Board games are great. They’re explorations of strategy and critical thinking that represent the world as numbers. But here’s the thing: you’re introduced to board games as a kid, usually one too young to appreciate the beauty of tabletop design. When you’re seven, do you want to match wits in a war of mental strategy against your friends, because you’re seven and mental conquest is a concept you haven’t grasped yet.
But what you can understand is destroying your friends physically. Winning by knockout. Taking your little plastic man and smashing his little plastic man, to show your dominance and act out the pathos of your young life.
That’s why you played Fireball Island, a blood-soaked playground that let you become your most despicable self until you and your friends all quit playing because you couldn’t look at each other anymore. There were other “family” games in our childhood that let you murder your friends for material gain, but this was by far the best.
Fireball Island came into the world in 1986, when Milton Bradley forged it in the fires of hell and released it on an unsuspecting public. It was part of a trend in high-concept 3D board games like Mousetrap and 13 Dead End Drive — games meant to attract kids by looking like toys.
Before you even set up Fireball Island you knew it was amazing. Where other games had flat card surfaces, Fireball Island was a craggy plastic mountain cut through with ravines and lava channels. When not in use, it made great slit-trenches for green army men or terrain for your G.I Joes. I still remember Snake Eyes descending silently out of the Christmas tree to halt Cobra’s plans to awaken the Tiki God with a blood sacrifice.
And speaking of the Tiki God, at the island’s summit loomed the eternally-flaming maw of Vul-Kar, the real reason Fireball Island was the best game a child could beg for.
Vul-Kar was a volcano god or something of that nature. There was never a proper cosmological explanation regarding who he was or why he existed, but it was better that way. We were seven and needed no reasons for lava craters to gain sentience. Vul-Kar required no justification, it was enough that he vomited fireballs and looked like the shrunken head of Satan.
The gameplay was fairly complex for a kid’s game, but proceeded quickly once you got the hang of it. Four players raced to the top of the mountain, tying to make their explorer grab a giant jewel out of Vul-Kar’s mouth and escape via boat. But what made the game amazing was that to do that, you’d have to run Fireball Island‘s winding pathways, crossing rickety plastic bridges that spanned chasms and warping in and out of caves. Cards could let you take multiple turns, move ahead or move your friends backward.
Or incinerate them with a fireball.
Though luck and careful card-playing determined the winner, nobody actually cared who won. Well, okay, you cared when it looked like someone was going to win, but honestly that was secondary. Really you were just there for the fireballs.
When one player threw down a FIREBALL card, gasps went around the table. The card allowed that player to choose one of the fireballs perched on the board and knock it onto the path, where it would careen down the channel consuming every player in its wake. Even better was dropping a fireball into one of the rivers, where it would slap past a bridge, upending it and flinging your friend’s explorer to the bottom. The best, though, was when you could use Kul-Var himself, rotating his giant head toward whatever path would cause maximum casualties. Anyone hit by the fireball would go to the nearest cinder pit and miss their turn as they, presumably, rehydrated and glued their ash-crisped flesh back to their bones.
Fireball Island felt great on a number of levels. The art design on the board, pieces, and card art was evocative enough that it enhanced play. When you knocked your friend’s piece off a bridge, sure, you just caused a plastic man to drop an inch, but in your imagination it was different. There, you could see the bridge upending, the little explorer clawing at air as his eyes go wide and he drops through endless space toward the cold river. It leant drama to the proceedings.
But that wasn’t the best moment in Fireball Island, the best moment came when you played a FIREBALL card but hadn’t decided which friend to destroy. In that glorious eternity all eyes snapped to you as your hand roamed the board, hovering over each fireball. Then you’d rotate Kul-Var’s head, seeing your friends squirm in their seats as the fiery maw passed each of them in turn until it settled on the unlucky one.
Then he’d start to beg, and plead, and tell you he’d be your best friend forever and give you a Snickers bar from his Halloween stash if only you please wouldn’t fry him with the fireball.
And you’d nod and say, “Okay.”
Then you’d hit the lever and engulf his little plastic man in flame. Because like all humans in the seven-to-nine age bracket, you are a horrible person, and know that ultimate power is more delicious than any Snickers bar.
And then the friend you betrayed would fireball you, even though it’s not the strategic decision. And you’d fireball him back. Then you’d both notice your other friend had grabbed the jewel in the meantime, and you’d form an alliance to destroy him and take his jewel, though that deal would last all of two turns until you fell to backstabbing again.
Fireball Island wasn’t about winning, it was about reenacting Lord of the Flies in miniature. The game was bullying with dice, where everyone got to take turns being the bully or forming a mob against the bully. Fireball Island distilled childhood triumph, competition and pathos into a forty-minute drama. When I played it among friends, we rarely finished the game, instead opting to reshuffle the deck and continue destroying each other. Fireball Island wasn’t a board game, it was a bewitched chest that, when opened, turned little boys into cannibalistic hyenas.
Thankfully whatever enchantment it cast over us broke once we closed the box. There was an unspoken agreement amongst us that no matter what happened on Fireball Island, the bad feelings would stay there with the game. We poured feelings into the game, not the other way around.
In other words, Fireball Island captured the multiplayer spirit that keeps us playing Call of Duty, Madden, and Risk — the acknowledgement that we can shoot, stab, tackle, defenestrate and run each other off the road a thousand times during play but still remain friends. It’s a remnant buried deep in our subconscious from the time when humans (and before us, animals) would play-fight to learn how to defend themselves. We collectively understand that as aggressive as these actions are, they’re ultimately metaphorical and done for a purpose, whether that’s learning how to navigate social alliances or to burn off tension between friends.
Even a game as moronically simple as Fireball Island can create a playspace where players work out their issues. It taught us to hate. It taught us to persevere. It taught us to bury the hatchet on a grudge before it destroyed us. Vul-Kar wasn’t a lava god so much as a group psychologist.
And when I have kids, I’ll search eBay for an old set, so that my own kids will to their game closet and find the smoldering maw of Vul-Kar waiting for them.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.