Saturday, July 31, 2021

Game 426: Fortress of the Witch King (1983)

Climate change will do its own job within a generation.
Fortress of the Witch King
United States
Avalon Hill (developer and publisher)
Released in 1983 for Apple II and FM-7; 1984 for Commodore 64 and PC-88
Date Started: 20 July 2021
Date Ended: 21 July 2021
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: User-defined
Final Rating: 22
Ranking at Time of Posting: 164/428 (38%)
Fortress of the Witch King belongs to a sub-genre of strategy games that I didn't realize needed a name until now. I first encountered it in Robert Clardy's Wilderness Campaign (1979) and Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure (1980), then later in Sword of Zedek (1981) and Braminar (1987). A lot of Crystalware's titles were close. There are probably lots of others, but a game has to be incorrectly tagged as an RPG to come to my attention in the first place.
In these games, you have an ultimate goal, usually to overthrow a king or wizard, and to do so you have to amass a lot of resources. You might start with a few soldiers and a little gold. You march through the game world, and each square has a chance of an encounter with an enemy, a potential ally, or some situation that benefits you to resolve. Your fortunes wax and wane but hopefully trend upward in the aggregate. When you're strong enough, or have found some combination of artifacts, you take on the evil wizard and generally become the new king.
"Character creation" in Fortress.
I'm not a strategy game addict, so I don't know: Is there a term for this kind of game? It's much different from the typical "4X" strategy game exemplified by Warlords in which you compete with other factions that basically adhere to the same rules. Is there a ur example that I'm not aware of? Fortress is yet another of this style of game. I have to imagine that the author, M. E. Mehlich (about whom I can find nothing) at least played Zedek. The twist here is that up to four players can play at once, trading rounds, and the first to defeat the evil Witch King wins. As a single-player game, though, it feels very much like the already-mentioned titles.
Part of the game map. I'm on top of a town. The Witch King's fortress is north of me. A sanctuary is in between.
Fortress takes place on a 40 x 40 map, randomized for each new game, dotted with forests, mountains, water, towns, sanctuaries, and the witch king's titular fortress. You move your army across this terrain, battling monsters for gold, enlisting warriors, elves, and dwarves, finding magic items, and spending your riches in towns. When you feel like you're strong enough to take on the witch king, you head for his fortress. If you're victorious, points are awarded for the difficulty level and number of rounds it took you to defeat him.
Your options each turn.
The game is highly customizable. After selecting the number of players and giving a name to each one, the player chooses a game difficulty on a scale of 1-4 and a map difficulty on a scale of 1-20. Higher game difficulty means higher numbers of monsters and less gold. Higher map difficulty means more mountains (where tough encounters are more likely) and water (which requires a raft) and fewer sanctuaries and towns.
The "Seeing" spell shows the entire landscape.
Each character starts with a few allies depending on difficulty, usually a couple dozen warriors, a couple of scouts, and a mule or two. Ultimately, you're looking to build it with scouts (increase map viewing distance), warriors, a wizard (adds to combat strength and casts spells), elves (also cast spells), dwarves, raiders (only useful against other players' camps), mules (to carry all your gold), rafts, and magic items. Warriors, elves, and dwarves will offer to join in occasional friendly encounters. You can purchase everything else in towns.
The marketplace. Prices and inventory change between visits.
Each move you make carries a chance of an enemy encounter, including orcs, trolls, goblins, werebears, hydras, and dragons. The game tends to throw comparably-sized enemy parties at you, so it's tough to keep a large army around for long. You have no choices in combat; you just have to watch as your party and enemies trade blows. At the end of combat, if you win, you get gold and often items such as spells, magic weapons, and maps to magic items.
"You" can't really die. The worst that can happen is you lose all your people, and thus your ability to carry gold. When this happens, you can make your way to a sanctuary, where you get a small number of warriors and rations and a chance to start over. Even at a difficulty of 3, I found it relatively easy to keep my fortunes on an upward trajectory as long as I fled when I was outclassed in battle.
The outcome of one round against a group of orcs.
And the final round against a dragon.
For a single player, it is thus fairly easy to win. There are four magic items that improve your chances against the Witch King: a Horn of Opening (without which it's tough to even enter his fortress), Boots of Stealth, Armor of Defense, and the Sword of Strength. These are scattered about the map, guarded by dragons. Spells of Seeking show you where they are, and Teleport spells can take you there instantly, so getting them is mostly a matter of fighting random combats until you have 100+ warriors and a Sword of Dragon Slaying and then warping to their squares. (Both spells are relatively common). In a multi-player game, with the items scattered among the players, the Witch King's fortress must be much harder. 
I'm getting there, but I need a lot more warriors before I take on the Witch King.
When you're ready to take on the Witch King, you head for the fortress and hope you get in. You have a 75% chance with the Horn of Opening; otherwise, your odds depend on the number of scouts in your party. Once inside, you explore a 4 x 4 map full of nasty encounters and at least one teleporter that kicks you out of the dungeon. The Witch King is in a random square.
As long as he doesn't bear me away to the houses of lamentation and whatnot.
When you find the Witch King, your army goes away and you fight him one-on-one, your odds dependent on the other magic items and random rolls of the dice, I guess. Even with all four items, he came close to killing me. If you win, you get a brief congratulatory message and a score.
Imagine if it still worked that way. What would some of President Oswald's accomplishments have been?
I had fun with the game for a few hours, but it's not an RPG, and I wish MobyGames contributors would stop classifying this type of game as such. This isn't a matter of my definitions: The site's own definition is that RPGs "focus on character development . . . the main character(s) in the game learns new abilities or improves the capabilities of old ones." There isn't even a "main character" in this game, let alone one who improves his abilities.
I'm not sure 6 is very good. It took me a long time.
Nonetheless, I played and numbered it because it was short, and I give it:
  • 1 point for a basic backstory.
  • 0 points for character creation and development.
  • 2 points for NPCs. I guess I'll regard the warriors who join the party as NPCs.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The driving mechanism of the game is random encounters.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. There are some good non-combat spell options, but otherwise not much to do in combat.
  • 2 points for equipment--a variety of useful and magical items.
  • 3 points for economy, the backbone of the game.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are functional, but there's no sound. While the keyboard interface is easy to master, the game sometimes requires input where it isn't necessary. 
  • 5 points for gameplay. The single-player game is relatively quick, and the difficulty options make it both (potentially) challenging and replayable.
That gives us a final score of 22, which isn't bad for a non-RPG for the year. If I were a strategy game addict, I'd be interested in how it feels against other players. You only get 3 actions for each "turn" (4 if you have certain magic items); constantly swapping turns might get annoying and boring.


