Thursday, 6 July 2017

Steve Jackson's Battle Cards


Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Produced in 1993, Battle Cards are simultaneously a part of, but also not a part of, the Fighting Fantasy world. If this statement makes no sense, allow me to clarify. There are several major points that separate Battle Cards from FF:
  •       Battle Cards are set on the continent of Vangoria which is not part of Titan, neither is it anything to do with the parallel universe of Amarillia, so in that sense there is no geographical connection with FF
  •       The Rules are completely different and no FF mechanics are incorporated
  •           An entirely new bunch of key protagonists and antagonists have been created for Battle Cards and no FF NPCs are involved

By the same token, there are also aspects that inexorably link Battle Cards to FF (some more tenuous than others):
  •         They are a Steve Jackson creation – this speaks for itself
  •          There are artistic connections, both in terms of the artists involved and also some of the actual images used (more on this later)
  •         There are two literal direct links – the Orb of Shantos and the Eelsea (again, more on this later)
  •          FF collectors also collect Battle Cards (in fact, if the sparsity of interest in Battle Cards on any trading card collecting forums or sites is any indication, no-one other than FF collectors collects Battle Cards!)

There has been some attempt made in fandom to retcon Vangoria into the Titan mythos, justifying its inclusion as a lost sunken continent. This would suggest that the story of Vangoria is set a considerable time before that of the main FF canon. There is no reason why this cannot be the case, but if it is then the remains of Vangoria must now sit somewhere on the seabed between Allansia and the Old World as the sole common geographical feature shared by Titan and Vangoria is the Eelsea which now separates Allansia from the Old World. Unless, of course, there have been two Eelseas at different points in time, who knows? However you look at this connection, the underlying link is that fans of FF also like Battle Cards and this is probably for two simple reasons: 1) they are a medieval fantasy game with a combat system; 2) they are the brainchild of Steve Jackson. I suspect that collectors and players need no more justification than these two facts.

We’ll come to the collecting element later, but the actual point of Battle Cards (at least, it was when it first appeared) is that it is game, the primary goal of which is to become the new Emperor Of Vangoria. This is achieved by collecting the eight Treasures Of Vangoria which bestow the right to become Emperor upon their bearer. The Treasures (many of which are believed lost) are hidden about the continent and you have to acquire all eight through various means. The least complicated, but also the most long-winded and financially-crippling method was/is to buy hundreds of packs of cards until you randomly find all eight in the packs. Given that the quoted find rate of Treasure Cards is that one pack in every twelve will contain one you will need to get a lot of packs to find all eight. Indeed, I recently opened 60 US packs and found eight Treasure Cards (which isn’t far from one in twelve) but several of them were the same card and numbers seven and eight were not found at all. Evidently, this was not the intended method of finding the Treasures and the gameplay approaches were what the creators were really driving at! And there are several different in-game ways of getting Treasure Cards which adds some variety and allows you to try both the more straightforward and the more elaborate finding methods. The classic kill-for-treasure approach is well catered-for through the Trading Post concept whereby you scratch your chosen box off a Trading Post card to try to reveal a Treasure and, if you find one, you then scratch off another to show the amount the Trading Post is asking for that particular Treasure. You then have to amass this amount in the Purses of foes you have killed (eg: if you scratch off 300 on a Trading Post you need to collect enough dead cards with Purses scratched-off to equal or exceed that amount). You then send the Trading Post and the dead cards to a given address (San Diego on the US version, the less exciting Milton Keynes on the UK game) and in return you receive that Treasure Card. Obviously, you will have the frustration of wasting lots of Trading Posts once you are looking for particular Treasures to complete the set but as Trading Posts are found in almost every pack this is no great hardship. The beauty of this approach is that you get to play out lots of fantasy combat scenarios but the downside is that it takes ages to get enough Purses as most foes (but not all though) seem to be fairly short on cash and some have none at all. The third way (and the most complex by far) is to set out on the ten Quests Of Vangoria. This involves getting ten different Quest Cards, most of which reward you with a specific Treasure Card, although there are a small number that allow you to choose which Treasure you want which is handy to get the elusive one or two that you might be missing. Each Quest poses a different challenge and they are all very very hard. The majority involve analysing pictures to find minute details (echoes of Tasks Of Tantalon and Casket Of Souls then), whilst two use the conventional (and lengthy as this is just trial-and-error) approach of you having to scratch off boxes to find specific things, two more ask you to cross-reference text on other cards to images (which can be bewildering), another has you solve three riddles then match images to the answers (this one is pretty neat), another involves you learning and then decoding the Vangorian language (the alphabet is dotted about on various cards so you need loads of cards to be able to crack this one) in a very SJ-like trick, and finally probably the trickiest of all asks you to determine who the Unknown Artist is (there are a small number of unattributed cards credited to “Unknown”) by comparing the styles on the credited cards and using common artistic traits to figure out the identity of the unknown illustrator then sending the artist card in with the Quest Card (or just by repeatedly sending the cards in with each artist named until you stumble on the right answer!) All of the Quests (as with the Trading Posts) need you to amass the correct cards and send them in to receive a Treasure Card so, again, this method of winning Treasure Cards exhausts a lot of cards generally. I have to say too that some seem to have several potential answers (especially the picture analysing ones) so, again, you could get through a lot of cards without necessarily getting the right combinations. Method Four is, of course, swapping with friends (trading cards are for trading, right) to get missing Treasure Cards which gets around the harder in-game techniques although I’d imagine the going rate for a Treasure Card would be several standard cards! There is also another in-game method which is playing for stakes via three Special Games cards (Card Games, Campaigns & Adventures, and Yard Games) which we will come to later.

Once you have got all eight Treasures together, you then send them in and you receive the coveted Emperor Of Vangoria in return for your efforts thus “winning” the game and achieving huge bragging rights over your friends. The problem here is threefold though: firstly, the closing date to apply for the Emperor card was rather tight given the time/effort and/or outlay required to get all the cards together just to get hold of the eight Treasures let alone then sending those in to finally get the Emperor, secondly, I get the general feeling that very few people bought or collected Battle Cards when they were originally on sale, and, thirdly, if you are playing/collecting the game any time after the closing date (which was in 1993) you cannot “win” and just have to try to buy an Emperor from somewhere. This in itself is a problem as no-one seems to know how many Emperors were ever actually won (there certainly are very few, possibly even single figures) and they almost never come onto the collectors’ market. Apparently, Steve Jackson himself has two (apparently!) To exacerbate this problem, the US version of the game offered gold foil and silver foil versions of the Treasure Cards to the first 6,000 (gold) and 12,000 (silver) received applications for Treasure Cards which presented the dilemma of whether or not to part with a coveted foil card to fill a gap where you might have been missing a standard Treasure Card. As the foiled cards are also incredibly rare presumably hardly anybody ever got these which must conversely mean that hardly anybody ever applied for Treasure Cards in the US resulting in next to no-one bothering to apply for a US Emperor. It certainly appears that US Emperors are even rarer than the already borderline unfindable UK Emperor which gives an indication of just how few people could actually be bothered to see the game out to its intended “conclusion”.

As we are on the subject of Battle Cards not really taking off, it is worth noting that they came out a few months BEFORE the very successful Magic – The Gathering trading card game so Battle Cards were something of a trail-blazing unknown quantity at the time. Not long after, the global phenomenon that was Pokemon cards exploded and suddenly every franchise was churning out a TCG, but Battle Cards had no real precursor (trading cards had been around for years, but not designed as a game as such) so its unexpected appearance and equally quick failure does make sense in context. Similarly, Magic - The Gathering had a massive tv and cinema marketing campaign (I remember watching ads for it at the cinema in 1994/95) and Pokemon cards were part of a massive multi-media bid for world domination, whereas Battle Cards hardly ever got mentioned at all. Another factor is the complexity of some aspects of Battle Cards as a game. The basic game is incredibly simple but once you factor in magic, shields, mass battles and the mind-bending Quests, you get something that was rather too ahead of its time and that, even now, is rather complicated if you try to take everything in all in one go. OK, the Quests are now pretty irrelevant as you can no longer win anything but there is nothing stopping anyone from still playing them out once the basic scratch-off combat game can’t offer you enough anymore.

So what does a game of Battle Cards itself involve? In its simplest form, you need two players, each who has a character card. In fact, you can play the game just by having one card each but you won’t be playing for very long! Each player selects the character they wish to use and shows it. You then toss a coin to see who strikes first. An attack involves selecting a box relating to a body part and scratching the foil off that box (with either a 1p or 2p coin as none of the others seem to do it properly). A symbol under the box means a hit (although there are some other symbols just on the UK version only that can be uncovered too that affect Advanced Combat), no symbol represents a miss. A hit gives the attacker a second strike and another body part box is chosen and scratched off. Uncover a second wound and the character is seriously wounded giving the attacker the opportunity to go for a kill by scratching off a Life box (of which each card only has three, only one of which reveals a kill). Uncover a kill and the card is dead. If at any point the attacker does not get two successive hits and/or a kill, the attack passes to the other player who then needs to uncover two consecutive wounds to go for a kill. If no kill is scratched off after two wounds, another wound must be scored on the attacking player’s subsequent turn before another Life can be scratched off. Play continues until one of the two fighting cards is dead. The winner can then scratch off the Purse of the dead card and wins that card and any money that it might have. In the days when you could still send in for Treasure Cards you needed to collect dead cards to satisfy the requirements of Trading Posts, Quests or however else you were trying to get what you needed to receive Treasure Cards. Every card has only three Life boxes so, once two blanks are scratched off any subsequent wound is obviously going to be fatal because only the kill will be left to scratch off under the Life boxes so an element of urgency kicks in from the wounded player as they know they need to make every hit on their attacker really count. Moments like this are where your experience as a player can really work to your benefit and be put into practice. If you fight a lot of a particular character card you can learn where the wounds and kills can be found and use this to your advantage. This is especially handy if you are fighting the stronger characters that have less wounds to find. Each character card has some basic stats on the back: Status and Alignment. Status is the key to learning how to get easy kills and indicates the strength of each character ranging from Strong through Powerful to Awesome. Awesome characters have the fewest wounds to find making them especially hard to hurt, Strong have the most making them particularly vulnerable and a good entry point for beginners to use in play. All of these three Status types will always have their wounds and Lifes in the same positions on a given character card so an experienced player (with a good memory) can easily kill these. Characters with Status given as Warrior are a bit trickier as their wound and death symbols are randomly positioned so no level of knowledge will help you to defeat them and it just becomes a game of chance which does add some variety and avoids the game becoming too easy for experienced players and makes it fairer if a novice is playing an experienced person especially if you can agree to restrict the game to only using Warriors, although this could limit how much Purse value there is to be won. The other stat on every card is Alignment which is only used if the Campaigns & Adventures special game is being played. The UK cards have two additional stats (Race and Allegiance) neither of which serves any apparent purpose in the game, although Race gives an indicator of what basic creature type the character is (for what it’s worth) and Allegiance could be incorporated into Campaigns & Adventures to add another layer although this might get too muddled and restrictive to play (in terms of your needing very specific characters to be able to do anything) if used in conjunction with the over-riding Alignment stat.

