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.

Why You Might Not Like Cosmic Encounter

Cosmic Encounter is the best game I’ve ever played.

I’ve felt that way for over a decade now. It’s everything I want in a board game, a full embrace of what makes board games so special as a medium. It also happens to be one of the most influential board game designs of all time, directly informing genre-defining designs like Dune and Magic: The Gathering, and more niche designs like Citadels and Wiz-War. I’ve never been shy about my love either. I’ve written about it on numerous occasions on other platforms, and I even had a chance to interview one of its designers. It’s the best example of how board games can embrace social interaction, subtly brilliant design, and endless variety into something that still manages to be approachable and fresh with every new game.

But not everyone feels the same way. I’ve had a pretty high success rate introducing it to other players, and I’ve gotten down explaining this huge game to a science. Games may be for everyone, but the truth is that no single game is for everyone. It felt like a gap to not yet have an article on this blog about my favorite game of all time, but rather than simply gushing about it for a couple thousand words I thought it might be interesting to think of reasons why someone might not like Cosmic Encounter very much. I believe that all of these things are true about this wonderful game, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find it enjoyable.

It’s a really social game.
I’ve never played a strategy game that embraces every facet of social interaction in quite the same way Cosmic Encounter does. Lots of games embrace certain kinds of social interaction, whether it’s hardcore negotiation, alliances, cooperation, competition, or deception. But to me what separates Cosmic Encounter from all of them is that you need to be pretty good at all of those things without ever totally committing to any one of them. You certainly can play it as a very cut-throat game, but the situation will often call for a softer touch than that, and open collaboration can be extremely effective. Likewise open honesty can win just as well as deception. There isn’t one sort of social interaction that carries the day. A really good player needs to know how to switch between all of these modes, sometimes from turn to turn.

Without this embrace of these “soft” skills of negotiation, socialization, and collaboration Cosmic Encounter can seem pretty thin. It’s the sort of game that really needs those elements to function well. But the truth is that not everyone likes engaging that way. For some people heavy social interaction is a source of anxiety, and board games represent a way to put some limits on interaction. If you are one of those people, then you might find Cosmic Encounter to be a uniquely irritating game. It’s not just that it is highly interactive, it’s that the kind of interaction can shift quickly.

It’s a chaotic game.
Cosmic Encounter has a lot of mechanics that inject variety into the design. There are the artifacts and flares, cards that can change the game state unexpectedly in myriad ways. There are the vagaries of alliances, which shift every round. Most of all there are aliens, unique powers given to each player at the beginning of the game that allow them to break a specific rule. By themselves, each of these mechanics would make a varied and interesting design, but together they can create a chaotic maelstrom where things change instantly without warning. This represents the sci-fi setting better than anything, where there are always new interactions to discover and bizarre effects that I still haven’t seen before. It truly is a game about the unexplored edges of space.

Rather than attempting to temper this insanity, Cosmic Encounter leans into it. Wild reversals are common, and it can be hard to know what is and isn’t really happening in the game. No gain is permanent, and no setback is truly debilitating. It exists entirely in the moment, not caring much for the future or the past. Powers and card effects can fly fast and furious, and it only amps up with more players. Besides that, it’s just silly. This is a game that is comfortable making the players do zany things like call everyone “sir” and “ma’am,” or permitting a certain player to whine about how badly they are losing. There’s even a card that gives the possessor permission to cheat, and makes it easier if they get caught. It’s a strategic game, but it’s not a very serious one. It is perfectly fine being loony, and if you aren’t this one might really grate on you. It is possible to tune the game by excluding certain cards or limiting the number of players, but even then the game will threaten to go off the rails. New players should definitely be aware of this tendency before diving in.

More than one player can win.
In my experience this might be the single most controversial design choice in Cosmic Encounter. Through a system of alliances and card effects, it is entirely possible that two or more players can win simultaneously. Such shared wins are not really understood as ties, but simply as multiple winners. This is a weird design choice, but it’s also a necessary one. Cosmic Encounter is driven by a hand of cards, and with cards the deal is everything. It’s surprisingly difficult to get new cards too, so a bad deal can be devastating. Shared wins tend to come through negotiation and cooperation, and so they represent an out for players who were dealt a hand of garbage. They also tie back into the myriad forms of social interaction, allowing more non-competitive people to win in a way that they find appealing. If you are the type who plays with big groups, shared wins are also just about the only way to get a victory with six or more players. You really need someone’s help to walk away with a victory at that stage.

As far as I’m concerned this is a feature, not a bug. And for people who don’t like it I don’t get the impression that it’s a deal-breaker (so to speak). But I think a lot of those people can point to endings they found particularly lame, when two people suddenly decide they will win together and no one can stop them. If you are the competitive type, such an ending can be deeply unsatisfying, but to remove the shared win entirely puts the players much more at the mercy of their cards, dooming bad draws to likely defeat. So you’ve been warned.

