Title: Wizard Kings
Release Date: 2007 (original release in 2000)
Publisher: Columbia Games
Age: 10 and older
Pros: Attractive board and components, clear rulebook, beautiful maps, easily adapted rules.
Cons: Expensive game, with a collectible aspect that may turn off players.
Overall Score: Two thumbs sideways, 77/100, C+, *** out of 5
Wizard Kings is a fantasy wargame from Columbia Games. While scenarios vary, players generally control a fantasy race or faction, led by – you guessed it – a wizard king capable of casting battle-altering spells.
Columbia’s main focus for boardgames are historical games, generally using their enjoyable ‘block’ system for armies. Each army (and, for this game, king) is represented by a wooden block that stands up on the board. The block has various combat attributes on it, and as the army takes damage or gains reinforcements, it is rotated to represent the new strength. Fantasy wargames generally go for epic in scope, with mighty forces clashing on the board. Conquest of Nerath is a recent game in the same genre, although this type of game was far more popular in the past.
This is War. Kill the Other Guys.
Game set-up depends on the scenario, but generally players each pick a random map, chooses and builds an army and sets it up. Each turn begins with players randomly rolling to see who goes first (so player moving last the previous turn could move first in the next, effectively getting two turns in a row). Players then take turns moving their armies. Maneuver is critical in this game, as each hex has stacking limits, and movement across hexsides is fairly restrictive–at most two armies can cross a hexside in a given turn, and often only one. As combat favors the defender, the attacker generally needs a numerical advantage, achieved by first securing access to a hex from more than one side. Past that, movement is fairly intuitive, with woods, rivers, and such slowing armies down (unless the army has a special bonus, such as dwarves moving through mountains).
Combat is standard for a block game, being non-simultaneous. “Class A” armies roll first, one die for each point of strength, hitting for rolling low. Then “Class B”, and so on. Its a fun and easily grasped system, and one good roll can simply devastate an opposing force. There are various rules for naval combats, retreats, and reinforcements, but they’re all very straightforward, as one might expect in an 8 page rulebook rich with examples and clarifications.
After combat comes building (again, depending on the scenario). Players get gold depending on how many cities they control, with gold quickly spent to buy more units to cover the fairly bloody combat. An army can vary somewhat, from the fast, flying, but weak pixies to the hard-hitting dwarven crossbow troops to the plentiful but slow and feeble goblins. Other than speed and movement, however, armies generally don’t have much to differentiate them beyond the (very nice) artwork, and that’s fine for this game.
Although also represented by a block, wizards operate a bit differently, not actually rolling dice in battle. Instead, they damage themselves to cast spells, such as “lightning bolt”. As maximum hit points for an army/wizard is 4, spellcasting is done with great care, and a dead wizard cannot be replaced. While most spells deal some random damage, each army usually has special spells–the undead can scare armies and sacrifice enemies for strength, while dwarven wizards can conjure stone bridges and walls. Again, emphasis is on simplicity, and the entire spell list with descriptions fits on a card for each army. Special “henge” hexes allow wizards to regain their strength.
While most historical games have a built-in reason for battle, Wizard Kings war for the sake of war. Victory is usually determined by capturing cities, which, due to the building rules, will often be defended.
Where’s the Rest of It?
This is a pretty game with solid components and great rules, but there’s definitely something missing. The leader of the undead army is named Varghan, but I have no idea who he is or why he’s the head necromancer. The maps are filled with evocative names like “Duna’s Folly”, “Cape Fear”, and “Point Pixie”, but no fluff in the rules to tell me any background. Your entire army, at best, is…8 pieces, and it’s hard to feel all epic at that (although the scenario where you control two armies helps–strangely, 16 armies does feel kind of epic). Expansion sets, at $12 apiece, are filled with random pieces and extra rules to give the game more mechanical depth, but there’s nothing in the expansion to give me any feel for the fantasy world of Wizard Kings.
A Game for Everyone, Someone for Every Game
Wizard Kings is one of the few wargames around that actually supports up to 7 players, making it a great game for the right group of players, or for pick-up games in a hobby shop. The lean rules system and very open design makes this a nearly perfect game for would-be game designers to tinker with, and there are many player designed scenarios available. For a group willing to invest time into fleshing the game and world out, this could easily become a way of life, and I’m already thinking how I can use the system and pieces here to supplement my own Dungeons and Dragons game. In short, Wizard Kings is a rare game, where how much fun you can have with it depends on what you make of it.