  1. While this sounds like a cool game, it seems to me that MobyGames contributers count anything that features numbers as an RPG.

    1. Honestly, I think in the computer gaming space, "ability to overcome obstacles improves through quantifiable increases to abstracted statistics" is probably a better definition of what people intuitively feel is an RPG than any other, and a game's genre is "RPG" if that aspect forms its primary gameplay.

      This still might not be an RPG though because the statistics appear to be non-abstracted. It's a literal count of how many soldiers you have, so really they're literal resources, not abstracted statistics.

    2. Even though it's not part of my core definitions, at some point the nature of the story you're telling has to come into play. An army overthrowing a king is a different story than a single adventurer (or small party) doing the same, or conquering some other obstacle. Almost all games, at their core, involve some consideration of statistics and probability. It's the way they're reflected in the narrative that (in part) defines an RPG.

  2. I would call those games “Exploration games” though I also see them called “Strategic Adventure” game. Sometimes they have RPG element and land on your blog, sometimes they don’t :).

    I would say the Ur-example is the tabletop game Talisman,… but also Oregon Trail for the resource management part (which seems lenient) in your case. The genre is still vivid nowadays, with in particular “Renowned Explorer” that gave a new breath to the genre and gave birth to some copycats (on the top of my head : the mediocre Pathways).

