Monday, 9 July 2018

#12: The Gates Of Death


Charlie Higson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Attendees of Fighting Fantasy Fest 2 in September 2017 were given the surprise news of the first FF book to be written by a genuine celebrity in the form of Charlie Higson. Accompanying this was the news that he was a long-term FF fan, a comment which immediately seemed to make no sense when he said he was too old for the books the first time around, followed by him then listing a handful of titles that he owned, one of which, Creature Of Chaos, does not exist. Alarm bells started ringing in my head at this point and they then rang even louder when we were told that Jonathan Green would be helping Higson out with the mechanics. None of this especially suggested that CH had much of a knowledge of FF or rather, certainly not enough to try to write a FF book (unassisted, at least). But, the dangling carrot of another new book in the series was more than enough to get fandom excited by this announcement and there is no question of Higson’s credentials as a successful writer of books aimed at FF’s actual target audience so his pedigree in literary terms made this project look very hopeful. Much speculation then followed on the subject of how the “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Presents” tag would work with someone far more famous (in real terms) than them. This, mixed with Scholastic’s almost certainly wanting to make the most of the Higson name, meant that there was little surprise when the standard naming convention applied to third party FF authors’ books was finally relinquished and CH was given cover author credit. Had the series finally sold out? Well, in real terms, probably yes as no-one else ever got cover credit, but in practical terms Scholastic really had little choice but to do this so it’s understandable even if it breaks with FF tradition in the name of celebrity. Such is life.

Another striking observation worth pointing out about the marketing of this book is the colour. Scholastic’s versions of FF have gold spines - the first six were like this and the subsequent five new reissues to accompany Higson’s book also had gold spines albeit slightly different in appearance to the initial six – but the Higson book is silver. This is bad news for anyone whose OCD precludes oddities on bookshelves, but good news for anyone trying to find the new book quickly in bookstores and, again, demonstrates how determined Scholastic are to push the Higson credit. Thankfully, unlike the first six reissues, the silver cover print does not disintegrate on contact with human skin so credit to Scholastic for heeding at least one of the numerous criticisms levelled against their reissues.

Which brings us again to the biggest controversy and criticism of Scholastic’s series and one which we will get over with first: Vlado Krizan’s internal art. When this first saw the light of day in The Port Of Peril and the reissues of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain and City Of Thieves it was justifiably panned by FF fans. His uninspiring greyscale pallet made the images seem dull and lifeless, whilst his semi-digital inorganic forms were emaciated and cartoonish. Any sense of awe or terror was gone entirely and the whole ensemble of art was amateurish and uninspired. Replacing familiar and popular art by Russ Nicholson and Iain McCaig with this insipid rubbish was a travesty, and this problem carried over into The Port Of Peril as it featured familiar species, locales, and key NPCs that had all been drawn better in previous iterations and that the fan’s eye had become familiar with. Curiously, the subsequent reissues of The Forest Of Doom and The Citadel Of Chaos did not fare as badly art-wise because in these two cases Krizan seemed to have just traced Russ Nicholson and Malcolm Barter’s original art and added a bit of boring greyscale and jagged digitalisation to it resulting in what was essentially just a bad photocopy of the originals rather than a crime against good taste. House Of Hell’s Krizanisation (new verb, copyright me) was somewhere between the two, but was still fundamentally poor in comparison to the original art. So, the subject of the art in The Gates Of Death is curious: on the one hand, it’s back to Krizan original material a la The Port Of Peril but, other than in Port Blacksand, most of the actual subject matter is new Higson creations and this book relies less on familiar tropes than PoP generally did, notwithstanding its over-reliance on demons. This should allow VK to let his imagination run wild and really give him the opportunity to demonstrate what he can do with a (ahem) blank canvas. To be fair to him, his portfolio of sci-fi and battleship art online is actually very good, albeit that battleships are normally shades of grey (which suits him down to the ground) and his sci-fi stuff is colour which does not suffer as much as black and white does when large blocks of colour are used. So Krizan is not as talentless as people make out, there’s just something not quite right with his FF art. We all love the original artwork so he was never going to win there but this new book goes into unknown territory with no yardstick to compare the images to. It’s a depressing observation to have to make now then that Krizan’s art in TGoD is just as bad as that in the first three Scholastic books and has the same lack of inspiration, awe, and evidence of ability in fantasy artistry that made the art in the earlier Scholastic books such anathema for the eyes. Supposedly, Krizan was given a ridiculously tight deadline to turn the art around for the series in general but surely he could have done better than this…. Surely?

With that out of the way, let’s move swiftly onto the content of the (literally) shiny new offering from FF and its injection of new blood with its first new author since 1993. The plot is fairly straightforward: the Demon Queen Ulrakaah is the latest in the sequence of psychos who wants to wipe out Titan, this time with a demon plague. YOU are a novice monk engaged to stop this happening with the use of the hard-to-get-your-head-around-the-idea-of substance known as Smoke Oil (??) which turns demons back into normal people. Throughout the book you encounter people who transform from people into demons which fits the concept of how Smoke Oil works, but overall this idea doesn’t seem to make sense unless we accept the book’s repeated premise of people being transformed into demons being by possession presumably. YOU have to trek across Allansia, initially via familiar places from FF lore (Port Blacksand, Silverton, Salamonis, Plane Of Bones) to eventually reach new places invented for this book (the Invisible City which contains the Temple of Throth and the Gates Of Death themselves). This is an interesting approach as the overall feel of the book progresses from great familiarity to completely unknown territory which does give it a sense of unfolding mystery and foreboding. Port Blacksand can be negotiated by two mutually distinct routes and can bring you into contact with either Nicodemus again or very nearly has you meet the enigmatic and elusive Lord Azzur (who you don’t actually come face to face with as such which was a partial disappointment balanced out with the intriguing revelation that he sees, hears and speaks through conduits). From there you have a choice of routes to Salamonis (one via Silverton, the other via a more treacherous open environment) before heading off into uncharted new territory as you try to find the Invisible City and breach the titular Gates Of Death to get to Ulrakaah herself. Silverton is nothing more than a one-note opportunity to heal lost Stamina and we learn nothing new about Silverton itself by going there. Indeed, it is sold very short in the same way that Port Blacksand was in Port Of Peril which is a shame. Salamonis is a whole other prospect though and, as it’s nearer to the source of the demon plague, it is in a rather more advanced state of infestation. Essentially, the Salamonis section is a labyrinth of interconnecting (and mostly anonymous) roads that lead eventually to its gates at compass points. The literal killer here is trying to negotiate the city, find a NPC who can sell you useful equipment/advice, and avoid repeatedly dying by falling foul of demons, in particular by ending up in their purple demon dimension. Certain locations are deadly (the sewers in particular) and some of the city gates are red herrings that, again, will scupper you. The looping interconnecting roads within the city are a game-mapper’s nightmare and the feeling of disorientation as you try to get out safely is very much to the fore, making this section both effective and oddly hopeless in the sense of your chances of survival.

At this juncture, we need to discuss a mechanic that dominates this book – the looping nature of its design. Not only does the Salamonis map loop all over the place, but so does much of the book. If you die, more often than not you can use one of several methods of reincarnation to then get hurled back to a previous point in the book (or occasionally a future one, which is quite confusing). Initially, this seems unusually forgiving for FF (which it is) and removes the demoralising experience of endlessly restarting the book only to fail again in a similar place to a previous attempt (especially as the Salamonis section is deceptively hard), but it becomes just as frustrating after a while as being sent back to relive previous stages is no less tedious than having to just start again from the beginning. Indeed the sheer amount of reincarnating, looping back, returning to a fail point, looping back again, and eventually going around in endless circles does quickly become annoying and quite boring and repetitive. It does take a certain amount of determination and willpower on the player’s behalf to get beyond the Salamonis section and I suspect many players will grow so frustrated with this part that they will eventually just give up. There are only so many times you can re-read previous parts of the book before you get fed up with it and, whilst reincarnating creates the illusion of fairness, aimlessly wandering about in Salamonis’ deathtrap becomes inane after a while.

However, if you do manage to escape Salamonis, the rest of the adventure is far more interesting and, once you’ve found (revealed) the Invisible City, you get to explore the ethereal and genuinely mystical-feeling Temple Of Throth which gives you useful equipment and info before you try to access Ulrakaah’s lair. This is the most original and well-designed act of the book and rewards your persistence in the earlier sections with a genuinely enjoyable and intriguing episode. Indeed, everything previous to the Invisible City is fairly lacklustre. The final showdown with Ulrakaah is easily one of the most climactic end boss encounters in any FF book and goes some to make the rest of the adventure worthwhile. My favourite element is the way you have to die to pass into the demon plain and inhabit another character’s body there. To do this you fight the Obsidian Giants and, should you have some weakwater, you are almost certain to lose the fight which, perversely, means you win the fight as you need to die to progress. This is a refreshing idea which provides a neat twist on the usual “hero that has to win all of the time theme” that is central to most fantasy adventuring. The book repeatedly bangs on about you needing to be “pure of heart” to pass through the Gates Of Death and, presumably by dying, you demonstrate this. Ulrakaah is physically massive and genuinely intimidating and unleashes the (at first sight) absolute toughest and most unwinnable FF fight ever upon you: a Demon Horde of Skill 400 Stamina 800. Obviously there is no way that you can even attempt this fight in real terms, but, by using various magical seeds that you have picked up in the Temple Of Throth (or should have!), you can exponentially reduce both the Skill and the Stamina of the horde down to a much more manageable level. Ulrakaah herself is not especially strong for an end baddie (Sk 10 St 10) and it’s impossible not to have the key weapon you need to kill her (a khopesh) as there are two in the book and the second one is wedged in the gates themselves so you cannot help but acquire it. Interestingly, there is a non-win ending that you can find here too where you become Ulrakaah’s successor and continue her work. This section is number 400 which is very meta. The real win section is 470 which also shows us how comparatively long this book is in paragraph terms, although the optimum path is not actually very long so much of these sections must be used up in the Salamonis labyrinth and the multiple interconnecting paths within the Temple Of Throth.

