80s nostalgia

Dark Tower’s Redemption

How a legendary board-game failure became a thoroughly modern hit.

“If I’d given a talk five years ago about what not to do in a game,” says game designer and Restoration Games co-founder Rob Daviau, “Return to Dark Tower checks every box. High price point? Check. Complicated rules? Check. Fidgety components? Check. The most complicated turn is your first one? Check.”

When Daviau and Justin Jacobson started Restoration Games — a company that specializes in, as the name suggests, restoring out-of-print board games — Dark Tower was near the top of their list. “We had a whole list of games we wanted to do,” says Jacobson. “We had a suggestion box on the site, and we’d get some we’ve never heard of. The big three for us were HeroQuest, Dark Tower, and Fireball Island. Personally Rob and I were a little too old to remember Fireball Island, and HeroQuest was just a hair after our time, but Dark Tower was the sweet spot.”

Dark Tower has indeed taken on legendary status in the 41 years since its release, despite a disappointing launch. Milton Bradley, the game’s original publisher, sold it for just one season before a lawsuit and slow sales led them to pull it from shelves. Scarcity worked its magic (full, used copies sell for $200-plus) while the legend of the game itself grows — and the few people who did play it as kids have become grown-ups with disposable income and a strong inclination to put it toward nostalgic ends. Suzanne Sheldon, a former Dice Tower podcast host who now handles marketing for Restoration Games, puts it this way: “If you say the name Dark Tower in a crowded room, there’s a chance people will perk up.”

Dark Tower was a revolutionary game for its time, enough so that the market may not have been quite ready for it. Coming in at $60, or about $180 in today’s dollars, it was the most expensive tabletop game to date, and Milton Bradley backed it with a marketing campaign that included a TV commercial featuring Orson Welles. George Ditomassi, Milton Bradley’s senior vice-president for sales at the time, told the New York Times, “We wanted a game that would cater to a market that already existed — Dungeons and Dragons,” but that the company was aiming one tier lower, at “people who had heard about D & D but who didn’t want to be Dungeons and Dragons freaks.”

Milton Bradley worked on the game for nearly two years, and the Times claimed that the development cost upward of $750,000 (well over $2 million in 2022 dollars), which set the bar for profitability quite high. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, the game wouldn’t get the chance to recoup that investment. Two inventors who had presented the publisher with an idea for a game design that included an electronic tower at the center of the game board sued Milton Bradley for misappropriation of trade secrets, winning $737,058.10 — nearly doubling the company’s investment in the game while also reducing the potential royalties from future sales. After the 1981 holiday season, the company ceased production of Dark Tower, consigning it to the status of a “grail game” for collectors.

Now, Daviau and his colleagues at Restoration have brought Dark Tower back. They haven’t just reprinted the game, though — they’ve redesigned it from the ground up, retaining the original’s theme and feel as well as the titular tower while making the game itself more playable and balanced. The new game went to the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in January 2020 and raised just over $4 million from 23,661 backers, with a minimum pledge of $125 to get the game. It first reached backers in January, and demand has been so strong, with copies selling for twice the retail price on the secondary market, that the company recently launched a second Kickstarter effort to fund the next printing. Excitement for the new game even showed up on television with an incredibly detailed rendering of the tower. (South Park co-creator Trey Parker is a fan of the original game.)

The first obstacle for Restoration Games was figuring out who, if anyone, still owned any rights to the Dark Tower game, a key legal and philosophical point for the folks running it. Reaching the designer can be straightforward for some games, such as Downforce, a reimplementation of Top Race, designed by Wolfgang Kramer, one of the most acclaimed designers in board-game history who is still active and releasing new games. In the case of Dark Tower, however, it wasn’t entirely clear who the actual designers were. Boardgamegeek.com, a massive site with a database that includes distinct entries for over 130,000 board games, has detailed information on designers, illustrators, and more, but the older a game is, the greater the chance that some of that information will be missing. In the case of Dark Tower, BGG listed three designers: Roger Burten, Alan Coleman, and Vincent Erato. Erato, who worked at Milton Bradley and was the lead designer on Dark Tower, had passed away by the time Restoration began work on the project, while Burten and Coleman weren’t actually employees of Milton Bradley. They’re listed as designers because they were the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to Dark Tower being shelved.

“They approached Milton Bradley with an idea for Triumph, a sci-fi game that had a big electronic tower in the middle of the table,” says Jacobson, who reviewed the court documents from the lawsuit to figure out just who owned the rights to what. “Milton Bradley passed, but when Burten and Coleman ended up going to Toy Fair in New York and saw that Milton Bradley was showing off Dark Tower, a fantasy-themed game with a big electronic tower, they were not happy, and they sued.” Milton Bradley, and eventually their new owners at Hasbro, said the similarity was a coincidence, and that they hadn’t infringed any copyrights, but the court ruled against them. “By all accounts, Erato lost them the case because he didn’t make a good witness. He was kind of cranky and was annoyed that they alleged that he stole the idea.”