Experienced players can also exploit the Special Rules that exist on three character cards only. Close reading of the backs of these specific cards will reveal special ways to turn encounters against or using these characters to your advantage. Saying the Flesh-Eater’s real name will instantly defeat him without a fight, the Soulpod Plant can create a doppelganger to fight on its behalf, whilst The Inquisitor has a totally unique approach whereby each player asks the other a Battle Card-related trivia question which must be answered without reference to the card that has the answer on it then that card is shown to prove that the answer is indeed correct – in this way The Inquisitor scores a hit if the response to his question is wrong and conversely is wounded if he answers a question wrongly. These add an extra dimension to the normal routine combat rules and The Inquisitor in particular is a great concept which brings to mind the Trialmasters from Baron Sukumvit’s Trials of Champions. It must be said though that use of The Inquisitor can only really be effective with two very experienced players who both have an exceptionally thorough knowledge of Battle Card lore otherwise it will be a very one-sided fight one way or the other. The human element of how to defeat the Flesh-Eater by reminding it what it used to be and trying to appeal to what remains of its humanity and emotions is a nice touch too.

Once you have exhausted the possibilities of the basic game there is the option of using Advanced Combat rules (if you have the cards to allow you to do it, of course). Advanced Combat brings in defence and attack options restricted to specific body parts. In return for only being able to attack certain parts on your opponent you can defend two particular parts of yourself meaning any attacks you receive to that part automatically get deflected. This is a handy tool that adds an element of realism rather than you being totally at the mercy of what is on the card as well as making you pay a price in terms of what you can attack to counterpoint your decreased vulnerability. Advanced Combat works particularly well again for experienced players who could potentially make a Powerful or Awesome character almost impossible to wound if they know which body parts are their weak points. I like this feature even if it does take away the attacker’s freedom to randomly just go for any body part they choose. Nonetheless, these rules add another dimension to the game to prevent it becoming a routine or repetitive playing experience after a while.

A similar way to expand the possibilities of the game is to bring Spell and/or Shield cards into play. Spell cards work differently depending on whether you are playing the US or UK version of the game. In the US version spells can essentially be used at will, whereas in the UK version a Spell can only be used when a spell symbol is scratched off the defending card. In both versions players agree beforehand if Spells can be used and, if so, how many, before proceeding. To determine if a Spell has worked or failed the casting player scratches a box off the relevant Spell card to reveal either a success or failure outcome. Some spells are defensive or offensive and basically just give combat adjustors, whilst others are more bizarre and create tangents such as the Sword Control and Peaceful Calm Spells. The Mental Combat Spell is particularly original and mirrors The Inquisitor card by turning a physical battle into a Battle Cards trivia game. One Spell (the Mutiny Spell) can only be used in Campaigns & Adventures Special Rules and causes a particular side’s front fighter to turn on their own side which is a fiendish but fun move. Spells can be quite complex to use and get the hang of in terms of players developing a mutual knowledge of the effects but they do make the game a lot more tactical and nuanced.  Shields only exist in the UK game. As with Spells, players must agree to the use of Shields before play commences. To use a Shield (as with UK Spells) a box is scratched off the defending character and if a Shield symbol is uncovered, that player then scratches a box off the Shield card to see whether it has deflected the blow or broken. Some Shields however are more effective than others and this is shown by the number of scratchable boxes on each type. The weakest shield is the Ironback Shield with only four boxes and the strongest (unsurprisingly) is the Dwarvenforged Shield with the maximum possible (for a Shield) of seven boxes. Shields are easier to use than Spells as they can only do one thing and are fairly binary in their use but, again, they bring another feature into play and are probably the easiest to introduce of the “advanced” game functions (assuming you are playing the UK game otherwise the concept is irrelevant!)

The three cards that make up the Special Games set are intended to take the concept beyond one card fighting another and are, for the most part, stretching a point somewhat. Card Games uses symbols printed on the backs of each card to play scissors-paper-stone (or more accurately, gauntlet-sword-shield!) There are rules given for two different versions with both being good for anyone who wants to win lots of cards quickly, especially the Endurance version. Anyone who needs to amass cards to complete any Quests or get Purses together to take to the Trading Post could do a lot worse than playing Card Games but it removes the entire combat concept ie the “Battle” is taken out of “Battle Cards” so I’m not convinced of its validity. Campaigns & Adventures is a more successful idea in the context of “Battle Cards” and features three sets of game rules allowing for massed battles with multiple cards playing as a winner-stays-on (this is where the Mutiny Spell proves very handy) which you could realistically just do anyway but massed battles are a lot of fun if you have a decent supply of expendable characters to make it worthwhile, and Adventures which involves you actually acting out the adventures described on some of the cards which works far less well and just seems a little bit awkward to me. That said, Campaigns & Adventures are the only part of the system where Alignment (and Allegiance if you feel like it) can affect who will fight who which is another nice additional realistic feature if you can cope with this many rules. The third Special Games card is Yard Games. Three different games are described (Racing Cards which is basically just throwing cards at the wall, Shoot ‘Em Down where you have to try to knock a propped-up card over by throwing cards at it, and Smother Your Neighbour where you have to land a card on your opponent’s card to win it) and they all, as with everything in Battle Cards involve winning or losing cards but they also all wreak of desperation to try to think of yet another thing to do with these cards. Plus, for the collector, Yard Games probably devalue some cards as they are likely to get damaged by throwing them around too much, especially by bouncing them off a wall!

And so we come to another key aspect of Battle Cards, which is designed as, remember, a collectable trading card game. The game element works on several levels and can be as simple as just showing a card, scratching off boxes, and killing or being killed, or as complex and nuanced as combat involving spells, shields, special attacks, trivia, and whatever else, plus you can always fall back on throwing the cards around or playing scissors-paper-stone to win the cards you need. Either way, as a game, you are aiming to collect all eight Treasures somehow and become the Emperor Of Vangoria. Trading is human interaction which the game cannot control, but the trading part is just one aspect of this being a collectable game. Indeed, as the Treasures and Emperor cards can no longer be sent away for, the game itself must be played purely for fun now, and collecting the cards is the main focus and motive nowadays. Needless to say, the Holy Grail of a set is the Emperor Of Vangoria, with the US-exclusive gold and silver foiled versions of the Treasure Cards being highly sought-after as well. But a savvy inclusion in the series all along was non-gameplay cards that exist just to be collected and/or to add lore to the world of Vangoria and there are twelve cards that can be said to be purely for collecting: the map of Vangoria, the seven Artist Cards, and the four Checklists (a trading card staple and very useful for anyone who can’t count and needs an aid to help them work out which cards they are missing!) In total, the US series numbers 139 standard cards (the Emperor being number 140) plus the eight Treasure Cards numbered T1 thru T8 (the gold and silver foils have a G or S prefix ie GT1 etc), and the UK series is slightly bigger (due to Treasure Cards being numbered within the standard run and the addition of two Clue Cards) at 149 cards (with number 150 being the UK Emperor). Whilst on the subject of Clue Cards, these give, er, clues to how to solve the Quests and were included on the US Secrets Of Vangoria cards hence their absence from the US series. Indeed, the US Secrets Of Vangoria cards also give hints for battles, parts of the Vangorian alphabet, and one even gives a brief history of Steve Jackson and the Battle Cards series. All this extra information was included on the Battle Secrets cards (and elsewhere in the case of the alphabet) in the UK series so it was covered one way or another in both versions even though these specific cards had no direct equivalents as such across the two series.

For the collector, each series presents different challenges. The top of every collector’s Wants List is the Emperor naturally and both versions are of the highest rarity and very few collectors can proudly boast that they own one or that they have the disposable income to blow several hundred pounds on a little trading card, although the UK card appears more often (but still hardly ever) than the US version. The US foiled Treasure Cards are also exceptionally rare. Interestingly though, other than these cards, the US series is far more easily found nowadays than the UK version. Still sealed red shipping boxes of US cards (each containing 35 packs of 10 cards per pack) are very easy to find and can still be bought for as little as £20-30 each. Equally, still sealed single US packs are very common and are worth little more than a few pounds each. On the other hand, sealed UK packs (which look more like Panini football sticker packs rather than the bubble gum card-style US series packaging) are as rare as hens’ teeth. Logically then, this means that a complete US set of cards 1 thru 139 plus T1 thru T8 is not a difficult thing to put together and complete sets of both the standard cards and the eight Treasure Cards can easily be bought on the collector’s market for less than £30 each. A complete UK set of numbers 1 thru 149, on the other hand, is not easy to assemble and will prove much more of a challenge to find especially if you are looking for mint and unscratched cards. Obviously, as unopened US packs are so easy to find, naturally, mint US cards are also easy to find, whereas mint UK cards will take much more hunting for and many collectors find themselves settling for scratched or partially-scratched UK cards as gap-fillers until they can replace them with mint examples as and when they find them. Both series though have their commoner and rarer cards and there is definitely some commonality across both series linked, in some ways, to which cards are more crucial to basic play, which character types are commoner within the lore of Vangoria, and which are more expendable in battle. Without doubt, Trading Posts, maps of Vangoria, and basic character classes such as Zittonian Warriors, Wolfmen, Vangorian Knights, Barbarian types, and most Undead types are very common, with characters falling into the Awesome category, Quests, hint cards, and high-ranking individuals being scarcer. The scarcest cards are definitely the Treasure Cards but this is a necessary part of the game and the concept so the frequency by which the various cards are found makes sense and actually adds to the overall themes and concepts of the game in its playing and collecting forms.

