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A Dragonfly in Amber - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain Review

AL Updated June 02, 2020
 
2.0
 
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A Dragonfly in Amber - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

Game Information

Players
2 - 6
There Will Be Games

The scent of antiquity overwhelmed us as we pried open the crypt lid. It was the stench of the tomb, of dust and decrepitude, of mystery and malevolence, of memories unexpurgated and left to fester.

But mostly it was the stench of cardboard.

And plastic minis.

“Who goes there?” boomed a threatening timbre. “Who dares invade the sanctum of Nyntighneytisyx”???

“1986?” we replied, “Yeah I remember that. Bon Jovi, red food dye, the creeping ascendancy of Neoliberalism. Cool”.

“Well then” cackled the disembodied voice “I bid you welcome. Step inside and stay awhile. Leave your shoes at the door, sign this waiver and LOWER THINE EXPECTATIONS!”

Gingerly we complied, piecing together a six-piece array of beautiful boardstock until a linework labyrinth unfolded on the floor before us.

“As you trudge through my domain you will be beset by three curses, each more unyielding than the last!” continued the resonant baritone.

“Hang on a minute” we paused “that sounds pretty shit, who are you anyway?”

“Oh, terribly sorry, where are my manners? You may call me ZAGOR!” replied the voice, dripping in cavernous bootleg plug-in reverb.

“Hahahahaha Zagor? Zagor! Fucking hell you must have copped it at high school”.

“SILENCE!” he intoned with pantomime relish. “I hereby beset you with Curse the First. The curse of Random Ambulation!”

“What, you mean ‘roll to move’? Shit.”

Warlock of Firetop Mountain 01

Unleashed by a fledgling Games Workshop in the year of our lord 1986, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is, of course, a port of sorts of the wildly successful inaugural Fighting Fantasy Gamebook of the same name first ushered into the world four years prior. My nostalgic tumescence for this particular series of gateway drugs is already well documented so I’ll spare you the whole wistful flashback routine here, but suffice it to say that I was pretty excited when this relic landed on my doorstep with a flourish and thud one cloudy lockdown day.

Defiantly and unapologetically a product of its era, it immediately brought to mind the wisps and recollections of crap caravan holidays spent playing Talisman with my cousins. Long afternoons where the world spun on the axis of a d6 as we pitted strength and craft against the machinations of random chance. And so it is here. Like the journey for the Crown of Command and its many brethren of the era, this is a mechanically simple affair whose value lies in the emergent stories that unfurl as you play and the surprising relish with which it facilitates the acts of utter cruelty you can inflict upon your friends, as you seek to be the singular victor and claim the titular Warlock’s cachet of loot.

This is seriously no-holds-barred PVP that rewards cunning and rank shittiness to your fellow man in a fashion that has probably instigated any number of delightful table-flipping, therapy-recalled, formative meltdowns over the years.

Case in point. During our play-through I had managed to acquire a lucky hand of items and mystic McGuffins with which I was positively sauntering through the various perils hewn into the catacomb and stone. My opponent however had been dealt a bit of a bum deal in that regard, but fortuitously for him, the character he had rolled was good deal more powerful than mine and sure to best me in any one-on-one confrontation as he relished in the wild imbalances baked deep into the crust of this antique pastry. One of the coolest elements at play here springs from a single unassuming paragraph in the rulebook that firmly encourages players to engage in bartering, deal-making and treachery. The added meta-game this enables is the actually the spiciest potato in this backwards bakery treat.

With this in mind, about a third of our way through the game he turned to me, face fixed with the arch-capitalist grin of the garden variety real-estate agent and informed me gleefully that if I didn’t surrender to him my Pipes of Slumber then he was in no uncertain terms going to dispatch me post-haste, and merrily leave my corpse for the kobolds.

Knowing a good deal when I see one, I reluctantly acquiesced, but not without the caveat “yeah okay, but I think we need to be in the same space to trade items”.

AND THUS THE TRAP WAS SET.

Bluff and double bluff danced with chicanery as I surreptitiously flipped one of my other item cards and made a discreet note on my character sheet.

Warlock of Firetop Mountain 02

‘While carrying the poison card, an adventurer may poison another adventurer in the same space. The next time the victim eats provisions, the poisoner can then declare that the victim has been poisoned and the victim must lose 4 Stamina’.

Oh how I struggled to keep a poker face as my inner Machiavelli sat sated with a ludicrous grin.

