Middle Earth, Narnia, Lilliput, Westeros, Wonderland, Neverland, Discworld, Scandrial, Arrakis. These are but a few imaginative worlds from amongst thousands created by literary giants over the years. Such classics have also been a gold mine which the hobby has quarried for a number of tabletop games. But designers tread cautiously when dipping into the source material of these beloved realms. For there are legions of adoring and die-hard fans who know their every details and intricacies; and are ready to viciously pounce if it’s not all “done right!” So it is we venture into the Land of Oz.
How it Plays
The Card Game of Oz is as unique among board games as the world from which it draws inspiration is inimitable among literature. In this innovative design, you are not so much an author writing a story as you are a protagonist journeying through the narrative. Managing cards that represent L. Frank Baum’s iconic, as well as lesser-known, denizens and whimsies, players race each other to place characters along the storyline’s important locations – also represented by cards – to score points.
As the name suggests, The Card Game of Oz is entirely comprised of cards – well, and 10 custom dice. First, there are locations, illustrated on oversized cards and depicting places like Uncle Henry’s farm, a Munchkin house, stretches of the Yellow Brick Road, idyllic fields, various parts of Emerald City, and even the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle. Each session may include up to fourteen different locations. To begin a game, you draw and lay six of these face-down in a row, placing a “title” card at either end (there are variant setups for 3+ players). This is your storyline.
Next, to construct a unique ongoing plot, players share a single deck of cards. The game includes four pre-constructed “story packs” of between 50-60 cards, each set with its own tailored “folio” of fourteen locations to accompany it. Choose one of these packs, shuffle it, and deal five cards to each player. These cards portray various characters, objects, events, and fantastical effects which are famous – or not-so-famous – from the first book of Baum’s fanciful world, The Wizard of Oz.
On your turn, you begin by rolling “story dice,” each with a varying number of flowered faces. There are four blue dice, which you will roll every turn, plus six bonus golden dice. You receive extra story dice for each character you control along the storyline, as well as for archiving (discarding) cards from your hand – up to a maximum of ten dice. The number of resulting flower symbols are the points earned to spend during your turn.
With this currency, you can take one of four actions – as many as you want and are able to afford, and in any order you like. For 1 point, you may draw a card from the library (deck). You can also spend 1 point to advance or retreat a character one location along the storyline; although pay attention that some places require extra story points to move into or out of. A few scenes even provide movement bonuses. The third action, if you’d like to remove a place from the row to benefit you – or frustrate an opponent – then you may spend 2 points to replace it with the next card from the locations folio. Or finally, you may spend X number of points to play a character, object, event, or effect from your hand to your side of the storyline. The cost to play a card is denoted in its upper left corner.
There are some restrictions to playing cards. For example, magical objects and effects may only be activated if there is already a character in play who can use sorcery. When introducing a new character to the story, it must begin at your title card (which is not considered yet in play), unless the card’s specific ability allow otherwise. Also, there can only be one version of a character in the story at a time. If you want to play one version of Scarecrow, but already control another at some location, then you simply replace the current iteration for free. If your opponent controls Scarecrow, he/she must discard it while you pay for the card and play it as normal. Every card also has one or more keywords listed upon in that may effect placement, movement, and other actions.
After spending story points to resolve actions, you’re allowed to move each character you control one place forward or backward along the storyline for free. However, any movement restrictions or penalties on locations still apply. Therefore, if it would cost additional points to move out of a current spot or into the next, you must still pay the required points. So you may want to plan ahead and save enough, should you need to spend them during your bonus movement phase.
The goal in The Card Game of Oz is to score “vitality” points by getting characters into play at favorable locations. For every character you control in the storyline, you earn a number of points as indicated in the upper right corner of its card. Attaching objects to these various denizens may increase or decrease their value. Other aspects can similarly modify vitality, such as effect cards that you and your opponents have played, and the locations in which a character ends the story.
The game concludes as soon as a prime character under any player’s control reaches the “end” of its owner’s storyline – as reading from left to right. There are minor characters, as well, who may not end a story, but are still worth points based upon where they land along the narrative. Players then add up the vitality points of their characters – not including the one who ended the story – and apply any modifiers from attached objects, current effects, and/or where they are located. The individual with the most vitality is the winner. Maybe the new Wizard of Oz, himself?
Somewhere Over the Rainbow?
I’m originally from Kansas. Whenever I disclose that personal bit of info to a non-Jayhawker, there’s roughly a 16% chance the response will be along the lines of, “Oh, well, Toto, you’re not in Kansas anymore.” Yeah, funny. While mildly annoying, it is certainly evidence of how iconic the Wizard of Oz is in our culture. Of course, that line wasn’t in the book, but rather instead from the 1939 MGM movie starring Judy Garland. That movie didn’t “get it right.” Although that’s not entirely true. Yes, it was magical and colorful and whimsical and hit the book’s high points. At the same time, it glossed over so many wonderful moments and cut out whole adventures which the four familiar characters faced on their journeys. It was more interested in being a musical – which may be appropriate, anyway. The original publisher in 1900 only agreed to print the book after the guarantee of turning the story into a musical stage play. So how does the card game stack up?
