Vintage Treasures: The Pocket Games of Task Force Games, Part One

Thursday, August 27th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Starfire Task Force Games-small Asteroid Zero-Four-small Valkenburg Castle-smaller

The Shiva Option-smallTask Force Games, based in Amarillo, Texas, was one of the very best board game companies in the business in the 80s, especially for science fiction fans. They published the majestic Federation & Empire (and its follow-up, Federation Commander), Kings Bounty, Godsfire, Battlewagon, Armor at Kursk, Musketeers, and the RPGs Crime Fighter, Prime Directive (based on Star Trek), and the glorious Heroes of Olympus — among many, many others — before the company was sold to Might & Magic developer New World Computing in 1988, and then went out of business.

Of course, who could afford big games like that? Not me, that’s for sure. But that’s okay, because Task Force Games was also a pioneer in the microgame market, with a line of truly stellar Pocket Games, starting with Starfire in 1979. Starfire was one of the most successful microgames ever released. It sold a zillion copies, went through six different editions, and is still being sold today by Starfire Design Studio. It was so popular it eventually inspired a series of novels by David Weber and Steve White, including the New York Times bestseller The Shiva Option.

Starfire wasn’t even the most popular Task Force pocket game. That honor belongs to the ubiquitous Star Fleet Battles. Everybody owned a copy of Star Fleet Battles in the 80s. I think it was required by law. I’d tell you how many editions of Star Fleet Battles exist, but no one truly knows. Academics around the world have gone insane, just trying to figure out how many editions of Star Fleet Battles there are. It’s like writiing your Ph.D. thesis on the Necronomicon.

Anyway, Task Force Games had a huge hit with their Pocket games line. Shipped in zip locks bags (eventually shrinkwrap), and priced at $3.95, the games were designed to be easy to learn and quick to play. All told they released twenty-two, all but three with science fiction or fantasy themes, including many that are still highly regarded today. The most successful, like Starfire, Star Fleet Battles, Armor at Kursk, and Swordquest, eventually graduated to  full-fledged boxed editions, but the zip-lock versions were fully playable (and a lot more portable).

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The Roots of Microgaming: The Classic Games of Metagaming

Friday, November 28th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Metagaming ad Analog 1978-small

I’ve been writing a lot about board gaming recently. It’s been a big part of my life ever since the late 70s, when I responded to an ad for a line of new “microgames” from a company called Metagaming.

I saw the above ad on the inside cover of Analog magazine, which I started reading with the April 1997 issue, when I was 12 years old. Responding to ads in comics and magazines was something you did in the 70s; don’t look at me like that. Honestly, it was perfectly normal. You mailed a check to some address in Texas, and four weeks later a tiny package arrived in the mail containing X-ray glasses, sea monkeys, or a Polaris Nuclear Submarine. Seriously, the US Postal Service and your mother’s checkbook were all you needed to access all the wonders of the world in the 1970s.

Well, the wonder that attracted my attention in the Fall of 1978 was an advertisement for SCIENCE FICTION GAMES from a company called Metagaming (click on the image above, from the inside cover of the October 1978 Analog, for a high-res version). I’d already taken my first steps into the hobby games market with the classic wargames of Avalon Hill, including Panzer Leader and Starship Troopers. But they were massive, requiring half an hour or more of set-up, and four to six hours to play. These mini-games looked portable and promised to be “fast-playing and inexpensive… a classic wargame that you can put in your pocket and play over lunch.”

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“A Fighting Fantasy Gamebook In Which YOU Are The Hero!”: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Warlock of Firetop MountainIt’s a time for looking back, as the old year ends. Now so it happens that on a Boxing Day sale I picked up a book I loved as a child; and therefore it seems fitting to write a little about it, now, glancing back down the vanished days of this and other years, and to try to again see the pleasure I once had. Will it come again, as I work through the text? If I work on the text, then no. Because this text, more than most, is not made for working. It is a thing to be played.

