City of Thieves
for Gamebook

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Mr Creosote:
Alternate Titles: Die Stadt der Diebe
Company: Puffin Books
Year: 1983
Genre: RPG
Theme: Fighting / Sword & Sorcery / Text-based
Language: English
Licence: Commercial
Views: 1170
Review by Mr Creosote (2023-06-24)
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Their first solo books had already hinted the way of the respective styles of Games Workshop founders Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. Numbers four and five, respectively, cemented this once and for all. City of Thieves doesn't play with the core formula. Skill, stamina, luck, that's it. There are no thematic experiments. It's your usual sword & sorcery fare. Instead, Livingstone optimizes his formula of creating a scavenger hunt and performing a lot of worldbuilding.

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Welcome to Port Blacksand!

Starting off from the fairly elaborate introductory plot baseline talking of an evildoer called Zanbar Bone terrorizing the city of Silverton, it is the player's task to rid the upstanding citizens off the nightly danger of Bone's Moon Dogs. By eliminating the source, i.e. Bone himself. Who lives in his remote tower, the location of which is not exactly publicly known. Plus, being a weird magical creature, he's not straightforward to kill, either. Only wizard Nicodemus knows his weakness. He, however, resides in Port Blacksand, the notorious City of Thieves

Mind that Livingstone called the book City of Thieves. Not The Curse of Silverton or The Tower of Zanbar Bone. Using the wordy MacGuffin as a launchpad, he makes the setting of the story its star. This place full of scoundrels and cutthroats, some of whom nevertheless are actually rather nice if approached in the right manner. Where honest and less honest businesses flourish. Where, in spite of everything, certain rules shall be followed and an authority accepted by all exists.

Despite its brevity, the prose manages to get across quite a bit of atmosphere as the player walks down the narrow alleys, enters the dimly lit shops or breaks into houses. Some highlights include the central market square, complete with a guy in the pillory and showmen, as well as a seemingly out-of-place villa with a secret explaining why it hasn't been ransacked a hundred times yet. On top, there are dozens of smaller scenes which range from solid (all those random encounters on the streets) to plain weird (the two quarreling witches).

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Making exploration entertaining is a key point to this book's success, as obviously, it is impossible to finish in one go. Player knowledge from previous deaths is absolutely essential, and Livingstone even states it in the introduction. Although to be fair, he does also provide a number of hints to be found nudging players in the right direction for the various sub-quests. Need to find Nicodemus? At least two other people in the city will gladly provide directions. Not sure where to get the magic tattoo? You could find the tattooist by chance, but some others also could tell you which street he resides in.

Another big part of the gameplay centers around money. Players will constantly find themselves finding gold, spending it, getting robbed etc. Several items which make the adventure easier can be bought. For essential quest items, Livingstone nicely allows for alternative means of payment as well. Phew, surprisingly fair.

Of course, the book is not without flaws. As usual in the series, there are places where choices where to go are exclusive without any proper reason. I.e. you go into street X, do something there, but then you cannot visit street Y anymore. Meaning you missed whatever is there. In most cases, no huge deal, as the “one true path” formula hasn't been applied too strictly here. Nevertheless, sometimes, this puts you in a dead man walking situation.

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Worse, the complete endgame after leaving Port Blacksand, infiltrating Zanbar Bone's tower, is frankly speaking an exercise in frustrating futility. Not only are there suddenly inescapable ultra-tough fights to be fought, there are also several instant deaths and – worst – random guesses which make or break the game. Random, without any indication towards the right one. Which is particularly strange considering Livingstone's statement that more than one attempt will be necessary. Even if he considered a 2/3 chance of failing a valid “challenge” to do right at the ending, how does this correlate with repeated playthroughs where player must know the correct choices by then?

Alright, let's cut him some slack. He called the book City of Thieves, not any of the other possible titles. He gave it a bad endgame. It is forgivable. Given that all that happened before, the part in the city, has been such a great journey, such glorious fun. If you want to know what made early Fighting Fantasy not just into such a huge commercial success, but also a cultural phenomenon, this is one of the books to pick up. Sure, the seminal one, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, is historically more important, but this one offers a much more streamlined, much more entertaining experience.

Comments (4) [Post comment]

Jake Beamer:

hahaa that's so awesome. Great to see it here, I miss what I saw of it over on the bird site

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Mr Creosote:

Island of the Lizard King is next on my list. It was not one of my favorites in the 80s, to be honest. But lets give it a chance. Not sure how long I can keep up going through them in order ;)

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