Revisiting The Magi


Various Wizards and monsters in kinda-sorta 54mm scale.

Five years ago, I worked up a version of a hand gesture-based spellcasting game I called THE MAGI. Magi was based upon a much older game called WAVING HANDS created by the redoubtable Richard Bartle back in 1971. Richard wrote his version as a miniatures style skirmish game in the first draft. He did envision a game with physical presence, facing, and at least a nod to in world physics when he wrote it. The Publisher loved the notion of a game with hand gestures forming spells, but balked at adding components to the printing. Thus, the boardgame SPELLBINDER morphed into the solidly abstract WAVING HANDS, which was, solely, a Spellcasting game. Movement was extremely abstract– Every “wizard” in the game was within range and facing of every other and they weren’t depicted in physical form. I have always loved the hand gesture spells of Waving Hands, but I also always thought the game would be a much more fun experience with actual wizard figures moving around and interacting with each other in Real Space. You can read Richard Bartle’s views on design in the comments for this post. Waving Hands is still played in places over the Internet. WH can be a great play by email game as it is played with a simple shorthand to reprsent the complicated hand gesture combinations that make spells work. The basic building block gestures are:

  • the wiggled fingers (F)
  • the proferred palm (P)
  • the snap (S)
  • the wave (W)
  • the digit pointing (D)

EVERY spell uses a chain of these. One gesture per turn until something completes. Spells can be short and fast, like CURE LIGHT WOUNDS: W-F-P, or long and slow, like POISON D-W-W-F-W-D. Spells can e interrupted by physical actions or casting some of the rare interrupt spells (which are short). The trick is to see what the opponent is doing and try to out-think them.

I painted up a ton of 54mm figures for the wizards and was very pleased with the result in that scale. they have a ton of detail and are very expressive. Here’s a few of them in action at Summer Camp 2015:

Magi cross the magical dueling arena. Dr. Fate center left has either summoned an Orc or is being attacked by one. In the foreground, a Fire Elemental stalks.
The Red Wizard is down, either unconscious or dead, and his fire elemental has disappeared. You can see a free standing spell token next to the wizard in the center. Probably something lasting more than one turn.
Wizards circling for advantage. A deadly Ice Elemental has been summoned in the foreground.

I had to create virtually everything you would assume would be required to play from scratch. Spell tokens for effects that last longer than one turn. Custom cards for the hand gestures. Scatter terrain to block line of sight (which is suddenly very important in a game of movement and three dimensions). I had a large felt scale hex map which helped set the scale for the figures at 54mm. Hexes were more important than ever. In addition to all that, I had to find a set of summoned creatures that somehow scale to 54mm, which is not that easy to do.

Here the wizard on the far left has a summoned Orc and is facing an oncoming summoned Skeleton. The Wizard on the right has a persistent spell cast upon her, most likely from an enemy.

The most obvious conversion I created were the cards. I know Richard Bartle wanted to have hand gestures only but I originally created this for kids, and I didn’t see them as having any patience for the game as he had created it in its Waving Hands incarnation. Too abstract; too much of a memory game. So I implemented somatic gesture cards. Here are Kendall, Angus and Jared trying their hands at casting:

Jared has that killer instinct
Kendall is a it baffled
Angus dishes out the pain

It all works, more or less, but there are parts that I’m very dissatisfied with. The card play is far too slow and adds to confusion (see Kendall, above). If I could make that part straightforward, that would speed the game up and make it more decisive. I have some ideas on that score. I also am heavily influenced by 4 years of playing FROSTGRAVE, so I’m thinking of adding Schools or alignments to the game, making damage more variable, and possibly adding a couple more creatures to the game. I’d like to expand the spell list.

So I’ve been working on a major rewrite lately. It’s way early and needs playtesting, but I think it will play faster and be even more fun after it gets tweaked a bit.