Collectible Wizard Slash Is Less Fun Than It Sounds

by Shim

Shim exposes the tangled innards of Wizardology: the board game to the cold light of day
Uh-oh! This is in the Axis of Awful...
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Merlin, the apple of your eye, has retreated to his magical hideaway to study ancient tomes. How can you hope to win his love? You must make a dangerous journey across the land to find him. But only the most gorgeously-attired wizard can hope to catch his eye and win his heart. Along your way, you must seek out the perfect accessories for your outfit - and fend off all the unworthy suitors who are trying to steal Merlin from you.

This is not the tagline for the board game "Wizardology". But it should be.

I came across Wizardology in a local games shop, and was fascinated. I didn't realise at the time that it is based on a series of books. What I noticed was that it was a board game about accessorizing wizards, complete with little toy wizards to accessorize! It was also relatively cheap, so I grabbed it, and prevailed upon Kyra and Dan to help me test it out.

The first thing that strikes you about this game, when you open the box, is the array of little wizard figures. More specifically, the array of little ethnic stereotypes of distinctly dubious nature. You get:
* One "Western" pointy-hatted gown-wearer with pet owl
* One beturbaned, wedge-bearded "Arabian" wizard with pet monkey
* One "Lapp shaman" with pet wolf
* One "Oriental wizard" with conical hat, Fu Manchu facial hair and pet tortoise
* One "Indian fakir" standing in Tree yoga position (i.e. on one leg) wearing a shred of robe, with pet cobra
* One "African" wizard with hockey mask, feathered headdress, feather fan and pet ocelot.


It's a bit cringeworthy (in fairness, I'm not sure how I'd have depicted an array of wizards from different traditions), but we pressed on. The box has all kinds of goodies, including collectible staves, hats, medallions and the aforementioned familiars. For some reason the medallions are full-sized, rather than made for the figures, which means you can't accessorize the wizards with them. I have no idea why they decided on that. There is also an array of cards in various decks, a couple of magnetic rings, and a wand. The board consists entirely of spaces that do things: you either draw cards or roll dice for something on every space, and you always have a choice of which direction to move, including bouncing off walls to go back on yourself. All this should add up to an interesting game.

Somehow, it doesn't. Kyra barely survived the experience; I had slightly more fun, but that was more due to the banter and critiqueing than the actual game. So where did it go wrong?

Complexity /= Interestingness


I think the first problem might actually be the complexity of the board. In theory, a mazelike board where every square does something should be interesting. Actually, it often just served to slow down play and vaguely irritate us. For example, there are several "lose a turn" squares. However, the game mechanics mean you can choose which direction to move, which means you never have to land on one, so they become entirely redundant. The "magic items" you pick up are basically keys to enter four rooms, where you can perform a test to try and acquire an accessory. This got a bit irritating, because you not only have to physically navigate the maze to the room you want, but also pick up the right key. Each time you fail - which is moderately likely - you need a new key to try the test again. As a result, you basically end up grinding for keys so as not to waste the effort of getting to the room if you then fail the challenge. Once finished, you have a stack of useless keys, which increases as you complete more and more challenges.

A separate "Phoenix Feather" space lets you randomly pick up one of three types of fast travel item, which should make moving round the maze much easier. However, one of them is very limited and the other has a 50% chance to fail, which puts you off deliberately landing on those squares. We only used them a handful of times, mostly just to see what they did. It didn't really seem worth using them.

There are also "Prophecy" spaces, which let you draw a prophecy card. This seems like a fun idea - you can get both good and bad results, and some can be saved to use later (although there's very little prophetic about them - they're basically Event cards). Unfortunately, because of the implementation, even the "good" cards are usually irritating. The best are those which let you steal a random card from another player (usually pointless), protect you from such stealing, or allow you to rotate the board. The last seems like a fun mechanism, and could have done with expansion. One type sends you back to the start, which is a board game standard, though there seem to be quite a lot of them. Another type is supposed to be a bonus: it allows you to travel directly to a secret room, though you can't enter without the appropriate key. Unfortunately, the room is indicated on the card, which means most of the time this is no different from going back to the start - you end up somewhere you didn't want to be, quite possibly on the wrong side of the board entirely.

