I used to wonder why the little red metal wagons every kid in America owns are called Radio Flyers. To me, it seemed an odd name. What the heck did a wagon have to do with radio? As it turns out, not much. Back in 1930, when the first metal wagon was introduced, radio was the cool new technology and so it only seemed natural to tack "radio" onto the name of the thing and watch it sell like hot cakes. It's similar to the way that everything in the 90s used to have "cyber" in front of its name.
Well, back in the late 70s and early 80s, fantasy was the new radio. People currently involved in the hobby often forget -- if they ever understood it at all -- just how "big" fantasy and fantasy games were back in those days. Dungeons & Dragons was, quite literally, a revelation and, for all the denunciations and scare tactics used against it, the game and genre it spawned reached heights of faddishness we'll probably never see again.
If you don't believe me, look no further than Milton Bradley's electronic board game Dark Tower. Released in 1981, it was an above-average example of a traditional game publisher's attempt to cash in on the D&D craze. Despite its RPG-stylings, Dark Tower is a board game through and through. There's not a whit of roleplaying involved and, though there's a hint of a setting, it's pretty thin -- if highly suggestive -- gruel.
The real attraction to the game was the Dark Tower itself, which was an electronic device that governed movement and combat by randomly generating results. Every time a player moved his token from place to place on the game board, looking for the keys needed to enter the Tower, he would press a button on its keypad to see what happened next. If combat with brigands -- or, worse yet, a dragon -- occurred, the Tower would determine the results, counting down how many of your mercenaries you lost in battle. There was always an option to retreat, which, in retrospect, shows some affinities with old school play, but I can't say I ever availed myself of it very often. After all, Dark Tower was just a game and I never invested as much of myself into it as I did D&D. That didn't stop me from playing the hell out of it with my friends.
Back to my larger point. If you want to get a sense of just how much of a fad fantasy was back then, take a look at this commercial for the game. You recognize the guy pitching it? That's Orson Welles, acclaimed actor, director, writer, and producer. This is the man whose dramatization of The War of the Worlds in 1938 caused a panic in some parts of the US and whose Citizen Kane is considered by some the greatest movie ever put on film. It's true that, in the 70s, Welles quite freely made commercials of many sorts, most famously for Paul Masson wines ("We will sell no wine before its time.") and Carlsberg ("Probably the best lager in the world."), but he remained a highly respected figure whose voice and bearing added gravitas to one's products. That Milton Bradley turned to him -- almost certainly at some expense -- is, to me, a good indicator of just how much money they felt they could make with Dark Tower.
Unfortunately, a lawsuit by individuals alleging to have proposed the game to Milton Bradley years before resulted in the company's dropping the game. I still own my copy, in working condition, and the dragon token from the game sits on a shelf above my desk as I write this. You can play a Flash version of the game here, if you're interested. A more extensive treatment of gameplay, along with lots of images can be found here.