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GAME CLASSICS: SPELLMAKER

[It’s been awhile since we revisited great games from the past that have departed from the shelves of the marketplace. In past installments of our Game Classics series, we have featured an incredible assortment of brilliant designs: Astron, Bantu, Broker, Can’t Stop, Daytona 500, Focus, Holiday, Kimbo, Mr. President, Ploy, Rich Uncle, Square Mile, Stock Market Game (by Gabriel), Summit, Troque/Troke, Trump: the Game (1989) and Wildcatter. In this issue, we go on a mission: to rescue a princess from powerful wizards in Spellmaker.]

Reviewed by Herb Levy

SPELLMAKER (GameTime Games, 1978, 2, 3 or 4 players, ages 8 and up, 45 minutes to 3 hours; out of print)

 

Heritage Models, a company devoted to wargaming, launched a series of lighter games in the mid 1970s. The line included a bunch of very interesting titles including Quest (medieval knights), Grand Imperialism (colonization), Sopwith (World War I air combat), Star Fighter (space combat) and Strange New Worlds (space colonization). While all of these games had something to offer, one of them in particular stands out – their game of wizards and enchantments: Spellmaker.spellmaker1

Spellmaker came in a big square box that held a mounted mapboard, four sets of counters, a deck of 108 spell cards and only four pages of rules. The uncredited designer of the game was Eric Solomon, best known for Conspiracy (aka The Sigma File) and Black Box. In Spellmaker, Solomon turned his attention to fantasy and magic as each player became a powerful wizard whose goal was to find the princess of the realm and safely transport her back to his castle.

The large board shows the, mostly impassable, enchanted land. On each of the four corners is a castle of a wizard (in red, blue, black or yellow). Linking the four castles is a crisscross of paths dotted with clearings. All clearings, called “domains”, are marked by cottages, villages and symbols. Larger clearings (called “magic domains”) are also named. The princess counter begins in the center of the board.

Each player receives circular counters in their color in five varieties (from strongest to weakest): giants, princes, dwarves, frogs and toadstools. The spell cards are shuffled and players dealt a starting hand of 4 cards (with 4 players), or 5 cards (with 3) or 6 cards (with 2). The remaining cards become a draw deck. Now, players place one of each type of their counters, in order, one at a time, on any domain on the board. At the start, only one piece may inhabit any one domain. Play begins with the player placing the last counter going first.

Combat is the first action to be resolved and it’s done very simply and cleanly. Pieces of the active player remove ALL pieces of lesser strength in an area occupied by forces of that player. For example, giants remove all other pieces (except other giants) but dwarves can only remove frogs and toadstools. Toadstools, however, are not defenseless. They are poisonous and will remove any giants caught in their area! Removal is at the discretion of the active player as pieces do NOT have to be removed. Now, the player is faced with the choice of either moving OR casting a spell.spellmaker2

On turn, a player may move ONE of his pieces. All pieces (except the toadstool which remains rooted where it is placed) are allowed to move to an adjacent domain. If that piece is moving from a domain that the princess occupies, that piece may take the princess along for the ride! Of course, should another piece occupy that space, that new piece may move the princess, quite likely in a totally different direction, on that player’s turn!

Instead of moving, a player may cast ONE spell, done by playing a card (or cards) from his hand. The 108 card spell deck consists of 20 cards in each of the four colors (four cards depicting each of the 5 characters), 10 “Wild” cards (two each of the 5 characters valid for use with any color) and 18 Null cards. By playing the right set of cards, counters can be changed to different characters, e.g. a red dwarf may morph into a red giant. (There is a restriction here. A player may have no more than three of the same type of his pieces on the board at any one time.) A character card played with a Null card removes that piece from the board or, alternatively, places a new counter in a magic domain. Multiple cards of the same character allow that character to travel “magically” from magic domain to magic domain, effectively doubling (or even quadrupling) a counter’s movement. Wizards can play defense too. They can always cancel a spell, immediately out of turn, by playing the same number of Null cards as was used in an opponent’s spell. But the use of spells has limitations. They may only be cast on characters in a magic domain.spellmakerboxspellmakerbox

Players are limited to their starting hand size UNLESS they manage to escort the princess to the magic domain which lies just outside each of their castles. Each time that happens, the hand limit of that wizard increases by 1. Since spell casting is the engine that runs this machine, hand size is of paramount importance.

The first wizard to successfully bring the princess back to his castle wins!

Spellmaker had all the makings of a classic – until the folks at Heritage got their hands on it! As too often happens, the vision of the designer is blurred in the finished product. To speed up play, Heritage contributed two ideas. The good one was to make the wizard castles magic domains for the purpose of moving the princess, making “princess transport” easier. The bad idea was to expand the game’s original number of cards (62) to a much larger 108. The idea was that more cards made for more action. The reality was that more cards made it more difficult to draw the cards you needed, made Null cards uncommon leading to players hoarding them for the “right moment” and, because of the larger deck, led to less reshuffling so needed cards appeared less often. This led to an endgame that could drag on much too long. (Note the three hour possible game time above!)

Designer Solomon has offered two excellent suggestions for speeding up and improving the game with which we concur. First, restore the original game deck, easy enough to do by pruning the existing deck until you’re left with 62 cards: two cards in each color for each of the five creatures plus 10 Wild cards (2 for each creature) plus 12 Null cards. Now cards will continually be recycled and the ever helpful Null cards will appear more frequently. Second, modify the game turn to allow players to move AND play a spell each turn. The result? Cards will fly across the table as spells are cast and characters moved, bringing the game to an exciting conclusion in a reasonable time.

Spellmaker is an intriguing game of magical spells. By implementing the modest modifications suggested by the designer, Spellmaker magically transforms itself into an engaging game of enchantment that reaches deserved classic game status. – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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