Published in 1986, the Clash of the Princes box set is as old as I am and represents the only foray that the Fighting Fantasy series ever made into the realm of 2-player adventure gamebooks. Comprised of two books called The Warrior’s Way and The Warlock’s Way, Clash of the Princes tells the story of two young heirs searching for the sacred gem that will grant them kingship over the realm of Gundobad.
I was not familiar with Clash of the Princes before my recent gamebook retrospective which is a great pity considering how much I would have enjoyed a 2-player Fighting Fantasy as a kid. Clearly these books didn’t receive a big enough marketing push and the premium price of both bundled together would probably have deterred most cash-strapped parents from treating their young ones, especially when there would have been so many cheaper and more colourful alternatives commanding the book shelves of 1986. Despite all that, Clash of the Princes is still remarkably innovative and in terms of 2-player mechanics they hold up reasonably well today.
It’s made clear during the short and rather flavourless introduction that there can only be one winner in this contest. Clovis the Warrior and Lothar the Warlock are both brothers, but whilst they can freely work together as brothers would do, only one of them can ultimately become king at the end. This semi-cooperative structure is intriguing and is designed to get players into a competitive mindset without them having to do battle or screw each other over.
Each book contains shared content (for areas where the brothers work together) as well as unique prose specific to that brother’s individual journey. Players need to keep track of two values called Action and Status which determine the route that they both travel. Clovis and Lothar will often separate from each other and at certain predefined ‘checkpoints’ the books will ask you to wait until the Status or Action values change before continuing on to another paragraph.
This means that fast readers will have a bit of a wait on their hands as they stop for their partner to catch up, but overall the system is rather elegant in its simplicity and by setting Status and Action to a preset value it also means that you can play through the books on your own should you wish. Having the princes split up is also a pretty unique idea. The first time this happens is when Lothar falls through a trapdoor into a river; something that prompts gasps of amazement from both players as they each read the scene from their own character’s perspective.
Because of this, the biggest charm in these books is likely found when playing with another player. As all reading is done silently (except for when a joint decision needs to be made), there are long stretches where the players are quietly reading to themselves, which sounds a bit weird, but makes absolute sense when the party reunites and you can freely talk to each other about what scrapes your character got into along the way.
Combat is also handled well. Clash of the Princes uses the standard dice-based combat system of all other Fighting Fantasy books, but the encounters are nicely balanced so that it doesn’t feel too unfair or tedious. Lothar’s showdown with an evil Djinn is the books’ hardest fight by a mile, but even then you can find an item which instantly grants victory so overall it works out pretty well.
Other areas of balance are not so good. The difference between the two playable characters is the most obvious talking point here as in exchange for his lower Skill attribute, Lothar the Warlock receives a list of spells to help make up for his shortcomings as a duelist. Lothar has a pool of magic points for casting spells and these range from simple battle spells, which either strengthen himself or weaken enemies, as well as context-sensitive enchantments which crop up during regular play.
For instance: an early cameo sees Clovis assailed by a giant moth whereupon he is instructed to wait and turn to the paragraph that Lothar tells him after Lothar chooses and casts a suitable spell; a process which is governed by the text in Lothar’s book. Depending on the magic points he wishes to spend, Lothar can choose to turn invisible, polymorph the moth into something harmless, or set it ablaze with a fireball. The Warlock’s Way bears more than a passing resemblance to Citadel of Chaos because of this magic-heavy design and the variety it adds to the text is substantial as in any given encounter you can find many different applications for it from flying and leaping to breathing underwater and turning entire rooms inside out!
It’s a viciously disappointing feature on the whole though due to how unreliable the whole magic system can be. Casting any spell requires you to roll a six-sided die whereupon rolling a 6 results in the spell failing outright. This rule is completely stupid and should be ignored at all costs. Lothar already suffers a skill penalty for his magic so punishing him even more with a random chance that his benefit won’t apply feels very dumb indeed and can be a death sentence during combat where you’re usually only allowed to cast once. I can’t really understand what the authors were thinking with this.
The adventuring spells are unreliable and they routinely make Lothar look like a bumbling mage before that of a brave hero. Choose to polymorph that moth for example and you can accidently find yourself staring up at a dragon who will proceed to barbecue your ass with its flame breath.
Tying into this point is perhaps the biggest problem with this book and that’s the number of paragraphs that result in instant-death. Too many times can your character die by simply taking the wrong fork in the road and other times you can opt for perfectly reasonable actions that again result in you paying the ultimate price. For instance: Lothar can come across a cult of druids in the forest and is given the option of approaching them or watching from a distance. Watching from a distance only prompts the druids to spot you and kill you for spying on them. No combat, no luck test, no worming your way out of it; just straight up death for you choosing to be cautious.
Another instance sees Lothar crossing a lake full of poisonous fish. Obviously if you try wading in then you’ll die, but if you refuse to pay a fisherman’s bribe then he’ll push you into the water where again, you’ll instantly die without any chance to save yourself. And don’t forget that the player character is supposed to be a powerful warlock in these scenarios! After a while I began to ignore many of the instant-death references out of sheer frustration and that aspect of a reader being forced to cheat doesn’t speak well of the writing at all.
When you finally reach the end of the book the reason for these endless pitfalls seems clear as only one prince can attempt the final encounter at a time. If both players still remain at this point then an arbitrary rule is made up to decide which one gets the first shot at becoming king. It’s an awkward moment made worse by the fact that you’re not even told that this is the final exam. In my game I was told to wait on a paragraph until the other player changed the Status whereupon a good ten minutes later they finally did and I turned to my new page only to find out that Clovis had found the gem during that time and I had now lost the contest! It was quite a shock and the awkward setup obviously would have been dodged if one prince had conveniently snuffed it on the way there. Hmm!…
Research suggests that the authors, Andrew Chapman and Martin Allen, didn’t enjoy writing Clash of the Princes and in the later encounters it really shows. The finale is haphazardly written – the final section for Clovis says you need tracing paper completely out of the blue – and the lack of imagination in the writing also gets worse as the game develops. In one instance your character goes from journeying across the mountains, to entering a city, to booking passage on a ship, to sailing out on said ship, and then getting attacked by pirates, whereupon the captain surrenders to the pirates and the crew are ransomed, all in the same paragraph! This quest should feel epic, but there’s not enough detail given to let that happen.
That’s not to say that Clash of the Princes is completely bereft of creativity though. The early tag-team battle versus a pack of orcs is pretty fun (one of the book’s only instances of cooperative combat) and Lothar’s magic carpet ride is a nice spin on the traditional maze segment that gamebooks are so often fond of.
It’s also cool that players can guess the answer to their final riddle. Clovis and Lothar both collect important plot items that reveal the hidden paragraph needed for them to succeed at the end of the game, but it’s possible to get by with only two or three of the four items thus reducing the chances of disappointment in getting to the end only to realize that you missed the one pickup that would have won you the day.
Overall though I would say that these books are merely OK and are probably best for diehard gamebook aficionados only. Clash of the Princes is an interesting experiment with some bright spots, but the lack of enthusiasm on the authors’ part coupled with too many dead-end references make these books far more frustrating than they need to be.