Let’s Solve a Mystery (Wizard)
Have you heard of GMT Games’ P500 Program? Imagine Kickstarter before Kickstarter was a twinkle in its grandpappy’s eye. Every so often GMT releases a list of games, all of which are up for preorder. If a game gets enough orders — I’ll give you one guess how many — it goes into production and eventually springs forth fully-baked, minus errata and countersheet errors.
“Wait, wait,” I hear you saying. “Doesn’t GMT Games pretty much just do wargamey stuff? That header doesn’t look wargamey. Not even a little bit.”
Very astute of you to notice! That’s because Mystery Wizard, by Aiden Giuffre, Jackson Warley, and Zachary Eberhart is indeed the most incongruous thing to ever appear on GMT’s P500 list. Unsurprisingly for a publisher focused on entirely different fare, it’s hovering at a mere 300 orders. I’m here to tell you why that number should jump forward.
What is Mystery Wizard? Like any complex system — a city, a termite mound, a systemic racism — it cannot be easily summed up. To approximate it, picture the wacky antics of Wiz-War entering into an ill-conceived marriage with the racial perks of Cosmic Encounter. It’s a turbulent relationship, soon giving way to bitterness, nagging, and escalating attempts to poison each other’s food with Drano.
In other words, it’s a great fit for a board game.
Here’s the basic idea. The map itself is a grid of hexes, peppered with special zones — a desert, a marsh, the usual — and magical sites, like temples that refresh your spells and a central tower where the mysteries are hidden. Yes, mysteries. Your ultimate goal is to return two mysteries to your home space. Don’t expect this to be as easy as in real life, where mysteries follow us endlessly and with misplaced trust. It only seems easy, in part because turns consist of two actions taken in any sequence of your choosing. Couldn’t be any simpler.
But that’s when Mystery Wizard takes a hard left. Not into complicated territory, but rather into the realm of holy smokes you can do WHAT?
Much like the wildly varied races of Cosmic Encounter, every wizard proves dramatically different from his, her, or its peers. There’s the Sand Witch, who spreads dunes across the map to hamper rival movement and assist her own, a spoiled Princess entitled to everyone else’s item cards — oh, and she’s haunted by a killer shadow — and a Bear and a Pig. That’s right. Bear and Pig. They’re best friends. Don’t judge. It’s a thing of beauty.
Our recent play consisted of four players, each of whom was completely different from the others except for the shared capacity to walk from one hex to another. Our host picked the Windzard, a fast-flying dickhead with a penchant for rotating people clockwise around the map with his wind gusts. Someone else was a centaur Sharpshooter, known for her ranged attacks, hoof kick, and being nicknamed “DeviantArt.” The third player was a skeleton troubadour who liked to die on purpose in order to spread around his own tombstones. I think he might be omitted from the final game for reasons unknown to anyone but the corporate suits at GMT.
As for me, I was the Fast, an extraterrestrial toad with an egg. Ranked as one of the game’s tough-to-handle wizards, the Fast is allowed to plop down its egg anywhere on the board. That’s right: anywhere, provided the space is empty. At the start of every turn, the Fast swaps places with its egg. Which is a tremendous boon when your egg is situated in exactly the right spot on the other side of the board, and a big spiky pain in the ass when your egg is in the wrong spot on the other side of the board. Good thing the Fast is cool with infanticide. Step lightly around the egg; it may detonate.
These characters are the crunchy core of Mystery Wizard. At first their abilities are useful perks, helping them travel around the island as they charge their spells at temples or pursue quests. These quests come in a few flavors, but the gist for most is that you’re given somewhere to travel — the forest, perhaps — and upon arrival you’re either allowed to accomplish the quest outright or required to roll a die. There are various difficulties, meaning it isn’t uncommon for tougher quests to pile up. Sometimes a single region will even become choked with unfulfilled quests. Naturally, your enterprising wizards can nab them all with a single good roll. Expect to earn a whole caboodle of items and spell cards. You’ll need them.
Properly outfitted, quests become secondary to the task of mystery-gathering, mystery-sprinting, and mystery-ganking. The process goes something like this: a wizard finally enters the tower to steal a mystery, and then uses an ability to edge closer to their home village. On the next turn, somebody moves them away. Maybe they clog the board with dunes, or use a whirlwind to twist the offending wizard into danger, or murder them outright with a magical six-gun. Death is nicely impermanent. Right away, you’re whisked back to your village. Less nicely, a mystery is forever, and can be scooped up by rival wizards right where you dropped it.
