‘It was a mess’: The disappearance and return of legendary ’80s board game Dark Tower
In 1981, there was no game bigger. Then it vanished. What happened to Dark Tower, and why is there such hunger for it to come back?
For many kids in 1981, the adventure started with Orson Welles. The creator of 1941 cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane was chosen by game giant Milton Bradley to front its TV ad campaign for Dark Tower: an impressive, expensive, electronically enhanced tabletop fantasy experience which fired imaginations (and threatened parents’ bank balances) with its circular board and foot-high black plastic, computer-controlled rotating centrepiece.
“In this amazing game, I had to find three keys, lay siege to the tower and defeat the enemy within,” intoned the grey-bearded, wild-eyed Welles. “Each move was a challenge. The computer kept track, giving me secret information: pictures, sounds, surprises. Then, ahead of my opponent, I made my move. The battle was joined… and I was victorious!”
By today’s standards, the backlit illustrations on the Tower’s slides and its 8-bit bleeps feel charmingly primitive - but in the early eighties it was impressively, enticingly state-of-the-art.
“I was just getting into Dungeons & Dragons and computer games at the time,” recalls Rob Daviau, “so it kind of blew my 12-year-old mind.” As chief restoration officer at Restoration Games, the veteran designer of Risk Legacy is currently working hard on Return to Dark Tower, a highly anticipated 21st-century bells-and-whistles sequel/remake whose creative team also includes Beasts of Balance designer Tim Burrell-Saward and Gloomhaven creator Isaac Childres. Having raised more than $4 million from over 23,000 backers on Kickstarter, it’s clear the force of nostalgia is strong with this one.
“I remember being at my grandmother’s house and playing it and playing it with my brothers and cousins during the summer after it came out,” Daviau reminisces. “Like most people I didn’t own it. It was quite pricey at the time - actually the price is comparable to ours right now, once you scale for inflation. [Around $40, the rough eighties equivalent of Return’s $125 core set price tag.] And it was hard to get. But my uncle worked stocking shelves at retail stores for Milton Bradley, and he had a copy of the game he let me play.”
To Restoration Games president Justin D. Jacobson, who also has fond memories of playing it as a kid, the game was revolutionary. “It wasn’t like Dark Tower invented the idea of playing against an electronic component,” he says, “but it felt like there was a brain in there; it felt like there was a DM in there. It felt more like D&D, and you could play it solo, too. It also had a grandiosity to it: the size and majesty of the tower. The different musical tunes. The scope of the game. It felt like the future had arrived.”
It felt like the future had arrived.
Yet, despite being Milton Bradley’s big game of Christmas ’81, Dark Tower quickly disappeared, fading fast into tabletop legend. As Daviau puts it, in a dramatic stage whisper: “And then it was gone.”
Partly it was a matter of the game’s huge production cost, not to mention its hefty price point. “The idea of spending [the equivalent of] a hundred dollars on a board game was unthinkable back then,” notes Jacobson. “That’s a big pill to swallow there.” But there was another reason Dark Tower vanished, destined to become a game which - when mentioned by Daviau years later while working at Hasbro, which absorbed Milton Bradley in 1984 - would cause older heads to shake and more seasoned shoulders to slump. “Don’t go there,” people would tell him. “It’s just a mess.”
In February 1980, inventors Roger Burten and Alan Coleman met with Milton Bradley executives at the company’s offices in East Long Meadow, Massachusetts. They demonstrated their prototype for Triumph, a space-travel adventure game with a round board and a central microprocessor-controlled unit. They left the prototype with Milton Bradley for evaluation, who returned it a few weeks later saying it was not interested in publishing the game.
After failing to pitch Triumph successfully elsewhere, Burten and Coleman attended the New York Toy Fair in January 1981. Here, they saw Dark Tower for the first time: a fantasy adventure game with a central microprocessor-controlled unit. Michael Gray was a designer at Milton Bradley at the time and worked on the Dark Tower rulebook. (In an interesting side note, he was also the person who hired Daviau at Hasbro 19 years later, and helped with the foundation of Restoration Games.) Gray remembers that fateful Toy Fair, and meeting either Burten or Coleman (he can’t recall which). “I showed him around, showed him all the different products on our line,” says Gray, who still lives in Massachusetts. “Afterwards I sat down with him and he said, ‘That Dark Tower. Don’t you think that’s similar to our game?’ I replied, ‘No.’ And, you know, the rest is history.”
After accusing Milton Bradley of plagiarism and demanding royalties - charges the company denied - Burten and Coleman took it to Federal District Court. On May 30th 1985, after a long trial, a jury upheld their claim and Milton Bradley was forced to fork out $737,058 for lost royalties. It was a David-and-Goliath victory: two wronged independent inventors striking a blow against a gaming heavyweight. Hardly surprising, then, that Milton Bradley/Hasbro would forever more regard Dark Tower as a tainted IP, best locked away and forgotten about.
Despite the remarkable similarities between Triumph and Dark Tower, Gray stands by his conviction that the latter was not a rip-off. “I was there for the whole thing,” he says. “The guy who designed the game worked maybe 20 feet from my desk. His name was Vince Erato. He was really smart and funny, and very creative.”
