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A few years ago I was at a local con playing a game of Escape From Elba with James Ernest (a hilarious experience, but one that’s well beyond the scope of this article).  A friend of his came up, showed him a new copy of Wiz-War and asked if he had ever heard of it.  James said, “Yeah, Wiz-War.  You’ll notice it’s strongly influenced by Magic: The Gathering and Robo-Rally.”  Of course, that was a joke, since Tom Jolly designed Wiz-War almost a decade before anyone had even heard of those other two games.  I think James’ point was clear.  Tom Jolly is ahead of his time with his unique approach to game design.  Whether it’s the complex combos of spells in Wiz-War or the simplified measurement system of DiskWars, Tom is more concerned with trying something very different rather than following current trends in the game industry.

In early 2001 Tom mentioned in an e-mail message to me that he was excited about Fantasy Flight Games’ release of one of his favorite designs, Drakon.  As it turns out, the first edition sold out very quickly, prompting a second printing and an expansion which came out this past summer.  After playing a few games with the expansion, I was anxious to see this as one of our featured games here at Fair Play.  I wrote Tom a few questions about the game, the expansion and what we might see from him in the near future.  He graciously let us print his responses below.

Mike Petty:  Before we even start talking about this game, I am always surprised by how many ways I've heard the title pronounced by different people who play it.  I've heard it with a long “a”, a long “o”, rhymes with “dragon”, etc..  What is the proper pronunciation?

Tom Jolly:  I'm not sure, since it's not a name I created. It's German for Draco, the constellation, and I believe it rhymes with Dragon, with a very slight roll on the "r" to make it sound more German. But, I don't speak enough German to say for sure. If the pronunciation is derived from that, then I'd expect a long "a". Dray-kohn. I pronounce Drakon with an accent on the first syllable, as "Drack-un." Take your pick.

MP:  I remember seeing a game at your site a few years ago called Primrose Path that sounded similar to Drakon.  Was this an earlier version of the game?

TJ:  It's the same game. I submitted Primrose Path to Wizards of the Coast the same month that they first released Magic: The Gathering. They were small back then, riding the euphoric wave of an intensely popular success. They liked Primrose Path a lot, and we talked contracts.  Anyway, I signed with them and two years later (before Primrose Path came out), they dropped their board-game line and paid me a kill fee. Generally, they were pretty good people to deal with. Garfield suggested I change the game from "getting rid of tiles" to "collecting something" to create a more positive-acquisition feel for the game. I did, and it became Vaults. Instead of dumping all your tiles from your hand, you now had to collect gold coins. The mechanism was the same; you landed on a tile that said "get a gold" instead of "discard a tile".

Then, it went off to F.X Schmid, where Alan Moon took a look at it and signed a contract. It was now Golden Vaults. He left the company immediately after the contract was signed, and the game was subsequently never published, and the contract expired a year and a half later.

About that time, I'd sold DiskWars to Fantasy Flight Games, and showed them Vaults (the name I liked), which they picked up and published under their name, Drakon. They like Dragons. The whole process end-to-end took about 6 years, but I sure am glad it's in print, since it's certainly one of my favorite designs.

MP:  I'm interested in how much Fantasy Flight has influenced the final version of the game and the expansion.

Fantasy Flight added the special character powers. I never use them when I play, but I know a lot of people really enjoy them. In the expansion set, which I really like, but which has been slammed a bit by reviewers, they added the Dragon which wanders around and sends people back to "Go." All the tile designs are mine, though. The one thing that we discussed that didn't make it into the expansion was increasing the number of gold needed to win to "6", since the expansion made it a bit easier to get there (there's a 2-gold tile in it).

MP:  The expansion really breathed new life into the game for me.  I actually prefer playing with the new tiles a lot more.  Do you have any other expansions planned?

TJ:  Probably not. There were quite a few  tiles that didn't make it into the expansion, but I don't think this expansion was successful enough to make another one. Perhaps I can convince Fantasy Flight to post them as freebies. The problem with expansions, of course, is that there are too many symbols, and some of them are pretty obscure. Even I have to look up the Harp (it was a Magnet, when I wrote it).

Here's some of the stuff that didn't make it:

NPC—This guy can use the board just like a normal player, he can even collect Gold pieces and win the game! Anyone may sacrifice their own turn  to move the NPC and perform his action for him. (you could actually use this rule with a normal set)

RECEPTION HALL—Any player may jump here on their turn.

SHORT CUT—Move again, now. (Symbol, Arrows at center in addition to arrows
at edge. Arrows; 3)

TIME LOOP—Copy Action from tile you previously used. (so if you came from a Move 3, you would do so again when possible). (Symbol; Arrow in a circle with an hourglass? arrows; 2 at 90 degrees)

MP:  Shortly after the first edition came out I read some reviews that suggested playing with absolutely no table talk, so the game won’t turn into “gang up on the leader”.  Do you prefer it with or without table talk?

TJ:  I prefer players to gang up on each other when one gets close to winning. This is a very subtle thing; encouraging other players to gang up on one who is winning while planning a strategy that they can't see to allow you to win. This is the back-stabbing part of the game. Some people dislike doing this though, it really rubs them the wrong way.

MP:  Of course, most of the fun of the game is finding just the right unsuspected combination of tile effects to get that fifth gold and win the game.  After all the games you’ve played, do any particularly clever combos come to mind?

TJ:  The game is fairly linear, so there aren't really "combinations" as in Wiz-War. What can be amusing is when a player lands on a Mind Control Orb to move an "almost winning" player onto a destructive tile to thwart another "almost winning" player. I've played the game so much over the years, though, that I can't say there are any real surprises anymore.

MP:  Maybe "sequences" would be a better word than “combinations”.  When I play, it reminds me of programming a computer.  Especially when setting up loops in the cave.  I've never played Programmer’s Nightmare, but are there any similarities?

TJ:  Both games came from the same source, really. I was trying many years ago to come up with a programming game, and when I introduced loops to it, and instructions that affected other instructions, Primrose Path naturally fell out of it. But then, it ceased to be a game about programming. So, I worked on another vector and came up with Programmer's Nightmare, which is considerably different in all respects.

MP:  What new games can we expect to see from Tom Jolly in the near future?

TJ:  There is always a lot on the horizon. I'm just working on one right now that involves designed robots fighting each other, which sounds somewhat prosaic, but has an awesome design and combat mechanism that's very unique and might apply well to other themes.

Intermittently I've been working on Derelict, which is Wiz-War in space (more or less...with vacuum and gravity considerations). It has promise. And, heaven forbid, an RPG wherein everyone gets to be the GM all at the same time. It's got some interesting mechanics.

There's also a real-time combat game system that does a nice simulation of video game speed-of-play, and I'm excited about that. Can you imagine playing a 15 minute war game? So, it just never ends.

This has been a good year, with sales to Fantasy Flight Games, Cheapass, Codefire, and Games Magazine.  And next year promises to be even better. Who knows, the much-delayed new Wiz-War might even make it out next month.

And I guess that sums it up.  Whatever we’re in for with Tom’s games, we know it won’t be “more of the same”.  I for one am looking forward to each of his new releases.


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