FF5: City of Thieves

Per Jorner
Demian Katz
Frank La Terra
Ethan Richerson (spoiler - trap)
Jason Smith
Bryan Spargo
Andrew Whittingham


[Per Jorner]

City of Thieves is another typical Ian Livingstone offering, which takes you on a pretty linear journey through a certain environment and throws at you a number of separate and structurally simplistic encounters appropriate for that setting. This time we're in a rough city, where you're supposed to walk into the homes of others, riffling through people's shelves looking for artefacts to help you finish the book, er, I mean kill the bad guy.

CoT is extremely linear compared to WoFM or Forest of Doom. Only in two places do you actually choose between mutually exclusive paths. Fortunately Livingstone manages to instill his city with quite a bit of character; there are ever so many ways you can be robbed, swindled or assaulted! Reciprocally, you as the scourge of justice can attack and kill many residents and shopkeepers with no serious repercussions. Of course, the linearity and the relative ease with which you can bypass uninteresting locations also means you'll soon have figured out where to find all the items on your shopping list. The end boss location features some more opportunities for you to die, but is not all that extensive, and no less linear.

On the plus side, this book features the art of the brilliant Iain McCaig. On the minus side, Nicodemus is a pretty uninteresting wizard, looking like a cheap Gandalf rip-off. The villain, while pretty intimidating in himself, isn't put to very good use either. The final confrontation simply has you Test your Luck, and then randomly trying (in the culmination of a mildly clever plot twist) to choose the correct one of three alternatives. That's right, there's a 67% chance you'll just die and have to do it all over again up until that same paragraph, whereupon I suppose you'll have a slightly better prospect - a whooping 50% chance of getting it right! Or you could throw the book away. Or you could cheat. (I'd cheat.)

Rating: 6/10


[Demian Katz]

Plot Summary: While visiting the town of Silverton you get involved in a quest to lift a curse by defeating the evil Zanbar Bone. Unfortunately, in order to learn how to destroy the fiend, you must seek the advice of an old wizard who lives in the dangerous and crime-infested Port Blacksand.

In terms of setting and story, this is probably the deepest book in the series thus far. There's still not a whole lot to it, but the book's basic scenario is set up in a fairly lengthy introduction (complete with actual dialogue!) and the setting of Port Blacksand is fairly believable and consistent (though for a town of despicable thieves, there seem to be an awful lot of honest, friendly people about). This decent text is further enhanced by some of the best illustrations since the first book in the series (though I'm not very impressed by Zanbar Bone's appearance, especially on the covers).

The gameplay aspect of the book is also fairly strong. This is, I suspect, the earliest "scavenger hunt" gamebook involving a quest to gather all manner of weird thingies needed to achieve some goal (Castle of Lost Souls, the adventure serialized in White Dwarf magazine and later reprinted as part of the Golden Dragon series, is another notable example). The satisfaction inherent in finding each essential item tends to make this sort of book especially fun, and the prospect of finding new goodies in unexplored nooks and crannies makes replaying after death fairly tolerable. The challenge of successfully managing your money adds further interest, and, as usual, careful mapping is essential! My biggest complaint is the fact that the endgame segment (after you leave Port Blacksand) is a bit too hard, with the challenging combats and guessing games being more annoying than exciting at such a late point in the adventure.

Of course, the limitations of the gamebook format are made obvious from time to time, detracting from the quality of the gameplay -- as in Warlock of Firetop Mountain, there are times where you have to head in direction X, grab an item, then backtrack in direction Y and move on. If you head in direction Y to begin with, you miss the crucial item and are doomed to failure. As before, this really points out the linearity of the adventure and serves mainly to frustrate the reader.

Speaking of frustrating the reader, I did find that the book overstays its welcome a little bit. There is a great sense of relief at successfully completing the Port Blacksand section of the book, and this is spoiled somewhat by an overly difficult endgame sequence. First there's a really, really tough fight, then there's a new trap-filled area to explore, and finally there's a 66% chance of losing the adventure at the last possible instant due to a choice that depends solely on luck. I don't mind challenge, but this is simply unfair!