My opponent remained oblivious to this duplicitous turn, focused as he was on stroking his shiny new pipes. That was until, several moves later when humbled and exhausted after a somewhat Pyrrhic victory against a vampire, he found himself sitting perilously close to death on FOUR STAMINA POINTS.  I’ll let you work out what happened next, but I will reveal it was lucky we were playing on the floor so as to proffer no table for the flipping. It was fucking glorious. Peak Schadenfreude.

“Hahahaha” boomed the voice of Zagor once more, clearly enjoying himself. I now unveil my second blight! The curse of untimely endings!”

Oh great, Player Elimination.

With my opponent having choked on his own hubris (and poisoned rations) he was left with the booby prize casually parcelled out by seemingly all games of this era – Rolling a new character and starting from scratch, whilst I sat smugly straddling a seemingly insurmountable lead from the dusty end of the dungeon. This demoralising position was adopted with a hang-dog diligence and sense of duty, but the spirit of fun was rapidly escaping from this particular balloon with the subdued squeak of a wet fart.

“Ahhhhahahahaha” pealed Zagor’s petulant pipes once more, “now you have come to see my curses three. Curse the third! The curse of time dilation!”

We had both noticed it was getting pretty late.

It was still entirely possible for my opponent to prevail should I stumble at the final hurdle. It was also equally possible that I could recover and again nose into the lead should he too pull a metaphorical hamstring negotiating the warlock’s maze or dueling with its paltry menagerie of denizens. In either case however, any drama inherent in the seesaw sway of our twin fates would be dwarfed and rendered impotent by the sack full of doorknobs swung by the sheer amount of time this was now taking. And we’re not talking ‘blink and three hours have elapsed’ time like the kind conjured by a good session of Twilight Imperium. We’re talking “I rolled another one and there are still fümfty spaces between me and any remaining objectives” time.

Zagor was loving this, tenting his fingers with glee at each exasperated sigh we uttered as we succumbed to his trio of banal bewitchments.

Like a cogwheel construct brought to arcane life though, there were some hints of ingenuity at play here. The sting of rolling that damp, demoralising ‘one’ is lessened by the ability to perform a free ‘key check’ when such snake eyes blink. Scattered throughout the dungeon are a series of keys, each with a different number. These are used to unlock the three combination locks that bind the Warlock’s treasure and truly win the game. At the outset of proceedings, each player receives a selection of these numbers with the three that remain unused therefore forming the combination to the (war)locker. You know which numbers you hold, and in performing a key check you can command another player to reveal if he or she is holding another number you arrive at through the power of deduction. A sequence of successful guesses will see you eliminating the other possibilities and identifying which keys you will be required to possess before you make the final desperate dash to the Warlock’s boudoir.  This quite simple element of deduction forms a big part of the game, as players juggle the need to stay in one piece, with the need to acquire keys, all whilst cannily deciphering the code.

This led to the second most hilarious part of our evening whereupon my opponent somehow decided that three and three were five and therefore wrote down a four-digit code, (I did say it was late), allowing me to snatch an exhausted victory at the last moment with my amateur cryptography skills proving somewhat more robust in the (almost literal) eleventh hour.

I stood victorious amongst the Warlock’s bounty, flinging fountains of silver skyward as I graciously maligned my opponent’s mother’s virtue in our customary end-game fashion when suddenly the voice of Zagor filled my ears once more, softer and more distant this time.

“Well done mortal” it cooed, “would you like to play again?”

Not this year Zagor. Not this year.

The fact that this one didn’t receive the same new edition and iteration treatment as Talisman, Dungeonquest and other titles of its vintage ilk is pretty telling, but by remaining trapped in amber it perhaps does a better job of encapsulating and defining an era. The artwork, although stymied by the minuscule scale of the cards, is awesome. The sculpts of the plastic minis are squat and static in just the right way. The whole package has a certain allure to it that you’ll either surrender to with a swoon or shrug off in dismissal, depending entirely on your own story-so-far with gaming. And while it might fail as game in 2020, as a collector’s piece, curio, slice of history, and a tattered box of object d’art, it’s nigh-on essential.

Photos

A Dragonfly in Amber - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
A Dragonfly in Amber - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
A Dragonfly in Amber - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
A Dragonfly in Amber - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

Editor reviews

1 reviews

Rating 
 
2.0
AL
1 reviews
Andi Lennon
Associate Writer

Andi Lennon is Sydney based writer, musician and soap dodger. He graduated from Wizbang University with full honours and no teeth. When he isn't feeling conflicted about Morrissey he likes to play indie games with a dubious 80's aesthetic.

