This Grimoire Isn’t Grim At All


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Two wizards walk into a—

Oh. Right. I guess it’s pretty obvious what happens next. The wizards fight, don’t they? They begin assaulting one another’s limited pools of health points, don’t they? They tussle until one of them is a pool of gunk and the other is secure in their mastery, don’t they?

True enough, Wizards of the Grimoire by Cole and Joel Banning doesn’t provide the most novel springboard. It’s about dueling wizards, as if there were any other kind. Scratch the surface with your fingernail, though, and it turns out there’s one heck of a self-contained dueling game to be found.

And so lovely to look at! Until you cover them with mana cards, anyway.

So many spells!

More and more, “self-contained” is a watchword I’m happy to live by. That’s more a statement of my age than anything else. The inescapable fact is that I’m simply getting too old and too busy for lifestyle games, and that includes any title that wants me to memorize a binder of cards or, heaven forbid, assemble a deck before I actually play the thing. Give me a game that I can play once in December, take a break for three months, and then play again on the strength of its reference cards, without any need to dip back into the (already short) rulebook. That’s exactly what happened with Wizards of the Grimoire. This thing is sleek.

It all comes down to two decks of cards that are shared between players. The first is filled with mana cards. These are your currency. Each is worth a single point toward casting a spell, but shows a number between 1 and 4 for purposes of randomization. For instance, a particular spell might say something like “Reveal an opponent’s mana and deal damage to them equal to its value.” Or “Spend a mana to decrease a spell’s damage by its value.” Something like that.

When it comes to the spells themselves, however, every mana card has equal value: the card itself. This prevents the game from tipping toward chaos. In fact, the whole game revels in the amount of control it hands you. The second deck is full of spell cards. Rather than doling these out at random, players draft them from a generous market. One spell at a time, you’re building an engine replete with attacks, ongoing effects, economic perks, and utilities. And you’ll need all of them, because the game’s life cycle is a hungry maw. Every spell demands mana, spent face-down to satiate its costs. But those mana cards cool down at the sluggish rate of one card per spell per turn. It thus behooves any would-be not-dead wizard to figure out how to put those cooldowns to good use.

What a great way to make me care about what I draw, but also not feel like everything comes down to the luck of the draw.

Mana cards have numbers drawn at random, but that doesn’t matter for spellcasting.

There are plenty of options. Some spells bleed off your spent mana faster. Others transform stacks of mana into opportunities in their own right. If your chosen strategy isn’t working out, you’re free to swap spells, always jinking from one approach to another. The result is an uncommon nimbleness. Above all, Wizards of the Grimoire is a fast game. Despite the deliberate pace of the economy, there’s always something else to try, some advantage to exploit. Until there isn’t, anyway. It’s entirely possible to find yourself slipping down a ledge, shedding hit points far faster than you can flense them from your rival. Never mind. In such a brisk game, the price of failure sits at rock bottom. Two shuffles and you’ll be playing a fresh session.

The result is equal parts puzzle and duel. It calls to mind a more straightforward Res Arcana by way of Magic: The Gathering. That former comparison should be taken at a certain remove; its engines are neither as robust nor as intricate as Tom Lehmann’s. But it does evoke shades of that game, with its open-air drafting market and freewheeling switchbacks, not to mention its breakneck pace. Seriously, that a freshman effort insists on a parallel to master craftsman Lehmann is impressive in its own right.

Is it a perfect game? Not wholly. It loves its text, including a few commands that could have been symbols. It also never quite shatters its manacles the way similar titles like Res Arcana or Omen: A Reign of War do. Everything is so fine-tuned to provide a close match that breakaway victories are rare. There’s a certain appeal to a well-regulated pairing, of course, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing a few spells that broke the game for a hefty price. Victory is more a case of nickel and diming your foe to death than one of discovering a way to red-mist them. In the same way a tight sporting match can sometimes totter over the line from gripping to grinding, Wizards of the Grimoire occasionally drips on a little too steadily. It’s more of a dash, with its runners coming within a few hundredths of a second of one another, than a gory gladiatorial spectacle.

Pictured: My recent game engine that unleashed a spasm of damage every three turns, only to fall dormant for a while.

Before long, your set of spells will need to cool off.

Again, its saving grace is its speed. It’s easy to forgive the occasional match that saw both sides bleeding out at roughly the same rate when the suffering concludes so swiftly. And better yet, when the suffering wasn’t suffering at all, but the lizard-brained joy of fiddling with numbers and gears. Even when it isn’t at its best, Wizards of the Grimoire is squarely a pleasure to play. It feels good on the fingertips. Its spells crackle with unspent energy. It isn’t often that I lose sixty hit points so cheerily.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on March 20, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Oh, this sounds great. I got rid of Omen: Reign of War specifically because of the swingy cards so I’m glad to hear this is more muted. That’s exactly how I like it.

    Thanks for the review.

  2. Sounds pretty cool. But man, this is a crowded genre right now…Summoner Wars 2E, Radlands, RIftforce, etc.. Not really sure I can justify this one.

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