Gimmick’s Got Game
I didn’t grow up playing many board games. In our household they fell into three camps. There were classic games like Risk and Monopoly, also known as “boring games.” There were the complicated multi-session games my friend Brent played, which required more investment than my periodic visits could provide. And there were demonic games, those that might rupture the fabric of reality like a turgorous pimple and allow the devil’s hordes to pour into our plane. These included ouija boards and face cards.
But then, in between episodes of Duck Tales, a commercial showed me something new. In vivid colors and a thespian’s voiceover, it boasted of something that was as much a mountain of plastic as it was a game. It was mechanized. It made sounds. Its turbulence was part of its gameplay. I had to have it.
That game was Forbidden Bridge. Its commercial was seared in my memory. That Christmas, it became my first encounter with gimmick-as-gameplay.
One of the best things about board games is punching them out. It’s the childish delight that does it, so reminiscent of extracting a present from packaging. You slit the tape that binds the box’s tabs, fingers precise, nervous of pulling it free and dragging a scar across the printed cardboard. You remove the packing material, relishing a smell that’s half ink and half earth, a scent that decades later you’ll realize is not all unlike that of a long-buried potsherd. You untwist the metallic wires that keep the parts cemented in place, as liable to bite as the seals on a cursed sarcophagus. When my grandfather gave me a Swiss army knife at too young an age, it slipped on one of those wires and left a gash in the ball of my thumb. I tearfully persuaded my father to tape the wound rather than give me sutures in his basement office. He agreed, but confiscated the knife until I turned ten. Dutifully taped together, I returned to the box. The pain beneath my bandaged thumb, the slow assembly of those numbered plastic planks, the confiscation of my prize pocket knife — all worth it. So much potential resided in that moment. Here was the game. The adventure.
And then we played the thing.
Even as a kid, Forbidden Bridge was a letdown. Roll-and-move had already struck me as a shallow and unsatisfying concept, and that’s pretty much all Forbidden Bridge has. You roll. You move. It doesn’t even do that thing where you roll and then choose which piece to move. In addition to rolling for your explorer’s slow movement — by boat, by foot, eventually by hopping from plank to plank across the swaying bridge — you roll for events. Stolen gems and nudged rivals are the dull options. But even the exciting one, where you depress the idol’s head and watch the bridge buck back and forth, possibly spilling some hapless adventurer into the river below, somehow feels chintzy and mechanical. You can hear the gears grinding. The sound effect is tinny and unpleasant. It reverberates with a flimsiness that feels one older cousin’s press away from snapping entirely.
Before long, the bridge was repurposed. It was a toy as much as a game. Lego samurai would tumble from that bridge. Playmobil titans would loom in the waters below. Every few years we gave it another try. I’ve read that rulebook more than any other. It never held up. A lifelong suspicion of gimmicks had been implanted in my brain.
The original Dark Tower also had a commercial. I never saw it as a child. I had a dim awareness of Fireball Island, another title that would eventually be remade by Restoration Games. But once was enough. A few other board games crossed my table — pardon me, my childhood bedroom floor — but never again was I hoodwinked by a knee-high mound of plastic. When Restoration announced Return to Dark Tower, that same learned suspicion kicked in. What trash, I figured. What a waste of space and money.
I was wrong.
Right away, Return to Dark Tower offers the familiar. There’s this dark tower, see, and you’re a band of heroes, yeah, and it’s your task to defeat the evil within, right? There’s plenty of local flavor to be found in the game’s selection of monsters and adversaries, but it isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel [of time] that we’ve circuited so often before. From a jaded perspective, it might even seem rather vanilla.
Until we consider the plastic elephant on the table. Like Forbidden Bridge’s forbidden bridge, Return to Dark Tower’s dark tower is a gimmick through and through. The thing is enormous. It obscures your view of the board like some eldritch eclipse. Connected to a phone or tablet via Bluetooth, it screams and groans when enemies attack. Sometimes it whirs and rotates, spilling out deadly skulls to corrupt its four kingdoms. Every so often it announces that a seal is breaking. In those moments it glows and pulses, revealing an additional darkling mouth that will disgorge corruption or, worse, an emblem that adds a cost to one of your heroes’ actions. Sometimes it sounds mechanical, the motor giving itself away. Chintzy, though? Never.
That sturdiness is only one small part of what sets it apart from something like Forbidden Bridge. The more significant factor is that it’s an actual game, and a formidable one at that. Forbidden Bridge offered a gimmick in place of a game. Return to Dark Tower refuses such a cheap concession. Here the gimmick and the game are inseparable. They complement one another. Asking which one is more important is like asking which blade of a pair of scissors does the cutting.
Part of my hesitance with Return to Dark Tower was that it isn’t limited to just one gimmick. The original game featured a computer built right into the surface of the tower. Nowadays it’s harder to wow kids with computers, let alone chunky keypads built directly into the surface of things. Instead, Return to Dark Tower goes wireless.
I’m agnostic when it comes to board games with digital components. I play board games partly to escape my screens, and like anybody else whose digital possessions have disappeared thanks to technical failure or the whims of licensing, I’m reluctant to surrender too much of a board game’s permanence to app stores and upgrades. I still own Forbidden Bridge. Had its initial incarnation in 1992 required an app, there’s no telling whether the thing would support whatever OS I’m running today.
