Rekindling Spellfire

If you’re like me, you’re a huge dork. And, as a huge dork, you’ve probably got a hoard of nerdy junk you’ll never touch again: shiny comics that seemed likely to be “collectors items” some day; movie posters and anime wall scrolls that clash with your significant other’s tastes; and, of course, a big box of failed trading card games you tried out in the wake of the release of Magic: The Gathering in the 1990s.

Well, I can’t really help you with the comics and posters, but I still play enough tabletop games with my friends that I felt like I had to be able to do something with some of those old cards. I mean, heck, I spent a lot of money on those things! It’s hard to imagine when you’d ever play an out-of-print game, though, that was specifically designed to be bought not just by you, but by all your friends. That’s why I decided to dig out my old bag of discontinued and discarded collectable card games and see which I could refashion into a single-deck game suitable to play at a nerdy board game party.

Some of these games are a lost cause, of course, such as Jyhad, which even the publisher saw fit to rename and redesign. Some are simply embarrassing, such as Boris and Julie Bell’s Hyborian Gates—a game so ridiculous, it doesn’t even get its own Wikipedia page. But personally, I still have a little soft spot in my heart for some games, such as Illuminati: New World Order, a nicely streamlined version of an existing tabletop game; Doom Trooper, a flawed adaptation of the Mutant Chronicles tabletop game which still manages to preserve some of the weirdly fascinating flavor of the original; and, most of all, the game I decided to revisit here, Spellfire, the pathetic, doomed challenger to Magic: The Gathering‘s throne.

Once upon a time, TSR was something like the champion of the hobbyist gaming industry thanks to Dungeons & Dragons and its many related role-playing franchises. Then Wizards of the Coast came along and published Magic, mixed the collectable trading card model with a hobbyist gaming product in a brilliant move of business alchemy. Eventually, Wizards of the Coast—which later went on to apply this successful formula to another wildly successful collectable card game, Pokémon—would come to acquire TSR, cementing its dominance of the market. Before that, though, TSR attempted to play catch-up, scrambling to tap into the new market Magic created by rushing to release the second-ever CCG, based on its role-playing games’ characters, worlds, and artwork. The result, Spellfire, was notable for a couple reasons: one, for being one of the few CCGs of the ’90s that didn’t closely rip off Magic‘s gameplay mechanics; and two, for being a complete mess.

Spellfire suffered from a number of problems. The art was of professional quality, but it was so obviously reused out of context from TSR’s archives that it often seemed lazily applied, inappropriately matched to card text, and poorly cropped. Different cards sometimes used the exact same art, making them seem identical until you read the full text of the card. Some cards had the same name, but different effects, and many cards duplicated the same effects, but had different names and art. (I have almost as many different cards that “destroy all magical items in play” as magical item cards.) Plenty of cards had confusing wording, and more than a few had errors. Perhaps most unforgivable, though, was that it was the worst kind of “rich kid’s game.”

Quite simply, the more cards you bought, the better your deck. Some cards were high-powered and awesome, and some cards were just so crappy that they were never, ever worth using. When every player can assemble his or her own deck, why play a level 6 wizard who damages your own cards whenever you cast a spell when, instead, you could play a level 6 wizard who doesn’t do that? No good reason, TSR answers, except that this makes it more like a real RPG. The difference between an RPG and a CCG, however, is that one of them is about winning.

Buying more cards still presented problems even to the dedicated player, however. Many cards required unlikely combinations of cards to be drawn or in play to be at all useful. I happened to get some pretty powerful “artifact” cards, for example—but an artifact can only be played on a champion from the same “world” (i.e., D&D franchise), and I really didn’t have enough Greyhawk champions to really make it worth putting my Greyhawk artifacts in any deck. Requiring so many weird combinations just to make cards useful meant that you had to buy a whole lot more cards so you could build very specifically structured decks, but because the rules disallowed duplicates of cards in play and no more than two of any card in a deck, buying tons of cards only yielded a small ratio of usable cards to unusable garbage.

