How and when did Wizard get started?
History of the Game
The card game "Wizard" was created by Ken Fisher in 1984-85. At the time Ken was an ESL (English-as-a Second Language) teacher at East York Collegiate in Toronto, Canada. Along with his son, Scott and his wife Joan, he spent much of the summer months at their cottage in the "Haliburton Highlands" about 150 miles north of Toronto. Because there were no telephones and very limited television access, evenings were often spent reading or playing boardgames and card games. However there are few card games that are ideally suited for 3 players so Ken decided to refer to a book of card games in the hope of finding one. The game that seemed most suitable was called "Oh Hell". It is also known by a variety of other names such as "Oh Pshaw" or "Blackout". The origins of the game are obscure but it is said to have come from England. In any case it had become quite popular in New York card clubs during the 1930's. The book described the game as being suitable for 3 to 7 players and mentioned that it provided opportunity for skillful play. Ken decided to give it a go and along with his wife and son they gradually modified some of the rules as well as the scoring to improve the game. Neighbors often dropped by and joined in on the fun. The fact that the game could be played by 3-7 people and could be learned quickly suited the situation perfectly.
Although still active as a teacher Ken was not a novice to the games industry. He had earlier developed a series of quizzes that were published by "Dembner Press" in a book called "Super Quiz". This was prior to the trivia craze created by "Trivial Pursuit" the popular board game created by a group of Canadians from southern Ontario. In fact Ken had been contacted by one of the creators of "Trivial Pursuit" who had heard about his manuscript of quizzes and because they were still in the early stages of assembling their game wondered about the possibility of using some of the trivia questions. However Ken already had a contract with his publisher in New York City who quashed the idea of any further negotiations with the "Trivial Pursuit" creators. Ken later reflected that if he had joined the "Trivial Pursuit" venture he never would have created "Wizard". The incredible success of that trivia game would have made him comfortably wealthy and would have sapped his entrepreneurial drive. Be that as it may the "Super Quiz" venture became quite a success in its own right. It not only developed into a series of "Super Quiz" books but also spun off a series of 3 board games that sold over 100,000 units in Canada. In addition "The King Syndicate" in New York City adapted the "Super Quiz" books into a syndicated daily quiz column. Ken continues to write the daily quizzes which are carried by over 30 newspapers across North America including the "Sun" newspapers in Canada.
Ken's wife, Joan, suggested he should present their modified version of "Oh Hell" to a games company. However this was not feasible because the game consisted simply of a regular deck of 52 cards. Eventually Ken came up with the concept of adding 2 new suits to the regular deck to create a 60 card deck. His son Scott contributed by suggesting that the two new suits be called Wizards and Jesters to complement the other court characters of the face cards. The final touch was determining the abilities of the new suits. After some experimentation the Wizards were made the most powerful of all the cards and the Jesters the weakest. (Although certainly not the least useful.) It was further decided that the new cards would not be members of any of the 4 suits: clubs, diamonds, hearts or spades. The next few months were spent with further refinements to the rules until the package was complete.
It was now time to present the new "Wizard Card Game" to a games manufacturer. The natural choice was "Waddington Games of Canada" because they had marketed "Super Quiz" and that game had literally transformed them from near insolvency into a thriving company. Alas, despite Ken's earlier success the company passed on the opportunity to acquire the rights to "Wizard". It was explained that marketing a card game was a totally different proposition. Unlike board games, card games can take years to gain popularity and few succeed. It was simply not a good investment of time and money. Undaunted Ken approached other game manufactures but to no avail.