The Demon Horde fight (and the Salamonis deathloop) raises an interesting point about this book: the difficulty level. At face value, given how labyrinthine Salamonis is, how seemingly impossible the end showdown is, and the number of items and information that you need to win through at the end, this book should be very hard. However, with the constant reincarnating, the multiple paths through (pre-Salamonis, that is), and the sheer amount of helpful items (seeds and potions in particular) that you can collect, in reality this book is very easy once you’ve cracked its looping design and realised that coming back to life can be advantageous as it gets you the chance to visit other areas and get more than enough stuff to win through with. There are loads of opportunities to find potions (and there are many different potions, mostly linked to reincarnation or negotiating demons easily), Luck tests are rare, there are umpteen Stamina bonuses, there are three types of handy magic boots, instant deaths are very rare, it is possible to revisit certain sections in the Temple area endlessly to get huge numbers of items you need for the end fight, and you can collect so many different weapons with various different properties and damage indicators that you should hardly be able to move for the weight of them. None of the (infrequent) fights (most of which are with curiously weak-ish demons) are difficult and several are avoidable one way or another, especially if you start experimenting with potions and/or smoke oil. It is possible to move quickly through the opening section by accepting an offer of help from Lady Webspinn (a goth name if ever there was one) and you can also travel on horseback at one stage which makes things move faster. The sheer amount of help you can get in the Temple Of Throth knowledge base section becomes overwhelming and definitely convinces you that, by this point, you have a good chance of winning. This balances neatly with the tedium and apparent hopelessness of endless death loops in Salamonis and makes the book feel more balanced difficulty-wise for anyone who is totally demoralised by the Salamonis section. Once you have explored the book as a whole it is obvious that this is generally a very easy book to finish, it’s the exploring it all part that could take you some time and experimentation. There is no central maguffin to find as such, it just tests your tolerance levels due to the underlying looping structure, which is both a blessing (less dying all the time) and a curse (repetitively going around in excruciating circles). There is no true path to speak of due to all the loops, but there is an optimum path that gets you to the Invisible City very quickly. You can negotiate Salamonis in about ten sections once you’ve worked out how to and, if you listen to all the advice you are given throughout the book by helpful NPCs, you will find that (like The Port Of Peril before it) all the potentially tricky parts are signposted to make them simple to get through. The Invisible City is non-linear although some areas will need to be visited before others and you can visit and revisit each part an infinite number of times so you will not struggle here. There is a huge amount of info to gather in the Temple but none of it actually affects your chances of success. It simply adds lots of plot extemporisation and contextualises what is happening by bombarding you with background detail to make the plot nice and logical.

As well as the looping design, the other feature of this book that quickly comes to the fore and won’t leave you in a hurry is the tone of Higson’s writing. This book reads less like a gamebook and more like a modern style children’s story book, what with its use of words like “bum”, “burp”, “wee” and “fart” (none of which suit the tone of serious adventuring), repeated use of corny jokes (Fish Face is a NPC who has the face of a fish, Holy Man is full of holes, there is an essential item called “bier goggles” which allow you to see the Invisible City whilst riding on a bier), potions are named things like “Nostalgia” (sends you back to a previous point) and “Pretty as a Picture” (beautifies a foe)… the list goes on. Not only is this reducing the player’s ability to take this book seriously, it is also far too explicitly obvious in terms of how to use/negotiate these moments. (I have a feeling the Nostalgia Potion might be a dig at aging fandom too, but I could be wrong.) There is a much bigger problem here though and that is that none of this fits into FF lore. Potions in FF have a distinct naming convention, as do NPCs, etc and awkward comedy and overly-obvious signposting does not sit well in my opinion. I found the humour puerile and at odds with FF, and the revised approach to certain aspects of lore sets this book aside from the rest. The initial sections where you visit familiar places do indeed create familiarity (which is welcome) but the overall idiom is not in keeping with FF and is out of context. As for the bum-faced monster, this alone is the single worst moment in any FF ever and also seems to serve no purpose at all other than to add yet another pathetic attempt at humour. I have to acknowledge there are many neat nods to continuity such as meeting a Clawbeast in Trolltooth Pass, finding a demonised King Salamon in Salamonis, the Nicodemus/Lord Azzur cameos, etc, and there is a nice nod to cartographer Steve Luxton, but I have a suspicion these could be Jon Green edits given how oblivious to the whole scene Higson seemed to be at FFF2. On the subject of JG’s “help” it is hard to guess exactly what the extent of this was but the mechanics combat-wise seem very FF (as do all the adjustors/new rules listed in the back for combat with different weapons, which do add some realism to fights) and the name Lady Webspinn in particular has a very Green-ish feel to it as does the description of the bier goggles which is clearly a pair of steampunk goggles, but I’m just conjecturing of course. And, incidentally, is the Fish of a Thousand Voices a reference to the Babelfish in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy? If it is, fair enough, it just occurred to me that this was a possible popular culture link worth mentioning. Who wrote/designed what and where inspiration comes from is ultimately near here nor there really, there is a much bigger underlying problem with how this book is written and that is that, stylistically and prosaically, Higson is completely out of his depth with serious fantasy (I’m sure he thinks having Logaan set your pants on fire for lying is hilarious but, in the context of serious fantasy, it is not!) For sure, there are some design elements that work very well in this book and someone (Jon Green or whoever, with more gamebook-writing skill than Higson, did any post-manuscript edits) has done some of the necessary work to make it function but much of the awful Higson pre-teen burp and fart prose remains and overshadows the decent aspects of the content. Also, I cannot resist, as a lifelong Prince fan, from commenting on the paraphrasing of the lyrics to Purple Rain in section 200: doubtless Higson thinks this is hilarious but it is at best cute and at worst desperate, and, again, is jarring random new lore that is at odds with everything else we know about the FF world. On the plus side, it does explain why the dimension portals in Salamonis are purple!

Much of the negative focus on Scholastic’s FF range has been directed at Vlado Krizan’s internal art, but Robert Ball’s new covers also inspired a mixed reaction from fans. The second sextet of Scholastic FFs does not have full page cover art. Instead these books have a cropped image within a circle. The small image of Ulrakaah’s face on the cover of The Gates Of Death is suitably evil-looking and I personally find it effective but, having seen the full-sized version, I would have much preferred the latter image on the cover as it is far more threatening and shows her as the truly awe-inspiring baddie that she is. Instead, Charlie Higson’s name seems to be the star of the cover, rather than the Demon Queen herself. I guess it’s all about marketing the celebrity name rather than the content of the book and there is nothing we can do about this. Whilst on the subject of Scholastic and their handling of the series, as with the earlier books, this book is printed on poor quality paper with the fake smudges and scorch marks that made the first six books look so shoddy.

We must be grateful that, decades down the line, the series is still open to adding new authors to its ranks. In the modern day cult of celebrity, a well-known name is a necessary evil to shift units and Higson does at least have the target audience pedigree. Sadly, as a gamebook writer he appears to have no idea what he is doing and has taken a concept with huge potential and turned it into an only half-decent novel written for a 21st Century pre-teen. There is a wealth of strong material in here (and the optimum path will reveal it to far better effect than bumbling around endlessly trying to navigate the loops and dead ends) but it is muddied and overshadowed by the bad jokes, flippant oh-so-hip writing style and the excessive number of system loops. The end is by far the best part and shows the true potential of the book (although I think you can finish it without any smoke oil if you don’t bother visiting the High Priestess in the Temple, which is a major error, and it assumes you know who Lady Webspinn is whether you have met her or not), assuming, that is, that you can be bothered to endure the looping parts long enough to ever reach it. It does not suffer from the rushed travelogue and no-real-choices-as-such linearity of The Port Of Peril and the plot is far more involving and original than PoP. I found myself getting bored in the Salamonis maze but was glad that I got through it and persevered to the last act. The opening part is nice in its familiarity but it does not really amount to much and just seems to ultimately be a bridge to create some cohesion with PoP. My biggest gripe is Higson’s awful writing (especially his backside fixation) and some of his lore does not mesh with “accepted” FF lore.  I enjoyed The Gates Of Death more than, and it is definitely better than, PoP but its problems generally outweigh its moments of quality. A playthrough of the optimum path (without all the asides and loops) reveals the quality of its central premise and concepts (and also how easy it is to win), but most playthroughs will almost certainly involve getting tangled-up in its irritating webs. If it had been written by a more capable and accomplished gamebook author - and had far more editing afterwards to make it fit better with cannon (the naming conventions of potions in particular) and to remove a few glaring errors - this could have been really good but, as it stands, it’s just okay and I doubt many people will revisit it once they have completed it, especially as you will have even found most of its alternate paths in one endlessly looping and increasingly frustrating night-after-night playthrough. Overall, this was a missed opportunity where your focus is unavoidably drawn from its good points (plot, concept, intrigue, excellent final act) to what Higson really wants you to experience (the resurrection mechanics, his terrible idea of hilarity) and what he unintentionally causes you to experience (his lack of ability at writing a serious gamebook). The good parts are very good, the bad parts (which, due to them heavily outweighing the good, are what you will remember) are terrible.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Destiny's Role: Zero To Hero


After a longer-than-planned gestation period, the first book in my all-new gamebook series Destiny's Role is on sale now on Amazon. This first book presents four short adventures of various kinds to give a taste of the world and concepts that the series will explore.

Order a copy HERE

You can also keep up with news on the series via Facebook and Twitter (@Destinys_Role)

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

#31: Battleblade Warrior


Marc Gascoigne

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Having assembled the disparate ideas and concepts created by the various FF writers who were involved in the series by its mid-20s and drawn them together into one coherent whole, whilst adding a vast amount of lore and background info of his own invention in Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World, Marc Gascoigne was almost inevitably going to eventually unload some of his ideas onto the pages of an actual FF gamebook. What is more surprising is that his idea downloading only ever resulted in one series entry, although his later taking over as Editor for the series may have drawn his attentions elsewhere, along with his various hands in the Warlock and White Dwarf pies and his general involvement is producing Games Workshop boardgames and RPGs (the marvellous Judge Dredd Role-Playing Game was one of his major triumphs in my opinion and I spent many hours in the 80s and 90s playing this). The sheer amount of effort that Gascoigne threw at the Titan project (as well as its monster-organising predecessor Out Of The Pit) demonstrates several things: a great passion for the subject, an exceptionally fertile imagination, and a compelling and vivid writing style that really makes Titan come alive and feel every bit like a real place. And therein lies the great paradox that you will quickly experience whilst playing Battleblade Warrior – MG’s superb writing is very much in evidence as is his knowledge and creativity when it comes to lore but, at the same time, you quickly start coming to the conclusion that Gascoigne simply cannot extend his obvious other talents to designing gamebooks.

