Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain Boardgame


Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Dungeons are easy environments to visualise as boardgames, especially as most RPGs are normally played-out on a two- or even three-dimensional board of some sort. On that basis, it doesn’t take a genius to work out how eminently adaptable many gamebooks are to the boardgame format and therefore the easiest to adapt must be those set in dungeons as the move-enter room-do something-move on-enter another room etc structure suits moving a token around a board in a constant repetition of the same basic formula. There have been many RPG-style boardgames over the years, some more successfully executed than others, and some with systems better-suited to the generally simplistic rule sets that boardgames demand. An over-complex boardgame with dozens of rules to juggle around would require a referee to hold it all together plus most boardgames are designed for individual rather than collaborative play (an RPG staple) which sort of defeats the object of everyone competing to achieve a goal of some kind and ultimately winning. On that basis, FF’s combination of simple rules (the three basic stats) and solo play make it ideal as the core mechanics of a boardgame.

I remember being very excited when this was announced and it shot to the top of my Christmas 1986 present list along with Games Workshop’s Judge Dredd Role-Playing Game and the lone two-player FF set Clash Of The Princes. I was good, Santa was good, and Christmas Day 1986 was good. This was the first present I opened. The box itself is beautifully presented with Peter Andrew Jones’ revised artwork on the lid. Opinion differs over whether the revised (“true image of Zagor”) or the original (“disguised old Zagor”) image is better, but both work for me for different reasons. However, as the original drawing was designed to be landscape so it would wrap around the front cover, spine, and back cover, whereas the revised image was portrait to sit on the front cover only, the revised art seems better suited to the vertical layout of the box, plus it does have a more dynamic and updated feel to it. The back of the box shows a game in progress presumably to give you an idea of what is sealed within. The actual contents of the box are: a six-piece playing board that sets out the dungeon, 66 “encounter” cards divided into ENCOUNTER and TREASURE types, six MAZE cards that allow the Maze of Zagor to have some element of random variation, 15 KEY CHALLENGE cards (more on these later), six plastic miniatures to use as playing tokens (in generic character classes of Wizard, Elf, Dwarf, Fighter, Barbarian, Cleric), a pad of 50 Adventure Sheets, a glossy rulebook with the colour box image on the cover, a reference booklet explaining how to deal with certain “special” encounters and how all the different items of treasure work, and the all-important pair of six-sided dice.

Playing the game essentially involves, as with the source book, navigating through the dungeon to reach the Warlock’s treasure chest (with the added element of having to get there before any other player does as this is a competitive multi-player version), but thankfully there is rather more to it than that. The Encounter and Treasure cards are the crux of the game – both types are shuffled and the game is set up by first randomly putting a Treasure card face down in each room (except The Warlock’s Study and his Treasure Room of course), then by randomly putting an Encounter card face down on each Treasure card, except in the specially labelled rooms where pre-defined encounters take place (Gambling Halls, Dragon, Shylock, Larder, etc) where specific Encounter cards named for those rooms are put. The six Maze cards are then shuffled and randomly placed face down on each Maze square. Once that is all done, the Key Challenge cards are shuffled, three are picked out and put under the Treasure Chest card, and the rest are distributed amongst however many players there are meaning each player can start with a minimum of two and maximum of six Key Encounter cards. Having set the board up you can then choose your playing token (the character classes incidentally are irrelevant so whichever one you pick will make no difference to anything) and roll up your character’s three stats in the standard FF manner, at which point this begins to feel more FF-ish.

So, just how similar to FF/WOFM is this, or is it, like the ZX Spectrum adaptation of WOFM, almost completely unrelated in every way? Well, it’s actually very well integrated into the FF cannon and, other than a few obvious differences it quickly feels like a traditional FF experience:

  • Obviously, there is no text-driven concept, the whole adventure coming from what you see on the board and the cards you turn over in each room, so there is rather less atmosphere than in a gamebook making this feel more “light”

  • You can see the entire layout of the dungeon from the outset, but that does not make any difference as the element of surprise comes in the almost infinite number of possible combinations of location-plus-encounter-plus-treasure

  • The familiarity of Zagor and the two-part layout of the dungeon divided by a river drives home the point that this is Firetop Mountain

  • The standard FF rules for Escaping (and the associated penalties) are employed, as are limiters in as much as certain encounters cannot be escaped from

  • As with the book, there are different ways of negotiating the central subterranean river and these are set within the rules rather than being randomised

  • The Gambling Halls have been flown-in from Citadel Of Chaos to add a bit of within-series cross-referencing

  • Combat and Luck testing are exactly as per FF books, as is the use of Luck within combat

Essentially then, this game takes the standard FF rules and transposes them onto a randomly-generated dungeon based on an unalterable map. In many ways, this acts as an excellent introduction to how to play the FF system as well as setting out some of the key generic concepts such as Luck testing, trap negotiation, combat rules, Stamina replenishment, etc along with some basic creature tropes such as Wights having to be fought with magic weapons, Vampire hypnosis, Fire-breathing things that involve additional die rolls in combat, etc etc.

