Return to Dragon Pass with The Red Cow Campaign by Ian Cooper, Jeff Richard, and Greg Stafford

Saturday, July 4th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

The Coming Storm Chaosium-small The Eleven Lights-small

The Coming Storm (March 2016) and The Eleven Lights (April 2018), published by Chaosium

We live in a Golden Age of board gaming, and if you’re in the market for a fantasy game, you literally have thousands to choose from. Mind you, that wasn’t the case 40 years ago. In fact, if you were looking for a serious fantasy-based pastime in those days, there were literally only a few games in town: SPI’s War of the Ring (1977), TSR’s Divine Right(1979), and Chaosium’s Dragon Pass (1981).

In terms of gaming history, there’s little question that by far the most important of those was Dragon Pass. It was originally developed in 1975 by Greg Stafford, and published under the name White Bear and Red Moon. Stafford decided to form a company to produce and market it; inspired by the nearby Oakland Coliseum, he called his new enterprise ‘Chaosium.’ Stafford sold White Bear and Red Moon, and its sequel Nomad Gads, in ziplock bags out of his house in Oakland. Chaosium grew rapidly, and in less than ten years was one of the most important publishers in the industry. If it weren’t for the early success of White Bear and Red Moon and its sequels, we wouldn’t have  RuneQuest, Thieves World, and Call of Cthulhu, just to name a few.

The setting for White Bear and Red Moon, a Bronze Age world rich with human and nonhuman gods, cults, clans and mythology, was Glorantha. Today Glorantha is one of the most important settings in modern fantasy, home of numerous role playing campaigns, board games, novels and stories, and even a popular computer game, King of Dragon Pass. There are many reasons for its popularity and longevity, of course, but personally I believe Dragon Pass — the game that introduced Glorantha to the world — deserves much of the credit. If you’ve spent hours staring at the colorful map of Glorantha, moving your outnumbered clans across the rugged terrain of Sartar, through the Skull Ruins and towards a desperate battle in Snakepipe Hollow, the chance to visit those iconic settings in a role playing environment is just too irresistible.

A few years ago Chaosium released an epic two-part campaign set in Glorantha that explores much of the history and rising tensions that eventually exploded into the Hero Wars: The Coming Storm and The Eleven Lights, which together comprise the Red Cow Campaign. I recently purchased both books, and have really been enjoying this chance to revisit the colorful and dynamic setting where I spent so much time in my youth.

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Vintage Bits: Robert Clardy, Synergistic Software, and the Birth of the Personal Home Computer Role Playing Game

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020 | Posted by Ernst Krogtoft

Synergistic Software collection-small

In 1978 Robert Clardy released his first computer game, Dungeon Campaign, for the Apple II. Dungeon Campaign, and Don Worth’s beneath Apple Manor, are widely regarded as the very first personal computer role playing games. While greatly inspired by pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons, there were no proven concepts or templates to work from, and it was very much a trial and error effort to figure out what features and elements would work, and not least what was achievable with the limited technology at the time. Today these pioneering games might seem extremely primitive and somewhat quirky, especially from what we now perceive as the standard template in computerized versions of role playing games, but at the time they were truly innovative.

In the mid-’70s computers, how they were used, and who had access to them, started to significantly change. The landscape was starting to move away from mainframes, which took up entire rooms or even floors, to hobby kits that with the right skillset could be turned into a more or less useful (or useless) device, to an environment where non-technical users could buy an off the shelf personal computer powerful enough to run somewhat sophisticated software.

This change in computing can very much be credited to the 1977 Personal Computer trifecta, the year we tend to refer to as the birth year of the personal computer as we know it. It was the year Commodore, Apple and Tandy Radio Shack all released their own take on accessible personal computers. These machines were not only powerful enough to be useful, they were also mass-produced and marketed to the average consumer, who frequently lacked the technical skillset earlier machines required.

The advent of computer role playing games, especially on mainframes and later personal computers, has its roots in the remarkable human nature to innovate – making machines do something they were never intended for. People with access to these mysterious computer colossuses quickly saw the potential for more than just boring analytics and data-crunching.

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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.