Initially, thanks to a compellingly-written and rich introductory section, you really want to play this book. YOU play the son of the now-dead King of Vymorna who has by necessity had to become a warrior along with your mother the Dowager Queen, as Vymorna is under siege from hordes of Lizard Men who are on an expansionist campaign. The real crux of the adventure presents itself when you have a hallucinatory dream where you are visited by your God (Telak) who tells you to seek out Laskar who knows the hidden location of two mystical items that can help save Vymorna from falling. Hardly the most original premise but it’s presented so well that you want to read on. What follows is you choosing two of three of your father’s items to help in your quest (all of which are genuinely useful for once) then you have to decide how to break through the siege itself: option a is to head to the water where you can steal a boat and escape down the river; option b has you sneaking out under cover of night with an escort of bodyguards who can fight off the enemy whilst you make a run for it; option c sees you suicidally charging into the fray and hacking your way out of the siege in as bravely stupid a stylie as possible. Obviously then, option a is the safest and easiest route, option b can be dangerous but it is possible to get out unscathed if you are cautious enough, and option c ranges from fairly dangerous to extremely dangerous depending on the number and strength of the foes you have to fight. So, the book begins with three very different opening situations with difficulties ranging from very easy to (potentially) very hard. This shows a good balance of challenge in the design of the opening section and affords re-playability in its non-linearity at this stage. Options b and c do usually lead to the same eventual sequence of events (riding a lizard mount to freedom whilst being pursued by angry Lizard Men, followed by exploring the plains beyond Vymorna) but it is possible to start with option b and still decide to avoid the fighting by heading for option a’s safer watery exit point. Taking the river route cuts out almost all of the plains sections and leads you directly to a jungle terrain via a dinosaur encounter and, as even the dinosaur fights (Tyrannosaur or Triceratops) are avoidable, the river route is considerably easier to negotiate than either of the head-on choices. Sneaking out at night gives you the chance to avoid combats if you decide to but you can get into a few scuffles if you want the satisfaction of taking some of the attacking baddies down as you go so the difficulty of this path is largely down to how you wish to handle it, which is a nice approach rather than the usual gamebook railroading of making you deal with whatever the book wants you to deal with whilst giving you no say in the matter in situations where logically you could probably have more control. The fighting your way out approach of option c is interestingly handled too as (logically, given that you are charging to almost certain death) the way this one pans out is entirely down to dice rolls and/or random choices. Initially you choose from a set of sections to turn to and this decides what you fight first. You then roll dice from here and are directed to sections which could be more fights or, if you get lucky, could be the way out of the battle. Some of these fights are easy (low stats) and some are very hard (double-figured stats) for opening combats and range from various Lizard Men through smaller cohorts like rats via classic fantasy siege monsters (Orcs, etc) to big dangerous stuff like dinosaurs and, if you are really unlucky, the very strong Lizard Man Champion who, whilst not necessarily requiring you to see out the fight with him, can be fought more than once and with replenished Stamina each time. So, choosing option c will almost certainly shave off some of your Stamina, could leave you very wounded, and might even kill you, but then that’s what choosing this option is going to be all about and I like the non-arbitrary element of chance that the dice rolls give meaning you might not have to deal with a catalogue of hard fights, but it is likely that you probably will. So then, if you roll-up a weak character at the beginning you can choose an easier way out of the siege and still have a chance of making good progress through the book (especially if you take the path that avoids the plains episodes). Roll-up a strong character and you can flex your sword arm a bit at the start and get the satisfaction of knowing that you killed at least some part of the onslaught before running off to pursue your quest. Having escaped the siege, you either head out onto the plains on lizard-back, or sail up the river to a small part of the plain then onto the jungle. The plains are quite long compared to the fairly brief jungle, but the plains route also takes in the jungle so you get to experience far more of the book’s content by taking a harder way out of Vymorna at the start (a reward for your risk-taking maybe?) Next comes the part where you find Laskar who tells you that you need to enter a destroyed city which is where the items you need (the Eye of Telak and the Arm of Telak) are hidden. There then follows a conventional dungeon trawl through the inner complex before you reach the climax of the piece where you discover Laskar has stitched you up and sold you out to the Lizard Men meaning you have to deal with this problem before turning to the magic paragraph 400.

The siege is oppressive fun and really does feel like a battlefield. If you take the lizard-mount riding way out, the resulting pursuit is genuinely exciting and is handled at breakneck speed with a decent amount of peril along the way. The plains route can be dangerous and there are a few elements designed to trap the unwary (especially a confusing mist), but the central focus of this part of the book is on the NPCs, Lecarte and Katya. Lecarte is there to save you from your pursuers and lead you to the nearest town, the utterly pointless Capra which covers less than a handful of sections and is of no help at all, although it does open up the next potential episode, an Orc funeral. This is one of the highlights of the book and it makes good use of Gascoigne’s lore on Orc society that he included in Titan. The funeral plays out in an interesting and in-depth manner and you even potentially have to resort to eating some Orc flesh and/or drinking some disgusting guursh (aka Orc ale) which gets you pissed to the point of feeling very unwell. An earlier choice had you deciding whether to disguise yourself as an Orc and, if you took the chance to do this, this is the gateway choice that leads to seeing out the Orc funeral. This episode is both fun and disgusting in equal measure and shows Gascoigne’s inventiveness very well. However, it ultimately serves no real purpose at all other than to exploit an idea he included in Titan and to add colour to the proceedings. As with much of this book, this section is totally avoidable, but it does lead neatly to the second NPC encounter, this time with the messenger girl Katya. You do initially get the option to kill her and, to be honest, you might as well do so, as she dies very quickly afterwards anyway when you are both pinned out in the desert by some passing Caarth that, she tells you, are well beyond their usual route availability for some reason. So, she is yet another classic pointless FF NPC that seems like they should be helpful but it very quickly becomes apparent that they are not! A very interesting moment is the possible discovery of an ancient temple devoted to a panther cult which links into later episodes. Again, this is avoidable but it does present another nice cameo to discover. Whichever route you take (plains or river), you are then dovetailed into the pre-jungle sections and meet the trader White-eye whose help you might need but, again, it is not essential. White-eye is as one-dimensional as Katya and the only one of these three NPCs who has any background characterisation is Lecarte, possibly because he is another character whose roots lie in Gascoigne’s work on Titan so the foundations were already there. The subsequent jungle is an underwhelming excuse for you to try to avoid getting into a tangle with some tree-dwelling men (and possibly lose all your equipment) which leads to you finding Laskar for the first time before descending into the depths of the dungeon that forms the final part of this book.

And here is where this book’s problems begin to really amplify themselves. Having been through several potentially interesting episodes, you are now thrown into a generic dungeon bash choosing left or right options and entering various rooms containing monsters or booty. Your real reason for being here is to find the Arm and Eye of Telak and it will not take you long to find either of them as there are multiple paths that will lead you to where they are hidden, although the Eye is the harder of the two to find as, in classic dungeon style, it is a gem and there are four different types you can find, only one of which is the correct stone (or pair of stones, in fact). If you do not manage to find the Arm, do not worry as, when you reach the end, a Lizard Man appears with it anyway so you kind of lose the euphoria of having maybe found it. There are a couple of nice moments in the dungeon (the mausoleum is particularly vivid and awe-inspiring) but it is generally just direction choosing, monster fighting, and item hunting and, like most of this book, there is not much of it overall. Then comes the big climactic showdown with the traitor which is little more than a few stat tests, a one in four jewel picking choice, and then turning to 400 without having to shed any blood or do anything remotely challenging, at which point you reach a strange win section where the Arm of Telak (a sword, incidentally) conjures up a magical army who destroy the Lizard Man forces and Vymorna is saved, leaving you feeling generally unfulfilled and a bit short-changed by it all.

The brevity of the final showdown sums up much of this book as it is all generally rather half-baked, with the exceptions of the exciting opening siege and the fun (but pointless in plot terms) Orc funeral. Two of the four NPCs do very little and do not hang around long enough to make much difference to anything, the third (Lecarte) seems to be a nice excuse for some more Gascoigne-created lore cross-pollination and he does at least free you from a seemingly hopeless situation in the lizard pursuit, whilst the fourth (Laskar) is a wholly different affair and is pivotal to the plot so at least half of these characters do add to the proceedings. However, if you do encounter all four you start to get the feeling that MG is excessively obsessed with forcing NPCs into the equation, which can begin to grate on you. The jungle is very small (as jungles go) as is the river and both just provide minor perils. Another MG obsession seems to be dinosaurs which are, like his NPCs, deployed in an uneven fashion. The jungle edge dinosaurs seem to be very out of place and I was confused by their sudden appearance and their high Skill scores – high Staminas make sense as dinosaurs are big and chunky but they surely just act on instinct to defend themselves and cannot realistically be skilful? However, the Lizard Men’s flying conveyance of choice is the Pterodactyl which makes much more sense and links into their riding lizards as cavalry mounts and does add an extra dimension of peril as you can be assailed from above too. In fact, the airborne assaults are some of my favourite parts of this book but, again, there just aren’t enough of them and the terror is not sustained (although there is an amusing part where you can try to ride a Pterodactyl yourself, with understandably disastrous results given that you have no idea what you are doing). The final dungeon section is actually rather dull and, other than the mausoleum and the disorientation that the layout can present, this is the point where I would imagine most players will be losing interest.

Another problem is that (unless you take the path that leads you almost everywhere that is reachable in one route) a playthrough of this book is surprisingly short and, unless something strong or a failed Luck/Skill roll kills you, it is very reasonable to expect victory on the first or second attempt. Yes, this book is that easy. And it shouldn’t be, all things considered. There are many strong fights but none are essential. There are umpteen Skill and Luck tests and you will definitely need good scores in these two stats but this is probably the only really challenging aspect. The book is non-linear and, other than finding the Eye, there is no true path as such, although there are safe and dangerous routes. The initial discovery that you are limited to carrying only 4 Provisions and that you can only eat when instructed may seem harsh but there are lots of chances to collect Provisions (far more than you can ever carry) and a decent number of moments where you can eat so Stamina replenishment is not difficult. Furthermore, one of the opening three items you can choose from is a Stamina restorative and visiting certain places will restore your Stamina too. Curiously, the rules do not mention not exceeding your initial Skill but this is not an issue as Skill bonuses are scant. Given the number of Luck tests you have to pass you would expect this to be a potential issue but there are several Luck bonuses (including two early ones that seem to be impossible to use) to mitigate this too. All of this combined with the fact that not finding Laskar or the Arm of Telak is impossible (there goes any sense of achievement then) and the on-a-plate ending make for an unsatisfyingly easy gamebook overall and it seems that MG was more interested in translating his Titan inventions and certain preoccupations (dinosaurs, NPCs) into episodes around which a game was designed rather than starting with the aim of making a game and building those moments into it. Yes, there is some excitement to be had, especially at the start, but the pace is later maintained through overly-short and undeveloped areas that seem rushed in a bid to get it over with. Your character too is oddly moralistic and squeamish about things that you should have no qualms over at all, such as killing Lizard Men by blowing them up, and this seems illogical. Most frustrating of all is the fact that the Lizard Man siege has no context and, especially given Gascoigne’s fondness and skill in lore building, there is no explanation of why it is happening. On a lesser level, the same could be said for why the Caarth are out of their usual trajectory but as this is a small moment it is far less obvious than the huge gaping hole in the entire plot. That said, one thing that works very well is the consistency with the premise in that Lizard Men turn up at various stages throughout the book and are still entrenched in the plot right at the end, even if the way they are finally defeated is genuinely laughable.

