Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Retrospective: Barbarian Prince

One of the many odd phenomena of the glory days of the hobby was solitaire gaming. Many wargames and even RPGs, such as Traveller, touted their suitability for solo play, which, at the time, I found bizarre. Why would you want to play a game by yourself? Of course, this was back before computer and video games were widespread, but, even after they became more commonplace, I still tended to look on them as different than games that had physical components. Playing a game that had fold-out maps and cardboard counters by yourself struck me as almost perverse, especially since, back then, I never had any difficulty finding players for just about any game I really wanted to play.

Regardless, games like 1981's Barbarian Prince, while not commonplace, were common enough that I often saw them on store shelves. Designed by Arnold Hendrick and published by the miniatures company Heritage USA, Barbarian Prince was a solitaire game in which the player assumes the role of the dispossessed Cal Arath, rightful heir to the throne of the Northlands. The game centers on Cal's attempts to acquire 500 gold pieces in 10 weeks in order to raise an army to defeat those who usurped your place in the Northlands. The game comes with a keyed hex map that is used in conjunction with an events booklet to represent Cal's travels on his quest. In addition to acquiring treasure, the barbarian prince can also engage in combat, explore ruins, meet people, and many other things. There's a remarkable amount of depth to the game and, because of random factors, it's quite possible to play the game many times with each time being different.

On each of the 70 game days available to the player, he can choose to undertake several actions, from traveling to exploring to seeking audience with NPCs and more. Each of these actions takes a certain amount of time and effort and, owing to the aforementioned random factors, none are guaranteed to pay off. It's a bit like playing a mixture of a sandbox hexcrawl and a choose-your-own-adventure book, though it's not as heavily scripted as the latter. It's also a lot more difficult than in most choose-your-own-adventure books I remember reading, since, like many sandbox campaigns, there's no way to be sure that the ruin over the next hill isn't inhabited by foul demons beyond your ability to defeat. At the same time, you really can go anywhere (on the provided map) and do almost anything and Barbarian Prince is noteworthy for the wide variety of actions it covers in a fairly simple ruleset.

If you're the least bit curious about Barbarian Prince, you can download a legal copy for free here. Reaper Miniatures apparently holds the rights to Heritage USA's catalog of games, including this one, and has released them as freeware PDFs. I can't applaud them enough for this, both because they've decided to do this at no cost but also because they've made a classic game of the Golden Age of the hobby available to new generations of gamers. Too many great designs from days of yore languish in limbo because the person or, worse yet, corporation that owns them foolishly believes that they're inherently valuable and thus should only be released if they can find a way to profit from doing so. That's a shame on many levels, which is why Reaper deserves kudos for their actions with regard to Heritage USA's games.

30 comments:

  1. James said "Playing a game that had fold-out maps and cardboard counters by yourself struck me as almost perverse, especially since, back then, I never had any difficulty finding players for just about any game I really wanted to play."

    Wow, that wasn't the situation in my area; it was hard as hell to find anyone who played RPG's at all. It didn't really change in that respect until the early 90's or so. Ironically, more & more people were gaming in this neck of the woods, but just not AD&D/D&D; by then Vampire:The Masquerade was getting huge, so I was still SOL.

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  2. I took advantage of the free release and made a copy a few years back. I've only played it a few times, but it remains a really fun game! The other games in the series like Goblin, Star Viking and Grav Armor are also available from that site, though they're 2-player rather than solo games. My favorite, however, was Dragon Rage which has been released by a European company in a very high-quality format.

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  3. Avalon Hill published at least one solo game as well, the one I recall was titled, Ambush, set in WWII Europe. It was then followed up by a similar game or expansion set in WWII Japan--for solo play exclusively, IIRC. I think there's always been a market for solo games,many are still being published today by the likes of Fantasy Flight Games and are quite good. The Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf ranges of solo RPG gamebooks sold millions and proved it's a viable market for RPGs, too.

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  4. I *did* have difficulty finding opponents for gaming and solo games were a constant fascination in my teen years. SPI were the kings of this genre, with such products as Deathmaze, the BSM Pandora games, and Timetripper.