    1. *which seems lenient in Fortress of the Witch King, if you cannot die.

    2. So it's a 1X strategy game.

      But is exploration really necessary in this game? It seems to me you get everything from random combats, which can occur anywhere.

  3. I found the dragon spitefully nuking your mule as it died pretty entertaining.

  4. Your description almost makes it sound like an RPG. Except there are resources and soldiers instead of equipment and character improvements.

    1. Whether the thing that improves is a person or an army makes a qualitative difference to me.

    2. It works differently anyway. In a RPG you don’t keep gaining and losing equipment and experience levels like you do men in a strategy game. Sure, a wraith can sometimes drain you one level or a rust monster destroy your fancy sword, but those are rare events that can usually be rolled back or at least prevented.

    3. Sure. My point wasn't that this type of game is an RPG, but that from the description it almost sounds like one. I think that's because it's like a typical RPG in some aspects - mostly the local point of view and the single quest to achieve victory. But it lacks the mechanics of an RPG.

    4. If you think of troops as equivalent to character attributes (functionally they do at least have some things in common) it's not far from an RPG.

      It's closer to a strategy game, though - the biggest difference is the great degree of asymmetry between the player and the enemy boss, which is unusual in strategy games which usually try to make them more equivalent.

      In HOMM3 (and doubtless others) there were certainly scenarios that involved finding your way to a big boss and fighting him - one was called Dragon Slayer.

  5. Seems like this game expands a lot on Milton Bradley's Dark Tower from 1981.

    1. Malor gives more detail below, but you deserve credit for mentioning it first.

  6. Since there was the recent colorblindness discussion: what do the screens look like to you? For my eyes it is a blue-but-near-black font on black background so it is incredibly hard to read.

    1. A text of darker shade of color + black or very dark background = poor readability. That is true for everyone, I think.

      On a side note, I miss the old CRT monitors with little wheels or knobs for adjusting brightness and other visual parameters. A quick turn, and you could dramatically improve readability in such cases. Nowadays the fastest way is making several graphical profiles in an OS and switching them, which is more cumbersome.

    2. It's possible the text is more readable on a CRT like a 1084 monitor since that's what it's intended for.

    3. I can't find a copy to run it in VICE, but the screenshots don't look any better on my CRT.

    4. The screenshots have been software scaled with linear interpolation, I don't expect them to be better on a CRT monitor. Direct hardware output on CRT could be different.

  7. Given there are "Action RPG's", why not "Strategy RPG's" or something similar?

    There'd be a swathe of games that certainly marry elements of them both

    1. Strategy RPGs are a separate thing. In games such as HOMM you have heroes who gain experience, levels and skills. In HOMM3 they even have a real inventory with a paper-doll, not just an ability to carry some stat-boosting or otherwise useful items. A far cry from a single non-entity commander who becomes tangible only in the final combat.

    2. For me Strategy RPGs, also (or maybe even officially, Wikipedia uses that term but I somehow still prefer SRPG) called tactical RPGs, are first and foremost those which are more or less derived from archetype games Final Fantasy Tactics or Shining Force. They are mostly from Japan and thus often feature JRPG asthetics. Second, western SRPG like HOMM. And of which I'm not sure if they would be better grouped to a different genre, like how some people like to make a distinction between CRPG and JRPG. I'm fine with the inclusion though.

    3. Well, to confuse things even more, I now see that wiki seems to exclude HOMM and others completely from the genre. They categorize them as pure strategy games. Well, whatever, since there's no such thing as an official authority on genre classifications I guess everyone just makes their own.

    4. Personally I'd consider Fire Emblem to be the main example of an SRPG, but I'm also mainly a Nintendo fan that hasn't gotten around to playing examples besides that and some less than stellar Shin Megami Tensei spinoffs, so probably the worst person to speak on that.

      I will say I wouldn't count the HoMM games as SRPGs though, because while they are strategy games with RPG elements, I generally think of SRPGs as being more RPGs with strategy game elements. Personally, I'd argue that the Gold Box games are closer to an SRPG than the HoMM games are, considering HoMM leans far closer to the strategy game side of things.

