The History of Blood Wars
Once, back in the mists of CCG history, there was a game called Spellfire. It was TSR’s answer to the collectible card game craze started by Magic the Gathering and my introduction to the CCG hobby.
Using their vast art resources and assets, TSR designed a game that’s main strength was its connection to Dungeons & Dragons.
The rules were relatively simple, but the biggest appeal was that the starter set included two decks, so, for less than the cost of a Magic starter, I could immediately play against someone.
It was also really easy to build a deck as Spellfire didn’t suffer from the rigid color factionalization that Magic did in those days – I wasn’t going to purchase a starter deck only to find that I wasn’t really able to play some of my cards. Naturally, that makes sense from a marketing perspective and encourages the first C in CCG, it’s just a pretty big bug when a kid with no money is interested.
Spellfire lasted… a time. I noticed its expansions in Dragon magazine but never bought another pack and it eventually stopped being released.
Then came Blood Wars. TSR released a new CCG with rules that were reminiscent of Spellfire, refining old concepts and adding new elements of gameplay. It was very engaging, finely honed, and also included two decks!
In terms of design, it was much more sophisticated, and included arenas of play that would be popular in other games like Legend of the Five Rings, and boasted a strong multiplayer component. This was also still during the glut of CCGs springboarding themselves off the popularity of Magic: The Gathering, and there was much competition.
Philosophers with Clubs
One of the great appeals of Blood Wars was the setting. It used one of the most-praised campaign settings from the days of AD&D Second Edition as its backdrop: Planescape. Planescape was a reinvention of the D&D cosmology, specifically the Great Wheel of the Planes. At the center of the multiverse was the city of Sigil, ruled by the enigmatic Lady of Pain, and governed by the Factions. The Factions were organized based on ethoi and belief systems and worked semi-harmoniously to ensure the city ran properly. Nothing being perfect, their interactions led to the setting being summarized as “philosophers with clubs.” From Sigil, players would venture out to portal towns in the Outlands, which would lead to the greater Planes of Existence. Here they would parlay and plot with gods, demons, and all sorts of bizarre sentient geometric shapes. Written using 17th-century English underworld cant as slang, it could be an acquired taste (and certainly difficult to maintain for an entire gaming session), but was extremely flavorful. In the same way that Larry Elmore defined the look of Dragonlance and Brom Dark Sun, the art of Tony DiTerlizzi communicated an otherworldly feel and became inseparable from the setting.
How to Fight the Blood War
The premise of the CCG was that players were Generals in the “Blood War”, a conflict initially between Demons and Devils, in the lower planes of existence, that had spread across the multiverse – bringing in forces from all different planes and ethoses.
During play, you would assemble warlords who would then build legions and attempt to capture battlefields in order to acquire a designated amount of victory points to win the game.
Gameplay progressed much like a war, hot and cold. After determining how many victory points you needed to win the game, you agreed on the number of mustering turns, during which all players could marshal their forces without anybody allowed to initiate challenges. This gave time for decks to actually ready their strategy and not be crushed by a speed deck right out of the gate.
On your turn, you played Warlord cards from your Command Hand as well as Legions and Fate cards, which included items, actions, and events, into the warlord’s Battle Hand, which was stacked up beneath them.
To win the game, players competed over Battlefields. The acting General would initiate a challenge with one of their Warlords, then use that Warlord’s battle hand during the conflict. The various legions and items in that hand would have certain abilities that could be played to remove cards, lower their strength, raise their strength, or a number of other effects. Once all players had played out their hands, you compared the total combat strength of each warlord plus their legions, plus any modifiers from Fate cards.
If the Challenger exceeded a specific threshold, which was the defender’s combat strength plus the value of the battlefield they were competing over, they would win the battlefield and it would go to their victory pool.
What was unique, at the time, to me, was that a player challenged for a battlefield with an Intrigue or Combat challenge rather than relying entirely on military conflict. The latter was straightforward; you declared your challenging Warlord, then the first player to decide they would defend chose their Warlord, you played out card abilities and came to a resolution. Intrigue challenges, however, involved diplomacy and bargaining as multiple players could support or oppose the challenge. What is now Vampire the Eternal Struggle and Legend of the Five Rings also boasted robust alliance mechanics, but this was an intuitive part of a straightforward game that enforced the politicking dynamic.
It’s unlikely there’ll ever be a resurgence of Blood Wars, even in an LCG format (which would work really well for it.) Magic dominates the marketplace and both TSR and Planescape are long past active publication, with the latter hacked into pieces and appearing spread out across a number of Dungeons & Dragons books. However, if you are interested in trying out a simple card game that has a lot of depth in gameplay, or you want art cards for your Planescape game so you can hold one up and say “this is what a glabrezu looks like!” you’ll find something for you in Blood Wars!
Written by Simon Kaye