There are some notable omissions of key moments from the book, but these are mostly for practical purposes. Zagor is not initially met disguised as an old man and the concept of him drawing power from a deck of cards is excluded, but this would just be too complicated for a boardgame. The fun moment where you can meet the animated tools is oddly missed out and this would have been a nice respite (like it is in the book) to allow you to recover some lost Stamina and Luck, although a partially-completed bit of the dungeon might have seemed odd and the Fountain Of Life in the Maze of Zagor essentially serves the same purpose.  

The Maze of Zagor itself works very differently to the book but, quite frankly, this can only be a saving grace as I find this part of the book initially challenging before it quickly gets boring and tedious. The version presented in the boardgame is heavily diluted and it is theoretically possible to just walk around the outside of it if the Maze cards pan-out in a certain way. Otherwise, you basically just approach a Maze card and then check to see whether you can progress forwards or not. It is possible for the Fountain of Life in the centre of the maze to be annoyingly inaccessible but this is only if the route to it is inadvertently blocked due to the layout of the Maze cards and is not likely to happen that often, although, if it does, you cannot replenish your character which could make the final battle with Zagor himself pretty fatal. If you have the Map you can check the Maze cards before you are on the facing square but if another player gets there first and you have a decent memory you can easily benefit from their mistakes or successes!

Whilst there are some encounters and treasures that were not ported over from the book there are a lot of new ones that have been added to the boardgame version to avoid it being a simple repetition of the same old material. Select highlights include acquiring a Thief as an “item” so you can rob another player or steal a treasure without a fight, a Lucky Find room where a successful Luck test gives you a reward of treasure or money, an encounter with a generous Sage, the aforementioned Gambling Halls (where you can invite other players to join in too), Shylock the Money Lender (lifted straight from Shakespeare and deliciously including his pound of flesh that he takes if you don’t pay him back in time!)… the list goes on. For the most part though, all the most memorable encounters and items from the book are here (somewhere lol) and I particularly like the inclusion of the Giver of Sleep, the various traps, and the Eye of the Cyclops. Indeed, the Eye of the Cyclops, along with the three keys that open the Warlock’s treasure chest, is an item that tends to be searched for in a frenzied manner as it will kill Zagor outright without having to fight him (especially handy for initially weaker, or severely weakened, characters.)

Which brings us to the key (pardon the pun) subject of, er, keys. In the book you can defeat Zagor only to fall at the last hurdle by not having the correct combination of three keys to open the treasure chest and win. As the combination is set and, therefore, unchanged in each playthrough, this would be a bit too easy and repetitive for such a randomly generated boardgame full of genuine surprises, at least in terms of how each room functions. It was pretty essential to include the final fail point mechanic in the boardgame but to add variation this time around the core concept of Cluedo has been included in that you have to establish which three numbered keys (each with a single digit on it from 1 through 9) are required to open the treasure chest.  This is done by periodically doing Key Challenges whereby you say three key numbers out loud and the other players must show the relevant Key Challenge cards if they have them. The numbers that you know are not under the Treasure Chest card are marked off on a grid and, by a simple process of elimination you gradually learn which three keys you need to find. Keys are in bunches of three on certain Treasure cards and you must have the correct three keys at the end when you try to open the treasure chest. To make this task slightly easier, there are also some Skeleton Keys dotted about on Treasure cards that can be substituted for any key numbers you might not hold. Acquiring the correct keys is an essential mechanic of the game, but it can also lead to fun/frustration if you are very near the end and you get robbed by another player who holds the Thief card and you end up losing one of the keys. As each Treasure card with keys on it has three numbers it is a possibility that all three could be on just one card (easy on encumbrance, but disastrous if you lose the card in question!) and, conversely, you could need three different cards to get all the keys.

The requirement to get the correct keys can greatly influence how you manage your items and this is a sophisticated inclusion in a relatively simple boardgame. You cannot carry more than six Treasure cards at any one time (excluding food and money which are just added into your Gold and Provisions totals) and there quickly comes a point where leaving cards behind in empty rooms for others to plunder becomes a necessity. Certain Treasure cards are naturally more sought-after than others which can make choosing what to drop quite tricky after a while: weak characters will want the Eye of the Cyclops, the Potion of Invisibility, the Slumber Pipes, the Giver of Sleep, and maybe the Thief, as this will reduce the need for combat; if the Wight has not been killed yet the Magic Sword or Enchanted Broadsword will become hot property (and these are useful anyway due to the Attack Strength bonuses they afford you); obviously keys are always needed; and the Elven Boots are very useful as they allow the holder to roll two rather than one dice to move which can greatly accelerate progress through the dungeon, especially in the final stages which can become something of a race to face Zagor and/or reach the Treasure Room, especially if Zagor is already dead and the person or people with the correct key combination are now just trying to beat each other to the treasure. It is always quite amusing to watch a confident player charging towards the end only for them to suddenly start glumly back-peddling when they lose an essential item! But that does add much more fun to the proceedings too, which is important.

