Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Crossbows and Catapults


In 1983, I was 15 years old and living in a heyday of gaming. I already had a few years of Dungeons & Dragons under my belt and I was starting to stretch into some other fantasy role-playing, board and miniatures games. Video games had also become a big part of my social life, both in my friends’ living rooms and in the arcades popping up in the malls and main streets near where I grew up.


Crossbows and Catapults as featured in a 1983 Sears catalog (only $12.99!)

Out of this early 80s mix of increasingly sophisticated RPG and video gaming came the decidedly low-tech Crossbows and Catapults from Lakeside Games. The basic play set came with a bunch of wonderful plastic toys representing enemy kingdoms of vikings and barbarians. Each side had a simple castle-like tower and loosely fitting bricks to construct a stronghold on a square mat depicting a moated island.


Crossbows and Catapults “Battle Set” components from basic instruction book

But the name of the game wasn’t Crossbows and Catapults for nothing, and that’s where the real fun of the game came in. The opposing sides were each armed with rubber band powered catapults and crossbows (really more like ballistas, but the alliterative name certainly looked better on the box). In alternating turns, players would fling and fire round carom discs at the opposing player’s stronghold and troops. Knocking over figures were scored as casualties and landing caroms in enemy territory allowed advances in raiding forces. The game was won when a player revealed and seized the treasure buried beneath the other player’s castle.


Components from the Crossbows and Catapults “Battle Set”

I’m fortunate to have a massive archive of well-kept childhood toys stored at my boyhood home, and I was recently able to dig through my surviving Crossbows and Catapults sets. All the rubber bands needed to be replaced, but everything else survives in near-perfect working order. Pieces from my decades old collection are shown in the pictures throughout this post.


Game set-up instructions from the Crossbows and Catapults “Battle Set”

I also managed to preserve all the original instruction books from the “Battle Set” base game and the various expansions which were subsequently released (some scans included here). The “Castle Outpost” contains larger towers with a rubber banded platform that pops figures and flags into the air if the door is hit by an incoming carom. In the “Trojan Horse” set, the catapult-tailed horse “explodes” from the sides when hit on the base of its front feet, and the accompanying crossbow-armed “battle shield” pops open when struck at the front. My favorite expansion, the “Battling Giants” set, came with 8-inch tall minotaur and cyclops models which fling caroms at the enemy by pushing a button at their backs.


Crossbows and Catapults “Castle Outpost” expansion  set


Crossbows and Catapults “Trojan Horse” expansion set


Crossbows and Catapults “Battling Giants” expansion set

Every Crossbows and Catapults expansion came with new rules and components for each side, allowing for a lot of additional play options on the floor battlefield. The expanded rules for each set allowed for standalone games or for incorporating the new pieces into the base “Battle Set” game. All the instructions also encouraged players to make up their own rules, something my brothers, friends and I did endlessly in our brief period of Crossbows and Catapults obsession.


H.G. Wells, author of “Little Wars,” and his friends wargaming on a parlor floor

In revisiting my teen delight over Crossbows and Catapults my mind went straight to the descriptions of early 20th-century gaming laid out in Little Wars by H.G. Wells. The tiny 1913 book is seen today as the formative basis for what would become miniatures wargaming in the coming decades. Building on the more abstract Kriegsspiel tradition of the early 1800s, the genesis moment for using toys in wargaming is described in the book as an idea of one of Wells’s friends:

“I believe that if one set up a few obstacles on the floor, volumes of the British Encyclopedia and so forth, to make a Country, and moved these soldiers and guns about, one could have rather a good game…”


Early 20th-century die-cast Britains spring-loaded 4.7 naval gun

As you read through the game descriptions and rules set forth by Wells, quite a number of similarities to Crossbows and Catapults arise. Rudimentary buildings or forts are placed on small boards, much like the plastic mats provided in Crossbows and Catapults. Resolving combat in the games played by Wells and his gentlemanly friends was commonly achieved through the firing of wooden pegs with the spring-loaded Britains 4.7 naval gun at opponent’s infantry, calvary, buildings and walls constructed of wooden blocks.

Seventy years after Little Wars, Crossbows and Catapults presented a very similar floor game. The rubber-band catapults and ballistas firing caroms at the soldiers, castles and plastic brick walls. In both games, proximity of infantry to artillery — a naval gun of Wells’s day or a catapult in the modern game — determines whether that piece may fire. The measurement of the play area as set forth by Wells and outlined in the Crossbows and Catapults basic rules are uncannily similar.