This is not a story I once loved, except in a way it is. There’s no strong central protagonist, except that in a way there is that as well. It’s a book-length riddle. It’s a maze through which you must find your way, filled with wrong turnings and frustrating locks. It is a story you can shape with a pencil and two dice: you are a hero with a sword, who must explore a wizard’s underground lair, before finally defeating the great mage in battle and taking his treasure. You choose your own adventure, flipping from one numbered section to another depending on the decisions you take faced with a given situation. More than most novels, the reader must shape the story; for the reader is the hero. This is The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, written by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. First published in 1982, it was the first of what became a line of several dozen gamebooks, as well as a full-fledged role-playing game. Warlock inspired direct sequels, a computer game, and even several non-interactive novels. You can learn more about the books at their web site.

Not long ago, Black Gate’s redoubtable Nick Ozment looked at The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and several other of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Nick remembered playing other Fighting Fantasy books, but not this one specifically. My experience roughly mirrored his: it was relatively easy to get to the end of the book, but incredibly difficult to actually win a complete victory. Nick liked the art — Firetop’s profusely illustrated by Russ Nicholson (you can see some of these pictures below) — but found the conception of the book’s dungeon improbable. I agree with both points. But I found myself wondering if there wasn’t something else to say about the book. I remembered playing through it in the early 80s, drawing out maps, trying again and again to make it through to the end. Why was I held so deeply in the book’s spell? Does it hold up?

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Vintage Treasures: The Lords of Underearth

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013 | Posted by John ONeill

Lords of Underearth-smallI’ve written before about the marvelously compact games from Metagaming that first introduced me to role playing, both in my editorial in Black Gate 12 and here on the blog.

It was the ubiquitous Metagaming ads on the inside cover of Analog and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in the late 70s that first caught my eye. I carefully clipped out the order form (I bet you kids have never clipped an order form out of a magazine in your life. Bah! You don’t know what you’re missing. A gaping hole in the cover of your magazine, that’s what you’re missing) and mailed off my $2.95 for copy of Melee and $3.95 for the fabulously deluxe Wizard.

Both games were written by Steve Jackson — yes, the same genius designer behind Ogre, GURPS, Car Wars, Munchkin, and numerous others. For my money (all $6.90), those two early games still rank as perhaps his finest creations.

Steve Jackson left Metagaming in the 1980 to found Steve Jackson Games and his loss was keenly felt. But the rights to Melee and Wizard remained with Metagaming and its owner, Howard M. Thompson. Thompson supported the system with a series of excellent releases, including some of the best solitaire products this industry has ever seen, including Death Test, Death Test 2, Orb Quest, and Grail Quest.

I’ve been playing Grail Quest since 1980 — the last few years with my son Drew at my side — fruitlessly searching the treacherous woods and castles outside Camelot for the Holy Grail. It’s got to be in that damn game somewhere. I’m going to find it some day, I swear.

Anyway, Metagaming produced a total of 22 microgames before the company folded in 1983. Virtually all of them were science fiction and fantasy in theme, and they exhibited an imaginative range of settings and themes, from Rivets — the game of two dueling robot colonies — to Sticks & Stones, the first (and only) stone age RPG. I’ve gradually collected all of them over the years, and it was with some satisfaction that I finally completed my collection this year with the one that was the most difficult to track down: the fantasy game of subterranean warfare in an ancient Dwarven Stronghold, The Lords of Underearth.

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Weird of Oz Revisits Fighting Fantasy

Sunday, March 17th, 2013 | Posted by Nick Ozment

0426111757Rogue Blades Entertainment continues to put out fine new projects — though, I lament, with far less frequency than in days of yore.

Also in those days of yore (about two years ago, to be precise), for a brief, shining, halcyon period of time (a few months, to be precise), RBE hosted a website that ran regular blogs under the banner “Home of Heroics.” It was my good fortune to be invited into HoH’s stable of bloggers, and I made a couple contributions before that heroism-vaunting home vanished like the fabled city of Xanadu. I only got in two or three posts, mind you, because I was on a monthly rotation rather than the weekly slot I enjoy here on Black Gate.

One of those posts that I wanted eventually to follow up on was an account of my experience revisiting Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. My report touched off similar nostalgic reminiscences from several readers.

Since, as far as I can tell, the material that ran on HoH is no longer accessible, I’d like to use this St. Patrick’s Day edition of Weird of Oz to resurrect that post here — with an eye to reviewing other single-player gamebooks down the road.