As far as the “story” goes, reading the backs of the cards shows the sheer depth of imagination that has gone into creating the world of Vangoria and every effort has been made to put together a coherent and vast body of lore to really bring the hitherto unknown continent of Vangoria to life. Characters’ interactions with each other are covered, as are regional tribes and variations in mindset, seats of learning, etc and the amount of quality material on offer for those who make the effort to read the cardbacks is very impressive. It must be said that the US numbering of the cards makes for a better-structured read as all the associated characters are grouped together within their regions whereas the UK series reads much more higgledy-piggledy due to there being no apparent logic to how the cards are numbered. There is also a lot of Jackson’s satirical humour to be found in some of the descriptions, especially in the cards numbered 54 thru 60 in the US series which form a witty collection of European stereotypes: #54 mentions Helmut Kohl, Krautstadt and the Krautian tribe; #55 references the then very recently reunified Germany; #56 is the French; #57 talks about Fanny Craddock and the Croque Mess-Ear; #58 gives us the Spagettians and the fall of the Roman Empire; and #60 talks about the Dutch with clogs, tulips, multi-lingualism and red light areas! Likewise, The Iron Maiden is a reference to Margaret Thatcher and even alludes to the Falklands War making her name. I was also amused by George Lacklustre who is the most boring man in Vangoria! Similarly, several character names are fun plays-on-words such as King Dumm, Norman Stormcloud (The Gulf War’s Storming Norman Schwarzkopf was also a vivid recent memory when the series was created), Vanvincent (Vincent Van Gogh), Salaman Rush-Demon (Salman Rushdie), the Sisters of Damnation (the polar opposite of the Sisters of Mercy?), and Baron Oldschwartz (a bit risqué that one lol). The seven Artist Cards also have dryly humorous biographies where the artists’ real lives have been transposed onto Vangoria-fied locations and reference is even made to FF, White Dwarf, and 2000AD comic. Even the ultra-common map of Vangoria gives some context to the region which is handy in putting all this wealth of information together as a whole as we read. Generally speaking, most of the cards give interesting biographies and backgrounds to the characters, although the few that just list the basic game rules are a bit of a disappointing cop-out. Even if a character is a generic creature I’d still like to know where they fit into the story of Vangoria, although having the Rules laid out on some commoner cards is always handy. Credit where credit is due though, the sheer number of bios that are given must have taken ages to think up and write, especially whilst making sure that the inter-connections between characters are logical and do not contradict each other so that the whole thing gels perfectly. As a side note, three US cards (King Dumm, George Lacklustre, and the Beast Riders) have incomplete write-ups where the text has been cut off at the bottom. These are complete however on the equivalent UK cards as the UK versions are not cropped in any way.

Which subject brings us neatly to the numerous differences between the UK and US series, some of which are more immediately noticeable than others:
  • UK cards are bigger
  • Scratch-off boxes on UK cards are silver, whereas on the US versions they are gold (and look much classier in good, in my view)
  • With one or two exceptions, the numbering order of the cards is very different
  • UK character cards have four stats on the back, whereas US cards only have two
  • UK Artist Cards also have the four stats (which are useless as Artist Cards can’t fight), but these are removed completely (which is more logical) from the US versions
  • The artist’s name and Merlin logo boxes are yellow on the UK cards, but are white on the US cards
  • Steve Jackson’s name is absent from the US cards (possibly to avoid confusion with the American SJ?)
  • The positioning of the names of the scratch-off boxes on both versions is slightly different due to the smaller size and therefore reduced available printing space on the US cards
  • We have already said that the UK series includes two extra cards (Clue Cards) which are missing from the US series
  • Probably the biggest difference is that some art differs between the two series

This last point is a very important one, especially as many people appreciate these cards as much for their art as for anything else. On the whole, the artwork is outstanding throughout the two series and the vast majority of images exist in both versions, although the US versions are cropped rather than scaled-down which avoids reducing the impact of the art in size terms but obviously also means that the whole picture is literally not there to be seen on the US versions, whereas the UK cards offer the complete image in all its glory. There are some variations in the actual images used though too. The biggest difference is that for whatever reason all of Alan Craddock’s UK card art was replaced with alternative images by Martin McKenna on the US cards. This also means that the Alan Craddock Artist Card does not exist in the US series and that its substitute, the Martin McKenna Artist Card, does not exist in the UK set. Also, the Trading Post cards differ greatly in the two series, the US one featuring what looks like Terry Jones in a serf’s cap, whereas the UK card is a street with a shop on it (which kind of makes more sense). It is difficult for me to pick out a favourite piece of art from such a huge body of excellent work as Battle Cards offers us but I do particularly like Peter Andrew Jones’ weirdly space-age self portrait on his Artist Card, but I have to say that there is no illustration anywhere in either series that does not wow me. I’m deliberately avoiding citing Iain McCaig’s images as being superior to those inclusions by other artists (which they probably are) but every one of his pictures is recycled from Casket Of Souls which makes me feel a little bit cheated to be honest. I also have to mention the Baalthazac image by Les Edwards which is lifted from the cover of Metallica’s Jump Into The Fire single!

As a series (or rather, as two series’), Battle Cards offers a lot to the collector and player alike. The basic game is so simple you can learn it in seconds, but mastering it by learning and incorporating all the possible extra layers of rules and options is quite an undertaking. It is certainly fun to play and is very addictive and no doubt every player has their own preferences of how to approach the game. I like the inclusion of Spells and Shields as they make it more realistic and give far more options to vary the game, and the mass battle rules are fun too. The Card Games/Yard Games mean well but add very little in real terms, other than helping you win cards en masse. It is a shame you can no longer play the game as it was intended (ie collecting Treasure Cards and acquiring the coveted Emperor Of Vangoria) as I’m sure we would all be falling over each other to do this now and it is even more of a shame that this aspect never got off the ground when it was still live. As a collecting exercise the US series offers a quick and satisfying fix, whilst the UK set gives you something to really get your teeth into if you want to complete both series (which we all do, of course!) I personally prefer the presentation of the US cards as the size is more akin to trading cards in general (at the expense of cropped art), the gold boxes look classier than the silver, and I prefer their subtler eggshell varnish finish to the slightly cheaper-looking gloss finish of the UK cards. That said, the UK series is overall the slightly more complex and varied to play because of the added dimension of Shields and either version is a great way to kill a spare half an hour. What is important to say though is that, even though we all aim to collect full sets, these cards are mostly designed to be played and there are more than enough out there (especially US cards) to be able to sacrifice a few here and there by playing the game as it was intended as both collecting and playing these is highly addictive.

Friday, 5 May 2017

#49: Siege Of Sardath


Keith P. Phillips

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Three things immediately spring to mind when people mention this book. The first is that it is by an author that no-one has ever heard of, the second is its reputation for being exceptionally difficult to complete, and the third is that the cover suggests it is probably going to be about Elves. But before we discuss these points, I have to say that the title is somewhat misleading given the plot.

When I first played this I genuinely expected a Fangs Of Fury-type book where you have to be involved directly in the titular siege before heading off to try to stop whichever nutter is besieging your home. The latter is kind of true here, but at no point do you get involved in, or even really witness, a siege as such. Instead, you play a ranger who sits on the Council of the town of Grimmund in the hitherto unexplored far north-east of Allansia. Next to Grimmund is the massive Forest Of Night which has been taken over by a dark unpleasantness making it unpassable. At the far side of the forest is the much larger city of Sardath (which is built on stilts in the centre of a lake) that has consequently been rendered inaccessible. The rest of the Council are blaming all the spiders that inhabit the forest and want to launch a pre-emptive strike but YOU, in your capacity as the eco-friendly voice of reason (ie an experienced ranger), think there could be something else amiss and you volunteer to head off into the forest to sort everything out. In the midst of the debate another ranger type appears and instantly wreaks mayhem when it turns out that he is actually that ranger’s evil doppelganger from a mysterious species known simply as “Black Flyers” (that look very like mutated Dark Elves with wings, which it transpires, is what they are). Once he has (or maybe even hasn’t) been dealt with you head off on your mission which divides roughly into three main Acts: the forest itself (which can be partially negotiated by river if you wish), the Freezeblood Mountains, and finally the underground lair of the Dark Elf baddies.

To drive home the fact that your character is a talented ranger, several of the FF staples have been modified in this book. Bundles Of Herbs (you start with just 5) act as a Provision substitute (and you can pick more along the way to get more Provisions/Herbs) and you carry a bow as well as a dwarf-forged sword. In certain combat situations you have the option to fire arrows (appropriate distances pending, naturally) to do instant damage pre-combat, although you only start with 6 arrows and extras are in short supply so you need to use this feature sparingly. You also begin with a generous 15 Gold Pieces (which proves less generous when you soon meet a trader who charges quite a lot for his wares) and a council signet ring which acts as a diplomatic passport of sorts (although not very often). The matching of kit to characterisation is done very well in this book and you are steeped in character from the outset. This is not a “learn who you are” gamebook, instead it’s a “we expect you to know who you are” outing and, as you are unlikely to realistically achieve this in initial playthroughs, the book does throw the occasional awkward-seeming compulsive reaction at you eg: a moment where you are forced to thump someone because, and I quote, “his scornful tone upsets your natural sense of honour and fairness”. Less “YOU are the Hero” then, maybe, and more “YOU are on a steep learning curve to be the Hero that the book has predesigned for YOU”? But this is a minor criticism of a dense logical plot that is full of surprises to discover and, by all accounts, as you will have to play it many many times to come anywhere close to winning, you will soon get the hang of what being an “experienced ranger” is all about!