As with all boardgames, the combined prescriptive and random nature of this is not without its problems, but these never hinder play or enjoyment and are merely my personal observations:

  • The Maze cards are to me pretty redundant and the maze in this form adds very little to the game, but excluding it completely would have been too much at odds with the original book

  • It is possible to get some slightly odd combinations of Encounter and Treasure cards but these mostly just add an element of humour or cruel irony eg: the Wight having a magic weapon, any Undead having the Giver of Sleep, an easy encounter that yields something very useful like the Eye of the Cyclops or similar, etc

  • I find playing with a larger group (ideally six) makes the game much more challenging and varied and the game generally seems to work better the more players there are for several reasons: Key Challenges are much tougher and divining the correct key combination will take much longer; item distribution is much sparser and it becomes far harder for one player to monopolise all the best items;  dying and restarting (if you die you must leave all your items in the room where you died, then re-roll a new character and start back at the dungeon entrance again) is generally far less depressing than in a gamebook as you can sometimes quickly recoup your lost stuff (as long as someone else hasn’t already taken it, of course), plus there is the possibility of re-joining the game with a much stronger character, but with less players the disparity between someone having to return to the start and someone close to the end becomes all the more apparent

  • For simplicity’s sake, as we have said, the character class figure you choose is rendered meaningless, whereas in a gamebook or RPG this would have a big impact on the dynamics of your character, but this would have made the game ungainly and too complicated. That said, there is nothing to stop you playing an “advanced” version where certain characters (Wizard, Elf, Cleric, Dwarf) have different levels of magic spell use offset against Skill or Stamina penalties, the Barbarian can be extra-strong, if the Elf and Dwarf meet they must fight, etc etc… the many possibilities of customising the basic boardgame should be enough to stop this from getting dull or too easy
Any assessment of a “gamebook” always needs the difficulty level to be taken into consideration and this version of WOFM is very balanced in that sense. Obviously, there are no frustrating or arbitrary instant deaths to scupper you (and they would not make any sense in a boardgame) and, as we have said, if you die in combat or in a trap you can start over to avoid having to sit and watch everyone else see the game out. Combats range from very easy to quite tough, but the real challenges in this version are inventory management and the Cluedo steal of the Key Challenges, which makes a refreshing change within FF.

Given that there is no text to drive this adventure along, the visual aspect alone is essential to the immersiveness of the gaming experience to be had from playing this. The board is drawn in a nicely varied way with stone or wood floored sections, rooms of different materials, shapes and sizes, multiple entry and exit points from certain rooms, and little scrolls here and there listing special rules. Indeed, it is the attention to detail that makes it all look so appealing. The board, Encounter and Treasure cards are all drawn by Dave Andrews rather than the book’s Russ Nicholson, but Andrews does an excellent job of emulating Nicholson’s imagery from the book and you could easily be forgiven for thinking the art this time around is by Nicholson again. Obviously some of the images are better-suited to the small size of the card counters than others meaning some seem a bit boxed-in (Hellhound, Dragon, etc) whilst others look perfectly scaled (traps, etc) but, again, this is not a criticism and has no real effect on the playing experience. Overall, I really like the visuals here and cannot really see how it could have been presented any better than it is from the box lid all the way down. 

As a note for collectors, there are a few minor variants out there for the completist to get hold of: the six character figures exist in both red and white plastic (I think the red versions are the earlier production) and the pair of dice can be found either in red plastic with white spots or in the same mid-green plastic with white dots as the dice included in the Fighting Fantasy Quest Pack. The 1988 Citadel Miniatures catalogue advertised a blister pack of all six figures (in white plastic) as well, but I’ve personally never seen an example offered on the collector’s market, so either these did not actually go on sale or they are ultra-rare. Interestingly, the bow on the Elf in the set I got for Christmas ‘86 had a moulding fault that left a gap in the lower half of the bow shaft. Many years later, when I finally got my set of WOFM figures painted I filled the gap and got it repaired. Incidentally, if you want to read the story of the 25 years it took me to get my figures finished off, you can find a post about it here: 

