Is Barbarian Prince the Supreme Achievement of Western Civilization?

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Howard: For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about solitaire gaming. I’d like to say that it has something to do with so many of us staying at home, but truthfully I’ve been a solitaire gamer for several years now. This might be a good time to acquaint more people with the concept, though.

Todd: It’s a great topic, and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather discuss it with. I don’t know anyone who’s studied and enjoyed solo games with the depth you have, or come at them with such a profound appreciation of the craft of storytelling. Your search for excellence in solitaire games has inspired me over the decades, and I thank you. Let’s get started with a warm-up question: Is Barbarian Prince the supreme achievement of Western civilization?

Howard: What? No.

Todd: On second thought folks, ignore Howard. He’s an idiot.

Howard: Look, I know you love Barbarian Prince

Todd: “Love” is too small a word for my undying devotion to this game.

Howard: Okay, weirdo. Barbarian Prince is a fine game, yes. I’d even say it was the pinnacle of ‘80s solitaire fantasy games (I’m not sure that’s a huge category, now that I think of it). But Barbarian Prince is quirky and poorly balanced, and there are plenty of more recent solitaire games that have surpassed it. We should be talking about them instead. Like the superb Nemo’s War, or some of the great Leader titles from Dan Verssen Games, or the engrossing Charlemagne, Master of Europe from Hollandspielle or—

Todd: Whoa there, Speedy. Before you race off in your solo submarine, let’s at least give Barbarian Prince its due, and explain to our patient readers at Tor.com what’s so magical about it.

Howard: Fair enough. Barbarian Prince was designed by Arnold Hendrick and released by Dwarfstar Games in 1981. It’s a solitaire game of heroic adventure in a forgotten age of barbarism and dark magic. You take on the role of Cal Arath, the namesake barbarian price, in hiding after a usurper has killed your father, the Old King. You flee to the south where you wander the treacherous hills and monster-haunted ruins, seeking to gather enough gold to raise an army and retake your kingdom.

Todd: That’s more like it. Was that so hard?

Howard: Tell me why you love it so much.

Todd: That’s easy. Barbarian Prince was nothing less than an attempt to capture the soul of sword & sorcery in a thin cardboard box. I’m convinced the designer set out to create a game that would faithfully reenact the greatest adventures of Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and other classic S&S heroes. And in many ways I think he succeeded.

Howard: It was a hugely ambitious design, that’s for sure. The thing that amazes me is that was packaged as a microgame, like Steve Jackson’s classic Ogre and Melee, which meant it came in a tiny box that almost fit in the palm of your hand. But there was an enormous amount of content packed inside, including a fold-out color hex map, a Rules Book and an Event Book, tables, and more.

Todd: Speaking as someone who’s tried it, writing even a simple choose-your-own-adventure-style solo game with a tiny handful of rooms is no easy task, and it gets exponentially more complicated and daunting as you add nodes. Ten rooms is a headache; a hundred is a nightmare. The 343 interlinked adventure nodes in Barbarian Prince—a huge leap ahead of anything that had been done in solitaire gaming in 1981—represented an enormous accomplishment. It was light years ahead of contemporary solo games like Death Test and Buffalo Castle in scope and ambition. Barbarian Prince isn’t just a game in which you wander sterile dungeon halls and fight programmed battles. You recruit companions, flee peasant mobs, explore tombs and dwarven mines, face witches and warrior wraiths, become a fugitive, befriend an eagle clan, join a merchant caravan, uncover the sinister secret of the undead Count Drogat, bribe seneschals, learn courtly manners, seduce a lord’s daughter, find powerful weapons and magical artifacts, raft the river, find true love, and starve to death.

Howard: When you say it like that, it makes me want to break out my copy again.

Todd: Right?

Howard: It really was an incredible accomplishment. Arnold Hendrick must have entered a fugue state and locked himself in a room with a typewriter for 12 months to produce this game.

Todd: With a very, very patient copyeditor.

Howard: I know I sound down on it, but I do love it, even if it’s a painful kid of love.

Todd: I hear you. I love it too, but that game is torture in a box. BoardGameGeek famously labeled it the Most Difficult Solo Game ever.

Howard: I pulled it out to play a few weekends back.

Todd: I suppose you’re going to tell me you won again?

Howard: I did.

Todd: No you didn’t.

Howard: It wasn’t owing to any kind of clever strategy. The dice just rolled in my favor.

Todd: Look, I’ve owned the game for over 30 years. Spent many evenings rolling dice and moving my lead miniature around the little map, befriending elves and exploring ancient crypts, and I have never won. All games end in ignoble death, usually in the form of starving goblins who kill you for your copper coins.

Howard: No, you can win.

