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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Crossbows and Catapults “Castle Outpost” expansion  set

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Crossbows and Catapults “Trojan Horse” expansion set

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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.

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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…”

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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.

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“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.

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Christmas Toy Soldier Memories

Generations of kids who grew up in the 50s, 60s and 70s looked forward to the holiday gift season and the possiblity of unwrapping a bounty of toy soldiers and playsets. In the post-WWII years, companies like Marx, Airfix, Britains and others churned out millions of plastic soldiers and accessories which would plant the seed for many a future wargamer. These boxes of relatively-inexpensive colorful plastic knights, cowboys and Indians, soldiers, horses, forts, castles, log cabins, wagons and tanks fuelled imaginative play and a collector’s spirit for kids before video games eclipsed playtime beginning in the 1980s.

For you Generation X kids who now have children of your own, toy soldiers are a still a fantastic way to add a little something different into the holdiay season. There’s a truly wonderful company called The Toy Soldier Company with a singular mission of keeping the toy soldier tradition alive, both for us nostalgia-prone grown-ups and for kids just waiting to discover the imaginative creativity and variety that play with little plastic figures brings.

The Toy Soldier Company offers a dizzying selection of plastic and metal figures, playsets and accessories in all scales and price ranges. No matter your era of choice — Ancient Europe, Colonial America, Civil War, The Old West, The World Wars,  Modern or Sci-Fi — the inventory is enormous and ever-growing. One of their most unique offerings is their playsets which seek to recapture the glory days of the 50s-70s when catalogs like the annual Sears Wish Book Christmas catalog offered pages filled with often fantastic depictions of playsets, primarily from Marx (like those shown in a Sears catalog from 1966 at the right). As a kid, you couldn’t help but marvel at the possibilities the often-exaggerated drawings and photos of these playsets. The imagination of young generals reeled from staring at the pages in the catalog and thoughts of future battles to be waged on the living room rug or in the sandbox out back. Lots of kids would eventually take their plastic play and creativity further by spending hours hunched over workbenches with tiny brushes and their first efforts at miniatures painting.

For those of you with children in your life, toy soldiers are still certain to be a hit for the holidays. You can even bridge the eras by getting a kid the latest from the Call of Duty video game franchise, a box of soldiers and maybe some paints. Another idea would be to buy some knights and Robin Hood toys along with a DVD of the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn. A book about the American Civil War and some plastic soldiers in blue and grey would make another great package. With toy soldiers then and now, the possibilities are only bound by the imagination for play.