Wiz-War was, as far as I can remember, the first actual game that I tried to design. Since this was in 1983, I would have been 29 years old. The game has seen 8 editions since then, going through Jolly Games, Chessex, and Fantasy Flight Games.
When Wiz-War was first designed, with help from my good friends Jeff Smith (now deceased) and David Johnson as playtesters, it was considerably different from the first published version. In one version, the players were running around the maze-like board (one, not four), and whenever they reached an “oracle”, they could draw 2 new cards. It wasn’t particularly good. It resolved itself into the four board, draw-2-cards-every-turn version in fairly short order.
In 1983, I submitted it for publication to Midkemia Press (with a little encouragement by Ray Feist, the author, who had played the prototype at the first Polycon in San Luis Obispo the same year). It was rejected by Steve Abrams with some encouraging comments. In 1984, I submitted it to Mayfair with the same results, and to Steve Jackson Games (who had just starting printing GURPS, since The Fantasy Trip was still owned by Metagaming, a story that Steve could tell), and to Eon Games (of Cosmic Encounters fame). All rejects. Polite, but rejected. This was an interesting development period, though; every time I got the game back from someone, I changed it.
I had faith in the game, however, so I foolishly decided to make it myself.
So….1985. Home personal computers were still outrageously expensive. A decent printer was a black-and-white dot-matrix printer where you could pretty much count the dots in each letter. Text paste-ups were done on a typewriter – word processors weren’t in wide use yet. No graphics programs. A color copy at the local printer could be had for $1 per sheet, but that’s 1985 dollars, so that would be like paying $6-7 for a color 8.5×11 now. It wasn’t a realistic option for manufacturing.
My wife Penny and I were living in a doublewide mobile – our first actual purchase of a home, sort of. I ended up hand-silk-screening the first 100 Wiz-War boards after teaching myself the craft (poorly), because that was the cheapest way to produce color. And I did it in my living room. The cards were all done with a typewriter, then cut out and pasted onto an 11×17 sheet. One card-back was made with line-art tape then Xeroxed, cut out, and pasted up on another 11×17, then finally the whole lot was printed out. Oh, of course the rules were all done on a Selectric typewriter too.
I’d like to say:
I carried it all down to the printers on my back, ten miles, barefoot in the snow
…like we always did in the old days, but it wasn’t quite that bad.
Anyway, this edition of 100 copies came out in 1985 in a zip-locked baggie. A labor of love! I sold most of them quickly at the 1985 Polycon and realized that if I wanted to sell these through stores, I needed a box. Back in 1985, stores weren’t quite so picky about what they were selling (there were a lot of things in zip-locks back then, and graphics weren’t very high quality, in general). Being an artist of very mediocre talent, I painted the so-called artwork that would appear on the next four editions (the “brown box”). It was silly art to go with a beer-and-pretzels game.1 A local printer did the color separations and printed the cover sheet for the box. A box maker in Los Angeles took those sheets and pasted them onto chipboard boxes. I had 2000 made. To keep costs and risk down, I only had 500 sheets made for the boards, and 500 decks printed, of 125 cards each. I paid a decent amount of money for a die for die-cutting tokens.
The decks were hand-collated. If you’ve ever sorted out 125 cards 500 times, you will know that this hurts your back. A lot. I used to pay my kids 10 cents a deck to do this drudgery (and to playtest games – they got paid a bonus if they won). The cards continued to be hand-collated for the next 5 editions and expansions. More on that.
I also bought a roll of shrink-wrap, a bar sealer, and a heat gun to seal up all those little decks and the final box.
This edition, technically the Second Edition (though I don’t think the rules were labeled as such, back when I didn’t think there would be any other editions) was printed on card stock that you could, in the right light, see through. The second and third editions used the same box from the lot of 2000 I printed. The fourth edition print run, I upgraded the card stock so you couldn’t see through it in any sort of light. The 3rd edition rules were on a light yellowish paper with printing that looks like dot-matrix printing. The inside back of the rules say nothing about the edition number. I also printed part of the fourth edition with the same paper, so in fact the 4th ed has two different rule printings (the second by Chessex). The 4th edition actually says “4th edition” in the rules.
During this period, I was taking Wiz-War to various conventions; Strategicon and Origins in LA and Dundracon and Slug-A-Thon in the Bay Area, bumming sales space from friends who also had product and were willing to take a cut of my sales for their trouble. Wiz-War was selling for $10, and the first expansion set was $5. Generally, I could sell two dozen copies of the base game at every con – unusually high for most games. It finally caught the eye of Don Reents of Chessex (also owner of Berkeley Game Distributors at the time), who offered to license the game from me.