Todd: We’ve been over this. You can’t actually win Barbarian Prince. As I’ve said before, the game is an existential commentary on the nihilistic underpinnings of modern evolutionary thought. I thought that was obvious.

Howard: I played a few years ago and I won on the first turn.

Todd: Jesus Christ on a pony.

Howard: The first place I went I discovered a chest with exactly 500 gold, which is what’s required to win. What I was really after both times was an adventure, and unfortunately, what Barbarian Prince usually delivers is frustration, starvation, and death.

Todd: See, now, that’s the game I know and love right there.

Howard: Barbarian Prince is capable of being a wonderful adventure simulator. On those rare occasions when you’re not lost, starving, or being eaten by spiders, some great stories develop. Winning those two times was fun, but I’ve had better experiences. I recall one session when I was allied with an elf and a friendly witch, and we found a hidden fortress with magic treasure. Now THAT was surprising and enjoyable. Probably all the characters later died in the desert…

Todd: It’s not the game’s fault you don’t know how to wrap up a story.

Howard: No, it’s kind of the game engine’s fault, but then it was so far ahead of its time we shouldn’t blame it for that.

Todd: That’s a good point. I forget sometimes what an outsize influence Barbarian Prince had on the nascent solo RPG market—and how hugely influential it remains, nearly four decades later. That’s an astonishing accomplishment for a tiny game that fit in your pocket.

Howard: It was an accomplishment that was recognized at the time. Dragon magazine called it “the most satisfactory solo game seen to date” the year it came out. And a few months later, Barbarian Prince eclipsed a lot of big budget titles from TSR and others to win the Charles S. Roberts Award for Best Fantasy Board Game—almost unprecedented for a microgame.

Todd: A lot of fantasy games down through the years owe their existence to Barbarian Prince.

Howard: Give me a few favorites.

Todd: Sure. The earliest was Star Smuggler, Dennis Sustare’s one-player RPG. It was released by Dwarfstar Games a year later, and drew heavily from the Event Book design carefully worked out by Hendrick for Barbarian Prince. You play Duke Springer, a Han Solo-type ship captain, plying the treacherous spaceways between a bunch of backwater star systems, each with a unique storyline, politics, and programmed events. I enjoyed it thoroughly, though it never seemed to get the attention that Barbarian Prince did, despite the innovations Sustare added, like the clever Sector map. The industry has shown a lot of love to Arnold Hendrick’s creation. A big part of the reason is that Hendrick made it freely available in downloadable print-and-play (PnP) format very early on, meaning players were able to create fully playable copies using just a printer. Over the years the popularity of PnP has skyrocketed, especially among the OSR—Old School Renaissance—community. Some folks call Barbarian Prince the “gem of the Print and Play Community.” A few years back print-and-play guru Todd Sanders got permission to create an updated version, and he pulled out all the stops to create a gorgeous redesign with a new game board, pieces, and redesigned rule and event books, making the whole thing available in a free version you can download and print yourself.

Howard: Sanders’ redesign is a brilliant, beautiful, and completely professional product. It corrects a lot of the goofs in the original events book, and expands and tweaks the game in some interesting ways. Talk about a labor of love. If you want to build your own copy of Barbarian Prince, either re-imagined on the BoardGameGeek site, or through Dwarfstar itself, follow this link—although if you download the original, I recommend downloading the actual rules from BoardGameGeek, because the errata is incorporated into the versions of the rules stored there.

Todd: There have been more original creations as well. Two recent favorites are Journey to the Overland by Overland Games, which proudly advertised itself as “a game inspired by Dwarfstar’s Barbarian Prince” in its successful Kickstarter campaign, and Barbarian Vince, which distills the essence of the original—a barbarian adventuring though a magical land—into a fast-paced game playable with a deck of 52 cards. In just the last year Barbarian Prince has enjoyed a lively resurgence among the Community-Driven RPG crowd, in which teams tackle the soul-sucking difficulty of the game together as an online community.

Howard: Sort of a combination gaming community and support group.

Todd: Best way to take on a game like this, I think.

Howard: I want to talk a bit about what came after. I think you know a lot more about the decades in gaming immediately following Barbarian Prince than I do. For example, you introduced me to Dark City Games, which offers a variety of games that are sort of like a hybrid between Barbarian Prince and those old Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Todd: Dark City Games! I love those guys. They’re old school in the very best way.

Howard: What do you mean?

Todd: Just a few minutes ago you mentioned Steve Jackson’s classic Melee, one of the earliest microgames, from way back in 1977. Melee was so successful it eventually spawned The Fantasy Trip (TFT), a full-fledged role-playing game that’s still played today. TFT’s greatest strength back in those days was that it could be played solo, and Jackson released a pair of solo adventures to prove it: Death Test and Death Test 2. Man, my friends and I played those to death. Being able to play solo—with cleverly designed, exciting adventures that were splendidly written—was completely new. They were some of the earliest and very best solo RPG adventures ever written, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that, along with the solo gaming community growing up around Tunnels and Trolls, they launched the genre of solo role-playing.