Neither of the original designers of Triumph claimed any ownership of any of this content, which made Restoration’s job a little easier. (Although Jacobson says it’s “never 100 percent” certain with any game that someone won’t pop up and claim ownership of something.) The original Dark Tower game’s trademark was long expired, and game mechanics can’t be copyrighted. Rulebooks can, as can art, but since this was a redesign rather than just a reprint, neither of those was at issue. Milton Bradley did have a patent on the game, awarded in 1983, but it was also expired and only covered the concept of a board game with a tower in the middle rather than any of the electronic elements within the tower. The only legal obstacle Restoration faced with the intellectual property here had nothing to do with the original game but with the popular series of novels by Stephen King, one reason among many that Daviau and Jacobson chose to name this game Return to Dark Tower rather than keeping the original title.

With legal obstacles largely out of the way, the team could begin designing a new game out of the embers of the original. “In 1982 what the game did was take dice and a deck of cards and make it electronic,” says Daviau. “The game knew what kingdom you were in and what keys you’d collected, or if you had the sword and a dragon attacked you or if another player had put a curse on you, it was in many ways a watch-me game, but at the time it was magical to play.”

The original idea for Return to Dark Tower was to use a phone to do the heavy lifting of the tower, but in early prototypes, “we soon realized what we were playing was Dark Phone.” The tower had to be the heart of the game, not just visually but mechanically as well. If you ask anyone who played the original, they will all talk about the tower and the now-dated eight-bit sounds it would make. “I remember being so aggravated when you’d open a cave and it would be empty and you got nothing,” says Tommy Tanous, a huge fan of the original title. “It was the sounds that would disappoint you or make you so happy.”

Early in the process, Restoration brought in designer Isaac Childres, whose game Gloomhaven was just exploding on the scene, becoming the top-ranked game on Boardgamegeek while also establishing that a market existed for games at a higher price point. Gloomhaven weighs 20 pounds and lists for $120, yet Childres had a hard time keeping the game in stock. It’s a cooperative game with heavy role-playing elements, and when Childres first saw Return to Dark Tower, he suggested that Restoration also make it a co-op game.

Childres, who turns 40 this month, doesn’t remember the original game — “it was a little before my time” — but saw his role as the outsider who wasn’t tied down by nostalgia. “When Gloomhaven first released back in beginning of 2017, Justin was in on the original Kickstarter and loved the game,” says Childres.

“He messaged me out of the blue on Boardgamegeek to ask if I’d be interested in working with him and Rob on a game. I was relatively new to the hobby at that point, but I had just put out my own legacy game and Rob was the king of legacy games. He’d even designed one of the scenarios in Gloomhaven.”

Childres won’t take credit for first suggesting that Return to Dark Tower should be cooperative, but says, “It makes sense. When I play an epic fantasy game, I want to be working with people. From my background in Dungeons & Dragons and designing Gloomhaven, it’s more fun to fight some giant threat with other people as opposed to racing to defeat the giant threat. The tower is your DM and you’re all working together to defeat it.

What none of the three designers knew at the time, though, was just how long it would take for the project to come to life.

The engineering of Return to Dark Tower turned out to be just as much of an ordeal as the design of the game and even more of an obstacle than obtaining the rights. The essence of the game? It’s all about that electronic tower.

“You have video games and board games, there’s this really interesting liminal space in the middle where they can cross over,” says Tim Burrell-Saward, the lead engineer on the project. “Lego is spending a lot of time exploring this area with Lego Mario, where you can interact with it through augmented reality. Are we getting to the point where people won’t question a phone/tablet being present on the table while you’re playing a board game?”

The ideas for Return to Dark Tower ran from the grandiose — a “smart” board that could identify where player tokens were and then relay that information to the tower, which opened up so players could see rooms and stairs they had to navigate — to the mundane, with resource-management aspects like a thousand other Eurogames. It always came back to the tower, which, in early prototypes, was a monster.

“It originally had five layers,” recalls Daviau. “We had one at Gen Con [the largest board-game convention in the U.S.] that spun around, with sensors and magnets, but we realized it didn’t need the extra level, so Tim just went back to his room and chopped a layer off. For months we’d still find places in the code that called for that level, though, like a phantom limb.”

The original tower was going to have doors that popped open, signifying that the tower was “coming alive” and increasing the challenge for players, but it didn’t play out that way in testing. “People thought doors falling off meant it’s falling apart and you’re winning,” said Daviau. “The doors would knock pieces around (on the board). Also it was 12 extra electromagnets and costs were adding up. The tower itself costs more than Scythe.”

