Dark Tower from Milton Bradley is probably my favorite game of all time.
Aside from what I had seen in a few comic book print ads and the weird Orson Welles TV ad, I didn’t really know much about Dark Tower. When it arrived under the Christmas tree in 1981, the game hit right in the middle of the period of my life where I was already deep into D&D and all things fantasy. Looking back at holiday department store catalogs from that season, there was a lot for a young geek to wish for. A page from the Montgomery Ward holiday catalog from that year (below) not only shows Dark Tower, but also the D&D Computer Labryinth Game from Mattel and the Heritage Dungeon Dwellers sets about which I’ve previously written about in my retro posts on this blog.
Out of the box, this game became a family favorite with even my father, uncle and various other adult friends of the family crowding around the kitchen table for many an evening game with us kids. I can’t recall my dad ever playing another boardgame other than chess or maybe Monopoly with me as a kid, so there was obviously something very enticing indeed about this mystical game.
Dark Tower consisted of a plastic battery-operated black tower set in the middle of a circular game board divided into four kingdoms. Each player journeyed around the board fighting monsters, gathering treasure and searching for three keys before arriving back to their home kingdom and attempting to breach the doors of the Dark Tower.
With each move the player pushed a button on the tower’s keypad (above, left) and a series of rotating cylinders within the tower would rotate and light up with results (above, right). Collecting treasure, taking damage and adding to your adventurer’s force was tracked on thick cardboard cards with red plastic pegs. Low-tech digital sound effects also accompanied each move, encounter or effect, and to this day I find myself accossionally whistling the little tunes Dark Tower played.
I’m certain the tiny bundle of electronics buried in the tower is simple by today’s standards, but at the time we were in awe of how it tracked each player’s progress throughout the game. Entering a Bazaar space, the market would open and a player would have the option to bid and buy resources depending on the inventory and the amount of gold you had on hand. A player could haggle on price, but at times the merchant would just decide to cut you off and your turn would end abruptly. In other cases, a player would encounter marauding brigands and a battle would break out with victory determined by the size of your army and any special items you had on hand. All of this was tracked on your little card but the Dark Tower also kept tabs on all the goings on in the game. The Dark Tower was like a Dungeon Master powered by a couple batteries and it was truly amazing.
Despite its popularity, Dark Tower was a very short-lived game. A lawsuit over the design of the game led to some messy legal dealings between Milton Bradley and two game designers, and the game was finally yanked from distribution by 1985. To my mind and that of many other gamers, the quick death of Dark Tower is one of the great tragedies of modern toy manufacture. The game has managed to live on prominently in our hearts and minds, and across the country there are still old copies tucked into closets among much lesser games. There’s a copy on a high shelf at my parents’ house, and although I haven’t pulled it down to see if it still works after these many years, I feel better knowing that my copy of Dark Tower is still there.
Collector’s Note: Because its short period of commercial availablity, subsequent intellectual lawsuit and somewhat delicate electronics, copies of Dark Tower are highly sought after. On eBay, parts can go for $5-100 and complete working games in original condition can command over $1000. But it’s all worth it.