Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Retrospective: Escape from New York the Game

Our hobby has a long history of creating games and other products intended as tie-ins for media properties. I don't have anything against tie-ins per se but experience has taught me that the vast majority of tie-ins are ill-conceived in one way or another. A good example of this is TSR's 1981 boardgame Escape from New York, designed by David Cook and Harold Johnson. Escape from New York (hereafter EFNY) is a good example not because it's a bad game -- it's actually rather cleverly done -- but because it was tied to an R-rated movie.

You'll see that the cover proclaims that the game is "For 2 to 4 Adults, Ages 10 and Up," but, as you may recall, that's a marketing ploy intended to appeal to kids who want to feel older. Here, you're talking about selling a game whose target audience would most likely never have seen the movie on which it was based. I know I didn't see the film until it was released on video cassette when I was a teenager and I doubt I was alone in this regard. Perhaps there were lots of adults who, after seeing the movie, longed for a boardgame based on it, but that seems unlikely to me. Instead, EFNY looks to be an example of a company thinking that the mere fact of licensing a Hollywood property is enough to justify the time and effort put into it. I find myself reminded of Kenner's 18-inch alien action figure, which, unsurprisingly, sold poorly, since almost no kids had seen 1979's Alien.

What's unfortunate is that EFNY is actually a pretty fun little game. I acquired a copy many, many years later when a local toy store was going out of business and was selling off its remaining stock. One of the items they had on sale for next to nothing was an old, unopened copy of this game and I bought it both as a curiosity and because I adored the movie. The mirrors the film broadly in that the goal of the players, each of whom takes on the role of an agent sent by the US government into the Manhattan Island maximum security prison, is to find the missing president or the audio tape he was carrying and to escape alive. Each player begins the game with several equipment cards -- weapons, homing devices, a glider, and a flare gun -- that can be used as aids in their quest. Likewise, the cards pull double duty as hit points of a sort. Whenever a player loses a fight with enemies encountered in the city, he loses a random piece of equipment. When all the cards are gone, the character is killed and the player eliminated.

One of the more interesting aspects of the game were its movement rules. The game map was divided up into areas of different color. Each color represented a movement cost to pass through it. Each turn, a player rolled 2D6 to determine how many movement points he had and then planned his movement accordingly. As the character moved throughout the city, he ran into potential allies or enemies, in addition to acquiring clues that pointed to the location of the president or the audio tape. Each clue card has several possible locations and, once a player acquired two cards that listed the same location, he could make his way there to claim his prize. Of course, other players could do the same and the "true" location of these prizes was determined by whatever player got to where his cards directed him first. To add a further wrinkle to gameplay, characters could ambush one another and steal their possessions.

Escape from New York is a neat little game and enjoyed playing it with my friends. I haven't played it in years, though, so it's possible my memories of its virtues are mistaken. I'm still baffled as to why it was ever made, though. Of all the tie-ins TSR could have been producing in 1981, why this one?

12 comments:

  1. Why that one?

    Snake Plisskin, that's why.

    I hadn't known about this game before, and think it's hilarious that this ties together so much pop culture. TSR, "Gilligan's Island", "Big Trouble in Little China", "John Carpenter's The Thing"... Heck, one of the last things Walt Disney wrote before his death was a note recommending Kurt Russel for a movie role.

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  2. In later years one of the odder media tie-ins that TSR did was for 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: An Odyssey Two with a module each for Star Frontiers. Then, there is of course, the "fabulous" Bullwinkle & Rocky Role-Playing Party Game complete with plastic hand puppets.

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  3. I bought a copy of this off eBay a few years ago, to give to a friend who's a huge Snake Pliskken (sp?) fan. Kinda was hoping I'd get to play it too, but that hasn't happened yet. One thing you should have mentioned - as I recall, the rulebook has some cool Erol Otus illustrations in it!! How 'bout some scans of those, I'm sure most folks have never seen 'em.

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  4. I didn't see Escape From New York in the theater but I did see Alien. My father didn't have many aversions to bringing me to see R-rated movies as long as they had plenty of violence. Odd he missed Escape From NY.

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  5. I remember this at the game shop, but never looked at it. We were in love with the film as teens, and were always considering how to make our own rpg out of the setting, but never got around to it. A low rent chits and hexes boardgame was just not going to cut it.

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  6. I played this one a bunch as a teenager, we loved it! Also loved the first movie, not so much the others lol.

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  7. EFNY was a terrific game; for a simple game, it could generate moments of genuine tension and excitement, especially when you lost your Gullfire and had to find another way off the island.

    This project was just winding down when I came to TSR. Every still photo that the studio provided had Adrienne Barbeau in it. Every single one. Bill Willingham drew one version of the Maggie card that was just a closeup of her chest.

    Unfortunately, this game played a big role in Bill, Jeff Dee, Paul Reiche, and Evan Robinson leaving the company. Evan and Paul were fired for having bad attitudes about "kiddie games," and Jeff and Bill for showing solidarity with Evan and Paul. So EFNY definitely represented a net loss for D&D fans.

    Steve

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  8. It sure made a sale with 12-year-old me. Then again, the trailer for the film was like a phantasmagoria of the forbidden for me then...

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  9. This was one of the best games ever made. It told a colorful story and was moe complex than the Dungeon! game, but its rules were just as simple. Design was amazing. Games that followed later, such as Talisman and Duel of Ages had much more complex set up and rules, and yet the Escape From New York played wiht these two later and much bigger games. Illustration were evocative and the game captured the imagination, where later and much more complex games failed. Yes, it would have made an awesome role playing game - complete with vivid and readily recognizable tribes and charater types, capitalizing on ghosts of the Vietnam experience, survivalism, prevalent at the time, and fears of the crime. They could have tied it together with another movie of the era, The Warriors. At the time, I had a break-dancing friend of mine suggest an RPG based on break dancing, he went as far as outline the different moves that playters can learn and incorporate into a routines and he even came up wiht the basic game mechanics for making the events in the game happen. Being young, dum, and outside the hobby, I dismissed the notion out of hand...

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  10. "Perhaps there were lots of adults who, after seeing the movie, longed for a boardgame based on it, but that seems unlikely to me."

    It seems unlikely to me, too. And the reason why is the prefix "board-".

    Speaking just for myself, as much as I loved the movie Escape from New York and incorporated many ideas I got from it into my RPGing, I never even once had even the slightest desire to play a boardgame based on it.

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  11. One thing you should have mentioned - as I recall, the rulebook has some cool Erol Otus illustrations in it!! How 'bout some scans of those, I'm sure most folks have never seen 'em.

    I'd forgotten about those! Unfortunately, my copy of the game is several hundred miles away from me at the moment and it may be some time before I can get access to it again.

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  12. Unfortunately, this game played a big role in Bill, Jeff Dee, Paul Reiche, and Evan Robinson leaving the company. Evan and Paul were fired for having bad attitudes about "kiddie games," and Jeff and Bill for showing solidarity with Evan and Paul. So EFNY definitely represented a net loss for D&D fans.

    That's a very interesting piece of historical information. Thanks for sharing it!

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