Tuesday, 26 February 2019

You Are The Hero Part 2



YOU ARE THE HERO PART 2

Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

When the second part of Jon Green’s definitive history of FF was announced eyebrows were raised as to exactly what content it would offer. The amount of new material that had appeared under the FF banner between the first volume’s release in 2014 and the second instalment’s announcement in 2017 was hardly going to fill a pamphlet, let alone another weighty book, but, in spite of the potential scarcity of content, YATH2 funded in under 24 hours on Kickstarter meaning fans had faith that this was going to be a worthwhile project either way. Mirroring the format and release gambit of the first YATH, YATH2 is a deluxe oversized coffee table book that was finally unveiled at Fighting Fantasy Fest 2 on 2nd September 2017.

The first thing that strikes you about this book is that it is rather thinner than YATH, clocking in at 90 pages shorter than the first book. The second thing that strikes you is that, on beginning to read it, in the first seven pages of text alone, the first YATH is name-checked six times and, after 10 pages the YATH-mentioning count has rocketed to 15 times! I’m not sure the first YATH needs quite this much plugging as I would imagine that most readers of the second Part will have read the first.

So, exactly how are the pages of Part 2 filled? The opening Chapter covers FF conventions and those in the know will quickly observe that there have been very few events dedicated solely to FF. In fact, there had been all of two up to the point this book was written: Fighting Fantasy Day in 1985, and Fighting Fantasy Fest in 2014. Is this really a Chapter’s-worth of events? It is not easy finding people who were at FF Day but one does get interviewed and, due to the limited amount of available information on that event, the 1985 gathering in Manchester gets just half a page of coverage. This is a shame as I’m sure most fans would appreciate more detail on this convention (well, I would anyway) which few of us were able to attend and which has largely been consigned to history. Its inclusion is definitely of interest as I doubt many people are even aware that it took place but a bit more research and information would have made this seem less like a starter course to whet our appetites for the rest of this Chapter which, in a heavy imbalance of content, offers us six pages about FFF in 2014. Admittedly the 2014 convention is in more recent memory, but this section goes into unnecessary depth in what is a blow-by-blow account that pushes the envelope in terms of valuable material and a point is already being stretched in content terms as soon as YATH2 begins.

Chapter 2, covering writers, looks more promising though as it begins by profiling Keith P Phillips in what is an adjunct offering material missing from the first YATH. Even though Phillips only wrote one FF book it is a highly-respected, if brain-meltingly hard, outing and it is interesting to get an insight into Phillips’ thought processes behind the book as well as submission practice at Puffin at the time. As Phillips is a lesser-known FF author it is nice to see him getting decent column space and his input is well worth reading. Second up is Kieran Fanning (who?) I’ve never heard of him but apparently he is a successful current children’s author so there is no real reason why I would have, to be honest. But, why is he even in here? He seems to be more interested in Choose Your Own Adventure and Way Of The Tiger than FF (yes, I know they are gamebooks, but this is the history of FF, right?) and he only makes mention of one FF book. Indeed, most of his interview is just him plugging his own fiction. Tenuous and of little value. Next we get Garth Nix, the man who wrote the science fiction short story Sam, Cars And The Cuckoo printed in Warlock #2. It is fascinating to have such an obscure contributor to FF history covered and it is good to see such depth being gone into to make sure everyone involved in FF history is included in the story, no matter how small a contribution they may have made. However, he literally says of his “brief association with FF”: “I’m not sure it has had any particular influence [on my career]”. Er, Ok, moving on then lol. Nix does tell us the story of the creation of his Warlock short subject though and focus on tiny details in FF history is always welcome. The remainder of Chapter 2 then proceeds to give an update (the first genuinely new “sequel” material in YATH2) on Arion Games’ latest AFF products (and there are plenty of them to cover) plus it provides information on the French iteration of AFF (Défis Fantastiques: le jeu de rôle) including a beautiful full-page colour image of a dragon by Malcolm Barter which is otherwise exclusive to the French AFF edition and in doing this YATH2 showcases an example of generally localised art to a wider audience, rather than all its full-page art plates just being familiar UK cover images, which would have been an easy (but less appealing to the hunter of surprise new material) win.

In a natural progression from a Chapter on authors, the next Chapter discusses artists. As with the previous Chapter, this section begins with another supplementary piece to the first YATH, this time profiling Geoff Senior. Sadly, this Senior coverage says very little of consequence other than a general potted career summary in five (somewhat short) paragraphs. We then get just over three pages about Stephen Player and I must admit to becoming concerned that, as he illustrated Green’s Stormslayer, this section might lurch into JG talking about himself which was a major gripe I had with the first YATH. Thankfully, this does not happen but, instead, the book heads off on a drastic tangent that goes into way too much depth about Player’s SFU Fantasy Art course students and their FF-based (or, more to the point, Stephen Player-based) artwork. I’m not convinced that this is of any real value other than to fill pages. That said, there are some impressive pieces in this section, especially Ron Monaoi’s full-page Yeti Attack which would not be out of place in Caverns Of The Snow Witch. Following on from some random art students, we get a section on aspiring FF-influenced artists, including the work of the excellent Alex Siddy whose digital Bloodbeast image and a very different, far more visceral and horror-filled monochrome alternate Temple Of Terror cover reimagining, are very impressive, and he is brave to successfully rethink the work of two of FF’s greatest artists (Iain McCaig and Chris Achilleos). He also contributes a nice Zagor/mountain illustration prepared especially for this book. Following this we get a brief comment on fans’ tattoos which is a nice inclusion, even if I doubt it really offers anything other than demonstrating fan obsession mixed with just how much FF imagery means to the fans. Finally, this Chapter concludes with Chris Achilleos talking us through the creative stages that produced his newly-commissioned YATH2 cover art. Whilst it is fascinating to see how a master works, the resultant cover is awful with its overuse of purple (for some reason) and its figures that have nothing of the brilliance that was a trademark of Achilleos’ art in the past. I honestly cannot believe that this is by the same artist who produced some of the greatest fantasy art of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Is the YATH2 cover his worst work ever? Probably, yes.

To continue the art theme, Chapter 4 looks at that staple of fantasy gaming, mini figures. Covering the rarely-seen range of plastic FF minis is a good inclusion and could prompt collecting opportunities for those who are not aware of this range’s existence (assembling a complete set is a major achievement as these figures are very rare) and we even get an interview with their sculptor. Next comes a few sentences on the six generic plastic minis that came with the WOFM boardgame, followed by two slightly longer paragraphs about the Legend Of Zagor boardgame figures (admittedly there are a whole lot more of them!) which do at least include four recognised FF player characters and the Zagor Demon himself, rather than just being six random fantasy figures as with the WOFM minis. I feel obliged to mention that my Scriptarium Yaztromo mini is also included here and I’m pleased to see this as it gives a spotlight to the very talented Steven Leicester’s figure painting skills. A really fascinating inclusion in this Chapter is an actual photograph of the near-legendary FF Battlegame 3D dungeon pieces – surely a collecting Holy Grail for even the most hardcore collector. A necessary inclusion is a section on the creation of Otherworld Miniatures’ white metal Zagor figure (of FFF fame) and we get thorough coverage of the design and development that went into producing this item. Sticking with the “FFF minis” theme, next up are the yet to commercially materialise, but very impressive, Pure Evil Miniatures range of resin figures that were seen in tantalising prototype form at FFF. The entire range is pictured, including some previously unseen minis based on monsters from The Port Of Peril. This gives hope that there is still activity in the range and that we may still see these on sale one day. From official figures, we then move into the world of fandom modelling and this section is a real revelation. It’s not often considered that fan art is anything other than traditional drawing and painting, but the showcasing of talented fans’ modelling work (mostly scratch-built which is a skill that I envy) is a really good inclusion. Amongst the fantastic work on display is a stunning paintjob on a mini perfectly recreating the complex John Blanche colouring on the Slime Eater from the cover of Khare, as well as Johan Tieldow’s highly original Zanbar Bone PEZ dispenser! Indeed, Johan has created a whole series of clay sculptures and drawings of Zanbar and those included here are just the tip of the iceberg of another very talented FF fan artist’s work.

Moving on from visual art, Chapter 5 covers the rather less obvious subject of FF-influenced music, something I would imagine is news to most FF fans. In reality, this Chapter shows FF’s influences on obscure unsigned and/or self-releasing bands, plus Steve Jackson’s occasionally-performing R&B covers outfit (of which there are many video clips on YouTube). No-one massively famous then, but this is a very off-the-wall topic to include and shows an out-of-the-box thinking in the way this book has been put together. Also featured are the composers of the soundtracks to Tin Man and inkle’s FF apps, coverage of which is as thorough as is needed for such a peripheral subject.