But. But. I will say that this is the nicest digital half of a board game I’ve played.
The automation is part of it. When your turn is over, you dunk a skull into the tower. Instantly, the app knows your turn is finished and starts rolling out events. These events are a far cry from the way most board games present them. This is no mere card flip. Sometimes nothing happens at all. Other times, monsters appear, or attack, or do something weird and deadly. Sometimes the adversary couched inside the dark tower spawns threats or quests for you to chase down. Eventually these threats might mature, inflicting penalties if you haven’t dealt with them in time. Conversely, you can recruit companions. These provide benefits of their own, but also generate an ongoing history in the game world. Sir So-and-So shoves an enemy into more favorable terrain; Lady Elf-face lets you spend a resource to gain a perk. Before too long, the event phase consolidates three or four disparate systems, all acting in concert, generating a world that breathes life into its farthest crannies. Maybe this could have been managed by a card system like the one in Robinson Crusoe, where threats return with age and choices might have lingering consequences. Even then, I’m not sure the solution would be anything other than unwieldy. You’d need to randomize the timing and appearance of corruption, meter out enemies and their activities, slowly develop the baddie’s overarching plot, not to mention handle the status of your companions and any ongoing quests and dungeons. It’s a lot. Thanks to the app-driven nature of the game, it never feels like it.
The same goes for the app’s other duties. Combat, for instance, shares obvious roots with a card game. To defeat an enemy, you travel to its space and declare battle. You’re then presented with an array of cards via the app. You pick a few, whittle them down with advantages earned through your hero’s perks and the terrain and so forth, and that’s that. If combat had been handled analog, this would require lots of cards. Like, lots of cards. Piles of the things, for every monster and their various denominations, often with uncertain results. Combat, you see, is akin to a press-your-luck game. Every enemy card displays a cost. To defeat a bandit, perhaps you need to kill ten of your warriors, spend some spirit, or toss a few potions in the bin. Weaken that enemy card and the effect diminishes, but not always how you anticipated. Maybe the enemy now only demands a sacrifice of five warriors. Maybe another reduction drops that number to zero — or sees you gaining a few warriors because you slew this roving beast without absorbing casualties. The point is, the game handles these questions with such ease. Nothing goes missing. You never dig through five piles of near-identical Attack-C cards for the right strike reduction, only to realize you’ve mixed them up with the Pounce-D pile. Instead, the focus is entirely on maximizing what you can get out of your advantages. Should you spend an advantage on a demand you can technically meet but don’t want to? Or should you wait to see if the next card will hit you with something worse? Sometimes a lucky draw will see you avoiding damage entirely. Sometimes that’s a letdown, especially when you’ve saved your advantages for a big hit that never landed. By going digital, the game hones combat to a fine edge. You’re considering how it will cut you, how to avoid worse cuts, not whether you can find the blade in the first place.
Going further, the app enhances the gameplay rather than simply replacing components with digital counterparts. Take, for example, dungeons. These are persistent spaces that ask you to delve room by room until you uncover an objective or retreat prematurely. Retreating means you can attempt the dungeon again later. All progress will have been preserved in the meantime. Emptied rooms remain empty. Foes and artifacts remain defeated and ransacked. As with combat, this places the focus on your hero’s current stamina and resources above all else. Return to Dark Tower has enough items and doodads to manage without asking you to splay out cards whenever you undertake a quest. By handling all that stuff in the background, it lets the world feel large without requiring any upkeep at all. Even the parts that could strictly be replaced by analog components are smoother and more interesting because they’re shunted to that digital game master.
This results in a wonderfully smooth experience, a far cry from the adventure games that turn me off the genre. Where titles like Descent can sometimes feel like they’re more about the setup than the play — in his review, Quentin Smith mentioned how the third edition made him feel like a “human loading bar” — Return to Dark Tower takes that all-important step of getting out of its own way.
Apart from the dark tower, anyway, although that’s entirely a point in its favor. Like a good antagonist, the dark tower is never far from your thoughts. Not only because it keeps spitting literal skulls across the land, but also because it’s an enormous hunk of plastic that periodically screams at you. It’s big. It’s imposing. It blocks the light. When somebody on the other side of the table asks if you can reach a foe or a dungeon before it’s too late, the tower prevents you from seeing the optimal route forward, forcing you to crane your neck or ask for directions. This is irritating, but it’s irritating in a way that accentuates the tower’s intrusion into two worlds at once. One supposes that the in-game version of the tower is somewhat more to scale. Its size on the table is a representation of threat, of ominousness, looming large like an axe overhead. Despite the menagerie of available foes, each of whom offers their own perils and trials, the true adversary is always the tower itself.
I’ve been playing this one compulsively. I bought rechargeable batteries. I preordered the expansions. Neither are things I’ve ever done for a game about questing heroes and prowling monsters.
There’s an irony at play. The tower and its nested app, so large and terrible, is also what makes Return to Dark Tower so effortless to play. This is a design that understands how a gimmick can be more than a trick of marketing. It’s a labor of love and competence that elevates its gimmick into an object of wonder and awe. Terrible wonder, awful awe, but wonder and awe all the same. By growing outward and upward, it has compressed the best aspects of its genre until they glitter. Traipsing across a fantasy landscape to cleanse towns, beat monsters, and acquire trinkets has never felt better.
A complimentary copy was provided.