Wednesday, 2 August 2017

#6: The Port Of Peril


Ian Livingstone

Reviewed by Mark Lain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Steve Jackson's Battle Cards


Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 5 May 2017

#49: Siege Of Sardath


Keith P. Phillips

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Three things immediately spring to mind when people mention this book. The first is that it is by an author that no-one has ever heard of, the second is its reputation for being exceptionally difficult to complete, and the third is that the cover suggests it is probably going to be about Elves. But before we discuss these points, I have to say that the title is somewhat misleading given the plot.

When I first played this I genuinely expected a Fangs Of Fury-type book where you have to be involved directly in the titular siege before heading off to try to stop whichever nutter is besieging your home. The latter is kind of true here, but at no point do you get involved in, or even really witness, a siege as such. Instead, you play a ranger who sits on the Council of the town of Grimmund in the hitherto unexplored far north-east of Allansia. Next to Grimmund is the massive Forest Of Night which has been taken over by a dark unpleasantness making it unpassable. At the far side of the forest is the much larger city of Sardath (which is built on stilts in the centre of a lake) that has consequently been rendered inaccessible. The rest of the Council are blaming all the spiders that inhabit the forest and want to launch a pre-emptive strike but YOU, in your capacity as the eco-friendly voice of reason (ie an experienced ranger), think there could be something else amiss and you volunteer to head off into the forest to sort everything out. In the midst of the debate another ranger type appears and instantly wreaks mayhem when it turns out that he is actually that ranger’s evil doppelganger from a mysterious species known simply as “Black Flyers” (that look very like mutated Dark Elves with wings, which it transpires, is what they are). Once he has (or maybe even hasn’t) been dealt with you head off on your mission which divides roughly into three main Acts: the forest itself (which can be partially negotiated by river if you wish), the Freezeblood Mountains, and finally the underground lair of the Dark Elf baddies.

To drive home the fact that your character is a talented ranger, several of the FF staples have been modified in this book. Bundles Of Herbs (you start with just 5) act as a Provision substitute (and you can pick more along the way to get more Provisions/Herbs) and you carry a bow as well as a dwarf-forged sword. In certain combat situations you have the option to fire arrows (appropriate distances pending, naturally) to do instant damage pre-combat, although you only start with 6 arrows and extras are in short supply so you need to use this feature sparingly. You also begin with a generous 15 Gold Pieces (which proves less generous when you soon meet a trader who charges quite a lot for his wares) and a council signet ring which acts as a diplomatic passport of sorts (although not very often). The matching of kit to characterisation is done very well in this book and you are steeped in character from the outset. This is not a “learn who you are” gamebook, instead it’s a “we expect you to know who you are” outing and, as you are unlikely to realistically achieve this in initial playthroughs, the book does throw the occasional awkward-seeming compulsive reaction at you eg: a moment where you are forced to thump someone because, and I quote, “his scornful tone upsets your natural sense of honour and fairness”. Less “YOU are the Hero” then, maybe, and more “YOU are on a steep learning curve to be the Hero that the book has predesigned for YOU”? But this is a minor criticism of a dense logical plot that is full of surprises to discover and, by all accounts, as you will have to play it many many times to come anywhere close to winning, you will soon get the hang of what being an “experienced ranger” is all about!

And now we inevitably come to the subject of the difficulty level of this book which is, quite frankly, off the scale. But this book is made very hard for slightly different reasons to the handful of other mega-difficult FF books. Many factors are at play here to conspire against you but, oddly enough, they all seem to work well rather than being a depressing catalogue of annoyances and this must be down to the fact that, as medieval “trek about the place” gamebooks go, this one is more intelligent than usual and is intellectually very demanding on the player, rather than just relying primarily on unbalanced dice-based decision points like many FFs do and/or on a huge shopping list of essential items. Yes, there are several items you must find, but the emphasis is placed firmly on a lot of incidental factual detail that must be extracted from the text, much of which is either mentioned in passing or that is rendered somewhat unobvious. I realise that this also is far from unusual, but it is the way the detail is presented here which really makes this book stand out as being particularly high-brow. The conundrum that really epitomises this is a puzzle that you come across very early on: six squares are drawn with a pattern on them and you must fathom out what the hidden message is within it by piecing the parts together. The actual solution almost certainly requires you to copy the page, cut it up, and then join the pieces back together correctly into what turns out to be a cube. Assuming you can even manage to do this much, from this you are then supposed to decipher a message which is the letters “IST”. The text tells you to find a hidden section using this info which you almost certainly won’t be able to do as the section is not the usual “letter of the alphabet equals a number” FF trick but is, instead, the closest numbers visually to these letters. “I” is obviously “1” and “S” is “5” but what number looks like “T”? Er, none of them. The answer is rather tenuously “7”. We are in a whole new world of pain with this one then. If this one puzzle alone is not enough to melt your brain, it will soon dawn on you that everything of any importance to completing this book is riddled, varying from some admittedly easy (if you know the language of FF trickery) stuff, through some bits that require a bit of lateral thinking in line with picking detail from the text, right up to a few moments (such as the cube puzzle) of genuine obscurity.