Finally, there are "Spells and potions" spaces. These are far less cool than they sound. Basically, you roll two special dice, and a random spell results. A full 50% of the time, it goes wrong and you are trapped until you can reverse the spell by rolling the same result. The rest of the time, the spell works, in which case you either get a slight benefit or completely screwed. One of the spells is "swap places with another wizard", which means you take over their piece and all its cards and accessories. It's entirely possible for someone about to win to land here and have to swap, which just makes no sense from a thematic point of view and is a pain as a game mechanism. We found ourselves just avoiding these spaces altogether, because a bad result was just far more likely than anything remotely useful.

Randomness /= Challenge


The problem here, as with the rest of the game, is randomness. You have a lot of choice over your movement, allowing you to land on particular spaces or take different paths through the maze, and sod all over anything else. A few random elements in a game can be fun; card pickups are an interesting diversion in Monopoly, but don't control the main flow of the game. On the other extreme, completely random games are usually less frustrating because there isn't the illusion of control. Here, there are a lot of complex elements, but your relationship with them is basically random, and in almost all cases the result is not beneficial. There is virtually no interactivity between the elements of the game, or the players, except completely random ones.

Okay, there is an exception to that. Wizard Duels. If you land on certain spaces, or in the same space as another wizard, you can engage them in combat for a specified number of cards (drawn randomly from their deck). What fun! we think, and then we read the rules. There are two special decks of three cards for this, allowing you to use Potion, Spell or Chant in the duel. Wait, this sounds familiar. In fact, it's a big old game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, except without the psychological and tactical aspects of that game, because you draw one card at random to play. In other words, the Wizard Duel gives you a 33% chance to nick some cards and a 33% chance to lose some, and the outcome is totally random. It looks interactive, but it's no more so than the card draws that let you steal from other players.

Similarly, even the main object of the game - acquiring your accessories - boils down to a set of challenges with random outcomes. You pick a staff from a pile and see if it's yours; you roll a dice to try and match your allocated familiar; you literally flip a coin to acquire your hat. Even the most interesting challenge, making the magic disks levitate with your wand, comes down to a 50% shot at putting a magnet the right way round.

Activity /= Fun


Basically, the designers seem to have worked on the assumption that having a lot to do is the same as having a lot of fun. Anyone who has ever had a job or homework can disprove this assumption. I think there are simply too many competing elements in the game, which are not linked into each other, and very few of them give any agency to the players. Coupled with the very repetitive nature of some elements, it just makes the game unnecessarily slow and a bit tiresome.

Shoddy Merchandise


Finally, there was the question of quality. The board and the cards are rather nice and well-produced. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the key selling-point, i.e. the wizards and their accoutrements. The painting was a bit slapdash, and the models slightly distorted, which meant the accessories don't quite fit or stay in place. There is also the aforementioned issue of them all being glaring stereotypes.

Gay Wizard Accessory Quest


On a different note entirely, one of the few things Wizardology does have going for it is its progressive stance on sexuality. The background story to the game, in which you must rescue Merlin from a magical prison, is a clear parallel to the "Rescue the Princess" quests so common in fantasy, even if they've been mealy-mouthed about articulating it. Not convinced? One of the spells you can cast in the game is a love spell, which makes two other wizards fall in love until they can break the spell. Since all the wizards are blatantly male, this makes the game's stance admirably clear.

Counterfactual Criticism


As I've mentioned, there are elements here that could be fun, and the problem is partly in the combination. For example, moving random distances around the board grinding for random keys in order to get a random chance to win an accessory is just too much randomness. Imagine, instead of the key pickup spaces, that as parallels to the four secret rooms there were four magic workshops where you could create the keys. Now you have a tactical element - working out optimal routes around the board, and deciding how many turns to spend making keys before you head to the secret room. Underestimate and you have to go back; overestimate and you wasted time. The spaces that were for picking up keys could just be blank. Alternatively, make the secret room challenges into actual challenges, rather than random results. The same applies to some extent to the prophecies, especially those that allow you to open locked maze doors and to rotate the board. There was simply too little of that to make it an interesting aspect of the game.

The cards could be more fun if there was some element of choice involved. Simply changing the duelling rules to let you pick a duelling card, instead of drawing at random, might make it feel less pointless. Making the prophecies interact with each other more could create interesting tactical elements.