Although far from perfect, the book manages to overcome its flaws. The story has a unique enough flavor to be memorable, the challenge level is high enough to require thought but low enough to avoid being impossibly frustrating (except during the ludicrous endgame), and the illustrations nicely complement everything else. If you need a fix of classic Fighting Fantasy, you really can't go too far wrong here.

Errata: The heading on the page containing sections 342 and 343 actually reads "342-243" in the two British copies of the book that I own. The problem is corrected in the American reprint, which is interesting, since American editions of British gamebooks usually contain the same errors as their British counterparts.


[Frank La Terra]

The Moon Dogs of Zanbar Bone are going crazy in the town of Silverton, and only one person can help free the town from their terrible grip. And that person is YO. I mean, a Wizard named Nicodemus. But the people of Silverton have chosen YOU to go fetch him. Don't you feel special?

Wizards only come in 2 modes in Titan - the first is the evil I-want-to-rule-the-world warlock whom lives in a dungeon and despite spending every waking moment studying magic strangely still has a SKILL of 11 or 12 with a sword. The second type is the good wizard, whom is old, lives alone, is quick to anger yet kind hearted. Type 2 wizards also seem to do a big fat load of bugger all except send other people off to do their dirty work (sometimes selling them some useless junk to help them.) Lucky for you Nicodemus is of the second kind, so I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to reveal in the end it is you who has to take on Zanbar Bone.

Most of the book takes place in a city (as the observant probably noted from the title). This is actually the first 'multi-part' Fighting Fantasy book, which can roughly be divided into three parts - the search for Nicodemus, an item hunt in the city, and finally the assault on Mr Bones Home.

The city itself makes for an interesting location, different from the dungeons of previous books and much more interesting than the rather bland Forrest of Doom. One of the most interesting things about this book is that for a city full of thieves, it seems that the biggest thief is the player themselves! I lost track of how many houses I walked into uninvited and decided to have a look around, with the book acting as if this were perfectly normal behaviour. Makes one wonder what Ian is like as a neighbour - does he simply walk into other people's houses and start pilfering when he needs more Caster Sugar?

It seems Ian learnt a few things from FOD, as this book is much better written, with the flavoured text really making the city come alive. The encounters are also a lot more creative, and (for the most part) actually make sense with what one would expect to find in such a fantastic city. Unlike the key hunt in Warlock, where the keys were hidden in the silliest of places, the location of the items you must find to defeat Zanbar are all logical, which is a big plus.

Game play wise, the book is pretty well balanced, though it does get a little difficult once you reach Zanbar Bone's lair. The big bad himself makes an interesting villain (but then again I'm bias because he looks like my favourite villain of all time - Lord Skeletor!) but unfortunately the battle with him ends up being rather lacklustre. Still, it doesn't detract too much from what is otherwise a very solid and thrilling gamebook.


STORY: 3.5


[Ethan Richerson]

Ahhh, City of Thieves, one of my favorites from childhood. This, along with a few other early FF books, was really resonant. After rereading it, I can recall why. This could have been a fantastic gamebook, but as it stands, it's merely good, with flaws.

Livingstone actually does a satisfactory job of building a little backstory and setting the stage. His writing tends to be rushed, sparse, and sorely lacking in real description. Upon arrival in Port Blacksand, I'm ready to be immersed in this amazing seaside city. I wanted to be told of all the sights, sounds, and smells. This is done in a very cursory manner, but I did not feel enveloped in the world or the city. This is a shame. I think this locale could have really been a gem.

This being Ian, the GAME really is put into this gamebook, and off you go, choosing paths, finding objects, and taking your chances guessing who is good and who is bad. While a few choices "make sense" one should generally check one's logic at the door since many choices are based purely on luck.

