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From Buffalo Castle to Choose Your Own Adventure: The Evolution of Solitaire Board Games

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Buffalo Castle Rick Loomis-small Death Test The Fantasy Trip-small Wizards and Warriors Jeffrey Dillow-small

I’m old enough to remember when Choose Your Own Adventure books first appeared in bookstores and supermarkets in the late 70s and early 80s, and what a sensation they created.

I remember thinking how simplistic they were, especially compared to the more sophisticated solitaire fare already available in gaming stores at the time. Like Rick Loomis’ groundbreaking Buffalo Castle (Flying Buffalo, 1976), the first solo adventure for Tunnels & Trolls (and considered by some to be the first published adventure gamebook, period); Steve Jackson’s bestselling Death Test for The Fantasy Trip (Metagaming, 1978); and especially Jeffrey C. Dillow’s brilliant collection of early solo adventures, Wizards and Warriors (Prentice Hall, 1982), which I played to death and passed around repeatedly to my gaming group.

But there was something powerfully appealing in the very simplicity of Choose Your Own Adventure titles, and it didn’t take long for me to become a convert. I wasn’t the only one. Bantam published its first Choose Your Own Adventure book, The Cave of Time by creator Edward Packard, in 1979, and the series quickly surpassed role playing in popularity, selling more than 250 million copies. That’s more — far more — than virtually any RPG or fantasy or series in history. (For comparison, The Lord of the Rings has sold 150 million copies over the past 70 years, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels a scant 90 million. Only J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, at 500 million, offer real competition). Bantam produced 184 titles in the series between 1979 and 1998.

Role Playing has evolved and expanded enormously since the 70s. You can’t say the same of Choose Your Own Adventure… but the franchise isn’t as dead as you might think. Most interesting to serious games is a pair of cooperative adventure board games released by Z-Man Games that capture the spirit of the CToA line, and take it in some intriguing new directions.

[Choose to click on the images for bigger versions.]

Choose Your Own Adventure House of Danger-small Choose Your Own Adventure House of Danger-back-small

Z-Man released Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger in 2018. Based on R. A. Montgomery’s novel Choose Your Own Adventure #15: House of Danger (1982), this board game invites you to investigate criminal activity and a dark history in your town, and solve the mystery of the missing owner of the Marsden mansion using your psychic senses and skills as a detective. Just as in the original novel, you explore the mansion, unravel its secrets, cross paths with ghostly figures, navigate a secret lab, and make lots of nerve-wracking, page-flipping decisions in the process.

Credit goes to Andrew Smith at BoardGameQuest who first tipped me off to the existence of House of Danger with his 2018 review. Here’s an excerpt.

If you have a large amount of nostalgia for Choose Your Own Adventure books, you are unlikely to be disappointed in what House of Danger has to offer. The experience is almost exactly like reading a book. The addition of managing your inventory and occasionally rolling a die to attempt a challenge adds a new wrinkle to the narrative.

That said, if you are looking for some amount of mechanically rich experience, this isn’t it. The decisions are nearly entirely random. Occasionally there will be hints dropped throughout the chapter that can help you later on, but 99% of the time when choosing between the door and the ladder you really are just picking whatever sounds more appealing to you in the moment…

Narratively though, House of Danger is fantastic. It’s full of bizarre and interesting imagery and twists you won’t see coming. As you approach the end of the second chapter you’ll have a hard time walking away until you’ve pressed through the entire story. Once complete, you can easily reset all of the cards and pass it on to someone else in your game group or take another run through making slightly different choices.

Like the book it’s based on, House of Danger is replayable… to a certain extent. You can try out different paths to “uncover more secrets and different settings.” According to the ad copy, anyway.

Choose Your Own Adventure House of Danger banner

 

Choose Your Own Adventure House of Danger banner2

The game packs a lot into a small box, including a rulebook, 160 Story Cards, 129 Clue Cards, a game board, a die, and additional game pieces.

Choose Your Own Adventure House of Danger-contents-small

 

Z-Man Games has released one additional title in the line. The colorfully titled Choose Your Own Adventure: War With the Evil Power Master was published earlier this year. I’m not sure if any other games in the series are planned, but if they are, fingers crossed they keep coming up with over-the-top titles.

 

Choose Your Own Adventure War with The Evil Power Master-small

And here’s a look at the original source material from 1982.

House of Danger Choose Your Own Adventure-small

I have fond memories of Choose Your Own Adventure adventure books, and I’m very pleased to see they haven’t been left behind in our modern board game renaissance. Kudos to Z-Man Games for bringing the concept into the roaring 20s.

Our previous coverage of Z-Man Games includes:

Adventure in the Spaceways with Perry Rhodan: The Cosmic League (2012)
Become a Time Traveling Detective in Tragedy Looper (2019)
The Game is Afoot: Beyond Baker Street (2019)

Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger and War with The Evil Power Master retail for $24.99. They’re available wherever fine games are sold; you can also order directly from Z-Man Games. Or download the PDF rulebook for House of Danger free here.

See all our Solitaire Game coverage here.

16 Comments »

  1. I remember reading choose your own adventure books that were mainly for my younger siblings.

    One title I remember from then was Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey?