(Another complaint that I actually have about my favorite game is that the end can happen a little anticlimactically if you aren’t experienced. New players will often find themselves in a situation where things are rolling along and, oh, the game is over I guess. I think Cosmic Encounter is one of those “journey before destination” games, so I’m not including it as a deal-breaker. But it’s definitely there.)

This is from The Walking Dead. It is notable for the shirt, and also for the fact that it looks so much like me it makes me wonder if I’m being followed around.

It’s easy to have a lousy game.
I love Cosmic Encounter, but I will admit that there are a lot of ways it can go wrong. Almost all of these boil down to the alien powers that are in the game. With all of the expansion content released for the current edition, there are lots of them that are, well, kind of lame. Lots of others are riffs on the same basic concept, and still more are only good in specific situations. That last one is, I think, the biggest impediment to having a good experience with Cosmic Encounter. A lot of powers are only good if there are a certain number of players. Still others would be great, were it not for that other power in the game that basically renders them useless. It’s not much fun for a new player to sit in a game and not be able to use the thing that makes their experience unique. Besides that, a deeply social game like this one makes it uniquely vulnerable to bad actors. Some people just want to ruin the fun for everyone, and this is a game that does allow some of that.

I don’t want to overstate the volatility here. The issue of jerk players is one that would be much worse in the hands of lesser designers. But there are checks on that sort of behavior baked into the game, like how it uses a destiny deck to determine which player will have an encounter with which other player. The alliance system, whereby players join with the offense or defense to get rewards or move closer to victory, forces players to keep a lose grip on grudges. But the issue of weird power mixes is one that I’m afraid is endemic to the design. You could always remove powers you don’t like (I don’t, but I’m lazy that way), but unless you handpick everything you play with you will sometimes just end up with a dud. Not too often, but it’s definitely a thing that can happen. If that happens to you enough, you might just swear off Cosmic Encounter altogether.

Let me be perfectly clear: I think you should play Cosmic Encounter. It’s a brilliant game filled with laughter, surprising strategy, and constant interaction. But because the game is so special to me I think it’s important to set expectations. Travelling through the galaxy and meeting alien species is treacherous work, but if you know what you’re getting into you might just discover that it’s the only game you’ll want to play.

Kicking It Old School

One of the modern byproducts of getting into tabletop roleplaying games is that you accumulate PDFs. The proliferation of sites like DriveThruRPG and charity bundle sites like Humble Bundle and Bundle of Holding make it very easy to have piles of rulesets to games in electronic format. What used to take up tons of shelf-space now sits in a folder on your hard drive. While I much prefer having physical books to read, this trend makes it easy to expose yourself to a wide variety of game styles. It’s especially easy because many of these games are available in PDF for free or next-to-nothing. One wing of the hobby that has taken advantage of this movement is the Old School Revival.

The Old School Revival is a trend in tabletop roleplaying that could easily take up a whole series of articles by itself, either as a history or a philosophy. I’m too new to the hobby to do write such a retrospective, or even to sum it up. But in short the Old School Revival (normally abbreviated as OSR) encompasses a variety of game systems that are either directly or indirectly inspired by the rules of classic roleplaying games, which often means Dungeons & Dragons. Many OSR games are overt (and it should be noted, legal) recreations of games like the original 1974 D&D, the various Basic sets from the late 70s and early 80s, or the 1st edition of Advanced D&D. Those that aren’t direct copies of the rules (known as retroclones) are often very similar rulesets in new settings, or else are inspired by older games in a more abstract way. The overall goal is not generally to dial back the clock on advancements in game design, though there is certainly some of that. Instead it’s focused more on making sure that a certain type of game stays relevant, one that is much deadlier, much simpler, and more reliant on the players to create interesting moments than on the DM to meticulously create things.

If you’ve been reading my work for any length of time you know that I have a soft spot for old games. As a result the OSR has taken up a huge amount of my spare reading lately. Games like Basic Fantasy Roleplay, Swords & Wizardry, and Labyrinth Lord are meant to evoke very old RPGs, but they do so in a form that is much more readable than the classic versions of the games. I’m also a big believer that any gamemaster in any game needs to at least have a passing understanding of how things are done in other system. It’s a little like understanding another language, which can have the effect of helping you understand your own a little better. Knowing other rulesets can only make you a better gamemaster.

But as I’ve given it more thought I find myself thinking about that “old school” moniker. As I write this I am two weeks away from my 37th birthday, and I feel like I am surrounded by people trying to get me to return to a feeling I had all those years ago. Movies, TV shows, and video games have all leaned hard into the familiar. And the thing is, it absolutely works. We all want to be reminded of how we felt when we were young. Whether it’s comfort food at home, sequels to familiar movies at the theater, or classic RPGs on the table, you’ll never go broke with nostalgia.