“Battleground: Crossbows and Catapults” re-release from 2007

The Crossbows and Catapults license passed through a number of game publishers over the years and was re-released as “Battleground: Crossbows and Catapults” in 2007. The game was modified and updated with orcs versus knights plus some redesigned components and additional expansion sets.

I had a chance to play with my Crossbows and Catapults sets again this past week, some 30 years after I first I bent down on my teenaged knees to do battle between barbarians and vikings. Playing with my nine-year-old son, all the fun of launching plastic discs at opposing armies came back. The game is largely a shoot-out of skill and aim wrapped around some still-nifty game pieces. In the early 1980s I didn’t know about Wells and his Little Wars floor games, but a hundred years on now I can see the connection, tradition and joy in commanding armies on the floor and flinging attacks with Crossbows and Catapults.

Collector’s Note: You can find the 1983 “Crossbows and Catapults Battle Set” in the original box for $50-200 on eBay, and many of the expansions can be picked up for around $20. The re-released “Battleground: Crossbows and Catapults” set from 2007 can also be had for about $50.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Dungeon!

In 1975, just a year after the release of Dungeons & Dragons, TSR Hobbies released the boardgame Dungeon!. The game mirrored many aspects of D&D’s dungeon-crawling framework while offering a much lower point of entry for players either new to the genre or looking to just play a quick game.

dungeonadI got a copy of Dungeon! after a couple years of spending hours playing D&D and painting my first lead miniatures from the likes of Ral Partha. Dungeon! offered a traditional boardgame format and came as an occasional break from the open-ended role-playing my friends and I were used to with D&D. Ads for the game at the time (left) were also pitching the game to families and casual gamers as a point of entry and enticement to the larger world D&D offered.

Playing as an Elf, Hero, Superhero or Wizard, players moved through six progressively-difficult levels, encountered random monsters and collected treasure. Each character class carried specific strengths and powers, with more powerful characters such as the Wizard or Superhero requiring greater treasure to win the game.

Large chambers such as the Kitchen, Crypt, King’s Library or Queen’s Treasure Room were surrounded by smaller rooms, color-coded to indicate the level. In each large chamber, a stack of three randomized monster cards specific to that level were placed at the beginning at the game. In each smaller room, one monster and a treasure was placed. When a space was entered, the top card was drawn and combat between the player and the monster ensued with a simple die roll. Winning combat won the treasure while ties or losses might result in a retreat or loss of treasure.

For players familiar with D&D like myself, Dungeon! mirrored a lot of the established canon. Monsters fell along the lines of hobgoblins, werewolves, dragons, mummies and snakes. Dungeon pitfalls such as traps might be encountered. Characters like Wizards held special spell cards such as Fireball or Teleport, and found magic items included an ESP Medallion and a Magic Sword, offering certain characters bonuses to their play. Treasure ranged from meager bags of glod found in the easy levels to the covtted Huge Diamond (worth 10,000 points) hidden deep in the sixth level.

Several editions of Dungeon! followed through the years, the most recent in 2012 from Wizards of the Coast, now-owners of the D&D franchise. Longtime players have also created a rich universe of house rules, customized boards and even hand-painted figures to supplement the basics of the game. Despite its relative ease of play, Dungeon! has remained a classic bit of fun among even the most serious gamers today.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: TSR Minigames


Alternatively known as “microgames,” “pocket games” or “minigames,” a number of companies created a fad in games in small packages in the late 1970s through early 1980s. These compact games came in a variety of historic, sci-fi and fantasy themes. Rulebooks, maps, cardboard chips and dice were usually packaged in hardshell cases or even simple zip-lock plastic bags. A very few of these games, like the post-apocalyptic Road Warrior-esque Car Wars from Steve Jackson Games, would see a long life fueled by supplements and expansions. More commonly, these minigames were stand-alones of vastly varying quality which faded into obscurity in a few short years.

TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons, entered the minigame market late with a total of eight games released in the first couple years of the 1980s. This was a big growth period for TSR as they continued to diversify beyond their core D&D products into other boardgames, role-playing games, toys, computer and video games, and even an animated TV show. Already investing a ton of our time and money in TSR products, my brother and I snapped four of their minigames:

  • Attack Force was a simple Star Wars rip-off with one player’s force of small star fighters attempting to find the weakness in the other player’s monstrous space station to destroy it. As a fan of Luke’s attack on the Deathstar, I gave TSR a pass on the lack of originality for the chance to do some space battling myself.
  • They’ve Invaded Pleasantville was also a two-player game, this time set in a rural village where the townspeople try to fend off alien invaders infiltrating the local populace. Each player used identical chips representing such local folk like the minister, sheriff, plumber, checkout girl and others. The trick of the game was the alien invader bluffing their way toward taking over the bodies of the locals while the town player sought to uncover who was really an alien.
  • Revolt on Antares was a much better sci-fi-themed game and offered play for 2 to 4 players. The game presented a Risk-like map of a fictional world where six ruling “houses” with names like Andros, Dougal and Serpentine fought to rule the planet through three different scenarios. Each house had its own personality and strengths, adding a lot of variety and replay value. The ability to recruit new troops, move across varied terrain and use seven special alien weapons or devices made this little gem seem a lot more like a real wargame.
  • Vampyre was two games in one set in the realm of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The first campaign-map-style game took 2 to 6 players in the roles of Stoker’s hero characters questing to find and destroy the coffin safe-havens of Count Dracula hidden throughout Transylvania. Turning the map over, a detailed floorplan of Castle Dracula allowed another game to be played as the characters sought to track down the Count himself and destroy him.

As a kid, I loved these games as a break from the longer hours spent bent over the table with my D&D campaigns. Each minigame offered its own varied mechanic, but rules were simple and limited to just a few pages for each game. The booklets, game maps and cardboard playing chips contained some wonderfully intricate small-scale artwork, much of it by popular fantasy artists of the day. While I don’t recall the exact cost of each game, I remember them being under $10 apiece and quite a deal for the hours of play we wrung out of each.

These four TSR games still sit in a closet packed full of my childhood puzzles and boardgames in the house where I grew up. At the time, there was an outsized amount of fun in each little mingame package. Today, there’s still a lot of memory in each, too.

Collector’s Note: Many of the TSR minigames can be found frequently on eBay selling in the $10-30 range. Steve Jackson Games makes much of their Car Wars and other microgames back catalog available for digital purchase online.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labryinth Game

By 1980 I was like a lot of kids with feet in two worlds of gaming — Dungeons & Dragons and electronic games. Both were well on their way to being the worldwide phenomena they would become in the next decade, and Mattel and TSR (then owner of D&D) sought to cash in on the intersecting interest of adolescents everywhere.

I never owned a copy of Mattel’s Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labryinth Game, but plenty of my friends did. The game looked pretty cool with its 64-square grid of spaces surround by a plastic castle-like wall. Metal figures represented a dragon, two adventurers and a treasure chest. The game could be played solo or with two players. A player moved their piece around the board, placing plastic walls when the board revealed a wall with light-up indicators. Other indicators would light up as you encountered monsters, traps or the dreaded dragon which roared as you approached. A player who avoided the dragon and navigated the revealed maze to the treasure first won the game.

A year before the D&D Computer Labryinth Game was released, Mattel was already competing in the new video game market with its Intellivision system. Those early years of the electronic game market were full of games which promised more than they delivered. Using the word “computer” in this game’s name was no doubt the work of shrewd marketing as the game itself was pretty low tech. Attaching the D&D graphics and brand to the game and even a moody TV ad didn’t do much to cover up for its shortcomings. Looking back, I recall the game even then to be unsatisfying to occasionally frustrating with its randomized LED grid and pieces which never really seemed to fit right. Retailing at around $45, the game didn’t come cheap either.

In 1984, Mattel admitted to its failed also-ran place in the video game market and pulled the plug on its Intellivision system. While it would go on to continued success with its boy-focused toy brands like Hot Wheels, Matchbox and Masters of the Universe, Mattel would never again be  significant player in electronic games. D&D, on the other hand, continues to thrive to this day. While the brand extension foray of the D&D Computer Labryinth Game never really delivered on the promises illustrated in Mattel’s box art, the game does capture a moment in time when gaming was bridging the gap from one era to the next.

Collector’s Note: Complete copies and components of the Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labryinth Game are readily avilable on eBay. Games in the original box run in the $30-50 range while the metal miniatures generally go for $5-10 each.