Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar
You and a few friends get choppered onto an island. Your goal? Make it out alive, your pockets stuffed with as much treasure as humanly possible. Oh, and try not to get toasted by a fireball spewed from the mouth of the angry god of the island, the mighty Vul-Kar!
Push your luck
Hot fireball death
Designer: Rob Daviau, JR Honeycutt, Justin D. Jacobson, Chuck Kennedy, Bruce Lund
Artist: Noah Adelman, Víctor Pérez Corbella, George Doutsiopoulos, David Kegg, Jason Taylor
Publisher: Restoration Games
Category: Family game
Players: 2-4 (5 with expansions)
Price: $74.95 Amazon.com
If you watched Saturday morning cartoons in the late 1980s, you remember the commercial: a hulking, black idol stands atop his island kingdom, ready to spit fireballs at any who would dare approach his prized jewel. Kids dressed in knock-off Indiana Jones outfits make a run for the treasure, exploring caves and saying things like, “I’m dog meat!” when a cartoon fireball rockets itself at their noggins. It was pure, vintage ’80s. Originally released in 1986, Fireball Island soon became a classic, hard-to-find board game, and Restoration Games has brought it back with part-sequel, part-remake Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar.
As a family game, Fireball Island is appropriate for the whole family. Vul-Kar may look scary atop his plastic perch, but he’s really just a big softie.
Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar has a couple things going against it right off the bat: one, the fact that it’s essentially a roll-and-move game (minus the “roll”), a genre gamers have spent the last couple of decades trying to leave behind. That’s something you’ll have to assess up front: are you willing to hang up your serious-gamers-only hat for 45 minutes and enjoy something that hails from a simpler era—a “more elegant board game, from a more civilized age”?
The second strike Vul-Kar has against it is more powerful: nostalgia. Those of us who remember playing this game—or at least hazily recall the hokey commercial that prompted thousands of us to beg our parents for the game for Christmas—have constructed a lofty mental picture of how great Fireball Island was that no one could reasonably expect to meet our expectations. The game can’t just be as good as Fireball Island actually was. No, it has to be better than we remember it. It has to represent lazy Sunday afternoons arguing over cocked dice on the living room floor, Saturday mornings with an increasingly soggy bowl of cereal on the coffee table, mesmerized by an ad for a board game that looks too good to be true.
With such an impossible task before them, how could the folks at Restoration Games possibly clear that bar?
Well, I don’t know how they pulled it off, but they lept over the bar and managed to snag a few style points along the way. Game restorer Rob Daviau and his team have done a phenomenal job at bringing this one back to life. I never played the original (I was one of those kids drooling over it on their TV set), and yet somehow, I’m nostalgic for it. It brings back halcyon days when we weren’t worried about the minutia of line-of-sight rules or how many hundreds of dollars we should drop on the latest Kickstarter game, but simply egged our friends on as terrible misfortune befell them in a board game.
That’s not to say there are no strategic considerations here. Many of the improvements focused on adding player choice, from which movement card to play and slapping down well-timed instant cards, to the overarching push-your-luck-to-get-forbidden-treasures conceit that drives the game’s narrative arc. Do you make a mad dash to take valuable snapshots of the island, worth a lot of points but potentially worthless if you don’t make it to the chopper on time? Or do you go for the legendary Heart of Vul-Kar and snag a few treasures along the way? The island is entirely open, and you’re hindered only by your move cards and your friends’ unbelievably accurate fireball shots.
Restoration has injected a dexterity element into this version of Fireball Island, letting you test your skills flicking ember marbles down the treacherous jungle paths. Even the cataclysmic fireballs rolling from Vul-Kar himself now behave more like a pachinko machine you can subtly manipulate, rather than a superfluous gimmick as the original appears to have been. The glorious feeling of a marble shot you banked off a palm tree and the schadenfreude of watching as a friend accidentally knocks himself out against all odds are wonderful experiences that rank among the best in tabletop gaming today. Certainty in player choice and agency has been increased, while uncertainty in where exactly the best-aimed marble will go and whom it will devour have been amplified in equal measure.
It’s a great combination, and an excellent way to approach these kinds of redesigns: give the players a little more choice, and make the outcomes that much more varied and exciting.
All of this is set on a giant, three-dimensional board that has to be seen in person to be believed. Gaudy plastic trees dot the island, functioning as barriers you can manipulate to direct the fireballs down a more desirable path. The board’s colorful art makes the island look like a living thing on the table, an extension of the angry deity sitting atop the tallest jungle peak, ready to eat you for lunch—extra crispy, of course. And Vul-Kar himself looks great, 30 years older and no worse for wear.
A boatload of expansions from the Kickstarter campaign are on their way, and for the most part, they’re worthwhile. A ridiculously overproduced shipwreck board adds more options for players to go after, while a few smaller expansions throw in tigers, snakes, and even bees—yes, the bees. These do exhibit the unfortunate “expansion bloat” problem I often lament: you end up with so much stuff that you don’t know what to include and what to leave out in each session. One of the strengths of Vul-Kar is that you get it on the table and off again in 30 or 40 minutes, and shuffling through a few decks to add or remove cards takes away from that enough that I’m not sure it’s worth it. I’ll probably include the pirate ship when we have 4 or 5 players and use the others sparingly when we’ve had our fill of what the base game has to offer.
Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar won’t bring back your childhood, but it should get awfully close. Set aside your penchant for 3-hour-long spreadsheet games where you turn cubes into other cubes, and you’ll find your stay on Fireball Island to be an exotic vacation in paradise. Just watch out for nasty backstabbers like Vul-Kar and the people sitting next to you.
+ Simple, fun gameplay for the whole family
+ Gorgeous production
+ Dexterity elements
+ Quick, snappy turns and the perfect game length
- Expansions can be a bit much