On one hand, we had Spellfire…On the other hand, we had Magic…We chose the Familiar D&D with Spellfire. Oops.
Shortly after I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, a new type of game came to the market: the collectible card game, or CCG. Wizards of the Coast burst onto the scene with Magic the Gathering in 1993. Every gamer is at least aware of Magic, but it seems the second-ever CCG published, Spellfire: Master the Magic, has been utterly forgotten.
Even in the Facebook group for Gary Con, an old school gaming convention ran by Gary Gygax’s son, Luke, I had people arguing with me that I was conflating this Spellfire concept with the D&D trading cards. Only when Jim Ward himself entered the conversation and verified that Spellfire was indeed a game he made did some stop questioning my sanity. If a convention frequented by grognards and D&D history aficionados didn’t remember the game, it really does seem to have been forgotten.
I remember that in early 1994, my friend Matt told me about these new card games where you build your own deck and then compete. At the time, there were a few: the aforementioned Magic and Spellfire, as well as Jyhad (also by WOTC), soon to be followed by a glut of other CCG’s: Doomtrooper, Netrunner, Star Trek, Star Wars, and on and on. We knew we wanted to try one, but we needed to decide which one to try. On one hand, we had Spellfire. It was made by the famous TSR and featured the Dungeons & Dragons intellectual property. On the other hand, we had Magic, featuring an unknown fantasy world made by an unknown company called Wizards of the Coast. We chose the Familiar D&D with Spellfire. Oops.
I jest when I say “oops” as I love Spellfire. But at the time we really thought we were making the logical choice. We chose a game made by an established company featuring popular fantasy worlds. We had never heard of Wizards of the Coast–who knows how long they will be around! I don’t regret buying tons of Spellfire, but I can’t help but wonder how much my Magic collection would be worth had I been buying those Alpha and Beta sets by the box like I did with Spellfire….sigh.
Spellfire was designed by Jim Ward et al. as TSR scrambled to cash in on the CCG craze created by Magic the Gathering. The rules turned out to be very different from Magic the Gathering, which oddly was one of the criticisms volleyed against it. Rather than simply presenting creatures to fight one another, players of Spellfire are trying to build six realms while simultaneously preventing your opponent(s) from doing the same.
Placing the Realms was an important strategy in Spellfire as they had to be attacked in a particular order. The foremost Realm protected the two Realms behind it; Those two Realms protected the three behind them. Placing a really tough Realm in that first position could be a nightmare for your opponent. Either they had to raze it or have Champions with special abilities like Flying or Earthwalking to essentially bypass the problem Realm.
Spellfire features all the things you would expect from a game that uses Dungeons & Dragons: Fighters, monsters, wizards, clerics, thieves, spells, magic items, artifacts, etc. It also covered most of the campaign worlds at that time–Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Birthright, Ravenloft, Greyhawk, and Dark Sun. It was neat to see known characters from the different campaign settings coming together.
Okay, so Spellfire is a fun game based in Dungeon & Dragons campaign worlds, you may be thinking what went wrong? Well, the game, and especially the first couple of editions, had its share of problems:
- The base mechanic was essentially the card game War. The numbers in the left-hand corner were added up and whichever player had the higher total won the battle. Early on, this led to the player who spent more money on cards generally winning as they had higher value cards.
- The art was recycled. Yes, it is great, classic D&D art, but reused nevertheless. And some cards were awkwardly cropped to focus on one part of a larger piece of art. TSR surely did this to not only save money, but to also allow them to get the game to market as quickly as possible. Remember, they were caught flat-footed by WOTC and Magic.
- The paper stock of the cards themselves felt cheap. It just added to the rushed, corner-cutting feel of the game.
- Some of the cards were just “filler” cards. These cards had no special text giving the card a special ability. As you collected more cards, these were always the first to be taken out of your deck as they did nothing special.
- It wasn’t first. Magic created a new game type and soon there was a deluge of “also-rans” CCG’s. Spellfire may have been lost in the glut of CCG’s or just written off as a knockoff of Magic.
Despite these initial flaws, the game did get better. Every edition improved the game, from reprinting the filler cards to have special text to adding borders and such on the cards to make them more visually appealing. Clever cards were added in later sets that made that game of War obsolete, as higher numbered cards did not guarantee victory.
I would argue Spellfire wasn’t actually a failure. It was around for over three years, went through four editions, and had eleven booster sets–that’s a lot of cards! Ultimately, it was cancelled when WOTC bought TSR, and even they contemplated producing more booster sets.
It’s still a fun game and on the plus side, you can go on eBay and buy the cards in bulk for fairly cheap (though the Chase cards are still pricey!). Heck, there are even online booster sets produced that are actually legal to use in Spellfire tournaments–just print out and paste onto old or duplicate Spellfire cards. Lastly, Spellfire was made as a multiplayer game from the get-go, so it’s great for when there is an odd number of players.
I would love WOTC to make a new version of Spellfire. Perhaps not a CCG, but perhaps the LCG model or even just a big boxed set. With Dungeons & Dragons reaching new levels of popularity, some kind of card game just seems like a no-brainer. Alas, I’ll keep dreaming. In the meantime, check out Spellfire!
P.S. Spellfire had one downside: introducing me to the collectible game concept/money sink. It would next rear its ugly head with MageKnight, but that’s a story for another time.