LEGEND OF ZAGOR BOARDGAME
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.