Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Game That Turned Little Kids Into Cannibalistic Hyenas

Robert Rath | 17 Jul 2014 12:00
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Board games are great. They're explorations of strategy and critical thinking that represent the world as numbers. But here's the thing: you're introduced to board games as a kid, usually one too young to appreciate the beauty of tabletop design. When you're seven, do you want to match wits in a war of mental strategy against your friends, because you're seven and mental conquest is a concept you haven't grasped yet.

But what you can understand is destroying your friends physically. Winning by knockout. Taking your little plastic man and smashing his little plastic man, to show your dominance and act out the pathos of your young life.

That's why you played Fireball Island, a blood-soaked playground that let you become your most despicable self until you and your friends all quit playing because you couldn't look at each other anymore. There were other "family" games in our childhood that let you murder your friends for material gain, but this was by far the best.

Fireball Island came into the world in 1986, when Milton Bradley forged it in the fires of hell and released it on an unsuspecting public. It was part of a trend in high-concept 3D board games like Mousetrap and 13 Dead End Drive -- games meant to attract kids by looking like toys.

Before you even set up Fireball Island you knew it was amazing. Where other games had flat card surfaces, Fireball Island was a craggy plastic mountain cut through with ravines and lava channels. When not in use, it made great slit-trenches for green army men or terrain for your G.I Joes. I still remember Snake Eyes descending silently out of the Christmas tree to halt Cobra's plans to awaken the Tiki God with a blood sacrifice.

And speaking of the Tiki God, at the island's summit loomed the eternally-flaming maw of Vul-Kar, the real reason Fireball Island was the best game a child could beg for.

Vul-Kar was a volcano god or something of that nature. There was never a proper cosmological explanation regarding who he was or why he existed, but it was better that way. We were seven and needed no reasons for lava craters to gain sentience. Vul-Kar required no justification, it was enough that he vomited fireballs and looked like the shrunken head of Satan.

The gameplay was fairly complex for a kid's game, but proceeded quickly once you got the hang of it. Four players raced to the top of the mountain, tying to make their explorer grab a giant jewel out of Vul-Kar's mouth and escape via boat. But what made the game amazing was that to do that, you'd have to run Fireball Island's winding pathways, crossing rickety plastic bridges that spanned chasms and warping in and out of caves. Cards could let you take multiple turns, move ahead or move your friends backward.

Or incinerate them with a fireball.

Though luck and careful card-playing determined the winner, nobody actually cared who won. Well, okay, you cared when it looked like someone was going to win, but honestly that was secondary. Really you were just there for the fireballs.

When one player threw down a FIREBALL card, gasps went around the table. The card allowed that player to choose one of the fireballs perched on the board and knock it onto the path, where it would careen down the channel consuming every player in its wake. Even better was dropping a fireball into one of the rivers, where it would slap past a bridge, upending it and flinging your friend's explorer to the bottom. The best, though, was when you could use Kul-Var himself, rotating his giant head toward whatever path would cause maximum casualties. Anyone hit by the fireball would go to the nearest cinder pit and miss their turn as they, presumably, rehydrated and glued their ash-crisped flesh back to their bones.

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