Steve Jackson did a great job in converting the gamebook into a fun, straightforward, and eminently playable boardgame. One could argue that Deathtrap Dungeon should have got the same treatment and I’m surprised this never happened, but no other FF boardgames in the style of the WOFM adaptation were ever produced. I recall talk of Citadel Of Chaos being planned as a second FF boardgame shortly after the first appeared, but sadly this never came to fruition, leaving WOFM as a tantalising suggestion of what could be done with the format. I thought this game was superb when I first got it and I still think it is exceptionally good now. Perhaps its status as the only one of its type might even add to its mystique? Who knows, just get hold of a copy, play it with a group of like-minded friends, and enjoy it. You will not be disappointed…

Friday, 6 May 2016

#54: Legend Of Zagor


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Part 3 of the Zagor series of books (the previous instalments being The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Return to Firetop Mountain), Legend of Zagor was part of a high concept multi-format event consisting of this book, an elaborate (and expensive at £49.99) Parker board game, and the four-part The Zagor Chronicles series of non-interactive novels. All were independent of one-another in as much as none were reliant on, or required, the others to play/read/understand, although prior knowledge of the novels can aid in navigating certain parts of the gamebook, the board game and gamebook follow very similar design structures, and the overall story arc is generally the same across all three formats. Indeed, the gamebook and board game involve YOU playing out the plot of specifically the second Zagor Chronicles novel, Darkthrone, which involves a group of four adventurers making their way through Castle Argent in a bid to hunt down and kill Zagor who, due to a technical error in trapping a Bone Demon in the Casket of Souls, has been released into the castle in demon form.

For several reasons, the nature of the overall plot concept means that this gamebook is unlike any other FF book published. Most strikingly unique is that YOU play one of four pre-defined characters: Anvar the barbarian, Braxus the warrior, Stubble the dwarf, or Sallazar the wizard. This is both problematic and of benefit – it is a problem as YOU are not the hero, instead YOU are someone else; it is a benefit as it allows for numerous interesting changes to the dynamics and creation of your character. Each of the four has different strengths and weaknesses, and the adventure, whilst fundamentally the same, has key differences dependant on whom you are:

  • Anvar cannot be hurt by the plethora of door traps scattered about the castle, but he struggles with wearing armour which limits the combat bonuses available to him by finding any armour and he is useless with a crossbow

  • Stubble is normally able to avoid taking full damage from projectiles/missiles because they tend to go over his head as he’s short, he is naturally luckier than the others so has the potentially highest starting Luck of the four, he gets more starting gold also as dwarves covet gold, he has a natural advantage when fighting any foe that is made of stone, but he can fall foul of the inter-racial dwarf-elf antagonism problem, his essential magical weapon is far harder to acquire than those of the other three, he can only wear special small-sized dwarf armour (there is only one set available that fits him) and can’t use larger or clumsy types of weapons

  • Braxus has no obvious things in his favour or against him, other than that his adventure is comparatively un-nuanced due to this

  • Sallazar is most affected by the text (especially in the earlier stages), can use various spells contained in the Amarillian Grimoire (although the use of this is limited by his Magic Points and the fact that his combat spells require him to first win an Attack Round before he can use any of them), he gets a natural advantage in Spot Skill tests, can occasionally teleport to avoid some of the more difficult combats (in particular, the Orc throne room which involves fighting 11 compulsory enemies), but he gets no armour or large weapons, has severe starting stat penalties, and is likely to die very quickly if you play as him as he is easily the physically weakest of the four
When initially rolling up each character it quickly becomes apparent which ones will make for an easier or harder gaming experience. Starting stat ranges for each character are: Anvar - Skill 7-12, Stamina 19-24, Luck 5-10; Braxus – Skill 7-12, Stamina 14-24, Luck 4-9; Stubble – Skill 6-11, Stamina 14-24, Luck 6-11; Sallazar – Skill 5-10, Stamina 9-24, Luck 4-9. It does not take a genius to see that playing as Anvar or Braxus is easiest (Braxus edges it as the overall easiest due to Anvar’s disadvantages above), Stubble whilst statistically a decent character gets a rough deal as his adventure is probably the trickiest due to the difficulty in getting his magic sword, but poor old Sallazar is all but useless due to having desperately low starting stats and rarely being able to use his combat magic “advantage” as he’s not going to be winning many Attack Rounds. On the plus side though, having four characters to choose from gives you four subtly different adventures to play out meaning there is lots of replay potential in this book, even if I doubt anyone can win fairly with Sallazar (and maybe not with Stubble either.) 