The result is a little bit like the final scrum of Zimby Mojo. Everybody chases those holding a mystery, wrestles to scoop it up, maybe dies or gets brushed to the fringes of the island, chases the mystery-holder, and then bucks the thief straight into their own home space. Well done. Doesn’t matter whose lips deliver the mystery. All that matters is where it ends up.
There are a few crucial details to all this. Foremost, it’s notable that Mystery Wizard provides just enough distractions that it’s never entirely obvious where your attention should be focused. Temples restore your abilities. Quests bestow much-needed (and rule-bending) items and spell cards. Special boss quests occasionally appear, promising a special artifact to whomever deals the killing blow. Most importantly, there are two mysteries in play at any given time. With only one, your eye might track the ball. But because there are two, there’s always the question of priority to consider. Should you stop somebody from returning to their village, or nab a mystery dropped closer to your own home? Risk a confrontation now, or do a few more quests? Fight somebody, yes, but which wizard?
Even the way it handles randomness is notable. There are plenty of elements that feed into the game’s natural chaos, from quest rolls to draw decks. Most of the time this isn’t a big deal — Mystery Wizard is clearly that sort of game, the kind that gets muddy up to its elbows in chance. But its most pivotal moves, those where players insert themselves into each other’s plans, are handled in a manner that’s both completely chaotic and tightly controlled.
Welcome to THE DUEL.
Here’s what you need to know about the Duel. Abilities are split into three type. Passives represent your character’s innate strengths or weaknesses that require no activation. Bursts are actions you can take on your turn. And instants are… well, hold your horses for about ten seconds.
Whenever a wizard uses one of their bursts — and they will, a lot — you go around the table and everybody has the option to stack an instant ability on top of it, usually by burning up a one-time spell card in the process. And then the next player gets the same option, and the next, and the next, until everybody declines. Sometimes a burst will go unchallenged. Other times the Duel will pile into a deck of its own, usually when somebody is attempting to sidle into their village for the win. So you cast an ability that lets you sprint home; the next player casts a damage spell; someone else counterfeits it to zap an uninvolved fourth party; somebody swaps two players, thus dodging out of harm’s way and plopping you onto the far side of the table; you cast a spell that lets you choose how that previous spell will resolve, negating all that effort by putting someone else with a mystery next to your village; later, you add a spell that shoves them so that you can score courtesy of their fumble. Unless somebody blocks your last-ditch effort. It pays to be flexible.
And still, after all that, the resolution is simpler than it sounds: every card goes on top of the pile, and upon completion you resolve it from the top down, making your initial spell the last to fire. It’s a moment of thaumaturgic catharsis, a single spell spreading into a crossfire of effects that often leaves the board transformed and your head spinning.
Like I said, for all its chaos this process is still tightly controlled. Just not by you alone. This is negotiated control, where that most ephemeral form of chance — player luck — barges through the wall and starts setting things aflame. As a system it’s unrepentantly cruel, reveling in the way it transforms even a mundane option into a total feeding frenzy. It’s also, in its own way, as fair as natural selection.
What I mean is that the Duel is never flippant. You’re tasked with sprinting as fast as your legs (or magical storm) will carry you, but it is possible to stay ahead of the pack. Those instant spells were gathered during quests. The situation that let them trigger was based on prior positioning. Whether you were worth blocking depended on how well you performed until that moment — or whether you passed under the radar. Your ability to weather an assault came down to how carefully you selected your items. Everything has a cost, and therefore a consequence. Sometimes it’s better to spend big, other times it pays to hoard your spell cards for a climactic moment.
In our case, my egg-teleporting anura was a tank. Extra hit point, a reward for soaking damage, and a Furnace that Burns People and Turns Them into Time. Yes, that’s what the item is called. Yes, that’s also what it does in-game. Let’s just say nobody wanted to go mano a webbed mano with me anymore. Not when they could use a stiff wind to breeze me away from my goal. I was within reach of returning my second mystery on two separate occasions. Both times, I came up short. And because everyone at the table had spent their cards hampering little old me, somebody else slipped home with nary a glance. So it goes. Next time we’ll be more suspicious of those lingering on the fringes.
Mystery Wizard is lightning in a bottle, capturing the untamed spirit of oddball chaotic classics like Wiz-War, Cosmic Encounter, and Zimby Mojo. Some of that depends on how well it’s handled, with enough items, spell cards, and alternate wizards to guarantee that every game is brimming with new combinations and rivalries. But my first forays into its madcap lobster bucket proved fruitful. If I’m going to play a chaotic game, I want it to be as clever, colorful, and — dare I say it — controlled as this one.
What a weird pick for GMT Games. Its entry in the P500 Program is over here.