And now we inevitably come to the subject of the difficulty level of this book which is, quite frankly, off the scale. But this book is made very hard for slightly different reasons to the handful of other mega-difficult FF books. Many factors are at play here to conspire against you but, oddly enough, they all seem to work well rather than being a depressing catalogue of annoyances and this must be down to the fact that, as medieval “trek about the place” gamebooks go, this one is more intelligent than usual and is intellectually very demanding on the player, rather than just relying primarily on unbalanced dice-based decision points like many FFs do and/or on a huge shopping list of essential items. Yes, there are several items you must find, but the emphasis is placed firmly on a lot of incidental factual detail that must be extracted from the text, much of which is either mentioned in passing or that is rendered somewhat unobvious. I realise that this also is far from unusual, but it is the way the detail is presented here which really makes this book stand out as being particularly high-brow. The conundrum that really epitomises this is a puzzle that you come across very early on: six squares are drawn with a pattern on them and you must fathom out what the hidden message is within it by piecing the parts together. The actual solution almost certainly requires you to copy the page, cut it up, and then join the pieces back together correctly into what turns out to be a cube. Assuming you can even manage to do this much, from this you are then supposed to decipher a message which is the letters “IST”. The text tells you to find a hidden section using this info which you almost certainly won’t be able to do as the section is not the usual “letter of the alphabet equals a number” FF trick but is, instead, the closest numbers visually to these letters. “I” is obviously “1” and “S” is “5” but what number looks like “T”? Er, none of them. The answer is rather tenuously “7”. We are in a whole new world of pain with this one then. If this one puzzle alone is not enough to melt your brain, it will soon dawn on you that everything of any importance to completing this book is riddled, varying from some admittedly easy (if you know the language of FF trickery) stuff, through some bits that require a bit of lateral thinking in line with picking detail from the text, right up to a few moments (such as the cube puzzle) of genuine obscurity.

Amongst the other mind-bending enigmas to get your head round are: using the seven-coiled snake ring which doubles its coils to become a 14-coiled snake ring which you have to add to the number associated with the Ring of Three Centuries – this is not that hard if you apply a bit of logic but it certainly had me stumped the first few times I tried to work it out plus you need to pay attention to the fact that the snake ring doubles its coils late in the book and you do need to find hidden sections based on BOTH numbers of coils; using the Brain Slayer Amulet which involves you needing to know Roman numerals and, again, its number changes later on to a more complex Roman numeral based on a bit of info you pick up by making a sort of Skype call via a special communing mirror; another Roman numeral hidden more subtly this time in Mystery Potion X which again has to be added to a section number;  at one point you can invoke Itsu (if you’ve cracked the cube puzzle earlier) by multiplying his secret number by 10 but his secret number is rather obscurely the number guardian that he is – again, close reading will reveal this but it could catch you out and the text is rather vague about how to find his number;  then there’s the potion making machine which only works if you can find the instructions of use and you still need to have one of each requisite type of ingredient – so we are in familiar shopping list territory with this but there are four possible combinations (that I can find anyway) and if you have the right parts to be able to attempt any of the four (which all involve matching ingredient numbers to hidden sections, of course) you will discover that one is basically essential, two are useless, and one will kill you on the spot.

All this compulsory code-cracking is in itself very challenging, but that’s not where the ramped-up difficulty ends and it is definitely where the inevitable comparisons with Steve Jackson’s Creature Of Havoc will begin as, in the latter parts, you must look out for phrases in the text which act as subtle prompts to add or subtract numbers from the current section to find the actual intended hidden paragraph. I must admit that, in the post-SJ hidden section trickery world of FF this is rather less of a surprise than it was when it first appeared in SJ’s books and is one of the better-signposted aspects of Siege Of Sardath’s difficulty, but it can scupper you nonetheless especially if you haven’t gleaned the necessary information to even know to look out for these. In a literal lift from Creature Of Havoc there is a secret door to find this way, as well as a key plot moment where you start a Dwarf slave revolt, and a series of prompts when you are disguised as a Dark Elf that will stop you from being killed for being human.

Mercifully though, amidst all of this book’s exceptionally tough hidden paragraph tricks, there are also two that I found extremely easy. There is a magic square that opens another hidden door behind which is an essential part of the optimum potion and I found its numerical puzzle very straightforward, ditto the secret knocking sequence (which is literally just simple addition) that you need to access the final episode. In a similar vein, a very interesting mechanic comes into play in the later stages where you need to develop a basic grasp of the Dark Elf language. This is not too hard as it is laid-on quite thick and only demands that you learn basic one-word interactions which are given as options for once rather than requiring manipulation of words to find hidden sections (well that’s generous, isn’t it!) but it is another feature that will require you to pay attention to the text.

Somewhere between the super-hard and the less mentally strenuous is the book’s subtlest design trick – that of allowing you to choose when to turn to special sections to read something or make use of an item. The best example of this is the page you can find that describes dangerous fungi. Two are discussed and, if you read it early enough, it will make negotiating the Dwarf Mines and the Dark Elf sacrifice cameos much more safe and obvious. I like this level of voluntary interaction and this is helpful to rather than being essential to victory. The flipside of this though is the optional way that the Brain Slayer Amulet works: if you put it on you must reduce your Skill by 2 for as long as you are wearing it which naturally makes combat and Skill tests much harder, but you absolutely must be wearing it before you meet the end baddie for the final showdown so remembering to put it back on this late on may well slip your mind. Ok, you can cheat and pretend you’ve got it on (and no-one will know in the way that a RPG GM would be able to penalise you) but this is so subtle that you would probably miss it and die as a consequence either from Skill-based weakness (this could reduce your Skill to 5) or being pasted for mishandling a key item at the end.

Which brings us neatly to stat considerations. For a notoriously tough gamebook, SoS does not rely much on Luck testing or tough combats. Most opponents are easy to beat and the tougher ones will usually have a high Skill or Stamina offset against the other stat being relatively low. Add to this the fact that your puzzle-cube-exposed sidekick Istu will fight a certain number of combats for you before it gets sent back to the Demonic Plain and you get a book that does not demand that you have superhuman Stamina or Luck scores. That said, there are a lot of Skill tests to contend with so a high Skill is useful (especially if you forget to take the Brain Slayer Amulet off) but it is possible to get a +1 Initial Skill boost (up to a maximum of 12) so even that is generous stat-wise. Furthermore, there are several opportunities to increase all three of your stats and Stamina in particular is not too hard to maintain at a high level so death by Stamina loss is fairly unlikely. This is a relief as losing by not having or fathoming out essential info almost certainly will finish you off sooner or later! Similarly, it is possible to find an item which makes you extra-strong when fighting Dark Elves or Black Flyers (which there are a lot of as the story unfolds) and deals them 3 rather than 2 points of Stamina damage in combat, although it only lasts for four battles. On top of that, another item will allow you to automatically pass any Luck tests that you will need to do in the Dark Elf underground city. This is very useful as failing any of these tests result in instant death. In brief then, this is one of the rare FFs where you really can hope to win with rubbish starting stats although this gesture is all but eliminated by the fundamental solution to the book which is based around the sheer number of puzzles that you need to solve.

So, this is a book crawling with hidden secrets, but the factors contributing to its extreme difficulty level do not begin and end with this. You are in a race against time and the Adventure Sheet has boxes representing each day of an Allansian week. With this we get some nice lore exploitation as the days are named in line with Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World’s model and as you progress through the book each new day requires you to tick off the next day of the week. From roughly the half-way point you will be prompted occasionally to check what day it is. If it is the last day of the week you have run out of time, the Dark Elves/Black Flyers have over-run the region and you have failed. In other words, you cannot waste time by bumbling around all over the place and finding the swiftest route through (that involves visiting all the necessary places and people to get all the items and info that you cannot win without) is essential to victory. The introduction tells you that trial and error should be avoided and that instead you should use good thinking. This interlinks neatly with the demands of characterisation that the book puts on you, but the only realistic way you can achieve this is through a lot of replaying and mapping and you can only work out what is a good or bad choice by trying it. Again, this means you are going to lose a lot of times.

In addition to the puzzles and time limit factors, there are a further two features which are designed to hinder and/or kill you. The Dark Elf underground city is laid out as an MC Escher-style maze with impossibly-connected passages, stairways and doors that all deceive the eye. Apparently this is because Dark Elf architecture is designed to induce madness and this is why you must test your Luck to avoid blundering off an edge of it due to sheer confusion. This is a nice bit of plot extemporisation but it does make for an intensely frustrating part of the book as you loop about and double-back on yourself in a bid to get through it in one piece. Considerably more irritating than this though, is the final confrontation with the villain of the piece which immediately follows the disorientating city. 
For a book that is so intricately and cleverly designed, the “climax” is a huge disappointment. On the one hand, it does not use the usual fallback ending of a stupidly hard combat that is weighted heavily against you, but instead it involves a dialogue with the end baddie. What’s wrong with that, you may ask. Well, the solution to this conversational showdown is little more than you guessing which options to choose. Guess right and you get another option. This happens several times. Guess any of these options wrong at any point and you are dead. You do need to try to bluff him, which is admittedly a neat touch, but you don’t really know what you are doing and repeatedly dying just by guessing wrong really does ruin the ending especially as, given what you have gone through mentally to get this far, you deserve a better denouement and you really should have been allowed to win by this point.

