Island of the Lizard King
for Gamebook

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Mr Creosote:
Alternate Titles: Die Insel des Echsenkönigs
Company: Puffin Books
Year: 1984
Genre: RPG
Theme: Fighting / Sword & Sorcery / Text-based
Language: English, Deutsch
Licence: Commercial
Views: 1000
Review by Mr Creosote (2023-08-05)
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Ian Livingstone was on a roll, churning out book after book when it had become clear this series was a hit. While none of his books had been breaking major new ground, they did show a progression, a clear intent to extend from the established foundation.

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In this vein, Island of the Lizard King is noteworthy for being the first of the line in which the protagonist is not a sword for hire, out for fortune and fame. Rather, he vows to support his friend Mungo in liberating slaves from the rule of the evil lizard men. Mungo is killed off about three sections in, the player has no chance to save him. His death is likely intended to provide a strong motivation. Although Mungo did get a little hint of backstory in the opening, his friendship with the protagonist remains something players are only told about. With no chance to actually experience the comradery, this falls pretty much flat.

Later in the plot, the player liberates slaves forced to work in a gold mine (after traversing a maze which goes on way too long). The player finally leading them to storm the lizard king's fortress. Though freeing them is roughly the midpoint of the story, the attack on the fortress the ending. In between, the protagonist is again on his own, under a flimsy excuse. Likely because Livingstone didn't want to get into the complexity of handling a large group of people in gameplay terms. Plus, when the climactic battle ensues at the end, Livingstone has the protagonist infiltrate the fortress alone as well.

By comparison, in the same year, the first Lone Wolf book was published. Halfway through there, an epic battle takes place as well. Players are given the explicit choice to stay and fight together with their allies. Which, finally, will lead to inevitable defeat and a bad ending. Both stories require their players to abandon their friends in order to win the day. Just that Lone Wolf makes this into the toughest, most painful player choice in the whole book, as it is clearly communicated that all will die. Whereas Lizard King simply glosses over this dilemma by dictating the course of action. In a book which should be about choices.

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Meaning the book does not deliver 100% on either count of the storytelling it attempts. Smaller spots of light and dark come on top. The recurring mentioning of the foreboding volcano looming on the horizon certainly works in an atmospheric sort of way. Meeting Gollum and having him lead the protagonist through the swamps, initially avoiding dangers, but then taking a final turn into a monster lair, certainly feels adventurous. Just like meeting not just one, but two “cave women”, both illustrated as filling out well their tight fur bikinis, with perfectly styled hair and shaved legs – reminiscient of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.. Were they necessary? Surely not. The complete pygmy episode, on the other hand, isn't just out of place with regards to the plot, but also feels like it's just supposed to fill up sections.

Though then, there is one major strength the book exhibits in gameplay terms. In a 180° turn from the previous book, there are very few instant deaths. Tests of luck occur frequently, but they are usually not fatal, either, but just make things harder if failed. What's more, players can pretty much choose any path through the book and still have a theoretical chance to win. Good choices increase chances by giving hints how to proceed, rewarding players with bonus equipment etc. Though high skill characters could also attempt waltzing towards the fortress, sword drawn, not minding those opportunities. Some quest items exist, but they simply support them players instead of being indispensable.

All this put together, Island of the Lizard King is a mixed bag. Few of the observations discussed actually count on the negative scale. The positive outweighs them easily. The defining impression for veterans of the previous books remains that of missed opportunities. Of having hinted at this being a grand adventure of epic proportions, but then feeling rather small. The action not delivering on the promise. It's good, but nowhere near as good as it should have been. Though for newcomers to the genre? It may be just the right thing to start with.

Comments (8) [Post comment]

Bernd Kilga:

Thanks! I'll partially read first anyways. Some books are written in a way that won't work for her, regardless of violence. E.g. she can't get past the first few pages of the Hobbit. It bores her to death.

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Bernd Kilga:

Thank you for sharing your experience! I am used to some real time censorship because we are way above the typical age rating of books.My goal isn't to finish the book with her. I'm primarily looking for a way to introduce her to actual P&P roleplaying. A keen interest in making decisions is key to this hobby.

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Mr Creosote:

And, well, keep in mind that Lizard King opens with the protagonist's best friend either being killed by pirates or his body snapped in half by a giant crab...

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Mr Creosote:

Ah, for your daughter! Mine previously saw me playing the second book, The Citadel of Chaos, and asked to join. She was super excited, but finally, it was a bit gruesome for her. I censored some parts on the fly (i.e. invented alternative text), such as for example encountering the ghosts of a woman her kids who have been violently murdered and are now out for revenge on humanity. Overall, that book was also too hard for her, which indeed could be better with Lizard King.

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Bernd Kilga:

The judgement of my child will be merciless!You'll either get a "Good.” or a “Can I go and play something?” rating. (I have to test it first to see if it is age-appropriate for her. She's fearless regarding monsters but doesn't like any type of lying in books. Freaks her out.)

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Bernd Kilga:

Thanks for the suggestion! Found a used German edition in good condition.

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