Magical Passover Land

The Magic: The Gathering community has a useful term called “Magical Christmas Land” that also has some value for game design. It’s a derogatory phrase used to describe decks or cards that are very powerful under ideal circumstances, but in most other cases (and there are many, as Magic is a high-variance game) they’re bad. For example, in Magical Christmas Land I might draw the specific seven cards I need to activate a combo and win on turn 1, but if I live in the real world and draw even a slightly worse hand, I’ll get run over and lose.

Living in Magical Christmas Land is a major problem to a game designer, but I don’t want to include a Christian holiday in my game design philosophy because I’m Jewish and our holidays get overshadowed enough as it is. So instead I wanted to examine this habit in the lens of a different holiday: Passover.

For those who don’t know, the most important part of Passover is the telling of the story of the Jews’ escape from Egypt in the book of Exodus. Now, it could have been assumed that everyone would just perfectly understand this story and its meaning, and would leave the seder table informed about their own peoplehood. But this would be a problem. Some people don’t want to be there, some don’t get the meaning of the ritual, and some are young and need help. So we assume that four “children” are at every seder, and provide them with the answers that they need.

This is surprisingly translatable to the art of tabletop design. Living in Magical Passover Land is assuming that everyone’s going to get your story as-is; that is, that all your players are going to catch on to your game and be enthusiastic about it. This is a major problem, but a deceptive one: You can make a game that works great if you or your friends are playing it, because it’s tailored for you, but doesn’t work for wider audiences.

To counteract this, think about the four children (of any age) who may be playing your game.

The Wise Child

“BoardGameGeek states that the average score for this game is 75, which is pretty high for the designer…”

The Wise Child has 1000% enthusiasm for your game and its genre. This might be the hardcore Euro enthusiast, the armchair general with their gigantic Warhammer army, or even the president of your local Liars’ Club who plays 20 games of Mafia a week. Even if your game isn’t the best, they like it so much that they dive deep into the strategy. Normally this is good, but their enthusiasm can translate into unbeatable skill, which is a problem for groups of mixed ability.

For the Wise Child, we thank them for enjoying our work, but try to add systems through which the other players can occasionally nab a game or two. This can be by the inclusion of randomness, adding a low skill floor to the game, or, in the case of co-op games, a restriction on communication. Not every game needs or wants this, but everyone should be aware that the Wise Child may be at your table.

The Wicked Child

“Oh, my turn already?”

The Wicked Child in the Passover service isn’t actually wicked; they’re just a little selfish and don’t want to participate. They don’t understand why they have to bother with not eating bread and going through all this ritual, so it has to be explained to them why going to all this hassle is important for the survival of the Jewish people and them in particular.

Similarly, our Wicked Child isn’t acting out of malice; they just don’t want to be there. They’re playing this game because their friends wanted to play and it was better than sitting alone and doing nothing. The Wicked Child pretty much understands the strategy; they just don’t want to put any effort into enjoying the game because they don’t think they’re going to get anything out of it if they try.

For the Wicked Child, we design games where you still get what you need to even if you don’t care that much. This is kind of an abstract way of describing it, so let me use an example: The game Gloom is a fairly simple take-that game, which you’re supposed to spice up by role-playing how everyone’s Gorey-esque family dies horribly. However, if you don’t like the genre or don’t like storytelling, you’re reduced to playing cards at random on people. On the other hand, this is why I suspect Apples to Apples and its cousins are so popular: You can participate by simply choosing a card out of your hand.

The Simple Child


The Simple Child is a little out of their element. They don’t really understand the more nuanced strategies of your game, and will usually stick to things that are more laid-out by the rules or components. Not thinking about this child leads to one of the biggest traps in game design: That everyone who plays your game will “get” the complex strategic portions of your game that requires a lot of thinking and investment.

One might also assume that this only applies to heavy games, but there are plenty of light ones, especially with social elements, where the strategy goes over people’s heads if they aren’t familiar with the genre. Skull, which has very few rules but requires deep psychological analysis, fits the bill here, as well as many social deduction games like Werewolf. Be careful that the way to get ahead is laid out by your rules, not just by your assumption that everyone is a mindgame genius.