    5. HoMM calls itself a 'strategic quest game'. Fits the bill.

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    8. Sorry, auto correction is making a mess out of my reply:
      Of course there are other examplary games for the genre, I choose those two rather arbitrarily.

    9. In my parlance, a "strategy RPG" would have to have enough RPG elements to make it an RPG independent of its strategy elements. Thus, I wouldn't use the term for this kind of game, which I don't consider an RPG at all.

  8. Oh wow, serious memories here. A friend and I played the game hot-seat all the time. The C64 sound effects still ring in my ears.

  9. I wonder if the ur-example of this might be the board game Dark Tower, from 1981?

    This was a hybridized board/electronic game where you started out with a player token on the board, and then moved your token around your territory, while clicking buttons on the eponymous dark plastic tower in the center of the board, telling it what you did. I think you clicked a button each time you moved, which could cause random events, and then if you ended up in a space with one of the plastic 'monument' buildings, you could press the correct button to explore that type of monument. (I vaguely remember a temple, a crypt, and something else.) Sometimes they'd be empty, sometimes you'd have a big fight, and sometimes there was treasure. You were looking for magic items, money, and soldiers, and the tower kept track of those items for you. You could move back to get more soldiers when you ran low, but this took several moves.

    It was (up to) a four-person game, where you would spin the tower to the next person, they'd run their turn, spin the tower, and so on. To win, you had to move your token to the center and initiate a final battle of some kind, which would pit your forces against the Dark Lord or something like that. If you brought enough soldiers and magic items, you would win the fight, and thus the game. Or, you could be sent back in ignominious defeat. I don't remember if you lost and had to sit out the rest of the game, or if you could try to recover.

    It was really fun, and it predates an awful, awful lot of computer games.

    1. There's version of Dark Tower that plays in your browser, but for the first time I regret that my browser doesn't play Flash any more.

      Don't forget Dark Tower the remix mp3.

    2. Dark Tower--that was one of the best board games ever. My best friend and I still make jokes imitating the sounds of tomb doors closing on you, battles beginning, the bazaar, dying to the plague, even ending your turn. I threw mine out when the tower just kept endlessly spinning; apparently a functional version was worth over $500 the last I checked about a decade ago. What a fantastic game--I'll have to check out the web version. Thanks for providing that.

      --Adam (decade+ long lurker)

    3. That sounds a bit like GW's Talisman, but a bit more high-tech. Which is strange, as Talisman was released in 1983.

    4. I'm not sure if it's on Flashpoint yet to be played outside of a browser, but in the meantime you can download this edition of the Basilisk browser with Flash Player:

    5. I never had the game, but this does sound like a plausible origin. Thanks for bringing it up, Malor.

    6. @Malor Thanks for going into more detail about it. In reading the description of this game I got strong vibes of DT on steroids. Even an 8 bit home computer of the 80s could take what DT laid the foundation of and really run with it. It's kind of surprising that Milton Bradley never made a home computer version of Dark Tower 2.

  10. As long as he doesn't bear me away to the houses of lamentation and whatnot.

    I feel the full quote is needed here, to appreciate just how awe-inspring the Witch-King's threat is to Eowyn on the battlefield of Pelennor.

    A cold voice answered: 'Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.'

    I mean, she is in dire peril. He's not kidding either, he really does stuff like that. Should you wish to read the entire passage, which I recommend, it is reproduced in its entirety here.

    1. It would be a good strategy for the opposing army to make sure someone was always between a Nazgûl and his prey. That way, he'd be occupied bearing person after person away to houses of lamentation and wouldn't have time to command his armies. I bet he'd give up after the third or fourth person. "Aw, come on. I just got BACK from the houses of lamentation. Maybe I'll just slay thee in thy turn after all."