You can read more of his work by visiting Mongol Cult

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Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #309996 06 May 2020 11:46
Excellent. I still have a copy of the original Fighting Fantasy book, along with about a dozen others of that series. It's among the many things sitting around here that should probably be sold in the near future.

The problems you list with Warlock in the modern era are the same ones that beset Talisman, which is kind of what surprised me about the popularity of the more recent editions (both the standard game and the thematic paste-ons.) It's still a roll-and-move where you might draw a dragon or a vampire in your first few turns and get killed and have to start over, ending up way behind everyone else unless THEY get subjected to the same fate. I guess that's fun for some people but I'm just not interested anymore.

But the nostalgia factor is certainly part of what drove that popularity and certainly would for Warlock if someone were able to acquire an old copy having not played it for 30 years. Great work.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #310000 06 May 2020 13:12
I used to be a big fan of Steve Jackson Games, but this game came along a couple of years after I moved on and got heavy into CCGs. So I never even heard of it until somebody mentioned it at F:AT. I scouted it out at BGG and decided I didn't need to get it but I wouldn't mind playing sometime. Based on this new review, it sounds like a weak imitation of The Gothic Game, which I already have. The Gothic Game is likely the better game because it is weirder, funnier, more colorful, and is designed for direct conflict between players.
mezike's Avatar
mezike replied the topic: #310010 06 May 2020 16:00
That’s a different Steve Jackson, they are commonly mistaken for one another. This one is the British Fighting Fantasy and Games Workshop guy, not the American Car Wars Ogre Munchkin one. Funnily enough, American Steve Jackson wrote some of the Fighting Fantasy books but the publisher didn’t distinguish between the two authors.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #310027 06 May 2020 20:50
Jackwraith- the last time i played Talisman was about six or seven years ago with friends on my birthday. I was super excited to re-visit a childhood icon...for about the first 2.5 hours. Still, that didn't stop me from re-acquiring a copy of my own when it popped up for cheap on a trade site. Thing is, the Fantasy Flight version doesn't have that nostalgic lure that scoring a copy of the 2nd edition childhood copy would have. Despite the superficially more refined presentation, it's been stripped of a lot of its charm , so it sits forlorn and ignored on my shelf, soon to be joined in purgatory by this Wizardly cousin most likely :/
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #310028 06 May 2020 20:52
Shellhead- i remember reading somewhere on here about the Gothic Game and it's failed reprint KS. I was intrigued at the time and was a bit bummed out that it never got reanimated. Do you know if there's been any further developments on that front?
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #310029 06 May 2020 20:55
Mezike - Yeah that always confused me as a kid. I just assumed that my GURPS stuff was written by the same dude that penned my Sorcery! books. I didn't actually know until now that the American SJ wrote some of the FF books though! I'm guessing maybe Starship Traveller? That title was quite the departure.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #310036 06 May 2020 23:27

Andi Lennon wrote: Shellhead- i remember reading somewhere on here about the Gothic Game and it's failed reprint KS. I was intrigued at the time and was a bit bummed out that it never got reanimated. Do you know if there's been any further developments on that front?


We were fortunate to have the guy doing the Gothic Game kickstarter participating in that discussion thread, so we got the inside scoop regarding some of the changes. Unfortunately, he failed to meet his funding goal and now it's back in limbo I guess.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #310037 06 May 2020 23:33

Andi Lennon wrote: Jackwraith- the last time i played Talisman was about six or seven years ago with friends on my birthday. I was super excited to re-visit a childhood icon...for about the first 2.5 hours. Still, that didn't stop me from re-acquiring a copy of my own when it popped up for cheap on a trade site. Thing is, the Fantasy Flight version doesn't have that nostalgic lure that scoring a copy of the 2nd edition childhood copy would have. Despite the superficially more refined presentation, it's been stripped of a lot of its charm , so it sits forlorn and ignored on my shelf, soon to be joined in purgatory by this Wizardly cousin most likely :/


I can understand that, although the last I knew, the FFG version was pretty much the same as the GW 4th Edition... which was basically a copy of 2nd Edition. The only difference is that FFG added the Luck trait, which allowed you to reroll X number of times a game. I had an almost complete copy of 2nd Edition (everything but Dragons) that I traded years ago when Descent, 1st Edition came out. That's my point of reference because I traded it for a copy of that, Runebound, and several other games. I was in the position you are, which is having little interest in a game that's that simplistic, even for the nostalgia. As it turned out, I thought Runebound was a better game and system than Talisman ever was.
mezike's Avatar
mezike replied the topic: #310043 07 May 2020 04:33

Andi Lennon wrote: Mezike - Yeah that always confused me as a kid. I just assumed that my GURPS stuff was written by the same dude that penned my Sorcery! books. I didn't actually know until now that the American SJ wrote some of the FF books though! I'm guessing maybe Starship Traveller? That title was quite the departure.