The Card Game of Oz is singularly unique. It’s difficult, if even possible, to compare it to any other game, though one may find familiar elements which are generally standard to card games. In that regard, however, I’m talking pretty broad generalizations. For example, cards affect other cards already in play and around it. Some cards get rid of others, while some cards provide a boost to others. You can make typical combos and there are a few ways to manipulate the deck. You can use cards to interact with and attack opponents. You’ll find these kinds of concepts similar to a number of thematic card games.
The action-point allowance mechanic is also nothing particularly new. You have a number of story points and can spend them on a choice of actions. However, you receive these completely at random. You’ll always have at least 1 point, because one of the blue dice has a flower symbol on all 6 faces. And you increase your chance of attaining more by getting characters into the story or discarding cards. Still, most action allowance designs have a consistent number of points and, while that may increase or decrease, it is usually clear what you get.
What is certainly unique is the storyline mechanic – that row of location cards that serves as a sort of game board. In one sense, it’s a race on a track in which players are running in opposing directions. The trick, however, is not to necessarily finish quickly. Instead you want to be in a position to end the game when you must. A rush to completion may suffice if your opponents are having trouble fielding characters. More likely, though, you’ll need to play and maneuver a handful of denizens to prime locations to ensure you have enough points to win before flipping that opposite title card to “The End.”
There is also a trick to the finishing touch. First off, the character who ends the game may not count towards your score. Therefore, you’ll want to use a low-value card, or at least make sure you have plenty of vitality along the storyline. Also, everyone receives the same number of turns. So if you were the first player, and you are the one to end the story, each opponent gets one last chance to add to their score. In close games, it’s not difficult to use that opportunity to steal the victory!
This system really enhances game play, player interaction, and theme. During the narrative, there are innumerable ways to play cards and engage the storyline. Like a novel, it’s always changing and each place interrelates with various cards in different ways. You can move characters backwards or forwards. Players constantly introduce new locations, people, and objects, as well as exchange and remove them from the tale. Plot twists in the form of events and effects often have profound impacts on the game’s development. Whereas most games have a fixed framework which progresses steadily forward towards a particular end-goal, The Card Game of Oz allows its authors to manage how it all unfolds. You can have a quick game with mostly characters, a tangled web with lots of events and effects that chain together, and/or a violent story with opponents directly battling each other.
That player interaction is a second aspect that really flourishes in this system. While the storyline acts as a sort of race, players are running it in opposing directions. You are playing cards to locations that an opponent will eventually reach, thus impacting how their characters and objects may react to the plays you’ve already set in motion. At the other end, you’re the one possibly traveling through the decisions another player might have made before you. That’s because a card that modifies the effects of a location doesn’t just do so for its owner’s characters, but for any character residing there. Of course, that’s all indirect interaction.
There are some heavy does of direct interaction, as well, and some of it can be pretty strong. You can play a few objects or effects for mild attacks, things like reducing a character’s vitality or hindering its movement. However, the harder hits – and more of them – are the cards that discard characters in play – again, keeping in mind characters are where the points are at. The interesting feature to this is that cards are never directed specifically at an opponent, but rather a character or character type. For example, you may play the event, “Witch’s Slave,” which discards Dorothy. If your opponent controls her, you’ve just deprived him/her of some hearty vitality for the worthy cost of 3 story points. If you control Dorothy, better not play that card! Some attacks are even more of a bargain if you get them at the right time. For 1 story point, you can play “Melting Away” to discard an evil witch. Say an opponent controls Wicked Witch of the West, you’ve just deprived them of 7 vitality, plus a card that cost 7 points to put into play. For the cost of 3 points, there is an effect that discards all witches in play! That’s crazy!
One of the more innocent-looking actions on the surface is playing a different version of a character that your opponent already controls. If you play Dorothy • Dressed for Travel while your rival author controls Dorothy • Kansas Farm Girl, he/she must discard their version. Not only have you potentially gained vitality, but your opponent loses the amount associated with their previous character! Any time a player can pull that off, it creates a giant swing in score and possibly momentum. Should the instigator be the one behind, it can be a good catch-up mechanism. Be he/she already ahead, then it can be difficult for the victim to overcome.
The third characteristic which shines under the storyline system is the theme. This design is dripping with it. These cards quite literally lift characters, objects, events, and even whole lines of dialogue straight out of the book, Wizard of Oz. While all of them are organized into coherent story packs, you could actually combine them together and, with a little re-organizing, line them all up to essentially retell the tale in card format, while not sacrificing very many details.
Obviously, the cards cover major elements which the movie made famous, such as Dorothy and Toto, their three companions, the Munchkins, the witches, the Yellow Brick Road, Emerald City, and the winged monkeys. But it goes much further than that to cover mostly the entire adventure. Even small details are represented, like the wooden whistle (object) that the Queen of the Field Mice (character) gave Dorothy to blow so that she might summon all of her mousey subjects (event) whenever in need. Those three cards wonderfully represent the book’s little-known episode in which 1,000 mice drug the slumbering Cowardly Lion out of the Poppy Field – which incidentally is one of the possible locations.
