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Jack Gardner

Feature: Fireball Island and the Resurrection of Vul-Kar

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An isle shrouded in mystery and fire, a fearsome idol guarding a famous jewel, and a team of bumbling, backstabbing treasure hunters all converge upon a 3D game board. Fireball Island released to the world in the mid 1980s and has become something of a cult tabletop game.


In 1986 Milton Bradley published a game designed around the idea of dimensionality. The prolific game publisher had been releasing a large number of different game concepts over the several previous years. They were attempting to enter the video game market through the acquisition of Good Consumer Electronic following the success of their electronic game, Simon. However, board games remained their major calling as they attempted to innovate the established gaming medium. To that end, designers Bruce Lund and Chuck Kennedy created a three dimensional map, one that modeled the rough topography of an island in the middle of an ocean. This was the beginning of Fireball Island.



The simple addition of verticality captured the public's attention. Over 30 years later, people still remember the rage of Vul-Kar and the backstabbery of their companions. Fireball Island presents a very stylish aesthetic. Rolling hills and roaring river canyons, all lorded over by bubbling flows of magma that constantly present a threat of fireballs to the players. Atop the island's central peak stands a massive idol known as Vul-Kar. The idol houses a spirit that players can harness to set back their competitors with a well-placed stream of fire. Vul-Kar also guards an incredible jewel coveted by the rogue adventurers who have journeyed to the isle. 


As far as board games go, Fireball Island doesn't make any huge leaps in terms of gameplay. Players roll a six-sided die to move around the trails of the island and are able to move both forwards and backwards to suit their purpose. Each player can also play cards earned by landing on darkened parts of the trail. These cards possess powerful abilities that can tip the tide of the game at any given moment - and they can be played at any point on anyone else's turn. This leads to a real back and forth of players clawing their way to dominance over one another with dastardly maneuvers.  




Players jostle back and forth to be the first player to reach the docks on the other side of the island - with Vul-Kar's jewel in hand. Each time a player passes someone holding the jewel, they can steal the gem for their own. This can be prevented by a handful of cards or the clever use of fireballs. Every time a player rolls a one on the die or plays a fireball card, a fireball can be aimed toward someone on the island. These red marbles are placed at strategic points across the island's map and follow determined routes with the exception of Vul-Kar's fireball, which can be aimed along multiple paths. Being hit by a fireball brings a player back to the nearest smoldering pit down the path and also removes the jewel from their possession. The movement of the fireballs down the track represents the real reason for the 3D map - allowing gravity to operate on the fireballs to set them rolling down the various paths of the island.  


One of the things that surprised me when I revisited the treacherous Fireball Island was how simple it seemed. I remembered it as this larger than life game; a complex ecosystem of betrayal and fire. Of course, as soon as I opened the box, I realized the nostalgia I had for the game had altered my memory of it. The set up was far easier than I remembered or what the uninitiated might assume from the bulky box. A handful of tokens, two plastic bridges, the idol, a few marbles, a deck of cards, and a pair of dice make for a set up that only takes a couple minutes. Fireball Island itself remains fun, but it's one of those games that relies on the other players around the table. A good group of people can lead to a riotous time of backstabbing fun with the simple rules and unique setting. 




Now, it might seem strange that I've been talking about a game I enjoyed in my childhood that many might not even remember. However, I discovered that a small, but interested community has grown around the shared nostalgia of Fireball Island. After it's retail run, Fireball Island fell out of print, which has led to it becoming a sought after title. Obtaining a copy on eBay can cost several hundred dollars. However, the enthusiasm of the community seems to have begun a resurrection of sorts for Fireball Island.


Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of a recently rolled fireball, there are several efforts to revive the spirit of Vul-Kar. Justin Jacobson  and Rob Daviau (known for his work on Pandemic Legacy: Season One) founded Restoration Games with the express mission of restoring old games to give them a second chance at success. To date, they've revived Stop Thief!, Down Force, and Indulgence. Now they are in the process of bringing Fireball Island to a new generation. However, Restoration Games doesn't simply repackage and release the original games completely intact; part of their founding mission is to modernize those forgotten gems while also addressing some of the deep flaws that might have prevented them from catching on with a wide audience.


To that end, their vision of Fireball Island, fully titled Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar, imagines itself as a sequel taking place thirty years after the events of the first game. Players must contend with a dark curse while attempting to accomplish a number of different adventurous tasks. New dangers await even the most experienced Fireball Island players. The restored board game will be funded by an upcoming Kickstarter campaign that has yet to be announced. Interested parties can sign up for Restoration Games' mailing list to keep an eye on when the crowdfunding campaign launches.  



However, Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar isn't the only spiritual successor to the original Fireball Island in the works. A second project titled Yeti Mountain made its debut on Kickstarter back in March of this year. Yeti Mountain takes the same concept of Fireball Island and places the game world in the icy Himalayas with one angry cryptid. The crowdfunding attempt fell short of its target goal of $28,500, but the creators, Elementary Industries, are gearing up to relaunch the Kickstarter in the near future with new art and possibly a more refined prototype board. 


It feels a bit surreal to see so much enthusiasm for a game that I had always felt alone in enjoying. I've never met anyone else in person who remembers Fireball Island. That being said - if you find an old copy of this game sitting around at a garage sale or a thrift store or hiding in an attic somewhere, grab a few friends and get ready to shout at one another as you pass around a coveted plastic gem. I promise it will be a good time. I hope to see some revamped versions of Fireball Island or a spiritual successor coming to a game store close to me in the near future. 




To close out - look at this adorable snake painted on the mountainside of Fireball Island.   

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