Friday, February 13, 2009

The Other Dark Tower

I used to wonder why the little red metal wagons every kid in America owns are called Radio Flyers. To me, it seemed an odd name. What the heck did a wagon have to do with radio? As it turns out, not much. Back in 1930, when the first metal wagon was introduced, radio was the cool new technology and so it only seemed natural to tack "radio" onto the name of the thing and watch it sell like hot cakes. It's similar to the way that everything in the 90s used to have "cyber" in front of its name.

Well, back in the late 70s and early 80s, fantasy was the new radio. People currently involved in the hobby often forget -- if they ever understood it at all -- just how "big" fantasy and fantasy games were back in those days. Dungeons & Dragons was, quite literally, a revelation and, for all the denunciations and scare tactics used against it, the game and genre it spawned reached heights of faddishness we'll probably never see again.

If you don't believe me, look no further than Milton Bradley's electronic board game Dark Tower. Released in 1981, it was an above-average example of a traditional game publisher's attempt to cash in on the D&D craze. Despite its RPG-stylings, Dark Tower is a board game through and through. There's not a whit of roleplaying involved and, though there's a hint of a setting, it's pretty thin -- if highly suggestive -- gruel.

The real attraction to the game was the Dark Tower itself, which was an electronic device that governed movement and combat by randomly generating results. Every time a player moved his token from place to place on the game board, looking for the keys needed to enter the Tower, he would press a button on its keypad to see what happened next. If combat with brigands -- or, worse yet, a dragon -- occurred, the Tower would determine the results, counting down how many of your mercenaries you lost in battle. There was always an option to retreat, which, in retrospect, shows some affinities with old school play, but I can't say I ever availed myself of it very often. After all, Dark Tower was just a game and I never invested as much of myself into it as I did D&D. That didn't stop me from playing the hell out of it with my friends.

Back to my larger point. If you want to get a sense of just how much of a fad fantasy was back then, take a look at this commercial for the game. You recognize the guy pitching it? That's Orson Welles, acclaimed actor, director, writer, and producer. This is the man whose dramatization of The War of the Worlds in 1938 caused a panic in some parts of the US and whose Citizen Kane is considered by some the greatest movie ever put on film. It's true that, in the 70s, Welles quite freely made commercials of many sorts, most famously for Paul Masson wines ("We will sell no wine before its time.") and Carlsberg ("Probably the best lager in the world."), but he remained a highly respected figure whose voice and bearing added gravitas to one's products. That Milton Bradley turned to him -- almost certainly at some expense -- is, to me, a good indicator of just how much money they felt they could make with Dark Tower.

Unfortunately, a lawsuit by individuals alleging to have proposed the game to Milton Bradley years before resulted in the company's dropping the game. I still own my copy, in working condition, and the dragon token from the game sits on a shelf above my desk as I write this. You can play a Flash version of the game here, if you're interested. A more extensive treatment of gameplay, along with lots of images can be found here.

20 comments:

  1. I played the absolute byjeezus out of Dark Tower. The artwork was also particularly distinctive - a tad reminiscent of stained glass windows.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I remember I always wanted this game, but my parents wouldn't get it for me. Probably because I was eight at the time. I remember the commercial vividly, and that's what sold me on the game. I ended up getting into Crossbows & Catapults a couple of years later though.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Fantastic artwork for this game!

    The artist, Bob Pepper, also drew some fantastic LP sleeves and SF paperback covers, some of which are here.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I got Dark Tower the same Christmas morning that I received my copy of the Moldvay Basic Set. The Tower was broken out of the box, but my older brothers managed to get it working - and it works to this day, knock on wood. (Albeit with a bit of pregame tinkering and ritualistic cursing to appease the gods of lousy battery connections.)

    Just thinking about the game - and its evocative artwork - tends to leave me a bit overwhelmed with nostalgia. I have a lot of great memories tied to that game and many others from the "fad" that spawned it...

    ReplyDelete
  5. BTW: Is it just me, or does that "cursed" wizard look like the wizard from Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

    ReplyDelete
  6. And don't forget that Orson Welles also did the voice of Unicron for te Transformers movie right before he died.

    ReplyDelete
  7. A friend of mine found a guy on the web who refurbishes old Towers and gets them up and running again.

    After a couple of weeks, he got his Tower back and we've had a game or two on lazy afternoons, one of which turned a little blue for some reason...

    ReplyDelete
  8. I had vague recollections of this one, but couldn't remember a thing about it. Thanks for re-awakening my slumbering memories.

    ReplyDelete
  9. BAZAARE CLOSED!!!

    Awesome game! My school football teammates and Venice surfer buddies as a kid, who mostly weren't even aware of my RPG hobby and would have goofed relentlessly on me for that, loved this friggin game! I'm quite sure the first time I smoked pot (during a game anyway) was while playing this with some of those guys.

    That D&D'ers and non-believers could enjoy this game is a testimony to it's greatness. So simple, but so action packed. You sat there with baited breath, as you watched those bandits numerically make mincemeat out of your army. And we laughed so damn hard when somebody got that bazaare closed on them. I hope this doesn't sound racist or anything, but we would yell out "Baazare closed!" in a loud, Yiddish, New York deli owner's accent. Just a bunch of dumbasses, we were.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Like Atom Kid, I had this on my Christmas list but never got it. I still wish I had to this day, but have you seen the bids it gets on e-bay?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Holy sweet nostalgia!

    That Flash game is awesome. Except that I lose every single battle.

    But still, loved this game as a kid. A lot of the elements (such as the weird beast of burden) made it into D&D games at the time.

    ReplyDelete
  12. If you like Bob Pepper's Dark Tower art, take a look at the "Dragonmaster" page here:

    http://well-of-souls.com/tower/dmaster.htm

    With links to all of Bob Pepper's art from that fantasy-themed card game. I had a copy when I was eight but couldn't figure out how to play (I wasn't raised on trick-taking games). I'd really love to find out if it was actually a good game.

    ReplyDelete
  13. With links to all of Bob Pepper's art from that fantasy-themed card game. I had a copy when I was eight but couldn't figure out how to play (I wasn't raised on trick-taking games). I'd really love to find out if it was actually a good game.

    I had that game as well. I don't believe I ever played it, but I used the cards to represent NPCs in various countries of my campaign world.

    ReplyDelete
  14. A truly brilliant post James Maliszewski. I love Orsen Welles and Im reeling having watched that advert.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I loved Dark Tower (owned by my cousins down the road, so I never got a chance to play to my fill).

    I discovered that Flash version maybe 2 years ago and nearly gasped for joy. Scored a 97 (out of 99) in one game, very happy.

    http://www.superdan.net/download/DarkTower.jpg

    ReplyDelete
  16. Wow, thanks for bringing back memories of that awesome game! I played the heck out of that one with my parents back in the day.

    ReplyDelete
  17. \>insert mention of Steve Jackson & John Kovalic's cartoony tribute board game Dork Tower\<

    ReplyDelete
  18. wow..I remember that game. My buddy had it, and we played a bunch of times.

    ReplyDelete
  19. My copy got destroyed in a flood last spring, but it was still working up to then.

    The sounds of the tower will be burned into my mind until the time I die.

    (In a bizarre coincidence, I came across James's post after returning from a game night which ended with the host showing off his newly repaired Dark Tower tower.)

    ReplyDelete
  20. My brother and I had Dark Tower. Absulutely loved it.

    Dragon Masters is an excellent card game, and of course the art really takes it over the top. A friend of mine played it when he was a young gamer, and recently picked up a couple of copies on eBay. We've played it several times on our Sunday D&D days as a change of pace.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.