However, there are some incredibly memorable encounters in this book, the Serpent Queen, the Inn, the Bays playing Bays' ball, the locksmith, the troll guards, and on and on. I think a big part of this is the truly exemplary and outstanding artwork in this original American edition by Iain McCaig. Kudos. Without his work, the book would not be the same.

For me, Livingstone's style and execution works much better here in City of Thieves than it did in Forest of Doom. The random, unconnected, myriad encounters seem to "fit" better in a city of the ilk of Port Blacksand than in a forest. There is more verisimilitude here. He seems to have captured the essence of what encounters would be like in a true "City of Thieves," and despite the dearth of written description, the art here is far better than in Forest of Doom, truly helping you to feel as if you are there in Port Blacksand and can almost taste the debauchery. One of my favorite scenes is the central market, where you can visit various stalls and play games or buy sundry items.

The basic premise of the story is interesting enough and works to propel the character along. You must find Nicodemus, collect items, and fight battles. I found it incredibly easy to survive with initial skill of 10, stamina 19, luck 12. I ended up with skill of 14, sta 19, luck 15. There are multiple opportunities to heal and raise your skill and luck.

Initially, choices are divergent and consequential. At points, choice devolves into simply choosing paths, but that is overcome by the occasional ability to backtrack as well as the myriad paths you can travel, all filled with interesting encounters, places, and people. However, occasionally, the author will choose your path for you, instructing you that you have "chosen to go north" or some such. After all, this being Ian, if you have passed up an opportunity to find an item, he'll be damned if you are going to have another chance!

Few issues: Entry 364, you are forced to pay for information about Nicodemus' whereabouts which you may have already discovered by this point.

Entry 171: you come to the end of a street at a quay and are given the choice to board a vessel, or walk up the street, but not to enter the incredible looking tavern mentioned in the text and pictured as well.

Entry 63: when you are under the elf's trance, you get to pick the 2 items the elf takes from your pack.... can we say iron spike and copper scorpion? Silly that you get to choose such paltry items to be thieved from yourself, pure silliness.

Entry 249: fighting the Serpent Queen and her "poisonous fangs" which poison is SO potent that.... it has no effect. That's right, you can fight 3 foot long snakes earlier in the adventure and if they hit you, it's 4 STA lost, but with the Serpent Queen, nada.

Entry 354, you can sell an item here, the copper scorpion brooch, which you have been told is cursed to lower your CS. Your character isn't supposed to know this, but you do, so why wouldn't you sell this for 10 GP? You aren't told you can't remove it.

And finally, why would the Zanbar Bone have so many items helpful to your cause lying around his tower waiting to be used against him? We are supposed to be thankful, I guess, that the author has provided these tools so that we may complete the quest and win the game! For me, this decreases verisimilitude and the sense of immersion in the world. As well, in the final scene, your success is dependent on... you guessed it, pure luck. Ahhh, but this is Ian, and this is after all a GAMEbook... right? I suppose it's a matter of priorities: having the game flow from the story, or having the story flow from the game. I prefer the former.

Despite these lapses, the adventure is generally an exciting one with nice pacing, flavorable encounters, and an interesting locale, augmented by truly superior art, but having rushed and spartan writing lacking in immersion and descriptive narrative.

Rating 1-10: 6.5


[Jason Smith]

This Fighting Fantasy book was written by Ian Livingstone, way back in the early eighties. The cover art and internal illustrations are the work of one of my favourite FF artists; Iain McCaig. I've always liked this FF book. From the first time I read it in January 1987, I knew that it was going to be a cut above many others (it was also the second FF book I ever read)...

You start the book in the medieval world of Titan, on the west coast of the Allansian continent, in the small, prosperous town of Silverton. You're the usual Sword-for-hire, adventurer type; a loner, tough, smart and honest (snigger). Travelling from town to town, living by your sword, saving whole communities by slaying nasty monsters and kissing babies (hey, when this book was written, this kind of hero was original)!