Howard: That sounds about right to me.

Todd: Metagaming, who published Melee and Death Test, folded up shop in 1983 after a series of bad business decisions, leaving a big void in the industry. Dark City Games filled that void some two decades later, publishing ambitious and well-designed microgames compatible with The Fantasy Trip. Some of my favorites are The Island of Lost Spells and Gates to the Underworld, both by George Dew. Like Metagaming before them, Dark City Games are clever and well designed—and very inexpensive. They’ve added several innovative design touches as well, such as the ability to search rooms. Not something I ever thought I’d see in a solo game, but they found a clever way to made it work.

Howard: They’re great games, and I’ve been buying them as new ones are released, a few each year: they now have five space opera adventures, two westerns, a historical, and a whole slew of fantasy adventures that can be interlinked. Did you know that The Fantasy Trip is back in print, with new stuff, and it was shepherded there by one of my favorite game designers, Guy W. McLimore? (He’s one of the three designers of the wonderful FASA Star Trek: The Role-Playing Game.)

Todd: Wait, what?

Howard: Yep, now you can snag all the original Fantasy Trip stuff, along with new extras, and some lost bits and new stuff, all in a couple of volumes through Steve Jackson Games. I was a little flummoxed to find that a lot of the new adventures aren’t pure solo stuff, the way the Dark City Games board games are.

Todd: Dark City Games aren’t really board games.

Howard: They have a board.

Todd: Yeah, but no. Really they’re RPGs with pre-generated maps.

Howard: If you say so. You’re the expert.

Todd: Whatever you want to call them, I think the challenge is in selling these kinds of games to modern gamers. Players today have a helluva lot more choice in solo entertainment than we did in the ‘80s. It’s a challenge to ask them to spend 30 minutes leaning how to play a solitaire game, when there are so many video games you can pick up and learn in 30 seconds.

Howard: I can’t speak to why the next guy or gal does it, but I play solo board games because I already spend so much of my life staring at a glowing screen. There’s something relaxing about looking down at a physical board and actually moving pieces around. With my fingers. That aren’t pointing and dragging, I mean.

Todd: That’s a great point. Solitaire board games do allow you to escape the computer.

Howard: And there are games on really obscure and interesting subjects that computer games would never address. I think you know this, but many people are unaware that we’re actually in a kind of golden era of solitaire board games.

Todd: I know that many group board games now have good solo options, like Robinson Crusoe, but I think you mean games that really are designed for one person?

Howard: Exactly.

Todd: Do you have a comprehensive list of the best titles curious readers should check out?

Howard: Well, not exactly, because my preferences may be more on the war and tactical edge rather than the dungeon crawl side, which has never interested me as much, which is why I recommend visiting the websites of these companies for yourselves. With that caveat, though, here are some of my modern favorites: Dan Verssen has a big line of solitaire board games, like B-17 Leader, where you’re basically commanding the Allied bombing campaign against Nazi Germany, or Hornet Leader, where you’re commanding a squadron of planes during the ‘80s on a variety of missions, or Field Commander: Napoleon where you are playing the French Emperor himself on a whole slew of campaigns. Really, all of these companies I’m going to introduce have far more titles than I can mention in brief, and you really ought to just check out their sites. I’m quite taken with White Dog Games, which has games set during the Revolutionary War or the Falklands War, or even the campaign against the Moors in Spain, as well as others. And then there are some great games over at Hollandspiele. If you feel up to running Charlesmagne’s Europe or commanding a Nato Air War you should definitely check them out—

Todd: Holy cow, dude. How do you have time to play all these games?

Howard: If you’d skip rewatching Downton Abbey for a third time, you’d find a few extra hours in your day, too.

Todd: I can’t help it; that damn show sucks me in. Besides, it’s the only reason I know a damn thing about British history.

Howard: You really want to learn British history? Dive into some of these historical games, and you’ll understand the existential crises that nation faced over the last 200 years.

Todd: Will I learn if Lady Mary ever finds happiness?

Howard: Look, if you really care about European history, or even if you just enjoy a conflict game with a vibrant historical setting, there are scores of publishers that have dedicated and clever solitaire games.

Todd: OK, I’m curious. You’re way out of my field of expertise with these modern solitaire games. Give me more names.

Howard: Even if I mention Legion Wargames (with a game set in the Boer War, as well as others) and Decision Games, with some highly regarded D-Day titles, or the Lock ‘n Load Tactical games with their solo expansion, or Conflict of Heroes with THEIR solo expansion, or GMT with their Enemy Coast titles or U-Boat games, I’m probably going to leave some out.