The idea of buying more stuff to make a “collectable” game worth playing probably sounds like basic (if crass) business sense. The real genius of Magic, though, was its attention to balance. Even the really common and seemingly “weak” cards could be used to make competitive decks. More powerful cards required more resources to play (represented by “casting cost”), so you could focus on overwhelming an opponent with low-cost cards and clever combinations of cards. Every pack thus yielded something you could use later. Plus, there were cards that could help level the playing field against the high-power decks: While Magic had cards like “Meekstone” to punish the stronger characters, Spellfire has an array of cards that utterly destroy all of the weakest characters in play. After all, in D&D, higher levels are simply better than lower levels, period.

It’s no surprise that Magic is still going strong today, given its high production values, well-balanced game mechanics, and expansions and revisions that clarify rules. Spellfire, meanwhile, was discontinued years ago after three more editions and, unfortunately, a bucket load of even more confusing rules additions. Before this beast was put to rest, players had to keep track not only of their cards in play and their decks, but special “dungeon” and “avatar” cards that required their own new sets of rules, and three separate discard piles, each governed by its own set of rules. Yikes.

Somewhere buried in all of that, though, was a game I really enjoyed playing. The basic rules are actually quite simple: The first player to have 6 “realm” cards in play wins, and you can use your “champion” cards to attack and defend those realms. In a battle, the champion with the highest level (augmented by cards representing magical items, magic spells, and allies) wins. Easy enough, right? Actually, it can be—but you kind of have to trim down the rules and fiddle with deck makeup to run as smoothly as this.

So, when I dug out my cards the other day in search of something to take my mind off work in the evening, I set about the task of figuring out how to make this game work properly. I decided to record some (re)design decisions for those who might consider doing likewise with this game or with other old, discarded games. Here’s what I ended up with.

Favor cards of mediocre power. Some of the cards in this game are unquestionably awesome, while others just flat-out suck. When designing your own deck, it only makes sense to include the best cards and to leave out the ones with drawbacks. In an all-in-one-deck game, though, having a balanced selection of cards makes the most sense—which means focusing on the mid-range cards and removing the outliers.

Leaving out the most pointless cards was easy enough, but it did take some restraint to remove really powerful cards I remember using well in the past. Cards like “Border Forts” (which can be used to protect all of your realms from attack for the better part of the game) and “Menzoberranzan” (a realm that can be played at any time, making it easier to snag a surprise victory) had to get the axe. Many of the event cards in particular were just way too powerful, like “Caravan” (which gives the player two turns in a row), so I only included events that affected all players equally. This omitted some fun cards, but made the game more balanced and avoided overlap with magic spells with duplicate effects.

Along the same lines, I wanted the champions specifically to complement one another in interesting ways, so I tried to remove the most powerful cards and focus on a core of champions with interesting abilities in a narrower range of levels. I left a mix of heroes, wizards, and monsters, but intentionally left out wizards above a certain level, figuring that anybody who could cast spells and beat most other champions in combat would just be too powerful. It’s sad to leave out “Midnight, Goddess of Magic,” a terrific level 7 wizard who destroys opponents’ magical items and prevents opponents from casting any spells at all, but it’s much more painful to let it exist in a game where getting that one card probably means complete dominance in battle.

Finally, I had to put in special effort to undo Spellfire‘s bias toward giving bonuses to the cards that were already high-level. Why even make a card that kills every champion below level 4? Talk about picking on the little guy. Cards like that got the axe in favor of those that helped my lower-level champions, like “Berserker Fury!”, which powers up all heroes (who can’t cast magic spells and tend to be weaker than the monsters in the deck).