As this is one of the complex 50s-series books, the rules do not stop at the differences between the four characters you have to choose from and, overall, this is an extremely complex book by FF standards. You start out with 12 Provisions but you are regularly forced to eat or suffer a Stamina penalty, so this seemingly generous offering is far from that. Yes, you can get extra food along the way and it is possible to completely avoid the forced eating later in the book if you find a particular object, but overall the sheer amount of force-feeding will quickly deplete your supplies of food. Unusually for FF you start with two weapons – in addition to a character-defined weapon (axe, sword, staff, etc) you also get a back-up knife which you can use to fight with (although it only does 1 Stamina of damage) if you lose your main weapon. This is a nice touch as it decreases your vulnerability and still gives you a slight hope in combat situations. Each character starts with a certain number of Magic Points dependant on their character type (Sallazar naturally has far more than any of the other three, but as some spells will use 4 or 5 points even this is not much of an advantage for him) and these can be used to charge certain magic items that can be found along the way. I found this one of the hardest rules to remember to incorporate and it seems clumsy and over-complicated, even though it does add RPG-style realism to the proceedings. Finally, there is the matter of the Tower Chests. Finding these is the crux of the adventure itself – each time you find one you must Test Your Luck (and lose 3 Stamina if unlucky due to them being booby-trapped), then you roll one die to determine if you have found a Golden Talisman (each one you have reduces Zagor’s Skill by 1) or a Silver Dagger (which reduce Zagor’s Stamina by 1 for every one you’ve got), and then you regain the just-used Luck point for finding a Tower Chest. Given that Zagor has Sk 16 St 20 there is no question that the Golden Talismans are rather more useful in the final showdown with him than the Silver Daggers as you really do not want Zagor winning any Attack Rounds due to the sheer damage he will deal you (see below), but, without any of either you simply have no real chance of defeating him so you have to get as many as possible and the text does lay this fact on pretty thickly. You also need to try to find Magic Rings as each gives you +1 Magic Points and makes using magic items rather easier (of key importance as it is not possible to win without a magic sword.) Finally, the first part of the Castle also contains several creatures that can afflict you with different types of Plagues, without finding the antidotes to which you are screwed, but there are several ways of getting the antidotes so this is more of a hindrance than a real obstacle to completion. 

The Tower Chest and Magic Ring concepts contribute to the most jarring aspect of this adventure. As you wander around trying to find and collect these items you rapidly start to feel like you are token-hunting in readiness for the final battle with Zagor and, by all accounts, that is exactly what you are doing. If we think too about the way the book is designed something begins to become starkly apparent. The body of the adventure (excepting the initial and final short sections) involves YOU entering a central area on a given level wherein you are presented with a frankly bewildering list of options to go through doors or along passages. You are then free to visit all or as few of these options as you wish (and in any order, although you will have to return to complete some having acquired information or items from others) before moving on to another level which will offer you another catalogue of doors and passages to explore. There are in total 15 of these areas to visit making this seem little more than a repetitive and seemingly never-ending cycle of the same basic thing with no real variation until you reach the final episode and take on Zagor’s two guardians followed by the man himself. It is difficult to visualise this structure as anything other than the layout of a traditional board game in text form and it can get very dull very quickly due to this. Likewise, as you often need to backtrack, mapping is absolutely essential otherwise you have little hope of navigating forwards and backwards through the onslaught of mind-bogglingly similar locations. Low and behold, as you draw out your map you find yourself drawing out the plan of a board game, with emphasis on the word “board/bored”! 

Not only does this design approach make playing this book a pretty torturous ordeal, but it also means that any sense of plot is quickly lost amidst the sea of mostly anonymous doors and passages. This problem is all the more disappointing as the opening section starts extremely well with a background taking in the plot of Ian Livingstone’s Casket Of Souls as well as that of the first Zagor Chronicles novel, Firestorm. Sadly, whilst the adventure is, as we have said, the plot of ZC#2 Darkthrone in game form, it is dumbed-down in its presented form and, in spite of the events and encounters being taken straight from the book (as well as some of the solutions) it is not long before any semblance of an ongoing storyline goes out of the window as the execution is just so turgid. Yes, some elements of the novel would not translate well (especially Anvar being a werewolf as that would take the already dense rules well beyond manageability), but to reduce what could have been an increasingly more foreboding ascent of the castle to a series of door-opening choices is a major own goal. Curiously, the final section where you must deal with Zagor’s end bosses (a Mummy and a War Dragon), followed by Zagor himself picks up again and is quite exciting, but it comes far too late for redemption which is a pity as, interestingly, the intro and final sections do knit together very neatly as you use info gleaned at the start to overcome the very last part where you have to throw the dead Zagor into the Heartfires within a time limit. 