Chessex Licenses Wiz-War
Their first printing was the fourth edition. Same box, same everything, all they did was put the Chessex stock number on the back-sheet of the game (a sheet which is normally tossed) and reprint the rules. I can’t remember if they took my remaining stock for the 4th edition and sold them, or made their own. There was, obviously, some leakage between the editions.
During this period, I also created the 1st Expansion Set in 1988 (and 1991), and the 2nd Expansion in 1993. Both in zip-locks, both with cheesy art by yours truly. If I remember right, neither of these had die-cut tokens. To save money, I left it to the buyer and his scissors, since both expansions were fairly small print runs (about 500 copies) and I couldn’t absorb the cost of a die.
In addition, I started adhering the token/board sheets for the expansions to chipboard using cans of 3M’s Super 77 spray adhesive. In my garage. So for those of you out there who have used this stuff, it freaking sticks to everything. After a very short while, finding that an aerosol glue will make every surface tacky within about 20 feet of where it’s being sprayed, I made a box out of cardboard with a clear plastic lid and a hole for my arm to fit through. A little pedestal in the middle of the box supported the chipboard I was spraying, and a little cardboard flap let me take the boards in and out. If you can imagine it, the layers of glue built up inside this little toxic spray booth that was about 2” thick. After a session of spraying, my excessively hirsute arm would come out with a white coat of glue on it (didn’t occur to me to wear disposable gloves – if they existed back then). That was a pleasure to get off. I have no idea how badly this screwed up my lungs, though judging by the lack of tacky surfaces in the garage, I was successful in my efforts to isolate the scourge of airborne adhesive.
I must have used a case of that spray-glue:
Super 77 is great stuff. I still use it when I want two paper surfaces to never, ever come apart.
End of advertisement. Probably bad for the environment anyway.
An aside; the expansion sets were built extensively on the spells provided by fans who sent me lists. Both Chessex and Jolly Games sold packs of blank cards where you could create your own spells, and people did. At least one guy (hi, Shawn!) created such a voluminous pile of spells that it measured about 3-4” tall when he played his version of the game. Most of them were absolutely insane spells; I dread to think of what would have occurred if he’d thought to add a foldout sheet of paper to each card. He wore out a couple of copies of Wiz-War playing them incessantly; I’ve never seen such a frayed deck. Anyway, thanks, Shawn (and thanks to all the other players who added spells to the game).
Chessex printed essentially the same version for the 5th edition. About 2000 copies, I think. They put on the cover “New 1991 Fifth Edition” so it’s one of the easiest to identify. And the back was actually a printed box! I was still selling the expansions myself at this time.
Chessex then brought out the 6th edition will all new art from Phil Morrissey in 1993 in a bigger blue box, and the 1st expansion shortly thereafter in a purple box – not sure about the year.2 They sold these out, maybe another 2000 copies, and went to the 7th edition in 1997 which they labeled on the cover as the “Classic Edition” to cover the fact that they hadn’t come out with the deluxe edition that they wanted to come out with.
The 6th or 7th edition (I don’t remember which) had a little problem; Chessex had had them manufactured in Mexico, and 1 out of 12 copies (roughly) had miscounted cards and fingerprints on some of them. I ended up making a guarantee to folks to send them whatever replacement cards they needed, and actually bought quite a few copies from Chessex, opened them up, checked the decks, and resealed everything so I could sell them with confidence. It was an aggravating period.
I still send out replacement parts on occasion (no charge), if I still have them. There are a lot of old bits and pieces from prior editions taking up space in the garage.
The 10 Year Print Contract and A Video Game Contract
And now we enter a weird period. Around the year 2000, Chessex entered into a 10-year contract with me. They shortly ran out of the 7th edition and started promising to print a deluxe edition (color cards and nice graphics), but it never actually came out. They had contracted with a couple of different artists at different times, and the artwork was complete at least once, but it still never came out. I was ready and willing for any version, even just a reprint of the old version, to come out. I never really understood the behind-the-scenes reason for the lengthy hiatus.
