Sunday, December 27, 2020

In Memory of Terence Peter Donnelly

I recently learned1 that Canadian game designer Terence Peter Donnelly passed away on September 23, 2020. "Skookum Pete" is best known for his fantasy adventure tabletop games, The Sorcerer's Cave and The Mystic Wood (lists of Donnelly's games and other works are at the bottom of this post). Philmar/Ariel Games published both titles in the UK, with Fantasy Games Unlimited (FGU) handling distribution to the United States.2 The games were also published by Gibson and Avalon Hill published a new edition of Mystic Wood in 1983. They were released in an era of many other fantasy adventure boardgames, such as Dave Megarry's Dungeon! (1975), SPI's DeathMaze (1979) and Citadel of Blood (1980), Yaquinto's Hero (1980), and Mayfair's The Castle (1981). 

My Ariel Games editions are illustrated by Polly Wilson, an artist who also contributed illustrations to early issues of White Dwarf magazine, the 1st ed. AD&D Fiend Folio sourcebook and the UK 1st ed. of Tunnels & Trolls. Strangely, the dragons and other creatures featured on the box covers all appear to tears in their eyes, as if they are all saddened by the adventurers invading their lairs.

The Sorcerer's Cave (1978)

Ariel edition of The Sorcerer's Cave with the cover to the Extension Kit
A huge cave of many levels is built by placing large cards one at a time. As players explore the cave, another set of cards indicates hazards, treasures, and creatures that can be hostile or friendly. One to 4 players.3

The Sorcerer's Cave began as a way to translate the "dungeon adventure" experience he'd played learning the then-new role-playing game of Dungeons & Dragons into a game that could quickly be played with "no laborious set-up and no referee - a game that could be taken out of the box and be played instantly, yet be different every time."4

Donnelly spent about two and one half years developing the game before it was published4 and it remains an early and influential example of the adventure game genre.2 Each player assembles a party of adventurers with differing Fighting Strength, Magic Power, and other special abilities. The cave system is randomly generated by drawing large terrain cards with the random denizens and hazards drawn from a smaller deck of cards. Staircases may lead down to lower levels and new sections of the cave. The winner is the player who manages to escape the cave alive with the most treasure, with bonuses for slaying the dragon or the titular sorcerer.

Games & Puzzles magazine #74 (Autumn 1979) with a Sorcerer's Cave cover story and a detail of two weeping monsters from the box cover

The game was well received as "fast, fun, and thoroughly worth buying,"5 and "works well... as a family game... but real Fantasy buffs will be disappointed by its simplicity when compared to D&D,"6 which sounds like exactly what Donnelly was aiming to create.

The Digital Sorcerer

Sorcerer's Cave (Windows) screen shot from https://www.old-games.com/download/3220/sorcerer-s-cave

Sorcerer's Cave (Windows) screen shot from https://www.old-games.com/download/3220/sorcerer-s-cave

In 1995, Donnelly created a shareware computer game version of Sorcerer's Cave under his company name of Skookum Software. This game aptly replicated the experience of the board game and I played quite a bit in around the year 2000, before I had acquired a physical version of the game. I sent a check to Skookum Software in order to purchase the full version of the game, but it was returned to me with address unknown. Donnelly later released it and all of his software as freeware (see links at bottom of this blog entry).

The Mystic Wood (1980)

Ariel edition of The Mystic Wood

A hidden wood is set up with two gates, a tower, and forty-two face-down cards. Knights explore by turning up an adjacent card. They discover objects and denizens, who can be helpful or hostile. Two to 4 players.7
This spiritual sequel to The Sorcerer's Cave feels more like a fairy tale than a dungeon delve. Each player portrays a different knight errant searching the wood to complete their personal quest first and win the game. Most of these heroic knights are inspired by characters in the 16th century epics: Ariostro's Orlando Furioso and Spenser's The Fairie Queene.8 Each knight is rated in their Strength and Prowess (similar to Strength and Craft in the game Talisman) and some have special abilities. Items, companions, and titles (such as "Giant-Killer") acquired during the game enhance the player's abilities and help them complete their quest. There is no player elimination as a knight who loses in an encounter is typically only banished to the tall tower at the center of the wood until they can escape.