Anyway, while you're in Silverton, the merchants, recognising your vastly superior greatness, plead with you to help them in their hour of need! You're told that the infamous Zanbar Bone (a sorcerer/warlord type world conqueror bloke, who lives in a tower near to Blacksand; the City of Thieves) is holding the poor town of Silverton to ransom! To back up his threats to the townsfolk, each night he sends his bloodthirsty Moon Dogs, in an attempt to terrorise the town into submission!

Are you prepared to just stand by and let this tyrannical Zanbar Bone bloke give these poor, innocent peasants a damn good grinding under his armoured boot? No, god damn it! Even if he is a great and powerful sorcerer warlord.. Even if he can't be killed by normal weapons... Even if he does own a bloody great fortified tower, with a personal army of nasty monsters to back him up.... Gulp! Brushing your fears aside, you promise the good folk of Silverton that you'll rid them of this curse once and for all. You agree to slay Bone by your own hand!

So, off you journey to the nearby city of Blacksand, controlled by the iron grip of it's mysterious, robed master; Lord Azzur. Infamous across Allansia as the 'City of Thieves', due to the somewhat large crime rate. Not a very nice or safe place to live.

Now, you'd think that you'd want to avoid this place, but enter it you must. For, inside it's treacherous walls and dangerous, scum filled streets, are a number of important objects. These objects must be retrieved as they're vital to completing your mission of killing the inhuman Warlord (or, as I like to call him; 'ld Boney)!

The thing I like about this book is that it's well written and has a brilliant atmosphere. You get to explore many different places in the city; underground in the sewers, many dark, twisting back streets, Lord Azzur's gardens, a pirate galley, different shops, houses and a tavern or two!

You also come across lots of interesting characters; the cruel, bullying town watch, excellently portrayed by the two orcs you meet. These guys really like to abuse their power; they're all corrupt as hell. The gracious Lord Azzur; who has a habit of trying to ride his citizens down, while he's thundering about town in his horse-drawn carriage, on 'state' business. The people at the town fair; the cannon ball chucking game is especially fun. The mysterious wizard; who can help you (no, I won't tell you his name or where you can find his home) and not forgetting the regular Blacksand 'inhabitants', if you can call them that!

These people must be the biggest collection of cut-throats, murderers, vagabonds and thieves in the whole of Allansia. Every other person you meet can't resist having a go at separating you from your money in some way! Some of them have friendly or harmless intentions, while others are absolutely murderous! You have to be cautious of everybody to stay alive!

If you survive your adventures in Blacksand, the next thing you have to do is to find some way of escaping the city and confronting your foe at this tower stronghold. All I can say is this; Cold steel on it's own doesn't cut it! if you confront Zanbar Bone without all the things you need, you can forget about trying to slay him with your sword and expect a nasty death...

Anyway, I'd say that this book has many good points and few, if any, bad points. It's original, well planned out and written. The enemies you meet are varied, fairly frequent and are of a level that makes this adventure challenging, but not impossible (unlike some later books. It always makes me laugh when I read the character creation section at the start of a book, these frequently say that you should be able to complete the adventure regardless of low initial rolls, if you choose the correct path. Yet then you're challenged by enemies with 12 skill or higher! And it doesn't give you any alternative way of defeating them!!)

An all-round excellent book. A must for all 'true' FF fans.

Rating: 8.0/10


[Bryan Spargo]

After a mixed outing in "The Forest of Doom," Fighting Fantasy co-creator Ian Livingstone created the first of his solo masterpieces in the series. "City of Thieves" introduced FF readers to the infamous Port Blacksand, a city full of thieves, cutthroats, and murderers, and Livingstone breathed such life into the city that the book stands out as one of the finest in the series.

In "City," Livingstone provides many different areas of the city to explore, from streets and alleys to numerous shops to the town fair to the sewers beneath the city, and all these locales are richly detailed and mapped out. The inhabitants of the city, from the town guards to the fair-goers to Zanbar Bone, the book's main antagonist, are all fleshed out well by Livingstone, and present interesting and challenging encounters.