As a parallel to the annoying ending, it is also possible to lose as soon as you begin. If you can’t apprehend the doppelganger ranger who tries to disrupt the Council meeting at the start you can get carried off by him and deposited at a mid-point in the forest from where, as you have already missed key items and info, you cannot possibly win. I don’t like it when gamebooks make you lose from the outset but, that said, this outcome is far less likely than you managing to deal with the doppelganger so this is not quite as annoying as it could have been, even though it highlights the fact that not visiting any one of the key places or NPCs will lead to certain failure. In other words, this one is very linear overall, although there is replay value in the fact that there is so much to explore, as one thing this book does have is variety.

A well-designed gamebook should have a varied selection of locations and incidents and this one offers this in spades with every encounter offering something different to what has preceded it. This is anything but a one-note effort and particular highlights for me are exploring Corianthus’ castle where everything is giant-sized and you keep being reminded of this, meeting the amphibious Slykk, and helping the Dwarves in their war against the Toa-Suo which, it turns out, are what the big baddie uses to wreak havoc during the day as the Black Flyers are sensitive to daylight. This is excellent depth of lore and it does not stop there because dwarves live in mountain mines, dwarves and elves use different languages and, in a Tolkien-esque touch, there are multiple names for things and places which are stated in both Elven and Dwarven languages. Very intelligent stuff. There is an amusing moment when you can meet the rather irrational goddess Thyra Migurn who creates storms to antagonise the Dwarves because she disapproves of them mining the mountains and there are even a few almost Cthulhu-influenced moments with horrific monstrosities such as the Xanthic Horror. There is one let-down as regards cameos though and that is that you cannot actually reach Sardath itself. There are plenty of opportunities to head for it, but the lake surrounding it has become very dangerous due to recent events and you can only get part of the way across before you have to turn back. I would have liked to have known about the city that the book takes its title from but, at the same time, this does make Sardath somewhat enigmatic which is not a bad thing. The various races create a well-designed system of interaction and the rarely explored world of north-east Allansia really comes to life. There is an unusual depth to the species detail at times especially with the three distinct types of spiders that are blighting the Forest Of Night and we get vivid descriptions of their behaviour which, logically, directly affects their motives towards you and their level of dangerousness. Elves get decent coverage too as the forest’s Wood Elves behave very differently to the evil Dark Elves which, in turn, have minor differences to their mutated version (Black Flyers). Equally, herblore comes to the fore as your ranger skills allow you to identify potential sources of food and healing and can also help you to contend with certain plants. Furthermore, the local lore can directly aid or hinder your progress (see comments on the fungus book page above). Linked into the concept of local lore and your ranger talents of course is the focus in this book on observation and close reading rather than brute force (the lack of an end baddie combat in favour of a war of words highlights this), so this all ties together very effectively.

Indeed, this is a very well-written book and you do get the feeling that Phillips was aiming for something (intellectually, at least) a cut above the usual FF fare. In this sense it brings to mind a series such as Blood Sword which is very demanding on the reader both in design and in vocabulary terms. The words used in SoS are far from complex but this book just reads much more elegantly than the FF norm. A curiosity in how this book is written though becomes quickly apparent in the way that you will sometimes be given an option early in a paragraph. If you don’t want to pick this you can read on but you will find yourself reading on anyway and, in doing so, you then find out what happens if you don’t choose the first option. This gives you a weird second sight which can be a bit confusing. It would have been better to put this in another section even if this resulted in exceeding 400 paragraphs. There are also a few inconsistencies between the text and the art where the illustrations contradict what the corresponding section tells you. This is particularly noticeable when you meet the Wood Elves and you are told that your Elf friend has a scar over his right eye. In the image the scar is over his left eye. Is this an error or a clue that you are in fact talking to his evil doppelganger? Likewise, in the Dark Elf city we are told that part of it is under construction yet this is nowhere to be seen in the illustration which shows what appears to be a completed area. That aside though, the internal art is generally pretty effective although it seems a little lacking to me, but I can’t quite put my finger on why - perhaps the depth of the text exposes this more than was intended? This is not a big issue though and does not take anything away from the book as a whole. The cover art, however, is largely uninteresting and, other than telling us that Elves might come into the equation, could not be much further from reflecting the book’s contents.

At this point, I have to mention two moments that really jar with me. One is a literal error in that section 171 (in first printings at least, which my copy is) is inaccessible, although this was apparently fixed in subsequent printings. It is not a massive mistake, but it can mean that you get sent in the wrong direction if you handle the Slime Mould encounter in the forest in a particular way. The second bothers me much more and that is the key moment when you find an eagle in the mountains. You need to be carried by it to Corianthus’ castle and the text asks you to write down what you choose to do to show it that you are friendly. Are you really going to think of something as abstract as “Hold up the Brass Key”? Oh yeah, because eagles are known to take brass keys as a gesture of good will, aren’t they? This is so obscure as to be the sort of ludicrous command that you used to have to type into classic text adventures! Yet another thing that evidences just how indescribably hard this book really is.

So then, SoS has a wholly deserved reputation for being very difficult and it is one of the hardest gamebooks in the FF series, but not for the conventional reasons that we normally associate with tough gamebooks. For this, Phillips must be applauded as he has taken hidden section elements from Steve Jackson’s harder books, mixed in a bit of Keith Martin maths trickery, added some Ian Livingstone shopping lists and obscure enigmas, and made the mixture his own by taking it all to the next level and creating something very cerebral that will tax even the most adept at seeing through gamebook tricks and traps. Moving the emphasis away from hard combats and onto seriously challenging puzzles makes for a very original book that is memorable for its combination of lore, exciting pacing, varied events, and excellent prose. It is certainly not perfect as the true path involves solving some stuff that is a bridge too far for anyone that isn’t some sort of super-genius but, once you’ve given up (which is likely) and read the solution you cannot help but be impressed by its intricacies and how brilliantly designed this book really is. The desire to win will keep you thinking and encourage replay and this is a book that, thanks to its many qualities, deserves to be explored and unravelled thoroughly. SoS cannot be put in the ranks of the very best FFs because its solution is so obscure that I can’t believe many people have beaten it without cheating, but it is certainly well above average and is outstandingly well-written. If you want a real brain-teaser but can’t face the extremities of Casket Of Souls then this is the gamebook for you. Plus, if this is representative of what Phillips is capable of gamebook-wise, then it's a real shame that he did not write any others for the series.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Lloyd of Gamebooks April A to Z 2017...

If you fancy reading a short interview with Yours Truly, follow this link to the excellent Lloyd Of Gamebooks blog:

Click Here!

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

#39: Fangs Of Fury


Luke Sharp

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Luke Sharp’s final FF book to date is the third in a trilogy linked by being set in the same general south-western Khul location and by the wizard Astragal, a man who seems to spend a huge amount of his time saving the local area from destruction. This time you begin in the citadel of Zamarra having just volunteered to save the region from an evil alliance of the luridly-named Ostragoth the Grim and his insane wizard side-kick Jaxartes. Zamarra is under siege and, normally, the citadel is protected by six Stone Sentinels who guard it with their fiery breath. The flame itself originates from the titular Fangs Of Fury (a volcano) but it has been extinguished leaving the citadel defenceless. Your mission is to break through the siege somehow, get yourself to the mountains where the Fangs Of Fury are, relight the flame using a special torch that Astragal has given you, and thusly allow Zamarra to avoid falling to Ostragoth’s hordes. To make things that little bit more tricky (and to ensure that you don’t simply just run off) you are fitted with a bracelet that glows every time one of the citadel’s fourteen walls is breached – once the last wall has fallen the bracelet will kill you. So, perhaps volunteering for this task was not the wisest move then!

The premise of this book has distinct echoes of LS’ previous two Khul-based FFs (#30 Chasms Of Malice and #35 Daggers Of Darkness) with its combination of seemingly lost cause and race against time, but this time the plot is bordering on being slightly silly. OK, volunteering for a mercy mission is classic gamebook fodder and the bracelet/walls mechanic gives you a sense of urgency and regularly reiterates your purpose, but if you begin to think about the concept too much it becomes rather far-fetched. The most obvious question is why is the volcano so far away from the Stone Sentinels and how the hell does the flame get all the way down to the citadel from it? But there is another odd element to the (admittedly dense) premise too. Your main allies are a religious group called the Wazarri and you need to find them and get their help to complete the mission. For reasons that are never made clear, their symbol is a cube (more on this later) and they cannot mention the religion’s name or else they will die within seven days - is that not just hugely impractical for followers? You do have to wonder whether the depth of the material here is by design or because LS has just randomly written a load of ideas on bits of paper, thrown them all up in the air, and used whatever landed face up. Yes, there’s plenty here to build an interesting world, but it makes very little real sense all mixed together into this particular concoction.

Whatever you might make of the basic ideas here, there is no doubt that a lot of effort has gone into at least making sure you know exactly what it is you are trying to achieve and constantly reinforcing this. You could be forgiven for initially being a bit confused as the rules tell you that you have 4 Black Cubes, can collect various types of jewels, and explains the citadel wall mechanic, all before you read the six pages of background spiel, but the introduction leaves you knowing exactly what the deal is which is a relief as otherwise this could have become incomprehensible before you’d even turned to section 1. What then follows (the adventure proper) involves you escaping the siege, then making your way (via various helpers and hinderers) to the volcano itself to reignite the flame, whilst en route you must also avoid being captured (you become increasingly wanted as the mission progresses) and kill Jaxartes. For some reason, Ostragoth never comes into the equation, but your real purpose is lighting the flame so I can just about accept this one loose end. Key to your success is the acquisition of as many Black and White Cubes as possible. Black Cubes make you impervious to fire (handy in a volcano) and White Cubes seem to be a sort of mystical indication of how enlightened you have become. Obviously then, Black Cubes will stop you from dying, but the less obvious White Cubes actually serve to determine how tricky or not your path through the Fangs Of Fury themselves will be at the end.

