Friday, July 21, 2017

All the Appeal of the Movie (or Some of it Anyway): Vintage Star Wars Board Games

Ron writes:

 I'd list all the activities I enjoy less than playing board games, but we have a data limit here at the blog, and I'm not sure I can describe some of them without using language outside the parameters of civilized discourse. Have you ever seen the movie called The Naked Prey? Remember the part where Cornell Wilde watches some poor sap get slowly cooked inside a human-shaped oven made of clay? Suffice it to say that I find that somewhat less horrifying than Chutes and Ladders.

My opinions aside, board games lie at the very foundation of Star Wars toy licensing. As discussed here, Kenner's original contract with Lucasfilm required the company to produce exactly one item: a board game. Had the movie been a box-office dud, that's likely all Kenner would have produced: one lonely board game to languish on toy store shelves alongside the Pet Rock and Mattel's toy representation of Horshak from "Welcome Back Kotter."

Weirdly, Kenner didn't have a whole lot of experience producing board games. Parker Brothers was the board game ace of the General Mills Fun Group. In fact, when the time came to produce a board game based on the Six Million Dollar Man, a property for which Kenner produced a popular line of action figures, it was Parker Brothers rather than Kenner that did the deed. But Kenner was a company eager to explore new horizons, and a Star Wars board game must have seemed like a fairly inexpensive means of breaking into this newly acquired license.

Board games, consisting largely of printed paper goods, aren't nearly as difficult to produce as action figures. Once one is designed, a toy company can bring it market in a matter of months. Consequently, Kenner's first Star Wars board game, "Escape from Death Star," was among the first licensed Star Wars trinkets to appear on store shelves -- which meant it was one of the few Star Wars items a child could hope to receive for Christmas of 1977. The action figures, of course, weren't available until spring of the following year.

Above you see the first order form that Kenner distributed to retailers. It includes the Early Bird Certificate as well as several other paper-based products: puzzles, Dip Dots, Playnts, and, of course, the Escape from Death Star Board Game.

If you were a Star Wars-obsessed kid, and you were opening your presents on Christmas of 1977, which of these alleged toys would have disappointed you the least?

Kenner's 1978 industry catalog makes some dubious claims. I have never played Escape from Death Star, but I have a hunch that it doesn't quite have "all the appeal of the movie." It probably doesn't even have the appeal of your slow cousin Freddy's verbal summation of the movie, in which he referred to Chewbacca as a spaceship and confused the ending with the punchline of a joke about pandas.

Based on the catalog photo and description, the game involved moving pieces around the board in accordance with directions yielded by a spinner.

If this sounds like 95% of the board games you've played, well, allow me to leave you with a complimentary copy of our brochure. A membership in the I Hate Board Games Society costs only $3.97 a year, and it comes with a bumper sticker that reads, "Honk if you'll stab the next person who asks you to play Monopoly."

Jokes aside, Escape from Death Star must have been pretty successful. Today, it's easily found in opened condition, and it was released around the world by Kenner's various sublicensees.

In 1978 Kenner released the Adventures of R2-D2 Game. Aimed at younger children, it involved, uh, moving pieces around the board in accordance with directions yielded by a spinner.

As the box makes clear, "reading and counting [were] not required to play" the game. Presumably, kids merely needed to be able to recognize colors in order to progress along the paths printed on the board.

If you were color blind, I suppose you were SOL, and you added Kenner to the list of companies worthy of your undying hatred, along with Crayola and the makers of Twister.

You probably can't tell from this photo, but the boards of these games tended to feature terrific graphics, usually the result of an artist's painstaking work with an airbrush. From a collecting standpoint, it's the art used on the boards and the boxes that makes these items attractive.

The box containing the board game released by Kenner in 1979, the "Destroy Death Star Game," was substantially larger than those associated with their other offerings in this vein. In fact, its box was about twice the size of a traditional board game box. The game's playing board didn't fold in half, meaning the box had to be about the size of the board. This surely resulted in a greater shipping expense, but it also yielded a more impressive-looking product. In my experience, Destroy Death Star is the most popular board game among Star Wars collectors -- largely because of its impressive size.

