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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Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Dover Cut & Assemble Books

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I had a whole host of hobbies as a kid. There were plastic model kits from Airfix and Revell. I had a huge HO-scale train layout in my basement. Model rockets from Estes regularly launched from my back yard. Roleplaying and historical miniatures gaming finally came along, allowing me to incorporate a lot of my passion for models  into the terrain, buildings and countless metal figures I’d need for my dungeon crawls or fields of battle.

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One of my fondest early memories of scale-modelling was with the Dover Publications “Cut & Assemble” or “Easy-To-Make” books. I recall a steady flow of these books in my house with my mother picking them up with some frequency off the book racks at five-and-dimes, toy shops and book stores. There were so many of these and other activity books piled in my room as a kid, and it seemed like nearly every time we went shopping there was a new one to add to the collection.

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These books offered models from many periods including ancient castles, Viking outposts, European villages, Old West towns, Victorian mansions, seaside settlements and even some modern structures. Along with the main buildings, many of the books included details like fences and walls, wells, animals, vehicles and people. These made each book a playset of its own but also allowed for a few different books to be used together. My western town might be settled right outside the fronteir fort, and civil soldier cut-outs would fight among the buildings included in the New England-themed village sets. The HO scale of the models also lent them for use with my plastic soldiers and livestock , and I’d often throw in some lichen bushes or custom-made roads to the set-up.

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Assembly of the models in the Dover books did take a fair amount of time, and the details on things like porches, roofs, stairways and chimneys often involved tiny multiple folds. The hours I spent cutting and gluing together the buildings, often with minimal instructions, certainly gave me plenty of practice in a small scale. The heavy cardstock made the buildings fairly sturdy once built, making them easy to throw in a box when done playing with them.

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The rise of at-home printing has created a resurgence in papercraft modelling no longer constrained to books like those from Dover and Usborne Books. A lot of miniatures gamers swear by the relatively-inexpensive and quickly-accessible papercraft terrain made specifically for gamers by companies such as Paper Terrain or uploaded for free on a number of gaming sites and forums.

Despite my time paper modelling as a kid in the 70s and 80s, I’ve moved on from it with my gaming today. That said, I have been spending a fair amount of time with my youngest son who has developed an interest as of late in searching, printing and assembling Minecraft papercraft models. With his new passion for papercrafting I’m thinking that revisting the Dover books of my past with my son may be a great way to nurture a newly-seeded hobby to last another lifetime.

Collector’s Note: While some of the Dover “Cut & Assemble” or “Easy-To-Make” books are now out of print, many are still available online both new and used starting at under $10 each.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: The DragonLords

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As a young gamer in the 70s and 80s, I had an incredibly supportive mother. Our trips shopping always allowed for stops by local bookstores, five-and-dimes and hobby shops to check out the latest Dungeons & Dragons releases, metal miniatures, fan magazines or other gaming delights to add to my growing collection. My mother was also a big yard sale and flea market fan, dragging home all sorts of used games for my brothers and I to try out. One of those early-80s yard sale finds was an unopened copy of 1978’s The DragonLords from Fantasy Games Unlimited.

Founded in 1975, FGU is still in business as a publisher of a variety of board and role-playing games. Like many game companies in the mid-70s, FGU leapt into the D&D tidal wave and released a number of fantasy-themed games. The DragonLords followed the traditional hex map and cardboard counter game model well-established by such publishers as Avalon Hill. The box contained a map, simple rule book, reference sheets and over 600 tiny cardboard playing pieces. The artwork was second-tier generic fantasy illustration, the game map was outright bland and the printing looked like it was done on a typewriter. I loved this game.

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In The DragonLords, each player took on the guise of a wizard ruling over their kingdom. Players chose to play as a Sorcerer, Conjurer, Enchanter, Necromancer or other type of specialized wizard, each with their own unique set of spells. Spells were acquired through turns “studying,” allowing for more advanced spellcraft in areas such as Siege, Hiring , Weather, Speed or Tactical. By casting their spells, wizards developed armies to fan out across the map to conquer the opposing kindgdom, hasten movement of their own horde or wreak horrible natural disasters on the enemy.

