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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New Game Weekend: Fire & Axe

After a couple weeks spent at home hunched over my workbench working away furiously at my 28MM American Civil War projects, I was finally able to get out of the house for some gaming this past Friday night. I hadn’t been to the Metropolitan Wargamers club in a few weeks, so it was good to get back this weekend. I walked in to a nearly empty club — rare on a Friday night — but in quick order a few other members showed up. I had hauled along my copy of Village to introduce to the guys, but first another member suggested we have a quick run through a different boardgame I’d heard mentioned frequently at the club before —  Fire & Axe: The Viking Saga Game.

Originally published in 2004, Fire & Axe is now hard to come by and used copies can fetch over $100 at times. I’m a little surprised at the long-standing adoration this game has. Of the twenty or so games I’ve been introduced to over the past year, Fire & Axe wouldn’t be near the top of the list although it does have ease of play and short duration going for it.

The game pits 2-4 players against one another as they sail on quests to settle, conquer or trade within various regions of European seas in the backdrop of the Viking age. The game begins with each player’s ship in the Wintering Box in the northernmost edge of the map. Once a ship is loaded and launched, players choose to depart from Norway, Denmark or Sweden. The turn begins with a player choosing to perform seven actions which may include loading goods or troops to their ship, sailing across the open seas or landing in ports to engage in trade, establish a settlement or capture a city. Special “rune cards” can also be collected and played to perform a variety of actions — from strengthening your invading forces or calling on a sea monster to destroy another player’s ship.

Gold is collected throughout the game through trade, conquest and settlement. Specific missions to trade with or take over specific ports can be collected to score additional points. The missions can also have shared success where points in conquering three port cities might be split between two players. Players who complete the most missions for each of the Viking civilizations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark stand to earn additional points at the game’s end. Additionally, missions get more valuable and reach to the farthest edges of the board as the game progresses. When all missions are completed, the game ends and points are tallied.

The game progresses quickly — four of us got through a game in about 90 minutes Friday night. The game is simple to understand after a turn or two, but it all just seemed like a race without enough variety in paths to victory. For instance, I burned up a couple turns hoping to conquer three cities, but some awful die rolls sent me back to the Wintering Box as other players swept in to claim those cities. At the end of the game, another player snatched victory from the would-be winner through one final chance move that stole a few points from the guy who had led up to that point.

I’ll give Fire & Axe another shot at some point since the guys at the club seem to have a deep love for it, but for now I think I’ll be concentrating on games beyond the Viking regions of the northern seas.