On Christmas Day 1982, I received a book called the Warlock of Firetop Mountain as a present and I was hooked. Over the next 3 or 4 years I bought and played a number of Fighting Fantasy and other gamebooks. I kept the books and replayed some of them several years ago, but recently I have become more of a dedicated fan. As more and more boardgames inspired by gamebooks are being published, I thought it worthwhile to present an overview of gamebooks and look briefly at some of the aforementioned boardgames.
Before Fighting Fantasy
There are a few early predecessors of the gamebook from the first half of the twentieth century, the most notable being the Jorge Luis Borges short story “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain” (1941), featuring an author whose novel is a three-part story containing two branch points, and with nine possible endings. Another story by Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941), also describes a book with a maze-like narrative, which may have inspired the gamebook form. During the 1960s, authors from several different countries started experimenting with fiction that contained multiple paths and/or endings, contributing to the development of several pioneering gamebooks. Another major influence on the format were early roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Tunnels and Trolls. The Adventures of You series, published in the second half of the 1970s laid the groundwork for later more popular series such as Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA).
Fighting Fantasy books are adventure gamebooks, incorporating elements from CYOA books and solitaire roleplaying adventures. They include very simple, self-contained rules for combat, magic etc., usually contain exactly 400 entries, and feature black and white illustrations. From 1982 to the end of the original Puffin print run in 1995, a total of 59 books were published in the series. By that time, the rise of video games had led to an end in the gamebook boom. Several more titles were published between 2002 and 2012 by Wizard Books and, more recently, Scholastic has reprinted some of the early titles and commissioned a couple of new books. While most of the very early books were written by Ian Livingstone and Steven Jackson, including the spin-off Sorcery! series which is among the very best of the genre from the 1980s, other authors dominated and revitalised the series in the latter half of the decade. The entire series is easily obtainable second hand, although a few rarer titles now fetch high prices. Tinman Games has also released several of the books as PC/iOS/Android apps with colourised artwork.
The Lone Wolf series, written by Joe Dever, differs from Fighting Fantasy in that the majority of the books feature the same character and form an extended story arc. The series, which now comprises 29 books, was originally published from 1984 to 1998. A fan-operated project established in 1999 converted many of the books to HTML format and revived interest in the series, leading to republication of most of the books. You can play all of the books online at Project Aon, while the first 10 books are also available in a free iOS/Android app. If you prefer the traditional paper format, then you can buy the original print run second hand, or the republished hardback books new.
Other Series from the 1980s and 1990s
Many gamebooks series were published during the boom years of the mid-to-late 1980s. Among these were the Golden Dragon and Blood Sword series by Oliver Johnson and Dave Morris, The Way of the Tiger and Falcon by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson, and the Cretan Chronicles. In the early-to-mid 1990s, at the tail end of the original gamebook era, more sophisticated books appeared aimed at an older audience. These include the Virtual Reality books (recently republished as Critical IF) by Dave Morris, and the Fabled Lands series by Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson. The latter books differ from other gamebooks in their open-ended free-roaming game play – essentially the books as a whole constitute a fantasy land that players can interact with. Fabled Lands was intended to be a 12-part series, but only 6 books were published in the mid-1990s. These have now been republished and a 7th book also issued.
The 2000s to the Present Day
The Wizard Books reprint of some of the original Fighting Fantasy books also included a few new titles, of which those written by Jonathan Green are the most highly regarded. He has recently published two gamebooks inspired by classic children’s literature: The Wicked Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland. In addition to the Fighting Fantasy apps and the 4-part Complete Sagas of Fire*Wolf (an app version of the Sagas of the Demonspawn series from the mid-1980s), Tinman Games has developed its own series of Gamebook Adventures including Jonathan Green’s Temple of the Spider God. Dave Morris continues to be active in the genre, with the interactive novel Frankenstein Speaks available as an app, and Can You Brexit? with co-author Jamie Thomson. The three books in the DestinyQuest series by Michael J. Ward are considerably longer than most gamebooks with several hundred references each. Destiny’s Role: Zero to Hero is the first in a new series by Fighting Fantasy uberfan Mark Lain a.k.a. MALthus Dire.
The first gamebook-inspired boardgames were Tales of the Arabian Nights (1985), which features a choose-your-own-path booklet as part of the game, and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1986), a boardgame version of the very first Fighting Fantasy book. In recent years, there have been several RPG boardgames, many of them with a dungeon-crawl theme. These owe more to tabletop roleplaying or even RPG video games than to adventure gamebooks. However, boardgames with a more explicit link to gamebooks include:
– A number of games with encounter books, choose-your-own-path books or
gamebooks as part of the game play: City of Chaos (1996), Tales of the Arabian Nights (1999, a reimplementation of the earlier game), Agents of SMERSH (2012), and Above and Below (2015).
– Escape the Dark Castle (2017): an unabashed attempt to cash in on nostalgia for Fighting Fantasy, this is a short game consisting of a series of FF-style combats, a few simple CYOA-like decisions and some below-par black and white artwork. Even the box is in monochrome!
– T.I.M.E Stories (2015): a cooperative game with a single scenario in the base game and various others available in expansions. Players move around a gradually-expanding map made up of cards, collecting clues with the aim of completing the scenario within a set time frame. A number of attempts are normally required to do this, just as if you were playing a gamebook.
– Gloomhaven (2017): the top-rated game on boardgamegeek is a legacy (campaign-driven) cooperative game of tactical combat with a strong narrative aspect creating a roleplaying feel. After each scenario, players make decisions in a CYOA style.
– Gloom of Kilforth: A Fantasy Quest Game (2017): while not having any specific gamebook elements, this cooperative game – which is perhaps at its best played solitaire – recreates the feeling of a gamebook far more successfully than Escape the Dark Castle, and also features a large amount of stunning full colour artwork. In this game, one or more characters journey around a map made up of 25 cards, resolving encounters, obtaining items, spells and allies, and gaining experience before trying to defeat the boss or bosses.
– Legacy of Dragonholt (2017): essentially a multiplayer gamebook in a box with the price tag of a mid-range boardgame.
– The 7th Continent (2017): a self-declared “choose-your-own-adventure” exploration board game, which is inspired by the Fighting Fantasy series.