?By Teague Bohlen
Once the king of the role-playing game companies, TSR is still best known for the many iterations of Dungeons & Dragons — their fantasy bread-and-butter, which they released in perpetuity until the RPG and table-top game company was gobbled up by Wizards of the Coast. But TSR had a lot more offerings than just orcs guarding chests in 10×10 rooms, and using its Gygaxian coffers of cash to branch out in countless directions over its 25 year existence, serving the then-burgeoning gaming population with games of subject matters ranging from science fiction to comic books to World War II to old TV shows, and games ranging from role-playing to tabletop (and they even snuck a few card games in there). Some of these games were classics; others… not so much. Here’s a d10 of the best, and a six-sider of the not-so-much.
10) Boot Hill
A great game set in the Old West — and very aptly named. Boot Hill was a killer — one of those games where you learned not to get too attached to your character, because one good shot, and you’re just one more resident of the titular graveyard, pardner.
First released in 1981, there were eight of these short, easy, and fun games that you could play with just one other person, or even by yourself. And each had its own cool details that made them memorable, like the psychic abilities that each leader had in Revolt on Antares. Great for those days when you couldn’t get a group together, but still wanted to play something. You know, without actually going outside.
8) Awful Green Things from Outer Space
Tom Wham made a bunch of great games for TSR and Dragon Magazine, and this board game was one of his best, goofiest, and darkest. The game was played out on the map of the ship Znutar: one player is the defending crew, the other plays the rapidly multiplying Green Things, who are eating the crew as they take over the ship. Sort of like Alien, only cuter, and with less stomach-bursting.
The ultimate game of cops and robbers — with tommy guns, Model T’s, and bathtub gin, no less! — that sort of fell victim to its own complexity. Sure, you could be a Fed, on the side of law, or a Criminal, out for yourself. But you could also be a Newspaper Reporter, with exciting skills like Photography. Interesting idea, but when you can be Eliot Ness or John Dillinger, why in the world would you choose to be Jimmy Olsen?
6) Top Secret
This super-spy espionage game was so convincingly researched that some of the game notes about a presidential-assassination storyline actually resulted in the FBI visiting TSR headquarters (which I’m sure was pretty funny, once everyone involved had changed their pants).
Okay, so it’s almost D&D, but it’s not quite, since it’s a board game. But it is unabashedly chock-full of 70s fantasy hack-n-slash goodness. There’s no higher purpose to this game, no moral, no storyline. Why did you kill that troll? Because he was there, and I wanted his stuff. The end.
4) Dawn Patrol
Originally called Fight in the Skies, this WWI aerial dogfighting game is the only game to be on the schedule of every GenCon in the convention’s history. It’s also one of those insanely detailed games that you either find very cool, the height of geek-dom, or both. (Fair warning: Night Ranger had a pre-Sister Christian album of the same name in 1982 — so for the love of god, if someone asks you if you want to play some Dawn Patrol, ask for more information. Because knowing is half the battle.)
3) Star Frontiers
Awesome despite some early mis-steps in the original game: coming so late after Star Wars mania, not including ship-to-ship battle until the Knight Hawks supplement, and asking players to accept that there were only three alien races (plus humans) that were playable (more came later). Still, any game that includes raging glider-monkeys (Yazarians), shmoo-like blobs with weird senses of humor (Drasalites), and giant socialist mantises (Vrusk) just plain rocks.
2) Metamorphisis Alpha/Gamma World
Credited as being the first sci-fi role playing game, Metamorphosis Alpha was essentially a dungeon crawl in space. Based on the Heinlein book Orphans of the Sky, the original game was limited to adventuring (and surviving) on just the one ship; Gamma World took this a step further, and set itself on post-apocalypse Earth. The ability to be a human, a mutant (person, plant, or animal) or an android is cool enough. The fact that the game was introduced by way of the awesomeness that is Expedition to the Barrier Peaks gets a mutated triple thumbs-up, all on one hand.
1) Marvel Super Heroes
There have been lots of superhero games (Champions, DC Heroes), but TSR’s foray into the genre was notable not only for licensing Marvel characters, but for capturing the spirit of the comics, too. For example, the power levels were hyperbolic and completely in keeping with the merry Marvel method: Spiderman’s Agility doesn’t just have a number–it’s Amazing. (Though the Hulk’s strength, it must be noted, was far above simply Incredible.) Playing this game was like actively participating in an issue of Marvel Team-Up — it was familiar and fun and completely out of continuity — and you liked it that way. ‘Nuff said.
6) The Adventures of Indiana Jones
How does this game wind up on the “worst” list? Here’s one way: no rules for character generation. But that’s okay, right? I mean, who’d want to play anyone but Indy? This leads us to the second failing of the game: expecting players to play Willie Scott, Jock the pilot, or Short Round and not resent the hell out of the player who got to run Indiana Jones. The only thing that saves the game somewhat is the game-translations of the movies — just reading the stats for the traps in the opening scene from Raiders is pretty cool. But when it came down to either designing a great game or rushing this to market? TSR chose…poorly.
5) Bullwinkle & Rocky Role Playing Party Game
This was such a bad idea that it almost sounds like a joke–and it sort of was, just not the sort of joke TSR thought it was telling. Back in 1988, TSR thought they might expand into more general (read: non-geek) audiences–and they thought it might be a good idea to do it with a game that came with plastic cartoon puppets. What they ended up doing was alienating most audiences, except maybe those fans who collect the hopeless failures of gaming.
Dragonstrike was a crappy board game with a single gimmick: the high-tech addition of a 30-minute videotape intro. Not an integrated video like other games of its type had tried (such as the VCR Clue game), mind you. Just a cheesy half-hour of basic role-playing tutorial, very little of which you could actually use in the half-assed game that you were about to half-enjoy.
Hot on the heels of Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: the Gathering phenomenon came TSR’s entrant into the CCG market: Spellfire. But it was more a misfire than anything. Old art, flawed rules, and the overriding sense that TSR was throwing anything it could at the upstart WotC (who would eventually buy out TSR and its properties) made the game a dud.
2) The Honeymooners Game
TSR put out this “hilarious game” in 1986, trading on the huge popularity of Jackie Gleason and his old TV show that completely and patently did not exist at the time. The goal of the game was to become the “complete Ralph,” which not only makes very little sense, but sounds vaguely disgusting. Baby, this game was not the greatest.
1) All My Children
Fifties sitcoms and sixties cartoons weren’t the only TV properties TSR tried to make a gaming-go of–they also tried the soaps. Specifically, ABC’s All My Children, a game in which players could be Erica Kane, Palmer Cortlandt, and/or completely ashamed of themselves. Of course, the D&D crossover rules included with this game confirmed what die-hard All My Children fans long believed: that Erika Kane was a 13th level assassin.