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Blood Wars CCG (1995)

Date Reviewed: 7-17-03 Critical Kobold Rating:
(3 out of 5 Dice)

Blood Wars was TSR's second (and last) foray into the *wildly* blossoming CCG phenomenon in the mid- 1990's. This little game was, I think, sadly overlooked and disregarded amidst the deluge of collectible card games saturating the market at the time, and it never really picked up a following despite several expansions and some innovative play mechanics. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, according to TSR lore, the Blood War is a hellish eternal feud between the lawful evil baatezu devils of the Nine Hells, and the chaotic evil tannar'i demons of the Abyss. The two races have waged constant battle against each other for longer than anyone, even the

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fiends themselves, can recall. They strive to take territory and resources from each other more cunningly than halflings strive to take the last piece of pie at the picnic. This card game gleefully recreates this epic struggle, involving every known plane in the D&D canon and quite of few of your favorite Planescape icons.

COMPONENTS Like most CCGs, Blood Wars decks are customizable. Decks may range from 40-100 cards, although you're only allowed a maximum of three of the same card in any one deck. A table in the rulebook lists maximum numbers of each card type for various deck sizes, but there's theoretically no minimum number of any card type. The properly prepared pit fiend will always have an array of devious options at his disposal, however, so it's a good idea to include a few of every card type in your deck. Unlike most CCGs, there is a good deal of changing hands during Blood Wars. Not changing single cards, I mean changing entire hands of cards. See, the cards you draw and hold in your mitts during most of the game is called your Command Hand. It's from the Command Hand that you put your cards into play on the table, to be used in the game. However, once cards are put into play on the table, they become part of a Battle Hand, which will be used only for the combat phases of the turns. Cards in your Command Hand are not yet in play, and may be discarded or held for later, and are not (generally) affected by opponents' cards. However, cards in your Battle Hand are always "in play", and thus subject to Fate cards, as well as usable for attacking or defending battlefields. Generally, the two Hands are mutually exclusive during combat, so that while using your Battle Hand, the cards in your Command Hand are not allowed to be played, and vice versa. (You may swap cards between your Battle and Command Hands freely during the preparatory phase of your turn, just not during combat.) During every player's turn of the game, everyone may find themselves switching back and forth between their Command and Battle Hands. And since every warlord you have out will have their own Battle Hand, you will probably have several Battle Hands to choose from! There are only four types of cards in the basic edition: Battlefields, Warlords, Legions, and Fate cards. (However, the Fate cards as a category are comprised of several sorts of cards, as we'll discuss in a jiffy.)

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Battlefields are, naturally, the territory that the armies are fighting to control during a player's game turn. Battlefields may be of almost any size; one entire layer on an infinite plane, one smaller "realm" on a layer, or even one particular town, building, or site on a plane. Each battlefield has a Victory Point value, which players earn when they conquer the field during their turn. Larger or more strategically important battlefields are worth more points, of course, so conquering the entire third layer of the Seven Heavens is worth much more than taking over a shantytown on the Gray Waste. [Of course, it's also more difficult!] Players agree before the game begins as to how many Victory Points they'll play to, so winning battlefields by any means necessary is the only way to emerge victorious in the Blood War.

Warlords are the head honchos, your generals in the conflict. In Blood Wars, interested parties from all the planes are involved, so your warlords may include such beings as loathsome horned demons, suave sinister devils, angelic holy devas, even neutral animal gods. Aside from a fairly cool-ass picture, each warlord has a Combat Strength score and/or an Intrigue Strength score, and many warlords have special abilities that act as event cards (see below). Players play warlords from their hands face-up on the table to prepare them to lead their troops in combat to conquer battlefields (but many warlords are more adept at behind-the-scenes political intrigue; more on this later). For each army you want to put into play, you need a warlord to lead them.

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Legions are your vast armies of minions, used as pawns in your nefarious bid to take over the planes. You play them face-down on the tabletop, and assign them to specific warlords in a staging area to prepare your attacks. They are the foot soldiers, whose job it is to die by the buttloads to secure your victory in the War. Sucks to be them. Each legion has a Combat Strength modifier, which they add to their warlord's Combat Strength when determining who wins a battle. While expendable, some legions do indeed have excellent value in the form of special abilities. The game has a somewhat daunting array of abilities for the legions, so at first it's hard to keep them straight, and it will take a while before a player learns to use them all to the best advantage. But they're often sneaky tricks, which goes right along with the premise of the game. For example, some legions are "Berserkers"; they cause an opponent to discard one of their legions, but in doing so the Berserkers sacrifice themselves. Others are "Shock Troops", who can be played right out of your hand into combat, surprising your foes. Still others are "Spirits", who can return to your hand after battle rather than being discarded. That's just a taste of the surprises. I won't even tell you what the "Parasite" ability is...

Personal Totally True Anecdote: Due to an injury, my brother employs home nurses who stay with him during the day. Several years ago, we left some Blood Wars cards out on a table in the house. One of the nurses was freaked out by the fact that some of the cards were called "legions". In her mind, 'legions' were real life devils (as in the Biblical Satan and his lackeys) because the Bible refers to "legions of demons" or somesuch. Apparently, she applies no other definition to the word, and is blissfully unaware that it's simply a noun describing a large amount, or a military force. She was quite convinced that we were becoming unwittingly involved in Satanism or demon worship or some other dipshit delusion that fundamentalist Catholics are always concerned with. My brother fired her ass that day. (I hope she still prays for us...)