More complexity also meant more risk that something wouldn’t work, ruining the playing experience. “We could have progressed with the doors opening, and run the risk that sometimes they wouldn’t open,” says Burrell-Saward. “Or maybe there’d be an unsatisfying moment where you’d have to help the doors open. We cut it and went with something safer.” The designers toyed with the idea of a tower that could “rebuild” itself as the game went on, growing stronger as the players did the same, but Daviau recalls that it looked like “a very evil birthday cake,” so they scrapped that, too.

The rising costs to manufacture the tower, and thus the game as a whole, also meant some of the team’s ideas were cut simply for financial reasons. “A Bluetooth speaker in the tower is an obvious one,” says Burrell-Saward. “It would make things costly to the point of not worth doing. So we had to cut it, like the idea of the connected board itself.”

Adding to the time from funding to delivery, and to the cost of the project, was the unexpected surge in shipping prices that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. Restoration posted an update to the game’s Kickstarter page last August mentioning that shipping-container prices had quadrupled since the pandemic began, which added to the company’s costs; they raised the MSRP of the game to $190, but did not ask backers of the Kickstarter to pay anything more, and the increased costs may eat up most of the company’s expected profits from the first printing. Finished copies of the game didn’t get to backers until two full years after the Kickstarter launched — almost five years after the project began.

So what do players think of the new game? On the whole, reviews have been very positive. Return to Dark Tower’s average rating on Boardgamegeek, based on user-submitted ratings, is 8.5 out of 10, good enough to put it in the top one percent of games on the site. The comments are as positive as the ratings — “very heavy but tasty”; “great minis (miniatures) and the tower is an eyecatcher;” “you need a lot of space but WOW it’s fun.”

Folks who played the original, however, have a wider range of views, as you might expect from a product that’s so tied up in sepia-toned memories. Praise for the game play is close to universal, but when asked how well the re-creation satisfied their nostalgic feelings around the first game, fans of Dark Tower gave far more varied answers.

Kevin Warrender says he played the original Dark Tower “extensively” as a kid, and was “uninterested and disappointed” when he heard the new game was cooperative rather than competitive. The designers did later add a competitive mode, but by that point, his first impression was already set in stone. “The possible savior would have been an amazing tower. It’s very cool-looking, and clearly a lot of technological wizardry went into its construction, but the end result of what it does in the game is probably the biggest letdown. The similarities (to the original) are just winks and nods here and there, but the feeling is similar to any other co-op game.”

“Seeing Return on the table will instantly transport any player of the original back to Christmas Day of 1981 on looks alone,” says Brad Johnson. “However, the games are just different, both in play style and overall feel. The new game will never replace the original for me — it only provides an alternate game in the same family. It’s a fairly standard modern cooperative game; the interesting parts of the game are the app and the tower, although some of the additions to the game have potential, like virtues, treasures, and corruption, for more character-building and player ability variety. It’s a perfectly adequate game that looks great.”

Matt Smith — not the Eleventh Doctor — bought the game as a teenager using money from his newspaper route. “I backed Return to Dark Tower knowing it wouldn’t be the same as the original game, but would have some thematic nods to it. Given that objective, I think RG squarely hit the mark. I love how they managed to provide a thoroughly modern co-op game that manages to rekindle those memories I had of the original game. The table presence is very similar, but the game play is much improved.”

Pleasing everyone — especially when “everyone” comprises a group of board gamers who are all likely in their 50s and 60s and have a lot of Opinions on How Things Should Be — is an impossible task. Daviau has been pleased with the response, saying, “Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. There will always be people frustrated on the internet, frustrated that we’re not doing a literal reprint. I see why people have a fondness for it but the original game doesn’t hold up.” Given the road this game took from concept to players’ tables, with a pandemic happening along the way, Return to Dark Tower is a multi-million-dollar success story.

A game that’s hard to find, especially in mint or near-mint condition, with prices on the secondary market running around $200 even for incomplete copies. Milton Bradley was caught up in Hasbro’s wave of acquisitions from the 1980s and 1990s, which also saw the Rhode Island juggernaut acquire Parker Brothers, Wizards of the Coast, and Selchow & Righter, all publishers of tabletop games. Cooperative games, like Pandemic and most role-playing games, ask players to work together to reach a common goal, as opposed to competitive games where players play against each other. Legacy games change every time you play them and require players to go through a campaign or “season” of around eight to 20 sessions, during which they’ll alter or destroy components, add or change rules, and follow a narrative that should conclude with the last play. Popular examples include Pandemic Legacy, Charterstone, and, of course, Gloomhaven. Daviau invented the concept of legacy games with 2011’s Risk Legacy while he worked at Hasbro. Scythe, a widely acclaimed complex board game from Stonemaier Games, has an MSRP of $90, with a set of elaborate miniature figurines intrinsic to game play.
Dark Tower’s Redemption