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Solitaire Gaming

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

eia_front_cover_fullI should probably blame the whole thing on John O’Neill and Eric Knight.

It was Eric who introduced me to the true joy of war board games. Sure, I’d played many a game of Risk back in junior high, but the more I read about actual tactics, the more frustrated I became with the original board game which is more about luck than real strategy.

The late ’70s and ’80s, when I was in junior high and high school, were a golden era for tactical boardgames like Panzer Leader and Axis & Allies. I was aware of, but rarely played these games because when given the chance to game with friends, I chose role-playing over board games every time. I didn’t know how cool they could really be until Eric drove down a few years back and introduced me to the wonderful old Yaquinto board game French Foreign Legion and we had three hours of fun pushing cardboard counters into death-defying positions a la old Hollywood desert adventure movies. In those over-the-top extravaganzas every bullet counts and even the extras get dramatic death scenes.

I suddenly realized the fun I’d been missing, but I wasn’t well and truly hooked until O’Neill gave me an extra copy of Barbarian Prince and told me about solitaire boardgames. You can play a lot of games solitaire if you have to do so — as any younger sibling or only child can tell you — but it was never much fun to play Risk or Clue against yourself. Some games, though, are designed to be played solitaire, which is what drew me to Victory Point Games.

What I was REALLY looking for was a copy of French Foreign Legion (copies are very, very scarce, although Eric generously tracked one down for me as a gift). What I found was a solo wargame based on the Battle of Rorke’s Drift that had been inspired by one of my favorite movies, Zulu. Since stumbling upon that first game I’ve tried out a number of Victory Point Games titles, and today I thought I’d write about one of my favorites, Empires in America.

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All Hail the Barbarian Prince

Friday, March 30th, 2012 | Posted by John ONeill

barbarian-prince-256One of the great things about having a blog is that you get to celebrate all things cool. Books, movies, comics, games… if it keeps you up late at night, after your spouse has gone to bed wearing lingerie and a disappointed look, it’s usually worth at least a few paragraphs here.

Of course you need to take things a little more seriously when talking about the real classics, the enduring masterpieces that define our very culture. And that goes double when we turn our attention to the supreme achievement of Western Civilization, the pinnacle of some three billions years of planetary evolution, Arnold Hendrick’s Barbarian Prince.

Howard Andrew Jones did just that in his splendid post Return of the Barbarian Prince this week. It’s a terrific article and interview, capturing much of the fun of this sublime solo mini-game, except for his obvious lies about being able to win.

You can’t win at Barbarian Prince. The game is an existential commentary on the nihilistic underpinings of modern evolutionary thought. I thought that was obvious. All games end in ignoble death, usually in the form of a starving goblin tribe that beats you to a pulp and steals your fur-lined booties.

Listen, I’ve owned the game for nearly 30 years. Spent many evenings rolling dice and moving my lead miniature around the little map, befriending elves and exploring ancient crypts, and I have never won. Barbarian Prince is the beautiful girl I lusted after in high school.  She hangs out and flirts like a Vegas show girl, but there’s no way she’s going out with me.

At least I’m in good company. The distinguished John C. Hocking has never won the game. None of my friends have ever won. Only my false friends like Howard, who called last week to tell me he won a game on the first turn. Dude, if you’re going to fib, at least make it believable.

Well, the good news is that now you can experience the timeless agony of Barbarian Prince for yourself. Now you too can spend your evenings cursing up a blue streak and throwing the map across the room. The original Dwarfstar boxed edition is unspeakably rare (most copies were destroyed in a blind rage, presumably), but you can download the complete game here, and Todd Sanders’ new revised version is available here.

Howard tells me he’s mailing me a deluxe copy of the revised Sanders version, hand-made with carefully crafted components, which I anxiously await. Maybe a little of his luck will rub off on me. Maybe I’ll discover he’s adjusted the rules to make the game winnable. Maybe Todd’s revisions will clarify things just enough to lead me to victory. Or maybe there’s another tribe of starving goblins in my future, waiting to take my last copper piece and turn my skull into a drinking cup.

Time will tell.

