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Armies of Death is perhaps one of the lesser known of the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure gamebooks, despite being written by Ian Livingstone himself. In the original Puffin series, it was book 36, coming out in 1988, by which time the series was perhaps just beginning to show signs of running out of steam. However, it was considered good enough that the Wizard Books team behind the later reissues put it out once again in 2003, and in fact a further edition is due later on this year.
In theory the book is a sequel to book 21 (in the Puffin series), "Trial of Champions" from 1986, which itself is connected to one of the most famous of all Fighting Fantasy books, 1984's "Deathtrap Dungeon". However, it is really a sequel in name only - although you do indeed take the role of the victor from "Trial of Champions", it is entirely unnecessary to have played the earlier book, and indeed it may even be a drawback given that it might persuade you of some practical connection between the books where none in fact exists. On the plus side, your triumph means that you begin this book with a fortune of *700* Gold Pieces!
The setup for the story is not particularly imaginative, as is well illustrated by the first line of the blurb inside the front cover. "The Kingdom of Allansia is under threat," it intones. What, again? It would seem so, yes. This time around it's "Agglax the evil Zombie-Lord", and the job you - or rather YOU, as FF books' blurbs always print it - take on is to raise an army to defeat the undead hordes. It would be nice if occasionally the problems were a bit more original, but Mr Livingstone does tend to stick with what he knows, something which sets him apart from his partner in FF crime, the more innovative Steve Jackson.
What *is* new in this book is the combat system, given that you start out with a sizeable army (of warriors, elves, trolls and knights) at your command. As well as the familiar rules for fighting one-to-one, an extra dimension is added with "Skirmish" battles. Here you set your army against another, and roll on a combat table (which reminds me slightly of that used in the "Lone Wolf" gamebook series) to see how many soldiers each side will lose. As so often in Fighting Fantasy, the odds are tipped just slightly in your favour. It's fun, but perhaps a bit too easy for seasoned FF adventurers.
Actually, the early part of the book in general is quite low on difficulty as far as fighting is concerned. However, the story does score on originality in making you think: there are occasions where the seemingly obvious course of action will in fact rob you of an item without which your quest will be in real trouble. Later on, the combat itself comes more to the fore, and the later battles can be extremely dangerous, especially if you've been lulled into a false sense of security by the rather less bothersome opening sections.
The illustrations, which in the standard Fighting Fantasy fashion are in scratchy but quite detailed monochrome pen and ink, are by Nik Williams. This was the only FF gamebook he illustrated, but his drawings fit very well into the series and although there are a few illustrations that seem a little bit below par, for the most part they have character and atmosphere that add considerably to the enjoyment of the book. He seems most comfortable when drawing busy scenes, taverns and the like, some of which repay closer observation for their excellent little details.
Armies of Death is in many ways a fairly run-of-the-mill entry in this series, but it is lifted somewhat above the mediocre by its requirement that you stop and think a bit sometimes rather than simply charging sword-first into every potential battle. In this respect it reminds me somewhat of the classic FF book "City of Thieves", and despite the different setting and the new rules, I would suggest that players who liked that book are likely to feel quite at home here. Probably not one for complete FF novices, but if you can live with the less than original premise then there's a reasonable amount to get your teeth into here. A 3.5 star book, really, and in truth I might rate it either three or four depending on my mood at the time; I happen to be feeling generous right now!