There is of course a pay-off to be had from the board game layout of this book. It is, in theory, possible to go just about everywhere in the castle assuming you do not die and/or your character is specifically precluded from accessing a particular place or encounter - a feature which only really affects the locations of each character’s magic sword, although there are a few other minor restrictions here and there too. In this sense, this is the most RPG-ish of all the FF books and you can roam more or less freely. This means that the usually soul-destroying “instant failure due to being missing an item“ points are largely eliminated as you can go back and try to find certain key items to access the next level barring combats that require magic weapons although, as these are very pivotal moments, I can accept this one concession when the rest of the castle exploration is so freeform. An observation at this point would be that, given just how much you are expected to remember and integrate, in another RPG link, this would benefit from using a DM if only to manage all the factors and play conditions that develop along the way as it does become quite confusing. 

Given the design and approach of this book, this is a very ambitious undertaking and is only really fully appreciated if you do take the time to really scrutinise and absorb the rules as well as mapping the dungeon out at which point you will see how the castle sections interlink and how the encounters and episodes unfold. Sadly, the dullness of the playing experience is not likely to show any of this to very good effect and another problem with this book is that its crushing level of difficulty dawns more and more on you as you bumble onwards through its doors and corridors. It has to be said that every character except Sallazar has a decent chance of reaching fairly far into the dungeon as long as info from previous playthroughs is used to help to avoid dealing with too many of the very tough encounters that can practicably be avoided. There are of course some compulsory very tough fights (the Orc throne room is especially gruelling, although the pathetic Sallazar is unique in being able to avoid this part) and the dungeon is riddled with some very old school FF dungeon traps to catch you out. Whilst there is also the obstacle of the plagues in the earlier sections and frequent poisonings throughout, the overall factor contributing to this book’s difficulty level is the sheer number of battles to fight (necessary or otherwise, given that some are character-exclusive and others you will just stumble across, especially in early playthroughs) with special foes that have powerful combat adjustors:

  • Plague Bearer – only Sk 5 St 4 but gives you the plague if it even wounds you only once

  • Sir Davian - Sk 12 St 16 and you are better off talking to him instead of killing him but he’s very strong if you do feel like trying to bump him off

  • The Orc throne room – a sequence of four consecutive fights, each with a pair of Orcs, each pair of which is increasingly tougher than the last, culminating in a pair with Sk 8 St 12. Deal with these and you then must fight their leader, Thulu, who has Sk 9 St 17

  • Plague Zombie – Sk 7 St 6 but gives you a more lethal form of the plague than the Plague Bearer, again if it even wounds you only once

  • Mungus – a massive jailer (who looks like Peter Vaughan) that has Sk 7 St 19 and does you -3 St damage with each blow

  • Two Castle Imps – very weak within themselves but, as you fight them in a cramped passageway all but Stubble suffer harsh Attack Strength penalties (Anvar -4, Braxus -3, Sallazar -2)

  • Fog Wyvern – can be completely avoided by sacrificing a Luck point but, if you don’t do this (and it comes before you even enter the castle!) you encounter it and it fights with Sk 10 St 16

  • Wizard-Ghost – Sk 9 St 10 but for the first two Attack Rounds he casts a fire spell which, if he hits you either or both rounds, does you -4 St damage for each successful blow

  • Chaos Champion – St 10 St 15 and you must roll an extra die each time it wins an AR to see what extra damage it does you, ranging from an additional Stamina point, through Initial Stamina or Luck penalties, up to Magic Point penalties or it going completely berserk and taking 2d6 of Stamina off you!

  • Stone Colossus – Sk 8 St 18, if it hits you roll a die and it does you -3 St damage on a 5 or 6 roll, plus if you roll an 11 or 12 for its AS you must spend a Magic Point to avoid being turned to stone by its whip that is made from basilisk leather

  • Elranel the Thief – another NPC that should be spoken to rather than fought but, should you fight him, he has Sk12 St 13, you fight with -1 AS unless you have a Ring of Truesight as he is only semi-visible due to a cloak he wears, and his poisoned dagger inflicts –3 St

  • Giant Stone Golem – Sk 9 St 16 but he can at least be hit by all types of weapon

  • Grool, a massive mutant Ogre with Sk 9 St 22

  • Mutant Chaos Ogre – Sk 7 St 14 and you must roll a die after every AR regardless of who won each one, roll a 6 and you take an automatic -3 St as it spits corrosive acid at you

  • Hellhorns x2 – both Sk 9 St 10 but if you are hit you must roll a die to determine damage taken, a 1 is the saving grace of only causing you -1 St damage, but you could also lose 2 St and 2 Sk, or even 4 St; there’s also a tougher Hellhorn Champion with Sk 10 St 16 that does the same randomised damage on each hit

  • Air Elemental – Sk 12 St 15, cannot be fought with non-magical weapons and you start on the backfoot if you lose an opening Luck test

  • Spectre – Sk 10 St 14, cannot be fought with non-magical weapons and, if it gets even one hit on you, you roll a die and any roll other than a 6 causes you to lose 1 point from your current and InitiaI Skill scores

  • Young War Dragon – St 10 St 16 and if it wins an AR you roll one die, a 5 or 6 meaning you are burned by its breath and you lose 4 St

  • Great Mummy, the first of Zagor’s end guardians – Sk 10 St 22, no special attacks, just really strong!