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The Priceless Treasures of the Barbarian Prince

Sunday, September 16th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

Dwarfstar games-small

A complete set of Dwarfstar games. Probably worth more than my house.

I enjoyed Sean McLachlan’s Black Gate post last month, Wargaming with my Twelve-Year-Old. Sean and his son played Outpost Gamma, a 1981 science fiction board game of man-to-man combat on a distant colony world. You don’t see a lot of coverage of early-80s science fiction microgames these days, so I appreciated being able to share the fun.

Outpost Gamma was published by Heritage Models in 1981, under their celebrated Dwarfstar imprint. Dwarfstar, like Metagaming, Steve Jackson, and Task Force Games, produced a rich catalog of microgames aimed at younger players. Well, budget-conscious players anyway. Metagaming, who pioneered the concept of the microgame with their first release, Steve Jackson’s runaway hit Ogre, charged $2.95 for a two-color game in a small baggie. Dwarfstar did away with the baggie and upgraded to a slim box, added full color, and charged a lordly $3.95.

As a business, the Dwarfstar line wasn’t a success. Unlike Metagaming and Task Force, who released dozens of titles over the years, they produced only eight games between 1981-82. But from a creative perspective, they were a magnificent hit. Their titles included Arnold Hendrick’s classic Demonlord, simulating the desperate struggle against the Demon Empire, Lewis Pulsipher’s Dragon Rage, a game of giant monsters attacking a walled medieval city, Dennis Sustare’s Star Smuggler, a marvelous solitaire programmed adventure following the adventures of a star trader on the frontier, and the peak achievement of Western Civilization, Arnold Hendrick’s Barbarian Prince, a solitaire game of heroic action in a forgotten age of sorcery.

Superbly well-designed as they were, Dwarfstar games had one great weakness: they weren’t built to last. Paper-thin boxes and flimsy components helped keep the cost down, but did nothing for their longevity. More than 35 years later these eight games have a nearly mythical reputation among collectors, but there aren’t a lot of copies to be had. And you know what that means: the scarce copies still in good condition are very, very expensive.

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Video Game Review: Tunnels & Trolls Adventures

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


I’ve been hankering for some old school pen and paper adventuring lately, but not having a gaming group here in Madrid (or indeed any gaming group for a few decades now), I did what old school gamers always used to do when they found themselves all on their lonesome — I played some solo Tunnels & Trolls adventures.

But I did it with a modern twist. I played Tunnels & Trolls Adventures, a free app by MetaArcade. The app takes you through various classic adventures such as Sewers of Oblivion and Buffalo Castle and runs very smoothly. It’s been decades since I’ve played T&T, so I read all the intro material, which explained the game quickly and concisely and had me playing within minutes.

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Lock ‘n Load Tactical: Heroes of Normandy

Monday, February 6th, 2017 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

Heroes of Normandy-smallLock ‘n Load Tactical: Heroes of Normandy was one of my favorite purchases last year. I loved it so much that I made sure it was something I played on my birthday (my son enjoyed it too).

I’ve held off reviewing the game, though, because shortly after it arrived on my doorstep last year it went out of print. With a reprint due at the end of the first quarter of 2017, likely in March, and because those who place pre-orders receive a substantial discount, I thought it high time to alert Black Gate readers to the game, and the entire Lock ‘n Load Tactical series. (If this little intro is enough to convince you the game’s worth a look, feel free to skip all my prose and drop right down to the end where there’s a link to order a demo copy of the game.)


Lock ‘n Load Tactical is a revision and representation of Mark Walker’s excellent Lock ‘n Load system. The new publisher has clarified, re-organized, and revised the rules, printed them in full color with additional examples, and eliminated the need for purchases of unrelated games to play certain settings. For example, you might once have needed to own several modules before you could play some of the Lock ‘n Load World War II games. That’s no longer necessary — Lock n’ Load Tactical: Heroes of Normandy is complete unto itself.

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Solitaire Gaming: Hornet Leader by Dan Verssen Games

Friday, December 30th, 2016 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones


Around the Jones household the winter is usually prime time for solitaire wargaming. It’s been so ever since John O’Neill and E.E. Knight got me hooked on board games again. And the last two winters the first game I pull out is DVG’s Hornet Leader.

