Thursday 8 December 2011

The Epic Fantasy Wargame Catalogue:1975-1979

All right folks. After a lot of jogging of the memory and a little trawling through Boardgamegeek, here is the first part of what I believe to be a complete catalogue of the epic fantasy counter-based board wargame genre, as defined in my previous post.

Photo by Ray on boardgamegeek

White Bear, Red Moon (1975; reprinted as Dragon Pass, 1981)
Designed by Greg Stafford, this is the original entry in the genre, although the roleplaying game that came out soon after - you may have heard of Runequest? - was what really brought attention to his world of Glorantha. In both incarnations, the game is a royal rumble of factions, one-of-a-kind characters, and monsters vying to control the Dragon Pass area on the edge of the Lunar Empire. Very memorable creatures and characters just this side of gonzo, and wild swingy magic effects.

Nomad Gods (1977)
The Gloranthan sequel to White Bear, set further south among the beast-riding tribes of the Plaines of Prax  - and "beast" means llamas, impalas and stranger stuff yet. I've never seen this game but the few counters on Boardgame Geek look to continue in the trippy ways of the first game. As usual, the cryptic silhouettes and numbers on the chits hid a raftload of special rules which had to be diligently looked up, and one play aid was - I kid you not - a guide to inscribing the appropriate rules page on the back of each counter.
Photo by Mike R., on boardgamegeek
War of the Ring (1977)
SPI's authorized tie-in with box graphics inspired by the Ralph Bakshi cartoon, not to be confused with Fantasy Flight's post-Peter-Jackson figure-heavy epic. There was a huge map in the usual SPI style, over which you could fight a pure wargame, a character-based game of Sauron's search for the Ring and the Fellowship's quest, or a campaign game combining the two. Event cards, and limited logistics forcing Sauron to choose between all-out war and all-out Ring searching, added to the fun.

Elric (1977)
Once Chaosium acquired the Michael Moorcock license, Greg Stafford turned his hand to a larger-scale game about the epic conflicts in the Young Kingdoms leading to the apocalyptic war between Law and Chaos chronicled in the novel Stormbringer. Human armies are pitifully weak, but the real stars of the show are the heroes, sorcerers, monsters and of course Elric, who can be controlled (up to a certain point) by various players. Using sorcery can alter the Cosmic Balance, tracked on the side of the map. If the scales tip too far one way the End of the World is brought about.

Swords and Sorcery (1978)
Photo by Alex H, boardgamegeek
SPI continued the genre with Greg Costkiyan's epic game in an original fantasy world, taking a few ideas from their own War of the Ring. It's as if they tried to copy Stafford's inspired gonzo and were left holding only gonzo, with jokey names rejected by Mad Magazine ("New Orc City," "Nattily Wood") and such bland oddball elements as killer penguins, the hassock-like race of cronks, and yes, the obligatory Python joke. A variety of scenarios could be played, with battles, sieges, heroes, diplomatic missions, and magic spells depending on a complicated three-moon astrology that varied from turn to turn.

Divine Right (1979)
TSR's entry into the sweepstakes has become legendary on the strength of excellent support assets. One, the vivid calligraphic map by Dave Trampier; what a contrast to SPI's press-apply forests! Two, the world background write-ups in Dragon magazine that I still remember, possessed of a weird vigor that the contemporaneous World of Greyhawk somehow lacked.  Although there were plenty of magic items and locations, an unusual amount of attention was also lavished on the diplomatic game, including the personalities of neutral kings and emissaries.

John Carter: Warlord of Mars (1979)
Once we've accepted that Burroughs' Mars is fantasy - and yes, I will fight on this - this memorable SPI game just about qualifies, due to its inclusion of a somewhat bland military game. The real spotlight, though, was on the heroes. A skirmish combat system fought out on graph paper was embedded within a heroic quest game which brilliantly embodied and sent-up the conventions of the pulp adventure romance.


  1. I played some War of the Ring as a kid, but I never really understood it. Like, at all.

    I'd love to try Elric sometime.

    I was mostly busy playing AH's Wizards. ;)

  2. Swords and Sorcery is an awesome game, quirkiness and all! I still have it though its been eons since I played.

  3. Is that the Avalon Hill Elric game? I had that and I found it to be nigh unplayable just because after about three turns the world would be destroyed, pretty much regardless of what the human players did, randomness would send you in one direction or the other; but maybe there was something I missed in the rules as a kid.

  4. I found Elric unplayable. Mass armies to sack cities, but what you really want to do is cast spells and tip the balance, but it just didn't seem to work.

    Love to hear from anyone who had a different experience with this game.

  5. Replies
    1. That's a different type of game - it doesn't have a large overland map or epic sweep of armies and heroes. It's a dungeon exploration game similar to contemporary titles such as GW's Dungeonquest, SPI's Deathmaze, etc.