Whilst the first five Chapters of YATH2 cover a good variety of FF-related areas and are certainly worth reading (if only once in many cases), the actual amount of focussed material is rather sparse. In saying this, I mean that the bulk of the subject matter is either fandom or random stuff that would otherwise be ignorable and would be unlikely to have made the cut for the first YATH (eg: app soundtrack composers, authors who might have vague memories of having once have read a FF book, etc), even stretching the point to 3rd parties influenced by art courses taught by a FF artist. Yes, it’s all FF-influenced but how far can you pull the connecting threads before they become so thinly-stretched that they break and all we are left with is the sound of the bottom of an already thoroughly-scoured barrel being scraped? Much of this just seems to almost be ads for interested parties’ work.

If you have stuck with the rather inconsistent programme for the first five Chapters you are then in for what seems to be a much more relevant sixth Chapter all about Fighting Fantazine, the by all intents and purposes official fanzine and successor (in content, style and presentation) to Warlock magazine. This section seems much more worthwhile than the previous five (bar the useful Keith Phillips appendix) and means that 74 pages into YATH2 we are finally getting material worthy of the first YATH volume. The whole history of the ‘zine is covered, including interviews with all the major protagonists, a lengthy section giving insight into how the selection and refining of the all-important mini-FF that each issue features functions, and finally a critical discussion of the ‘zine’s main editors’ views on the best of the bunch of those mini-FFs. I found it quite amusing that there is a brief teaser nod to my own contribution (Sister Angela’s Veil) that had just gone through the finalisation process for inclusion in the then-imminent issue number 16. This chapter is thus far the most focussed and relevant by a long way and does not suffer the problems that the previous Chapters did whereby you are sifting through general fandom bumpf trying to pick out a few gems of chronicle-worthy content.

After a strong Chapter 6 we get what is effectively a Kickstarter contractual obligation covering collectors. The two big guns are profiled (Jamie Fry and Steven Dean) and we get to see and hear about some juicy titbits of their collections, as well as Jamie Fry’s essential, meticulously-researched and exhaustive work that is the FF Collector’s Guide getting mentioned. In a similar vein, the well-known FF art collector Pat Robinson shows us his spectacular and authoritative collection of cover art originals (his hallway walls are to die for) and the full-page rendering of Terry Oakes’ wonderful cover from The Rings Of Kether is a glorious inclusion. The fourth and final collector we hear from is the less-known Teofilo Hurtado who gives us a welcome overview of the Spanish FF market, although quite why he submitted such an awkward-looking photo of himself I have no idea! Incidentally, to get a full-page profile of you and your collection in YATH2 required you to back at a whopping £500 level. Was it worth it? I guess they must have thought so but you could get some fantastically-rare items for your collection with that kind of money. This Chapter is surely just a vanity piece for the four contributors and is of rather less interest to anyone who is not them, even if there are some lesser-known rarities mentioned. Kickstarter obligation aside, this Chapter can pretty much be ignored bar the big Kether cover image.

A dramatic change in relevance comes with Chapter 8. This Chapter is much more substantial in terms of content and thoroughness than any preceding it, discussing as it does video game and app adaptations. The first YATH documented all of the computer/video game releases from the 1980s ZX Spectrum/CBM64/BBC/Amstrad through to the early 2000s versions, but this Chapter offers an actual update and is only the second of these in YATH2 (after the AFF update roundup in Chapter 2). Coverage of inkle’s huge and sprawling Sorcery apps is very long and in considerable depth, followed by an equally if not even more thorough look at Tin Man’s sublime Windows version of WOFM. What follows is an unexpected look at Dave Sharrock’s labour of love Minecraft recreation of Allansia (the existence of which has to be news to most of us) and then comes similarly in-depth discussion of Nomad Games’ fun diversion that is FF Legends. The only weak part of this Chapter is the final brief section on how other game designs may have been influenced by FF which seems to be an unnecessary tagged-on piece more in the style of earlier Chapters’ vaguely relevant material. Otherwise this is the best Chapter yet by far in terms of true relevance.

Indeed, YATH2 remains on track with the next rather longer Chapter detailing comic books and graphic novels. We all loved Lew Stringer’s Derek The Troll from Warlock (and later White Dwarf) magazine and this character is up for discussion first, primarily through the recent collected single volume GN that Stringer published. Andi Ewington’s excellent Freeway Fighter comic series then follows including a fascinating insight into everyone involved’s creative processes from the obvious ones of author and artist through to the less generally familiar role of Titan Comics’ commissioning editor. There is even an appropriate tribute to the late Kevin Bulmer who drew the internal art for the original source gamebook. This section does contain a few spoilers (especially where the comic sits in the timeline compared to the gamebook) but this hardly matters and does not detract from an excellent bit of coverage. It is great to see all of the cover variants for all four issues in one place (this is also handy for working out if you are missing any) although I’m not convinced that four paragraphs should have been given over to an online review as this is not really of much use as it goes against the objective chronicle approach of the YATH books. The third part of Chapter 9 is inevitably dedicated to the controversial and somewhat lacklustre The Trolltooth Wars GN. Again, coverage is very thorough, especially of the creative processes involved as well as the sheer logistics of attempting an indie project like this without the support of a publisher, and I’m very pleased that Green interrogates the ridiculously long delay issue which soured this project for so many Kickstarter backers. The reasons given by PJ Montgomery make sense, it’s just a shame we never got given this explanation during the KS campaign. I would have liked to have seen a balance in the number of full-page plates from both Freeway Fighter and The Trolltooth Wars in this Chapter as the inferior Trolltooth Wars artwork gets rather more page-space than the much better Simon Coleby art from Freeway Fighter, but that is just my own taste. As someone who has been reading comic books for almost as long as I have gamebooks, this Chapter is very worthwhile and quite fascinating regardless of my personal views of the actual comics in question. The Trolltooth Wars Kickstarter fiasco needed documenting and it is done very well and not to the detriment of also covering the artistic and practical aspects. Avoiding the KS subject would have seemed like a cop-out, but focussing on that alone would have been unfair and unbalanced. Freeway Fighter was far easier to document as there are no metaphorical clouds over its development. If anything, Chapter 9 trumps Chapter 8 for me in terms of its quality, but that is just because I am more interested in comics than in video games.

Chapter 10 is odd. It is not immediately obvious how television and FF could be connected enough to warrant an entire Chapter being dedicated to this subject and I find this section to be clutching at straws for content. Many fans are aware that WOFM was profiled on The Book Tower in the early-‘80s (the footage is possibly lost from the archives due to junking if I understand correctly) and this program gets only a short paragraph by definition as few can have seen this clip, or will recall it in much detail, if they have. There is a very tenuous Ben Elton section mostly about D&D (the only proper FF association being when Elton plays The Forest Of Doom on-screen at one point), but the next section covering the BBC’s highly imaginative Skill, Stamina And Luck interactive documentary from a few years ago is much more relevant and I’m glad that this brilliant creation is not forgotten. Sadly, the rest of this Chapter is of little real value as we get told about a FF question (literally just one question!)  that appeared on the excruciating quiz show Only Connect and a Brazilian chat show that Ian Livingstone was invited to appear on. I do wonder whether YATH3 will feature the brief snippet from 24 Hours In A&E last year where a patient is playing Stormslayer for a few seconds in a Waiting Room? Given the threadbare material in this Chapter I suspect it probably will qualify for the next book!

Moving swiftly on from the pointless Chapter 10, Chapter 11 gives the necessary update to the previous book’s update (ahem) on Jackson and Livingstone’s post-FF activities including the little-known Sorcery-themed cocktails that were served at inkle’s Sorcery 4 launch party (another nice obscure detail worth documenting). As he tends to be more obviously active, Livingstone gets the balance of coverage and I am particularly struck by the sheer passion he expresses in his interview here regarding the educational prospects and potential of video games. There is a nice long spotlight on recent convention activity in Brazil (perhaps that’s why the previous Chapter randomly included the Brazilian chat show bit then?) including a particularly important section about the Daielyn Cris custom City Of Thieves design project that she presented to IL. This obviously led to the disastrous Indiegogo campaign to fund a grossly-overpriced and rather ludicrously over-engineered special edition deluxe hardback City Of Thieves but this definitely needed including in YATH2 (and I’m glad it was) as no FF fan is likely to forget that laughing-stock in a hurry!