It’s a bit of an odd fit for me, because I’m more of an ancient history guy, and Hornet Leader is all about modern(ish) planes. A lot of its setup is concerned with the differences between types of armaments, which I’ve never been remotely curious about.

Yet the game had such rave reviews from sources I respect that I finally got over the hurdle of disinterest in the subject matter, picked up a copy, and sat down to play. After some trial and error I discovered a grand game. If you like puzzles with a war or tactical theme you’re liable to find yourself captivated. And if you’re one of those who’s already interested in modern planes and the weapons they carry, you may be in heaven. (If this all sounds of interest but you’re more of a speculative fiction person, you might be curious about its expansion, which I’ll introduce at the end of the review.)

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Solitaire Wargaming: B-17 Leader

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

b17 More and more I think John O’Neill is right — we’re in a golden age of boardgames. And not just the familiar sort where it takes a room full of friends to play, but solitaire wargames, such as those produced by Victory Point Games, White Dog Games, and Dan Verssen Games, or DVG. Given the dearth of nearby board gamers, it was these solitaire games that most interested me, and I’ve played and reviewed a number over the years. Eventually I began to loiter on the periphery of some boardgame sites, most regularly Board Game Geek, where I noticed that there were some great game tweaks to DVG’s U-Boat Leader game by a fellow named Dean Brown.

We struck up a friendship, and when I saw he was developing his own game for DVG, I signed on as a playtester. I wasn’t actually that curious about B-17 bombers, or airplanes in general, but it didn’t matter: the game’s turned out to be a blast. Tuesday it launched as a Kickstarter, so I sat down yesterday and talked with Dean a little about it and his history with gaming.

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Cast Your Spell on a Medieval Town in The Village Crone

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016 | Posted by John ONeill

The Village Crone-smallI’m something of a collector (this may not come as a surprise). I collect vintage paperbacks, pulps, science fiction digests, comics, and lots of other paper ephemera.

But chiefly what I collect is games. Goodness, I have a lot of games. I hoard them in the basement. I drive to games auctions (like the marvelous Games Plus auction in Mount Prospect, IL), I track down obscure Amiga games on eBay, and I compulsively hunt every solitaire role playing game ever made.

I’m almost given up buying modern fantasy board games, though. Not that they’re not any good — far from it! — but even an obsessive like me has his limits. We’re living in a Golden Age of Board Games, and it’s a huge challenge keeping tabs on even a fraction of all the interesting games being released every month.

You know what I can do, though? I can try some of the games has deeply discounted every month. I’m not sure what the story is with these games — were they discontinued? Replaced with a newer edition? Did they flop? — but hey, I don’t actually care all that much. They’re super cheap, they look cool, and I’m ready to buy. Take my money.

I’ve been buying 1-2 every week for the past month or so, and some of them look pretty darn good. Like Fireside Games’ The Village Crone, an accessible Euro-style game with modular boards in which 1-6 players harvest spell ingredients, give their familiars secret tasks, casts spells, turn villagers into frogs, and compete for the power and authority that comes with being named Village crone.

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Beat the British and Save New France: Empires in America 2nd Edition

Friday, March 18th, 2016 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

eia6The second edition of a solitaire board game about the French and Indian War sits only a few feet away from me, and it’s all I can do to keep writing this review. I’d much rather be finishing the game, the seventh I’ve played this week since I received it Monday. You see, Wolfe is marching on Ticonderoga and Monro is heading for a fort I built in the Green Mountains. I’ve whittled both of their armies down, though, so the biggest threat is General Anherst, aided by the Royal Navy as he advances along the St. Lawrence Seaway.

I love this game. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, seeing as how I really enjoyed the original edition. I wrote about Empires in America in some detail back in 2012 right here at Black Gate. Since then, the manufacturer Victory Point Games has made a number of production advances. (You may have seen my excited post about the quality of Nemo’s War in January.) Cards are made from professional card stock, and the counters — wow, the counters may be cardboard, but they were cut with a laser, and with their brown finish they look and even feel a little like they’re wooden.

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