Unlike the sprawling Sorcerer's Cave, the Mystic Wood is restricted to a grid of 5 columns by 9 rows of cards (unless the Extension Kit is added to the game), and is a "much cleaner, tighter design."9 Each knight has a specific quest they must complete, giving each player a specific goal and alleviating "the aimlessness that characterizes most of these adventure games."9 There are better rules for player character interactions, jousting to lay claim to a companion or piece of equipment or to banish the other knight to the tower. It is "a good beer-and-pretzels game... if you enjoy Dungeon! or The Castle, buy this one: it is the best of the three."10

Avalon Hill licensed Mystic Wood for publication in 1983, which is unusual as they already had their own geomorphic fantasy wilderness adventure game, Magic Realm (1979) by Richard Hamblin. Magic Realm is a masterful, detailed simulation of adventuring as different characters in a fantastic realm. It is also even more complex than most of Avalon Hill's wargames. I've had Magic Realm for many years but never succeeded in completing a game once I brought it to the table (I did play in one play-by-e-mail game around 2004). With Mystic Wood, you can also set it up, play a game, and pack it up within 60 to 90 minutes. Magic Realm is a much bigger time commitment, so Avalon Hill must've been looking for a simpler title.

Mystic Wood Playthrough

The Mystic Wood, end game

I played Mystic Wood with my 7-year-old daughter on Christmas Day this year. She took the role of Britomart (from The Fairie Queene), the only female knight in the base game. Her quest was to rescue the Prince and escort him safely out of the woods. I was Sir George who needed to slay the dragon, of course.

We entered the wood through the Earth Gate at the "south" end of the map. At the game start, only the Earth Gate, Tower (center), and Enchanted Gate (north end) cards were face up. All other areas would only be exposed as we explored them with our knights.

My daughter ran afoul of an angry wizard in a castle and was banished to the dreaded Tower. I discovered the dragon's lair, but needed some arms and armament before I could defeat the wyrm. My daughter was betrayed by a dastardly rogue and sent to the tower. I ran into a grumpy magician who summoned a magic storm to stop my movement, then I ran into him again and he cast another storm on me. Meanwhile, my daughter held aloft the Holy Grail (if she played as Perceval, her quest would be at an end).

After more adventuring, we were in a final race to the end of the game. With a mighty lance and a magic ring of strength, I plodded my way to the dragon's lair. At the same time, my daughter befriended the Prince and began leading him out of the wood. My dice failed me, I lost to the dragon and watched my daughter leave the wood in victory from my cell in the tall tower. She's already declared Mystic Wood as her "favorite game" (any game where she can beat Dad is a good one in her eyes).

We will certainly be playing this game again. The occasional random swings of fortune give younger players a fighting chance against experienced grognards. The events of the game unfolded like a story and it was easy to construct a narrative from the unrelated, random card draws. I'm already planning how we can make custom LEGO minifigures for each of the knights to replace the pawns. I hope I can get a copy of the Mystic Wood Extension Kit with its second female knight (Marfisa from Orlando Furioso) before my youngest daughter is old enough to play with us.

Donnelly's Works

Ludography

1974    Hsiang Ch’i: The Chinese Game of Chess (early English-language book about Chinese chess, published by Wargames Research Group)
1979    Middle Sea: Empires of the Feudal Age (with Wilf Backhaus)
1980    The Mystic Wood


Shareware/Freeware Games and Editors (as Skookum Software)

Originally developed as shareware games for DOS and Windows-based computer systems, later released as freeware.

1995    PGView (DOS Panzer General Editor)
1995    Brass Polish 3 (Windows Allied General and Panzer General Editor)
1995    Sorcerer's Cave
1996    Gem Polish (DOS Fantasy General Editor)
1996    The Animal Game
1996    Jotto (also for Palm devices)
2004    Turncoat
2006    Play the Horses (only for Palm devices)


Some Other Writings


Footnotes

1. I learned the news of Donnelly's passing from a Sorcerer's Cave news forum post on BoardGameGeek.com: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2565315/passing-peter-donnelly-skookumpete
2. Shannon Appelcline, Designers & Dragons: The '70s (Silver Spring, MD: Evil Hat Productions, 2014), 235.
3. Sid Sackson, A Gamut of Games (New York: Pantheon, 1982), 195.
4. Donnelly wrote about the origins of The Sorcerer's Cave and The Mystic Wood in the Autumn 1980 issue of Games & Puzzles magazine, modified and republished here: https://web.archive.org/web/20201005235651/http://skookumpete.com/CaveAndWood.htm
5. Phil Willis, "Gamesview," Games & Puzzles, no. 74, Autumn 1979, 13.
6. Ian Livingstone, "Open Box," White Dwarf, no. 7, June/July 1978, 18.
7. Sid Sackson, A Gamut of Games (New York: Pantheon, 1982), 194.
8. Donnelly wrote an appendix in the Mystic Wood instructions that detailed the game's literary influences, reproduced here:  https://web.archive.org/web/20201005235651/http://skookumpete.com/CaveAndWood.htm
9. Andy Davidson, "Open Box," White Dwarf, no. 20, August/September 1980, 17.
10. Steve Condit, "Capsule Reviews," Space Gamer, no. 73, March/April 1985, 33.

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