Favorite old PC games and their influence on board games

Not too long ago, I tweeted that windy summer days make me think of Ultima IV.  Of course, this means I went out and installed Ultima IV (along with V and VI) from my GOG Library and played through a good part of it, enough to have it queued up at a really fun spot.  While I’m a big fan of KOTOR and KOTOR2 and have played some SWTOR and WOW, I’m not really a big contemporary PC game player.  I’d generally rather play board games online on boardgamearena, though I just finished with my second time through KOTOR2, only this time with all the expanded content.  Much like Ultima V, KOTOR2 is a better game than it’s more heralded predecessor.  Unlike Ultima V, the story isn’t quite as good as its predecessor’s, but it’s still very good.

But enough about new games, my love is for the old, DOS-based ones.  I’d still rather pick up an old PC game for $5 then spend $50 on anything new.  Looking back, the year 1985 was the turning point.  As late as 1983, I was still playing text-based adventure games by Infocom like Zork and Planetfall.  The year 1985 released many titles, some where the graphics did nothing more than add to the text, but it makes all the difference.

There are still a lot of great old, DOS-based PC games out there, and probably more than I know of helped inspire various board games, but there are some which I know that did.  Overall, there are more great old games than I can list here, but please add your own to the comments below, and I might very well check them out!

Phantasie (1985)

This fantasy RPG, based heavily on the world of Tolkein, is the one that really started it for me.  It really isn’t much more than crude graphics on top of a heavy text game, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good game.  You can even play it now and it holds up pretty well, even if the graphics don’t.

Getting through that Temple of Dosnebians is still a challenge and getting everything you need to cross the River Styx and ultimately confront and pray before Zeus is rewarding, as is your final battle against Nikademus.  It’s heavily influenced by LOTR in its races, enemies, objectives, items and more — but so what?  So was Dungeons and Dragons at that time, and it still is.  Tolkein’s Middle Earth is as good a place as any to visit, and it’s one I’ve explored a lot personally through his writing, and Phantasie was one of the first PC game forays into it.  It also has a dose of Greek Mythology, including a focus on Minotaurs, and I was entranced by the part of the game where you cross the River Styx and complete the tests in order to meet Zeus.  I like this game so much I wrote a party guide for it.  One of the positive comments I received on it mentioned that this is a very difficult game.

A Bard’s Tale was a similar game, though probably a bit better.  I’m not as much of a fan of first-person POV though, I prefer the top-down view of Phantasie and Ultima.

Influence on Board Games:  These games were more taking the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG, which was popular at the time, and putting them into a PC game format.  I can’t see a board game being too directly influenced by Phantasie, it’s more like, Phantasie and modern fantasy board games are all going back to the same Tolkein/D&D source material.

Update on 8/1:  So of course over the past 10 or so days I played and completed Phantasie again and I was surprised how much fun I had doing it.  Not only is the game a challenge, but I found myself having to manage through bugs.  Last 2 times I tried playing, I couldn’t get through, both times due to different, late-occurring bugs.  This time I got through, and was able to fine tune my party guide.

Ultima IV (1985) and the Ultima Series

Another fantasy RPG but this one’s a whole series that continues today as a MMORPG.  For $5 you can buy Ultimas IV, V and VI from GOG and for me it was well worth it.  I bought it years ago with a different PC, but their library made it easy to use on a newer PC.

Ultima IV is one of the seminal games of my youth.  Since then I have always been a man of virtue:  Honesty, Honor, Compassion, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality, Valor and Humility.  Ok some more than others but it influenced me just in my love of PC games.  Phantasie and A Bard’s Tale were very good, but Ultima IV towered above all.

Did you ever take the time to figure out that Britannia and Britannia Castle are in the lower half of the northern hemisphere and would thereby have very favorable climate? Well I have. Also Paws would be quite hot and Minoc very cold.

There are some great guides for Ultima IV such as this one, so I have nothing to add, other than it really works out better if you take a Paladin (Honor) instead of a Mage.  You’re always in the first position in combat, so it makes the most sense for you to take on the “tank” role, flanked by your Fighter and Shepherd, with your spell casters at the back.  The Mage is the best class, especially with that awesome Magic Wand, so you can’t go wrong with it but being up at the front with a mage doesn’t make as much sense, especially later in the game when you get your Mystic Swords and want at least your Fighter and Shepherd to engage with them.  The Paladin is also a better quick start than the Mage, as he is more than strong and sturdy enough to take down all enemies, plus he’s got as much magic as all but the Mage and Druid.  It’s enough to cast Cure as often as you need to, plus throw in some offensive spells when you want to.  Also, you’re the only one who can use Magic Plate, the best armor before Mystic Robes, and one of only two who can use the Magic Axe, the best ranged weapon besides the Magic Wand.