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  5. Barbarian Prince also came with a miniature.

    I spent many lonely hours in the summer of 1981 playing this while all my friends were on holiday.

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  6. I remember the solo games as well. ICE released a couple of middle-earth themed ones, my favorite though was Steve Jackson's Crown of Kings from the Sorcery! series. My friends and I traded that one around to play when we went on family vacations.

    Of course we would always cheat in order to finish.

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  7. I always thought games that advertised "solo" play were just trying to get people who had no one to play them with to buy them anyway. I've never had anything I would call fun playing a solo board game. Sure you can kill some time with them but I wouldn't call it fun.

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  8. Since Arnold Hendrick also co-designed (with Dennis Sustare) Swordbearer, we could use the maps from Barbarian Prince and Demonlord as a setting for this RPG.

    The maps do not really fit together: the Barbarian Prince Northland country has many mountains and the Demonlord province of Nisshar has many rivers.

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  9. Living in the T&T neck of the woods, I am no stranger to the idea of solo play. After all, if there's something T&T is famous for then it is the solos (not that it wont work in group play. It does, quite well).

    Solo boardgames are not that rare these days. Companies like GMT Games have a rating on their games for solo suitability, and I guess quite a few of us have nobody to play with.

    I find solo boardgame play to be quite a different beast that the 2 player variant. Mostly I play games without hidden units and suchlike, and then it becomes most fun when I sit down and devise a plan for one side, maybe even writing it down. Then I move to the other side of the table, while changing mental spaces as well, and then do the same thing for that side. Fairly often that makes for a game with interesting interplay between the sided. The old SPI game Chickamauga I have probably played 30 times like that.

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  10. I think that it's a mistake to think of the old "solo" games as a precursor to Computer games, or more specifically, CRPG's for the type of gamer, who bought these solo games, would gravitate to CRPG's when no group can be found. However, take games like Avalon Hill's (AH) Source of the Nile, or B17 Queen of the Skies, or not really solo games, like AH Mystic Wood, or even the Squad Leader. No computer game exists to replicate the experience of playing these games. That is because these aren't so much board GAMES as they are NARRATIVE experiences. Okay, you move the counter of the military units, or the plane or the expedition across the board, but then you roll dice; consult various rules, charts and tables, and READ what happens to your unit or crew or expedition. The dice and the rules system was the genie, or a black box, which twisted the plot and created the unpredictable and ever charging story of what happens to your characters where you, the player, can influence some of the events.

    When dealing with computer game designers, you are dealing with a different design philosophy altogether, you are dealing with writers of video games and with graphic artists, and try as they might to make the computer game conform to the feel and play of the pencil and paper original, so many people are involved in the development of the software package, they don't ***get*** the game as a whole and the result looks more like a video game than a board game. Different media, ina way of comparing oil painting with sculpture.

    More significantly, the game designers themselves are not aware of this difference in media changing the nature of the game. That is why with all the so-called real-time strategy computer games (where you move AI-driven virtual toy soldiers across the battle field, fighting for you and thinking for themselves with a limited autonomy), anyway, that is why with all these computer war games, Squad Leader with all its minutiae has never been functionally adapted to play on computer (though it's most definitely doable with today's technology). Also, the difficulties in designing software is the reason that with Baldur's Gate and Fallout, we have not seen the adaptation to computer game format of the Keep on the Borderlands and other D&D Modules, because from the administrative point of view of the software development, it's a brand new game software project. And finally, that is the real reason for the rift between the D&D rules published before Wizards of the Coast took over and D&D Published AFTER.

    WOTC is a company that got its start by publishing a trading card game. Their creative staff was primarily graphic designers and graphic artists who designed images on the cards and probably worked in computer aided graphic design, as mostly graphic artists are today, and what they ended up doing to D&D was to turn into a pencil and paper version of the video game, which was probably the only thing that they really knew and were thinking in terms of.