So there are three primary functions at work here: 1) do not allow the citadel to fall (or you will die); 2) protect yourself from fire with Black Cubes (or you will die); 3) make the end as easy as possible for yourself by achieving inner knowledge (or whatever) through White Cubes (or you could well die). Summarised like this, it seems that this is going to be yet another heavily-stacked-against-you gamebook but, curiously, that is not the case and, if anything, Fangs Of Fury is one of the easiest books in the entire FF series to complete. Black Cubes are in such abundance that you will almost never die by burning. White Cubes actually make the black ones seem scarce as, due to how they are found, they are literally everywhere that has an accompanying illustration once you pass the point where they are explained to you. And, it seems to be effectively impossible to manage to get all fourteen walls destroyed, so the bracelet is realistically never going to kill you, even if you take an unnecessarily long-winded routed. These three elements alone would make this very easy as they are the central maguffins of the book. But the book’s method of going easy on you does not end there. Most fights are very easy and, at the very least, involve low-Skill foes – even Jazartes only has a Skill of 10 – and there are no fights at all with more than one simultaneously-attacking opponent. There are a huge number of ways to regain Stamina and many of these are disproportionately generous (often 4 or 6 points are awarded) which, when joined to the fact that you get the requisite 10 Provisions and the usual choice of three Potions at the start, makes failure by Stamina loss quite unlikely. Skill and Luck boosts can also be found, along with the occasional bonus that even lets you exceed Initial scores. Plus, there is no true path and there are umpteen ways of getting through which are made all the easier by having several substitute options if you should be missing certain items or knowledge at key critical moments that, in any other book, would be win or lose situations. Granted, Sharp cannot resist several instant deaths by failing Luck tests (and a high Luck is very useful, but not a prerequisite, to success) and his trick of having you roll dice to establish a layout of a trap or a length of something to be negotiated, then have you counter-roll against these to determine success or failure, is back again, but this is about all the challenge that this book really presents. Indeed, I only count seven instant death sections that can be reached by misadventure, which is very low by any FF’s standards.

So then, all the elements of this book that should present you with obstacles to success negate themselves by presenting just about everything on a plate. However, there is something very important that needs to be said at this point and that is the methods by which the book presents these to you. Firstly, there is the White Cube hunt. Never have I known a FF book (and that statement includes Keith Martin and Jonathan Green’s FFs that occasionally employ the mechanic) that relies so heavily on the reader’s observation in finding clues hidden in the internal art and this is a feature of this book that I cannot praise enough. To find White Cubes you must scrutinise every illustration for sets of White Cubes that are strung together. If you see some, you roll a dice and get that many cubes. Yes, they are everywhere and there are very few pictures without them but some are quite cunningly hidden (one has them in two sections, the string having broken) and you do have to be far more observant here than in any other FF book. In fact, this idea is much closer to those used in Fantasy Questbooks and it really makes this outing feel unique in its execution. Similarly, the Wazarri use a written pictogram language that, if you decode it, helps you avoid traps in the later stages of the book. For me this does not work anything like as well as the White Cube gimmick as it involves flicking back and forth between the picture that explains the characters and wherever you are whilst you try to match the sometimes unclear pictograms to their solutions. Furthermore, if you do take the time to decipher them, they all make the book even easier so this is a mixed blessing really, plus they are basically just semaphore so can hardly be called original. That said though, it does add another layer to the puzzle-cracking features of this book and it does give you something to focus on in a later playthrough. Less obvious (as you can only find it once) is the solution to a frankly annoying maze that you must get through to access the Fangs by a particular route (although even this is avoidable). The map to the maze is in an earlier illustration and shows the locations of the six objects you need to operate the door mechanism that opens into the Fangs. Without the map (and some pictographic prompts) the maze quickly grows exasperating and I have to say that, once you find the numerical code, the paragraph you are sent to does not make it entirely clear that you have got it right. This would have been a very tricky section to negotiate but even this is reduced to being fairly straightforward.

On the subject of the maze, there are only two parts of this book that detract from what is otherwise a very interesting and imaginative collection of locations and encounters. The maze we have covered. The other more problematic part is the initial siege, which seems to go on forever. On the one hand, this is a good thing as it should not be simple trying to break through a siege unscathed. However, there are so many different interconnected ways out (pretend to join the opposing army, steal a horse, defect in a boat, etc) and they go on for so long that I have to admit to having lost interest in this book several times in initial playthroughs as I just couldn’t seem to find an end to running about all over the place in a bid to escape the siege. I must have played it half a dozen times before I found the staying power to get beyond this stage which is a shame as most of the remainder of this book is great. Paragraph 207 even has a wry nod to the length of this part when it says “You are amazed at the difficulty you are having getting away from the siege”. You’re not kidding Luke! Although “difficulty” is not the right word as the siege is not hard to escape, it just takes ages and is not especially exciting. Get past this though and the rest of the book is well worth the effort mixing perils (eg: you keep finding your face on “Wanted” posters), humourous asides (eg: a giant who is looking for “Djack” and keeps saying “Fee-fi-fo-fum” and an Elf festival called the Feast Of Bradyliam ie Liam Brady, so Sharp is an Arsenal fan, right?), intelligent moments of mysticism (eg: Wazarri encounters and a focus on finding “The True Way”, not that there is one in this book lol) and your gradual building-up of information to help you reach the end (made all the more involving through the sheer number of visual puzzles). There is a lot going on here and, whilst not all of it seems to mesh, the fundamental concept stays very much to the fore throughout and you never feel that you are anything but focussed on your singular goal.

The sheer variety of interesting material, along with the fact that just about any path you take can potentially still result in victory makes this book eminently replayable. Its ease means that it is not soul-destroying as you never feel that you are vainly trying to win (like so many gamebooks can be) but its non-linearity makes it a book that you can go back to over and over again as you try to find everything on offer and some cameos (especially the Elf trial that wins you the fun-packed elfwings) are very fiendishly hidden. It is even possible to lose your all-important torch and have to go on a side-quest to explore the Dragonmen’s caves in a bid to amass a huge amount of treasure to get enough money to buy back the torch for 500 gold coins. Indeed, once fully mapped-out this book is huge and not one paragraph is wasted. There are even aside paths where several choices are given, but certain options lead to extra perils before returning you back to where you would otherwise have gone.

If I do have a sight criticism of this book that would be LS’ off-hand prose style, which is a problem with all his books, and his sentence structure can be overly curt and to the point. Consequentially, some key moments leave you wanting for detail, the all-important flame in particular, which has no description or image, even when you are right in front of it. Given how much of the book relies on the art it would have been useful to have a bit more extemporisation of this key moment. That said, this book demonstrates none of LS’ usual excesses that make his books so frustrating and, whilst Daggers Of Darkness is his most impressive as it seems tighter and makes more sense, Fangs Of Fury is definitely his easiest, most accessible and most enjoyable gamebook (what can’t be fun about using flaming wand swords?), and this is a million miles away from the awkward humour/satire of Star Strider and the utterly awful boring unfairness of Chasms Of Malice.

As an aside, there is one very odd moment that seems to be an error when paragraph 5 has you fight your own exact replica with the same stats as yourself. This can be a tough fight if you are strong but it is balanced by definition as neither side has any advantage at all. The problem comes if you die as you are given choices of sections to turn to whether you win or lose rather than just ending your adventure by dying. Should this section not specify that any damage taken in this fight is illusory in that case, as you do not get resurrected afterwards if you “die”? Odd.

Sharp’s three medieval FFs are all set in a region of Khul that no other FF author has ever used and the locations have a unique feel about them with their mixture of slightly Eastern tropes and region-restricted creatures that cross-populate his books such as the ubiquitous Griphawks and Fangtigers. Indeed, one image/moment in this book even has someone riding a Fangtiger, mirroring the cover and incident from the previous Daggers Of Darkness. Ditto, Garks make a welcome return again here. There are also some unique creatures in this book which add variety rather than just re-treading the same old territory and the stand-outs are the treasure-coveting Dragonmen (Black Cubes are handy here, needless to say). I always like to see coherent inter-linking between FFs and this is definitely one of Sharp’s big strengths. There is even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where a Death-Spell Dagger turns up!

The final section is worth its own mention and the end “showdown” is very unusually handled. The Fangs have seven different possible entry Levels and where you enter depends on how enlightened you are (ie how many White Cubes you have found). The lower the Level of entry, the more dangerous the path and Level 1 is particularly long and dangerous, although Level 3 can lead to an almost as long route if you take a wrong turn. Naturally, seven different entry points adds another seven different alternative routes to an adventure that has already offered a plethora of different paths just to get to the volcano itself. This means yet more replayability, of course. Similarly, there is no end baddie battle to have to deal with (normally at a stage where you will be very weak) and literally all you have to do is relight the flame and you will win. Yes, this is easy, but something other than an insanely hard end fight makes a nice change in an FF book.

The internal art in this book is David Gallagher’s first outing as an interior artist (although he had drawn a few FF covers previously). Obviously, as the art is so central to the book’s concept and solutions you would anticipate something rather elaborate, but, oddly, Gallagher’s art here rarely rises above being workmanlike and functional. Thankfully, this does not affect the importance that the art plays here, but it mostly seems a bit insipid and lacking in depth and, particularly, any backgrounds. Likewise his dingy cover illustration does not inspire you to want to pick this book up which is a shame as the contents are well worth discovering.

Fangs Of Fury is a book that I really like. It is very enjoyable and, whilst very easy, its huge amount of replayability and diversity makes it worth the effort to play over and over, assuming you have the patience to not give up during the overlong siege. Your characterisation is well thought-out and, whilst you are certainly not useless, you definitely know the value of acquiring knowledge and help as much as possible and for once you are not the best of the best this time around. This is one of the few series entries where low stats are unlikely to make much difference to your chances of winning and it is very fair on the player. The huge game map adds to the value even if the bizarre plot premise might leave you scratching your head as you try to rationalise it. In summary, this is no masterpiece (only one of the books in the 30s, Vault Of The Vampire, could ever be said to be such), but it is certainly a lot of fun and is a real pleasure to play.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Malthus Dire YouTube Channel

As a companion to this Blog page I have created a YouTube channel to try to assemble various disparate gamebook-related videos from around the internet and get them all in one place.