This catalog image reveals that the board was decorated with an image of the Death Star. This was bisected by a graphical path intended to represent the trench down which Luke's X-Wing zooms during the film's exciting finale. Maybe Kenner opted to omit the fold in the board because they didn't want to interfere with this detail?

My favorite element of the above image is the kid on the right. He looks like someone just reminded him that he has red hair.

This image gives a better sense of the graphics featured on the board and spinner.

Hey, did you see this article concerning the orientation of the Death Star's trench? In it author Todd Vaziri explains why people who believe the trench ran along the equator of the space station are mistaken. The equatorial line visible on the Death Star is a giant chasm where ships dock, and is not the rather narrow channel through which the Rebels navigate in their efforts to exploit the weapon's fatal weakness.

Now, I don't mean to brag, but I was never under the impression that the X-Wings were racing along the equator of the Death Star. But Vaziri's article clearly states that he and other fans did believe that to be the case -- to such an extent that they were shocked to learn otherwise. Is the Destroy Death Star Game the earliest licensed product to perpetuate this misconception? Might it be the source of some folks' false memories?

In 1980 Kenner released the "Hoth Ice Planet Adventure Game" to coincide with the release of the first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.

Is it me or is the design of the box used to package this product among the worst of Kenner's Star Wars offerings? The image, showing the Rebels scurrying about in a snow trench, lacks a focal point. And, aside from perhaps the turret cannon, it features none of the film's iconic elements. There's no AT-AT, no probe droid, no main character. It's almost as if Kenner's marketing team decided to telegraph the game's dullness. I almost wish they'd allowed this impulse further expression by printing on the box: "Contents: Game board, spinner, self-loathing, rejection."

The game's playing surface almost made up for the lack of packaging fireworks: It was a collage of Hoth scenes and character portraits, and it included a lot of bright primary colors.

The inclusion of Boba Fett is a little odd, no? I don't remember Boba Fett being on Hoth. The molded plastic Falcons are a nice touch.

For some reason the Hoth Ice Planet Adventure Game is pretty tough to find with its original plastic shrinkwrap intact. If you collect this sort of thing, and you see a sealed example at a decent price, don't hesitate to snap it up.

In 1981 Kenner added to their range of ESB board games with the "Yoda the Jedi Master Game." The appearance of Yoda, remember, was kept secret prior to the release of the film. Consequently, most Yoda-focused products didn't hit the market until late 1980 or 1981.

This time out the box art was entirely painted. This yielded a product that was considerably more attractive than the Hoth Ice Planet Adventure Game.

Oh, look: The game play involved moving pieces around the board in accordance with directions yielded by a spinner. Hopefully, dumb children didn't run into problems upon encountering such novelty.

Is it me or does the spinner seem to be embedded in an anus?

I think I'm starting to understand why Luke was so eager to escape from that bog planet.

Luke: Master Yoda, is this really necessary? Obi-Wan never told me about this exercise.
Yoda: Incomplete is the training. Spin again you must.
Luke: But that's your answer to everything! How can I become a Jedi if all I do is play with your spinner?
Yoda: Concentrate!
Luke: In this particular instance I'm trying not to.
Yoda: Spin slower. Slooooowerrr.

The Yoda the Jedi Master Game was the last Star Wars board game released by Kenner during the vintage years. After 1981, Parker Brothers assumed responsibility for releasing Star Wars games -- including those relying on cards and video cartridges (which we won't be covering here).

The company's first effort, which I believe was released in 1982, featured slick cover art of Luke, Vader, and their respective spacecraft. The white background color really set it apart from earlier Star Wars board games. All of Kenner's offerings featured the black-and-silver scheme for which the company's Star Wars line is noted.

The Parker Brothers game was called simply "Star Wars."

