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 Gatesâ€”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 Coastâ€”which later went on to apply this successful formula to another wildly successful collectable card game, PokÃ©monâ€”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 â€™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 exampleâ€”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 beâ€”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 senseâ€”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 turnâ€”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.