The spells, especially, really need some work. This is clearly supposed to be a risky decision - take a 50% shot at getting an advantage or losing (potentially) several turns! However, because you can't choose the spell you want, the risk-reward ratio is simply too high. Allowing you to choose the spell might make these squares worthwhile. This might also help with the "swap places" rule, which seems like a cheap shot at the moment. If swapping places and items was a more significant part of the game, it could be a lot of fun. I know it's a minor consideration, but it would also make more sense in the context, which is wizards scheming against each other and carefully planning their actions.

I'm not saying that changing all of those things would necessarily make a better game; it would make a completely different one. However, changing some of them, so that the game focused more on particular elements, would perhaps be an improvement. At the moment, I can't see how it would hurt.

Overall


On the whole, this was a disappointing game. It had a vaguely interesting premise and a variety of mechanisms that looked like they could be fun. However, it turned out to feel very mechanical and soulless, with too many random elements to be tactically interesting, but too much complexity to make a fast-paced, fun random game. Despite the many cards that let you take cards off other players, you can basically ignore the other players, because there's little or no interaction between you; these cards are just another random element among many.

It's quite possible that children would find it more fun, as they tend to have more tolerance for repetitive games. On the other hand, there are so many penalty elements to the game, and so few bonus elements, that I could see myself getting upset and frustrated by it when I was younger.

Final gripes


Two last things.

First, pedantry. The back of the board, and every magical item card, bears the words "As I will, so mote it be" with the implication that this is something Merlin says. Kyra informs me that this is something Wiccans say. My knowledge of Wicca is pretty much nil. On the other hand, I can reliably state that Merlin would never have said "As I will, so mote it be", because for one thing Merlin was not a Wiccan, and for another he was freakin' Welsh. Oh, and he almost certainly didn't exist, but I'm willing to let that one slide.

Addendum to pedantry: "wizardological accessories"? I hate you, Sababa Toys Inc. I hate you so much.

There's also a slight undertone of cultural superiority to the game. The game starts well, with a diverse cast of wizardly traditions (despite the dodgy models). However, all of the magic in the game, with the exception of the genie, is very much in the Western European tradition, as are the items and the magical symbols used on the game pieces. Moreover, the premise of the game is that wizards from all over the world are striving to be worthy of Merlin, the white Western wizard, which could be taken as implying that their own magical traditions are inferior. I'm not saying that's what the game was trying to say, any more than I think they were genuinely trying to make a gay wizard romance game, but it's there to find.

I am Merlin, the mighty wizard of the Pendragons. My spirit has been trapped in an oak tree by an evil sorceress. If you are to release me and become my successor, you must first complete the various challenges laid down in this game, thus proving yourself to be a Master Wizard. Move through the maze, collect the magical items, cast spells, and perform tasks to acquire wizardological accessories. But be careful - your opponents will be prepared to use cunning strategy and magic in their attempts to defeat you and win the game. Are you ready to face the challenges of wizardology? If so, your journey begins here.

As I will, so mote it be.
Merlin
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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 11:14 on 2011-01-04
I am astonished you had faculities to analyse quite why this game was such a miserable experience.

All I could think was "no ... fun ... must ... have ... fun ..." between drooling onto the board and banging my head on the table.
Dan H at 15:38 on 2011-01-04
I feel a bit bad about hating Wizardology so much because it's clearly supposed to be a game targeted at a younger audience, but I always think that the reason so many children think board games are awful and boring is that there are so many awful boring board games out there targeted at them.
Rami at 23:35 on 2011-01-04
Moreover, the premise of the game is that wizards from all over the world are striving to be worthy of Merlin, the white Western wizard, which could be taken as implying that their own magical traditions are inferior.

Ooh, yes, I ran across that sort of thing in some books I read, and I don't suppose it's any less annoying in a gay wizard romance game :-(
Wardog at 09:22 on 2011-01-05
I think we should MAKE a gay wizard romance game.

I think it would be awesome.
Arthur B at 09:34 on 2011-01-05
You could base it off Mage: the Awakening. Only this time the awakening isn't a mystical one.
Shim at 10:50 on 2011-01-21
I found my photos of this game. Does anyone actually want to see them or shall I not bother?
Though I don't actually know how to add photos.
Arthur B at 14:15 on 2011-01-21
Though I don't actually know how to add photos.

You use the image library function, which isn't actually linked from the admin page but is linked from the article-editing page.
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