Influential Game Companies of the Past Part 10: Iron Crown Enterprises

Transcript of the podcast published on December 28th, 2010.

I am ending my little series of memory segments for groundbreaking game companies of the past talking about one of my favourite companies: Iron Crown Enterprises, or short: I.C.E. (not to be confused with the fast trains used in the German railway system). This company was a newcomer when the major role playing boom already faltered in 1980.

It was founded by roleplaying game enthusiasts Pete Fenlon and S Coleman Charlton who had just graduated from the University of Virginia and were hungry to promote their own super-complicated roleplaying system Rolemaster, which grew out of a series of supplements originally intended to expand already existing roleplaying systems like D&D.

Rolemaster – which still is played today in it’s umpteenth version – is a heavy-weight roleplaying game not for the feint of heart, trying to achieve ultimate realism by the most brutal critical hit tables ever devised in a RPG combat system. Going into a battle of Rolemaster often meant losing vital organs, limbs, digits and probably also your head. Which is of course realistic! The system had some success but was no real competitor to the big names at the time. But then something extraordinary happened: through circumstances that are never described exactly anywhere ICE suddenly acquired the licence to produce roleplaying- and boardgames based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth World. This licence had formerly rested with SPI, who had produced some well-known games already featured in my segments, but this move was as surprising as Warfrog games suddenly acquiring the Star Wars licence. Well, perhaps not that surprising – remember, 1980 was not too long after the commercially failed attempt to film the books by Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson was still a pimply teenager, so perhaps the Tolkien estate thought: “What the heck?”.

ICE proved to be a very good choice, as they treated the Tolkien material with great respect, probably making more of it than anybody could expect or even has done since, and I’m including Fantasy Flight Games, who currently hold the licence. ICE’s first move was to create a fantastic Middle Earth roleplaying game (a simplified Rolemaster and compatible with that system) that is still considered the best system ever devised for Tolkien’s world. Their sourcebooks and adventures were considered to be the best that RPGs could offer and are valuable collector’s items today – they were incredible labours of love with wonderful maps, graphic art and full of endless content expanding Tolkien’s world with great love and passion.

This brought the company some financial success so they began to create other types of games connected to these licence, both collectible card games (who were still young at the time) and also boardgames, and these games are what makes me love ICE until today. Their Middle Earth Collectible Card Game, MECCG in short, is probably the deepest and richest CCG ever devised. It ran for roughly 10 years, and was highly unusual in that it incorporated solitaire and team play and was also comparable to games like Magic Realm in overall complexity and strategy. Because the game was so beautiful and detailed it never created the raw-edged tourney scene that Magic is known for – instead players simply enjoyed revelling in Tolkien’s world –experiencing this was more reward than winning tourneys or money. MECCG also never went the easy way of reducing complexity to sell more units. Even though MECCG is long out of print it is still beloved by many fans, and it is actually possible to acquire a good collection of it via EBay for relatively decent prices.

But there were also board games – most of them connected to Middle Earth. Their first Tolkien Game was “Riddle of the Ring”, a strange hybrid of card game and Adventure game that wasn’t entirely successful – yet. Then came “Battle of the 5 Armies”, an absolute collector’s item if there ever was one, even though it is a relatively conventional wargame.

But then came a moment of glory, as shortly after each other two games were published that I would consider a shining example of great design as well as impossible rules sets: “The Lonely Mountain” and one of the best games ever created: “Fellowship of the Ring”. “The Lonely Mountain” is a successful dungeon exploration and adventure game romp that makes it possible to build a party of Rangers, Elves, Dwarves or many other characters from Tolkien’s books to explore the lair of Smaug the Dragon.

To make the game more fun the designers introduced some new monsters to Smaug’s domain that might seem out-of-place to Tolkien purists, so it is actually well possible to encounter Krakens and Trolls in one of the many caves of the mountain. But if one sees it as a multiplayer exploration game with wargame elements this is actually great fun and used to be a favourite of my Frankfurt games group for many years.

But “Fellowship of the Ring” has to be mentioned as a highly unusual game recreating the events of the Tolkien Trilogy from the perspective of the hunter and the hunted, not from the perspective of all-out war like in SPI’s and Nexus Games’ “War of the Ring”. In “Fellowship” an ingenious system of movement dice that serve as placeholders for possible positions of the fellowship is used that keeps the Sauron player really guessing where the hobbits are. Combats are rare and spectacular and one really has the feeling an alternate history to the books is created, so detailed and rich is the gaming environment. The board is absolutely fantastic and true to the high graphic standards that ICE employed throughout their existence. For some strange reason this game has little love on the Geek, but it is truly a masterpiece that is worth every cent you pay for it on EBay. Beware the rules though – they are badly written and confusing, but underneath is one of the best 2-player games ever created in my opinion. Perhaps somebody will find the time to create an improved rules set?

There were many more games produced in ICE’s roughly 20 years spanning career –I should mention for example “Dicemaster”, a collectible roleplaying dice game which was weird and fun but without success, and “Silent Death”, a good Sci-Fi space battle game. But not the quality of their games but the downfall of games distributors proved to be the end of ICE –they simply could not sell their games through the usual vendors anymore.

ICE still exists, but only as a brand of roleplaying games now owned by another company. In their time they created incredibly detailed worlds of imagination, and they are still underrated as game designers in my opinion…