In actual fact, the thing that initially appealed to me most about playing this book was the Lizard Man-centric plot. Whilst it’s far from perfect, Ian Livingstone’s Island Of The Lizard King is based on a solid central foundation of the slightly unsettling and very hostile Lizard Men and another book based on these creatures was well overdue in my opinion as they are one of my favourite FF species. The added draw of Alan Langford being on internal art duty again added to my interest as he perfectly depicts the lizardine semi-prehistoric nature of the subject matter and his return aids consistency. Even the cover which hints at Lizard Men riding flying dinosaurs really caught my imagination, in spite of it being a long way from even the most middling quality pieces of fantasy art I’ve ever seen and the colour palate is a bit childish. I have heard it said that Langford’s internals look rushed (by comparison with, say, Creature Of Havoc) but I thoroughly disagree and the depth of detail in some of the images, especially those featuring Lizard Men is excellent and sits well alongside his other work for FF. It is just a shame that FF failed to ever provide a Lizard Man-themed gamebook experience to match the concept’s potential and visual appeal.

For all its flaws, Battleblade Warrior is very playable and you really do find yourself wanting to like it, but overall it is a pretty forgettable experience due both to its ease and the way much of it sells itself short through design and mechanical issues that could so easily have been avoided had MG focussed more on writing a game than writing a book. He writes very well (far better than many gamebook authors) and this book never gets boring as such, but the way it starts with a brilliantly-developed opening siege and escape, only to be followed by a series of generally empty cameos (excluding the Orc funeral and the woefully under-utilised temple) that seem to be designed thus to maintain the pace, ultimately leads to a gamebook that is too short and too easy. I doubt many players will give this a second look once they’ve finished it as even the longest route through offers little more than 90 minutes of entertainment. A missed opportunity, given the subject matter and the talent of the author, but Gascoigne really should have stuck to writing fiction and expanding the foundations of the FF universe as the excellent Titan, Out Of The Pit and Demonstealer all ably demonstrated.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

To The Ice Palace Of Aesandre


ITV's Knightmare was one of the most popular childrens' TV shows of its era and I, like many gamebookers, am a huge fan. An obscure and lesser-known entry in the Knightmare canon is the interactive Knightmare adventures presented on Channel 4's now defunct TeleText service, playable through the use of the FastText function where coloured buttons corresponded to on-screen options allowing you to navigate your way through the screens. Normally, each day C4 ran a quiz called Bamboozle which used this system but, on a few rare occasions (believed to be just three times), a Knightmare adventure was offered in Bamboozle's usual place

Obviously, TeleText itself in its original form is now lost to time, but a web archive containing pages from TeleText was shared amongst the Knightmare fan community in mid-2017. The archive contained all of the original pages from 22nd December 1993, the day when one of the adventures (To The Ice Palace Of Aesandre) was made available. I'm not 100% certain how these pages came to be recovered, but the story goes that if you still have a functional analogue FastText television, should you also have a VHS recording from the era, Teletext pages can theoretically still be accessed. Anyhow, some wiz transferred the pages from VHS to html and put the archive up on the web. That's where myself and fellow gamebook fan Paul Kelly came into the equation. I waded through the entire day's archive, identifying which pages were relevant to the adventure (and literally everything from that day was there, including the TV guides, news, cinema listings, music charts, horoscopes, FTSE indexes, traffic reports, etc etc), filtered out duplicate pages and corrupted pages, and, armed now with a single set of adventure pages, I then set about mapping what seemed to be the logical paths of the adventure and working out which choices linked to which pages. At this juncture it's worth pointing out a quirk of TeleText which I remember well from the time and that is that, as analogue TV could sometimes have a less than fantastic reception, TeleText page characters could go haywire and appear as gibberish. And that was exactly the case here as several letters were corrupted so all of these also had to be identified ready for replacing with the correct letters. Once I had the whole thing figured out it was over to Paul Kelly to code the pages and hyperlink the choices to recreate the feel of the original, the only real difference now being that instead of coloured buttons, the player just clicks on their choice.

The end result is a fully-restored and playable reconstruction of Knightmare: To The Ice Palace Of Aesandre in as close a version as is possible to the original FastText experience.

Click HERE to play

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

#6: The Port Of Peril


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

In 2017 it was announced that Scholastic had taken over the publishing rights to the FF series, an announcement that was met with a mixed reaction from fans. Shortly after this, previews of the new art that had been commissioned for these editions met with an even more mixed set of fan reactions, ranging from this being seen as a progressive step to modernise, thru resigned acceptance, to utter contempt (the third being the response of the vast majority). As with Wizard’s two attempts at republishing the series, a new book was released. Whilst the Scholastic editions have no external numbering system, the books are numbered on the inside and this book is listed as #6 which sounds fine until you realise that it was released first along with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (inevitably as #1) and City Of Thieves (as #2). The new book being in the first tranche makes commercial sense and, as it is the sequel (of sorts) to City Of Thieves the simultaneous re-release of that book is also logical but quite why the new book is officially numbered as six I have no idea given the release schedule of 1,2,6 followed by 3 and 4. There was only a week between them and #5 was nowhere to be seen at the time but, bizarre numbering in the context of the release schedule aside, the main point is that, for FF’s 35th Anniversary, we got another brand new book and it was written by series co-creator Ian Livingstone. Furthermore, after the FF-in-name-only 30th Anniversary offering of the generally universally-panned Blood Of The Zombies (although I personally quite liked it, in spite of its unwinable-ness) it was good to see a return to a straight medieval three stat-based Allansia-set book in the classic FF style.
Not only does Port Of Peril use the tried and tested FF system formula again, but it is also a sequel to one of the series’ best ever efforts, City Of Thieves, and sees the return of that book’s protagonist Zanbar Bone, now resurrected. However, in a canny move, this is not actually the gambit of the plot or, at least, not initially. YOU start out as a down-on-your-luck adventurer who has been roughing it on the streets of Chalice for the last four days on the off-chance that an opportunity for treasure-hunting might present itself. Said opportunity soon does present itself in the form of a dubious treasure map that you pick up after it gets discarded by a drunk who bought it from a dodgy bloke he met “down the pub” (a bit like we used to do with VCRs in the mid-‘90s, then). The map suggests that a great treasure (the Ring of Burning Snakes) is hidden in Skull Crag deep within the Moonstone Hills (or just “Moonstone Hills” as the book keeps calling them as the definite article seems to have been scrapped for some reason) and you decide to go off to find it. You start out with a traditional-style item-grab around Chalice before heading out across the plains to Moonstone Hills (without the “the”) and Skull Crag, where you run into the usual IL staple companion (a female ninja called Hakasan) who convinces you to go and find a certain Gurnard Jaggle who it is apparent got to Skull Crag before you and might know where the ring now is. He lives in Darkwood Forest so off you both go there to find him and subsequently learn, through a fateful encounter on the way, of the imminent return of Zanbar Bone, news of which means you need to call on Gurnard then hotfoot it to Yaztromo’s tower on the southern edge of Darkwood to see what stage Zanbar’s reappearance has reached. Yaztromo is in trouble already and tells you that you need to go to Port Blacksand to track down Nicodemus (familiar territory for anyone who has already had to go to PB to track down Nicodemus once before in City Of Thieves), bring him back to Yaztromo’s tower and all join forces to destroy Zanbar again before he takes over Allansia. Incidentally, Zanbar has decided that this time he will run his destruction-fest from Yaztromo’s tower which he is slowly covering in black stones to enable him to overrun it. Also, Nicodemus is useless without his ring of power (the book’s maguffin of the Ring of Burning Snakes) which ties the Zanbar half of the plot to the initial treasure hunt part so it all gels quite nicely and the switch from wealth-seeking to world-saving flows smoothly and is not as jarring a fundamental plot change as it might sound.
The sheer amount of ground that you cover in this adventure does give it something of an epic feel but, as you literally hurtle from one place to the next with very little real depth being given to anywhere that would otherwise demand entire books be devoted to them, you do not get the impression that you are really going anywhere of any great interest and the town-plain-hills-forest-plainagain-differenttown-forestagain layout seems rather facile in spite of what the map suggests you have traversed. It does not seem to take very long to get from one part to another and you could be forgiven for thinking that all this takes place in an area of just a few square miles, were it not for the map in the front of the book (and what the seasoned FF player knows anyway) suggesting that this book involves a trek of quite a distance. The only other FF book that really tries to encompass such a large playing area within Allansia is #26 Crypt Of The Sorcerer, a book which handles this on a much more grand scale and feels far more like you are travelling over a great distance. In other words, Port Of Peril only achieves superficially what Crypt Of The Sorcerer does brilliantly in this respect. I am rather cynical about the way this book darts from place to place as it becomes an endless catalogue of name-checked FF locations and, at times, also NPCs. Along with the already noted game locations of Darkwood Forest, Chalice, Moonstone Hills and Port Blacksand, we also see casual mentions of Firetop Mountain (it is actually possible to briefly go there and immediately die, incidentally), Fang/Deathtrap Dungeon, Fire Island (and its Lizard Man mines), Oyster Bay, and Vatos. NPC-wise, if Nicodemus, Zanbar Bone, and Yaztromo are not already stellar enough for you, Vermithrax and Mungo both turn up, whilst Bigleg, Throm, and Lord Azzur are also cited by name, as well as an allusion to a beggar you meet in Chalice probably being the one-armed jeweller from City Of Thieves. Oh, and the Darkwood Shapechanger gets a mention too. Phew, that’s a lot of places and characters to have thrown at you and the verbal assault reads rather like a Tolkein novel in this respect with its confusing list of people and places. OK, if you are familiar with FF lore this is easy to deal with and interconnection is always welcome but this is just too much and a new reader could easily become overwhelmed with incidental detail that could detract from the core playing experience. More irritating is an encounter with Bignose (Bigleg’s cousin) which is basically just an advert for other books in the series as he specifically suggests the plots of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, Deathtrap Dungeon and Eye Of The Dragon as possible ways of seeking your fortune. This is vulgar product placement and I thought/hoped FF was above doing something this transparent, but apparently not!

