Some games, such as Monopoly, achieve an honoured place in popular culture, becoming easily recognizable brands to even the least gaming-minded segments of the vulgus populi. Others are famous only within the gaming community, either as treasured memories of gaming days gone by or as coveted collector’s gems, either already collected or on the wish list of games designated to be one day added to the collection. Such a game was Milton Bradley’s Dark Tower.
Dark Tower was released in 1982, two years before Milton Bradley was purchased by Hasbro for $360 million. The company took an aggressive advertising stance, hiring Orson Welles to star in the commercial designed to hawk the game on Saturday morning TV shows. The commercial was a masterpiece, with Welles’ commanding voice intoning not only how the game was played but how he was “victorious.” Electronic games were still fairly novel, and therefore somewhat expensive, but between the commercial and the sheer “cool” factor of the game, it looked like Dark Tower was set to become yet another Milton Bradley classic. Too bad for them that they didn’t own the concept.
Dark Tower was registered as a trademark on January 12, 1981 by Paul N. Vanasse (who incidentally is now the Director of Global IP and Enforcement for Hasbro). Here’s where the story of Dark Tower gets interesting. In February (or March, some claim) of 1980, two game inventors, Alan Coleman and Roger Burten, approached Milton Bradley with a board game concept they called Triumph, but Milton Bradley ultimately rejected their submission. A year later the pair saw Dark Tower being demonstrated at a toy fair in New York, and concluded that Milton Bradley had stolen their game concept, and pursued legal action, suing Milton Bradley for fraud, breach of contract and two counts of trade secret misappropriation. During the proceedings in District Court, the fraud charge was withdrawn, and the jury found for Coleman and Burten, rewarding the two inventors the sum of $737,058.10 (based on the Dark Tower‘s royalties).
In what must have felt like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, the lawyers representing Milton Bradley immediately asked the judge for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, essentially a legal move asking the judge to disregard the jury verdict. The court set aside the jury’s judgment, essentially letting Milton Bradley off the hook. However, Burten and Coleman took their case to the United States First Circuit Court of Appeals, who performed an exhaustive examination of Milton Bradley’s disclosure agreements and past District Court cases of a similar nature. After a deliberation that they described as a “close question”, the Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s decision, and reinstated the monetary judgment against Milton Bradley. (The decision in all its original legal glory can be read HERE.)
This has been the accepted canon regarding Milton Bradley’s court troubles over Dark Tower, but a dissenting voice can be found at Well-of-Souls.com, a Dark Tower homage website. Robert Hoffberg, a programmer who worked for Milton Bradley (known for programming Connect Four and Cosmic Hunter into the Microvision), is quoted as stating that he saw Triumph, that its only similarity to Dark Tower was an electronic computer game piece in the center of the game board, and that the true inspiration for Dark Tower came from an old Synergistic Software Apple II game from 1980 called “Wilderness Campaign” (by Robert C. Clardy, who, incidentally, has an impressive resume, with involvement in several games, including Vengeance of Excalibur and Thexder).
After watching the YouTube video of “Wilderness Campaign“, some similarities between it and Dark Tower can be seen, but the reality is that the same can be said about half the published (and unpublished!) AD&D game modules of the era. Trekking through the wilderness, running into random encounters, heading into a store for more supplies, and ultimately facing the evil Overlord in his castle were standard motiffs of the day. So, perhaps Mr. Hoffberg is correct, perhaps not; without further evidence, the court’s opinion continues to be the historical record that the Dark Tower story is based on.
For those who have never had the opportunity to play this classic game, Dark Tower is best described as a RPG transplanted into the board game genre. The circular game board is divided into four kingdoms, and in the center sits the electronic Dark Tower. Players quest around the game board to locate three keys (bronze, silver, and gold) which will allow them to solve the Riddle of the Keys, that is, which order the keys must be used to open the gates to the Dark Tower, and permit them to battle the forces within. To defeat their ultimate enemy, they must find reinforcements (and feed them!) to help defeat the hordes of defenders awaiting them in the Dark Tower. As they search for the keys, players can be attacked by Brigands, and if they win the battle, can receive a reward: gold, a Dragonsword, a magic key, a curse on one of your competing players by a friendly wizard (giving you 1/4 of their gold and warriors), even a ride on a Pegasus! (If you’re really lucky, you can receive one of these rewards by simply entering one of the tombs or ruins on the game board.)
However, ill luck can follow you as you quest for the keys. Sometimes the battle against the Brigands does not go your way. Sometimes you can get lost and have to start over from your last position. Sometimes a vicious plague wipes out some of your warriors (though you can avoid this by having a Healer in your ranks). Sometimes your gold and warriors will be stolen from you by the arrival of the Dragon…unless you have the Dragonsword, and then you get all its treasure! Of course, sometimes your move is benign, and nothing happens at all.
There are also special locations on the game board that can be accessed for good or ill. There are tombs and ruins which might hold a treasure – or more Brigands! There places of Sanctuary wherein you may be given more warriors, gold or food if you are in need. Each player has a Citadel which acts as the home base and that can act as either a Sanctuary or as the launching point for the final assault on the Dark Tower. Finally, there is the Bazaar, a place where many items might be for sale, such as warriors, food, a Healer (as mentioned above, saves you from a Plague), a Scout (keeps you from getting lost), or a Beast (carries your gold for you to free up warriors). The Bazaar changes prices and selection, and you can always attempt to haggle if you think the price is too dear…but don’t push your luck or the merchant will shut down the bazaar and your turn is over. You get NOTHING; good day, sir!
Much like an arcade game, Dark Tower also provided you with a score for how well you did during the game, from a lowly 1 to the maximum of 99. The more warriors you used and more time you took circling the game board, the lower your score. It was possible to get no score at all, meaning that although you ultimately defeated the brigands of the Dark Tower and were awarded the Ancient Scepter, it took too many turns to do so. Not every victory is one for the bards!
So what is the fascination with Dark Tower that has propelled it into the stratosphere of board game value? A casual search of eBay.com returns listings with a range from $100 to $300 for this game. (My favorite board game website, magisterrex.com, does not have the game in stock.) It could be the collective memory of playing the game, but at its original price point (more expensive than a regular board game; reading people’s recollections of how much they paid run the gamut from $40 to $130, which goes to show you how subjective our memories can be…but I digress.), it was not as ubiquitous on North American game shelves as a game such as Monopoly, which would belie that hypothesis. Perhaps it is as simple as the memory of wanting to play Dark Tower, but not being able to afford it – or being able to convince the responsible parental units to purchase it. That desire for a memory that could have been may be driving the price of Dark Tower.
Ultimately, it does not matter why Dark Tower continues to be one of the most sought after Holy Grails of classic board game collecting. It’s an electronic game with depth that is astounding for the era it was produced in, and truly enjoyable to play. For this reason, Dark Tower deserves to be remembered as one of the Best Classic Board Games, and well-worth adding to anyone’s board game collection!