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A cult '80s electronic game gets an app-driven reboot in Return to Dark Tower

Hands on: Return to the Dark Tower returns... to the Dark Tower.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

"Last night I journeyed backwards in time," intoned director/actor/pitchman Orson Welles in a TV commercial for Dark Tower, the cult classic electronic tabletop game originally released in 1981. 

The game combined a circular map of medieval kingdoms, plastic miniatures and a looming black plastic tower in the middle. That battery-powered tower was the centerpiece of the experience, displaying game information, resolving fights and controlling a simple puzzle to unlock the final battle. 

It was a game every D&D-playing kid from the '80s wanted, but almost no one had. At best you knew a friend or friend of a friend who had a copy. That's because the game was only sold for a short period in 1981, and because of the intricate electronics inside, it retailed for a hefty (at the time) $55. Since then, old copies have gone for hundreds on eBay, with good-condition sets hitting $400 or more.  

But your '80s FOMO may be at an end, because a new version of the game is in the works from Restoration Games. Loosely based on the original, and keeping the all-important electronic tower, Return to Dark Tower recently raised more than $4 million on Kickstarter

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My buildings are being corrupted... by skulls!

Sarah Tew/CNET

Game designer Rob Daviau brought one of a handful of working prototypes in for me to test drive (Isaac Childres of Gloomhaven fame also worked on the design). In this new take, the Bluetooth-connected tower works in conjunction with a smartphone app to drive the game's narrative and gameplay mechanics. 

The look and feel is very similar to the original, with a circular board, looming tower and miniatures to represent your character. But the game itself has been thoroughly modernized as a cooperative hunt against the evil forces that live in the tower. 

Players each control a single kingdom with its representative hero, and must complete quests, gather resources and eventually take on the tower's master. 

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The tower and its kingdoms dwarf our puny conference room table. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

All this time, however, the tower itself is working against you. At the end of each player's turn, they drop a small plastic skull in an opening at the top of the tower. This lets the tower know it's the next person's turn, while also hoarding a nice collection of plastic skulls, which should be a hint that the tower is up to no good. 

At semi-random times determined by the game app, the tower whirs to life, lighting up in menacing red. Rotating inner chambers shift the skulls toward several doors on the outer wall of the tower, and if one of those doors opens, a handful of skulls tumble down onto the kingdom below. 

Any skulls that land on your part of the kingdom are your problem, and they slowly corrupt the buildings players use to generate resources, money and reinforcements. Too many skulls, and your kingdom is in shambles, so racing toward the final confrontation, while also building up your army through side quests, is key. 

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By the power of bluetooth!

Sarah Tew/CNET

I played a handful of rounds with Daviau and the game certainly hit my Gen-X nostalgia sweet spot, while still feeling like a modern tabletop game, which means lots of cards, tokens and other little bits to keep count of, plus the app to drive enemy movement and storytelling. The tower, currently a 3D-printed prototype model, is huge, as is the game beard itself, so be prepared to keep the dining table clear for a while. 

Return to Dark Tower is expected in the first quarter of 2021, starting at $150 (or $125 for preorders), which is still less than a copy of the original 1981 version on eBay. 

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