I don't have a marketing image of this game, so the reverse of the box will have to serve to satisfy our curiosity regarding its looks and features. Parker Brothers seems to have done a nice job of adding complexity to the game play. There are puzzles to complete. There are also two spinners: one for the Rebels and another for the Imperials.

Interestingly, the game is a mashup of the two Star Wars films then in existence. It references Yoda and Hoth, but it also relies heavily on the planet known as Dantooine. Given that Princess Leia told Grand Moff Tarkin that the Rebels had a base on Dantooine, I'm not sure the planet was capable of serving as an effective post-Hoth hiding place. But you have to give the folks at Parker Brothers credit for pulling such a peculiar reference out of their hats.

Like the Hoth Ice Planet Adventure Game, this item is surprisingly difficult to find in sealed condition.

In 1983, Return of the Jedi hit theaters, and Parker Brothers was ready with the colorful and novel "Battle at Sarlacc's Pit Game."

The artwork adorning the box of this game is among the nicest of the ROTJ era. Not only is the nicely rendered, its composition is convincingly dynamic. You feel the energy of that battle.

Does the product qualify as a board game? It features a playing board, playing tokens, and cards, so I'm fine considering it as such. But it must be pointed out that the item's three-dimensional quality has caused more than a few people to remember it as an action figure toy.

Trust me, when some nerdlinger insists that he once owned a Sarlacc playset, you can be sure that he's remembering this game and not some mythical Kenner prototype.

The Battle at Sarlaac's Pit Game featured in Parker Brothers' 1984 industry catalog displayed a prototype version of the product. If you look closely, you'll see that the artwork featured on the box and base differ notably from that found on the version sold in stores.

At some point in 1983 Parker Brothers released this game, called simply "Wicket the Ewok." It was part of Lucasfilm's push to make the Ewoks the basis of a toy range appealing to younger children.

Children, rather sensibly, balked at the idea of cartoon Ewoks, and the spate of kiddie-focused Ewoks products lasted only a couple of years. However, that doesn't mean that adult collectors won't spend thousands of dollars on some of these things -- the unproduced action figure prototypes especially.

We adult collectors are a bit like kids without any constraints or limitations -- including those dictated by common sense.

The copy on the back of the box commands the player to:

Romp through the forest with WICKET and his friends KNEESAA, PAPLOO and LATARA as they collect berries, nuts, pears, mushrooms, and wild honey, too. You'll travel on shaggy ponies and in rickety wagons. You'll even swing on hang-gliders. All this adventure is yours as you try to be the first EWOK home with all five kinds of food.
Good lord that sounds absolutely horrifying. I feel like I just watched a Wes Anderson movie.

My favorite word in the above marketing copy is either "irrepressible" or "mythological."

In 1984 Parker Brothers added to their lineup of Ewoks board games with "Ewoks Save the Trees!" It was a Funburst game.

I take it the Funburst line combined the worst aspects of board games with the worst aspects of pop-up books.

The line's products came in special boxes that could be folded into briefcase-like configurations, presumably to allow socially awkward kids to carry them to their friends' homes, where they could be used to inflict on others the joy of playing Funburst games.

Kid 1: There's Timmy again. He's in your driveway, just standing there.
Kid 2: Does he have that dang Ewoks Save the Trees! game with him?
K1: Yep, that and a little stuffed animal shaped like McGruff the Crime Dog.
K2: Oh, God. Pretend you don't see him.
K1: Too late. He just waved at me.
K2: Maybe he's shooing away a mosquito?
K1: Nope, he just held up a sign that reads, "Timmy Perkins: World's Best Friend."
K2: You grab the weed-whacker and I'll grab the leaf-blower. We'll strap them to skateboards, fix each to the "on" position, and deploy them straight outta the garage and in his direction.
K1: Hold on a sec. I want to see what happens.
K2: I don't know about you, but I'm not giving in without a fight.
K1: I think he's trying to play catch with the fire hydrant.