For someone well-steeped in D&D and Tolkienesque fantasy, a lot of The DragonLords felt very familiar. Tiny cardboard chips featured very basic line illustrations of elves, giants, trolls, ents, dragons and other creatures, each with values for combat and movement. The wizard spell study mechanic felt akin to the levels of advancement with magic-using characters through Experience points gained in D&D campaigns. Siege of cities and frontier keeps was a key part of the game, and building and attacking with catapults, siege towers and rams was a big component missing from a lot of smaller-scale D&D play.

What I loved about The DragonLords at the time was the mix of individual wizard character development and the grander scale of huge grotesque armies slugging it out across the mountains, swamps, forests, roads and waterways of the map. A game could be played satisfactorily in a few hours, also a nice change of pace from the long-term campaigning in D&D. The DragonLords certainly didn’t win any points for its graphics, but for straight fantasy gaming on an epic scale it definitely had its spell cast on me.

Collector’s Note: The Dragonlords is long out of print, but with a bit of online searching Iwas able to come across one bagged unpunched copy for over $100 on Amazon.com. Clearly my mother’s yardsale find was quite a deal.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game

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Way back in the late 1970s, well before we had summers filled with superhero movies, I was a comic book collector. Those were the days when my younger brother and I bought our weekly fix of Marvel and DC superheroes off a squeaky rotating rack in a corner store, all for under a dollar each. Eventually our collecting graduated to visiting comic book shops, flea markets, yard sales and small regional comic book conventions in Western New York. As our collection grew into thousands of books by the mid-1980s, my brother and I were receiving weekly warehouse wholesale shipments and were bidding on lots of older books through auctions by mail. Both of us sold-off the majority of our collections in the late 1980s and early 1990s before the market became glutted, eBay arrived on the scene and CCG-graded comics became the new collecting norm.

timetrapI still have a significant, albeit more scaled-down, interest in comic books to this day. Yet as I recall those peak collecting years in the early 80s, my mind eventually takes me to memories of 1984 and TSR’s release of Marvel Super Heroes: The Heroic Roleplaying Game. The game arrived during big expansion years for TSR as the popularity of their flagship Dungeons & Dragons franchise continued to grow in player fandom and pop culture infamy. Winning the Marvel license allowed TSR to launch a new game with a built-in base of players which had a lot of cross-over interest in comic books and gaming (like myself). Despite the promise of the total package of the Marvel Universe delivered in a RPG by the makers of D&D, the Marvel Super Heroes game never really delivered.

murderworldThe core box came with a quick start “Battle Book” and a more detailed “Campaign Book.” Also included was an introductory scenario, “Day of the Octopus,” plus a fold-out map, character reference cards and some rudimentary markers. TSR quickly expanded the game with a number of accessories including a couple sets of poor quality metal miniatures and quite a number of game adventures following the module model which had proven so successful with D&D. An eager collector, I snapped up a bunch of adventure books, including “Time Trap” featuring the Avengers and “Murderworld!” starring the Fantastic Four. Expansions also included a number of adventures which featured “adventure fold-up figures.” Unable to help myself, I happily bought the Hydra-themed “Pit of the Viper” edition along with a few others.

pitofviperDrawing on the stable of established Marvel characters, the game looked great. Mechanics borrowed broadly from D&D with “Attributes” establishing the primary strengths of a super hero on a scale of 1-100. “Superpowers” defined unique abilities while “Talents” were a set of skills a character could draw upon. A system of “Karma” (similar to D&D Experience) allowed for character upgrades. The problem I quickly found with the game was that you played characters within an established set of backgrounds and relationships. Spider-Man, Thor or The Human Torch carried enormous backstories, robbing players of the opportunity to create and grow a character from the ground up like in the more pure RPG realm of D&D. Eventually, I was buying the expansions simply to read the text and assemble the little cardboard figures and terrain pieces.

Despite the mediocre quality of the game overall, TSR went on the release a revised version of the game in the late 1990s. More than anything else, the second edition of the game was probably an effort to retain the license from Marvel. Even so, Marvel and TSR eventually parted ways by the early 2000s.

So much of my generation was defined by the first modern wave of toy licensing with Star Wars that I can hardly fault TSR for jumping on the brand-extending bandwagon with Marvel. It’s amazing to me the game lasted so long given my memory of its lack of interesting play. This is one game I can’t foresee ever returning to. Its true superpower lay in how deep the marketing of those characters was a part of me then and stays with me today.

Collector’s Note: Most probably owing to the low quality of the game, the original TSR  Marvel Super Heroes game starter box set and most expansions can be found on eBay for under $20 each.

