Ever feel like dragging one of those old games out for a spin to relive the days of badly-cast dice and warped cardboard matrix tables?
Check out this timeless classic: I've had it for over twenty years, and I'd never played it. I am not even sure I'd ever even opened the box. I think I bought it for a dollar at a game store desperately trying to get dead weight off its shelves.
Witchlord is the natural adaptation of fantasy role gaming converted into a board game. There is a distinct advantage to fantasy role gaming from a board; and that is it gets rid of the need for a Game Master or scenario creator. The board, cards and matrix tables contain all the information necessary and the dice determine the outcome of your adventure. No human arbitrator is necessary.
All the passages, rooms, treasure and monsters are randomly generated. This makes no two adventures ever the same. Each time you enter the Witchlord's Castle you can expect a completely different scenario stocked with new treasure and monsters. As the player moves around the board, he will receive information about the configurations of the Witchlord's Castle. This will enable the player to plot his progress on the graph paper given.
The player will choose one of the six Adventure Classes to play. this determines the player's spell and weapon capability.
The player's objective in the game is to collect proficiency points. This is done by the slaying of monsters and the collection of treasure. Encounters and treasure are dictated by the playing cards and matrix tables. When the player reaches the 10th stratum or proficiency level, he must do battle with one of the Witchlord's generals. If the General is vanquished, the the player has won and earned safe passage out of Witchlord's Castle.
The Witchlord Game can be played as a single scenario, or as a campaign game.
Apparently I am not the only one who's never played Witchlord: its entry on BoardGameGeek has not a single review or rating. You can't even find copies for sale on ebay.
So last night, we cracked the ancient, musty box and decided to see just how well this one-shot effort from a designer and a company that seems to have faded into the mists of time holds up, thirty years after it was published.
Witchlord is like many similar Dungeons & Dragons-inspired games of the 80s that sought to reproduce the hack-and-slash dungeon crawling treasure hunt experience on a board, without the need for a Dungeon master.
It's also typical for an 80s game, in that the rules look like this:
The rulebook is only about a dozen pages, including a large number of "matrix tables" for random encounters with monsters, random treasure, to-hit, saving throw, critical hit, and fumble tables, etc.
The premise of the game is simple: you roll a die and move along the track of the board, which describes whether you encounter a corridor, a door, a stair, a room, or an "Arena portal." If you hit the same arena portal three times, you get teleported to an arena to do single combat with a random monster. Otherwise, you're supposed to chart your progress on graph paper, filling in the Witchlord's castle as you go. Whenever you land on a room, you draw a room card, which tells you what kind of monster(s) you have to fight.
In the "single scenario" version of the game, you level up every time you clear a room, and after you've reached the "10th stratum," you fight the Witchlord's general. Win or lose, it's game over at that point. In the "campaign" version, you do more complicated bookkeeping to keep track of "proficiency points" for killing monsters and acquiring treasure. (Which means non-magical treasure is basically worthless in the single scenario game.)
We played the single scenario version. Each player chooses from one of six available classes, which each have a Morale number, an Agility number, and bonuses or penalties for combat and magic. I chose to play a brave Barbarian warrior; my companion played a Bard. The game actually came with lead miniatures for each class.
So, how did the game go?
Well, the first room we encountered contained four centaurs guarding a magic sword. Yup, four centaurs, just hanging around guarding a magic sword in a dungeon. Hey, it's a board game! Who needs a Dungeon Master? Per the rules of the game, monsters always attack until killed or until you run away.
We realized the first problem with the game right away: it's not scaled for the size or level of the party. Four centaurs against four players would not have been too bad. Four centaurs against two 1st-level players was a pretty tough fight.
When danger reared its ugly head,
He bravely turned his tail and fled.
Gamely, we faced the centaurs. And my brave Barbarian promptly failed his first Morale check and ran away screaming, leaving the Bard to face the centaurs by herself.
The Bard decided maybe it was better to follow the Barbarian.
At this point, we realized that although it's mentioned in the rules that monsters will not pursue you if you leave a room, there was no actual rule for retreating. Do you have to roll to get away? Do the monsters get a free shot at your retreating back? We made up a house rule on the spot (which turns out to be how a lot of situations have to be handled in Witchlord) that you have to make an Agility roll to run away successfully. The Bard succeeded in fleeing the centaurs.
After the Bard caught up to the Barbarian (and cursed him out for his cowardice), we determined that since we had yet to generate any alternate paths, we evidently had no choice but to go back and face the centaurs.
This time, both of us made our Morale checks, and the Bard succeeded in casting a Charm spell on one of the centaurs. That helped a great deal; we ended up making up another house rule to determine whether the centaur being attacked by his friend would fight back or attack us; likewise, we went by "odd or even" dice rolls to determine which of us the other centaurs would attack.
Although the odds were still pretty severely against us, a fortuitous streak of '20's to hit (which allows you to roll on a rather pointless critical hit table since the results all boil down to "Enemy is instantly killed") got us out alive. The barbarian claimed the magic sword, and we proceeded through the dungeon.
Wait, this game doesn't even have a Cleric!
Of course, we were both dramatically reduced in hit points. Which brought us to the next problem: there are no rules for recovery. We searched the rulebook, and could find no mention of getting hit points back between battles. There isn't even a Cleric among the character class options! The magic-using types, like Bards, get one randomly chosen spell each time they level up, one of which is a healing spell.
Since going from one room to the next, fighting monsters more powerful than us, with an ever-decreasing tally of hit points, would seem to make the game nigh on impossible, we made up another house rule that all hit points are recovered between rooms.
This battle didn't go so well. Let's just say, somewhere in the Witchlord's castle, a statue of a Barbarian and a statue of a Bard keeps a pair of basilisks company.
The rules allow you to start over with a new character if yours dies, but then you have to proceed alone through the Witchlord's castle until you catch up to your companion(s). We decided that was enough for one night.
Witchlord, clearly, was published before the days of thorough editing and playtesting. It appears to be virtually unwinnable unless you have a large party (we should have played with two characters each to start with), and I can't see much appeal in the campaign version, since the game consists entirely of randomly generated dungeon corridors and rooms with randomly generated monsters, against which battles are decided entirely by many rounds of dice rolling.
Basically, a cheap version of other, better games like HeroQuest or Talisman, Witchlord was probably the creation of a one-man shop, and it's not surprising that it's been forgotten. It is very reminiscent of my own home-brew efforts at D&Dish card or board games when I was a kid. I suspect it will stay on my shelves for the next twenty years, though it might be worth pulling out with a larger group of players someday for a laugh. Alcohol will probably help.