Friday, 9 December 2011

The Epic Fantasy Wargame Catalogue:1980-1991

As obscure as the counter-based epic fantasy games from the 70's are today, the ones I presented previously are actually the better-known of the lot. The list below from 1980 on is largely a product of Boardgamegeek (BGG) research; I only have definite memories of seeing Barbarian Kings, Valley of the Four Winds, and of course the late arrival Greyhawk Wars.

Valley of the Four Winds (1980)
I have very fond memories of this British franchise set in a world evocative of Bosch, Breughel and the wilder inventions of Da Vinci. From the fascinating miniature line, I painted up a whole army of Swamp Lord warriors with weird air-breathing apparatus. The boardgame was designed by Lewis Pulsipher as a sort of "illustration" of the Four Winds story. It's considerably smaller in both map size and ambition than the epics I've reviewed so far, and from all accounts play sticks close to the storyline. The hero is named, well, Hero, but there are magic Swan Bones, skeletal armies raised by the tolling of a huge bell on wheels, and a threatening Wind Demon hanging over the good guy city to keep things interesting.

Did I mention I liked the miniatures? From Lost Minis Wiki
Albion: Land of Faerie (1981)
This was a game included in one of the later issues of Ares, SPI's fantasy and science fiction sister magazine to Strategy & Tactics. Its premise: the Fomorian, Tuatha, and similar races from Celtic legend were not prosaic invading peoples, but magical kindreds such as trolls, elves and um, Cornish gnomes. Unlike all the other games here, the map was a real-world one, showing Great Britain and Ireland. I've never actually seen it but the map looks fairly attractive, SPI picking up the standard in that regard.

Barbarian Kings (1981)
This was another Ares game that I did see advertised but never bought. Set on the rather generic fantasy island of Castafon, it had more of an economic element than others, and was designed for multiplayer intrigue. Heroes, wizards, and spells had a significant role, but there was really no questing in the game, so BK stands as a somewhat marginal example of the genre. There was also a lot of bookkeeping with upkeep costs, simultaneously plotted moves, and so on. Unlike Sword and Sorcery, someone at SPI exercised editorial control over designer Greg Costikyan's awful puns in the magazine game, but they were restored in full glory in a reissue by Jolly Roger Games in 2001.

Demonlord (1981)
Inevitably, one of the microgame series (Heritage Dwarfstar) threw its hat in the ring with an epic struggle between good and evil. There were psychedelic map colors, wizards summoning the likes of the dreaded Balron, neutral factions to rally, and the like. I would say more but you can actually download the game, marvel at its wonders, and print 'n' play it.

My eyes! Image from Pete Gelman, BGG.
City States of Arklyrell (1983)
Okay ... I have absolutely no memories of the Arklyrell phenomenon from 1983, in spite of regularly buying Ares magazine, reading my friend's Dragon subscription, weekly trips to the well-stocked Hobby House in Stamford and occasional forays to Manhattan's Compleat Strategist. I will just have to take BGG's word that this game existed, with its garishly colored map, beasts of fantasy, leaders running around, epic doings ... Arklyrell at least looked simpler than the others, with the role of heroes confined to recruiting troops and picking up magic items.

Greyhawk: Wars (1991)
Zeb Cook's tail-end game in the genre gamed out the apocalyptic conflict that TSR felt necessary to spice up the World of Greyhawk in the 2nd Edition D&D era (see here for more background). Good and evil nations warred across the areas of the familiar Greyhawk map, sending characters on missions to retrieve treasure and powerful artifacts, and talk neutral nations and mercenaries into signing up. The design looks pretty straightforward, with complexity to be found in the sheer scale of the project.

So, I'll conclude the series next post, with some thoughts about why this genre of game fizzled out, or transferred itself to other game media.


  1. Curious you include one Dwarfstar fantasy game but not another (Dragon Rage from 1982, recently expanded and reissued in a much higher quality format). Or does it not count as Epic?

    I'm glad you liked Four Winds. Maybe someday it, too, will be reissued.

    Lew Pulsipher

  2. Lew, thanks, definitely have very good memories of your work in White Dwarf and elsewhere. I'd say Dragon Rage is more a tactical than epic-scale fantasy game; had to keep this review manageable somehow, anyway. Now Four Winds with giant hexes and the minis, how cool (and expensive) would that be?

  3. Yes, DRage is tactical. And yes, 4W would be cool with minis for sure. I understand some of the 4Winds minis have been reissued lately, or will be (this straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak).

  4. Huh... Fields of Blood ( ) included several references to Albion in its examples of play. Didn't realize that it was actually an homage. Learn something new every day.