IKE MANY of the early employees, Adkison grew up as a gamer and was especially influenced by D & D. Raised in Idaho and Eastern Washington, he spent much of his school years playing elaborate military games, charge-the-hill kind of stuff.
"It was Christmas 1978 and I went to the store with $30 burning a hole in my pocket," he said. "I was looking for another war game and right there was a blue box set of D & D. For a long time, fantasy to me was the Wizard of Oz, but I had just read J.R.R. Tolkien and there was a dragon on the cover of the game so I said, why not?"
"My first reaction was, `Wow, a game with no rules?' Basically, I spent so much time doing it as the years passed that I decided I should try to do a side business out of it."
In 1990, while working as a Boeing systems analyst, Adkison started Wizards of the Coast to produce similar role-playing games, which use manuals, dice and imagination but little other equipment. The next year, while discussing games in an Internet forum, he learned of Richard Garfield, a mathematics Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who had invented a board game and was looking for someone to publish it.
Adkison felt he couldn't make money on the board game, called RoboRally, or any board game, for that matter. They were too expensive for a small company to tackle. But he knew Garfield was smart so he set up a meeting.
Adkison told Garfield he was looking for something compact and fast that people could play at gaming and science-fiction conventions. He said cards with cool artwork might be good.
About a month later, Garfield came to Seattle for a convention and in the parking lot across from KeyArena described his idea for a trading-card game. It was a new concept, but Adkison got it immediately. He began yelling and dancing among the parked cars.
Garfield, a placid, thoughtful sort, remembers cautioning Adkison: "Now remember, we don't have a game yet. It's just an idea."
Nevertheless, Adkison plowed ahead, using his Boeing salary and small investments from friends to fund operations while Garfield returned to Pennsylvania and spent more than a year developing and testing the game.
Wizards' first paid employee was Lisa Stevens, a D & D fanatic who had helped start another role-playing game company called White Wolf. Stevens, who now is brand manager for Wizards' new "Star Wars" game, had valuable marketing experience and distribution contacts.
Adkison set up the business in the basement of his Kent home and gave Stevens extra shares for use of her computer - an arrangement she now calls "a very, very good rental deal."
The company's few employees had to work second jobs while waiting for Magic. Stevens did freelance work; another employee moonlighted as a bouncer in a strip club. Artists, many of them students at Cornish College of the Arts , created playing-card images for a few hundred dollars and company stock that they had to suspect would be worthless.
"When I first came up with the concept of Magic, I didn't know if such a game would be possible - I mean possible and good," Garfield told me. "It is easy to imagine a game in which you construct your own deck and it winds up being stupid because everyone just plays with the aces."
Finally, in 1993, Garfield became satisfied that the card strengths were balanced enough so that there was no ace that, by itself, would trump the others. The key to the game was that players would amass cards at their own rates and build their own decks.
"A lot of things about the concept turned out to be gold from an economic and business standpoint, but what excited me was not that someone would buy a jillion cards," Garfield said. "What I liked was you could be your own game designer. You could play the cards you wanted to."
When Magic rolled out in August 1993, its success was stoked by an Internet buzz and Adkison's barnstorming demonstration tour of West Coast hobby shops. When Wizards took the game to GenCon, a huge gaming fan-fest that it now runs, Magic was the rage. It sold 10 million cards in its first six weeks.
The company went from start-up hell to high-growth hell. Eventually, Adkison enrolled in a business program so he could understand the MBAs he had to hire.
In 1997, Wizards bought TSR, the makers of D & D. With it came a fantasy-adventure book publishing wing. Now, Wizards is the top producer of not only trading card games but also role-playing games. It opened the University District game center in 1997 and bought a chain of retail stores last year.
When Wizards licensed the rights to produce a Pokemon trading card game, based on the popular Japanese animation product, the company tapped a mass market for the first time and found an eager suitor in Hasbro. The stock Adkison had been passing out was now worth a lot of money. About 30 early employees and investors became millionaires.
In 1992, Wizards had sales of about $100,000. Last year, sales approached $500 million.
IZARDS of the Coast has about 1,900 employees worldwide, about 900 at the Renton complex. None are more important or given more freedom than the research and development teams.
Garfield is a vice president with no management responsibilities, a free-floating tinkerer. He sits in a cubicle among other designers because he turned his office into a game room packed with classic titles such as Risk and Uno and obscure ones such as Gang of Four.
Garfield has designed 10 games, from RoboRally to a party game called "What Were You Thinking?"
I had a college dorm room flashback when I walked into the Magic R & D area. Young men sat around tables cluttered with dice, papers and change jars, play-testing the Magic cards that will be released next fall. They were looking for "broken" cards - those that would be too powerful in play. Such a card occasionally gets by them, only to be exposed on one of several Web sites devoted to analyzing every Magic card. Broken cards are banned from tournament play, but they work like aces in casual play.
Like the players they target, most of the R & D crew are young men and hard-core gamers. Usually they have backgrounds in math or science. Randy Buehler, a former pro player, joined the company a year ago. He's on the development team, which acts as the editors of what the designers dreamed up. At 29, Buehler has degrees in both physics and philosophy and is a portly, competitive guy who was far better at "College Bowl" than basketball.
He won $55,000 in his two years on the pro Magic tournament before joining Wizards last fall. As a player, he was known for decks he devised - especially "Buehler Blue"." In those days, he practiced an average of 40 hours a week and spent perhaps $1,000 a year on cards.
"Magic basically took over my life," he said.
Buehler is working on the next expansion set for Magic. He's banned from pro tournaments but serves as color commentator for the Magic world championship, which ESPN2 broadcasts. The top player in the world, Jon Finkel, has earned $190,000 so far.
R & D folks also are hard-core gamers, which makes Garfield's office, nicknamed "the danger room," a library of sorts. Designers and developers tinker and study all kinds of games.
"We have our own version of hearts at lunchtime that we call "turbo-hearts," Buehler said. "We change some rules, like doubling the point value for the Queen of Spades if you show everyone you're holding it before the round starts. Things like that. We have kept the points in a database going years back."
Bill Rose, who met Garfield while attending Penn, is the vice president who oversees Magic, coordinating R & D work, the naming team, the artists who put faces on the cards and authors who write an accompanying book providing a back story for the game.
Rose, already working on the 2002 edition, said artwork and names of the cards must be designed to quickly clue players about how to use them. Card colors have a consistent logic - red is chaotic, for example, and blue controlling but passive.
Role-playing designers work on the other side of the R & D floor. They focus less on numbers and probabilities, more on selling a fantasy-game experience. They write and edit manuals and constantly play-test.
A priority is applying the Magic treatment to D & D. Wizards has already overhauled the game, ridding it of the bikini-clad babe-warriors employed by the former manufacturer and simplifying the rules. Its new edition of the player's handbook, describing rules and character traits, rose to near the top of the New York Times best-seller list early this year.