During this same period, I entered into a number of contracts with programmers and video game companies to do a video game version of Wiz-War. Usually very little came out of this. There was a free peer-to-peer version that I never actually saw. There was the version Total Entertainment Network produced, but never actually paid for. And there was Codefire. Codefire was a little video game company in Irvine, California who had aspirations of making, essentially, a first-person shooter game out of Wiz-War. I saw some of the early 3D graphics for the game (fireballs blasting down the hallway) and it looked awesome! They wanted to buy all the rights to Wiz-War for what was, at the time, a very substantial chunk of money, but of course the board game rights were still tied up with Chessex. The three of us met (Michael Williams, Don, and I) and Michael said something that has stuck with me ever since, clarifying the distance between the board game and video game industry. He told Don that he could buy the entire paper print run that Don was going to make and “give them out as promotional material for the video game”. An ad prop for the video game! That was the difference in potential income for the two industries.
But, the OTHER difference between the two industries is this; we entered into the contract, I got my advance, and a few months later Codefire went out of business (not because of my advance, really). The rights for the game reverted back to me (something you should always have in your contracts!). Start-up video game companies, I found out, often have very short life expectancies.
Fantasy Flight Games and the 8th Edition
Returning to the board game; it remained in limbo for over 9 years. During this same period, a few companies asked me if the rights were available; they noticed that it had been “out-of-print” for quite a while. At this point, I had a long working relationship with Fantasy Flight Games, whom I met in Essen, Germany around 1998, and who had subsequently published Diskwars, Vortex, Cavetroll and Drakon. I wanted to go with them as the next publisher. But the contract hadn’t expired with Chessex.
The three of us finally cut a deal prior to the expiration of the Chessex contract (2010) and FFG started to work on the 8th edition. I sent them a list of about 350 cards, including the never-ever published 3rd expansion set (which had Magic Beans! Woo-hoo!). They did an exemplary job on the graphics, as is their reputation, with some changes to the rules and the very chaotic, imbalanced nature of the original deck, and the latest version of Wiz-War was born in 2012, followed by the Malefic Curses expansion in 2013, and the soon-to-be-released (and most awesome!) Bestial Forces for 2014, which adds things to the game I never even thought of.
The rest, as they say, is history. Or will be, after it happens.
1. I sold the artwork for the brown-box cover for $20 to Bryce Nakagawa a long time ago, but always regretted that. Jokingly, each time I’d run into him, I’d offer him $25 to buy it back, and he never gave in. I should have kept my mouth shut and been happy it had found a home; a couple of years ago, the artwork appeared in my mail, a gift from Bryce. I was dumbfounded. Thanks again, Bryce.
2. At a convention in Santa Maria (Conquest), I had a few copies of Chessex’s expansion #1 with me that were all stolen. These were the only ones I owned. For about ten years, I had no copy of my expansion set, but stumbled across one on BGG that I tried to buy. As I recollect, the person insisted on giving it to me for free. Thanks, person whose name I don’t remember!
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27 Readers CommentedJoin discussion
I really liked the article especially the part on Super 77 adhesive spray!
Thanks Tom! Great article. I always think art is better within context, and this makes me want to bust out WW again. At BGG Con in Dallas last year a man was flailing around the convention hall screaming Wizzzz Warrrrr and a new generation of players was born!
Regarding context, I can’t believe I left out what my original inspiration was; I had recently started playing D&D and The Fantasy Trip, and wanted to distill out the magic part of the game since that was the part I enjoyed the most. And, of course, there’s the interview where Garfield says that Wiz-War and Cosmic Encounters were two of *his* inspirations.
Very interesting that you were also inspired by an aspect of D&D – in the same way that Peter (Terence) Donnelly created his game “The Sorcerer’s Cave” to incorporate the aspects of “encounters in an underground lair”. I wonder how many game designers, if asked, would put up their hand for the same reason Massive debt owed to Gary Gygax, I think!
Regarding the 4-inch stack of Wiz-War cards: although a sizable proportion of the stack were from the original set (including sufficient duplicates to keep the game dynamics relatively intact) and printed expansions, there were numerous original cards. Of those, a great many were borrowed (and improved, or at least edited to our tastes) from other sets posted online, e.g. Cedric and I forget who else. After all that, I’m quite proud of some of the originals that my brother Stuart and I conjured. Alas, not all of our favorites made the print version, e.g., “Glacier”, “Portcullis”. But I’m looking forward to the new expansion. 🙂
I think three years ago at KublaCon in Burlingame, CA, someone had a version of the game where they had taken 4 tarps, and made “Life-size” Wiz-War. Each square was about 18″ on a side. It used a pre-FFG edition of the cards, I recall. It was quite awesome!