Ultima Underworld is actually a very cool game, if you are fine with taking lots of notes. I kind of am not.

However I’m also becoming more aware at how the promise of nostalgia is often more satisfying than the nostalgia itself. Throughout 2019 I have buried myself deep into retro PC gaming. Much of it has been rewarding (I wrote about the first two Monkey Island games a while ago) but far more of it has been an object lesson in why things aren’t done a certain way anymore. It turns out I don’t want to have to take notes during Ultima Underworld, engage with the janky controls of Thief, or look at the ugly polygonal graphics of Jedi Knight. I love the idea of Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Railroad Tycoon, but both games are just too old-fashioned in their interface for me to fuss with. It’s telling that those last two Sid Meier games have had semi-recent remakes in the last 20 years, making them far more approachable. Sometimes progress is just that, and to pretend otherwise is an act of self-delusion.

Even those OSR retroclones tacitly admit this. The mere act of reorganizing old rulesets requires a bit of interpretation on the part of the writer. This is especially true now that all of the old editions of Dungeons & Dragons are available for legal download in PDF form, something that wasn’t true when the OSR began some fifteen years ago. If they were perfect such reimplementations wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. Just go download the original Players Handbook and call it a day. No one would accuse the writing of Gary Gygax or Tom Moldvay to be perfect, of course, but in reading some of the discourse surrounding these retroclones there’s certainly a touch of wistfulness, a desire to go back to things as they used to be. In this nostalgia’s most sanctimonious form, there is just a hint of scorn for “kids these days,” with their desire to have less character death and detailed character abilities.

(Hopefully I don’t need to say this, but I don’t mean this as a criticism of the OSR movement, or of any of these particular systems. It’s more just an observation from someone who still plays a lot of 5e, and has only been roleplaying actively for a couple of years.)

I’m no better of course. I have a lot of thoughts about what current game design trends are good and which are bad. I find myself increasingly out of step with how board gaming in particular has evolved. I just don’t want games that are trying to recreate experiences from other kinds of games. That means no board games trying to be RPGs or tactical minis or CCGs. No more multi-faction conflict games where everyone has a new win condition, alright? And while we’re at it, let’s stop crowdfunding everything! Let’s slow down the rate of release so that old reviewers like myself can keep up! Oh, and there are too many video reviews. Why don’t people write things anymore?

Maybe you find yourself nodding in agreement with some of those things, or maybe you think I’m going off the deep end. Mayne some of those trends really are unsustainable and will end. But the point is that when they end they won’t go back to how they were before. Everything has changed, because everything is always changing. That’s why so many attempts to recapture nostalgia and how things used to be fall totally flat. It can never be truly recaptured, because we aren’t the same as we were back then. I can’t go back and experience my favorite games for the first time, even if I had a perfect set of circumstances. The game didn’t change, I did.

I’ll probably go to my grave saying Cosmic Encounter is the greatest game ever. (Image courtesy of user killroy_locke on Boardgamegeek.com.)

And that’s a very good thing. So many of my first experiences with games were deeply underwhelming, and it was only after constant exposure that I understood their brilliance. There is real pleasure to be found in those games that keep on evolving as I do. That’s why I have such a deep love for Cosmic Encounter, a game so multifaceted that I am still discovering new elements. That’s why roleplaying has become such a huge part of my life, because I always have the freedom to adapt the game to wherever I am at the time. And some games, like Power Grid, have served as a little island in a sea of transition. This is its own kind of nostalgia, but one that is driven more by long term relationships with pieces of culture than by a misguided attempt to go back to the way things used to be. One embraces the changes of life, while the other wants to deny their existence.

Then of course there is the need to always be in conversation about our past. We understand our future much better when we can look at the things that came before. This is where I think OSR games have shown their greatest value to me. It’s very hard to read, for example, the 1st edition Monster Manual, and figure out what roleplaying must have been like in the early days. But thanks to a lot of these OSR games, it’s not a hard thing to imagine. And it has also served as a sort of Rosetta Stone for board games I’ve loved for many years like Dungeonquest and Talisman. While to modern players they feel random and deadly, to players in the early 1980s they truly were the most accurate representation of roleplaying in board game form.

Hopefully this hasn’t come off as either a plea for old-school gamers to shut up and quit whining, nor as a wistful look into the days of yore. In truth we all tend toward either one of those extremes now and then, because everything in our lives is changing at different times and in different ways. As gaming moves in whatever direction it’s headed, it’s so valuable to have one eye on what came before, not because we want to go back there, but because those things are still with us now.