Optimize for likelier combinations. I realized that I didn’t have many cleric spells, and the ones I did have were pretty crumby. In the interest of simplifying the rules and making it reasonably likely that every card could feel useful, then, I removed all clerics and cleric spells from the deck entirely. Similarly, before I threw in any cards that would specifically affect only monsters, I made sure I had enough monsters to make them worth it. Turns out I did have enough, including a card that destroys all monsters in play, and a few champions that get bonuses fighting against monster champions. This should offset the fact that a few monsters are the most powerful spell casters in the deck.

Remove extraneous references. There’s a neat champion named Marco Volo, who’ll let you look at the top card of any draw pile at the beginning of your turn. He didn’t make the cut, though. Why not? Well, there’s only one draw pile now, and I don’t want to confuse any newcomers I teach this game to. Also excised, of course, were all cards referring to the ability to cast cleric spells.

Adjust card-playing rules. When I was testing out my new one-deck version of the game, I noticed that whoever drew more champions tended to win through sheer overwhelming numbers. This was largely because you can play as many champions as you want each turn, no matter how powerful they are (again, unlike Magic, which limits you to playing only the spells you have the resources to cast). I decided that now, you can only play one “permanent” card of each type per turn—so, just one champion, one realm, one magic item, and so on. Not only does this help keep the champions more manageable, but it keeps more cards in each player’s hand, making combat more interesting (because there’s some question about how many allies your opponent might be able to play).

Remove needless and confusing rules. If you run out of realms, you’re supposed to lose all your champions. But why punish a player who’s already behind? The original game also had special rules about bonuses to calculate when champions defend a realm from the same “world” (i.e., D&D franchise), but those get the axe just because I don’t want to have to make any calculations without the numbers represented on cards right in front of me. And, needless to say, I also consolidated all the various discard piles.

In the end, I shot for a 128-card deck: 28 champions, 28 allies, 14 spells, 10 magical items, 10 events, 8 holdings, 30 realms, and no clerics, cleric spells, or artifacts. That’s pretty hefty for a two-player game, making it unlikely that you’d cycle through the whole draw pile even if you play to 10 realms rather than 6, but I was hoping this would work for up to 4 players as well. I may need to make some adjustments after I play it with another real person (preferably one who has never played before, who can tell me if it’s really as straightforward and fun as I hope it is).

I suspect that rearranging these cards (and writing this absurdly long blog post) may constitute the geekiest thing I have ever done, but honestly, I’ve had a lot of fun with it. It’s nice to feel like I can still get some use out of stuff I blew my money on years ago, and I’m looking forward to trying it out at the next gaming night.

Holy crap, someone else actually played Spellfire?! Should you ever find yourself out this way, I want to try your crazy single-deck version. My cards all disappeared into oblivion long ago.

Actually, one other thing — it’s interesting that you mention Spellfire as a rich kid’s game, since it was definitely the poor M:TG stepchild in my area. There were so many hilariously broken cards that building a stupidly powerful deck wasn’t terribly expensive, at least not compared to spending time tracking down the “power cards” for decent-quality Magic decks. How many Spellfire starter sets could you get for the cost of a full set of four M:TG dual lands in your colors? Like 3? 4?

Jason, I won’t comment on whether or not this is the geekiest thing you’ve ever done. But, I will tell you that as someone who never played Spellfire, but did play magic and D & D, I’d say that it sounds like you’ve crafted a game that would be fun to play. I really want to sugges that you try to redesign mousetrap now to fix the problem I always had with that game: it took forever to get the actual mouse trap up and working.

Also, was the use of tap in the sentence “scrambling to tap into the new market Magic created by rushing to release the second-ever CCG” intentional? Cause if it was, that would be awesome.

As some tenacious fans online maintain, it was a lot cheaper to pick up Spellfire decks than Magic decks, especially after retailers realized they were gonna have to slash prices to move them at all. And yeah, some of those Magic rares were indeed tough to get your hands on.