Now, if you’ve never played Ultima V, as already stated, it’s the better game but the story is better too:  There’s a dark, dangerous underworld, below Britannia, beneath the dungeons.  Lord British and his powerful friends went down to scout it out, and the party was completely wiped out, with Lord British lost and most of the others dead.  Britannia is under the iron fisted rule of the corrupt tyrant Blackthorn.  The 8 cities are under attack by the 3 Shadowlords of Hatred, Falsehood and Cowardice (much like Washington DC the past 4 years).  There’s an underground resistance against Blackthorn, but also an anti-resistance.  There’s no Lord British to heal you or level you up, you have to hope his ghost appears when you’re out camping.  There are new locations and an entirely new underworld.  You are the Avatar of Legend, returned to make things right.

Ultima VI, I played through, and it’s a good way to end the series as far as I’m concerned.  I found it worthwhile but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others.

Ultima IV combat mini-map

Influence on Board Games:  One thing I love about Ultima IV is the “zoom in map” when you’re in combat.  I understand that the game Lord of the Rings Journeys in Middle Earth does this and I’m interested in checking that game out some time, plus I love LOTR (who doesn’t?).  Other than that, I don’t see how a board game can capture the world and wonder of Ultima or even bother trying.

Autoduel (1985)

As far as PC games influencing board games, this is where the rubber hits the road.  This is another RPG, a dystopian car fighting future, but this is Steve Jackson, who is as singularly responsible for getting me into board games as anyone, but he also got me into old PC games.  Autoduel is the PC version of Car Wars… or is Car Wars the tabletop version of Autoduel?  It doesn’t matter because I loved them both (but Car Wars came first).

This is my No. 1 favorite old PC Game, and I’ve written the No. 1 walkthrough for it on gamesfaq.com (well it’s basically the only one but between it and my Phantasie guide I have over 500 thumbs ups) plus it got picked up by some other similar sites.  I still play it every couple of years and try something new, though there are very few stones left unturned.  There’s just something about entering the arena with an armed and armored car that gets my peptides pumping.  I played it as recently as 2020 and it’s still fun and it has always been known for being extremely challenging, so don’t try playing it without my walkthrough.

Influence on Board Games:  Actually backwards in this case, the board game influenced the PC game, but the PC game probably then helped keep the whole Steve Jackson empire going.  I played Autoduel before I was really into board games, but Car Wars was one of the first strategic tabletop games I really got into — had all the expansions, had big maps, even made my own custom weapons like the “endothermic rifle” and other cold weapons.  Over the years, I played many more Steve Jackson games like Munckin, but also more Car Wars games like Car Wars the Card Game, which is an old favorite of ours.  The more recent entry of Gaslands is another in that genre, one we like.

Mail Order Monsters (1985)

If you know where to find this game, PLEASE let me know.  I’ve tried and tried.

It’s probably not all that great now but I have fond memories of it, and I didn’t own it, my friend did.  I played my own “owner” on his Commodore 64 but couldn’t really get as far with it as I wanted to.

It’s such a unique concept that I’m not sure what genre to put it in.  You’re an owner of gladiator-like monsters, that you buy, train and outfit.  You can build a bronto, a squid, a giant amoeba, or maybe a humanoid, and then outfit them with natural abilities plus weapons and armor.  Then they go after each other on a big map with various terrain before they encounter each other in close combat — another “zoom in map” game.  As they win matches, the monsters gain in strength and reputation, taking on tougher and more famous opponents.

You also gain in reputation as an owner and I found the whole thing to be a hoot.  I guess I like games where you build things, and then fight in the arena with the thing you built.  Help me out and get me playing this game again.

Sid Meier’s Pirates (1987)

Yet another RPG, this is arguably the most famous of the games I’m listing, and it seems I can’t talk to anyone about old PC games without this one coming up.  There have been subsequent iterations of this game, but there’s something about the original that really hit the mark.  The version I have is buggy so if anyone knows of how to get a non-buggy original version of the game I’m all ears.  But, the bugginess along with cheap graphics were part of the charm.  I don’t know how they crammed so much into a 64-bit game:  Sail around the Caribbean.  Build up your crew, and figure out how to keep them happy.  Plunder ships and take them over.  Fight pirates and pirate hunters alike.  Make and break alliances with various countries.  Fight against forts, take over actual towns, fly the flag of whichever country pays you the best.  Please governors and charm their daughters.  Piece together maps to find hidden treasure.  Coordinate your route to plunder the rich Treasure Fleet or Silver Train.  Find the long lost missing members of your family.