Return of the Barbarian Prince

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

barbarian-prince-256If you’ve spent much time on the Black Gate website you’ve probably seen Barbarian Prince get mentioned at least once.

A solo board game from the 80s designed by Arnold Hendrick, Barbarian Prince is a little like one of those old “choose your own” adventure books, except that the order of events is far more random, for they’re generated by rolling on a number of tables depending upon your location on the map and are partly affected by choices you have made and gear and allies you may have accumulated in your travels.

It never plays the same way twice, and a lot of us find it glorious fun — although it is difficult to win. John O’Neill is a huge fan of the game, and he got me interested some years back when he gave me an extra copy he had lying around.

When I heard rumors of an unofficial redesign over at BoardGameGeek, I dropped by to take a look and was incredibly impressed. Someone — Todd Sanders, as it turns out — had gotten permission to create a new game board, pieces, and redesign the layout of the rule and event books.

The result was brilliant, beautiful, and a completely professional product.

It’s available, free, for anyone who wants to download the files and create their own version of the game (the original version of Barbarian Prince is also available for free download, courtesy of Reaper Miniatures and Dwarfstar Games).

I contacted Todd to learn more about his redesign and what had inspired it, and discovered he was responsible for a number of stunning games of his own creation.

We talked last week about game design, Print and Play games, and, naturally, Barbarian Prince. Larger versions of the lovely game boards can be seen by clicking on their pictures.

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New Treasures: At Empire’s End

Sunday, March 4th, 2012 | Posted by John ONeill

at-empires-end4Back in January Dark City Games announced the release of their latest solitaire fantasy adventure, Emerald Twilight, by Bret Winters. I seized the opportunity to order the handful of Dark City titles I didn’t have, including Oasis and At Empire’s End, both by George Dew.

They’ve all proved worth the money, but the one that has captured my imagination immediately is the science fiction adventure At Empire’s End. Here’s the blurb:

Growing up on the periphery is not easy. It’s a tough life, and to survive, you have to know how to deal with ruffians, swindlers and thieves. For excitement, and to pay the rent, you make your living as a bounty-hunter. The risks are great, but the payoff can be tremendous.

Your quarry this time is a dangerous pirate, armed and ruthless. Initially, his ventures were an irritation to the locals. But as his greed and daring grew, he garnered the watchful eye of the meagerly-equipped local authorities. Your mission, should you choose to accept, is to capture “The Duke” and bring him to justice. But you must hurry. The provisional government is weak, and with each of “The Duke’s” raids, society falls further into chaos.

You must find “The Duke” and neutralize him before it is too late.

At Empire’s End includes complete self-contained rules for solitaire play (the “Legends of Time and Space” rules), counters, a beautiful color map, and 302 programmed paragraphs. It is also fully suitable for one to four players, and can be run with a game master.

To promote the game Dark City Games created S.O.S, a short solitaire SF role-playing game, which we reprinted in its entirety here on the Black Gate blog in 2010. Check it out.

You can learn more about some of their earlier games on our summary page, and on this page of collected reviews. Or you can order At Empire’s End for $12.95 directly from Dark City.

Dark City Games Oracle’s Breath Now Available for iPhone

Thursday, October 13th, 2011 | Posted by John ONeill

o-breathWe’re big fans of Dark City Games’ terrific line of solitaire fantasy games. We’ve wasted many hours with these little wonders on the Black Gate rooftop headquarters, when we should have been plotting the overthrow of the entire publishing world.

Instead, we searched for the buried archives of long-dead sorcerers on The Island of Lost Spells, stood alongside Roman Legionnaires at the border between Gaul and Germania in Wolves on the Rhine, and plumbed the depths of an ancient ruin for a powerful relic in The Oracle’s Breath. There are publishing barons in Manhattan who owe their Perrier to Dark City Games, and that’s a fact.

Subscribers may even remember that we published a complete solo adventure from Dark City Games in issue 12 of Black Gate: “Orcs of the High Mountains,” by Jerry Meyer, Jr. Don’t tell me we don’t share the love.

Now comes word that Questland Games has made one of Dark City’s best adventures available for the iPhone: Oracle’s Breath.

Yes, now you can journey to a rich world of fantasy while everyone else in the staff meeting thinks you’re checking stock prices.

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