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  11. Another thing too that was great about mini wargames is not only were their so many to pick from, but they usually cost around $3 to $5 bucks each. I think that's why so many of my friends in jr high and high school would play them as they were cheap enough for a kid to buy. Looking back, it really seems more and more 81' was the peak for the Hobby as a whole.

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  12. I enjoyed solo games immensely, even though I never had a shortage of face-to-face games to play, too. The Melee/Wizard solos were the cream of the crop. As odd as it sounds, Grailquest remains to this day one of the best fantasy adventures I've ever played. T&T wasn't too far behind, though I wasn't a big fan of T&T's tone. Solo boardgames such as Barbarian Prince, Dawn of the Dead, Intruder, The Vesuvius Incident, and Wreck of the BSM Pandora were equally enjoyable. Part of my interest in them was the "technology" involved. Programming a boardgame or RPG adventure to reliably behave a certain way without guidance is tricky, and it's always fascinated me. My experience was part play, part dissection.

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  13. I was looking at the artwork for this game right as some 80s metal came up in the iPod queue. Divine intervention..?

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  14. All of the Heritage Dwarfstar games are awesome. Barbarian Prince and Demonlord are the cream of the crop. Both were actually available in the Penney's Wishbook at one point.

    I was always big into the solo games. In fact, the vast majority of my wargaming was done solo, whether the game said it was solo or not. That's also what got me to buy T&T. Surprisingly, I never dug any of the choose your own adventure type books.

    @Soren - Ambush was actually from Victory Games. Avalon Hill published their games much like they did Runequest for Chaosium. I believe VG was formed out of the fallout from SPI being purchased by TSR.

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  15. Solo gaming is probably very dependent on one's geographic situaton. I was sufficiently rural that none of my school friends could reach me until we got cars. I've played an order of magnitude more Risk games solo than with others, for example.

    There was a review of Barbarian Prince in an old Dragon magazine which always piqued my interest. Now I can check out the pdf version, thanks for the link!

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  16. I played a LOT of solo games in the 80's and here is why: When I first got into gaming I was young and the nearest groups and gaming store was way across town. It was way too far to ride my bike to on a regular basis and I had two working parents with only one car so getting them to take me there was pretty much out of the question. Actually getting to go to the gaming store was a big deal and I knew that anything I was going to buy would pretty much have to be solo games. I didn't grow up in the suburbs so it was a unique situation. I only had a couple of close friends who lived nearby and they weren't into gaming at all. So I resorted to a LOT of solo gaming books and various other solo games I read about in Dragon. I owned a huge number of Fighting Fantasy books which, at my local bookstore were fairly easy to come by. I preferred the Lone Wolf series because of the ongoing storyline but the bookstore didn't often carry them.

    I hate to say this James, because I respect what you do for the hobby here on this site and I really enjoy you writing, but that opening paragraph comes off as condescending. You were lucky to get into gaming in an area where gaming was so readily available. Some of us didn't and had to make due with what we could play because it was pretty much our only option. To look down you nose at it really isn't appropriate.

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  17. I bought, Barbarian Prince, Goblin, Star Viking and DemonLord and one or two other minigames ie. Ogre, GEV and some weird game about a pocket universe the nam of which escapes me.

    One unique rule, at least to me, came from Demonlord as to movement. I had been carefully completing my hex-maps with solid terrain elements that would fill the entire hex. Demonlord said:

    "Terrain & Movement
    Most hexsides have two or more types of terrain. The phasing player decides which type of terrain, along the hexside, his unit will cross. He can ignore the other terrain types on the hexside (for movement purposes). Sometimes only one type of terrain exists on the hexside, forcing the unit to cross that type. The MP cost per hexside varies with the terrain type and movement mode of the unit (F, C or W). Cross reference the terrain type and the movement mode on the Terrain Chart to find the proper MP cost."

    The example given made this very clear - after that discovery, I went free-hand with my maps and while moderating player movements took advantage of this rule. For me - a Eureka moment.

    I would echo the earlier poster with respect to cost - $5.00 was reasonable for a high school student - $20.00 for rulebooks was a "major expenditure".