Thanks for many many years of fun games!
Great article! I remember playing Wiz-War for the first time at Slug-A-Thon ’89, who knew I was in the shadow of gaming history! I also recall playing a life size at DunDraCon, got to throw a squishy ball at someone for the Fireball spell.
I consider the challenges that your labor of love had to overcome to become the hit that it is, and it makes me wonder; with the ease the information age permits a game to be designed have we lost the ‘natural selection’ a game needs to ensure it is great?
Kickstarter surely evinces that perhaps making a game is now too easy. Flashy graphics, familiar mechanics, a safe theme (say Cthulhu) and you are likely to fund. Not so easy for Wiz-War, and the game is better for it.
Thank you Tom for decades of fun. When you are ready to host the life size at KublaCon let me know. I will bring my own Rock.
Hi, Brandon. I think the natural selection process in game design is stronger than ever. New game design ideas keep getting introduced all the time (mutations!) and get incorporated into better and better games. Games today have so much better balance and mechanics and graphics than the games I played as a kid, the transition over the last 50 years is absolutely astounding to me. The ease with which an idea can enter the market just means there’s that many more mutations that the designer can select from (though it also tends to mean a smaller market share, and greater difficulty achieving any sort of recognition…sort of like a telepathic cave newt).
Thanks for the background, Tom. It is always interesting to read the history of my favorite games of yesteryear that have contemporary reprints.
Wiz-War is more than a game. It is also, in no uncertain terms, an obsession.
I even own a few pieces of the original artwork for the cards in the deluxe Chessex version that never saw print.
Would it be possible for you to elaborate on your involvement with the current edition produced by FFG? Such as: Do you design any of the cards? Or does FFG create that and then just submit them to you for approval? etc.
I live and work in Minneapolis, and am acquainted with quite a few of the people employed by FFG, and I know it can be difficult to comment on anything whatsoever concerning FFG.
Elaboration on my dealings with FFG: they do send me cards and rules for comments, and I do make a lot of comments, to which they give due attention. We work well together. When I sold the game to them, the sale went with 3 expansion sets and about 350 spell cards in total. While they are designing a lot of new cards and ideas without my help, I like to think that the originals cards have been mined well for ideas driving some of the new designs. Much of the new material they’ve created is, in my opinion, quite spectacular.
I love seeing historical pieces like this (Tom, I bet you never thought someone was going to use a phrase like that about you). It’s great to see an idea from it’s inception, through multiple iterations and then to see its current incarnation.
Thanks for sharing.
Fantastic insight into a great game and truly a labour of love.
How did it feel to finally get your hands on the ‘deluxe’ version released by FFG? After many hours of manual labour you committed to making your dream a reality, I can’t imagine what it would’ve felt like to hold the FFG version in your hands (as we all know, the production quality of FFG is of amazingly high standard).
P.S I was a board gamer as a child (simple games such as the usual monopoly, mouse trap, trouble etc) and fell out of interest with the hobby in my teens when videogames took over (mid 90s… There was no boardgame scene that I knew of at the time here in Aus). Two years ago I decided to walk into a board game store to buy my cousin a Christmas gift with a difference… Something we could play together that wasn’t a videogame. That game was Wiz-War (FFG edition) and it has since sparked a boardgame obsession of mine bordering on the unhealthy. Thank you for that Tom.
I’m always happy to contribute to someone’s unhealthy board game obsession.
I was pretty excited to see the final product. Oddly, the first time I saw it was because someone (I don’t remember who) emailed me about a video (online) at FFG’s booth at Gencon that had a display case in the background with a promotional copy of Wiz-War in it. Just a peek! But it was great to get the physical copy in my hands many months later, especially since it had been out of print for nearly 12 years. FFG has awesome production values.
I really love this game, even though i only have the FF edition it is always the first one my game group goes for when we sit down for a day of board games. Great work and interesting story.
Keep making great games sir!
Is there an online version? I really want to play with friends not nearby.
There is currently no online version. Sorry!
When I moved to York and while touring the city, I found this shop called the Wandering Man. It was a board game shop and I had never been in one. I was quite overwhelmed by the range of stuff they had on display. I asked the shop guy if they had anything with magic and wizards. He asked me to come back a day later. I did. He gave me a copy of WizWars and said I’d love it. I absolutely did. It is the first board game I owned and I’d been playing it every weekend for the past seven years. The shopkeeper also mentioned that the designer lived nearby. Were you in York too, Tom?