Obviously, the story of what FF’s two creators did next would be incomplete without documenting the new Scholastic printings and Chapter 12 is given over to this subject. There is a wealth of useful information in this Chapter including the shortlist of titles for what would eventually see the light of day as The Port Of Peril as well as it being pleasing to me personally to see James Aukett’s Beer-O events get mentioned as they are popular gatherings and he puts a lot of work into planning them. And why are they mentioned? Because it was at one of these that the discussion was had about what title that book should be given. The ins-and-outs of how the Scholastic deal came about are covered and The Port Of Peril is inevitably the centre-piece to this subject, including the (accidental) naming of the guilty party who clearly failed to do a decent job of playtesting it (in fact, it is retrospectively quite hilarious how much credence this person appears to put into being thorough in editing these books!) For anyone who hadn’t already noticed it, the Salamonis typo on the new Leo Hartas Allansia map is noted too. As YATH2 has not shied away from controversial subjects (The Trolltooth Wars GN delay, the uber-deluxe City Of Thieves debacle) there was no question of the emotive topic of the new art coming up and, again, this is sensitively treated when it could so easily have become sensationalist. In brief, fan reaction and Scholastic’s justification are both discussed as needed. New cover artist Robert Ball gets his say on the concept and thinking behind the new covers and we get a full-page plate of the alternate proposed cover for The Port Of Peril which I personally prefer as it contains much more horror but it was probably too scary for today’s pc brigade to approve. This Chapter also covers the most polemic subject of all and the one everyone quickly raises when the Scholastic series is mentioned and that is Vlado Krizan’s incompetent internal art. Abomination that Krizan’s art is, this time, and probably wisely, Green avoids the backlash bloodbath that it got from the fanbase and this section is mercifully brief being just a quick analysis of how Krizan worked on his pieces. Finally, it is hinted at that Jackson might be convinced to write another FF and we get his explanation of why he suddenly stepped away from writing FF books the first time around. Again, this is useful historical detail.

YATH2 is a companion piece, not a sequel to the first book. Yes, there are necessary updates, but this is more of a book about fandom activity than the first, which was very much an in-depth chronicle of FF and its creators. The two books complement each other well in this sense but YATH2 is much more of a niche piece, barring the sections that give genuine updates to the FF story. It is certainly rather less essential than YATH unless fandom really interests you. It is also rather shorter and sparser on actual valid content as opposed to discussing sometimes irrelevant people who admit to not really being influenced by FF but seem to have been included anyway. Green writes in his easily accessible journalistic style as before and this book can be read through in one or two sittings with no problems. The irritating tendency Green had in the first YATH to draw the narrative round to himself as much as possible is noticeably (and mercifully) absent this time around and he has clearly responded to readers’ reaction. As with the first book, the main text is punctuated by boxes containing FF trivia which are often fascinating to read. It is good too that supplementary material missing from the first books is added (Phillips, Senior) to continue the thoroughness of approach. If I have one major criticism it would be (other than the semi-relevant nature of much of what is discussed) that this book is riddled with typos and grammatical errors and some sentences are awkward or make little sense as a result. For example we are told that we are getting “insightful, riveting insights” (I’d be surprised to read an insight lacking in insght!) and the comment in the section about FFF that tells us that “Steven Dean going away with not the … Deathtrap Dungeon swords” is gibberish. An interesting undercurrent that runs throughout this book is the way that Russ Nicholson, Iain McCaig and John Blanche are clearly considered by anyone who expresses a view on the subject to be peoples’ favourite FF artists (I’d cite the first two, but would also add Alan Langford and Martin McKenna for internal work, Gary Mayes for sci-fi, and Chris Achilleos for covers) and I’m surprised that Achilleos is not up there in the FF consciousness in the same way. Perhaps it was because he was responsible for the terrible cover on this book? Unappealing cover aside, there is some essential information within (especially the updates), but the amount of fandom filler does become a minefield for the reader to navigate whilst not letting this overshadow the genuinely excellent sections that this book has in parts. Overall, this is a very mixed bag and the first YATH was miles better.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Steve Jackson's The Trolltooth Wars



STEVE JACKSON’S THE TROLLTOOTH WARS

PJ Montgomery and Gavin Mitchell

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Mention this graphic novel adaptation of Steve Jackson’s 1989 book of the same name to most FF fans who were involved in the funding and they are far more likely to talk about the shambolic Kickstarter campaign that led to its creation than the GN itself. Mention it to anyone who did not support the Kickstarter and they will probably look at you blankly and start Googling how to buy a copy. We will discuss the thorny subject of the Kickstarter later, but the apparent lack of awareness of the GN beyond that project has made it something of an obscurity in the fan community, a problem which is not helped by the relative lack of distribution outlets where it can be purchased - as a privately-published title it’s essentially only available from its own Bigcartel website, anyone who backed the KS at the retail levels (which amounts to all of ONE backer who pledged for 10 copies), plus I’ve seen it in Travelling Man in Leeds…. Oh, and, several of the KS backers sold their copies peer-to-peer fairly quickly so not even all the backers have a copy anymore. A year after its Summer 2017 release, it would be further overshadowed by the far better-promoted (and distributed) Freeway Fighter comic book published by Titan Comics (which was also better-received as it didn’t overrun its original release schedule by 18 months like The Trolltooth Wars did!)

So, was it worth waiting all that extra time for? Firstly, let’s get something clear: I love the original novel. Granted, it isn’t as dark and brooding as its superior sequel Demonstealer, but it is so bursting with exactly what FF fans want (ie lots of FF exploitation) that it’s hard not to find the source book thoroughly enjoyable. The fact that it brings four popular FF NPCs all together in one place (Zagor, Balthus Dire, Zharradan Marr, and Yaztromo) adds to the appeal, plus the original novel is jam-packed with FF lore and background detail, including the clarification of a few logic question marks that you find yourself pondering over after playing some of the earlier books (especially The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain and The Citadel Of Chaos). There is a lot going on in the source book and it is by necessity fast-paced as it switches the action between Balthus and Zharradan’s machinations and plans for war, battle scenes/massacres, and Chadda Darkmane’s adventures from Salamonis to the Galleykeep via Yaztromo’s tower and Firetop Mountain. Jackson’s book is quite cinematic in its approach and Montgomery’s GN tries to emulate this with frequent scene shifts, often from one page to the next, which can make it seem a bit all over the place (especially if you aren’t familiar with the Jackson novel). For this reason, you do have to concentrate on the headers that sometimes set the location and/or rely on the illustrations to give you an idea of where any particular page of action is taking place, or maybe even use the characters as the only way to keep up. In places this is executed well, especially one particular page where we see Balthus and Zharradan plotting similar things, one on the left of the page, the other on the right, leading to them both announcing the same thing in the final plate. In other places, it just gets muddled and you find yourself referring back to the Jackson novel to untangle what is going on. Don’t get me wrong, by no means is the GN complicated, the problem lies in the necessity of adapting a novel into a GN as huge amounts of scene-setting text in a novel can be condensed down to one single image in a GN. Indeed, entire chapters of the Jackson novel are often reduced down to just one or two pages of this GN which is why it seems to flit about between people and places so much. Essentially, all the core plot from the novel is there, it’s mainly the asides and little cameos from the book that are missing from the GN (eg: the elf fight in the Fatted Pig, Calorne Manitus’ explanation of why Shazaar is so bizarre, etc), but curiously Chadda Darkmane’s key motivation is also entirely excised, that being the concept of Amanour. In the original novel, Darkmane is out for himself and agrees to take on King Salamon’s commission so as to increase his Amanour (ie kudos), whereas in the GN he comes across as rather more honourable as he accepts the mission purely for the honour of serving his King. These two things are very different. In the novel Darkmane often seems self-possessed and driven by Amanour to the point of being quite obnoxious, whereas the GN presents him as a far more courtly hero in the classic sense. This does create a very different feel to the piece and makes you rather more sympathetic towards Darkmane and makes you be more forgiving about his attitude towards things like sorcery and the Cherva’s obsessive vegetarianism than you are when reading the novel, but it also makes him seem like a bit of a goody-goody wuss. Given that Darkmane is the YOU of the piece though, I do wonder why he accepted the mission in the GN version – there is no apparent reward of any kind (not even money), so why root for him? Actually, Balthus or Zharradan seems far more worthy of the reader’s support in the GN version, especially Balthus who is the underdog for much of the story (as he is in the Jackson novel) and who isn’t presented as especially evil in the GN. Zharradan is clearly the bad guy in this version. Even Zagor seems more sympathetic and easy to get on-side this time around, whereas in the novel he is still basically psychotic.

A key part of the source book is the wealth of lore presented in long contextual asides. Almost all of this is missing from the GN, bar that which is totally essential to following the basic plot ie the link between the Demonic Three and Volgera Darkstorm, and Marr’s background with the women of Dree. Interestingly, this latter item is actually lifted from Creature Of Havoc, rather than The Trolltooth Wars, but it greatly helps us to understand Marr as a character as well as how mharranga fits into the plot (even if its use is muddied in the GN and amounts to a handful of plates again). The same happens when Balthus takes his two cunnelwort trips – in the novel this is fully explained whereas in the GN it is, again, reduced to a handful of plates and makes rather less sense. I would imagine that, without being familiar with the original novel, all of the cunnelwort/Sorq/Ganjee plot elements would be missed and/or confusing if you only read the GN and, as cunnelwort is the primary plot maguffin and the cause of the titular wars, this is a massive issue.

