Wednesday 24 August 2016

The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain Boardgame


Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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