Influence on Board Games:  I’m quite certain Merchants & Marauders is a faithful attempt to bring this PC game to the tabletop, and it does a great job IMO, almost about as good as it can be done, but still without a lot of the most fun elements like the Treasure Fleet and missing family members.

Archon The Light and the Dark (1983)  

Archon actually came out a little earlier than the others, but I don’t know that I actually played it any earlier.  It came out the same year as Lode Runner, another game I was really into for a while.  This one was better on Apple and Commodore than on the PC, but I’d still give the PC version a whirl.  There’s just something about a chess-like board that draws me in, and I love the asymmetry.  It is also a game with a combat mini-map that opens up any time 2 pieces occupy the same square.  At least it’s not another RPG right?

That’s a dragon in the middle of the board, and it’s the strongest piece in the game and lends the dark side an edge over the light side, in my opinion.  It’s occupying a power square in the middle of the board, there is also one on the top middle, bottom middle, to the far left of the middle row where the light Wizard stands, and to the far right of the middle row where the dark Sorceress stands.  The Wizard and Sorceress are very tough fighters but each has a set of identical spells that can also be used to help their side.  Each side has its “pawns” — knights for the light side, goblins for the dark, plus more powerful pieces like the unicorns and basilisks, and finally the “queen” pieces like the Dragon and Djinn.

One really fun element is that many of the squares, including the 3 power squares in the middle column, cycle from light to dark and back.  The lighter they are, the more the light side has the advantage on those squares, and opposite when they get darker.  I mentioned a problem in this game in that the dark side is clearly better with its towering dragon, but it’s only a minor problem.  A bigger problem is that in the PC game, the phoenix and banshee don’t work well and not the way intended, not when you see it compared to the Apple or Commodore.  Still fun.  The sequel is good too.

Influence on Board Games:  Nothing exactly, but Dream Blade is an interesting asymmetric chess with fantasy pieces, if you’re interested in that sort of a thing.


Where did they find the guy to model for the cover photo?

Sword of the Samurai (1989)

While the above titles are all pretty famous, this one was more under the radar.  I guess I love RPGs because this is another.  There are a number of PC games that involve daimyos battling for feudal Japan, but this is one of the earliest, yet it’s still fun and challenging.  The best part is working your way up from a lowly samurai to a higher samurai, and from there on top to daimyo.  You take on various challenges and jockey for favor against 3 rival samurai.  Tasks are either military, involve one vs. many combat, or involve sword fighting.  The sword fighting was heralded as being done by Sid Meier but it’s one of the least interesting things about the game in my opinion, whereas the one vs. many combat is really fun and challenging, albeit nearly impossible at higher levels to where I would just avoid it.  As you gain favor, your rivals start going after you, trying to publicly embarrass you or even going so far as sending ninja assassins to your house in the night!  You can engage in your own treachery against your enemies, or so the game says, but that part of the game wasn’t play tested well enough because it’s nearly impossible and with little upside.

Once you get to daimyo, it becomes a game of military conquest.  The actual army vs. army combat is good, not great, and there are some hacks that allow you to defeat forces that are much larger than yours, but it’s still fun and depending on which province you start in and what level you play at, it can be extremely challenging.  If you’re interested in this aspect of feudal Japan I’d look into more recent PC or console games, but it’s the RPG climb from lowly samurai all the way up to daimyo that’s the heart of the game, and I don’t know if it’s captured anywhere else.

Influence on Board Games:  As this wasn’t a big game, I really doubt any board game designer tried to take this one on.  There are games that involve big armies fighting in feudal Japan, the old Milton Bradley Ikusa (, 1986, formerly called Shogun) is one example, or the more recent Shogun (2006).  But I haven’t seen a board game really go after the rise from samurai to daimyo, perhaps it could be an interesting challenge to take on.

Master of Orion (1993)

The ultimate 4X space game, and one that has resulted in many sequels and offshoots.  While the graphics would still pale in comparison to modern games, a lot of leaps were made between 1985 and 1993, and there are how-to guides for playing the original that are hundreds of pages long.  If that’s not enough, there is fairly up to date version from GOG and you can sink your teeth into that one.

In all of them, you start out in our solar system but quickly explore, expand and exploit nearby planets for resources and start building your empire, your fleet and the unique ships that make up your fleet.  One of the more interesting aspects of the game is the diplomacy with the other alien races, and how and when you want to exterminate is a key to the game.

Influence on Board Games:  Although it doesn’t include Sol (our own solar system), Eclipse has a lot of similarities.  I imagine Twilight Imperium does as well, and wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Master of Orion directly influenced them, as well as other space board games that I don’t know about.

What were your favorite old PC games?


    • roman says:

      Those are great games too! Maybe I’ll do a post on 90s-00s PC games and include those with the whole Doom series. Thanks for commenting!

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