  • War Dragon, #2 of Zagor’s end guardians – Sk 15 St 20 and if it wins an AR you roll a die and it causes you anywhere from 1 to 4 St damage

  • Dark Knight – Sk 11 St 17, again no special attacks, just really strong

  • The Zagor-Demon – oh God, where do we begin! He has Sk 16 St 20 and you can shave points off him for each Golden Talisman or Silver Dagger you have, plus you can choose to attack with different special weapons (if you have any) in each round, however, if he hits you... his 1st hit does you an insane -7 St damage, the 2nd an equally grim -5 St damage, the 3rd costs you 1 Sk and 2 St, the 4th and 5th hit you for -3 St until, finally, from the 6th hit onwards you “only” lose the standard 2 Stamina! Let’s face it given his Skill, even in reduced form you are going to take some serious damage here!

Admittedly, by no means are all of these combats essential to victory, but the Great Mummy, War Dragon, and obviously Zagor all are, plus several others will be too, making this a rather depressingly long list of uber-tough baddies to try to defeat. It’s only fair to add that combats in the early stages of the book (bar the Fog Wyvern which is only a few sections in) are relatively easy (Skills of 8-ish, Staminas in a similar ballpark) but the list above is easily 75% of all the battles in here!

Whilst the mostly ridiculously-strong foes will cause you by far the biggest problem in beating this book, most of the other aspects of its design will not cause a seasoned FF player too many problems, especially as instant deaths are very few and far between (because they aren't needed, given that the combats will almost certainly kill you eventually.) There are a lot of mathematical cheat-proofing moments throughout that involve converting names, section numbers where you found things, the material a bridge is made from, and even the first four letters of four gems into hidden paragraph numbers that can have anything from a limited impact on you (an item that gives you a certain combat bonus may be accessed, for example) through to a critical one (such as the dragon keys that open the door to the final section.) Whilst there are some essential items to find (the magic sword for your chosen character being the primary example), many items are curatives or bonus-givers that affect whatever you have allowed (or will allow) yourself to be exposed to along the way and the book’s non-linear design works in your favour as it removes the many critical fail points that almost all gamebooks will scupper you with. Indeed, there is no true path to find with repeated playthroughs, the trick here is more to use knowledge gained in previous failed attempts mainly to avoid as many crushing encounters and Stamina-sapping traps as you realistically can. There are a generous two options to have a companion NPC come along part of the way with you and both of these can be very useful in easing the pressure on you, especially in preserving your Skill and Stamina for the final three mega-fights. There is no doubt that starting Luck scores can be desperately low but the emphasis on testing Luck is very sparing, instead there is a huge focus on Skill testing, often with deadly or severe penalties for failure and you have no chance without a decent starting Skill (another reason why being Sallazar is a lost cause.) The sheer volume of Skill (and Spot Skill for noticing things) tests is as tediously repetitive as the catalogue of identical-sounding locations and this too can make this all rather thuddingly dull. That said, everyone except Sallazar has decent opportunities to raise their Attack Strengths along the way ready for the later combats, meaning your Skill limitations will impact Skill tests more than anything else. Interestingly, once you have bested Zagor (when you finally ever do!) you have to go through a lengthy time-controlled trip back through the castle to the Heartfires where you have to hurl his body into the flames to destroy it for good. As this is restricted to being completed in a certain maximum number of seconds, this makes an already crazily tough final part of a very hard book even more difficult. Whilst this is well-deployed (you choose actions and are told how long each takes which allows you to keep a running total of seconds you have used) it can seem a bridge too far in a) difficulty and b) even more extra rules you have to contend with.