The Child Who Is Too Young To Ask Questions

I actually have nothing here – at this point, you’re supposed to start telling the story of Passover. I could try to make some link, but at this point I think it’s more respectful to my faith and my audience if I admit this wasn’t a perfect metaphor, but instead a cute way of addressing a part of game design that I don’t think has been talked about very often.


It’s not your audience’s fault if they aren’t a perfect fit for your game, and to assume that everyone is is to live in Magical Passover Land. I hope this article taught you about a new perspective on your designs, and, for those gentiles reading this, a little bit about Judaism. Make sure that you have all the children covered when they sit down at your table, and they’ll treat you well in kind.


Game Analysis: Epic Spell Wars

The Take-That genre finds itself in an uncomfortable position between pure party games and strategic games. Games like Red Dragon Inn and Room Party have very light tactical elements but are mostly used to generate funny situations, with players attacking each other more for the hell of it than to gain an gameplay advantage. If you couldn’t tell by the past couple of sentences, I’m not a big fan of the genre, but there is one that stands out to me: Rob Heinsoo’s Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards series. Though it does suffer from some of the gameplay issues endemic to the genre, it creates a great deal of genuine play value that its brethren don’t. Why is that? Let’s find out.


I’m a big fan of unusual themes in games, but even for me, it’s difficult for a game to cover up lacking mechanics with a theme. If Epic Spell Wars had more of a conventional fantasy setting, I’d probably play it once at a friend’s house and forget about it, but its over-the-top gory ridiculousness piqued my interest.

The first thing you see when you open the manual is a two-page-long screed about endlessly regenerating wizards in a horrifying (but awesome) tournament full of blood and lightning and skeletons, the sort of thing a thirteen-year-old boy would scribble on the margins of his notes in English class. All of the spells you can cast have names like “GORE-NADO,” and the playable characters include the aforementioned KRAZZTAR the BLOOD-O-MANCER and Hogs the House, a giant wizard who uses a staff with a normal-sized wizard inside it.

Compounding this is Nick Edwards’ illustrations, which looks like art from MAD Magazine or one of several Adult Swim shows. Most of the spells and treasures have cartoonishly exaggerated blood and/or facial expressions on it, but even the ones that are more down-to-earth are funny: My personal favorite is The Slow Roller’s Throne, which features a fat guy asleep on it while someone off-card bellows “YOUR TURN!”

Game illustrations should do two things: They should be distinctive enough to recognize, and they should contribute to the overall feeling the game wants to generate in its players. Epic Spell Wars is a prime example: No other game has art like this, and the art helps generate a feeling of light-hearted malice that is essential to Take-That games as a genre.

Just Spells Flinging Everywhere

Despite its loud, magical grandstanding, Epic Spell Wars also subtly fixes a common problem with the genre: Who are you going to target?

In normal Take-That games, even in multiplayer games with political elements like 3+ player Magic: The Gathering, it’s difficult to decide who you should attack. This is worst in the early game, where nobody’s really developed their powers; most people just target whoever has the highest HP. Epic Spell Wars partially fixes this problem by not letting you choose, for the most part, who your spells target.

Many of your magical attacks have predetermined targets. These are frequently the player sitting to your left or right, while some target the players with the highest or lowest HP. While there are some spells that allow you to pick a target, they’re in the minority, so you’ll often find yourself targeting people because you want some other benefit from the spell – playing spells of the same type makes them stronger, and some give you treasure, so you’re making choices not on who you want to hit, but the strength of the hit itself.

This lends a fun, chaotic atmosphere to the game similar to Super Smash Bros. or indie superstar Duck Game. Spells will often switch targets to different people after you’ve prepared them, so someone might get stormed down from half health in a single turn, or suddenly find everything missing them by pure coincidence. There is room for strategy here, but similar to Libertalia, the strategy falling apart because your opponents zigged when you thought they would zag is part of the appeal of the game.


In writing this essay, I’m reminded of the way Roger Ebert reviewed movies: Instead of whether they appealed to his personal tastes, he evaluated movies on how well they accomplished their own goals. Epic Spell Wars isn’t meant for people to develop intelligent strategies and grow their skills: It’s a light, social game intended to make players laugh as their characters die to spells with ludicrous names. By accomplishing its goal in a better way than almost any other game in its genre, even if it doesn’t work for everyone, Epic Spell Wars is a successful design.