Unlike "Forest," Livingstone brings a decent level of complexity, difficulty, and depth to "City," while at the same time presenting an exciting, fresh, and interesting plot that has aided in making Port Blacksand a favorite of many a FF reader.

"City of Thieves" set the Fighting Fantasy series back on track after two straight mediocre outings, and remains to this day as one of Livingstone's finest pieces of work.

Overall grade: 9.5 (out of 10)


[Andrew Whittingham]

There are places where no one wishes to go. Places of despair, evil & danger - where death is only a wrong turning or single word out of place. Not many places hold a worse fear in the heart than Port Blacksand, otherwise known as the City of Thieves. There is only one motive for visiting Port Blacksand. It's called necessity. No one would visit out of choice, and in this adventure there is little choice in the matter. The town of Silverton has been attacked by Zanbar Bone's moon dogs, and with their lack of clemency demanded that the daughter of Owen Carralif be taken. The request was wholeheartedly refused, and the moon dogs came one night and entered the homes of the people and committed pitiless murder. Owen Carralif instructs you to find Nicodemus the wizard, who dwells somewhere in the heart of Port Blacksand. With his help, you may just be able to defeat Zanbar Bone, along with his servants - the spirit stalkers & moon dogs.

So off you go to the miserable city in search of a petulant wizard. If you can get in to the city, you then have the option of a few streets to walk down and explore. There's plenty to do and see at this stage which is a nice touch as it's a good way to start an adventure. Eventually you will find Nicodemus and he'll add to your quest. He gives a list of items that need to be found in order to defeat Zanbar Bone. There are five things that you are required to do in Port Blacksand before you can head of for your final battle in Zanbar Bone's tower - a place far more frightening that Port Blacksand.

Anyway, once you've done everything that needs to be done you'll meet up with Sourbelly and his sidekick, Fatnose. These two are quite amusing but whether you avoid them or not you'll end up leaving the city. If you've missed something important, you've had it. Game over. Back to the gate & Reroll those dice. Once you've finished trawling through the streets of Port Blacksand you'll head off to Zanbar Bone's tower. There's some nasty news waiting for you on your way due to Nicodemus' incompetence! After that you'll meet up with Zanbar Bone's friends of course, and with a bit of luck you'll meet up with the evil one himself. Killing him is not as easy as it would seem, and skill matters little when you get to his room. You'll need lots of luck at the final battle. The structure of the adventure is extremely well done. It's well fought out and follows a basic layout. It's very difficult to get lost because of this, and map-making is a simple job. The downfall of this is that it takes only 2 or 3 goes to know where everything you need is. Getting out of the city is a pretty simple job with what you need.

The book gets much tougher the further you get into it. In typical Livingstone fashion, it's easy to do the first part of the adventure, but the climax is something special. A nice walk through the town and then you die just as you're nearing your goal. It took me an appalling number of goes to finish the book, and I died in Zanbar Bone's arms no less than three times. My favourite part of the book was the tower & the climax. Port Blacksand could be negotiated quickly and you spent more time feeling out the tail end of the book than you might otherwise have done. The items you need are in sensible places and the characters that you might on the way are excellent. The suspense at the end is unbelievable and your nails are sure to be gone when you turn to what you hope is the penultimate page. On the downside, it's very straightforward which direction to go in, and the port holds few surprises for long. There don't appear to be any automatic death points in the city either. I feel that any book should have these as anybody with Skill 12 is guaranteed to get at least out of Port Blacksand. This is a major contrast between his following book Deathtrap Dungeon where they're all over the place.

Overall, the City of Thieves is an excellent Fighting Fantasy adventure. It's beautifully written and has a good story line. It is very unlikely to be completed on your first try without incredible luck & it has the characters that are needed to make a great adventure. One disappointing thing is that Zanbar Bone has not yet appeared in a sequel. Zanbar Bone is a hugely popular figure and one that has the potential for legendary status. There could have been another Zagor or Baron Sukumvit here and maybe perhaps there will be soon. A fully recommended read, and an adventure that should keep you going for a while at least.

Rating: 9 out of 10