Even so, I knew a girl in high school who had a Magic deck with nothing but her spare “Merfolk,” “Unstable Mutation,” and “Island” cards—and it kicked ass. One of my most successful (tournament legal!) Magic decks was built on “Kird Ape,” “Lightning Bolt,” “Atog,” “Giant Growth,” and cheap artifacts I had lying around. Probably my most success deck consisted of only one rare card (“Meekstone”), a bunch of red cards that damage you and your opponent, and four “Circle of Protection: Red” cards to protect me from myself.

You just can’t do that kind of thing with your Spellfire castoffs.

Oh, and Chris: Gen suggests setting up the mousetrap before you start playing. I suggest not playing Mousetrap.

Back when I played or tried to play mousetrap, we did set it up a head of time a couple of times, but then the game, if I remember right, was boring because alot of the game play is about assemblying the game.

Since we are talking about rare Magic cards, I think my rarest were a “Jester Cap” and a “Lord of the Pit”. The latter being cool just because of the huge demon on the card.

So though unrelated to most of the post:
“movie posters and anime wall scrolls that clash with your significant other’s tastes”
I’m pretty sure that makes for awesome office decorating to accompany recently purchased NES/Robot art and vintage Disney posters.

I knew you would eventually read this post and make some sort of comment to reassure the world that you are impressively nerdy in your tastes. For this, you do deserve much credit. But seriously, honey, I’m talking about wall scrolls with giant-eyed, spandex-clad teenagers against a backdrop of giant, creepy, semi-organic mechas. Even I hesitate to hang up things that raise suspicions of robopedophilia.

I’m not sure anybody cares, but I’m clearly in “oversharing mode” when I write a treatise on Spellfire. I guess I’ll chime in once more to say that, after adjusting the deck a bit and adding some new rules, I think single-deck Spellfire (The Revenge) is done. Here are the new rules I made up to make games a little less lopsided.

The first two new rules deal with the part of the turn where you put new champions and magic items into play (a.k.a. “Phase 3”). These simplify the rules for new players, I think, and make sure that one player can’t completely overwhelm the other with attackers.

Recruitment expenses. You may play one champion and one magic item into your pool each turn, plus any you add through spoils of victory. (And, unlike in the official rules, each champion may only hold one magic item, and magic items can’t be played in the middle of combat.)

Population control. You may only have up to three champions in your pool at one time. If you play a fourth, one of the original three must be discarded.

The second pair of new rules deals with the discard phase. Because there are two options during this phase and neither is the standard “discard to the discard pile” option we’d expect, these do potentially complicate things for a newcomer. Still, they really help a player with a crap hand, and they compensate for the fact that I didn’t have usable cards that would get stuff out of the discard pile. In teaching the game, I expect I’ll just explain that discards go to the loser, and you can draw a new hand if you have a bunch of bad cards.

Relinquish. If you have more than 8 cards in your hand during the discard phase, you must discard down to 8 cards and give the discarded cards to the opponent with the fewest face-up realms in play.

Explore. If you have no face-up realms in play and more than 5 cards in your hand during your discard phase, you may opt to discard your entire hand and draw 5 new cards.

I came up with some multiplayer rules, too, but it turns out they’re pretty close to the official multiplayer rules, even down to the number of realms needed to win in a team game (10).

Anyway, I find it hard to believe that anybody else out there is crazy enough to assemble their own Spellfire variant and then admit to having done so on a stranger’s (or, worse, friend’s) blog—but if you are, I’d love to hear what you come up with!

So Jason if you don’t hang them up what do you do with material that “raise suspicions of robopedophilia.”?

So Jason if you don’t hang them up what do you do with material that “raise suspicions of robopedophilia.”?

I realized after writing the above comment that I actually threw out my old anime wall scrolls when I moved in with Gen. And by “threw out,” I definitely don’t mean “found a special hiding place for.” Nope.

I’m glad to hear it. I had some really worrisome vision of your having to go door to door telling people of your criminal status.