On the subject of the relationship between Bignose and Bigleg, there are umpteen family connections between NPCs in this book - be they cousins, spouses, or siblings - and this aspect begins to read like something akin to a soap opera. One or two would be fine, but this book does seem to push this to extremes of coincidence which, tied to the fact that the hitherto unknown (in FF lore) Gurnard Jaggle seems to be the most famous person in Allansia all of a sudden (given how many people know about him and his antics), we really are beginning to labour the credibility of the characters and plot here. Another jarring point of some NPCs is the convenience of their needs or flexibility in terms of trading items. In Chalice you can meet someone who very handily is looking for a birthday present for his bird-appreciating wife (and you just so happen to be carrying a bird-shaped object at the time) and the willingness of Bignose to accept just about any old crap in return for his trusty battleaxe (I thought Dwarves were especially fond of these??) beggars belief! Similarly, the book seems to be fixated on certain types of object and their recurrence throughout in various forms can get quite repetitive: brass objects, keys, things in jars, and your endless knife collecting (for few genuinely useful reasons) can all get a bit samey. Indeed, the shopping list for this book, in typical IL style, is massive, with only about a third of all the rubbish you find actually proving to be of any real use and most of the absolutely essential stuff is either found at the start or near the end. Most of what you find seems quite unusual and the illusion of purpose is certainly created, but the disappointment comes quickly when you realise just how much of it serves no purpose other than to use up space on your Adventure Sheet (this problem also existed in Eye Of The Dragon). Oddly too, when you find objects in jars you are told that you do not have the space to take them all and are limited to only taking so many which makes sense in the context of logical encumbrance, but makes zero sense when you see just how much other junk you seem to be able to carry. Incidentally, there are at least two incidents where you can lose almost all of your equipment (which may come as a relief, to be honest!) but this will also mean you will not be able to finish the book as, as with all IL books, this is as much an item hunt as it is a kill-the-baddie outing.

Tied into the typical Livingstone item-hunt approach is linearity. IL’s books are always ultra-linear with tight true paths to be found by trial and error through multiple failed attempts and lots of mapping but, at the same time, the number of routing options available really makes them eminently explorable and replayable. One notable exception is #7 Island Of The Lizard King which is pretty much just a straight line. This straight line design is also the case with Port Of Peril to the point where digression from the intended path is all but impossible and any attempts at making routing choices will very quickly return you to a choice you were given a few sections back. In playing terms this is very obvious and the repeated options to turn to a certain section will give all but the most uninitiated gamebookers massive clues as to where they should turn to. In fact, if you do try to do anything other than what the book has predetermined that you must do, you will either be almost immediately sent back to the correct path or killed off. No prizes for guessing then that this book is very much FF by the numbers and the lack of any real descriptive depth along with the fact that your “choices” aren’t really choices at all as such makes it all feel very middle-of-the-road for the experienced FF player.

But is this book actually targeted at an audience of FF stalwarts or is it written as an introductory book for a new generation of potential gamebookers? I would plump for the latter given just how many references to other FF books are written into the text and the relatively dumbed-down prose (burping, farting, and words like “bloomin’” seem more suited to Roald Dahl than FF but unfortunately are all here) by comparison with IL’s usually very vivid and descriptive writing style. In terms of plot there is little to criticise in text terms (some paragraphs are three pages long!) even if there is a little too much happenstance involved and characters talk in such a way that they all seem to be narrators giving away vast amounts of contextual detail but these are definitely fundamentals of children’s literature and for that reason alone they can be forgiven. However, FF has never felt the need to do this in the past so is the series trying to appeal to a younger than usual audience or do kids nowadays just have shorter attention spans so the entire concept needs to be laid out in front of them as explicitly as possible? Who knows, but there is no doubt that this book is written in a more summative fashion than most which can make it rather hard to connect with in terms of immersing yourself in the proceedings. What this does mean though is that it partially makes up for this in frenetic pacing as you dart from one place/incident to another at break-neck speed (without taking any time to go into too much depth) in a bid to reach the final pay-off but I think most of us would rather have a bit more meat on the bones than be changing our surroundings every few pages. If you look at this in the context of how story-driven material works nowadays though, I can understand why this is necessary – just compare Doctor Who stories pre-reboot where a story covered several episodes to the post-reboot world of “monster of the week” single-episode stories which give much more of a quick fix. Port Of Peril in design and textual terms is FF’s response to this need to appeal to the modern child rather than the 1980s child and there is much to be said for attracting a new readership, albeit by watering-down and compromising the series’ core values. Another niggle is that IL sometimes attempts to add humorous references in his later books (remember the pie-eating contest in Armies Of Death, for example) and you can find yourself playing “Dungles and Draggles” at one point in Port Blacksand which is no doubt hilarious if you are of its intended new audience… not that any kids nowadays will have any idea of what that is meant to be a reference to!

With the textual concessions comes a reduced difficulty in playing terms and Port Of Peril is, all things considered, relatively easy to complete. Most IL books are very difficult (with a couple of notable exceptions) and can be downright unfair with their combinations of masses of essential items to find, ultra-hard fights, few chances for healing, and lots of Luck testing. Yes, PoP still has you needing to gather loads of items that you will fail without finding, but other than this, the book is generally very fair on the player. As with the only fair part of Blood Of The Zombies, your curiosity in opening and examining things is usually (but not always, just to add a slight element of tension and make things interesting) rewarded. Luck tests are mostly found in logical places rather than being arbitrarily scattered about and some will only be found if you take a path that the book is obviously trying to talk you out of by repeatedly offering you the section that you are supposed to be choosing. A few Luck tests will kill you if you fail them but, again, this is generally due to misadventure rather than the book hating you. Skill tests are very sparingly used and only come at key critical pass/fail points such as the final fight with Zanbar so this is acceptable. There are many moments where you can lose Skill, Stamina or Luck points but there are just as many opportunities to regain them so this is well-balanced too, plus Yaztromo will max-out either your Skill or Luck, or add 10 to your Stamina making you very strong if you happen to have rolled-up a character with a particular stat weakness. Instant death sections are liberally scattered about but always come from either doing something stupid or from failing at important moments so this makes sense as well. There are only a small number of compulsory tough fights and these again come at key moments, which fits well. Potential traps and the more lethal areas (especially inside Skull Crag where any wrong turn means death) are there to scupper you, but advice from NPCs is laid on so thick that you are unlikely to fall foul of any of them. All this indicates that, after 35 years of writing gamebooks, IL has finally worked out how to get the difficulty right without a book either being too easy or almost impossible. Hurrah!

What FF still has not got a handle on though is proof-reading and play-testing. On paragraph 1 we are given an impossible Stamina point bonus with another equally unusable one a few sections later - the Rules mention not exceeding Initial scores so this is either out of the window or there are errors from the get-go. There are a few typos here and there but nothing more than in any book and no-one’s names change randomly so that is good to see! There are, however, several plot inconsistencies and continuity errors that depend on your having done exactly what the book expects up to those points, otherwise they won’t make sense, such as: you are told that a jar of eyeballs has been smashed by you whether you chose to do so or not; you tell Gurnard Jaggle to call on his brother Jethro whom you might not ever have met or be aware of the existence of; and, most problematically, the flintlock pistol is involved in several glaring mistakes including you getting it serviced even though you might not have it, then allowing you to use it even though you might not have any black powder (which you are told you DO have) or have had it serviced meaning that, either way, it should not reasonably work! A less awkward but just slightly weird problem is that, even without a compass, it seems to be impossible to get lost in Darkwood Forest as you cannot avoid stumbling on the correct path eventually.

In spite of these logic issues, a huge effort has been put into meshing this book with its predecessor, City Of Thieves, as well as making sure that there are accurate correlations (via Easter Eggs) with certain other books. The aforementioned one-armed beggar aside, you can also collect a lotus flower and some hag’s hair which, whilst purposeless this time around, do give a feeling of familiarity, and Nicodemus still lives as a recluse under Singing Bridge in Port Blacksand. Likewise, the episode of seeing Lord Azzur’s coach pass you by is repeated here. Also, Yaztromo’s tower is naturally still situated where it was in The Forest Of Doom, the Hill Men are still wreaking havoc with passers-by on its edges, and you can even get picked-off by a Pterodactyl (now more luridly called a Terrordactyl) near Darkwood, just like the open plain episode in FoD. Indeed, it is just about possible to pinpoint where this book fits into the FF timeline too. Throm is said to have not been seen since he entered the Trial Of Champions so this comes after Deathtrap Dungeon, Bigleg has disappeared into Darkwood to find the still missing dwarven hammer so we are contemporary with The Forest Of Doom, Mungo is still alive (he tries to invite you on a wild goose chase to Oyster Bay which the book refuses to let you get very far on if you decide to agree to go, incidentally) and the mines on Fire Island are still in operation (meaning this is pre-Island Of The Lizard King), but Zanbar Bone has already been vanquished once so we are definitely after City Of Thieves. This all makes the timeline very screwy but we do at least know where we are in the context of the series’ overall story arc. What does seem a bit odd though is how to destroy Zanbar this time around. You needed to amass a lot of things to defeat him in CoT but in PoP there are actually TWO ways to kill him and both can potentially afford you more than one chance (if you have spare arrows or lead balls, that is) – either firing arrows or firing a flintlock are the only ways to despatch him and both will shatter his (now pointier) skull which seems a rather anti-climactic way to kill an end baddie but, as this is a fair IL book, you are not being expected to endure a near-unwinnable end fight for once, especially if you exploit the flintlock continuity snags to your advantage! OK, immediately before you face Zanbar you do have to contend with the book’s hardest battle against the Demon called Quag-Shugguth that Zanbar has brought along from the depths to defend him and, unless you have the Venom Sword (cost 20GP) you must fight with -4 Skill and have little chance of winning but the flipside of this is that, should you have this weapon, you will instead fight with +3 Skill so even the really killer foe can be rendered reasonable to take on.

