This article originally appeared in Pyramid #9
Published by TSR
Written by Steve Winter, Jim Ward, Dave Cook and Tim Brown
I've tried to think of a way to do a review of this new collectible card game from TSR without mentioning Magic: The Gathering, but I can't think of a way to do it. Spellfire is just the first of what is sure to be a long line of games trying to take advantage of the market that Magic opened, the first new market to appear in years.
I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by Spellfire. In a worst-case scenario, the game could have been a barely-concealed ripoff of Magic, or some childish fantasy version of Old Maid or Crazy Eights. The cards could have been filled with the same kind of slapdash art that killed the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Trading Cards. Fortunately, neither of these is true, not by a long shot.
We'll start with the cards. While it's true that there is no original art on the cards, when you've got a 20-year library of some of the best fantasy art in the industry, why bother? Most of the pieces are small croppings from covers of old AD&D products, and they almost always fit the subject of the card nicely. The art doesn't have the "edge" that a good deal of the original art on the Magic cards has, but it's still very good nonetheless. The most common type of card in the game, the Realms cards, are sadly the least impressive -- TSR used excerpts from their many maps to illustrate the cards. The "Waterdeep" card has simply a detail from the Forgotten Realms map with -- you guessed it -- Waterdeep on it. TSR's maps are gorgeous, for maps. But they're still just maps.
The game itself is quite good. Instead of trying to defeat another player, Spellfire players (the game can accommodate any number of players with no changes to the rules needed) are trying to put six Realms cards into play. Only one can be played per turn, no matter how many you have in your hand. There are also Holdings cards, which can be played on a Realm (one Holding per Realm) to give it special qualities that make it tougher to attack.
All the other cards -- Heroes, Wizards, Clerics, Monsters, Spells, Magic Items, Artifacts, Allies, and Events -- are used to attack other players' realms and to defend your own. After a Realm is successfully attacked, it is "razed" -- turned face down. It takes time and cards to restore a razed Realm, and players who lose too many battles will find themselves way behind in the race to establish six Realms on the table.
The rules are simpler than Magic's -- there aren't as many exceptions, and fewer factors to manipulate -- and they are much easier to understand. But there's still a lot of subtlety to the design, and there are many opportunities to find strange new combinations of cards that affect the game in strange new ways.
Will players feel the need to buy gazillions of cards and assemble a "killer deck" in order to stay competitive, as is the case with Magic? There will be some of that. Some Champions, Spells, and Items are simply more powerful than others; Holdings must be played on Realms from the same AD&D world (the first 400 include cards from Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, and Greyhawk); and Artifacts (the most powerful magic items) can be only be used by Champions from the same world. So there's plenty of opportunities for trading, wheeling, dealing, and just plain buying Spellfire decks by the caseload and picking out the top cards.
Spellfire comes packaged in a double deck (55 cards in each deck) for $8.95, a much better price than Magic's Starter Deck. There are 400 different cards in the basic set in three levels of rarity (Common, Uncommon, and Rare). In addition, Booster Packs are available that include 25 additional cards that are not available in the basic packs. Coming soon are Booster Packs for Ravenloft and Dragonlance (100 cards to each set), and 1995 plans include sets for Al-Qadim and Planescape.
Will Spellfire be as successful as Magic: The Gathering? Probably not. (In fact, early rumblings from the retail front are that Spellfire's sales are a little on the low side.) But it's not the game's fault, really -- there's a certain percentage of Magic fans who will never try another type of collectible card game, content with the one that came first. (Oh, the irony . . .) But Spellfire is superior to Magic in several areas -- clarity of rules and ease of play for any number of players -- and not very far behind (if at all) in the others. Plus it's cheaper. And that makes it a Pyramid Pick.
-- Scott Haring
Article publication date: October 1, 1994
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