There is no real limit to its scope, but so far I have assembled:

  • The three known circulating episodes of the LE CHEVALIER DU LABYRINTHE, the French version of KNIGHTMARE
  • The five known circulating episodes of the EL RESCATE DEL TALISMAN, the Spanish version of KNIGHTMARE
  • The only known circulating episode of KNIGHTMARE's immediate successor, the aptly-named VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE
  • A short clip (again, all that's circulating) from the beginning of Tim Child/Broadsword's CYBERZONE
  • A few very brief snippets (yet again, all that's circulating) of an episode of Tim Child/Broadsword's TIMEBUSTERS
  • The original TV advert for the LEGEND OF ZAGOR boardgame
  • Three walkthroughs of FF ZX Spectrum adaptations: REBEL PLANET, TEMPLE OF TERROR and THE FOREST OF DOOM
  • Two episodes from Series 1 of BBC1's slightly over-ambitious interactive fiction experiment WHAT'S YOUR STORY along with a short profile of the series
  • Excerpts of an episode from Series 2 of WHAT'S YOUR STORY
  • The 4 1/2 circulating episodes of BSB's hardly-watched, rather awkward, and remarkably dull Sci-Fi spin-off of KNIGHTMARE called THE SATELLITE GAME
  • Videos of the two panel discussions from 2014's FIGHTING FANTASY FEST - The History Of FF and The Art Of FF
  • ...with more to come hopefully

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

You Are The Hero - A History Of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks


Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

It is now well over two years since this book came out and, as the dust seems to have finally settled, enough time has now passed to be able to take a more rational view of something that was initially being greeted in a rather nostalgically doe-eyed manner. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign that offered the usual choice of very simple (pdf of book) through to rather more elaborate (lunch with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone at a London restaurant) rewards, the book was launched at the first Fighting Fantasy Fest on 7th September 2014 in London, an event which the more cynical might try to suggest was fundamentally a book launch, but that grew into rather more than that (but that’s another story.)

Divided into 30 chapters, this large format coffee table tome follows the history of Fighting Fantasy in roughly chronological order although, by necessity, some themed chapters break up the timeline to avoid awkward jumps between sub-series (AFF, novels, etc) that would have resulted in a less logical and structured design.

Starting at the beginning of the FF story, the opening two chapters cover the very early days of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s working and playing relationship, documenting their importing of Dungeons & Dragons from the US, the establishment of Games Workshop, and the process behind the creation of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain. These chapters are really fascinating and are probably the sections of greatest interest to the more-than-casual FF fan as this is where a lot of the juicy background detail that many would not be aware of is to be found and this is made all the more factually credible by the sheer amount of narrative material drawn from interviews with the four key players of the era: Jackson and Livingstone themselves, plus Penguin’s protagonists Geraldine Cooke and Philippa Dickinson. There are many early photographs (SJ and IL both very young and looking very ‘70s whilst clutching the first D&D rule set, the queue awaiting the opening of the first Games Workshop, etc) and much documentary material such as early hand-drawn maps, treatments, etc to satisfy the most demanding of FF fans in their search for obscure historical detail. I think this is the section of the book that I enjoyed the most as, other than the small amount of information given in Wizard’s 25th Anniversary edition of WOFM, this was all stuff that I did not previously know and is a real treasure trove.

The sudden runaway success of FF was a surprise to pretty much everybody at the time and the third chapter explores this whilst focussing on the second and third books (The Citadel Of Chaos, The Forest Of Doom) which naturally means there is a lot of information offered about these two books too. This is to be expected though as we, again, are treated to proposals, treatments, maps, etc and a wealth of first person anecdotes from SJ and IL to flesh out the story in welcome depth. FoD’s superb Iain McCaig cover segues neatly into a chapter ostensibly about FF art profiling some of the artists involved in the development of the series: Russ Nicholson, Iain McCaig, John Blanche and Martin McKenna. RN is an obvious choice as he was the first FF artist and encapsulates for me what the initial visual concept of FF is really about. IM is probably the most legendary so he needed to be included. JB’s art is so stylistically unique that it is well worth covering, plus he inked all of the Sorcery! books so, again, featuring him makes sense. McKenna, though, is a less obvious choice. Personally I think McKenna’s Hammer-influenced art is outstanding but he only really came to prominence in the later Puffin and more recent new Wizard books. Whilst he is certainly the best of the later artists I have a suspicion that he is included because of his close work with Jonathan Green (more on this subject later) as I would not regard him as one of the biggies of FF art. Intertwined with the IM profile is the opportunity to chronicle the three back-to-back books that he did the cover art (and internals in the first two cases) for - City Of Thieves, Deathtrap Dungeon, Island Of The Lizard King – and each book gets about one page devoted to it which is rather less coverage than the initial three books get, but we are into the “business as usual” stage of the series now and pages on end on each book would just get ungainly after a while, so this makes sense.

Having given John Blanche his own sub-chapter (see above), the book’s fifth chapter proper is devoted to the story behind and around the Sorcery! side series of four books and, as with WOFM, there is not much you won’t know about their history after reading this chapter. The Sorcery! books are held in very high esteem by FF fans and are an epic in their own right and FF’s only attempt at a proper ongoing saga so the story of FF would hardly have been complete without a chapter given over to them.

From this point onwards the coverage of each individual gamebook becomes rather unbalanced, with some getting two page write-ups (Creature Of Havoc, Beneath Nightmare Castle) whilst others, especially those from 30 upwards, sometimes get as little as two short paragraphs (Master Of Chaos is a case in point). It seems to me that JG has tried to play up to the perceived general consensus opinion of each particular book as if the reader might not care to hear too much about the “lesser” books and would prefer expansive information on the series’ generally accepted high points. There is a difference between critical and documentary writing and I for one would be just as interested to hear the full story behind a book I hate playing as I would a book I think is a masterpiece. We get some idea, for example, from Luke Sharp about why Chasms Of Malice is so insanely difficult but we don’t get an insight into the end-to-end creative processes involved in putting this book together (LS’ books are very distinct in their mechanics) in the same way as we do for certain other higher-profile books. I know I’ve already acknowledged that there is a limit to how vast YATH could realistically be, but a bit more balance in describing each book would have been preferred. Chapters 11 and 14 give brief overviews of books 20 thru 39 and 40 thru 49 respectively, whilst Chapters 6 and 7 take the approach of Chapter 4 and weave the next few books in the series into other parts of the story.

Books 8 thru 11 are grouped in with the FF RPG book, The Riddling Reaver, Out Of The Pit and Titan – The Fighting Fantasy World which sits a bit awkwardly as these latter books were not contemporary with the formers. Still, we get a page or so on each which tells us just about enough, although House Of Hell takes centre stage and gets far more coverage, but its unique status within the series justifies a bit more information being necessary. The next medieval entries in the series (14, 16 and 19) get lumped in with a chapter on maps which may seem odd, but does work reasonably well as the real point of the chapter is the world-building that was very much in place by this point in the series. You don’t need maps if there’s no unifying concepts or location, but you do need maps if you want to be able to properly visualise and contextualise where these adventures are taking place and the relationship between these places.

From here on in, the scope of the book begins to broaden in keeping with the ever-expanding franchising of FF. The short-lived Warlock magazine gets its own chapter including a brand-new exclusive Derek The Troll cartoon (that is actually very amusing, incidentally), as do the side projects of Tasks Of Tantalon, Casket Of Souls and the sole two-player FF Clash Of The Princes. Likewise, the two series of FF novels, Marc Gascoigne’s (and more recently, Graham Bottley’s) Advanced Fighting Fantasy series, the two boardgames, and the abysmal kiddies’ FF series The Adventures Of Goldhawk, all also get a chapter each which, again, leaves no stone unturned in documenting the series’ output in its first (Puffin) era.

Many fans consider the handful of Sci-Fi offerings in the series to be anything from comparatively weak through to almost non-existent (although I personally really like Rebel Planet and Robot Commando) so it comes as no surprise that these books are dealt with in their own separate chapter as they literally “stand alone” by being non-Titan books. I am glad to say that, unlike the short-shrift YATH gives to some of the books, the Sci-Fi books are covered in detail with equal input from their authors and artists. Whilst we may not be very interested in playing many of the Sci-Fi books, a full page on each is justified as it does give us a very different angle on the creation and development of this part of the series, even if reading about the Sci-Fi books is, for the most part, more interesting than playing them!

To slightly break up the chronological presentation of the story, Chapter 13 sort of jumps forward in time (taking into account that Chapter 14 covers books 40 thru 49) and tells the story of what SJ and IL largely got up to post-FF. SJ’s telephone bill-guzzling RPG FIST and his elaborate BattleCards series are detailed and IL’s various video game and benevolent activities are documented which shows there is more to them (and to the story) than just churning out product for Puffin. It also proves that they did not just sit on their backsides and count the money once the series was in decline but that, instead, they maintained their interests and continued to get involved in fresh and worthwhile projects of diverse types. After all, and the first chapter bears witness to this, YATH is as much the story of SJ and IL as it is of a franchised gamebook universe.

FF’s decline in the mid-90s is a depressing, if unavoidable subject, and it is one which is treated in a factual and pragmatic fashion be it through the brief elation of Chapter 16’s 10th Anniversary comeback, through the declining years of Chapter 17’s coverage of books 51 thru 58 (the only one of which that gets any real depth of analysis being JG’s debut book #53 Spellbreaker – go figure!), and the final inevitable fall of Puffin’s axe at Green’s book 59 which gets half of Chapter 19 to itself… well, I guess it is historically important in the sense that we need to know how it came to be the last one. The second half of this chapter is devoted to the endlessly-told story of the 60th book that never was, another JG effort, Bloodbones, but, again, the historical relevance justifies its being recounted, even if Chapter 19 is essentially just JG talking about himself.