So, with Amanour completely removed and cunnelwort reduced to playing a bit part, what is left of any substance in the GN version? The answer is the build up to and skirmishes of the Trolltooth Wars themselves, and Darkmane’s mission to try to manipulate the wars to avoid Salamonis being swallowed-up by them (in other words, the action). Yes, these are huge parts of the original novel, but the subtleties and the real underlying plot drivers are all missing from the GN, thus presenting the story as basically a territory war with a concerned bystander. As a plot summary, the GN is fine, especially if you haven’t read the original book (think film adaptation vs source book and you have the right idea), but as an adaptation I’m not convinced that the GN really offers much. The reason the subsequent Freeway Fighter GN seemed to work better was that it was new material rather than a reduction to the bare bones of existing material, which is where The Trolltooth Wars GN falls down. Admittedly, it makes for a fast-moving and tight GN, but then the source book is also tight and fast-moving, but still manages to offer far more in terms of lore and colourful expansion.

I do find myself wondering what, other than distilling and summarising the plot, Montgomery actually did when he put this together. Rather handily, the answer is in the supplementary material in the back of the GN, where he explains what goes into adapting a novel into a graphic novel. This is an interesting insight into the process involved and does help explain why so much of the book was excised for those who aren’t regular readers of the GN medium. However, I have read many novel-based GNs that do manage to incorporate all the background in one way or another so it’s a shame this could not have somehow happened with Montgomery’s version, notwithstanding the restrictions of time, art budget, and the practicality of having a two-inch thick GN as the finished product. On the subject of size, it has to be said that I was surprised to see just how small the finished GN is. Most trade paperback GNs are roughly A4-sized, but The Trolltooth Wars is closer to oversized A5 and is disappointingly small. The art plates are not in any way reduced though which is good to see, instead the overall effect is less impactful than it could have been had it been larger format, and we lose a whole load of textual substance.

The subject of Gavin Mitchell’s art is probably an even bigger issue than Montgomery’s plot distillation. The best comparison I can come up with is that Mitchell’s art looks like it is straight out of a Cartoon Network animation (The Clone Wars in particular springs to mind) and I really hate CN-style art with its elongated human forms and eggtimer-shaped heads with clothes made up of angular shapes that don’t look anything like as organic as they should. Russ Nicholson drew the internal art for the original Chadda Darkmane novels and, to my eye, it was perfect: his Chadda Darkmane is rough-looking and holds himself in a suitably cock-sure manner; Balthus is as he was in The Citadel Of Chaos – dark and sinister yet obviously human; Zagor is the Zagor from WOFM – tall, macabre, and literally crackling with sorcerous energy; the sorq are bizarre and electrical, whilst the ganjees are terrifying disjointed heads… the list goes on. Sadly, Mitchell’s art does not come anywhere near Nicholson’s interpretations: Chadda is far less grizzled and is almost cheerful-looking; Balthus and Marr look like the overly-chiseled victims of too much plastic surgery whilst having the sunken dead eyes of a chronic crack user; Zagor looks manic in old man form and is just the purple version of Balthus and Marr in true form (indeed, Mitchell’s Marr is just his Balthus but in green and with pointy ears); the sorq look like aerodactyl from Pokemon and the ganjees just look risible… basically, Mitchell’s art, for the most part, trivialises the tone of the piece and makes every character (human or monster) look cute and cartoonish. The worst portrayal by far though for me is that of Jamut Mantrapper – he is supposed to be a shifty sword for hire but Mitchell’s version looks like a happy-go-lucky Walter Raleigh-esque dandy. To avoid this being a complete hatchet job of Mitchell’s art, his landscapes, buildings, and cityscapes are actually very well rendered: the Dark Tower is suitably sinister in silhouette, Salamonis is the pretty utopia I always thought it should be (pre-Gates Of Death murder labyrinth, that is), and he draws day and night scenes very effectively. It’s a shame then that his character illustrations are so awful. In fact, some of his character drawings have genuinely bizarre inclusions. For example, why does the dead Sea Ogre need to have pubes (also, is it supposed to be female)? And, why does every human have excessively-pronounced cheek bones that make it look like they have two-storey faces? I can only imagine just how much better this would all have looked had Russ Nicholson illustrated this GN instead.

As is often the case in GNs, the eagle-eyed will spot several easter eggs drawn into the illustrations and there is some fun to be had searching for these here (which also draws your eyes away from the crappy human images and gives you a reason to revisit the GN once you’ve read it). It is nice to see that Balthus Dire has Emmanuel’s original CoC cover art on his study wall, and Zagor has the map of his Firetop Mountain dungeon domain on his study wall too. Moreover though, Yaztromo’s study is an absolute Aladdin’s Cave of easter eggs including the small tree in glass dome that the Cherva fiddles with in the source book (although this cameo is not in the GN), a price list featuring a Net of Entanglement and Armband of Strength (from The Forest Of Doom), the Deathtrap Dungeon video game skull logo in a mirror, and, more bizarrely, the Great A’Tuin from Discworld is hanging from the ceiling for some reason. I may be stretching a point here but I’m pretty sure that Prince Vultan of the Birdmen (“Gordon’s Alive!”) from Flash Gordon is sat at a table in the Fatted Pig, as is at least one of the Kickstarter backers who were willing to fork out a minimum of £400 to be drawn into the book (I believe seven backers should be in there somewhere, if the number of backers at the relevant levels is any indication). I’m sure there are other visual easter eggs that I haven’t found too, but these are just the ones I’ve noticed.

Neatly, not only are there visual easter eggs in this GN, there are also a few textual ones too. When he first reveals himself in all his youthful sorcerer glory, Zagor utters the words “Who dares challenge me?” from the Legend Of Zagor board game, on first encountering the sleeping orc guard Mantrapper uses the immortal “Test Your Luck” line, and Darkmane closes the entire GN with the wry aside to camera of “I suppose my adventure is over”. These are all nice inclusions that give the FF fan something to feel warm and cosy about and they really do draw the GN into the cannon and make it feel like some decent effort has gone into this aspect. It is also worth mentioning the closing coda back in Yaztromo’s tower that is not in the original novel. This coda is not literally lifted from the second novel Demonstealer, instead it paraphrases the opening part of it, but it does act as a potential segue into a GN adaptation of Demonstealer that may or may not ever happen, plus it conclusively tells us that Darkmane is still alive in the real world rather than ending on Titan’s version of Mount Olympus like the TW novel does, thus rounding the story off nicely. Curiously, the bomb explosion countdown element that makes the end of the original book so gripping is missing from the GN which just leaves Darkmane needing to grab and smash Marr’s mirror, resulting in a final showdown almost completely devoid of any tension. Incidentally, the bridge between the human and Godly planes after Darkmane sacrifices himself is depicted by a couple of blank white pages, something which caused considerable confusion amongst readers when the GN first appeared, as several people thought this was a printing error rather than a plot device!

Some might say that they would rather have a book full of blank white pages than Gavin Mitchell’s poor attempts at emulating Russ Nicholson (and Ian Miller in the case of Zharradan Marr) but a further appendix offers us some alternate art plates by other artists, including Forest Of Doom’s Malcolm Barter. I pulled no punches in my criticisms of his art in FoD but, to be fair to MB, it was completed in a very short turnaround time and is not representative of his skill as an artist. His black and white Yaztromo in the TW appendix definitely does do Barter justice however and is easily the best bit of art anywhere in this GN – Barter even succeeds in making Yaztromo look wise (as he should be) rather than cute and cartoonish like he is elsewhere in the GN and in Bill Huston’s version in Temple Of Terror. The other additional illustrations we are offered are Balthus Dire vs Darkmane by Dean Beattie (his characters are better-rendered and more sinister than Mitchell’s but there is far too much iodine yellow-red for my liking), and Darkmane and the Chervah by Anastasia Catris (which looks like something out of Sylvanian Families and the less said about it the better, quite frankly).