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  18. I LOVE Barbarian Prince. The robust interaction rules for figuring out what you could do in a town or a temple or a ruin were great for solo play, and still are. I still play solo with those rules, though I've scraped a bunch of stuff from the Judges' Guild Ready Ref. Sheets to generate the kinds of locations you can find in Barbarian Prince's map randomly. I also use "Searchers of the Unknown" to create characters and henchmen (it's a super-simple version of OD&D which I think you've previously reviewed). Oh, and I use some rules from another free (but newer) game called Epic Solitaire Notebook Adventures to help create things like connections between towns and relationships between places and the party based on how they behaved last time they came through.

    Overall, VERY cool ruleset, and I find it odd there aren't more video games based on that model, as it allows for a lot of interaction and imagination with very few mechanics.

    Great writeup - I hope it encourages people to check out the game and try it.

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  19. Had to do alot of solo gaming as well: friends would move or lose interest, pissy gamer gossip would kill a group, circumstances would change. I remember, and honestly, not very fondly, spending many a friday & saturday night w/ the DMG trying to use the random dungeon generator in the back of the DMG to run a solo game.
    I dont think that the first paragraph came off condescending as much as honest; I think that's really how you felt then, not now.

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  20. some weird game about a pocket universe the nam of which escapes me

    Quite possibly this was Holy War by Metagaming, a game I still have a lot of affection for.

    One big difference between computer games and solo board games - you can write new rules for board games, which you most certainly can't easily do with computer games.

    BTW, the solo game Star Smuggler is available on the Dwarfstar site as well; similar to Barbarian Prince but from a science-fiction aspect, with your character being a roguish free trader a la Han Solo.

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  21. Got it in one Pere. Thanks.

    http://spaceship.brainiac.com/Metagaming/holy-war.html

    Wow, I had 9 products from Metagaming and all of the Dwarfstar games.

    http://pbem.brainiac.com/meta.htm

    Hey, James this may be an appropriate question (if it has not already been addressed) for open Fridays:

    What other games did you play and how did or do they affect your role-playing games?

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  22. An excellent source for free solo games online (and astounding amounts of creative design in general) is Warp Spawn Games -- http://www.angelfire.com/games2/warpspawn/.

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  23. Epic Solitaire Notebook Adventures sounds interesting, but every link to it that I've found is dead. Does anyone have a live link, or have the file that they'd be willing to share?

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  24. Pleased to see this retrospective, as Barbarian Prince gave me an amazing amount of pleasurable play back in the day. And it was tough too, I seem to recall that maybe 1 game in 4 would end with Cal Arath crossing the river north to claim his throne. The little mini that came in the box was one of the only minis I've ever painted (badly, with glossy airplane paints). At one point I started in on a computer game inspired by this, but it never came to completion. This little box is one of the fondest memories of my early gaming career.

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  25. I had another game in this series - Dragon Rage - which was even republished a year or two ago. Dragon Rage was my introduction to wargaming. I always played it solo, and also used the counters for D&D battles. We had a maximum of 3 D&D players back in the day, and usually it was just 2 of us. I never knew anyone who was interested in wargames.

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  26. @Steven - weird, I swear I just got some stuff from the official Epic Solitaire Notebook Adventures site. I have the downloads for the game (it's a rulebook and cards). What's the recommended place to put that kind of junk to share? I'm happy to put it up.

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  27. Cool Math Games-Cool math games have a large collection of gaming stuff find latest online computer games free on this website some cool math games are so simple to play online by the kids these games have great attraction for kids and they meet different targets and bonus points to achieve the specific items in these games.

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  28. @Steven - the site for Epic Solitaire Notebook Adventures appears to be back up. I contacted Scott, the game's creator, and he mentioned that he plans to move the game files for this (and his excellent Pocket Civ game) over to their respective BoardGameGeek.com pages. But for now, you can get them from his main site, findable via Google.

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  29. The ESNA site was indeed working again. Thanks, Omega!

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  30. Awesome! I played this a bit (lived far from friends and couldn't get my little sister to play many war/fantasy games...) but never, ever, ever won.

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