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Dark Tower: Finding the Game and Playing the Game are both Adventures

by Michael Barnes (02/07/12).

Electronic wizardry, 1980s style. Milton Bradley’s The Dark Tower is a close to a Holy Grail as there is for vintage game collectors.

These days, there are relative few Holy Grail-class collectibles or out-of-print collection showpieces for the board game collector. Over the past several years, reprints and reissues of sought-after titles have increased the availability of desirable games while also driving the aftermarket prices for original editions down. But one game that will likely always remain a valuable collectible is Milton Bradley’s The Dark Tower.

Dark Tower, an electronic board game with an amazing plastic tower housing a primitive computer that tracked all game information, made crude but charming sounds, and had some light-up features including stained glass-style illustrations and old fashioned LED counters. It was released to mainstream toy and department stores in 1981, and it will almost certainly never be in print or available again.

The game is classic 1980s fantasy fare, obviously influenced by the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons. It’s a simple adventure game, wherein the players each represent a hero setting forth from a home citadel to find three keys—all of which must be found by exploring crypts in the other three regions of the board. Along the way, the players try to amass warriors to fight in the inevitable siege of the tower, accumulate food to feed that hungry rabble, acquire gold, ward off wandering brigands and visit locations such as a bazaar and sanctuaries, where you can recuperate when the tower decides that it’s time to kill off all of your warriors.

Once a player has the three keys, he returns triumphantly to his home citadel and can then march up to the tower. But before the final battle, the right sequence of keys has to be figured out. Once the door is unlocked, it’s a back and forth struggle between the attacking army and the defending brigands to the death. The winner gets to see a little “victory” image and hear some triumphant, tinny music.

It’s a gloriously old-fashioned relic of a time when electronic gaming was rarely available outside of arcades, first-generation video game consoles and early home computers. The thrill of playing a computerized board game might very well be lost on younger generations, but when I was a kid, this was some pretty exciting stuff. It’s definitely quaint, but it is actually a pretty good game by modern standards. It’s also an unusually good-looking product, with some very distinctive and unique illustrations by the great Bob Pepper, mostly known for his work designing science fiction and fantasy book covers.

Dark Tower wasn’t in print for long; Milton Bradley was sued shortly after it was on the market by some inventors who claimed that they had presented the company with the basic idea for the technology and the game sometime in the 1970s. They argued that MB had designed and produced the game without their involvement and, as a result, the game was pulled off the shelves forever. It has never been reprinted and will almost certainly never be reprinted for a number of reasons, rights issues and technological progress being chief among them. There is a Flash game available on the Web, but it pales in comparison to playing with the actual physical game. It’s a great option for those who want to see what the game is like, but a graphic of the tower just isn’t the same as the real object.

The Dark Tower itself, in all of its plastic glory.

A complete set, including the board and all the pieces.

But for today’s gamers, getting their hands on a copy of Dark Tower means putting up anywhere from $150 to $250 on average, with some really nice copies approaching $300 or more. Sealed or mint copies are almost unheard of—most of the kids who got these games for Christmas in 1981 abused the heck out of the boxes and, often, the contents—and that’s before they were stuffed into attics or crawlspace storage. I’ve never seen a copy that I’d rate above “good,” and I’ve seen many copies missing pieces or with a non-working tower.

That said, this is a game that most game collectors will buy, regardless of condition, often combining sets for completion or salvaging parts to upgrade or fix non-working towers. Some websites and retailers actually sell spare parts, including manuals, boxes and other pieces. For my part, I’ll buy just about any copy in any condition if the price is right, but I have yet to ever actually see a copy in any thrift store, antique shop or yard sale. Stories are out there, however, of folks who have bought these games for fifty cents at a swap meet to flip at auction for a couple of hundred dollars.

Dark Tower is very much an endangered board game. As time goes on, fewer and fewer copies are in circulation. Towers become irreparably broken or worn out and lights stop working. This is a game that will continue to get scarcer and scarcer in years to come. It’s definitely a “they don’t make ’em like this anymore” item, and both nostalgia and its reputation among game collectors and players remains high.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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