Zanbar Bone himself is handled, in lore terms, very effectively and, other than him being oddly easier to beat this time, we get some excellent background to how he became what he now is and also learn that, like another FF key baddie (Zagor) before him, he is effectively immortal so can we expect more resurrections like we got with Zagor? Hopefully, yes. Also, because the new and improved Zanbar is now a Demon he has grown wings and cloven hoofs as well as his iconic horns having got much longer and he has become a truly awesome enemy which presents us with two problems: 1) why is he easier to kill this time than he was the first time we met him when he was a lesser character? 2) why is the image of him sat on his bier in this book so devoid of awe-inspiring qualities? Iain McCaig’s original cover and internal illustrations of Zanbar were exactly what they should be – menacing and terrifying. Scholastic’s new artist (Vlado Krizan) gives us a dark greyscaled Zanbar whose cloven hoofs are all but invisible, his wings are just black areas and his tiny skull seems to have had its horns tacked on afterwards. Furthermore, the entire image is blocky and looks like mid-90s PlayStation graphics. In summary, he sounds terrifying in the descriptions but is pathetic-looking in this new picture. Even more depressing is that this image is not a one-off blip like any book with multiple plates will surely have, as all of the art in PoP is utterly awful. Take Cartoon Network people, mix them with stupid-looking cutesy creatures, remove any terror, don’t bother with any detail at all, obliterate everything by covering it with dark greys to the point where it all looks like it’s happening in the middle of the night, and finally put it all into block pixels so it looks like a really bad quality YouTube video and you’ve pretty much got the idea. Whoever thought this guy’s art was suitable for FF needs their head examining quite frankly as this is unquestionably the worst art I have ever seen in a FF book. (Krizan also created the new art for the other books in Scholastic’s reissue series but we’ll talk about that in a separate write-up). The cover image (by Robert Ball) is, in context, a vast improvement over the internals, but it has a childish look to it and is not in keeping with previous FF cover pictures. Yes, I realise that Scholastic is aiming these books at a particular audience and that school book clubs are unlikely to welcome the classic FF cover imagery due to it being a bit too “real-looking” (and good lol) but the new cover concept just does not have the right feel to it. FF was always a series of essentially childrens books but that looked and felt adult. Scholastic has made this book look childish. Apparently some people have shown the covers (and internals) to their children and the reaction has been positive so presumably the new approach is having the desired effect but surely the old art style is a million times better than this? The covers and internals used to inspire and influence which book I would choose to get next when I was a child. I’m pretty certain that if I still was a child I would never have entertained something with art like PoP’s. Along similar lines is the actual presentation of the book. The small incidental images to break up the sections are all present and correct but, again, they suffer from the same shoddy execution as the main plates and the attempt to “age” the pages by adding black splodges on the edges that are supposed to represent singes just looks like a printing error and also causes the book to have similar black marks on the page edges which looks like soiling. Horrible. The paper quality is also awful and smells chemically to the point where it is quite intoxicating and looks (and smells) like newspaper. Furthermore, the actually quite nice gold embossing on the spine and cover text comes off on contact with pretty much anything so the book quickly begins to look tatty. All things considered, the overall impression is of a poor quality cheap production where art, printing standards, paper quality, and general look and feel have all been compromised in the name of budget-saving. This is pretty typical of Scholastic though as many of their books are on cheap paper and disintegrate very quickly. In the name of fairness I have to add here that a Limited Edition hardback version with different (and far superior) cover art by the ultra-talented Iain McCaig is also available, the cover of which represents an assemblage of famous FF NPCs (some of whom do not appear as such in the book) all having a drink in the Black Lobster Tavern. Unfortunately, the dreadful internal art and fake page-edge aging is still there though.

One of the key functions of art in gamebooks is to help us visualise the unknown and, as with all FFs, this book introduces some new foes as well as a scattering of familiar pretty standard types that show up in most gamebooks. Amongst the new offerings are a Sporeball (which is actually quite dangerous), a Hippohog (disables its prey by farting and knocking them out!), and a group of three Blue Imps which look to be lifted directly from the Deathtrap Dungeon pc/PlayStation game (which is apt as most of the art looks like it came from there too, but the way you would have seen it if you had a black and white tv!) My favourite new foe by far is the Quag-Shuggoth which is easily this book’s toughest enemy to fight but, for the most part, much of the new beastiary is a bit lame to be honest and the classic fantasy creatures definitely carry this one. It is worth mentioning the Plague Witch though (this book’s nod to the hag in CoT and also the source of this book’s supply of hag’s hair) who, whilst very weak stat-wise, will kill you instantly if she wounds you so it is nice to see a deceptively strong foe to add yet more balance to the proceedings (if this was an old-school IL book she would smash your sword causing you to fight with -3 Skill, have a Skill herself of 11, and also get an insta-kill if she wounded you!) Of note as well is your companion for much of the second half of this book (Hakasan) who, for once, is actually very effective and doesn’t either die or run away shortly after you find her like most IL companion NPCs tend to do. She acts as a source of information, a guide to keep you on-track (if you really need one!), a co-fighter to make battles easier, a motivator, and also presents a minor crisis for you to contend with when she damages her ankle. Should you reach paragraph 400 (which you will after just a few attempts) she also decides she is off to attempt the Trial Of Champions – I wonder if she ever went through with it – and there is a neat closing sign-off with Yaztromo using the classic “May your Stamina (blah blah) never fail” spiel which looks to be a prompt for you to go out and get some more FF books (which can’t be a bad thing).

Port Of Peril is an OK gamebook that never really rises above being middling. It is certainly not bad but it is miles away from the really top-class material that the series has produced at times. It has lots of plus points, fairness and pace in particular, but its lack of any real immersiveness or intensity makes it feel a bit flat if you have read/played a lot of gamebooks. As an intro to the series it works very well but, whilst there are no direct prerequisites to play, it certainly works better if you are familiar with City Of Thieves. The system is back to the original version of FF, which is good to see. Two currencies are involved (Gold Pieces and Copper Pieces) but transactions are only ever in gold so I suspect copper is just included to add a bit of variety and maybe as a nod to the AFF system. All the IL foibles are back (although his usually excellent prose has been eroded) but they work with you rather than against you for once and, barring a few potential continuity errors, the whole thing comes together well and, in summary, you could do a lot worse than giving this book a go (just don’t look at any of the pictures or your eyes will bleed lol).

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Steve Jackson's Battle Cards


Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Produced in 1993, Battle Cards are simultaneously a part of, but also not a part of, the Fighting Fantasy world. If this statement makes no sense, allow me to clarify. There are several major points that separate Battle Cards from FF:
  •       Battle Cards are set on the continent of Vangoria which is not part of Titan, neither is it anything to do with the parallel universe of Amarillia, so in that sense there is no geographical connection with FF
  •       The Rules are completely different and no FF mechanics are incorporated
  •           An entirely new bunch of key protagonists and antagonists have been created for Battle Cards and no FF NPCs are involved

By the same token, there are also aspects that inexorably link Battle Cards to FF (some more tenuous than others):
  •         They are a Steve Jackson creation – this speaks for itself
  •          There are artistic connections, both in terms of the artists involved and also some of the actual images used (more on this later)
  •         There are two literal direct links – the Orb of Shantos and the Eelsea (again, more on this later)
  •          FF collectors also collect Battle Cards (in fact, if the sparsity of interest in Battle Cards on any trading card collecting forums or sites is any indication, no-one other than FF collectors collects Battle Cards!)

There has been some attempt made in fandom to retcon Vangoria into the Titan mythos, justifying its inclusion as a lost sunken continent. This would suggest that the story of Vangoria is set a considerable time before that of the main FF canon. There is no reason why this cannot be the case, but if it is then the remains of Vangoria must now sit somewhere on the seabed between Allansia and the Old World as the sole common geographical feature shared by Titan and Vangoria is the Eelsea which now separates Allansia from the Old World. Unless, of course, there have been two Eelseas at different points in time, who knows? However you look at this connection, the underlying link is that fans of FF also like Battle Cards and this is probably for two simple reasons: 1) they are a medieval fantasy game with a combat system; 2) they are the brainchild of Steve Jackson. I suspect that collectors and players need no more justification than these two facts.

We’ll come to the collecting element later, but the actual point of Battle Cards (at least, it was when it first appeared) is that it is game, the primary goal of which is to become the new Emperor Of Vangoria. This is achieved by collecting the eight Treasures Of Vangoria which bestow the right to become Emperor upon their bearer. The Treasures (many of which are believed lost) are hidden about the continent and you have to acquire all eight through various means. The least complicated, but also the most long-winded and financially-crippling method was/is to buy hundreds of packs of cards until you randomly find all eight in the packs. Given that the quoted find rate of Treasure Cards is that one pack in every twelve will contain one you will need to get a lot of packs to find all eight. Indeed, I recently opened 60 US packs and found eight Treasure Cards (which isn’t far from one in twelve) but several of them were the same card and numbers seven and eight were not found at all. Evidently, this was not the intended method of finding the Treasures and the gameplay approaches were what the creators were really driving at! And there are several different in-game ways of getting Treasure Cards which adds some variety and allows you to try both the more straightforward and the more elaborate finding methods. The classic kill-for-treasure approach is well catered-for through the Trading Post concept whereby you scratch your chosen box off a Trading Post card to try to reveal a Treasure and, if you find one, you then scratch off another to show the amount the Trading Post is asking for that particular Treasure. You then have to amass this amount in the Purses of foes you have killed (eg: if you scratch off 300 on a Trading Post you need to collect enough dead cards with Purses scratched-off to equal or exceed that amount). You then send the Trading Post and the dead cards to a given address (San Diego on the US version, the less exciting Milton Keynes on the UK game) and in return you receive that Treasure Card. Obviously, you will have the frustration of wasting lots of Trading Posts once you are looking for particular Treasures to complete the set but as Trading Posts are found in almost every pack this is no great hardship. The beauty of this approach is that you get to play out lots of fantasy combat scenarios but the downside is that it takes ages to get enough Purses as most foes (but not all though) seem to be fairly short on cash and some have none at all. The third way (and the most complex by far) is to set out on the ten Quests Of Vangoria. This involves getting ten different Quest Cards, most of which reward you with a specific Treasure Card, although there are a small number that allow you to choose which Treasure you want which is handy to get the elusive one or two that you might be missing. Each Quest poses a different challenge and they are all very very hard. The majority involve analysing pictures to find minute details (echoes of Tasks Of Tantalon and Casket Of Souls then), whilst two use the conventional (and lengthy as this is just trial-and-error) approach of you having to scratch off boxes to find specific things, two more ask you to cross-reference text on other cards to images (which can be bewildering), another has you solve three riddles then match images to the answers (this one is pretty neat), another involves you learning and then decoding the Vangorian language (the alphabet is dotted about on various cards so you need loads of cards to be able to crack this one) in a very SJ-like trick, and finally probably the trickiest of all asks you to determine who the Unknown Artist is (there are a small number of unattributed cards credited to “Unknown”) by comparing the styles on the credited cards and using common artistic traits to figure out the identity of the unknown illustrator then sending the artist card in with the Quest Card (or just by repeatedly sending the cards in with each artist named until you stumble on the right answer!) All of the Quests (as with the Trading Posts) need you to amass the correct cards and send them in to receive a Treasure Card so, again, this method of winning Treasure Cards exhausts a lot of cards generally. I have to say too that some seem to have several potential answers (especially the picture analysing ones) so, again, you could get through a lot of cards without necessarily getting the right combinations. Method Four is, of course, swapping with friends (trading cards are for trading, right) to get missing Treasure Cards which gets around the harder in-game techniques although I’d imagine the going rate for a Treasure Card would be several standard cards! There is also another in-game method which is playing for stakes via three Special Games cards (Card Games, Campaigns & Adventures, and Yard Games) which we will come to later.