This leads neatly into a full chapter on the subject of the books that never were and, pleasingly, in most cases JG has gathered a lot of previously unheard first-hand information and back story from those authors who would have written these lost books had they ever seen the light of day. This is another essential chapter for hardcore fans as it makes for quite tantalising and intriguing reading and is good fodder to inspire amateur FF writers to attempt to interpret some of these enigmatic subjects that we will probably never see officially. For me, the idea of a third mandrake book is hugely appealing, whilst The Keeper Of The Seven Keys is surely one of FF’s sorest losses as this would have been a big step forward conceptually for gamebooks.

The remainder of the book covers FF’s rebirth in the 2000s, starting with the story behind Wizard and Myrador’s resurrections of the series which leads to a full chapter covering the genuinely new books released in Wizard’s first and second iterations: Eye Of The Dragon, Bloodbones, Howl Of The Werewolf, Stormslayer, Night Of The Necromancer. It doesn’t take a genius to release that most of this chapter centres around JG himself again but Martin McKenna and Tony Hough get a lot of attention in this chapter too, which makes Chapters 22 and 23 feel just about balanced.

Chapter 24 is a bit strained for me. The title suggests it’s about the series’ 25th Anniversary but, as there is not much to say on that subject other than the commercial failure of the hardback Special Edition of WOFM, most of this chapter is given over to a rambling analysis of the evolution of the FF logo. OK, it’s a sort of salient point but it’s a pretty minute detail in reality and I found my interest waning now for the first time. Similarly, the next chapter which covers fandom also seems a bit forced to me. On the one hand, the rebirth of FF (and gamebooks generally) that we saw in the early 2000s would never have happened were it not for avid fan support but an entire chapter on fan activity seems unnecessary although it does allow for lots of fan sound-bites to satisfy a couple of the Kickstarter’s reward level promises so it was unavoidable really. There is a particular part of this section though that really irks me and that is the two frankly wasted pages given over to utterly crass and wildly unfunny comedy cover titles which wreaks of desperation at filling up space, can be found online easily, and is frankly of no relevance to the subject matter as a whole as they are simply something someone created for a laugh. Also, I’m not going to dwell on this point, but there is no mention of a certain Malthus Dire blog in the list of prominent blogs – clearly I need to do more!

Chapter 26 is an interesting one more for gamebook collectors rather than those who are just casually following the story as it tries to go some to drawing together the vast amount of foreign FF releases over the years. As this is a huge topic it would take an entire book just to do this justice so JG sensibly makes general reference to countries where FF was sold, giving teasers of foreign title translations and a representative nice gallery of cover art from around the world including the infamous bonkers Manga “camel toe” cover for the Japanese version of Deathtrap Dungeon which has to be seen to be believed. This chapter serves as a good entry-level point for anyone wanting to attempt to negotiate their way through collecting international editions of FF which is a real minefield. If I have a criticism of any part of this chapter it would be that the foreign title translations use the awkward and overly-literal versions as given on Titannica and do not take into account “proper” nuances of translation which would make the titles seem less jarring.

The history in terms of product would not be complete without a section devoted to computer game adaptations and the next chapter covers this in good detail. As FF computer versions first appeared in 1984 with the tenuously-linked WOFM ZX Spectrum game and are still in production now with Tin Man’s Android apps, this part of the story covers most of the timeline of FF so placing it logically was quite a challenge and where it is near the end was probably the only real option for the author. Various cover shots, adverts and promotional photo shoots are included making this a very thorough and, especially in the case of the story of the PlayStation/PC version of Deathtrap Dungeon, quite enlightening chapter. There is nothing particularly new or unknown in this section, but having it all in one place with even the relatively obscure Big Blue Bubble and Laughing Jackal releases getting a mention is handy.

One of the biggest things on my FF wish list (and probably many other fans’) is a FF film and Chapter 28 talks about abortive attempts at making these, with particular focus on the House Of Hell movie that got as far as pre-production a few years ago and the still not yet realised Turn To 400 documentary film (some interviews for this were being shot at FFF incidentally.) We get tantalising information about a possible Deathtrap Dungeon movie too as well as a brief nod to ITV’s classic Knightmare series which effectively shows the sheer scale of impact of gamebooks in the 1980s and early 1990s. Whilst some may say that this chapter is rather conjectural as none of this has got very far it is fun reading about what might have happened (and maybe still will at some point) and it is still a valid part of the story showing how FF has always tried to follow technological fashions and progress, even in its less commercial eras. The success of the Knightmare Live stage show shows that you should never give up on these things for as long as there are fans looking for new product.

FF’s newest official 100% new gamebook release to date is 2012’s Blood Of The Zombies and the story essentially comes to a close with Chapter 29 which discusses the development story of this book in great depth (which is neat book-ending with the thorough story we get of WOFM’s creation at the start of the book) and leaves no stone unturned. Obviously, information is easier to get as this is a recent release and fandom was rabid already unlike the pre-WOFM era meaning we all remember it vividly and there is a wealth of photographic and anecdotal material available from umpteen sources to give us all we could ever possibly need to know about BotZ. Rather awkwardly though, this chapter is rounded-off with a section on the book you are actually reading, YATH. Can a history of FF include itself in the story? Does this maybe seem a little bit post-modern in approach? I’m undecided but I think it would have been more appropriate to exclude mentioning YATH as it would have been better to maintain a distance of sorts. However, given that the material included mostly covers a high-price backer tier for the Kickstarter that funded YATH, JG was no doubt obligated to include this but do we really care about a fan meal with SJ and IL? OK, include backers’ quotations by all means, they have paid for the privilege after all and fan’s comments add colour to the whole story of FF, but I don’t really care about a fan meal and I doubt many others than those who were there will either. This chapter should have stuck to the facts about BotZ and avoided the subject of how part of the funding for the book you are reading was gathered.

Finally, the closing chapter (number 30 of 30) briefly pontificates on FF’s legacy which is a good way to summarise the story and draw the book to a clean conclusion to prevent the more casual reader from wondering what came next had the book ended with chapter 29’s ongoing subject matter.

I have always been impressed by JG’s dense prose style that he uses in his gamebooks, but biography requires a lighter more journalistic way of writing and the conversational approach used throughout YATH is perfect for the subject and idiom. Quotations are seamlessly incorporated into the text and enhance the story in a way that only primary sources really ever can and there is good balance between narrative and comment. Occasionally, JG allows his own views (under the banner of the accepted fan opinion) to show through and I would have preferred to see a totally neutral angle on the books as we all have our opinions and even the generally accepted best and worse books have their admirers. Some writers/artists are quoted much more often (and in more detail) than others, although this is naturally limited by how much anyone said/remembered and the reality that some are dead or seemingly uncontactable or just unavailable for comment so JG could only realistically work with what he could gather. Fan comments are used sparingly (as are occasional fan photos) and the main text body is broken up with side panels full of fascinating factoids for the reader to digest as well as an abundance of colour images.

One of the real bonuses in this book is the way that so many cover images are blown up to full page size and this really emphasises their content and shows just how impressive and detailed much of the colour FF cover art really is. Every book’s cover is shown in one form or another and there are plenty of black and white internal art samples on show too to allow as many artists as possible to get some exposure. In addition, we are treated to previously unseen concept and WIP art as well as a few brand new commissions including Martin McKenna’s stunning new cover with its assemblage of all the main antagonists from the FF world and a new monochrome side-on view of Zagor by Russ Nicholson. Art-wise JG has really gone to town in collecting a huge array of drawn and photographic material and the visual side of this book is first rate, especially as it’s also beautifully printed on good quality paper which makes the colours really vivid and there are no blurred or second-rate images anywhere, even the reproductions of early photos are as good as they could be.

If I have one over-riding niggle with this book (and it is just a niggle and is not a comment on any aspect of the quality by any means) it is that JG tries to make it about himself in places, for example name-checking his own titles within commentaries on approaches taken in other authors’ books, where cross-referencing otherwise does not seem to happen. A bigger point in case is in those places where he interviews himself which are at best quaint when he refers to himself in the third person and at worst seem smug. It may have been more objective to avoid these comparisons and exclude the interview-myself-in-a-mirror quotations completely, especially as JG’s contribution to the original Puffin cycle (and I am not making any reference in this statement to the actual inherent pros and cons of his books) came very late on as the series was on its last legs and are not part of its heyday, as such. Yes, all but two of the new renaissance Wizard books are by him, but a totally objective view giving straight facts might have seemed less narcissistic. JG has written some superb FF books, I do not deny this, but, as I say, he is very new blood in the timeline and I can name many other FF authors (and artists) whose contributions to the “classic” era when FF was at its height of success, warrant much more attention (notwithstanding the obvious unlikelihood of getting hold of Keith Martin who is not far behind SJ and IL in terms of the volume and scale of his contribution to the core series.)

YATH is an undeniably impressive achievement, no matter how you look at it. It is very well written, looks stunning, and includes a vast wealth of facts and imagery that will offer something new to even the most knowledgeable of FF super-fans. I have read it umpteen times and I never tire of it. It is not unrealistic to expect to be able to read it in one sitting and it flows so well and is so compelling that it really is very hard to put it down once you’ve started reading it. Each read-through shows up something new to discover that you missed previously and it can work just as well as a picture book for flicking through and simply admiring the genius of FF’s portfolio of artists. Naturally, there are chapters that will interest a given reader more or less than others, but an exhaustive history of this nature that tries to appeal to both the casual reader and the expert at the same time will never be 100% perfect without making it focus on one reader demographic. Anal levels of detail throughout would quickly alienate a general reader whilst a too facile high-level approach would be of no use at all to what I suspect is most of its likely readership, the mid-level to hardcore gamebook fan.

This is essential reading for anyone who loves FF and other than balancing out the coverage of each book more evenly and removing the references to itself I struggle to see how YATH could really have been any better.