Amongst the other mind-bending enigmas to get your head round are: using the seven-coiled snake ring which doubles its coils to become a 14-coiled snake ring which you have to add to the number associated with the Ring of Three Centuries – this is not that hard if you apply a bit of logic but it certainly had me stumped the first few times I tried to work it out plus you need to pay attention to the fact that the snake ring doubles its coils late in the book and you do need to find hidden sections based on BOTH numbers of coils; using the Brain Slayer Amulet which involves you needing to know Roman numerals and, again, its number changes later on to a more complex Roman numeral based on a bit of info you pick up by making a sort of Skype call via a special communing mirror; another Roman numeral hidden more subtly this time in Mystery Potion X which again has to be added to a section number;  at one point you can invoke Itsu (if you’ve cracked the cube puzzle earlier) by multiplying his secret number by 10 but his secret number is rather obscurely the number guardian that he is – again, close reading will reveal this but it could catch you out and the text is rather vague about how to find his number;  then there’s the potion making machine which only works if you can find the instructions of use and you still need to have one of each requisite type of ingredient – so we are in familiar shopping list territory with this but there are four possible combinations (that I can find anyway) and if you have the right parts to be able to attempt any of the four (which all involve matching ingredient numbers to hidden sections, of course) you will discover that one is basically essential, two are useless, and one will kill you on the spot.

All this compulsory code-cracking is in itself very challenging, but that’s not where the ramped-up difficulty ends and it is definitely where the inevitable comparisons with Steve Jackson’s Creature Of Havoc will begin as, in the latter parts, you must look out for phrases in the text which act as subtle prompts to add or subtract numbers from the current section to find the actual intended hidden paragraph. I must admit that, in the post-SJ hidden section trickery world of FF this is rather less of a surprise than it was when it first appeared in SJ’s books and is one of the better-signposted aspects of Siege Of Sardath’s difficulty, but it can scupper you nonetheless especially if you haven’t gleaned the necessary information to even know to look out for these. In a literal lift from Creature Of Havoc there is a secret door to find this way, as well as a key plot moment where you start a Dwarf slave revolt, and a series of prompts when you are disguised as a Dark Elf that will stop you from being killed for being human.

Mercifully though, amidst all of this book’s exceptionally tough hidden paragraph tricks, there are also two that I found extremely easy. There is a magic square that opens another hidden door behind which is an essential part of the optimum potion and I found its numerical puzzle very straightforward, ditto the secret knocking sequence (which is literally just simple addition) that you need to access the final episode. In a similar vein, a very interesting mechanic comes into play in the later stages where you need to develop a basic grasp of the Dark Elf language. This is not too hard as it is laid-on quite thick and only demands that you learn basic one-word interactions which are given as options for once rather than requiring manipulation of words to find hidden sections (well that’s generous, isn’t it!) but it is another feature that will require you to pay attention to the text.

Somewhere between the super-hard and the less mentally strenuous is the book’s subtlest design trick – that of allowing you to choose when to turn to special sections to read something or make use of an item. The best example of this is the page you can find that describes dangerous fungi. Two are discussed and, if you read it early enough, it will make negotiating the Dwarf Mines and the Dark Elf sacrifice cameos much more safe and obvious. I like this level of voluntary interaction and this is helpful to rather than being essential to victory. The flipside of this though is the optional way that the Brain Slayer Amulet works: if you put it on you must reduce your Skill by 2 for as long as you are wearing it which naturally makes combat and Skill tests much harder, but you absolutely must be wearing it before you meet the end baddie for the final showdown so remembering to put it back on this late on may well slip your mind. Ok, you can cheat and pretend you’ve got it on (and no-one will know in the way that a RPG GM would be able to penalise you) but this is so subtle that you would probably miss it and die as a consequence either from Skill-based weakness (this could reduce your Skill to 5) or being pasted for mishandling a key item at the end.