    2. The Rankin-Bass TV movie DID change it to "or he will slay thee in turn".

      This is totally unrelated but, for all its flaws, one thing I do like about that movie is that it shows basic respect for the Orcs - something Tolkien regretted not putting much into the original books. In the Rankin-Bass movie, the orcs complain about going to war, Frodo appeals to an orc captain's sense of honor to get him to fight with one of the human armies and distract them, and when Frodo and Sam are sleeping before Mount Doom, Frodo has a dream about what if the war was over and the orcs were friendly.

      These segments are important elements in a thematic sense, at least in my opinion, because they show the peace that the whole war is being fought to protect. The Oath of Feänor was a huge mistake where him and his sons vowed to fight wars of vengeance, and in contrast we have Frodo AND many of the orcs not even wanting to fight at all - this is why Frodo deserves to be a hero.

      War isn't glorious at all, and Tolkien knew this better than anyone after World War I - he described every side as "becoming Orcs". The emotions are done in quite a silly manner in the animated movie, I won't deny it, but I find the Rankin-Bass orcs to be far more in line with Tolkien's ideals about war and peace than Jackson's tumour-ridden* orcs who are displayed cannibalizing one of their own men. That felt just like a lousy modern video game or fantasy series, where your conscience is freed from feeling sorry for all those orcs you enjoy seeing killed because ooh, they're ugly, ooh, they're cannibals. Again - killing is sometimes necessary, but it should NEVER feel good. You should always be mourning, like Frodo in the animated movie, the good person that your enemy could have chose to be, or was even forced to not be.

      (Incidentally, I feel the same way about Bakshi and Jackson's OMMISSION of Tom Bombadil. Both of them called him unnecessary, but again I think he shows what the war is being fought for. It's a little annoying that he wasn't concerned with the war, sure, but I feel like that's just part of him being sort of a personification of nature. The heroes leave Tom Bombadil be and even fight to protect him and what he cares about, such as his forest, wife, and horses, while Sauron and the Nazgûl would have razed his forest to the ground for raw resources, "lebensraum" for Mordor, or even just for not swearing allegiance to them. It really reminds me of the current "Age of Man" as Tolkien put it, where nature's locations and ecosystems, both terrestrial and aquatic, are getting strip-mined for resources, replaced to grow something "more useful", or even just living or factory space. The directors are right insofar as Tom Bombadil isn't useful, but something doesn't need to be to be appreciable and worth protecting.)

      *This bothers me really badly. Sauron and Morgoth don't care about aesthetic beauty in their soldiers or realm, sure, but that's why they're villains. The implication that Orcs have less value of existing because they're ugly is just as narrow-minded, and is the exact same awful thing you saw about Japanese soldiers in WWII propaganda, and Tolkien would be ashamed of such cheap jingoistic tricks to make the audience know who to root against (instead of, I don't know, all the horrible ACTIONS the forces of Mordor have done and want to do?) It's also a low blow to members of our own species to make looking saggy, scraggly-haired or bald, lopsided, and tumourous to be shorthand for "laughable, contemptible, and evil". If someone, already suffering from social stigma due to looking physically deformed to the public from cancer or an inborn disorder, can look at Jackson's Orcs and think "I look like an Orc", that is far too much collateral damage just so Jackson can use the shorthand of "see, the Orcs are ugly, that's how you know they're the bad guys".

    3. I should no longer be surprised when a dumb joke that I (try to) make nonetheless develops into an insightful, high-quality comment, but I always am.

      Ages ago, McSweeney's published a hilarious piece that purports to be a transcript of an audio commentary by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky on Fellowship of the Ring. The first time I read it, I thought it was a riot, but a part of me also thought they had some good points. Your comment illustrates exactly why I felt that way.

      I used to think that such "monsters" (as we call them in RPGs) were necessary to make the player feel better about what is essentially mass murder. Now I'm not sure. I've enjoyed the Assassin's Creed and Far Cry games despite all the enemies being human (and thus theoretically redeemable). Maybe I'm the monster.

    4. You seem to miss the point that for a soldier (and I'm sure it would apply somewhat to adventurers too), it's easier to kill an enemy you don't consider human.
      If the enemy is a monster it's all so much easier.
      That's the purpose of war propaganda, and both sides used it. I think many of the Japanese caricatures during WW2 was based on Emperor Hirohito. You know, the person responsible for Pearl Harbor.