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Finally, Fate cards are a motley collection of any other sort of effect you can think of, lumped under this general card type. Fate cards may be equipment, weapons, magic items or artifacts given to legions or warlords, or they may be spells, or event cards that change the game rules briefly. Fate cards have the advantage of being the only cards playable at any time, even during opponents' turns, so you can really whammy someone's plans with a well-timed Fate card.

Heh heh. Not that I would do that...

In an interesting tweak to the shorts, each Warlord and Legion, and even some Battlefields and items, have an Alignment printed on them. These are the same nine alignments as described in the AD&D game. Warlords may lead up to four Legions who share at least one alignment designator with that Warlord. (F'rinstance, a Chaotic Evil warlord could lead any four Legions with either "chaotic" or "evil" in their alignments.) If the Legions are of the exact same alignment as the Warlord, then that Warlord may lead six Legions. Finally, each card, no matter what type, has a Random Result number on it. During the game, any time a random number needs to be generated, you draw the top card off your deck and use the "RR" as your number. You immediately discard that card then, which may suck if it was the gnarly demon lord you've been waiting to put into play, but such is the mockingly cruel fate of life in the Blood War! Stop whining.

Briefly, here's how the game runs: In BW, players don't attack other players' cards or minions directly; all combat is over ownership of a battlefield. The current player puts forth from his hand any one battlefield he wishes to "challenge" for. However, since there's always more than one way to skin a Prime, as they say, the player has a choice of tactics: COMBAT CHALLENGE: The player may challenge to fight for the field, in which case she lays down her Command Hand, and picks up the Battle Hand for whichever warlord she's challenging with. Then, going around the table, every other player in turn has the option of accepting the challenge and defending that battlefield. If, by some miracle, nobody at the table wishes to accept the challenge, then the current player simply snarfs the battlefield card, adds the Victory Points to their tab, and ends their turn. However, if any player decides to defend the field against the current player, then the current player and the "defender" present their warlords and use those warlords' Battle Hands to conduct combat.
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When all Warlord powers, Legion abilities, and Fate cards the two want to play are used, they compare the final Combat Strength scores of their warlords. Whoever has the highest Strength at the end of cardplay is the victor. INTRIGUE CHALLENGE: If instead of flexing their military muscle, a challenger wants to ply their diplomatic prowess, they may put forth a battlefield and declare an Intrigue challenge. Once this is done, every other player at the table has a chance to either remain neutral (not participate in the challenge), or to oppose or join the challenger. After all players have declared their intent, the total Intrigue Strength score for ALL the challenging warlords is compared to the total Intrigue Strength of ALL the opposing warlords. The highest team score wins the field. Wheeling and dealing with the other players is a key component to intrigue-riddled games, with pacts and promises made or broken to get ahead in the War. While the brief synopsis above makes the game seem simplistic perhaps, one needs to understand that the flavor of the game is very much in step with the Blood War's eternal and dark plotting nature. The various legion abilities, warlord powers, and Fate cards can change the course of play in a heartbeat, and -nothing- is certain when you're dealing with a few conniving card players who get into the spirit of this game. If done right, I think this CCG has the potential for more wicked turns and surprises and strategies than most others on the market today.

The GOOD As I mentioned, this game has enough play style options, deck building varieties, and fast-paced action to keep even the most jaded CCG-er happily involved. And, while some card games claim to play well with a multiplayer dynamic, the entire Intrigue Challenge mechanic of this game absolutely works best when everyone gets involved. There's literally never a single turn when most, if not all, players at the table get a chance to participate in the activities. There's also, unlike a great many CCGs, no horrendously "broken" cards or combos in this game. So, there's no way one player can load up on certain rare or specific cards and dominate a game. Also, there were two expansions released for the game before it was discontinued, so there are lots of cards available with which you may plot insidious and conniving schemes of conquest. The expansions introduced a few new card types as well, so your byzantine plot to take over the five hundred and forty-sixth layer of the Abyss now has more options.

The NEUTRAL The multiple-hand mechanic involved in the game may confuse and discourage beginning players. Having to keep track of a Command Hand as well as several Battle Hands involves a decent memory and a good slice of quick thinking. I know some players who have to devote their full attention to operating a single hand in some other card games, so trying to effectively juggle between sundry amounts of cards here may be more than the moderate gamer's able to handle.

The EVIL I'll use this space to just mention that while some of the artwork on the cards is fantastic (a lot of the DiTerlizzi stuff from the Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendices), some of it is downright crappy.

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Not that it has any effect on game play, but a few these cards won't be winning any awards, that's all. Also, the original instruction booklet is not exactly clear on some of the more intricate stages of play. You may have to interpret some sections of the book with care, and work your way through a few trial games, to get the hang of it all. Players who want to spend real time with this CCG are highly advised to get their claws on the Warlord's Tactical Manual, the official player's guide to the game printed by TSR, which is more explicit on how each part of each stage of the game is run. Now, as many of you savvy readers know, TSR has been defunct for many years now, and this game is, obviously, long out of print. However, even now, 15 years after its publication, you can still pick up entire booster boxes of the original set, as well as the expansion sets, via eBay, game dealers, and often at conventions. Even grabbing a few sets of cards will get you playing in no time. [Upon editing this review, this kobold realizes that this game was released a decade and a half ago. Holy crap! The kobold is gettin' old.] I enjoy this game, although it's hard as hell (heh heh... no pun intended) to find anyone to play against around here. Those of you looking for an intricate, devious, complex, interactive card game will enjoy this one immensely. Go ahead... be devilish.
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