The clever thing about Dark Tower was that the electronics rotated a tube and lit up the right picture that related to what you were dealing with.
Erato, who passed away around five years ago, conceived and created 1979’s Big Trak toy, a programmable six-wheeled tank whose multicoloured membrane keyboard bears close resemblance to Dark Tower’s. His inspiration for the game was not Triumph, Gray recalls, but an Apple II computer game released in 1980 titled Wilderness Campaign. Erato wanted to recreate its medieval-fantasy survival theme as a multiplayer tabletop experience. Triumph, meanwhile, involved “wormholes and stuff that took you to different places on the board. We weren’t doing anything like that. And we had done round game boards before. That wasn’t a new thing.”
As Gray remembers it, Burten and Coleman’s prototype used the central component from a 1978 Milton Bradley game called Laser Attack to house its microprocessor. “The significant thing here is not just electronics,” he continues. “The clever thing about Dark Tower was that the electronics turned a motor that rotated a tube with pictures on it and lit up the right picture that related to what you were dealing with. There was nothing like that in the game we lost that lawsuit to.”
Gray isn’t alone in disputing Burten and Coleman’s claim. Milton Bradley designer Robert Hoffberg told Dark Tower archive website Well of Souls, “the concept for the game [...] predated my viewing of Triumph”. More recently, Erato’s son posted in the comments section during Restoration Games’ Kickstarter campaign for Return. “He’s pretty adamant that his dad really invented the game,” says Jacobson. “He was obviously very upset by the lawsuit.”
The outcome of the court case deeply stung Erato, Gray and their colleagues at Milton Bradley. “I can tell you as a designer, we didn’t steal anything from their game,” Gray says. So why did Milton Bradley lose the case? “Maybe they had better lawyers,” suggests Gray. “Sometimes Vince Erato could be kind of arrogant. Maybe he came off bad. But I didn’t see the trial or anything - remember, I’m just a guy in the hallway hearing the hubbub. But we all felt bad, because we’re not stealers.”
Jacobson, a former attorney, says he can’t discuss the details of his conversations with Hasbro about securing the rights to Dark Tower. However, he says, “ultimately the lawsuit ended up such that they didn’t have anything protectable there,” aside from the game art by the late Bob Pepper, “which obviously we couldn’t touch”. He did reach out to Burten and Coleman, though. “Of course, they designed a game that was different to the final product. And that was essentially their position. They said, ‘Look, we don’t have anything to offer you. So just go ahead and do whatever you’re gonna do. It’s fine with us.’”
With Dark Tower now a rare, fragile and valuable gaming artefact, it is most easily played via digital emulation on PC and mobile. As is the case with many games from the childhood of Generation Xers, its true quality has become obscured amid the warm glow of Stranger Things-ish nostalgia.
The original Dark Tower's gameplay is not that great.
Being born the year after the game came out, the original holds no mystical power over Return co-designer Isaac Childres. “The gameplay is not that great,” he says. “You’re just moving this guy around this board, very slowly going through these random events and trying to manage your food so you don’t starve.”
Even Gray admits Dark Tower offers a less than satisfying gameplay experience: “Everybody played kind of in their own quadrants, and if you didn’t succeed in your attack on the Tower on your first try, you weren’t gonna win, because you were knocked way back. And you knocked down that guy in the tower for somebody else.”
So, in addition to updating the tech with an app that interacts with a drastically beefed-up, new-look Tower, Return also overhauls the analogue mechanisms, doing away with the food-management element (“Dying of starvation in the wilderness is very 1981,” deadpans Daviau) and making the game a primarily cooperative experience. “I’ve always maintained that if the game had been made today, it would have been cooperative,” says Jacobson. “The idea of this huge malevolent force threatening the kingdoms and, instead of working together, we’re just gonna race to see who can beat it first is a little weird, right? With Isaac and Rob working on it - as well as Noah Cohen and Brian Neff [who worked alongside Daviau on Betrayal Legacy] - it’s a very modern, elegant game design. You have more interesting choices on your turn.”
That’s the carry-over to this new game: to create this big spectacle with this tower in the middle that’s doing all these cool things that you don’t expect.
What can never be taken away from the original - and what clearly inspired its reconstruction as Return to Dark Tower - is the sheer impact of its table presence and the sense of personality and atmosphere it managed to weave. “I was really impressed at how it did so much with so little,” Daviau says of revisiting the game in adulthood. “12 slides, a bunch of sounds and just enough memory to remember 10 variables.”
“It was a spectacle, right?” says Childres. “That’s the carry-over to this new game: to create this big spectacle with this tower in the middle that’s doing all these cool things that you don’t expect.” Despite its flaws, Gray - who still owns a copy of the game and remains rightly proud of his vivid rulebook, which he says won an award in France - regards Dark Tower as being “beautiful and innovative”.
Despite its incredibly short shelf-life and the legal controversy that saw it vanish for decades, Dark Tower still looms high in the minds of those who played it in their youth. And with Return to Dark Tower, a new adventure is about to begin.