There was a golden age of boardgames, before they all got so serious and geared towards old guys who grew up on Dungeons & Dragons and Squad Leader, when they were for kids—and proud of it! And despite the exciting new fantasy and sci-fi themes, the strategic pretentions, the colourful illustration, and the bags of plastic bits, they were still old-school enough to feature the classic ‘kids and/or family playing the game and having fun’ shot on the bottom of the box. There’s a rich and hilarious history of these shots on vintage game boxes, but here are a few of my favourites from the late 80s/early 90s, for your enjoyment.
Space Crusade, 1990, and Heroquest, 1989. Both these games went for the under-lit studio shot to ratchet up the drama, and it’s just a shame the kids don’t have more serious and intense expressions to match. Mostly they just look overwhelmed by the sheer amount of cool plastic bits on display. I do like the look on the kid on the left in the Heroquest shot though—he’s a sneaky little bastard isn’t he? He’s already got some evil plan hatching in his head to humiliate the kid on the right during the next school assembly. And the guy behind the screen is in on it.
Thunder Road, 1986. Believe it or not this game was inspired by post-apocalyptic car battles a la Mad Max. Couldn’t really get less post-apocalyptic than this cheery shag-pile scene though, could it? Before you think that kid in the blue is just being a little shit by upending the board, that’s actually part of the game—if you get left behind on the rear board you get dumped off when the board moves forward to the front, hence an ‘endless highway’ effect. Not that he isn’t reveling in his moment of power of course, the little shit.
Escape From Atlantis, 1996. Wife: “He promised me Paris this year, and instead we’re in this cheap rental bungalow on the coast again, it’s raining, I think he’s having an affair with his secretary, and I’m stuck here playing this stupid boardgame.” Husband: “I wonder if my son is gay?” Son: “My new haircut is so cool, so eighties.” Daughter: “…”
Battle Masters, 1992. And finally, one of all my all-time favourite shots. Yes, the game really is this big—it’s played on a huge vinyl mat more suited to the floor than any dining room table. Yes, you do get that many plastic figures. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore. But check out those two kids. The kid on the right is just having a good time; innocently enjoying himself, over at his mate’s place to play the new game he got for Christmas. But what about that kid on the left? This isn’t just a game, this is war! He’s the kid who bent your fingers back when he came over to play! The one who got all the cool new games and then broke them within a week! He doesn’t play for fun, he plays to win!
The Fate of This Box is in Your Hands!
The old games I featured above are great fun, but no one is about to pretend that the themes are very deep and original (Escape From Atlantis may get a few points for originality). When it comes to fantasy, game companies have been warming over the same tired old tropes since Tolkein; and Games Workshop’s huge influence on the gaming world has meant that gothic scifi is pretty much par for the course these days. Here’s a few classic back-of-box blurbs from games of yesteryear—and one from just a few months ago that proves my point. Another thing that certainly hasn’t changed are the terrible names. Morcar? Karkoth? Someone is getting paid for this stuff …
Especially note the excessive use of adjectives, the personalising calls to action, and of course, the exclamation marks!!
Dare you take up the challenge of Hero Quest, and enter the underground realm of Morcar, the Evil Wizard? There are great treasures to be won, if you overcome their fell guardians. The dark caverns hold many dangers—terrible monsters, deadly traps, and worse.
Enlist with the Space Marines and enter the fiercest conflict mankind has ever faced! Forgotten starships, infested with Chaos, drift from the Warp. Lost for thousands of years, they have now returned, corrupted with Chaos. Aboard these silent, alien hulks, the Space Marines battle to save humanity. Assault squads search the darkened corridors seeking their deadly foe. Only the bravest return from fighting the hordes of Chaos. Will you be one of them?
Welcome to the world of Battle Masters—the epic game where you command mighty armies locked in a legendary conflict of good versus evil! Will your army be victorious, or will your opponent destroy you? Who will survive the battle and win the game? The fate of the empire is decided by you, the Battle Masters!
From the snowy expanses of the north to the sun-warmed coasts of the south, four great realms struggle for survival and conquest. The undead legions of the Dark Empire of Karkoth march against the fragile League of Nerath, determined to sweep away the human kingdoms forever. Elsewhere, the infernal Iron Circle launches goblin hordes against the elves and corsairs of the Vailin Alliance. The fate of empires is on your hands!