      So it's not just a moral issue, but also an issue of morale.

      As for the orcs, Tolkien could never quite decide if they were elves corrupted (and thus redeemable) by Morgoth or soulless automatons created by Morgoth.

    5. Given that Chomsky is a major genocide apologist (among other things, he's repeatedly stated that the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans during the 90s was made up by western media to justify war), that transcript feels both genuine and horrifying.


    6. We must have read different Chomsky.

      Of Kosovo he says that the genocide happened after the NATO bombings began, therefore couldn't have been the justification for the bombings. He also compares the pre-bombing state of violence in the region (including the Racak massacre), to the state of violence in other regions which received no meaningful attention from the US. The point of his efforts was an examination of the way the US and its allies portray their military interventions.

    7. "If someone, already suffering from social stigma due to looking physically deformed to the public from cancer or an inborn disorder, can look at Jackson's Orcs and think "I look like an Orc""

      Right on, P-Tux. Very insightful. After reading my daughters The Hobbit, we watched Peter Jackson's film trilogy adaptation. My wife, who was born with a cleft palate, passed through the room while the dwarves were fighting the Goblins of the Misty Mountains, and noted: "Oh look, on top of all his other deformities, they gave the Great Goblin a cleft lip, just in case you didn't realise just how evil he's supposed to be. It looks like he was lucky enough to somehow obtain the skills of a skilled plastic surgeon down in the caves, but you can never quite get the telltale scar to go away completely."

      Anyway, it was a good opportunity for a family discussion about stereotyping.

    8. That part always gives me shivers... One of my favorite passages in lit of all time.

    9. "I bet he'd give up after the third or fourth person. "Aw, come on. I just got BACK from the houses of lamentation. Maybe I'll just slay thee in thy turn after all.""

      This reminds me of the experiment with the sphex wasp described in the book Gödel, Escher, Bach. A wasp drags a cricket to the entrance of its lair to feed its brood, drops the cricket, goes inside to check for intruders, then comes back out to get the cricket. Meanwhile, a researcher has moved the cricket away from the entrance. The wasp comes out, drags the cricket to the entrance, drops it and goes inside to check for intruders, then comes out to find that the cricket has been moved again... The wasp's brain can't jump out of mechanical mode into intelligent mode; it can't recognize the futility of its continued actions and will keep dropping the cricket at the doorway ad infinitum. I feel that the Nazgûl is running a similar program in its mind: "The lidless eye said I have to bring this jerk to the houses of lamentation for the flesh-devouring and mind-shrivelling, no exceptions." :)

    10. I think that Peter Jackson shorted this scene, to Eowyn’s detriment. The Rankin-Bass version is much closer to the text, and significantly better for it. Which is a shame, because Miranda Otto could easily have carried the scene as written, like Cate Blanchett did with the Mirror of Galadriel.

  11. The original Rings of Medusa is also vaguely in this category, although instead of just exploring, there is also quite a bit of 'commodities trading sim' something like a very crude Uncharted Waters. Later versions added arcade boss battles, and the 2nd game added 3d dungeon navigation. I kind of like the original.

  12. It occurs to me that Sid Meier's Pirates! would probably fit whatever definition of this sub-subgenre we could come up with. There's probably a bunch of games influenced by Pirates! that fit, too, though I can't think of anything off the top of my head.

    1. Mount and Blade is kinda Pirates! like, except with stronger RPG systems.

      Also those pirate games made by a Russian developer... Sea Dogs I think is the name.

  13. The description of this game reminds me of Lords of Midnight, although that doesn't have the competitive element, and has an additional victory condition aside from military conquest of the Witch King.

  14. I dearly dearly loved this game in my childhood and played it a lot. Thank you for reviewing it. I am toying with the idea of rewriting it in Unity to be more accessible/modible.

    For others, Wade Clarke has done a great comprehensive writeup of all the mechanics and deets of the game here:


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