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Dark City Games Reviews

The Island of Lost Spells

By Todd McAulty & Andrew Zimmerman Jones
Legends of the Ancient World: The Island of Lost Spells
By George Dew
Dark City Games, fold-out map, Adventure Book, Counter Sheet, $12.95
Reviewed by Todd McAulty

[This review originally appeared in Black Gate 10]

Back in the days of true Old School gaming, if you didn’t have a group of ready friends to play with, you couldn’t just sign on to Xbox Live or boot up World of Warcraft. No no no. Your only option was to sit in a corner, rolling dice and mumbling to yourself. Ah, just thinking about it now brings back fond memories.

Fortunately, there were a number of gaming aids to make this a little more interesting. Some of the more successful were the Tunnels & Trolls solitaire modules such as City of Terrors, the Middle-Earth Quest solo books from ICE, and the truly splendid Wizards & Warriors – over 200 pages of mystery & intrigue packed between hard covers. Who needs friends when you can explore secret passages, battle monsters, and expose murder plots by yourself? (Of course, not having friends meant I had no one to share this with, but my therapist claimed my severe anti-social tendencies would sort themselves out when I finally reached high school, and then I’d have lots of friends. Lying bastard.)

Anyway, the hands-down most popular solo adventures of the era were the MicroQuests from Metagaming, which began with Steve Jackson’s legendary Death Test, a notoriously difficult paragraph-based affair that pit players against a ruthless mini-dungeon designed to prove their worth to enter the service of the king. The games were based on two slim microgames from the mid-1970s: Melee, which simulated the essentials of hand-to-hand combat in a bare bones arena, and Wizard, which added spellcasting to the mix. Melee & Wizard, which formed the core of an elegantly simple RPG called The Fantasy Trip (TFT), were enormously popular, and in fact were the forerunners to Jackson’s GURPS system. You can still get copies by bidding on eBay… provided you’re willing to mortgage your house. Apparently my fellow anti-social misfits all became stockbrokers and plastic surgeons.

Last fall I was engaged in yet another futile search for copies on eBay when I came across an odd little item: a line of modern solo adventures coyly advertised as “fully compatible with The Fantasy Trip.” That was intriguing, to say the least. I took a chance and ordered a few, and initial impressions were very promising indeed. Each contained everything I could’ve hoped for, namely a 4” x 7” 40-page adventure booklet, 12-page rulebook, a folded and familiar hex map, colorful cardboard counters, a plastic baggie, and a healthy dose of nostalgia.

Few gaming releases of the last year generated as much excitement for me as these compact little volumes. Death Test and its sequels were some of the true highlights of my gaming youth… could a modern effort capture even a fraction of that old magic? I settled down with some well-worn dice to find out.

I began with The Island of Lost Spells, which centers on a magical island on which was reportedly buried the archives of ancient sorcerers. Not a bad carrot to dangle in front of a beginning group of adventures. The game dumps you in the village square of the tiny port town of Seaside, leaving it up to you to discover your way to the namesake island. First, however, there’s a great deal to discover in the town itself – including what goes on in the cemetery after dusk, what secrets a few drinks can buy at the tavern, and precisely why all the residents warn against sleeping in the streets at night. There’s a surprising number of locations to visit, and a great many clues for a diligent and careful player to gather before the adventure even begins.

Which brings me to one of the game’s nicest innovations: the keyword system. As you uncover items, rumors, hidden events and secrets, the game doles out keywords that can trigger special events. There’s nothing quite like visiting the blacksmith without the “necromancer” keyword and hearing the same stale town rumors to cause you to suspect there might be more going on than meets the eye. The second real innovation is the search system, which makes finding things like fallen keys and secret passages in the dungeon more than just rolling dice. I missed a few before I thought to search that nondescript wall beside the door. It’s an elegant touch, and genuinely works.

The adventure itself – including the lake, courtyard, and multi-level ruins – is huge, substantially larger than I remember the old Metagaming programmed adventures being. The sheer size, and the nicely detailed descriptions and search system, give it a sense of vastness. Together with the broad cast of characters and complex but gradually unfolding plot, it more closely approximates a table-top gaming session than you might expect.

