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Interview with Tom Jolly, Designer of Wiz-War

Tom JollyControlled Area Gaming managed to persuade designer Tom Jolly (TJ) to give up a few moments to answer some questions. His decades of experience in game design has illuminated some very intriguing answers.

CAG: How did the idea for Wiz-War begin? Was it a direct imaginative scenario for Dungeons & Dragons?

TJ: Wiz-War, in early design stages, was a distillation of the magic system in D&D, with a lot of craziness added in. I always liked playing a mage, but was always disappointed with how little action they saw during a game. Cast a Sleep spell, hide in the back of the party. Wiz-War fixed that; infinite spells almost as fast as you can play them. The idea of having most of the rules on the cards came from Cosmic Encounter. It’s funny though; only recently (a few months ago) I posted rules on BGG where you could use Wiz-War rules in an RPG setting, coming full circle. It was a real blast to play it that way.

CAG: Modifying the dungeon is one of the most fun parts of Wiz-War but I imagine it’s also a part that adds the most components. How do you balance that?

TJ: I’d say it’s apparent I didn’t balance that. There are a hell of a lot of counters, and there still are in the Fantasy Flight Games 8th edition version. There were also a lot of ways to get rid of them, dispelling objects, killing monsters, setting fire to thorn bushes, so the board usually didn’t get too awfully crowded before the game was over. But I didn’t explicitly go into the design process wondering how I’d control the number of tokens on the board. Nowadays I probably would.

CAG: Wiz-War presents many modes of play. When Magic: The Gathering was first released did you immediately think of Wiz-War?

Wiz-War 6th Edition
Wiz-War (6th Edition)

TJ: It was inevitable. Wizards doing battle with 7 cards in their hands. The only thing missing was the board. Garfield’s game was marketing genius, however, and so much different from Wiz-War in every other aspect that I never really thought of it as derivative. I spent a lot of money on Magic: The Gathering cards! I was at the convention (Origins or GenCon, I think) where they premiered Magic; one of the crew was a big Wiz-War fan and handed me my first Alpha deck for free (and my only Alpha deck… at the time, I didn’t know what all the excitement was about). If someone had said to me back then, “You know, some of the cards in this deck may be worth as much as $10 some day!” I would have laughed in his face.

CAG: What was the process for evaluating the many ideas for spells? Out of all the ideas, about how many made it in the game?

TJ: That’s a very good question. First, the spell had to be short enough to fit reasonably well on a 2″ x 3″ card. This eliminated a LOT of possible suggestions. Second, it had to play well with other cards within the “magic physics” of the game. This was the hardest thing to define in the game. The early cards were pretty simplistic, so I got away with a lot of kind of ambiguous rules, but as we added more cards, the physics became more stringent, where I started to define the card as a scroll, casting a spell creating a spell, the traveling spell, the spell hitting you, the EFFECT of the spell, whether it was physical damage made my magic, or magical damage, whether you could counter a magical item that caused physical damage, etc. It became very fiddly and required pages and pages of FAQ.

So, of proposed spells, maybe a third of them made it. Some got deleted after publication (like Create Pit) because the FAQ for it became so convoluted. What happens when you create a Solid Stone above a Pit? Really messy, especially if you’re in the Pit.

The main process of evaluation (besides the length of the text) was just play-testing. We’d write notes on the cards, and if the notes just got too long, we’d toss it.

Wiz-War Fantasy Flight Games (8th Edition)
Wiz-War Fantasy Flight Games (8th Edition)

CAG: Wiz-War seems almost infinitely expandable. Did you set out to make a game like that?

TJ: I’m not sure that was the original intention, since I wasn’t aware whether it would be successful or not, but it was pretty clear after the first couple of editions that more cards would be more fun. There were a lot of expansion ideas, outside of cards; new weird board tiles that had special actions, new character types, magic beans, and so on. A lot of it never got published, of course.

CAG: What is different about designing games today than when you started out?

TJ: I pay a lot more attention to game balance, now. I look to make my rules shorter and more concise (like Drakon). There are a lot of really good game mechanics out there now, and ways to play that just didn’t exist when I was young. Collectibe Card Games, deck building, worker placement, co-op games, none of that existed. There are so many cool tools you can add to the design process now.

CAG: Do you find your tastes as a gamer or designer have evolved over your career?

TJ: Absolutely. I really enjoy worker placement games and deck building these days. If you look at my latest game (co-designed with Luke Laurie, who did most of the design work), called Manhattan Project: Energy Empire (a stand-alone game, not an expansion), this is a worker-placement tableau-building game, so I’ve been toying around with a lot of new design ideas.

CAG: What’s a typical ratio for the number of games you’ve designed to the number that have been playtested well to the number that have been published? Are there any designs you have that you wish had found a publisher?

TJ: I think I design 10, play test 3 well, get 1 published. I did have a fairly simple area-control game called Gerrymander (or Borderline) that I sent to three publishers with no bites. I would have liked to see it in print. Generally, I think I’m pretty happy with the ratio I have. There are so many times when I thought I had a great idea, spent two weeks making the prototype graphics for it, then found out it was a dud.

CAG: There is a lot of talk of theme vs mechanisms in modern board game design. Has this discussion always been central to game design or has it changed over the years?

TJ: I (personally) think the whole discussion is a waste of time. I’ve played great games that were theme oriented and mechanic oriented. I like having a blend of both, even if the theme is a bit weak.

CAG: What is one game you would like to redesign and give it your own style or revision of rules?

TJ: Diplomacy. Great game, but too cutthroat. There are cutthroat games out there that somehow make the cutthroat aspect less personal and vindictive, sometimes even humorous. I like the mechanics, but dislike the stress.

Controlled Area Gaming greatly appreciates Tom Jolly’s time. Along with Wiz-War, his list of game credits can be found on BoardGameGeek. For more on the history of Wiz-War’s publication, League of Gamemakers has a lengthy article.