Ten years ago, now, I spent some time trying to devise a card game based on the magic system of Ars Magica. I was working at Atlas Games, home of such fine card games as Once Upon A Time and Lunch Money and I wanted to cook up a card game of my own. Ars Magica‘s great spell-building formula seemed like it called out for a quick pick-up game built on it. I called my design “Wizard’s Duel” and figured it would depict classic contests of sorcery between powerful wizards.
I imagined you’d have cards for the game’s magical Latinate verbs and nouns and build spells by combining them—playing a Creo card and an Ignem card to create a blast of fire, for example. Add in little details drawn from the art or keywords on each card and you might create arrows of fire which I would contest by conjuring a shield made of water or by transmuting your fire into air. Whatever. It remains, in my opinion, a pretty sound basis for a card game… but I could never quite crack the actual design. (Just writing about it now, after a decade of exposure to more and more games, has my brain percolating again, though.)
Last weekend, I played Cryptozoic‘s Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mount Skullzfire. This was my first exposure to the game. It’s a rambunctious multi-player wizard-dueling card game built to riff on (or satirize) classic fantasy spell tropes, like the dreaded spell with the wizard’s name right in it. (E.g., Melf’s acid arrow and Bigby’s crushing hand.) It’s got hit points and some dice rolling, all of which work quite smoothly with cards of sometimes wildly variable power levels—rare is the whiff in this game. While you do get booted from play temporarily when your wizard is slain, the game plays fast and crazily enough that a new match is likely to start up before long (and Dead Wizard cards mitigate death a bit, sometimes).
Where I had two components to every spell, Epic Spell Wars involves up to three: a Source, a Quality, and a Delivery. It’s a dynamic, flexible formula that yields all kinds of odd and entertaining combinations. Each spell card has an effect right on it and most effects are quick, clear, and satisfyingly effective.
The whole thing feels like it’s licensed from a Cartoon Network show that doesn’t exist. The card art is a tangled, wacky, and ridiculous collection of, let’s say, mirth and gore. Each card’s brimming with things to look at.
The set comes with lots of cards, some dice, plastic bags (thank you!), counters, and a cardboard standee (of Mount Skullzfire) apparently meant just to add an epic air to the action. Good stuff.
If the box tells me how many players the game plays, though, I couldn’t spot it. That’s a sad error.
Epic Spell Wars is filled with little design decisions that had me slapping my head at their simple effectiveness—things I wish I’d thought of a decade ago (or in any intervening year, really)—all combining to make a quick, action-packed game that I’m eager to play again. It makes me excited to try cooking up a dueling-wizards game of my own, one day, but is better in practice than my game was even in my imagination. This isn’t just because Epic Spell Wars exists and my game doesn’t, though that’s part of it. It’s also a better-designed game than I would’ve done with the same material. I can respect that.
The game that’s actually made trumps the game that’s in the head. In this case, it’s not only because the game exists and is good but because I laughed a lot while playing it. I don’t always like games that do something I wanted to, but better, because I’m a petty monster, but in this case? Dug it.