeonquest). I reflected on this as I taught my oldest son Wiz-War, the classic from designer Tom Jolly, itself reprinted by FFG in 2012.

I’ve written a number of times about Wiz-War. At its core it’s a classic take-that game where wizards do battle in a magical labyrinth. There are two ways to win: either be the last wizard standing, or steal two treasures from your opponents. You do battle with a deck of cards, all representing different spells. In the past this was done with cheap cardboard components and cards with only text. For FFG’s eighth edition, there were fancy plastic miniatures and nicely illustrated cards, but the overall effect is to my knowledge basically the same.

The minis is my copy look even nicer, because I painted them.

It would be disingenuous of me to compare the FFG version to earlier ones, since I have never played the game in any other form. I know a lot of old fans who took issue with some changes, such as card wording that affected timing or went against previous convention. Personally I’ve never had many issues with this ambiguity, but then I don’t actually know better. But other changes are more noticeable. Most of these are in the back of the original rulebook, so that players who want to can reverse-engineer something resembling the original game. Early on I rejected all the new rule changes, and it saved the game from the trade pile for me.

Overall I think this was the right call, but as I’ve played with my son I’ve started to see some of the wisdom of Fantasy Flight’s changes. The first one was how the deck itself was constructed. In past editions, all of the cards were in one big stack. But as FFG added expansions the number of cards nearly doubled. From the beginning, they introduced a mechanic called “Schools of Magic,” where the cards were divided into little 24-card packets arranged kinda-sorta thematically. Players would select a few of them each game, and leave the rest out. This was continued in the expansions, but I threw them all in the same giant deck. But after doing this for literally years, it felt like the game was starting to bog down too frequently. Not only that, but they didn’t have a lot of personality from session to session. Re-introducing the Schools of Magic created a much more focused experience. There are far fewer mechanical elements, but those elements are much more pronounced, making the whole thing more compelling and a bit more fast-paced. The variety from game to game has also gone way up.

Another big change involved the victory conditions. FFG introduced a system of victory points, where you get one point for either killing another wizard or stealing a treasure, rather than making it a duel to the bitter end. This is one of those shorter games where I think player elimination is actually a better fit, but as the player count goes up to five (with an expansion) the VP system begins to make a bit more sense. It makes for a shorter game, and it does create a different experience from the original game, but it’s not one that I think is unfaithful. To me Wiz-War always resembled Mario Kart more than, say, Starcraft. It’s a game of finding momentary advantages, not long battles of attrition. With lower player counts, it’s less necessary, but I’ll never play with five players any other way.

My son beat me in our first game. Now the circle is complete.

This whole process of bouncing between different variants to get a game to work perfectly has made me think about how we talk about reprints. I’ve now been in this hobby long enough to see games that I loved in their original form get reprinted with slight tweaks, and it can be a disorienting feeling. Game design is a holistic pursuit, and even slight changes can have unintended consequences to a design. When I see a new version of something like, say, Citadels show up, I am immediately defensive. I know that any change will result in something that is just a bit unfamiliar to me, and that’s not what I want.

This defensiveness can even extend to how I approach reprints of games I’ve never actually played. I’m a great lover of history, particularly board gaming history, and I want something “authentic,” as if there’s a moral imperative to play games as they have always been. But that betrays a bit of possessiveness on my part. Precious few games can ever exist without any changes at all, and so much art requires its original context to fully make sense. I admire the attempts to recontextualize old games to make sense to modern gamers. What a thankless task that must be. Not all changes are good, and some are catastrophic, but there are still new fans created. That’s how you grow the hobby while keeping it connected to its roots.

Fantasy Flight Games is today a very different company than the one that reprinted Wiz-War. Indeed, Wiz-War is now out of print, though I doubt it will stay that way for long. But I still want to take a moment to thank those tireless fans who work, through their craft, to explain to new players why the games they love are still relevant. So thank you to Fantasy Flight Games, Restoration Games, Stronghold Games, and any other publisher who is trying to recontextualize a game for a new age. It’s through the work of people like you that I have discovered the board games that have spoken to me in their own way. That is quite an accomplishment, and I will always be thankful.