The Fisher family continued to play "Wizard" with a number of people and invariably received favorable comments about how much fun the game afforded. The game's popularity convinced Ken that it was a winner despite what the industry experts thought about it. He was aware that the same "experts" had rejected "Trivial Pursuit" for such reasons as, "Games don't come in square boxes". However to go-it-alone would be an expensive and risky venture. It was now 1986 and due to bad advice from lawyers and accountants along with the naiveté of a schoolteacher who lacked business savvy, Ken's financial situation was so poor that it became necessary to sell the family's beloved cottage and refinance the family house in order to pay a reassessment of taxes by "Revenue Canada". It was estimated that $50,000 would be required to market the game independently. Buoyed by the success of “Super Quiz” a number of investors came forward with the funds needed in exchange for 50% of the shares. Nearly all of the investors were either relatives or friends. In order to avoid immediate taxation on the $50,000 raised, the funds were given as an interest-free loan, which had to be paid back in full. The dilemma faced by many entrepreneurs wishing to bring a new product to market had to be faced. In order to get the unit price low enough to make the game marketable at least 10,000 units had to be purchased. The plan was for “Wizard” to be sold wholesale at $5 Canadian per game with a MSP (Manufacturer’s Suggested Price) of $10.
The contract to produce the first run of 10,000 games was granted to “Canada Playing Cards”. This company was chosen largely because of its close proximity to Toronto. The first production run was on June 6, 1986. The game was packaged in a black set-up box with “Wizard” written across the top. A yellow POP (Point of Purchase) container, which held 12 games, was also produced. (Ken still has a few of these original games, which he signs, and uses as prizes.)
Although Ken and his wife Joan were able to get the game into a few local game stores the vast quantity of games were sold at special events, especially during the Christmas season. Many weekends were spent in malls selling a game at a time to passing consumers. Many games were simply given away because it was found to be the best way of promoting the game. Games given away got people playing Wizard and resulted in purchases. Sales also began to pick up through word-of-mouth, and mail orders steadily increased as the game's popularity grew. However it wasn't long before problems began to appear, not only with card quality but also with cards missing from the deck. The next year followed a similar pattern; Wizard proved to have great public appeal but both quality control and marketing created huge headaches. Eventually “Canada Playing Cards” went into bankruptcy owing “Wizard Cards” a considerable sum of money. At this juncture Wizard had a small quantity of card games in inventory and limited funds. In 1991, needing a further infusion of cash Ken sold another 25% of the shares to new investors at triple the original price raising $75,000. At this point all of the original debt of $50,000 had been paid back to the initial investors but this new money was also in the form of a repayable loan. The new money was used to redesign the game and the packaging. The Wizards and Jesters currently in use were created at this time as was the familiar Wizard logo and blue box. By moving production of the cards to Hong Kong costs were significantly reduced although each order required a minimum of 40,000 units. While attending the 1994 “New York Toy Fair” the Fishers were approached at their display booth by Frank Martin, a well-known sales representative from California. He was familiar with Wizard and wanted to know if there was any interest in acquiring representation in the United States. He put Stuart Kaplan of U.S. Games Systems in touch with Ken and shortly thereafter U.S. Games of Stamford, Connecticut was granted world rights to market Wizard excluding Canada.
The Canadian rights were granted to "Canada Games" the country’s largest game company. In 1994 Canada Games sold over 25,000 games, over 34,000 in 1995 and by 1996 the total had reached 36,000 games. These figures were possible because of the marketing power of a major company that was able to get Wizard into the major outlets, Wal-Mart in particular. However in 1996 to everyone’s surprise “Canada Games” declared bankruptcy. The company that was manufacturing the Wizard cards for “Canada Games” (Carta Munde of Belgium) had 15,000 new decks in transit to Montreal and asked Stuart Kaplan (U.S.Games) if he was interested in buying them at a bargain price. However when Stuart saw the poor quality of the graphics he declined at any price and insisted that they be destroyed. This was simply another example of the importance his company places on quality.