Virtually everything about the game in fact, including the polished art and crisp writing, is top-notch… with the exception of the proof-reading. While there are no major gaffes, the sheer number of errors – typos, rules irregularities, paragraph mix-ups that turn wolves into panthers and back again, a monetary system that mixes archaic silver pieces with dollars and gold bars (with no clue to relative worth or exchange rates) – gives the whole thing an amateurish aura it really doesn’t deserve.

Overall however, I thoroughly enjoyed The Island of Lost Spells. If you’re familiar with TFT, you can be playing in minutes – and if you’re not, the 12-page rulebook will have you in the thick of the action faster than virtually any other rules set I can think of. The adventure is fun, original & exciting, and well suited for both solo and group play.

Unlike its predecessors, I played this one with a group of friends around a table. Technically, they weren’t so much friends as they were my kids, and I forced them to play, but my therapist still calls it progress. Who says gaming can’t bring families together.


Wolves on the Rhine

Legends of the Ancient World: Wolves on the Rhine
By Christopher Brandon
Dark City Games, 36 pages, game map, 36 character/enemy tokens, rule insert, $12.95
Reviewed by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

[This review originally appeared in Black Gate 11]

Though a gamer for over 15 years, I must admit that I have never been a fan of solitary gaming, outside of the realm of video games. To me it seemed fairly pointless, as if I needed my social inadequacies accentuated by sitting around playing a game with no other players. I had Solitaire for that, and even that was preferably played on a computer.

So imagine my surprise when I found that I thoroughly enjoyed playing Wolves on the Rhine as a solitary game. It can also be played in a group, but the storyline is straightforward and engaging enough to keep even a single player entertained – at least the first time through.

In this newest installment of Dark City Games’ Legends of the Ancient World series, you play Roman or Auxilia (non-Roman) Legionnaires stationed on the border between Gaul and Germania in 40 A.D. Your squad is ordered by your Centurion to gain information on a series of raids by local barbarians. It is a mission that quickly takes on new dimensions as the group uncovers a plot to betray the Legion itself.

This is straight historical adventure, with the exception of a druid that you may run across. The enemies are barbarians, bears, boars, and wolves … and possibly corrupt Roman officers. Rules are included in appendix II of the adventure book for varying it into a fantasy setting, however, if you already have a fantasy Legends campaign going.

The game plays like the Choose Your Own Adventure novels I read as a child. Broken into 188 scenes, the choices made by the characters determine which scene your characters proceed to and, subsequently, which challenges they will face or information they will gain.

If the game has one flaw, it’s that the story is a little too straightforward. Running it several times in an attempt to vary the outcomes, it becomes obvious that there are only so many variations that can be played. Most of the sequences have only subtle differences. Minor encounters change from bears to wolves, or from spear-wielding barbarians to spear-bearing barbarians. Despite some shifts in how the climactic battles resolve themselves, the outcome is one of either two things – either you fail and die or you get the crucial information (the same in every variation) and kill the enemy leader to save the Legion.

In short, with a single group, I would imagine that this particular game could only be played once with any strong interest in the plotline.

Despite this, it’s a fun game. Though you only get to assign three stat points and two skill points to the basic template for each character (novice level in the Legends system), I quickly found myself identifying significant differences between the characters and the tactics to employ with them. In my mind, they developed personalities from even these minor stat variations.

I cringed at the idea of Gladius, my commander, being mauled by a bear in the first combat encounter. He came out of it just one hit away from death and survived to the end of the game, though his second, Augustus, spent the rest of the game defending him. Nabori, an Egyptian Auxilia, was a master swordsman who strode confidently into melee while Claus, the Germanic archer, volleyed fire upon enemies from afar. Meanwhile, Gladius coordinated the assault to steal initiative when ambushed, but rarely did any damage.

While I don’t know as I’d recommend Wolves on the Rhine purely on its own merits as a game to play repeatedly, I do think that it is a good introduction to the Legends of the Ancient World gaming system. From there, you could proceed on to The Island of Lost Spells (reviewed in Black Gate 10) or other games in the system. I would love to see Gladius, Augustus, Nobari, and Claus advance onward to greater fame and adventure in the world, perhaps picking up magical abilities.

In fact, I’ve already e-mailed my local gaming store about ordering a copy of some of the other games.


Todd McAulty can be reached at todd_mcaulty@ yahoo.com.

Andrew Zimmerman Jones can be reached at azj@azjones.info.

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