Wizards of the Coast, £12++
Designed by Richard Garfield
2 Players, 5 minutes upwards
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

I suppose it has been a while since there has been a true craze in gaming. I'm not talking about Pass the Pigs, Triv or Rubik's Cube, more the sort of hobby hit that might rival Wizards of the Coast's Magic: The Gathering a card game that has sold about 3, 5, 10 or 12 million cards (depending on your source), and probably even more by now. This is a game that, despite its fantasy heritage, works surprisingly well. It is also a game that is very hard to actually purchase as it disappears off the shelf as soon as it arrives rationing has been evident in some parts of the world and at the time of writing, there isn't a pack to be had in the UK.

The idea is simple (some would say cynical) enough: sell a fantasy card game that can be both played and collected. The more cards you buy, the bigger the variety of monsters and magic and, probably, the greater your chances of winning. There are approximately 300 different cards, each with varying degrees of rarity. Swamps and forests are common, powerful monsters and artifacts much less so. Each card has unique artwork which varies from pretty poor to exceptional none of it in my view worth collecting, but then I am rather critical of such things. Inevitably, as with the trading card phenomenon, prices on the most unusual items are already being quoted at $50+ per card and entire sets have changed hands for over $600 I trust the publishers held a few back to sell into the market. Thankfully, I find myself completely cured of completism, though predictably there are stories of gamers spending ridiculous sums to get those rare cards. This is hardly a problem for the publishers and I can only conclude that this is one of the smarter marketing ideas for some time.

The good news is that you actually need nothing more than a couple of starter packs to play, even though a single pack doesn't go so far as to mention this fact externally. I should think three or four packs would be more than enough to get the flavour and play it out. Subsequent purchases are up to you; if you want the whole set via booster packs it will cost you in the same way that getting that Gordon Banks Mexico '70 sticker did a lot. Conversely, the Jairzinho equivalent is the bleedin' Samite Healer; if I get another one, I will scream. Starter packs, all different, cost between £6 and £7 for about 60 cards. Booster Packs around £1.50 for 15 'rare' cards but I have not sampled these. A much better bet is to wait for the complete factory sets that will be available real soon now. These won't be the collector's editions (with the black border), but that doesn't matter a jot if you just want to play. Forthcoming, he said excitedly, are Arabian Nights sets and packs linked to commercial RPGs such as Shadowrun, Werewolf and Vampire. If the success is anything to go on, I suspect TSR, Chaosium, GDW and the rest will want a slice of the pie either by licensing, or developing rival systems. I can't wait for the latter; imagine a Call of Cthulhu, Al Qadim, Ars Magica or Runequest set... oh my, I'd better have a lay down.

The question is, is this sudden boost for gaming a good development? Yes and no. Mainly, I am happy to see a small company make a stunning success of a game. I think it will be a shot in the arm for both retailers and card games (one of my favourite forms you noticed) which revives the period of interest engendered by Modern Naval Battles a few years back. Further, if companies go out to look for the next winning system, diversify the subject and start pasting on great artwork, that is entirely fine with me. The drawback is we have this collecting frenzy running along with the gaming and it is hard to know which aspect is dominant and which is really driving sales. If you are familiar with the baseball, basketball and non-sports card boom in the States, and to an extent wine collecting worldwide, there are similarities: cards can be collected for themselves, as artwork or even, gasp, to play with, but the big draw is to buy sealed sets and lay them down as an investment. If companies follow the Magic marketing approach, and allow you just to play and sidestep the collecting element if you choose, that's great, but if they somehow insist you buy lots before you can properly even play the system, or restrict supply way below demand, that would be a different matter. The words Stuff That spring to mind.

Anyway, to the game. The theme is a duel between two powerful wizards, who summon monsters and cast spells to defeat their rival. Magic is mana based, drawn from the six categories of land cards that can be played during the game. Each land generates a colour of magic and each spell or summoning requires specific mana (of an indicated colour) and usually some general mana for power. The game can be played in several ways, and I can foresee a lot of house rules appearing. The two basic variants revolve around pack composition and the ante. It is suggested that each player starts with at least forty cards which he then keeps as his own pack; if you want to hand them back after a session, you could, but the continuous feel will be lost. These can be shuffled and just played with as they come or they can be prepared beforehand, balancing card mix (especially magic colours) and pack size to establish a potentially winning hand. The beauty of the system is that there are no perfect plans. Conceivably, almost any strategy can have its nemesis and luck always plays a part which is what gives the game some of its interest, particularly for the competitive players.

For instance, one player might have a high proportion of Swamp Magic and Plague Rat cards that he hopes will emerge quickly enough from his small 40 card stack to beat the opponent before his big hitters can be drawn and activated from a pile the size of Canary Wharf. In this way, you can structure the deck to suit your style of play defensive, attacking, red magic, green magic, lots of nippers or an army of giants. The drawback is you always know what is coming. The ante system is, I guess, born of gum card trading or perhaps marbles. Each player puts up a card for every duel and the winner gets to keep them both, either till the end of the session or permanently. This causes mixed reactions around the hobby. Some regard it as silly, others suggest that the ante be at least three cards, or perhaps more. I go with the latter as playing for just one card, only rarely a valuable one, seems a bit pointless but then I own all the cards anyway! The problem here is that once a player gets on a winning streak, it will become harder and harder to reverse the trend unless you go and buy more packs...