Once you have got all eight Treasures together, you then send them in and you receive the coveted Emperor Of Vangoria in return for your efforts thus “winning” the game and achieving huge bragging rights over your friends. The problem here is threefold though: firstly, the closing date to apply for the Emperor card was rather tight given the time/effort and/or outlay required to get all the cards together just to get hold of the eight Treasures let alone then sending those in to finally get the Emperor, secondly, I get the general feeling that very few people bought or collected Battle Cards when they were originally on sale, and, thirdly, if you are playing/collecting the game any time after the closing date (which was in 1993) you cannot “win” and just have to try to buy an Emperor from somewhere. This in itself is a problem as no-one seems to know how many Emperors were ever actually won (there certainly are very few, possibly even single figures) and they almost never come onto the collectors’ market. Apparently, Steve Jackson himself has two (apparently!) To exacerbate this problem, the US version of the game offered gold foil and silver foil versions of the Treasure Cards to the first 6,000 (gold) and 12,000 (silver) received applications for Treasure Cards which presented the dilemma of whether or not to part with a coveted foil card to fill a gap where you might have been missing a standard Treasure Card. As the foiled cards are also incredibly rare presumably hardly anybody ever got these which must conversely mean that hardly anybody ever applied for Treasure Cards in the US resulting in next to no-one bothering to apply for a US Emperor. It certainly appears that US Emperors are even rarer than the already borderline unfindable UK Emperor which gives an indication of just how few people could actually be bothered to see the game out to its intended “conclusion”.

As we are on the subject of Battle Cards not really taking off, it is worth noting that they came out a few months BEFORE the very successful Magic – The Gathering trading card game so Battle Cards were something of a trail-blazing unknown quantity at the time. Not long after, the global phenomenon that was Pokemon cards exploded and suddenly every franchise was churning out a TCG, but Battle Cards had no real precursor (trading cards had been around for years, but not designed as a game as such) so its unexpected appearance and equally quick failure does make sense in context. Similarly, Magic - The Gathering had a massive tv and cinema marketing campaign (I remember watching ads for it at the cinema in 1994/95) and Pokemon cards were part of a massive multi-media bid for world domination, whereas Battle Cards hardly ever got mentioned at all. Another factor is the complexity of some aspects of Battle Cards as a game. The basic game is incredibly simple but once you factor in magic, shields, mass battles and the mind-bending Quests, you get something that was rather too ahead of its time and that, even now, is rather complicated if you try to take everything in all in one go. OK, the Quests are now pretty irrelevant as you can no longer win anything but there is nothing stopping anyone from still playing them out once the basic scratch-off combat game can’t offer you enough anymore.

So what does a game of Battle Cards itself involve? In its simplest form, you need two players, each who has a character card. In fact, you can play the game just by having one card each but you won’t be playing for very long! Each player selects the character they wish to use and shows it. You then toss a coin to see who strikes first. An attack involves selecting a box relating to a body part and scratching the foil off that box (with either a 1p or 2p coin as none of the others seem to do it properly). A symbol under the box means a hit (although there are some other symbols just on the UK version only that can be uncovered too that affect Advanced Combat), no symbol represents a miss. A hit gives the attacker a second strike and another body part box is chosen and scratched off. Uncover a second wound and the character is seriously wounded giving the attacker the opportunity to go for a kill by scratching off a Life box (of which each card only has three, only one of which reveals a kill). Uncover a kill and the card is dead. If at any point the attacker does not get two successive hits and/or a kill, the attack passes to the other player who then needs to uncover two consecutive wounds to go for a kill. If no kill is scratched off after two wounds, another wound must be scored on the attacking player’s subsequent turn before another Life can be scratched off. Play continues until one of the two fighting cards is dead. The winner can then scratch off the Purse of the dead card and wins that card and any money that it might have. In the days when you could still send in for Treasure Cards you needed to collect dead cards to satisfy the requirements of Trading Posts, Quests or however else you were trying to get what you needed to receive Treasure Cards. Every card has only three Life boxes so, once two blanks are scratched off any subsequent wound is obviously going to be fatal because only the kill will be left to scratch off under the Life boxes so an element of urgency kicks in from the wounded player as they know they need to make every hit on their attacker really count. Moments like this are where your experience as a player can really work to your benefit and be put into practice. If you fight a lot of a particular character card you can learn where the wounds and kills can be found and use this to your advantage. This is especially handy if you are fighting the stronger characters that have less wounds to find. Each character card has some basic stats on the back: Status and Alignment. Status is the key to learning how to get easy kills and indicates the strength of each character ranging from Strong through Powerful to Awesome. Awesome characters have the fewest wounds to find making them especially hard to hurt, Strong have the most making them particularly vulnerable and a good entry point for beginners to use in play. All of these three Status types will always have their wounds and Lifes in the same positions on a given character card so an experienced player (with a good memory) can easily kill these. Characters with Status given as Warrior are a bit trickier as their wound and death symbols are randomly positioned so no level of knowledge will help you to defeat them and it just becomes a game of chance which does add some variety and avoids the game becoming too easy for experienced players and makes it fairer if a novice is playing an experienced person especially if you can agree to restrict the game to only using Warriors, although this could limit how much Purse value there is to be won. The other stat on every card is Alignment which is only used if the Campaigns & Adventures special game is being played. The UK cards have two additional stats (Race and Allegiance) neither of which serves any apparent purpose in the game, although Race gives an indicator of what basic creature type the character is (for what it’s worth) and Allegiance could be incorporated into Campaigns & Adventures to add another layer although this might get too muddled and restrictive to play (in terms of your needing very specific characters to be able to do anything) if used in conjunction with the over-riding Alignment stat.

Experienced players can also exploit the Special Rules that exist on three character cards only. Close reading of the backs of these specific cards will reveal special ways to turn encounters against or using these characters to your advantage. Saying the Flesh-Eater’s real name will instantly defeat him without a fight, the Soulpod Plant can create a doppelganger to fight on its behalf, whilst The Inquisitor has a totally unique approach whereby each player asks the other a Battle Card-related trivia question which must be answered without reference to the card that has the answer on it then that card is shown to prove that the answer is indeed correct – in this way The Inquisitor scores a hit if the response to his question is wrong and conversely is wounded if he answers a question wrongly. These add an extra dimension to the normal routine combat rules and The Inquisitor in particular is a great concept which brings to mind the Trialmasters from Baron Sukumvit’s Trials of Champions. It must be said though that use of The Inquisitor can only really be effective with two very experienced players who both have an exceptionally thorough knowledge of Battle Card lore otherwise it will be a very one-sided fight one way or the other. The human element of how to defeat the Flesh-Eater by reminding it what it used to be and trying to appeal to what remains of its humanity and emotions is a nice touch too.

Once you have exhausted the possibilities of the basic game there is the option of using Advanced Combat rules (if you have the cards to allow you to do it, of course). Advanced Combat brings in defence and attack options restricted to specific body parts. In return for only being able to attack certain parts on your opponent you can defend two particular parts of yourself meaning any attacks you receive to that part automatically get deflected. This is a handy tool that adds an element of realism rather than you being totally at the mercy of what is on the card as well as making you pay a price in terms of what you can attack to counterpoint your decreased vulnerability. Advanced Combat works particularly well again for experienced players who could potentially make a Powerful or Awesome character almost impossible to wound if they know which body parts are their weak points. I like this feature even if it does take away the attacker’s freedom to randomly just go for any body part they choose. Nonetheless, these rules add another dimension to the game to prevent it becoming a routine or repetitive playing experience after a while.

A similar way to expand the possibilities of the game is to bring Spell and/or Shield cards into play. Spell cards work differently depending on whether you are playing the US or UK version of the game. In the US version spells can essentially be used at will, whereas in the UK version a Spell can only be used when a spell symbol is scratched off the defending card. In both versions players agree beforehand if Spells can be used and, if so, how many, before proceeding. To determine if a Spell has worked or failed the casting player scratches a box off the relevant Spell card to reveal either a success or failure outcome. Some spells are defensive or offensive and basically just give combat adjustors, whilst others are more bizarre and create tangents such as the Sword Control and Peaceful Calm Spells. The Mental Combat Spell is particularly original and mirrors The Inquisitor card by turning a physical battle into a Battle Cards trivia game. One Spell (the Mutiny Spell) can only be used in Campaigns & Adventures Special Rules and causes a particular side’s front fighter to turn on their own side which is a fiendish but fun move. Spells can be quite complex to use and get the hang of in terms of players developing a mutual knowledge of the effects but they do make the game a lot more tactical and nuanced.  Shields only exist in the UK game. As with Spells, players must agree to the use of Shields before play commences. To use a Shield (as with UK Spells) a box is scratched off the defending character and if a Shield symbol is uncovered, that player then scratches a box off the Shield card to see whether it has deflected the blow or broken. Some Shields however are more effective than others and this is shown by the number of scratchable boxes on each type. The weakest shield is the Ironback Shield with only four boxes and the strongest (unsurprisingly) is the Dwarvenforged Shield with the maximum possible (for a Shield) of seven boxes. Shields are easier to use than Spells as they can only do one thing and are fairly binary in their use but, again, they bring another feature into play and are probably the easiest to introduce of the “advanced” game functions (assuming you are playing the UK game otherwise the concept is irrelevant!)

The three cards that make up the Special Games set are intended to take the concept beyond one card fighting another and are, for the most part, stretching a point somewhat. Card Games uses symbols printed on the backs of each card to play scissors-paper-stone (or more accurately, gauntlet-sword-shield!) There are rules given for two different versions with both being good for anyone who wants to win lots of cards quickly, especially the Endurance version. Anyone who needs to amass cards to complete any Quests or get Purses together to take to the Trading Post could do a lot worse than playing Card Games but it removes the entire combat concept ie the “Battle” is taken out of “Battle Cards” so I’m not convinced of its validity. Campaigns & Adventures is a more successful idea in the context of “Battle Cards” and features three sets of game rules allowing for massed battles with multiple cards playing as a winner-stays-on (this is where the Mutiny Spell proves very handy) which you could realistically just do anyway but massed battles are a lot of fun if you have a decent supply of expendable characters to make it worthwhile, and Adventures which involves you actually acting out the adventures described on some of the cards which works far less well and just seems a little bit awkward to me. That said, Campaigns & Adventures are the only part of the system where Alignment (and Allegiance if you feel like it) can affect who will fight who which is another nice additional realistic feature if you can cope with this many rules. The third Special Games card is Yard Games. Three different games are described (Racing Cards which is basically just throwing cards at the wall, Shoot ‘Em Down where you have to try to knock a propped-up card over by throwing cards at it, and Smother Your Neighbour where you have to land a card on your opponent’s card to win it) and they all, as with everything in Battle Cards involve winning or losing cards but they also all wreak of desperation to try to think of yet another thing to do with these cards. Plus, for the collector, Yard Games probably devalue some cards as they are likely to get damaged by throwing them around too much, especially by bouncing them off a wall!