    The plot of the recent movie Knives Out is about who killed Harlan Thrombey.

    Unless both stories are drawning the name from an older source it seems the writer of Knives Out liked the name from the old Choose Your Own Adventure book.

    Comment by Charles_Martel - January 1, 2020 1:07 pm

  2. Charles,

    I never made that connection! That’s pretty cool.

    Also, I loved Knives Out. Probably my favorite film of 2019.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 1, 2020 1:19 pm

  3. Solo gaming has really taken off in the last 5 years. There’s a “one player guild” on board game geek that has a lot of active members.

    Rick Loomis passed away this year RIP

    Comment by Glenn - January 1, 2020 4:00 pm

  4. Ah! I hadn’t realized he had died.

    Wikipedia says he passed away on August 23, 2019, at the age of 72. When I visited the Flying Buffalo booth at Gen Con on Aug 3/4, less than three weeks before his death, there was a message board where you could leave a Get Well Soon message for Rick. You can see the board in the picture below — the faint handwritten sign above the card reads: “SEND YOUR GET WELL WISHES TO FBI’S FOUNDER AND PRES RICK LOOMIS.”

    Click the image for a more legible version.

    I hadn’t realized he had died. Another gaming great gone.

    Flying Buffalo booth at Gen Con 2019, with Rick Loomis Get Well board-small

    Comment by John ONeill - January 1, 2020 7:17 pm

  5. I saw this the other day in a Barnes & Noble (a store I rarely go in, but someone got me a B&N gift card). It immediately caught my eye because I was familiar with the old book covers.

    Has anybody tried playing it solo?

    Comment by James McGlothlin - January 1, 2020 7:27 pm

  6. James — not yet! But I want to try it with a small group this weekend.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 1, 2020 7:31 pm

  7. I never did a Choose Your Own Adventure, but I had a lot of fun with the Fighting Fantasy books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - January 1, 2020 7:43 pm

  8. I didn’t know that Rick Loomis had passed away. Thanks.

    Interesting post.

    Mr. ONeill: is there any chance you could give us an after-action report if you and your group do play this game?

    Comment by John E. Boyle - January 1, 2020 8:30 pm

  9. Hear, hear Tom Parker! I echo the 1980 Fighting Fantasy series had me hooked. Lots of history there. Darth Maul’s design came from #5… and spawned Warhammer/Games Workshop. Warlock on Firetop Mountain has haunted me for decades (section 122, artist Russ Nicholson).

    Comment by SELindberg - January 1, 2020 9:17 pm

  10. Thomas, Seth,

    I’ll third the shout-out for the Fighting Fantasy volumes! They weren’t the first, but they were among the very best of the solo game books. And they’re highly collectible these days as well… I’ve been outbid in every one my recent attempts to acquire small sets in good condition on eBay!

    I also really enjoyed the Lone Wolf and Middle Earth Quest game books. Anyone out there familiar with them?

    Comment by John ONeill - January 1, 2020 11:09 pm

  11. > Mr. ONeill: is there any chance you could give us an after-action report if you and your group do play this game?

    John — Absolutely! Will do.

    Comment by John ONeill - January 1, 2020 11:12 pm

  12. Here’s a pic I took of some of the $1 paperbacks I bought at the Windy City Pulp and Paper show in Chicago last year. This find — in the bottom of a box of dollar paperbacks sold by Doug Ellis — made the whole convention worthwhile.

    Windy CIty Pulp and Paper 2018 game books-small

    Comment by John ONeill - January 1, 2020 11:21 pm

  13. Even better than the Fighting Fantasy books was Steven Jackson’s Sorcery series (published in Penguin paperbacks) – one huge, epic adventure spread over four volumes (plus a supplementary “Spell Book”), the whole think amounting to almost 1,000 pages. I don’t think I ever successfully completed the whole thing, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I still have the set – maybe it’s time to give it another whirl!

    Comment by Thomas Parker - January 2, 2020 12:23 am

  14. Thomas,

    I forgot all about Steve Jackson’s Sorcery books. And truth to tell, I don’t think I ever knew if they were a connected series (!).

    According to Wikipedia, the entire series was re-printed by Wizard Books in 2003, which explains why used copies are still available (relatively) inexpensively at Amazon. Well worth the effort for me to track them down, I think. Thanks for the tip!

    Comment by John ONeill - January 2, 2020 2:38 am

  15. I was working for COLES books in the early 80’s and would often go through a Choose Your Own Adventure book (like House of Danger) during my lunch break. But I’m only aware of the Bantam series, I had no idea anything else existed.

    Comment by Barsoomia - January 3, 2020 10:30 am

  16. Sad news regarding Rick Loomis. I too was not aware.

    The Sorcery books are indeed a series with one book leading into the next. The holy grail of these is the Sorcery Spellbook which I don’t think was ever reprinted.

    Other follow on series off the top of my head were:
    Way of the Tiger
    Blood Sword
    Fabled Lands (quite an epic undertaking)
    The Certain Chronicles
    Lone Wolf

    But I am sure there are plenty others. Hey even a few of the early Fighting Fantasy books by Ian Livingstone had a loose continuity.

    Comment by Tony Den - January 3, 2020 4:21 pm


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