A discussion of this book would not be complete without discussing the question of its authorship. As it stands it is credited to Ian Livingstone, however there is little of his style on show here. Yes it’s very hard, yes there are lots of items to find and, yes, there are many fiendish traps, all of which are IL trademarks. In every other way though, this plays out like a Keith Martin book with its number-crunching puzzles, poisons/plagues, the need for a magic sword, dark atmosphere, demands on the player to remember to factor in things like rope lengths and the need to collect empty bottles along the way to use later on, the style of the final battle where umpteen items need to be used to affect you and your foe’s base Attack Strengths, and the subversion of the major IL mechanic of true path linearity. In 2014 it finally came out that this book was indeed written by KM rather than IL, but it would be hard to think otherwise even without knowing this! To continue in that vein, the Zagor Chronicles novels were written by IL and Carl Sargent. Keith Martin is CS’ pen-name so it all begins to make sense that KM wrote Legend of Zagor too. It is worth mentioning that, whilst the gamebook follows the plot of Darkthrone, one major feature is changed in that Sallazar is dead in the novel and he is replaced by his sister, Jallarial. This is a little frustrating as Jallarial was the most three-dimensional of all the novel’s characters but, as the novel came out a few months after the gamebook this might actually be an in-joke to remind us just how likely to be dead Sallazar is if you have tried to play as him! Another interesting difference in the cross-format event that these books were part of is that all the central locations that all the doors and passages radiate out from are named differently in the gamebook to those in the board game which isn’t a problem I just thought it worth mentioning.

If we can see beyond the motivation-destroying way that the castle is presented to us in this book, it is actually designed in a pretty convincing manner map-wise. Some rooms are empty, some are trashed, some have Orcs squatting in them etc and this suits the concept of the castle having been over-run by an evil hoard. Similarly, everyone you meet has a real reason to be there and this is not just a randomly assembled dungeon with disparate and inexplicable people and locations scattered about it. The way everything fits the plot and context is very well thought-out, so it’s even more of a shame that it just all seems the same when you try to play through it all. The encounters can be quite interesting, but the way to reach them combined with the inevitability of yet another impossible fight coming sooner or later combine to make this book a very long, excessively repetitive, and often arduous slog.
Not only is this structurally and conceptually unique within the FF series, but it is also the only FF gamebook to be set in the parallel universe of Amarillia. There is a brief linking nod to Titan in the intro when Yaztromo gives you your mission via a Jedi-style holo-communication thing direct from Allansia and this helps this seem less cut-off from the FF world, but fundamentally the only recurring link is via Zagor himself. Rather awkwardly though, in spite of this being the third book in the Zagor gamebook cycle, there is scant reference made to the previous two. Zagor has a treasure chest and his power comes from a deck of cards again as was the case in WOFM, and the only surviving part of his pre-Demon incarnation is his skeletal left arm (a reference to the closing lines of Return to Firetop Mountain), but otherwise this book seems to care little that there were two instalments before it. Whilst I do not see this as a fault in how the game plays, it is definitely a failing in maintaining the ongoing mythos of FF’s first and most famous baddie. The character you play cannot be expected to make links between the three books as you play a fresh protagonist that has never known of Zagor before. For you as the player, though, strong inter-connecting threads between the three parts of the saga should be a comforting necessity that is sadly absent.
Few gamebook fans could disagree that Martin McKenna is an exceptional fantasy artist whose work verges on the darker (horror) side of the fantasy spectrum. His work here is as excellent as ever and many of the tougher foes look truly terrifying and awe-inspiring (the Chaos Champion, for example.) It is interesting to note that, in places, McKenna apes others’ work (which he often did in other FFs particularly by drawing influences from Hammer Films) and, whilst there is nothing here lifted from Hammer, the Orc throne room is a literal copy of Iain McCaig’s version from Casket of Souls and the Chaos Champion looks strikingly like the LJN-produced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons action figure called Warduke. The cover intentionally parallels that of the board game and I acknowledge that this is a marketing necessity to sell units of the book to the board game fans and vice versa, especially as the book cost less than 1/10th of the board game’s asking price! Incidentally, by the time Wizard’s reissue came out this was no longer a consideration and their rather terrifying hellish red demon cover reflects the impact of Zagor’s demon form and is ultimately more effective for this.
This is a frustrating gamebook for so many reasons and it is simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst FFs ever. Primarily in its favour are its logicality, the variety inherent in the different character choices, the totally free-form non-linear way that it plays, and the fact that you don’t keep losing at key equipment checkpoints where you are instead able to return to a previous place and keep hunting for whatever it is you need to move onto the next part. Weighing heavily against it is the extreme difficulty of the combats, the boring and endlessly samey presentation of the dungeon, and its sheer length (a playthrough from start to finish is easily a three or four hour sitting) if you do choose to take the explorative approach which you need to do if you want the maximum amount of firepower against Zagor at the end. The unbalanced nature of the characters is also a problem and playing as Sallazar only has one real saving grace in that it keeps the adventure short when he dies very quickly! Personally I’d suggest that Stubble makes for the most satisfying experience due to the influence his size can have on events, but, of the three characters that can actually win in real terms, his adventure is rather tougher than either Anvar’s or Braxus’, making for an even more insanely difficult gamebook. Overall, I’d say that the initial lure of more Zagor quickly wears off and that this book’s good points do not get enough chance to shine through what is essentially little more than a very boring, stupidly hard, and very long board game in print format.