These extra art plates were also given away in A4 print format as Kickstarter backer rewards (along with a couple of other images from the book) which is handy for anyone who wants to frame Malcom Barter’s fabulous Yaztromo picture and put it on their wall. Backers also received, depending on the level, four badges and a numbered bookplate. Also, if you were one of the wealthy few who backed at the “draw me into a picture somewhere” level you would also receive a print of the plate that you are in (I wonder if Brian Blessed was one of these ref. Prince Vultan lol) and a sketch of yourself in costume. The four badges are a mixed bag: three are small coloured button badges with rough silhouettes representing the three factions in the GN (Balthus, Marr, and Salamonis) that could be easily for pennies by anyone with a 1980s badge-making machine and are hardly worth a second look; what is very nice though is the enamel FF logo-shaped badge that was added as an extra to atone for the delay in the project being delivered. As for the bookplate, this is little more than a small piece of card with the arms of Salamonis on it and a small number out of 200 written on it in pen. A vote was held on the KS page which ended in the bookplates being supplied loose and, although they were meant to each be signed by Steve Jackson, something went awry and instead the books themselves were signed by SJ, along with the promised signatures of PJ Montgomery and Gavin Mitchell. The whole numbering out of 200 idea went down the pan too when less than 40 backers plumped for the bookplate levels so I assume only about 40 numbered examples exist rather than 200 (which makes them rarer, I suppose). Some backers also backed to have a little Mitchell thumbnail drawn in the frontispiece of their books which is a nice unique piece and, oddly, his art looks better when it is not coloured if this small insight is anything to go by. Sadly, whilst all these little collectables (of varying qualities) were included, the actual packaging used to send out rewards was nothing more than a flimsy C4 card mailer which meant that the books got jostled about inside (as they are smaller than A4) and many arrived with spine bumps or worse damage, something else that did not go down well with backers. If we add this onto the biggest problem with the KS campaign which was very poor and infrequent communication from Montgomery and the project over-running its original deadline by 18 months with very few credible explanations, then ultimately it is hard to see the overall project as anything other than a disappointment, especially as the GN itself is a watered-down version of the novel with very inferior and unsuitable artwork.

As a standalone graphic novel, I don’t think The Trolltooth Wars works particularly well. Too much material that helps the source book flow and make sense is missing and there is far too much condensing of plot elements into too few pages per episode to really be satisfying. The exclusion of the underlying plot driver of Amanour is an own goal that turns Darkmane from a selfish egomaniac anti-hero into a sort of poncy Knight of King Salamon’s Round Table figure whilst the bomb-less ending is lacking any real sense of peril. The power of cunnelwort is easily missed but should really be key to the whole story. Of the Demonic Three, only Marr really seems threatening, whereas all three are equally bad news in the Jackson book (and we know they are anyway from playing the gamebooks they feature in!) Gavin Mitchell’s art is terrible and, to my eye, presents the characters (both NPCs and creatures) from Allansia in completely the wrong light. To exacerbate the situation, anyone who got this GN on the back of the Kickstarter campaign was so fed up with it all that, by the time the GN was supplied, I doubt anyone really cared much anymore and I for one had long since lost interest by the time it turned up. And this is a shame because, at face value, this is actually quite a nice little (emphasis on the word “little”) GN in spite of its flaws and distillation of the plot. It does not take long (maybe 30-45 minutes) to read it and, in isolation, is a fun enough read. However, as the original novel is a hundred times better, makes more sense, and needs to be read too to avoid the GN being confusing and jumbled, you have to wonder whether anyone really needs this. Read the Jackson book first then, if you want to find out what the simplified Cartoon Network abridgement might be like, try the GN.         

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Legend Of Zagor Boardgame



LEGEND OF ZAGOR BOARDGAME

Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Produced by Parker Games in 1993, this formed part of a multi-format release that included a gamebook, four novels, and this high concept game. Not strictly a boardgame in that it has no board to speak of, this game consists of three 3D dungeon areas moulded in plastic (one grey, one red, one black) which are linked together by white model plastic bridges. The first two areas have various floor tiles and rooms scattered about them, whilst the final section (in black) consists of a dragon’s lair (complete with grille presumably covering something that turns out to actually be a speaker), four floor tiles, and Zagor’s throne room. The throne itself is a large skull structure with horns and teeth in which Zagor reposes. To move from area two (the red one) to the black one (the Crypt of Zagor aka the throne room) you pass over a model bridge with a jawbone cavern entrance which acts as the way in to the crypt. The crypt also contains figures of a dragon and of Zagor himself. Up to four players can play, each selecting a pre-defined character to match those in the gamebook (ie dwarf, wizard, warrior, barbarian), each of which has a mini figure to move around the dungeon sections. Also included is a mini of a shopkeeper and a bunch of minis depicting the various denizens of the dungeon (ogres, trolls, skeletons, hellhorns, etc).

Immediately on opening the (massive) box that houses all this stuff, it becomes apparent that this is visually pretty special. The minis are beautifully rendered with a lot of detail, with the Flame Dragon and Zagor being particularly impressive, in part due to the sheer size of them. In fact, Zagor is so big he doesn’t actually fit in his throne so you have to put him to one side, have him stand awkwardly behind the dragon, or lay him horizontally across his throne. The dragon and the shopkeeper have handy pips that hold them in place once the game is set up, as do all the various structural parts (bridge sections, jawbone doorway, skull throne, etc). Even the dungeon section floors and walls are really well moulded with plenty of detail down to each tile having something unique about it be it the paving design, grilles, etc. No expense has been spared in designing and creating this game and it really does look very classy and high quality. Were you to paint all the figures and the dungeon floor sections too, you would have something truly impressive and the box sides do show the minis painted up to give you an idea of the potential of the game’s parts. With all this elaborate detail, setting the game up can take a bit of time: each section has a set of colour-coded tiles that are laid face down one per tile square, each room has a card floor design tile (each one shaped to fit a particular room which can be something of a jigsaw exercise to get them all in the right places), and each monster mini gets put in a room (the more deadly foes such as the chaos champions and the hellhorn being put in section two). Character generation is not required as each of the four PCs has a nicely rendered character sheet with a picture of the character’s face on it (matching those on the game box). Character set up is dead simple. Each of you starts with 1 Strength (Strength being the equivalent of Skill here), 6 Stamina, 20 gold pieces, and no equipment. The only real differences between the four characters are how much each particular piece of equipment costs (eg: fighters pay less for weapons, wizard pays less for the magic ring). Before the game begins, each player can spend their 20 gps (or part of them) buying equipment: weapons and armour to increase Strength and/or special items to affect gameplay such as torches, elven boots, magic arrows, a magic ring, healing potions, etc. Each player also gets a spell. Anyone with the magic ring can carry two spells at any one time, otherwise you can only ever carry one at a time. There is a large deck of spell cards which include healing spells, combat/defence spells, spells that allow transportation, gold creation spells, spells that help you steal stuff or pass through walls, etc ie the usual selection of beneficial, risky, and downright wacky magic to nuance the game.

Once each player has kitted themselves out, the game can finally begin. The fact that it easily takes half an hour to set all this up makes you hope for a lengthy playing experience, which you may or may not actually get, but more on this later for now we can no longer avoid the subject of this game’s main gimmick – the much-vaunted 40K electronic voice unit which the box and the TV advert that plugged this game made the primary focus. The voice unit sits in the chunky black plastic crypt section and as soon as you insert 4 AA-sized batteries in it, it starts shouting at you. “Who dares challenge me?” it yells in a voice not unlike Tregard’s from Knightmare (although it isn’t Hugo Myatt’s voice, incidentally) and you reply by pressing buttons in the crypt that correspond to the character’s being used: “Dwarf”, “Barbarian”, “Warrior”, “Wizard” Zagor responds after you press each button. As this is a game for anything from one to four players, you only press the buttons that represent the character’s that are actually being used, otherwise it all gets in a mess pretty quickly. Once everyone has checked-in Zagor will randomly decide who starts: “Dwarf begin” or whatever. Play then proceeds with each player taking their turn to turn over the tile they are starting on. The tile will have something on it and the game plays out with players moving around the sections, turning over the tiles they land on, and dealing with whatever is on them: some are bad, some are good, and some can be good or bad depending on dice rolls. Level one is the only area where equipment can be found on tiles (11 out of 26 level one tiles are useful gear, which is pretty forgiving), although you are limited to how many of each thing you can carry so some stuff gets left behind for others to benefit from. This adds an element of chance when creating your character: do you blow all your cash buying everything that will shoot your Strength straight up to the maximum of 8 from the outset or do you take the chance that you might find something useful for free and gradually build up your Strength? The only areas in section one that involve combats are the rooms which you can avoid initially if you start weak or you can also go on a killing spree if you start out strong. Killing room inhabitants is the core of the game as a kill rewards you with a treasure chest. Each treasure chest shaves 1 Strength and 1 Stamina off Zagor in the end fight and you need to get as many as you can carry (six normally, or eight if you have a mule) otherwise the Zagor fight is unwinnable. Why? Because combat in this game is not standard FF combat. This game came out in the mid-90s post-HeroQuest era when combat had been dumbed-down to avoid it supposedly detracting from the playability of games of this type so combat here is simply a matter of rolling a D10 and comparing the result to the defending thing’s Strength: equal to or higher and 1 Stamina is lost, lower and the attack misses. When you read the rule book it states that Zagor has Strength 12 Stamina 12. It does not take a mathematical genius to work out then that, with no treasure chests, it is not possible to wound Zagor when the highest roll you can get is a 10 and he has Strength 12. With two treasure chests you can only hit him on rolling a 10 so getting the full six or eight chests is pretty essential and even with six you still only have 40% chance of hitting him. Mules are expensive to buy but you can find one (and only one) in level two. Realistically, you would want a mule so that you can carry eight chests but this does also involve either forking out a lot of gold for a mule or being lucky enough to find the only one that is roaming free in the dungeon. Plus, getting eight chests requires you to win eight combats with monsters which brings us to man-on-monster battles. When you enter a room you press a particular combat button on Zagor dependant on whether you are in section one or two: “Who dares do battle with me?” shouts Zagor and the fighting player replies by pressing the relevant character button. Zagor will then randomise the Strength and Stamina of the monster and combat begins. The player rolls the D10 to attack as above and Zagor shouts out random numbers to represent the monster’s dice rolls. Most level one monsters only have Strength 2 or 3 and Stamina 1 or 2 whilst second level monsters are hardly much stronger. This might seem rather easy until it becomes apparent that Zagor tends to shout out high numbers more than low ones so you quickly become grateful for creatures with Staminas of 1 or 2. Indeed, the combats in this game are distinctly unbalanced and fights can leave you pretty close to death after a short time. Granted, there are many ways to heal your character and using spells can make fights easier (or recruiting a hireling to do the fighting for you) but you do get the feeling that Zagor is rather harsh on you. Then comes the rub: Zagor will keep track of how many fights each character gets into, the braver you are the more likely he is to reward you with equipment or Stamina bonuses, conversely avoid fights and Zagor will start to pick on you and penalise you in various ways. This really is very neat and Zagor effectively acts as a GM as well as playing the gamebook author role whereby a player who fights gets more items than a player who avoids confrontations. Add to this the need to get treasure chests and it becomes evident just how essential being psychotic is in this game. Should you die you just regenerate and start again at your original starting square with a fresh character bereft of equipment and everyone has to wait whilst you work out how best to spend your 20 starting gps again. Incidentally, there are several ways of finding more money too so that has to be taken into consideration when planning your spending strategy and there is a Store where you can go and buy more stuff throughout the game.