Wiki-Fu says Scorpion Swamp, Demons of the Deep and Robot Commando. All three were favourites of ten year old me, although I recognise now that both the writing and adventure in the latter in particular was a touch ropey. I loved the ones that did something unusual with the format like building an army or having a vehicle or crew to manage alongside the regular adventure.

Starship Traveller I recall had a printing error that made it fiendishly difficult to play as it would randomly send you disoriented into the wrong part of the book and you would miss a crucial step to solving the seemingly impossible adventure. Firetop Mountain never struck me as one of the good ones though.

I know I'm going off on a tangent to the original article but maaaan, I had so many of these books. I collected them right up to the early nineties and had a whole shelf full, at least fifty or sixty books along with Sourcery!, Way of the Tiger, clash of princes, the Knightmare books and a couple other ones. There were only one or two of the original FF run that I didn't get along the way. I have no idea what happened to them, after I left home my folks were in the habit of ditching my stuff at car boot sales so they probably got sold for pennies. I picked up a couple in recent years at charity/thrift stores but neither spawn was interested, probably a good thing as I don't need nostalgia collecting in my life right now! I did read Destiny Quest by Michael Ward a few years back which does something really innovative with the genre and was significantly less pulpy than most of those 80s/90s books.

Just talking about it makes me want to get a copy of Freeway Fighter, and about fifteen others.
Nodens's Avatar
Nodens replied the topic: #310084 08 May 2020 02:44
A couple of buddies and I played Talisman to death in what must have been 1987. Because it was so popular, one of us went out and bought the Wizard game. This and Chill and Warlock were published in the same Schmidt Spiele line at that time.
Even as 13 year old kids we saw it as a cash-in from the books and soon decided that the Wizard game sucked, didn't even finish that first game and played something else. I was and still am very interested in Chill and Warlock, but that experience made me wary.
Talisman is one of the great classics, if one likes it or not. Yes it is simple, but that is the point. One gets to playing the actual game faster that way, maybe. I've seen people so inebriated there was no discernible speech left, but they could do their turn.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #310158 10 May 2020 21:05
Jackwraith- I guess i just miss the old standees, character sheets and old school ephemera. When paired with a modern production sheen the archaic mechanics seem out of kilter. Like two cogs whose teeth don't quite interlock somehow.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #310159 10 May 2020 21:15
Mezike- Yes! Eight year old me struggled with Starship Traveller to the point of total exasperation and in later years i often wondred if there had been a printing error or omission, as even when cheating my bollocks off I still couldn't figure out how to proceed without travelling in loops. My childhood was absolutely drenched in these books. My mother was a librarian and couldn't afford childcare on that kind of income so every afternoon after school i would spend a few hours with her at work and fortunately this particular library had a 'young adult' section that was pretty generously stocked with Choose Your Own Adventure, Fighting Fantasy and their various offshoots and imitators. Amongst my other favourite series were Time Machine and Joe Dever's Lone Wolf series. I also remember one birthday when i was incredibly excited to receive the one (to my knowledge) Two Player Fighting Fantasy book package. I don't remember much of that particular title now other than one of the protagonists was named "Clovis' and the interaction between players was pretty minimal. I also remember stumbling upon a really arcane and creepy Gamebook called 'The Black Pyramid' that unsettled me thoroughly, can't remember which series it was from though. For me the high-point probably remains the Sorcery! series. It was really inventive and immersive from memory. Does anyone else also remember 'Proteus' magazine? It was short lived monthly periodical offering similar types of adventures. I used to put the centrefold posters on my 1987 bedroom wall. Sadly these days i don't even own a single title anymore. A turbulent adolescence and 20's saw them all scattered to the wind- hopefully into the hands of other impressionable youth.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #310163 10 May 2020 21:47
Nodens, hahahaha absolutely. Talisman is definitely a game that is enhanced by the repeated consumption of fermented vegetable drinks! That birthday session i mentioned spanned around 6-7 hours and by the tail end of it there was more than one crown of command swimming before my eyes. Although by that stage i believe it probably added to the customary squabbling, especially when one of the players returned from a sojourn to the garden carrying a 'gavel'.