The aim of the game is to cause twenty points of damage on your opponent. This will usually be over and above that required to eliminate or nullify his defensive monsters, but they can be obtained from physical attacks, spells or one of the many special cards. The game mechanics are simple enough. Players take the top seven cards from their stack, which is the maximum allowed throughout the game, and draw one new card each turn. They can then play a land card and, if the right mana is available, spells these cover summonings as well as the more traditional fireballs and protection charms. Once sufficient monsters are available, or one if you feel adventurous, they can be used to launch an attack. Should the defending wizard have no monsters of his own he can lay 'instant' or 'interrupt' cards which are opportunity fire spells that might save his bacon. The attacker, in turn and mana permitting, can play these as well. The attacking monster then causes damage to the wizard based on his attack factor a giant for instance will cause four per turn, a wood dryad just the one.

All this is fine, and you would just keep attacking each turn until the wizard died or a spell or special card came up to stop you, but there will usually be defending monsters who block out your attacks and allow combat between the rival bestiaries. This is all simple stuff and is pretty deadly, requiring a steady stream of summonings. The key here is to have enough of the right lands in play to summon the monsters in your hand it is no use having a large number of plains deployed and a hand full of sea monsters hence the option of stacking your own hand.

Running through the game is the concept of 'tapping' the cards, shown by turning them round at right angles or placing a marker on them. This equates to using them up for that turn; in the case of lands they can supply no more mana (needed for defensive instants and interrupts) and monsters cannot defend if they have attacked. The effect is to lower your defences until the start of your next turn when all cards are untapped, so you tend to hold back something or play the effective 'wall' cards which stand on guard. There is also a plethora of special rules, mainly driven off the cards themselves, that create exceptions for most situations. Flying creatures, for instance, may avoid blockers, artifacts might change swamps into monsters, some monsters (Mammoths to name one) have trampling attacks which damages the enemy magician as well as the monster squashed under foot, and there are many other variations.

In play, the game is quite tactical. Depending on your initial cards and the pick ups, your tactics can develop in different ways. Of primary importance is to get land cards laid down as without mana you are dead meat. Monsters follow next as they usually have both attack and defence capability, with spells and artifacts also useful depending what is coming at you. You then start thinking about attacking and whittling down those twenty life points, which will be dependent on the cards at your disposal.

At the end of the day though, especially with pre-stacked cards, it is rather samey. I am not sure why, but five or six games in I was starting to think, 'Here we go again'. The system, although original and well tested, is not too exciting and I am left to wonder if perhaps the rarer cards add that extra spice? Having been supplied the master card list by Alan How recently, there certainly seem to be some intriguing cards out there and, as I calculate I have about 20% of those available, the novelty value must improve.

The game can also tend to stalemate if each player has managed to get a large number of powerful monsters in play in some games we played it got to the point where neither player wanted to attack because many monsters are better on defence and they can always choose who they block. I think this means that, given superior numbers, the defender can always protect his big 'sweeper' and thus reduce the risk of damage to his wizard. In the end, I lost this game by the death of a thousand cuts a one hit per round drain on my wizard finally finished me off. There is a lot to be said for the quick kill tactics.

Magic isn't the greatest card game ever invented, nor is it a patch on Up Front by way of comparison, but it isn't at all bad and is clearly the best of the fantasy duel genre so far. To me, it is evident that a lot of thought has been put into the well structured cardplay and the game benefits as a result. Star Fleet Missions this ain't. I can therefore understand the reaction of the thousands of keen buyers and players, mainly it seems of a fantasy/RPG bent, especially when you add the artwork and sheer diversity of the cards into the equation. For the gamer, perhaps used to rather deeper systems, there is reasonable scope to try new tactics, an appropriate degree of luck and, depending whether you play with prepared decks or not, a good level of novelty- based excitement as you turn the next card to find a lethal black golem or a powerful new spell. At the moment it is only for two players, but multi-player rules are in the works. Duels can vary between five and twenty minutes (you usually play in sets of three) and you can get an awful lot done in an hour.

Magic's failing is that without new cards I feel the game will not be that challenging long term so, eventually, play interest is going to fade. Those comparing the craze to D&D are, I feel, mistaken and my prediction is that it will be seen as a passing fad perhaps a longer term fad, but bereft of the depth and flexibility of D&D. Whatever, I doubt the players are bothered as the initial forays, discovering the cards and collecting are great fun and the Wizards of the Coast are hardly fussed as they must have already made out like bandits one story has them jumping from nowhere to the top selling game company in the States! Well worth a look, though not quite up to the expectations suggested by the buzz, but ask me again when the factory sets hit these shores.

Late News: There will be just 10,000 sets of the complete 302 card factory set (actually 360+ with the additional land cards) and less than 100 of these have been made available to the official UK distributor, some of which Mike Clifford has somehow managed to secure. Having just received my set, I can confirm they are pretty exciting and are going to make the game completely different in scope. Bearing in mind they have now sold a ridiculous number of limited edition cards, and complete sets have changed hands for $1,000 (probably far more by now), these are going to be the hottest hot cakes for years for gamers wishing to own or play with all the cards. Forget the 1991 AD&D cards, we are talking true rarity value.

Even Later News The date is 20th December and I have returned from a week off work to find most every Arabian Nights pack to appear in the UK sold. Leisure Games report selling out 800 packs within hours, Just Games didn't even put them on the shelf, Esdevium had a few left which I purchased. And I didn't even know they were coming. I am not a happy man. This is a game I would really have liked to have played but that's it; it's gone for good. You can look at this two ways: cynically, it would be nice to have the opportunity to actually buy and play the game rather than suffering marketing like Marks & Spencer's if you are too late to buy it, that's your problem my reaction is that the company deserves a swift kick up the arse; alternatively, it must be such a good (or probably collectable) game that you should be prepared to mortgage your granny to get a set. Your decision.

On to the review of Rette Sich Wer Kann or back to Zankapfel.

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