There are tons of small and brief moments from the book to make an appearance on a card. There are even the simple bread and butter that Dorothy pulls from her fallen house before beginning her eventful journey. The Witch of the North’s kiss to protect her. Kalidahs, Hammer-Heads, the Munchkin Boq, the Tinman’s tears constantly rusting him, green glass spectacles, the silver whistle, China Country, and the golden cap that controlled the winged monkeys. And so many more. Not only that, but each card’s ability makes complete thematic sense for game play – from the Cyclone which swaps two locations on the storyline to the event, “City life does not agree with me at all,” which archives all animals at all Emerald City locations.
This is not just a thematic game. This is a design that brilliantly weaves the theme into game play so that the two cannot be separated. Or, I suppose, if you were to do so, you’d have to use another work of literature to replace it. That said, you might think this would be a good bridge to introduce gaming to some non-gamers, namely book-lovers and specifically fans of Oz. It might be, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The rules are straight-forward enough, but there are so many unique cards with quirky and specific abilities that the depth is a bit beguiling. This will generally not be for the uninitiated – or at least expect a significant learning curve, if so. It can already take a few plays to grasp for experienced gamers with all of the possible plays and combinations and player interaction. At the same time, no matter how wonderfully integrated, the theme may not appeal to veteran players. It is, after all, based on a children’s story – and one not well-known beyond “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
The story packs are also built around the saga’s sub-themes. The first deals with Dorothy’s landing in Oz and subsequent journey to the Emerald City, meeting Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion along the way. Another pack is woven with a feminine motif. The third surrounds the Emerald City. The fourth predominantly packs the journey to Glinda’s Castle after Oz floats away in the balloon sans Dorothy. Each works smoothly and lucidly for the most part, but they have some wonky bits. One pack, for example, has that aforementioned card which archives all animals at Emerald City locales – however, its associated locations folio doesn’t have any Emerald City places in it! Another pack has only seven prime characters, making it rather difficult to find one in the library, play it to the storyline, and then move it to the end.
Other than that, the story pack concept is brilliant and offers tremendous opportunity for customization. If you’re a fan of any sort of deck-building, this design is rife with chances to “write” your own “story.” Keep in mind it is a shared deck, which can limit players’ abilities to pull cards that combo off of each other, but there’s still plenty of material with which to explore and experiment. Much like authors can control the pace and style of a game during play, you can create a story pack that emphasizes events, or lots of interaction, or maybe high scoring, or fast movement, or maybe by particular colors which all have corresponding locations, characters, objects, events, and effects. You could even build a pack with two opposing colors whose relevant cards tend to oppose each other in play.
As with the allocation of story points, and befitting its nature as a card game, the design can be very random and swingy. There is that shared library, or deck, which only compounds both issues. Without a personal deck of cards, you may never see a character, object, or effect which you’re specifically looking for to pair with another character you already control. Aside from that, it may happen that you draw few characters in the first place. As the goal is to field characters in the storyline to earn vitality points, you can see how it would be problematic if you hardly had any to play. It’s also not uncommon to end up with characters that don’t favor the locations along the storyline, or too many cards of the same category, or all very expensive cards, or several cards that are just plain worthless to you.
There are a couple of elements to work around the more unlucky hands. You can swap out a location that doesn’t much benefit you. However, it can be pricey at the cost of 2 story points. Plus you’re simply replacing it with the top-most card on the folio – so the new result is just as random as the first. Second, if you have a number of worthless cards, or ones that you can’t afford to play, then you may discard them to earn more story dice. Again, this is a random solution, as you may get the bonus die, but then have just a 50-50 chance of rolling the extra action.
The cards in The Card Game of Oz are of average stock and quality. They’re just like the cards in Dominion. If you play a lot, you’ll want to consider sleeves, especially because their black borders show wear very quickly and noticeably. The dice are beautiful, nicely marbled, with deeply engraved flower symbols. They’re heavy with rounded corners and fun to roll. By far, though, the greatest production attribute to the design is the artwork. In one word it is amazing. Despite commissioning dozens of different artists, each card looks cut from the same canvas with a coherent style that gels wonderfully together, yet individually tells its own story. They are colorful, vibrant, detailed, and expressive. Another of my frame-worthy board games, hands-down. As extra measure, the whole thing includes tuck boxes for the four story packs and the oversize folio of location cards. These are sturdy, illustrated with select card artwork, and handy to boot. Not only that, but they fit perfectly and neatly back into the cardboard box insert!
The Card Game of Oz is really one-of-a-kind. Granted, the theme may not be readily appealing unless you’re simply a lover of fiction and the Oz books, in particular. But if you can look beyond the concept of playing inside a child’s storybook adventure, you will be surprised. The storyline system is a strong one. It’s elementary on the surface and easy to learn, but that simplicity belies a hidden depth that is very rich and almost endless, rewarding clever actions and quick tactical thinking. It creates healthy interaction, both subtle and sharp. And it embellishes and enhances the theme, bringing it to life like few other designs. Gamers who really enjoy strategic card games, collectors, and hobby connoisseurs really need to check out the unparalleled and beautiful Card Game of Oz.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Game Salute for providing a review copy of The Card Game of Oz.