Which brings us neatly to stat considerations. For a notoriously tough gamebook, SoS does not rely much on Luck testing or tough combats. Most opponents are easy to beat and the tougher ones will usually have a high Skill or Stamina offset against the other stat being relatively low. Add to this the fact that your puzzle-cube-exposed sidekick Istu will fight a certain number of combats for you before it gets sent back to the Demonic Plain and you get a book that does not demand that you have superhuman Stamina or Luck scores. That said, there are a lot of Skill tests to contend with so a high Skill is useful (especially if you forget to take the Brain Slayer Amulet off) but it is possible to get a +1 Initial Skill boost (up to a maximum of 12) so even that is generous stat-wise. Furthermore, there are several opportunities to increase all three of your stats and Stamina in particular is not too hard to maintain at a high level so death by Stamina loss is fairly unlikely. This is a relief as losing by not having or fathoming out essential info almost certainly will finish you off sooner or later! Similarly, it is possible to find an item which makes you extra-strong when fighting Dark Elves or Black Flyers (which there are a lot of as the story unfolds) and deals them 3 rather than 2 points of Stamina damage in combat, although it only lasts for four battles. On top of that, another item will allow you to automatically pass any Luck tests that you will need to do in the Dark Elf underground city. This is very useful as failing any of these tests result in instant death. In brief then, this is one of the rare FFs where you really can hope to win with rubbish starting stats although this gesture is all but eliminated by the fundamental solution to the book which is based around the sheer number of puzzles that you need to solve.

So, this is a book crawling with hidden secrets, but the factors contributing to its extreme difficulty level do not begin and end with this. You are in a race against time and the Adventure Sheet has boxes representing each day of an Allansian week. With this we get some nice lore exploitation as the days are named in line with Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World’s model and as you progress through the book each new day requires you to tick off the next day of the week. From roughly the half-way point you will be prompted occasionally to check what day it is. If it is the last day of the week you have run out of time, the Dark Elves/Black Flyers have over-run the region and you have failed. In other words, you cannot waste time by bumbling around all over the place and finding the swiftest route through (that involves visiting all the necessary places and people to get all the items and info that you cannot win without) is essential to victory. The introduction tells you that trial and error should be avoided and that instead you should use good thinking. This interlinks neatly with the demands of characterisation that the book puts on you, but the only realistic way you can achieve this is through a lot of replaying and mapping and you can only work out what is a good or bad choice by trying it. Again, this means you are going to lose a lot of times.

In addition to the puzzles and time limit factors, there are a further two features which are designed to hinder and/or kill you. The Dark Elf underground city is laid out as an MC Escher-style maze with impossibly-connected passages, stairways and doors that all deceive the eye. Apparently this is because Dark Elf architecture is designed to induce madness and this is why you must test your Luck to avoid blundering off an edge of it due to sheer confusion. This is a nice bit of plot extemporisation but it does make for an intensely frustrating part of the book as you loop about and double-back on yourself in a bid to get through it in one piece. Considerably more irritating than this though, is the final confrontation with the villain of the piece which immediately follows the disorientating city. 
For a book that is so intricately and cleverly designed, the “climax” is a huge disappointment. On the one hand, it does not use the usual fallback ending of a stupidly hard combat that is weighted heavily against you, but instead it involves a dialogue with the end baddie. What’s wrong with that, you may ask. Well, the solution to this conversational showdown is little more than you guessing which options to choose. Guess right and you get another option. This happens several times. Guess any of these options wrong at any point and you are dead. You do need to try to bluff him, which is admittedly a neat touch, but you don’t really know what you are doing and repeatedly dying just by guessing wrong really does ruin the ending especially as, given what you have gone through mentally to get this far, you deserve a better denouement and you really should have been allowed to win by this point.

As a parallel to the annoying ending, it is also possible to lose as soon as you begin. If you can’t apprehend the doppelganger ranger who tries to disrupt the Council meeting at the start you can get carried off by him and deposited at a mid-point in the forest from where, as you have already missed key items and info, you cannot possibly win. I don’t like it when gamebooks make you lose from the outset but, that said, this outcome is far less likely than you managing to deal with the doppelganger so this is not quite as annoying as it could have been, even though it highlights the fact that not visiting any one of the key places or NPCs will lead to certain failure. In other words, this one is very linear overall, although there is replay value in the fact that there is so much to explore, as one thing this book does have is variety.