Wizard then joined “Playtoy Industries” for distribution in Canada but after one year that company also declared bankruptcy. However by now all debts had been paid off and dividends had been declared for investors. In 1998 “The United States Playing Card Company” of Cincinnati wished to add a new card game to their line of cards. The company produces the prestigious “Bicycle” cards and “U.S. Games granted them the right to manufacture a version of “Wizard” which they would market through their outlets in the major chains. Unfortunately the version produced was fraught with faults. Two major errors in design doomed the project. The score pad was designed so that it could only be used for the 6-player game. Even worse was the fact that the Wizard cards were made part of the regular 4 suits which caused great confusion. The project was short-lived and ended by mutual consent. Also in 1998 “Amigo-Spiele” was granted a license to market Wizard in Germany. The company did a complete redesign of the cards putting an image of different characters on every card. The four familiar suits were also replaced and the deck itself is black rather than white. In 1999 Wizard then granted “U.S. Games Systems” the rights to market Wizard in Canada, effectively giving that company world rights to the game.
The positive side of putting all of Wizard’s eggs in one basket was that “U.S. Games Systems” with the acquisition of the Canadian market made serious commitments to making Wizard a success in the USA and elsewhere. The quality of the product far surpassed anything that had been marketed in Canada and Stuart Kaplan the president stood solidly behind the game, keeping Ken in the picture every step of the way. The “Deluxe Wizard” game was introduced with the new ‘bidding wheels’, which made the 2, alternate bidding systems more feasible and an advertising and promotion budget was established. Quality improvements and refinement of product has been an ongoing hallmark of “US Games Systems”.
Meanwhile Ken was interested in putting "Wizard" on the internet for online play. After much digging a deal was struck with "Pogo.com". "Pogo" agreed to program the game and for a $5000 US fee would have exclusive online rights to "Wizard" for a period of 5 years. Unfortunately "A&E" bought out "Pogo" and lost interest in the agreement. Nevertheless the $5000 US was retained by "Wizard". Ken then decided to bite the bullet and go it alone. He contracted “Roamerzone /Adventurous Network” to program “Wizard” and in 2002 the Wizard website at www.wizardcards.com introduced full-featured online play. The site provides all the nuances available in face-to-face play and makes the holding of regular online tournaments feasible. Players from all over the world have participated and new members join on a daily basis.
In 2003 “Modiano” of Trieste was granted a license to market “Wizard” in Italy. Unlike the German version the Italian cards are identical to the North American version. However the score pad is unique and the cards come in a plastic tray. In 2004 due to a failure by the Chinese manufacturer to maintain the required quality production of the Wizard cards was moved to Italy. Although this required a significant rise in the unit cost the quality is now the best ever.
“Wizard Tournaments” were introduced fairly early but it wasn’t until 1996 that a plan for awarding “Master Points” was established. The scheme was first put into place at a tournament hosted by Elessar Tetramariner in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Elessar and Ken Fisher wrote the initial tournament rules and conditions for awarding of “Master Points”. (For more information on 'tournaments' see the section headed "Tournaments" at the Wizard website.) In 2004 the first official annual “International Wizard Tournament” was hosted in Toronto, Canada. (The Ann Arbor tournament was the first Official Tournament in which official tournament rules were used and master points were awarded.) However “TOTO” (Toronto Tournament) was the first time that the event had been planned and hosted by "Wizard Cards" and "U.S.Games". The event also established the basis for future “International Tournaments” to be held at least once annually and introduced the official “Wizard Cup”. The name of the winner of each “International Wizard Tournament” will be engraved on the base of the trophy. The first name engraved on it was “Spiritgrove” (Terry Blocker) of Manitoba. Also in 2004 a new stand-alone display with blinking lights was introduced in the U.S. to spur sales in retail outlets and 1,000 free games were shipped to U.S. troops in Iraq.
In 2005 a third version of Wizard was added to the “Regular Wizard” and “Deluxe Wizard” games. A “Gift Wizard” edition featuring a rich embossed leather case and cards with a checkered design added an upscale version to the marketplace. In the same year “Wizard Bidding Coins” were introduced. The coins enable players to clearly see how many tricks other players have bid, how many tricks they have taken and how many tricks they still need to complete their contract.
* More recent additions include "Wizard Junior" and a "Medieval Wizard" deck with characters on each of the cards.