Incidentally, I played this with Gen last night for the first (and second) time, and we kind of made up a couple more rules as we went. Namely, we decided you could use champions from your hand as if they were allies if you wanted (which helped prevent people without allies from getting screwed), and we kind of ignored the rule that allies of a flyer need to be flyers too.

Also, Gen continually berated the design of cards as being inferior to Magic‘s, especially because you have to remember what each card is or does from its icon (whereas Magic says whether it’s a Sorcery, Creature, etc.). And this is after I removed clerics/cleric spells and artifacts (and failed to acquire expansions introducing additional icons).

[…] them for a game or something, and my loved ones are kind of sick of hearing me talk about recycling silly cards for […]

I can’t believe I found this blog….and someone as nerdy as myself who is also trying to modify Spellfire into something playable : )

I have been attempting to make Spellfire into a working solitaire game for a while now. I found an old article from Dragon Magazine that detailed a solitaire variant for Spellfire, and after tweaking it a bit, I think I’ve come up with something playable. After reading your new rules, it may be an even better solitaire game then before. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. You and your (imaginary) opponent both draw from the same deck.

  2. Instead of playing a realm on your turn, you start with all six realms in play. Your (imaginary) opponent is trying to destroy your realms, and you are trying to defend them.

  3. If a realm is razed, you unraze it by defeating your (imaginary) opponent’s next champion on your turn.

  4. Your (imaginary) opponent automatically attacks the next available realm on their turn with their strongest champion. You can choose to defend or not. If you do not, your (imaginary) opponent is “committed” for that turn and cannot defend on your upcoming next turn.

  5. Your (imaginary) opponent is equipped and attacks in the most advantageous manner possible. This requires a bit honesty on your part….if you intentionally weaken your (imaginary) opponent, it just makes the game less fun for yourself.

  6. You win if you have 3 or more unrazed realms when the common deck runs out AND either you or your (imaginary) opponent has no champions remaining.

Using your simplified rules make it easier to play with a single deck. It can be further simplified by removing all class and domain restrictions for adding spells, weapons, magic items, etc.

A hardcore Spellfire player would probably laugh at most of any of these rules adjustments, but I don’t really care. The chances of ever finding another person to play with is miniscule where I live anyway lol

Call it “Spellfire, but not really Spellfire, just something that sorta looks like Spellfire but is easier to play then the official Spellfire”.

As I get older, my inner geek is emerging in new and totally dorky ways!

It is very reassuring to know that I am not alone in this (even if, like you, I pretty much have to play Spellfire alone if I want to play).

I actually ended up pretty substantially revising the rules again with a friend, so maybe I’ll post those sometime soon.

Some friends and I have been playing an interesting variant from a shared pool of cards:

Assemble all cards, sort them into the following categories and deal the following number to each player: 40 realms, 30 champions, 30 abilities (spells, psionics, blood abilities, etc…), 20 allies, 20 events, 20 magical items, 15 holdings, 10 artifacts, and 5 rule/dungeon cards.

Next, all players make a 55 card deck from the 190 cards they were dealt.
Deck creation requires some skill, as you have to make the best of a few good cards and a bunch of less desirable ones. It tends to limit the number of OP cards that any player has.

Occasionally you’ll get a deck that is just way too under powered, but usually it seems to be fairly even.

The huge number of realms is due to the fact that there are so many common reams that are completely useless.

Play time is about 4 hours including shuffling, dealing, deck building, and actual game play.

Oh, additionally, here’s an idea to make weaker champions more useful: you can only play champions based on the number of realms in play.

of Realms Champion Level

0              3
1              4
2              5
3              7
4              9
5             Any

This admittedly does make the mechanic a little bit more like MTG, but since there is no cumulative damage, and battle ends after an attacker loses one champion, there is no real possibility to become overwhelmed by a horde of small creatures. Also, you’re still able to play as many cards as you want, so this still fits with the spirit of the game.

The more people playing Spellfire, the better. Let’s get this game into production again!