And that’s pretty much it: you move your piece, turn over a tile (or fight in a room), collect treasure chests and other handy kit, then decide when you want to head for the crypt for the big showdown. The first player to enter the crypt has to contend with the Flame Dragon which has a +2 bonus to Strength and Stamina on top of whatever numbers Zagor shouts out. Therefore it is possible for the dragon to be fairly weak if you are in luck. Once the dragon is dead it’s dead and no-one else then has to deal with it. Should the dragon kill a player however, any treasure chests he/she has (and you would assume they would have some otherwise why the hell would they be attempting the final challenge?) become the property of Zagor and are out of the game. In other words, the number of available chests will decrease as players fall foul of the dragon. Similarly, if Zagor kills a hero, the same happens which means that, in theory, there can come a point where there aren’t enough chests left in the game for anyone to be able to defeat Zagor so he gets a sort of default victory. Additionally, you cannot use any magic spells, magical items, or certain other things such as hirelings in the crypt which makes the end game even tougher. This is strategically counter-intuitive as you would be likely to try to amass this sort of equipment specifically to make the end easier, but it does also mean that by using them up you can get through the first two sections much more easily and with a minimal amount of risk or Stamina loss. When you approach the crypt is entirely your decision incidentally and the peril and anticipation really does ramp up as each player tries to tackle Zagor. Not only is he very strong compared to everything else you fight in this game (even with his stats reduced by treasure chests) but he will also randomly attack you with spells that the 40K chip will decide to use. The sound that precedes Zagor announcing that he is either unleashing a fireball or thunderbolt spell at a combatant quickly becomes something you don’t want to hear and he is not unknown to use two or three in successive combat rounds!

Which brings us to the subject of sound effects. Not only does Zagor control combat and arbitrarily reward and penalise players, but the chip also generates suitably atmospheric sound effects. Lightning randomly crackles at times and Zagor will occasionally burst into maniacal laughter to unnerve you. When combat is happening, the chip starts by making the sound of approaching footsteps followed by the clang as weapons clash with each other. Kill a monster and you will hear it emit a gut-wrenching scream followed by it crashing to the floor. It has to be said that this all really does add to the experience and, whilst it might seem a bit corny now, in 1993 this was very hi-tech stuff and quite revolutionary. However you perceive it (and the crackling tinny voice can get irritating after a while, especially if you are getting victimised by Zagor for being a coward) this concept is undeniably fun and, with the random moments in particular, each game does become unique and there is a constant element of anticipation as you play.

In terms of actual dungeon design and structure, the levels idea is generally very effective. Section one contains, as I have said, a lot of free items, and encounters are equally divided between three helpful NPCs and three bad NPCs. There is the prerequisite trap (but only one), a couple of potentially handy secret passages (unless they end up next to each other of course, which is perfectly possible as tiles are laid out randomly each time you play), a teleport tile, a guard (which can be good or bad as you must bribe him or fight), three random tiles (Zagor decides the effect which can befall any character, not necessarily the one who turned the tile over), and the neat pool of gold (roll to get a certain amount of gold – the pool stays where it is until someone is unfortunate enough to roll a zero and dries it up thus then ruining it for everyone for the rest of the game). Section two is predictably more challenging with two random tiles, two more secret passages, and another teleport tile. The proportion of good to bad NPC encounters changes for the worse however with just three helpful NPCs compared to five bad ones for you to contend with. There is another pit trap too. In spite of the overall increased difficulty of section two, the two arguably best tiles that work in your favour are also found here: the fountain of life (restores Stamina to maximum) and the very handy mule. Finally, the crypt contains only four tiles that are explored once the dragon has been despatched. As the elven boots (which allow you to move up to three spaces rather than the standard one or two) cannot be used in the crypt you have to statistically explore at least two of these crypt tiles, all of which are potentially bad news in some way. Two tiles are 100% bad and there to reduce your stats purely to make the Zagor fight even harder. The remaining two tiles are a 50/50 situation with a fireball and an encounter with a mummy that either reduces your Stamina by 2 (ie a third at “best”) or that can be avoided completely if you had the foresight to buy a torch. Clearly then, every aspect of the crypt be it the four tiles, the dragon, or the ultra-strong Zagor fight, is very challenging and, again, suggests a lack of difficulty balance after the first two sections which are, overall, not too tough to negotiate. Of course, this could also be interpreted as clever game design to catch out the unwary who assume that because they have made short work of the first two sections, they can naturally expect an easy ride in the crypt too, only to end up dying horribly just as they thought victory was in sight. Interestingly, with the general exception of equipment tiles, most of the floor tiles remain where they are throughout the game. Obviously this means that the perilous crypt section will always be perilous (the four tiles all stay there for the whole game) and that players need to remember where good and bad tiles are located so as to frequently reap the benefits of the good ones without constantly falling foul of the bad ones. There is a spell, incidentally, that allows you to switch tiles around to add a bit of jeopardy to the proceedings, and if you have a torch you can peek at tiles before deciding to stand on them. Particularly daring players will want to keep visiting the Random tiles to try to gain something from Zagor and/or hope Zagor will stitch another player up. All this adds several layers to play: risk, memory, and interaction between players as one player’s actions can directly impact another player, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. Add this to the randomised nature of fights and Zagor’s habit of interfering with players’ fates, and a lot of luck comes into play.

Overall, the amount of luck involved in this game is probably a bit excessive but the sheer amusement gained from hearing Zagor’s voice and the anticipation of who is going to be rewarded or penalised makes the game more of a fun experience than simply a game of pure chance and at no point do you start to get fed up or start to wish it was over as the one thing that you take from playing this game more than anything else is a sense of enjoyment and this game makes up for any of its lacking points through the sheer fun of it all. In fact, other than the reliance on luck and Zagor’s tendency to use loaded dice in combats, most of the game’s shortcomings are in the implementation rather than the mechanics. Yes, the whole thing is very random but that is the idea as Zagor governs the whole game and you are after all playing against him ie the 40K chip DM substitute. The most striking issue I have is with the minis. As nice as these components are, the actual creature representations are meaningless and the minis effectively do nothing other than to act as over-elaborate markers showing whether a particular room has a living or already killed monster in it – if they are standing up they are alive, if they are lying down they are dead and the room is not worth entering as you cannot get a treasure chest from it anymore. The creature minis never move and are no indication of what you are fighting. Furthermore, you never get to find out what you are fighting as Zagor doesn’t bother telling you meaning that, whilst the minis clearly are specific creatures, the box shows exactly what they are and names them, and even the level one and level two rooms have differently powered types in them dependent on the level the room is in, all this is ultimately pointless as you are just fighting an unnamed something with randomly-generated stats. This is a pity as something really effective could have been made of this to go hand-in-hand with the undeniable quality of the figure mouldings. Granted, the minis of the four player characters do move around the board and do represent whichever character class you are playing but the monster minis are definitely more interesting and give a level of expectation that never quite gets satisfied once you start fighting them. The larger structural elements (Zagor’s skull throne, the bridge, the jawbone doorway) all look great but, again, serve no purpose within the game as such other than to create mood and atmosphere. You could say the same for the random lightning and insane laughing noises that the chip generates but you do get more atmosphere and a sense of foreboding from their being there than if they were not. The cynical would probably argue that the miniatures are better utilised elsewhere and that part of this game’s long-term use is in supplying parts for other RPG-type games and there is certainly an element of truth in this. Indeed, if this game used its very well-made parts to the benefit of a more immersive experience you would be less likely to plunder it for spares and that might explain why finding complete ones can be tricky.