Todd: Aren’t the Lock ‘n Load Tactical titles computer games?

Howard: Well, there is a new computer game too, but it’s based on the board games, all of which have a single expansion that enables ANY of their boxed games to be played solo. I gassed on about how much I loved Lock ‘n Load Tactical back at Black Gate a few years ago, and I still do. It’s right up there among my very favorites, but then it has the tactical feel I most like. As for companies, I think I’ve touched on MOST of the big ones that have solitaire titles…to circle back to GMT, they’ve put out many excellent games, many of which aren’t even military, like Spacecorp by ace designer John Butterfield, where you’re playing against others or the game itself to build an industrial space corporation that first gets you into orbit, then to the inner planets, then off to the outer solar system. I haven’t included some of the better print-and-play games, though. Downloading and printing games yourself is great for gaming on a budget, or trying out the hobby without making a big investment. If you’re good at building and printing your own components, Berserker Games and Two Hour Wargames have some great stuff. As a matter of fact, if you poke around the solo groups on BoardGameGeek you’ll come across many print-and-play games, including a Doctor Who game loosely based upon the Barbarian Prince engine, and all sorts of additional free goodies that should keep those with better crafts skills than me quite happy.

Todd: What about Victory Point Games? You mentioned Nemo’s War a few minutes ago, and I know they have a few others.

Howard: Victory Point Games is under new management and a lot of their great games seem to have vanished from their inventory (hopefully temporarily), but they still have Nemo’s War and a few others. If you’ve ever felt like trying to run a mad steampunk genius’s war campaign against armed navies in Victorian times, you’re going to be right at home.

Todd: It’s scary how well you know me.

Howard: It’s been on my table a lot recently. I mean, a lot. Usually in the evenings I’m reading or working on short story outlines, or editing, but lately I’ve been sinking the shipping of the Imperial Victorian powers in the mighty Nautilus.

Todd: I noticed that a lot of the titles you mentioned were wargames.

Howard: That’s become an area of interest for me, but believe me, there are scores of science fiction and fantasy titles that can be played cooperatively or solitaire, the best known of which is probably Mage Knight. Or maybe these days it’s Gloomhaven. I’ve lost track of that segment of the marketplace. You can find out more about what’s available simply by joining some online groups like BoardGameGeek’s Solo Games, or one of two groups that has kept me from completely abandoning Facebook, the solitaire Wargamer’s group. There are FB groups for solo games that aren’t warfare, and I’d bet that some of the new FB rivals have similar ones.

Todd: Isn’t a group for solo gamers kind of redundant? Sort of belies the point.

Howard: Yes, yes. Well, it’s a place where you can ask others what they thought of this game, or even ask about a rule you’re having trouble with.

Todd: I don’t know. In the old days, when you didn’t understand a rule, you just sucked it up.

Howard: And those damned kids need to stay off your lawn too, I bet.

Todd: Players today, man. They don’t know how good they have it.

Howard: Yeah we do. Anyway, once you’ve played enough games so that you know the sorts of features you like, you can ask group members if a new game has a similar approach. For instance, I almost always prefer games with close-in tactical detail. A single space marine with statistics, say, rather than an entire regiment of a hundred soldiers represented by a single piece. Or maybe I’m after info on a great out of print game (like one of my very favorites, Ambush!) and need someone who can tell me about a missing rule.

Todd: That does sound kind of useful, I guess.

Howard: Now you’re getting it. Still, we don’t really need those groups, because we have our own highly-informed group of readers and gamers right here at Tor.com, and we can ask them for suggestions.

Todd: Not if you don’t shut up, we can’t.

Howard: What about it, readers? If you’d got a solitaire board game you dearly love—or even just one you’d like to ask about—go ahead and let us know in the comments.

Todd: That’s a wrap. And thanks, as always, for taking this journey with us!

Todd McAulty’s first novel The Robots of Gotham was published by John Joseph Adams Books in 2019. Under the name John O’Neill, he runs the World Fantasy Award-winning website Black Gate.

Howard lives in a tower beside the Sea of Monsters with a wicked and beautiful sorceress. When not spending time with her or their talented children, he can be found hunched over his laptop, mumbling about flashing swords and doom-haunted towers. In 2019 St. Martin’s published the first two novels of his newest fantasy series, For the Killing of Kings and Upon the Flight of the Queen. Paizo has published four of his Pathfinder novels and St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne two of his critically acclaimed historical fantasy novels starring the Arabian sleuth and swordsman team of Dabir and Asim. He edits Tales From the Magician’s Skull and for the Perilous Worlds publishing imprint.

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