• magisterrex Retro Games

    I've been gaming since the days of Pong and still own a working Atari 2600. I tend to ramble on about retro games, whether they be board games, video games or PC games. Sometimes I digress. Decades after earning it, I'm finally putting the skills I learned while completing my history degree from the University of Victoria to good use. Or so I think. If you're into classic old school gaming, this blog is for you!

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The Best Classic Board Games – Dark Tower (1982)

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.

Box art for 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.

The Electronic Dark Tower game piece

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).

Closeup of the Dark Tower keypad

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.)

The four building types in Dark Tower

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).

Screenshot of Wilderness Adventure (Apple II)

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.

The three types of Keys in Dark Tower

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.)

Scoring cards for Dark Tower

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.

Assorted game tokens for Dark Tower

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!

Instruction manuals for Dark Tower

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!

Orson Welles being "Victorious" in Dark Tower

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.

Lit screens from 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!


The Best Classic Board Games – The Six Million Dollar Man: Bionic Crisis (1975)

Growing up in the 70s and watching TV was awesome, with shows like Battlestar Galactica, The Incredible Hulk, Space: 1999, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Mork & Mindy, Wonder Woman, The Shazam/Isis HourThe Star Wars Holiday Special, Happy Days, The Bionic Woman, and The Six Million Dollar Man.  Parker Brothers was quick to capitalize on the popularity of many of these shows within their own target demographic by releasing games based on each series.  Some were terrible, the board game equivalent of shovelware, but one in particular was a classic – The Six Million Dollar Man: Bionic Crisis.

Box art for The Six Million Dollar Man: Bionic Crisis

Bionic Crisis was invented by Paul J. Gruen, who invented such classics as This Game is Bonkers!Gambler and Payday.  He was also the game creator behind some of Parker Brothers’ television properties, such as Battlestar Galactica and Barney Miller with the 12th Precinct Gang, as well as the designer of  some lesser known games, such as Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Dungeon Dice.  Truly, the man was a prolific creator of board games (he passed away in 1993). For such an amazing talent, not a single picture of him can be found on the Internet – except his gravestone. What a crazy world we live in.

Paul J. Gruen's only picture on the Internet

Bionic Crisis was a game that contained both elements of chance and deductive reasoning.  To set up, each player took one of the four Console Boxes and inserted a Console Card into it.  The red and yellow board pegs are placed somewhere where everyone can reach them. Then the deck of Bionic Circuit Cards was shuffled, and one was dealt to each player, who kept it hidden from his or her opponents.  Finally, the deck of Number Cards was shuffled, with each player given three cards and the rest placed face down for everyone to draw from during gameplay.  Once set up, the play began.

Sample Number Cards for Bionic Crisis

The object of the game was simple: be the first to use the Number Cards to duplicate the Bionic Circuit of the player on your left.  Each turn a player called out a number from one of the Number Cards.  If number was on his left-hand opponent’s Circuit Card as one of the ten red spaces, he got a red peg.  If the number was adjacent to a red space, a yellow peg was given instead, and if the number completely missed the mark, then the player ended his turn empty-handed. (Yes, I realize you now want to chant, “You sank my battleship!”…but control yourself.)  This process continued until the Bionic Circuit Card was revealed.

Sample Bionic Circuit Cards from Bionic Crisis

A shortcut to winning the game was to simply map out the entire Bionic Circuit Card by making a guess.  If you were correct, you won the game.  However, if you were wrong – even by a single circuit – you were no longer able to win, though you still had to answer questions from your opponent.  This consequence were so severe that guesses were rarely worth the risk.  We had a House Rule that granted up to three guesses to each player, which added more deduction and less random chance to the gameplay.

A completed Bionic Circuit Card in Bionic Crisis

Parker Brothers labeled the box for ages 7 to 14, which is quite accurate, as Bionic Crisis was clearly not an adult’s strategy game.  However, the game still brings back fond childhood gaming memories, and must be judged for what it was: a child’s game based on a television property.  It was fun then, and if you can bring back your inner child, it can be fun to play even today.  Only the best classic games can do that!