The subject of actually acquiring this game is worth mentioning in itself as, on first release, this game did not sell well, in part due to it coming once the HeroQuest fad was on its last legs and in some larger part due to it costing the prohibitive amount of £49.99 which was a lot for a boardgame in the early-90s. Yes, the production values and the technology justify the price tag but actually selling this concept to punters evidently wasn’t easy in spite of there being a TV advertising campaign to try to shift units. Understandably, as sales were not good originally, there are not that many of these about on the second hand market. Add to this the fact that there could be parts missing (minis in particular, not that you really need them and any being missing won’t make any difference to gameplay and can just be substituted with pretty much anything to act as a marker) or broken (the tabs that hold the bridge together are especially fragile and prone to being snapped), or even worse the voice chip no longer working which renders the game unplayable and completely useless, then overall finding a complete and functioning example will pose a challenge and demand a high price. If you can get this game in complete and working condition for less than about £75 now, you are doing well. If you can’t get one or can’t get access to one, then you are definitely missing out on a huge amount of fun.

And that’s the key to this game. Do not take it too seriously and play for the entertainment value alone. The mechanics and system are simple and the game is very rules-light, a refreshing change to the often intense and overly-complex games of this type. It is very easy to learn how to play and you can get on with it pretty quickly once the set-up of characters and their opening buying spree is over with. A playing session is roughly an hour to 90 minutes which is fairly brief as these games go and there is ample replay potential, not just in the completely random nature of both the layout and Zagor’s whims, but also in the way that the rule book provides two shorter scenarios which involve hunting out specific items/people represented by numbered treasure chest cards. These scenarios can be used both as training playthroughs to familiarise yourself with how the game works and as shorter quick-fire games if time is limited or you can’t face the very hard Zagor showdown and just want to play an item hunt. The three different endgames effectively give you three different games which is a nice touch that helps avoid the feeling that there is probably very little game here in real terms and it is definitely not aimed at anyone looking for a serious RPG or strategy game session as this is as slam-bang as it gets, but therein lies the appeal of it. The materials are definitely over-produced and wildly over-engineered but it looks great and is a winner for sheer novelty value.

The gamebook version was based on this boardgame and not the other way around, as with WOFM. This approach seriously hampered the book which feels like little more than a boardgame in text format. The book is also ridiculously difficult to the point of being almost unplayable. The boardgame version is neither hard nor dull. Many aspects of the boardgame version were carried over into the book, although thankfully the sequence of end fights is far easier in the boardgame version and most of the unfair encounters from the book are far simpler here or were additions when the book was put together and are absent from the boardgame. Similarly, the hopelessness of playing as either the dwarf or the wizard are absent from the boardgame and all four characters have equal and balanced chances of winning, unlike in the book. All in all, the boardgame is a simpler but far better-executed version of the same thing.

Legend of Zagor is a visual feast in terms of its presentation: the technology, the dungeon sections, the figures, and the art on the tile and spell cards are all top notch. The whole package is wildly over the top and unquestionably kitsch by today’s standards, but that’s all part of the pleasure of it. The box could easily have been half the size and still housed everything nicely but that would lose the literal physical impact as well as getting to see Martin McKenna’s impressive cover art far larger than we usually get in a gamebook and what’s not to like about the box art? To play requires no knowledge of FF as such and this game is far less involved and potentially complicated than the WOFM boardgame meaning the uninitiated can just dive straight in and play with as much chance of winning as a seasoned FF player. The way that the valiant are rewarded and cowards are punished adds a bit of tension and motivation, whilst the generally fast-paced play means it maintains the interest throughout. If the game in its presented form is too simple for peoples’ tastes then there is no reason why house rules cannot be used to add a bit of nuance and increase the RPG-style logic such as the dwarf not being able to use the elven boots due to the dwarf-elf antagonism thing, or using combat adjustors for weapons/armour, or even increasing the stats of fighter types and reducing the stats of the wizard (as per the book version, in fact). You could even add a time factor where, after a certain amount of play time had elapsed, the dungeon regenerates and tiles are returned/reorganised in different places or creatures in rooms get replaced by new ones, or even go as far as setting a time limit to get as many items/treasure chests as possible before all players are forced to head for the crypt and try to defeat Zagor. Alternatively, you could just use the dungeon sections and the minis for your own RPG scenario based on the far more complex and unreasonably difficult book version.

Overall, the thing that you take from this game is that it is light and pacey fun that is not to be taken too seriously. It is hugely enjoyable, the voice chip ranges from the ominous to the hilarious, and the final analysis is pretty challenging, even if Zagor does seem to be cheating at times with his dice rolls. If you can get it, do so, as this is a great antidote to the usual fantasy boardgame fare. Purists will moan about the dilution of the FF system but they can always play the book instead (assuming they really hate themselves that much and want to put themselves through it) if they don’t understand that these games can be simple fun at times. This is certainly not a game you could play as regularly as the WOFM boardgame as the novelty could wear off but it is definitely worth playing for a lighter session and there is way more than £49.99’s-worth of parts and technology in this huge box. 

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Fortress Throngard



FORTRESS THRONGARD

Tom Williams

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Fortress Throngard is, at 172 sections, the shortest stand-alone mini-adventure to be printed in the pages of Warlock magazine, appearing, as it did, in Issue 9. I assume this is another reader submission (many Warlock short subjects were) as I have no idea otherwise who Tom Williams is, but I may be wrong on this matter. Whoever he is, this adventure shows him to be quite skilled in designing gamebooks structurally, even if the opening spiel hardly grabs you by the throat and demands that you play: all we get is three brief paragraphs setting the scene by telling us that the wood of Ergon has been the site of abductions in the name of the wizard Throngard, that you are squire to a certain Sir Falfax the Fair, that he has been captured, and that the only way you can save him is by getting yourself abducted in Ergon and taken to Fortress Throngard to pull off an inside job rescue mission. A previous statement in the initial header section also tells you that you can prove your worthiness to become a knight yourself by rescuing Sir Falfax, so I’m guessing that the real intended outcome of this adventure is getting yourself knighted rather than either liberating Sir Falfax or dealing with Throngard himself, but presumably both of these are prerequisites to achieving a knighthood.

The Rules tell us that we start with the standard FF equipment of sword, leather armour, and backpack, along with the Warlock mini-adventure modifications of 5 rather than 10 Provisions and one from the usual choice of three starting Potions that contain two rather than one doses. You also get the more unique additions of a shield and, as soon as you read the Introduction, you also discover you have a knife and a picklock. These last two items sound very specific and presumably must have an impact on the adventure: dungeons, lockpicks; yes, I think that’s a logical combination so this appears to make sense…. Or rather it does until you finish reading section 1 which tells you that, in fact, you are unarmed bar your knife and you have now acquired a stout stick. Add to this, the comment in the Introduction that You know that any other equipment [than your knife and lockpick] will be taken as soon as you are captured and you have to assume that you actually have no equipment except for the knife, lockpick, and the stick that appeared from nowhere, and that the time you spent noting down the other stuff (including the rare starting shield) was wasted as you don’t have any of it. And this causes a big problem as it makes the double-dose Potions of Skill and Strength completely useless as there is no way you can drink them before you start. On the other hand, the Potion of Fortune is very handy assuming you think to drink both doses before you begin as you will automatically increase your Initial Luck by 2, giving you a starting Luck range of minimum 9 to a maximum of a whopping 14 which, when you consider that you are made to Test Your Luck in only four paragraphs (although two of these can be handy in getting an easier path through), is very generous. So, from the outset, we have a worrying number of glaring errors and the adventure hasn’t even begun!