A well-designed gamebook should have a varied selection of locations and incidents and this one offers this in spades with every encounter offering something different to what has preceded it. This is anything but a one-note effort and particular highlights for me are exploring Corianthus’ castle where everything is giant-sized and you keep being reminded of this, meeting the amphibious Slykk, and helping the Dwarves in their war against the Toa-Suo which, it turns out, are what the big baddie uses to wreak havoc during the day as the Black Flyers are sensitive to daylight. This is excellent depth of lore and it does not stop there because dwarves live in mountain mines, dwarves and elves use different languages and, in a Tolkien-esque touch, there are multiple names for things and places which are stated in both Elven and Dwarven languages. Very intelligent stuff. There is an amusing moment when you can meet the rather irrational goddess Thyra Migurn who creates storms to antagonise the Dwarves because she disapproves of them mining the mountains and there are even a few almost Cthulhu-influenced moments with horrific monstrosities such as the Xanthic Horror. There is one let-down as regards cameos though and that is that you cannot actually reach Sardath itself. There are plenty of opportunities to head for it, but the lake surrounding it has become very dangerous due to recent events and you can only get part of the way across before you have to turn back. I would have liked to have known about the city that the book takes its title from but, at the same time, this does make Sardath somewhat enigmatic which is not a bad thing. The various races create a well-designed system of interaction and the rarely explored world of north-east Allansia really comes to life. There is an unusual depth to the species detail at times especially with the three distinct types of spiders that are blighting the Forest Of Night and we get vivid descriptions of their behaviour which, logically, directly affects their motives towards you and their level of dangerousness. Elves get decent coverage too as the forest’s Wood Elves behave very differently to the evil Dark Elves which, in turn, have minor differences to their mutated version (Black Flyers). Equally, herblore comes to the fore as your ranger skills allow you to identify potential sources of food and healing and can also help you to contend with certain plants. Furthermore, the local lore can directly aid or hinder your progress (see comments on the fungus book page above). Linked into the concept of local lore and your ranger talents of course is the focus in this book on observation and close reading rather than brute force (the lack of an end baddie combat in favour of a war of words highlights this), so this all ties together very effectively.

Indeed, this is a very well-written book and you do get the feeling that Phillips was aiming for something (intellectually, at least) a cut above the usual FF fare. In this sense it brings to mind a series such as Blood Sword which is very demanding on the reader both in design and in vocabulary terms. The words used in SoS are far from complex but this book just reads much more elegantly than the FF norm. A curiosity in how this book is written though becomes quickly apparent in the way that you will sometimes be given an option early in a paragraph. If you don’t want to pick this you can read on but you will find yourself reading on anyway and, in doing so, you then find out what happens if you don’t choose the first option. This gives you a weird second sight which can be a bit confusing. It would have been better to put this in another section even if this resulted in exceeding 400 paragraphs. There are also a few inconsistencies between the text and the art where the illustrations contradict what the corresponding section tells you. This is particularly noticeable when you meet the Wood Elves and you are told that your Elf friend has a scar over his right eye. In the image the scar is over his left eye. Is this an error or a clue that you are in fact talking to his evil doppelganger? Likewise, in the Dark Elf city we are told that part of it is under construction yet this is nowhere to be seen in the illustration which shows what appears to be a completed area. That aside though, the internal art is generally pretty effective although it seems a little lacking to me, but I can’t quite put my finger on why - perhaps the depth of the text exposes this more than was intended? This is not a big issue though and does not take anything away from the book as a whole. The cover art, however, is largely uninteresting and, other than telling us that Elves might come into the equation, could not be much further from reflecting the book’s contents.

At this point, I have to mention two moments that really jar with me. One is a literal error in that section 171 (in first printings at least, which my copy is) is inaccessible, although this was apparently fixed in subsequent printings. It is not a massive mistake, but it can mean that you get sent in the wrong direction if you handle the Slime Mould encounter in the forest in a particular way. The second bothers me much more and that is the key moment when you find an eagle in the mountains. You need to be carried by it to Corianthus’ castle and the text asks you to write down what you choose to do to show it that you are friendly. Are you really going to think of something as abstract as “Hold up the Brass Key”? Oh yeah, because eagles are known to take brass keys as a gesture of good will, aren’t they? This is so obscure as to be the sort of ludicrous command that you used to have to type into classic text adventures! Yet another thing that evidences just how indescribably hard this book really is.

So then, SoS has a wholly deserved reputation for being very difficult and it is one of the hardest gamebooks in the FF series, but not for the conventional reasons that we normally associate with tough gamebooks. For this, Phillips must be applauded as he has taken hidden section elements from Steve Jackson’s harder books, mixed in a bit of Keith Martin maths trickery, added some Ian Livingstone shopping lists and obscure enigmas, and made the mixture his own by taking it all to the next level and creating something very cerebral that will tax even the most adept at seeing through gamebook tricks and traps. Moving the emphasis away from hard combats and onto seriously challenging puzzles makes for a very original book that is memorable for its combination of lore, exciting pacing, varied events, and excellent prose. It is certainly not perfect as the true path involves solving some stuff that is a bridge too far for anyone that isn’t some sort of super-genius but, once you’ve given up (which is likely) and read the solution you cannot help but be impressed by its intricacies and how brilliantly designed this book really is. The desire to win will keep you thinking and encourage replay and this is a book that, thanks to its many qualities, deserves to be explored and unravelled thoroughly. SoS cannot be put in the ranks of the very best FFs because its solution is so obscure that I can’t believe many people have beaten it without cheating, but it is certainly well above average and is outstandingly well-written. If you want a real brain-teaser but can’t face the extremities of Casket Of Souls then this is the gamebook for you. Plus, if this is representative of what Phillips is capable of gamebook-wise, then it's a real shame that he did not write any others for the series.