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.
KRAZZTAR the BLOOD-O-MANCER
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.