And so we come to another key aspect of Battle Cards, which is designed as, remember, a collectable trading card game. The game element works on several levels and can be as simple as just showing a card, scratching off boxes, and killing or being killed, or as complex and nuanced as combat involving spells, shields, special attacks, trivia, and whatever else, plus you can always fall back on throwing the cards around or playing scissors-paper-stone to win the cards you need. Either way, as a game, you are aiming to collect all eight Treasures somehow and become the Emperor Of Vangoria. Trading is human interaction which the game cannot control, but the trading part is just one aspect of this being a collectable game. Indeed, as the Treasures and Emperor cards can no longer be sent away for, the game itself must be played purely for fun now, and collecting the cards is the main focus and motive nowadays. Needless to say, the Holy Grail of a set is the Emperor Of Vangoria, with the US-exclusive gold and silver foiled versions of the Treasure Cards being highly sought-after as well. Plus the UK series also had a Currency Card which you could send off for and then put towards a Purse to get a Treasure Card - these Currency Cards can be very hard to find as most were returned (as can be expected). But a savvy inclusion in the series all along was non-gameplay cards that exist just to be collected and/or to add lore to the world of Vangoria and there are twelve cards that can be said to be purely for collecting: the map of Vangoria, the seven Artist Cards, and the four Checklists (a trading card staple and very useful for anyone who can’t count and needs an aid to help them work out which cards they are missing!) In total, the US series numbers 139 standard cards (the Emperor being number 140) plus the eight Treasure Cards numbered T1 thru T8 (the gold and silver foils have a G or S prefix ie GT1 etc), and the UK series is slightly bigger (due to Treasure Cards being numbered within the standard run and the addition of two Clue Cards) at 149 cards (with number 150 being the UK Emperor). Whilst on the subject of Clue Cards, these give, er, clues to how to solve the Quests and were included on the US Secrets Of Vangoria cards hence their absence from the US series. Indeed, the US Secrets Of Vangoria cards also give hints for battles, parts of the Vangorian alphabet, and one even gives a brief history of Steve Jackson and the Battle Cards series. All this extra information was included on the Battle Secrets cards (and elsewhere in the case of the alphabet) in the UK series so it was covered one way or another in both versions even though these specific cards had no direct equivalents as such across the two series.

For the collector, each series presents different challenges. The top of every collector’s Wants List is the Emperor naturally and both versions are of the highest rarity and very few collectors can proudly boast that they own one or that they have the disposable income to blow several hundred pounds on a little trading card, although the UK card appears more often (but still hardly ever) than the US version. The US foiled Treasure Cards are also exceptionally rare. Interestingly though, other than these cards, the US series is far more easily found nowadays than the UK version. Still sealed red shipping boxes of US cards (each containing 35 packs of 10 cards per pack) are very easy to find and can still be bought for as little as £20-30 each. Equally, still sealed single US packs are very common and are worth little more than a few pounds each. On the other hand, sealed UK packs (which look more like Panini football sticker packs rather than the bubble gum card-style US series packaging) are as rare as hens’ teeth. Logically then, this means that a complete US set of cards 1 thru 139 plus T1 thru T8 is not a difficult thing to put together and complete sets of both the standard cards and the eight Treasure Cards can easily be bought on the collector’s market for less than £30 each. A complete UK set of numbers 1 thru 149, on the other hand, is not easy to assemble and will prove much more of a challenge to find especially if you are looking for mint and unscratched cards. Obviously, as unopened US packs are so easy to find, naturally, mint US cards are also easy to find, whereas mint UK cards will take much more hunting for and many collectors find themselves settling for scratched or partially-scratched UK cards as gap-fillers until they can replace them with mint examples as and when they find them. Both series though have their commoner and rarer cards and there is definitely some commonality across both series linked, in some ways, to which cards are more crucial to basic play, which character types are commoner within the lore of Vangoria, and which are more expendable in battle. Without doubt, Trading Posts, maps of Vangoria, and basic character classes such as Zittonian Warriors, Wolfmen, Vangorian Knights, Barbarian types, and most Undead types are very common, with characters falling into the Awesome category, Quests, hint cards, and high-ranking individuals being scarcer. The scarcest cards are definitely the Treasure Cards but this is a necessary part of the game and the concept so the frequency by which the various cards are found makes sense and actually adds to the overall themes and concepts of the game in its playing and collecting forms.

As far as the “story” goes, reading the backs of the cards shows the sheer depth of imagination that has gone into creating the world of Vangoria and every effort has been made to put together a coherent and vast body of lore to really bring the hitherto unknown continent of Vangoria to life. Characters’ interactions with each other are covered, as are regional tribes and variations in mindset, seats of learning, etc and the amount of quality material on offer for those who make the effort to read the cardbacks is very impressive. It must be said that the US numbering of the cards makes for a better-structured read as all the associated characters are grouped together within their regions whereas the UK series reads much more higgledy-piggledy due to there being no apparent logic to how the cards are numbered. There is also a lot of Jackson’s satirical humour to be found in some of the descriptions, especially in the cards numbered 54 thru 60 in the US series which form a witty collection of European stereotypes: #54 mentions Helmut Kohl, Krautstadt and the Krautian tribe; #55 references the then very recently reunified Germany; #56 is the French; #57 talks about Fanny Craddock and the Croque Mess-Ear; #58 gives us the Spagettians and the fall of the Roman Empire; and #60 talks about the Dutch with clogs, tulips, multi-lingualism and red light areas! Likewise, The Iron Maiden is a reference to Margaret Thatcher and even alludes to the Falklands War making her name. I was also amused by George Lacklustre who is the most boring man in Vangoria! Similarly, several character names are fun plays-on-words such as King Dumm, Norman Stormcloud (The Gulf War’s Storming Norman Schwarzkopf was also a vivid recent memory when the series was created), Vanvincent (Vincent Van Gogh), Salaman Rush-Demon (Salman Rushdie), the Sisters of Damnation (the polar opposite of the Sisters of Mercy?), and Baron Oldschwartz (a bit risqué that one lol). The seven Artist Cards also have dryly humorous biographies where the artists’ real lives have been transposed onto Vangoria-fied locations and reference is even made to FF, White Dwarf, and 2000AD comic. Even the ultra-common map of Vangoria gives some context to the region which is handy in putting all this wealth of information together as a whole as we read. Generally speaking, most of the cards give interesting biographies and backgrounds to the characters, although the few that just list the basic game rules are a bit of a disappointing cop-out. Even if a character is a generic creature I’d still like to know where they fit into the story of Vangoria, although having the Rules laid out on some commoner cards is always handy. Credit where credit is due though, the sheer number of bios that are given must have taken ages to think up and write, especially whilst making sure that the inter-connections between characters are logical and do not contradict each other so that the whole thing gels perfectly. As a side note, three US cards (King Dumm, George Lacklustre, and the Beast Riders) have incomplete write-ups where the text has been cut off at the bottom. These are complete however on the equivalent UK cards as the UK versions are not cropped in any way.

Which subject brings us neatly to the numerous differences between the UK and US series, some of which are more immediately noticeable than others:
  • UK cards are bigger
  • Scratch-off boxes on UK cards are silver, whereas on the US versions they are gold (and look much classier in good, in my view)
  • With one or two exceptions, the numbering order of the cards is very different
  • UK character cards have four stats on the back, whereas US cards only have two
  • UK Artist Cards also have the four stats (which are useless as Artist Cards can’t fight), but these are removed completely (which is more logical) from the US versions
  • The artist’s name and Merlin logo boxes are yellow on the UK cards, but are white on the US cards
  • Steve Jackson’s name is absent from the US cards (possibly to avoid confusion with the American SJ?)
  • The positioning of the names of the scratch-off boxes on both versions is slightly different due to the smaller size and therefore reduced available printing space on the US cards
  • We have already said that the UK series includes two extra cards (Clue Cards) which are missing from the US series
  • Probably the biggest difference is that some art differs between the two series

This last point is a very important one, especially as many people appreciate these cards as much for their art as for anything else. On the whole, the artwork is outstanding throughout the two series and the vast majority of images exist in both versions, although the US versions are cropped rather than scaled-down which avoids reducing the impact of the art in size terms but obviously also means that the whole picture is literally not there to be seen on the US versions, whereas the UK cards offer the complete image in all its glory. There are some variations in the actual images used though too. The biggest difference is that for whatever reason all of Alan Craddock’s UK card art was replaced with alternative images by Martin McKenna on the US cards. This also means that the Alan Craddock Artist Card does not exist in the US series and that its substitute, the Martin McKenna Artist Card, does not exist in the UK set. Also, the Trading Post cards differ greatly in the two series, the US one featuring what looks like Terry Jones in a serf’s cap, whereas the UK card is a street with a shop on it (which kind of makes more sense). It is difficult for me to pick out a favourite piece of art from such a huge body of excellent work as Battle Cards offers us but I do particularly like Peter Andrew Jones’ weirdly space-age self portrait on his Artist Card, but I have to say that there is no illustration anywhere in either series that does not wow me. I’m deliberately avoiding citing Iain McCaig’s images as being superior to those inclusions by other artists (which they probably are) but every one of his pictures is recycled from Casket Of Souls which makes me feel a little bit cheated to be honest. I also have to mention the Baalthazac image by Les Edwards which is lifted from the cover of Metallica’s Jump Into The Fire single!

As a series (or rather, as two series’), Battle Cards offers a lot to the collector and player alike. The basic game is so simple you can learn it in seconds, but mastering it by learning and incorporating all the possible extra layers of rules and options is quite an undertaking. It is certainly fun to play and is very addictive and no doubt every player has their own preferences of how to approach the game. I like the inclusion of Spells and Shields as they make it more realistic and give far more options to vary the game, and the mass battle rules are fun too. The Card Games/Yard Games mean well but add very little in real terms, other than helping you win cards en masse. It is a shame you can no longer play the game as it was intended (ie collecting Treasure Cards and acquiring the coveted Emperor Of Vangoria) as I’m sure we would all be falling over each other to do this now and it is even more of a shame that this aspect never got off the ground when it was still live. As a collecting exercise the US series offers a quick and satisfying fix, whilst the UK set gives you something to really get your teeth into if you want to complete both series (which we all do, of course!) I personally prefer the presentation of the US cards as the size is more akin to trading cards in general (at the expense of cropped art), the gold boxes look classier than the silver, and I prefer their subtler eggshell varnish finish to the slightly cheaper-looking gloss finish of the UK cards. That said, the UK series is overall the slightly more complex and varied to play because of the added dimension of Shields and either version is a great way to kill a spare half an hour. What is important to say though is that, even though we all aim to collect full sets, these cards are mostly designed to be played and there are more than enough out there (especially US cards) to be able to sacrifice a few here and there by playing the game as it was intended as both collecting and playing these is highly addictive.