Forget Jumanji. If you grew up in the eighties, the greatest adventure game of all time was Fireball Island.
On a recent Thursday, I headed to the comics and gaming shop Atomic Empire in Durham to relive those memories. Restoration Games, which specializes in remaking older board-game properties, was there on a tour to promote its new version of Fireball Island, currently being funded through a highly successful Kickstarter campaign (more than $2.6 million raised with nine hours to go at the time of this post). My goal: to see if the new game lives up to my memories—or if my memories are even that accurate.
Released by Milton Bradley in 1986, Fireball Island was based on the simple task of retrieving a jewel from the head of a menacing idol called Vul-Kar, then getting the hell off the island before other players could steal it from you. What made the game memorable was the massive 3-D board, whose paths and mountains made most board games seem literally flat by comparison, and the fact that you could shoot marble “fireballs” from Vul-Kar at your opponents for some jewel-swiping action. The genuinely unsettling design of Vul-Kar, combined with the sadistic glee of watching the fireballs roll down toward the unsuspecting plastic game pieces, gave Fireball Island an edge you just didn’t get with Candyland.
In the new Fireball Island, at least the sample version that was on display, the game board is now in three plastic pieces that fit together to create the towering island inferno. Vul-Kar is back, now with a subtle design upgrade that randomizes where your marble fireballs might go. Also, the point is less to get the jewel than to gather points by visiting various spots and gathering treasures; a running bit involves landing on spaces where your characters take Snapchat photos of island sights. A little too modern, perhaps?
The sign-up sheet ahead of me had filled up, so I wordlessly observed other players take their shots at mastering the brightly painted game board (the sample is just a hand-painted prototype, not the final version, Restoration Games representatives assured me). As with most board games, I have trouble following the rules at first, but it’s admirable chaos. There’s a flipping plastic “tiger” that players can try to “pounce” on their opponents, a pirate-ship expansion set with cannons, and plastic palm trees that can be adjusted to try to guide the path of the fireballs. When someone drew a fireball-shooting card, there’s audible excitement. Something about immolating one’s opponents just brings it out in people.
There was added suspense for me: would I get to play, let alone fireball somebody myself?
Thankfully, a few people left early, setting me on the course for adventure. My first turn, I actually got the jewel—only to promptly lose it before my second turn when another player took me out with a boulder.
The fun of Fireball Island this time around mainly comes from the details and keeping track of them. It’s a bit overwhelming for new players, but everyone surveyed by Restoration Games at the end said they’d play it again. I wound up coming in second. My game’s highlight? Getting to launch six fireballs through Vul-Kar and taking out most of my opponents, natch.
As I was about to leave, I got an unexpected bonus. Several Atomic Empire regulars had brought their own copy of the original game and were two hours into an intense match. They were nice enough to let me observe for a bit. As they played, I was reminded of a key problem with the original: it just kind of goes in circles, falling into the pattern of “get the jewel, lose the jewel to another player, watch as they lose it to another player, get it back, lose it again” and so on, ad infinitum. Rounds tended to go on longer than a game of Monopoly.
Still, you can’t take your eyes away. “It’s terrible, but it’s fun,” one person told me. Maybe you just can’t go wrong with fireballs.