What is pleasing to see though is that section 1 gets straight to the point in plot terms and immediately has you meeting three potential abductors. You have a choice of three ways to tackle them, all of which ultimately lead you to imprisonment in the dungeons of the titular fortress (that’s good, right?), although one can be more disastrous and results in you becoming weaponless as you lose your knife (presumably your stick has vapourised as it never gets mentioned again after section 1) causing you a -2 Skill penalty which, whilst a little harsh so early on, is realistic as you are unlikely to be knowingly left armed after capture and you should not have full Skill potential if unarmed. From your cell you then have to explore the dungeon area of the fortress before climbing some stairs to a gallery area lined with doors (and occasionally some animated armour) which conceal the chambers of various dignitaries, uber-nasties, and some essential equipment and knowledge. Now, this last is an interesting point – for a short adventure the shopping list is reasonably long and involves both equipment and information, much of which you cannot find until you reach what, at first, appears to be the end. Couple this with the fact that the very early areas of the dungeon ask you frequently if you have info or items that you can’t possibly have been anywhere yet to gather and it soon becomes apparent that you actually need to head for the “end” first (or as soon as you know a certain piece of info) and then backtrack and double-about on yourself here and there to gradually piece the true path together. This becomes all the more apparent when you start to get direction options that allow you to retrace your steps and in the way that you can often get knocked unconscious and wake up back in your cell at the start of the dungeon complex which you might think is a bad thing, but is actually often to your benefit. So, here we have an interesting non-linear design where you have to return to previous areas and effectively have to defeat Throngard first before exploring the earlier areas. This might sound problematic as FFs rarely deal well with revisiting areas but this adventure (for the most part) handles the reset button successfully and avoids the usual illogicalities by not having things come back to life and/or not having already collected items available to you a second time. So there is quite a bit of sophistication in these 172 sections in terms of design, the path through, and the mechanics, and such a level of complexity is unusual for the early days of FF before authors began routinely deconstructing the concept from the 40s numbers onwards. Indeed, when you crack this adventure and see the complete route to success, it becomes evident just how complex this mini-FF really is.

The complexity level is, for me, one of the real stand-out aspects of this piece and I was genuinely impressed with how TW worked so much neat design into so few sections making this probably one of the most efficient and section-effective FFs. Add to this the size of the multi-level map and the way most of the encounters are key to the plot and thread together very well, and you get a very satisfying playing experience. Curiously though, this is also a bit of a dichotomy if we set this off against the shambolic equipment mess at the start, some inexplicable moments such as you having to abandon an item if you wish to take a deck of cards (just how big are these cards?), an awkward jump between sections 5 and 21 which simply does not make any sense, a combat against a foe with no Skill (do you automatically win, then?), a bonus to your Skill that is actually a bonus to your Stamina, and a weird connection between two key rooms involving the dragon’s chamber/fortress entrance. Similarly, there are far too many close section links, sometimes one leading directly to the next one or to two or three sections away. I realise this was endemic of Warlock FFs in general due to the limited number of sections but it does kind of ruin any surprise at times although, taking into account the non-linear back-and-forth structure, perhaps this might not be such a problem after all in terms of actually defeating the adventure as a whole as I feel the real point is to work this part out rather than contend with individual section connections in microcosm.

A complex design often suggests a high difficulty level, but that is not necessarily the case here. Whilst you are at a weapon disadvantage early on, should you become completely unarmed, there are several opportunities to acquire a new weapon. Likewise, your initial loss of all Provisions solves itself with several rooms where you can acquire replacement Provisions and/or eat what is in them. The Rules do state that you can only eat when offered the chance to do so by the text, but the book remembers to give you these chances so that part is not broken (and the ability to double-back means that you can always return to one of these areas should you need to eat again). Similarly, you can restore Luck and even Skill here and there so there is a good balance between stat bonuses and stat penalties. What is rather odd is the stats of combat opponents: the frequently encountered dungeon guards are very weak (presumably Throngard is not too concerned about actually guarding anything or keeping any prisoners under lock and key), whilst skivvies like the butler seem over-powered. Some opponents are very strong (dragon, demons) but they should be so this makes sense and you can weaken the dragon considerably if you have a bow and arrow. In fact, if you read a key book that you need to find to gather essential info you will be told how to negotiate certain strong enemies so you should not come a cropper. Even Throngard himself does not have to be fought (you can’t fight him even if you want to) and instead needs to be trapped which is a nice twist on the end baddie idea (especially as you in fact meet him earlier on than usual) even if this does leave a loose end as he is still alive so can probably go back to abducting people in Ergon woods as soon as he works out how to liberate himself. This is one of the few major plot loopholes in what is an otherwise generally logical story arc and the adventure always remains well-focussed on the plot with several NPCs to meet, some of whom are prisoners (the resigned-to-the-inevitable Gandorn primarily) and some of whom are Throngard’s sidekicks. On the subject of prisoners there is a very neat requirement to gather companions and you cannot win unless you have both Sir Falfax and a big group of peasants with you. A clever touch in regard to companions is that some prisoners are nuts and will hinder your progress so there is some fun to be had too in figuring out who will and will not be of help in your mission. Obviously, you will fail if you do not find Sir Falfax (and there is a non-win ending where you escape without him) but instant death sections in general are few, which adds to the overall impression that this adventure is genuinely winnable and it can even be completed with rock-bottom stats which is a refreshing and rare thing. This all suggests further that this adventure’s real reason for existing is its structure and the player having to unravel the puzzle of the true path rather than the soul-destroying FFs where the author is trying to kill you constantly and show how much he or she hates you. In fact, aside from dying in combat, you will only usually die instantly if you do something completely stupid or blunder into a portal that leads directly to Hell, which does give the fortress and Throngard himself an undeniably sinister bent, whilst also explaining why there are demons roaming about the place and why Throngard’s close associates are a vampire and a witch, as well as making sense of an episode where a ghost really desperately seems to want out!

The combined themes of horror/demonism (even Throngard has to be trapped in a pentagram) and the escape peril central plot make for an interesting sensation throughout of the fortress being an oppressive and dangerous place that you really do want to get out of as quickly as possible and TW makes a good job of presenting the urgency of your mission through his fast-paced and unfussy prose. Initially, you do get a feeling of being well out of your depth and the whole mission seems to be a lost cause until, that is, you discover how easy it is to get out of your cell (over and over again), and start to unravel the game map. On that subject, mapping is pretty much essential otherwise the toing-and-froing will confuse you as the directions offered are presented from the perspective of exactly what direction you are facing at any one time (ie right could lead from a room on the left back down in the direction you might have just come from) which is actually a very good thing, although it could have been simplified by using compass points (as these would never change) rather than left/right/straight ahead. The actual mapping of this adventure though is straightforward as there are no real convolutions as long as the occasional weird section link doesn’t confuse you.

The dark theme requires dark imagery and this is a rare occasion where FF cartographer Leo Hartas gets to illustrate a FF adventure (yes, I know he did loads for other series, but not for FF itself). His work for, for example, the Golden Dragon gamebook series, irritated me as it had a very cartoonish look to it, but in Fortress Throngard he shows a real flare for the gothic with large swathes of black tones accentuated by stark whites to highlight the horror (eg the vampire and Throngard himself) or by filling the frame almost to bursting to show the grotesque nature of some characters like the cooks or the guards. There is a touch of how I visualise Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy of gothic grotesqueries in Hartas’ work here and it’s a shame that he did not get a chance to illustrate a full FF. For some reason, whoever did the layout work for this edition of Warlock made an absolute pig’s ear of positioning the images in relation to their respective sections and often the impact of a section’s illustration is lost due to it being somewhere else entirely (especially the very impressive full page vampire and Throngard in his study), which is a shame as I found myself having to play the full adventure and then look at the artwork afterwards to visualise things more fully. I have to say though that Hartas’ illustrations of Throngard, the vampire, and also the dragon are all fabulous pieces that really do benefit from the larger full magazine page size treatment they get here. The main magazine cover art is by the always superb Chris Achilleos and features a melee between a wizard, a dragon, some vampire bats, lizards etc and, whilst impressive, only bares a passing connection to this adventure and is probably not intended to be associated with it as, by Issue 9, the trend of having the magazine’s cover art act as the mini-adventure’s cover too was over.

In spite of some glaring errors and a train wreck of a beginning equipment-wise, this is a great little adventure. The complex and unorthodox structure is enough to carry it, but its slick pacing and the real sense of desperation that you get whilst playing it all add up to make this well worth your time. I would have been curious to see what other ideas Tom Williams may have had and it’s a shame that we did not get to see any more from him as, if this is any indication, he had great potential as a gamebook writer. Add in Leo Hartas’ brilliant visuals and you get a tight, effective mood piece with a threatening villain and a human interest mission that also includes the usual gamebook self-aggrandisement. The difficulty level is just right and the whole thing pulls together very nicely thematically and plot-wise. This is far better than a lot of gamebooks that are over twice its length in paragraph count and its 172 sections actually work in its favour as, by necessity, this really drives the pace. This could have been pointless and empty but, delivered in the way it is, the overall package is very very good.