I was probably the tender age of around 10 when my oldest and dearest friend turned up with a new board game in a box of different dimensions to the kids stuff more usual in the mid 80’s. It was shorter and fatter, and would become probably the most influential board game of my collection.
I’d known Emile (like the guy who get’s eaten by acid in Robocop but with an “e”) since playgroup and we’re still great friends despite him being much better paid than me.
I’m guessing it was Emile’s older brother who bought him the game – he was 4 or 5 years older than us so I didn’t have much to do with him except the odd foray into his bedroom to play Atari and find hidden things that shocked and amused us in equal proportions.
The game was Warlock Of Fire Top Mountain – published in 1986, it was the board game version of Steve Jackson’s first Fighting Fantasy book.
So what makes Warlock of Firetop Mountain my most influential board game?
Up to this point I’m not sure whether I’d ever come across a Fighting Fantasy book – I recall Choose Your Own Adventure books being given away in packs of Weetabix a few years before, but these didn’t really grab me.
Warlock was very different from these. Essentially it’s an early Dungeon Crawler – albeit a very straight forward one with only a single a mission (Nab the Warlock’s booty!).
The game came with some nice plastic figures of people brandishing axes and so forth – but the thing that grabbed my attention most was the board itself which was made up of 6 interlocking sections.
Those familiar with Games Workshop board games of the period (such as Talisman 2nd Edition which has only 4 sections) will know they were certainly pushing the boat out.
Looking at the board artwork now it seems quite crude and rough, but at the time I just thought “Wow, that’s pretty cool!”.
There’s all this incidental detail and stuff going on in and around the rooms depicted – I really felt like I was staring down into a dark dungeon, a sensation I still experience with my favourite games.
It wasn’t just a board game where you moved an anonymous piece about. You actually created a character using the Fighting Fantasy rules and recorded them on your character sheet (which, of course, provides another excuse for some nice artwork!)
Being a bit of a dreamer anyway, these extra layers of complexity and imagery appealed to me greatly – here was a game somebody had actually thought about in detail, thematically as well as mechanically, instead of just doing the bare minimum.
The whole thing felt exclusive, secret and a bit illicit – It was as though only a few hardy adventurer types (i.e. geeky boys) would understand (i.e. bother with) this arcane system.
It was, and continues to be, a magical feeling.
How Do You actually play Warlock of FireTop mountain
If you’re not familiar with the Fighting Fantasy system, it’s sort of like a Dungeons & Dragons lite (Read this 2013 interview with Steve Jackson about the development of Fighting Fantasy – it’s fascinating, honest!).
You have 3 attributes instead of D&D’s 6 – Skill, Stamina and Luck. If you’re playing an FF book you’d be flicking back and forth, adding D6 die rolls to these to fight monsters and cheating your arse off when things didn’t go your way.
I’ve noticed in many “proper” games the first mechanic to be thrown out is the rolling of dice and moving that many spaces (even TSR’s Dungeon chucked that out) – Warlock obstinately retains this!
There’s something very charming about that – it doesn’t simulate anything (why would you be able to travel 5 spaces one turn, then only 2 the next?) but it eases the transition for newbies.
In many ways, mechanically, this game is a mess. I bought it on eBay in a fit of nostalgia around 2008 and I’m not at all sure we were playing it correctly as kids (either through enthusiasm or with good reason).
It incorporates a Cluedo-like system where you try to deduce which keys your opponents possess – the numbered keys come in at the end of the game when you reach the Warlock’s treasure chamber, where you must enter the correct combination code to unlock the chest with all the swag.
To get to the aforementioned treasure chamber you must traverse a maze made from tiles that are shuffled and placed face down – a sort of precursor to hex tiles later used to great effect in Kings and Things and, more famously, Settlers Of Catan (not even going to bother linking that!).
There is very little strategy involved in any of this which, for me, just takes the pressure and creates a real sense of adventure – it’s pretty much anyone’s game!
Where did my gaming journey go from there?
After playing this a few times with my friend and lucky (confused/bemused) family members, I got really excited.
I just loved the different flavour of this game (we’ll talk of my synesthesia in later posts) that I didn’t find in conventional games like Ludo, Monopoly or anything by MB.
Being a kid I was pretty impatient and I remember only a few weeks after playing it finding myself in WH Smiths looking for something that would satisfy this new calling.
Sadly I didn’t understand that in the mid-80s this type of game could only be found in specialist shops (making it even more exclusive and magical! – or maybe I did understand that, and was just in denial).
I ended up buying some appalling haunted house game by MB – Ghost Castle I think it was called. I’m not even going to bother to look up a link and give it the oxygen of publicity.
It had a 3-D tower down which you rolled a glow-in-the-dark skull to randomly knocked over playing pieces. Pitiful.
After this debacle, and a little more research, I found out where my friend’s brother purchased these amazing games – It was a shop called The Games Room in the nearby city of Norwich which deserves a post all of its own.
The shop owners, a couple of Canadian guys, were welcoming and fantastically helpful – quickly (and possibly tragically) recognising me as one of their own.
I walked out with a copy of Talisman and a slightly hungry look in my eye!
Does Warlock of Firetop Mountain still influence the way I think about gaming?
There were probably a number of influences dovetailing at this juncture in my life to make this game is so resonant for me.
It must have been around this time, for example, that my mum introduced me to the BBC radio adaptation of Lord of the Rings, diligently recording them off the radio on a shed load of cassettes for me.
(She also had second edition hardback copies of the trilogy with A3 fold out maps of Middle Earth, which proved surprisingly resistant to the effects of drool)
Obviously I’ve gone on to bigger and better things than Warlock. Indeed, Talisman, my first proper game purchase, is far more highly regarded – But, as with all first’s, Warlock of Firetop Mountain holds a special place in my heart.
It’s ludicrous, slightly Heath Robinson set of rules and mechanics go all the way through annoying and come out the other side, so you’re basically all just having a great adventure!
It’s been said that you’re always looking to replicate how you felt the first time you experienced something (I’m talking cultural phenomena here – nothing involving sticky residues) so there will always be a bit of me, when trying out a new game, that will be comparing it to Warlock of FireTop Mountain.