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.

Gaming With the Stars

Aside from my love for games, comic books, movies and associated hallmarks of geekdom, I’m a longtime fan of AMC’s Mad Men which wraps up its sixth season this coming Sunday. One of the much-maligned characters on the show is the media buyer and TV man Harry Crane played by Rich Sommer.

What the average fan of the show probably doesn’t know is that Sommer is one of the increasingly-prominent stars of the small and big screen who has a deep passion for gaming. Although currently on hiatus, Sommers until recently posted frequently about his gaming exploits on his blog Rich Likes Games, and he has appeared on a number of webisodes of gaming sites like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop. Wheaton’s show will soon be premiering new episodes featuring a new crowd of writers, comedians, actors and other creative friends with the common love of rolling dice, playing cards and out-strategizing their opponents across the table.

The ability for gaming to bring together diverse groups of people, the famous and not-so-famous alike, is one of the wonderful things about the hobby. There’s an oft-told tale of Vin Diesel introducing Judi Dench to Dungeons & Dragons on the set of The Chronicles of Riddick, leading to Dench dungeon-mastering subsequent games for her grandchildren. There are all sorts of stories out there and extensive lists of celebrities who place themselves among the worldwide population of gamers. Among them are Stephen Colbert, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Mike Meyers, Robin Williams, John Favreau and Joss Whedon. Go back further and there are stories of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., King Vidor, Cole Porter, Harold Ross and Amelia Earhart partaking in gaming.

What I’ve found in my own experience is that gamers come from all walks of life but share a commonality in creativity, reason, knowledge, problem-solving, logic and alternating collaborative and competitive natures. These are obvious traits to be found in people who occupy prominent positions in the culture but also in the regular folks I game with on a regular basis. I find this every week at Metropolitan Wargamers club in Brooklyn where different combinations of ages, background and experience come together to play.

I recall being at a gaming convention a few years back watching a young guy with a mohawk, lipstick, piercings and dressed in head-to-toe black speaking passionately with a retired buttoned-down US Army veteran about some tactical minutae of a WWII engagement. Thinking back to that scene, it serves as my Diesel-Dench moment where those of us who share nothing and everything randomly encounter each other in our worlds of gaming.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Dungeon Dwellers

    

I was already a fairly experienced D&D gamer by the time I encountered the Heritage Dungeon Dwellers series of miniatures and game sets in the early 1980s. Aside from playing creative games and campaigns dripping with swords, sorcery and all things creepy and crawly in the underworld of our imaginations, my brother and I were quickly filling up our free time with miniature painting. If it was tiny, cast in lead and even mildly gruesome, chances were it was on our radar.

We were already pretty familiar with Ral Partha’s growing line of D&D lead miniatures picked up at our local five-and-dime, bookstore and hobby shops in Rochester, NY when we encountered Dungeon Dwellers. At the time, we had no idea Heritage was producing boxed sets and blister packs of figures similar to Ral Partha. What we did know was that holding these two green Dungeon Dwellers boxed sets in our hands was clearly something different.

Unlike the sets of miniatures from Ral Partha and other suppliers of the time, Heritage Dungeon Dwellers offered two all-in-one model and gaming sets. Each box contained a number of monster and adventurer figures, paints and a simplified self-contained game with rules and a map. This off-the-shelf game was an easy and rare counterpoint to the expansive D&D universe of the era. Each set — “Caverns of Doom” and “Crypt of the Sorcerer” — read like a D&D module with a defined scenario in which to play. The models were animated, unique and somewhat more appealing than some of the widely-available Ral Partha lines. I particularly recall the multi-piece winged dragon from “Caverns of Doom” and the fire-casting wizard from “Crypt of the Sorcerer” as being favorites.

Despite the limited replay value on the surface, these two sets got a lot of outsized-use when I was a kid. Thinking back, they combined the best aspects of board, miniatures and role-playing games, plus they allowed us to cut our chops on our painting skills. Serious gamers of the time probably dismissed these sets as pandering to the growing fantasy gaming fad of the day, but for a growing gamer in the early 1980s, Heritage Dungeon Dwellers really made an impression.

Collector’s Note: The Dungeon Dwellers boxed sets are exceedingly hard to come by, but miniatures sets and individual figures are readily available on eBay for just a few dollars for an individual figure up to well over $100 for sets.