I lived near Harrogate from 1996 to 1999, which is fairly close to York, and had a gaming friend I visited there on occasion. But, of course, that was 18 years ago. I went back to California afterwards. Glad you enjoyed the game.
Hi Tom, I love the game and it is still one of my top favorites. I have a question for you or anyone else that can shed some light. I was at a gaming store in Charlottesville Virginia in the downtown walk and I saw a copy of Wiz War I have never seen since then. Was it a prototype of a deluxe version? This would have been in either 2000 or 2001. I held it in my hands and regret not buying it to this day. I still had my old set at home and figured I would just get it at some other time. The shop has been closed and I have no way to find out about it. I have the new version, 8th, and it is not that one. Like I said this was a while ago. Could some deluxe versions have been made and test marketed? The quality was really good on it and it looked just like what you would expect the game to look like in deluxe form. The box was also considerably bigger than the previous versions. By bigger I mean it was only slightly more thick but about twice the size in diameter. This was definitely a big game company made version, I can’t imagine a smaller company being able to make this type of quality. I have looked online extensively for it and can’t find it anywhere! I swear to you I held it in my hands and looked at it for a while, I was not mistaken! Thanks!
Hi, Demetrius. There’s a picture in this article that shows all the various edition boxes; The first edition was in a zip-lock baggie, and the 2nd-5th editions were in the small brown box. The 6th and 7th editions were in the larger blue box, while the purple box was an expansion for the blue-box edition. You own the 8th; it is, by far, larger than all the other editions. I assume you saw one of the blue editions or some customized edition. There were a couple of prototypes for a deluxe edition from Chessex, but I had not heard about any test marketing for them.
That’s the crazy thing, I own the 8th and the 6th plus the expansion, it wasn’t one of those. It wasn’t a customized one either unless someone did the most incredible mock up and then shrink wrapped it and put it in this store. I really wish I could go back in time and just buy it. I seem to remember the cards were white and more square shaped as well. This is killing me. I have to believe that someone at Chessex or wherever accidentally sold a few deluxe sets without them being official. They had about 3 of them. Like I said it was so professionally done I figured it was out and released and I would just get it later! Ha! One last suggestion…. kickstart a video version? I am full in!
Don’t know what to tell you. I’ve never seen it. There are plenty of custom sets out there, and quite a few bootleg copies that arose when it was out of print for 10 years (see pictures on BGG), but I never heard of or saw any stores selling them. As for making a video game version, this has been attempted about 6-7 times by various companies with very limited success. And I don’t currently own the rights anyway; if Asmodee/FFG decides to do it, they can, but they probably wouldn’t bother doing a kickstarter; they’d just shell out the money and do it.
So… How about that magic beans expansion? Or the RPG expansion you put together? 6th player? I assume that FFG still holds the rights & I guess you cannot get around them?
What does it take to get more content pushed through? Is there an FFG exec or congressman I can write to?
I’m not actually sure about the status of WW at FFG. I need to talk to them and see how things are going there. They had a 3rd expansion in the works with a 6th player (the magic beans I’m not so sure about), but the basic game has been out of print for awhile. Yes, FFG is currently licensed to produce Wiz-War, until at least March 2021. They’ve done a great job so far with production values and all, so I’d be likely to extend the contract as long as they are interested in manufacturing the game.
Regarding the RPG rules, I posted those on BGG on the Wiz-War page, which I suspect you know already. They’re only a couple of pages long. I haven’t developed any scenarios for it besides a couple that I ran with my friends. I’d highly recommend creating your own scenario and running it with your own group; it was quite a bit of fun. FFG will NOT be publishing it, however, they did give me permission to put the rules on BGG.
I don’t know who you might encourage to expand on WW at FFG. At the least, you might post on the WW forum on their website and see if someone at the company responds.
You are awesome Tom, thanks for the suggestion & thanks for the work you have put into this excellent game.
I tried to submit a request: not sure it got through: I had to go through an account creation etc. & it still needs to be approved before it is posted.
There is so much potential for this game: team play, player vs. environment or PvP scenarios, etc.
I would love to see an expansion where one player controls a dragon & the other players steal treasures cooperatively (or selfishly). I am sure that you have already heard more suggestions than you can ever produce.
March 2021 rapidly approaches & FFG has not done any re-releasing or expanding so I assume they are allowing the contract to expire without renewal? Any hopes of another publisher?
Steve Jackson Games picked it up, and will do a Kickstarter for the 9th edition; not sure how soon.