Return to Dark Tower
Heroes? Oh, I wouldn't necessarily call us that. A lot of people call us that, sure, but we're just doing our jobs.
Tease a monster so relentlessly that it has to come out of its house to say, "Knock it off, you kids!"
Flashback. 1985. I'm sitting around the kitchen table at my cousins' house in Great Neck, New York, rapt with attention. My cousins and I are staring with fixed, determined gaze at a plastic tower, about 18" tall, surrounded by a circular game board. Quite unusually for the time, the tower makes noise. It flashes; it whirs; it delivers messages. We are warriors. We find plastic keys; we form armies; we attack the tower in sequence; we hop around. It makes more noises. We are intoxicated. Days go by, and still the tower spins and we attack. Dark Tower (released 1981, out-of-print circa 1985) put its stamp on the 1980's generation as surely as any game of its time. For a certain segment of the population it was a moment in time, a segment of our lives. You could never just play for an hour, or even two. It was a way of life, a ritual. But like all passions, it died eventually. We found D & D, computers (!), and other arresting pursuits. We put the game away, where it moldered and slept silently (apparently, significantly increasing in value all the while due to its rarity after an intellectual property lawsuit stopped production).
Flash forward 36 years. We, now in our mid-40s, are nearly two years into a global pandemic. The kids are back at school. They hardly have time to sit down for the board games to which they'd been willing to subject themselves a year ago when the pandemic was fresh and new. Zach and I troll for new pastimes and diversions on, of all things, Kickstarter. And there it is. Sure enough, we stumble upon a Kickstarter ad for something called Return to Dark Tower, to be launched by Restoration Games and designed by two GIANTS of the gaming industry, Isaac Childres and Rob Daviau (whom you may know from such flashes of brilliance as Gloomhaven and Pandemic Legacy, respectively). My jaw drops. We pay the money, and we wait. And quite unexpectedly, one day the game arrives.
There it was. A giant, shining, menacing-looking black tower about the same size and shape as the original. When you turn it on, it still makes the same little old two-note triumphant trill. (Hit me right in the feels.) But now, several levels of it rotate. There are red lights everywhere, menacing noises of all sorts, skulls that tumble out of it, moving walls and glyphs, and the whole thing is connected to an app. It's beautiful. We turned it on, and I just sort of stared at it, swimming in nostalgia.
You'd think at this point that I'd shake free of its spell. That we'd set up the whole game and--Retro Dark Tower Devotee that I am--I'd immediately find ways to point my finger and accuse it of being untrue to the original. "Where are the keys?" I might cry. "Why don't I have to hop around to every kingdom?" And, perhaps most tellingly, "Why can't I attack the Tower?" But, no. Of course, no. Why? IT'S BEEN 35 long, moldering years! I'm old now, and forgetful. How dastardly clever of them to wait an entire generation to reintroduce the game. Everyone who once knew how to play it is now foggy on the whole thing. Except how it felt to play. And that tower, of course. The new game, its cooperative nature, its skulls, its strategies, its endless variety, its whirling and turning (and even the app, which works really well), are all terrific. It's not hard to learn, the characters are easy to figure out for just about anyone, the app is helpful, the style of play makes sense, and who even knows or cares whether it's faithful to the copyright-infringing original? It's scratching that old Dark Tower itch and no one cares how the whole thing used to go.
Nowadays you take turns hopping around the four quadrants of the circular board, beefing up your resources, using each character's unique strengths, and fighting bad guys, all while trying to amass the resources to accomplish a larger goal (a Quest. There are mini-Quests along the way, too.) Once you accomplish the goal, a hideous beastie who's been hiding in the tower emerges, and then you have to combine forces to fight it/him/her/them to win the game. And you have to do it all while time is passing in the world of the game. If you can't win in six "months," you lose. (And as we've discovered, there are lots of other ways to lose as well, most of them involving being too bold and not having enough stuff.)
Among the best aspects of the game is its satisfying and unique treatment of battle. You amass a number of Advantages based on your character and the stuff you collect, and then you challenge the enemy. The enemy then has a bunch of cards. You pick a few of them, and then they get flipped over, revealing what the enemy wants to do to you. It tries to vanquish a bunch of your warriors or take your stuff, but you can spend your Advantages to lessen the stuff it takes. You literally spend the enemy down until the cost (in warriors or stuff) seems manageable, and you win. It's a lovely way to battle, and constantly surprising.
We've played now three times, and I'm nowhere near done exploring this new old favorite. It's well-balanced, and when we lose we always have the feeling that it was our own hubris that was our downfall. If only we hadn't charged into battle so quickly. If only we'd gone to the Citadel one more time. It's damn-near as intoxicating as the original. Which, for me, is saying something.
Return to Dark Tower is a well-done action-adventure game. The fantasy world of the game is really cool, and theme of heroes vs. evil is done really well. I liked how the villains were not all the same. Each of them had different traits that would make it easier or harder for any one player to fight them. We had to strategize and decide which of us with our different skillsets had the best chance against each monster.
I also loved the animatronic tower in the middle of the board. Sometimes it would unexpectedly glow red or start moving in a way that we didn’t know it could move. It was quite impressive. The only problem was when the tower disconnected from the wifi (which for some reason happened a lot) and the game got messed up. Although most of the mechanisms in this game were fairly traditional, such as collecting and spending resources and fighting monsters, they were all improved and felt new. For example, when fighting a monster, you have the opportunity to spend resources to lessen the damage they will inevitably cause you. You are not focused on killing the monster by attacking it, you are instead trying to decide how to deal with the damage it will cause.
This, among other things, creates a really unique game play that still feels familiar and fun.