Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Retrospective: The Mystic Wood

Perhaps because I grew up in Maryland, Avalon Hill loomed large in my early days in the large. You could find its "bookshelf games" nearly anywhere you went, from toy stores to department stores to greeting card stores and even weirder places. AH's large boxed games were everywhere in the late 70s and early 80s, at least in my neck of the woods.

However, I first became acquainted with them long before I started gaming myself because my friend's father and his older brother owned a bunch of them and I remember staring in wonder at them as I looked up at them on the shelf. To a child's eyes, Avalon Hill games looked important and serious, an impression that was probably helped by the fact that so many of them seemed to be based on history, particularly the Civil War and World War II.

Consequently, when I grew older and started playing RPGs, I retained a strange fondness for Avalon Hill games, even though I never really caught the wargaming bug. Still, I bought quite a few of these games, in part, I think, because I saw owning them as a sign that I was now "part of the brotherhood." In retrospect, this mindset looks more than a little foolish, but I was an awkward, bookish teenager without much experience of the wider world, so I hope I can be forgiven my desire to belong to something I perceived not only to exist but to be worth belonging to.

Now, as I said, I was never much of a wargamer; I don't have the patience for it and neither strategy nor tactics come to me naturally. So, when I decided to purchase an Avalon Hill game as a token of my having "leveled up," I inclined toward its fantasy offerings, such as 1982's The Mystic Wood, designed by Terence Peter Donnelly. As I understand it, the Avalon Hill edition was in fact the second edition of the game, the first having been published by a small outfit called Ariel Productions, but I didn't know this at the time. What I did know was that The Mystic Wood was a game about knights going on quests in an enchanted forest and that was good enough to pique my interest.

The two is designed for two to four players, each of whom selects one of five knight characters to play. These knights, one of whom is a woman -- Britomart from Spenser's The Faerie Queene -- each have a quest associated with them, which constitutes their victory condition. So, for example, the knight George needs (obviously) to find and slay the dragon, while Perceval needs to find and leave the forest in possession of the Holy Grail.

The game's "board" consisted of nearly 50 tiles, about half of which represented the titular mystic wood, while the other half represented the "earthly" wood, gates, and a tower. The tiles were placed face down and only revealed as players moved their knights across them. Depending on the type of tile revealed in play, certain things could happen, determined by a draw from a deck of random events. These events include the discovery of useful items, potential companions, and enemies. Items and companions aid you in your quest, while enemies must be defeated. If a knight is himself defeated, he is stripped of all his items (he keeps his companions) and is imprisoned within the Tower tile until he can roll high enough to escape, kind of like the Jail space in Monopoly.

The it's a fairly simple game, The Mystic Wood was actually a lot of fun, so much so that I regret having given away my copy years ago. I suspect my children would enjoy playing it, since it has the right mix of randomness and strategy, combined with an evocative fantasy theme. I fear, though, like most of those long-gone Avalon Hill games, finding an intact copy at a reasonable price will be a worthy quest in itself.

22 comments:

  1. There's a sealed copy on eBay for $80 right now--and a $95 copy of the original Ariel edition as well.

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  2. Starting my slide into gaming were the SPI games. War of the Ring started everything for me December 1977, Then January of 1978 Holmes Basic, by the Fall of 1978 AD&D 1e.

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  3. I still have my copy of Death Maze ('79)

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  4. There are cheaper copies at BoardGameGeek - AvalonHill titles in general are not that expensive because they printed so many copies. First editions of popular games like Squad Leader are extremely rare and expensive (the famous pink box), but later editions are dirt cheap.

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  5. I still have my copy of the Ariel edition purchased way back when. I also have two copies of the (earlier) sister game Sorceror's Cave and one copy of the expansion for that game. I have once or twice made a few quick house rules to combine the two games.

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  6. Wasn't there another AH game that used the flipped, randomly arranged tiles idea? I seem to recall they were hexagonal, and the game was about wizards.

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  7. Does Hasbro own the rights to publish this game? They own Avalon Hill, yes? Maybe they'll reprint it?

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    1. Not likely. Reprints of titles like this don't pay off. The market for such boardgames has been devoured by casual computer games and Eurogames. AH did a few reprints -- Diplomacy and Acquire -- but those have an existing fan base and broad appeal compared to niche games like Mystic Wood and Magic Realm. These days, AH is all about Axis & Allies and little else (the A&A minis games are excellent).

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  8. Look cool! I don't suppose we'll ever see a reprint...

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  9. That would probably be Wizards.

    http://wizards.dewkid.com/

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  10. I'd forgotten about Wizards, but that wasn't it. However, the link you provided lead me to the right game, "Magic Realm:" http://magicrealm.dewkid.com/ and http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/22/magic-realm

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  11. Donnelly also designed the similar Sorcerer's Cave which employed tiles and could be seen as a simple RPG. It certainly took up enough space once you get all of the tiles out, and although the production values were a little low, was a lot of fun.

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  12. I've had a copy of Mystic Wood on the shelf for years and only played it once. Not that it was bad, but we preferred TSR's Knights of Camelot. It's much more complex but worth every bit of extra effort, IMO. KoC is practically Pendragon (the RPG) on a board. Those, unfortunately, are a challenge to find now.

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  13. I recently gave away my copy along my Sorcerer's Cave (& expansion) to a friend for his kids. Great games.

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  14. Sidney RoundwoodJune 28, 2012 at 4:54 AM

    James, thanks for the excellent post (and the continually terrific blog). Your experiences with AH games sound quite similar to mine. I remember the first time I saw them in the
    UK in the town where I lived. It would
    have been 1981 – the first year I started purchasing metal miniatures. I bought a copy of “War & Peace” exactly
    for the reason you mentioned: it was huge and titanic in scale, covering the ‘whole’
    of the Napoleonic Wars. Of course, this
    clearly was a hobby to be taken seriously!
    I guess we’re older and (a little) wiser now, but the games AH produced
    were excellent for their time, always had great production values and, yes, they’ll
    always have a place on my gaming shelf.
    Thanks again James, for a great post and a terrific blog.

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  15. Don't hold your breath :(

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  16. To me the cover looks a lot more 'pulp' than the King Arthur-ish feel that the game seems to be going for. The dragon is quite dinosaur-like, the forest seems more North American than European, and the damsel in distress seems more 'paperback covery' than you'd expect.

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  17. Mystic Wood, Wizards, and Knights of Camelot were all on the hobby store shelf when I took "grandma money" from my 13th birthday and chose the Holmes basic D&D because it looked cooler. I didn't know anyone who played these games, and even convincing my friends wasn't easy -- but I always wondered how things would have turned out if I had picked up Mystic Wood instead.

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  18. You would have tried, not found anyone to play with, and put it aside. Later, one of your friends would have roped you into playing D&D.

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  19. Looks cool. I don't suppose it will ever be reprinted...

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  20. Matthew SurridgeJuly 2, 2012 at 11:14 PM

    I've had that game for ages; oddly, I've probably played it more in the past few years than the previous couple of decades. It's a lot of fun, and I found actually does do a good job of capturing something of the feel of Ariosto and Spenser.

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  21. Check out Gamewright's _The Forbidden Island_. I picked this up yesterday (impulse buy) but the description harkened to this very post.


    It's a cooperative game for 2-6 players. Each player is randomly assigned what I'll call a position, e,g., diver, pilot, navigator, in a treasure hunting crew. Landing on the island, they must find the four relics as the island floods and sinks around them. As the draw pile triggers flooding events the tension is ratcheted up as the players trade cards and "shore up" sections of the island.


    Check it out: Forbidden Island. Worth the 20USD I paid. My daughter loved it.

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