With that little morality play I'll end this look at vintage Star Wars board games, a class of product only barely redeemed by the fact that its name gets the spelling of "bored" wrong.

But, like Steve Jobs, I do have one more thing. It's a product released by All About Town, a company that produced board games for various municipalities. This particular example is focused on the city of Cincinnati, Ohio -- which of course was the home of the Kenner toy company. To learn more about it and its Kenner-specific references check out Chris Georgoulias' excellent write-up on the item.

And don't forget to check out my co-blogger Amy Sjoberg's excellent article regarding her experiences playing several of these games.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Collector's Chimera: The Meccano ROTJ Princess Leia

Stephane writes:

 Definitely part of the top-five rarest officially licensed production figure of all times, topping Glasslite Vlix or Trilogo Madine – here comes the Meccano ROTJ Princess Leia 😲. Its existence was confirmed only in 2014 when it surfaced to the collectors market. Here’s the story…

The Meccano ‘Retour du Jedi’ (Return of the Jedi) original Princess Leia has been a chimera, a collector’s dream even since the early days of the hobby. From the start, the only evidence it could have existed was a tiny 1-inch square picture of the blister on the back cover of a pocket-size PIF Poche magazine promoting a contest to win an AT-ST vehicle and action figures in 1983. 

As odd as it can be, even the abundance of cardbacks in the early days of collecting didn’t bring any single cardback, even damaged, to the surface… At some point, the card shown was supposed to be a mock-up, but a very close inspection of the back cover of the magazine was sufficient to reveal details which seemed to indicate it was indeed a standard production card…

In the summer of 2014, something beyond expectations happened as a lot of 40+ Meccano ROTJ carded figures in their factory shipping box was auctioned by a famous Parisian auction house. The listing had been placed in a video game related auction and was totally overlooked. For the record, it was sold at an insanely lowball price and made the day of the lucky buyer who didn't find any competitors that day. 

That pictures speaks for itself. In that lot were *THREE* dead-mint specimen of the infamous Meccano ROTJ Princess Leia. Later on, those cards found their way to LULUBERLU, a famous Paris toy collectibles store, and listed for a premium. It took a little time, but they did sell because that's the only source for any collector focusing on Meccano or Leia before they'd definitely end up locked into collections!!

Late 2016, Star Wars toys and various other lines from the 1980s-early 90s started to surface from a retired Meccano employee working at the product shipping & clearing department who had saved hundreds of toys he was supposed to bin.

Among a huge lot of 140 Trilogo figures were a few Meccano ROTJs and square cards. It became a nice surprise when I found out that not only he had another bunch of THREE Meccano ROTJ Leias, but some of the ROTJs were never-seen-before Meccano/Trilogo hybrid cards (that is Meccano ROTJ cardback with french large Trilogo bubble), in a similar way as Palitoys (Palitoy ROTJ with large edged Trilogo bubble).

Those cards are actually late Meccano production to get rid of overstock and were sold on the Meccano clearance 3-packs. The 3 Leias in that find were also Meccano 45-backs packaged with Trilogo bubbles, so that was a nice bonus.

After such bonanza in such little timeframe, nada... just a heavily damaged cardback, the first and only cardback available so far... over the past quarter of century, only those 6 carded figures have surfaced so far, which is why this card is particularly rare.

I ended up with THREE of the SIX cards known, as seen on this picture taken for the record on X-mas 2016 (snowflakes digitally enhanced 😏), and at the end of the journey I kept one of each that you see at the top of the article: the 'regular' 45-back with typical Meccano double-elevation layer bubble, and the latter 45-back with Trilogo bubble, both mint, secured forever for preservation in the Meccano-Trilogo collection.

If you want to read more about Meccano & Trilogo carded figures or vintage French merchandise, don't forget to read our books:
La French Touch 2016 - the Definitive Guide to French Star Wars Collectibles 1977-1987
Meccano Trilogo Collectors' Handbook