The Fool's Errand

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The Fool's Errand
The Fool's Errand
Macintosh cover art for The Fool's Errand
Developer(s)Cliff Johnson
Publisher(s)Miles Computing
Platform(s)Mac OS, MS-DOS, Amiga, Atari ST

The Fool's Errand is a 1987 computer game by Cliff Johnson. It is a meta-puzzle game with storytelling, visual puzzles and a cryptic treasure map. It is the tale of a wandering Fool who seeks his fortune in the Land of Tarot and braves the enchantments of the High Priestess.

A sequel titled The Fool and His Money was released October 25, 2012.

Release information[edit]

Conception and design[edit]

Cliff Johnson, who at that point had worked as a filmmaker, was inspired by films like Sleuth and The Last of Sheila which included puzzle-mysteries for the viewer to solve; he aimed to host "mystery" dinner parties where players would uncover clues to find the hidden secrets.

The 1979 work Masquerade by Kit Williams would serve as further inspiration.[1] The final chapter of the picture book revealed that the protagonist bunny had lost his treasure, and dared the reader to uncover the clues throughout the book to work out where on Earth it is located; this book sold over 2 million copies and while Johnson wasn't personally enamoured by the work he felt the idea behind it was exciting.[2]

Johnson decided to create a similar work which he would distribute to his friends as a 1984 Christmas present. The concept, a series of puzzles and a narrative that fit together into an overarching mystery like a jigsaw, would be an early incarnation of what would become The Fool's Errand. Having recently purchased his first PC, a Macintosh, Johnson began coding the game in 1985.[1] He learned to program specifically to bring the idea to the interactive entertainment format.[3] His goal was to “make the experience pleasant and solvable in a single afternoon.”[4] Johnson took out a $50,000 loan to finance the project himself, and he had a nervous breakdown during development.[5] By 1986 he had created over 30 individual data-driven programs, which he then had to convert into one application on ZBasic.[6]


The Fool's Errand was released in 1987 by Miles Publishing.[1] The game saw slow sales initially, but as positive reviews began to be published, more customers purchased the title. Electronic Arts took over the distribution, and it was ported to many other consoles, while being illegally circulated on file-sharing sites like The Underdog for many years.[1]

Created with Microsoft BASIC and ZBasic for the Apple Macintosh, the game was ported to MS-DOS, Commodore Amiga and Atari ST.[7] The ports add color, but in a lower resolution (320×200, as opposed to the original version's 512×342). Johnson advises PC-based players to download the Macintosh version and play using an emulator, specifically mentioning Executor, but other open-source emulators will work as well. The non-Macintosh versions of the game were protected by a symbol-based code wheel. The version offered free of charge given by the author has this mechanism disabled: the challenge screen still appears, but any answer is accepted.[citation needed]

In 2002 the game was released as shareware, available for download from Johnson's website[8]


The game is structured as a storybook divided into five parts, each containing a large number of different chapters; the storybook can be paged through and read as continuous prose on screen. However, not every chapter is available at the start of the game, and those chapters which are available are not consecutive. Many chapters have a puzzle (called an enchantment) associated with them; completing such a puzzle unlocks further chapter(s). Every chapter is named after a tarot card in either the Major Arcana or the Minor Arcana.

Frequently, the puzzles are designed in such a way that the result of the puzzle leads logically into the unlocked chapter; for example, the player may complete an acrostic puzzle which results in the phrase "No Ship", which then unlocks part of the story in which a watchman indeed reports that no ship has been sighted and deals with the consequences. Other puzzles feature pictures which portray parts of the story, or even clues to other puzzles.

The Sun's Map in the Macintosh version

The first chapter, The Sun, features the puzzle The Sun's Map. This is a jigsaw puzzle with one piece for every chapter in the story; each puzzle piece appears only when the appropriate chapter is unlocked. Each piece contains a symbol representing the chapter from which it came, plus part of a continuous path which flows through all pieces in the order in which they are mentioned in the narrative. Once the map is successfully completed, other designs on the map become active click targets and can be used as clues or processes to decipher the true final puzzle: The Book Of Thoth, hidden within the chapter The High Priestess, which requires the reader to peruse the entire story as continuous prose and identify a number of phrases hidden within the narrative.


Critical reception[edit]

The Fool's Errand did not sell well at first, but after a very positive January 1988 review in MacUser it became very successful, causing Miles Computing to port the game to other platforms. 100,000 copies were sold by the end of 1989.[7] Computer Gaming World praised the game, stating "You feel like you're matching wits with the author directly, instead of playing 'hunt the parser'";[9] the magazine's Scorpia described it as "one of the best games I've ever played".[10] STart's reviewer confessed that he had come close to finishing The Fool's Errand but that "I felt like I'd run, and lost, a mental marathon".[11]

The Fool's Errand won the following awards:

Retrospective reviews[edit]

Inside Mac Games described it as "intriguing and visually-rich", with a story that was both original and compelling .[12] Game Set Watch deemed it " one of the greatest puzzle games in personal-computing history".[13] Wired crowned it "the greatest puzzle game of all time".[14] PC Gamer felt the "whimsical fantasy" would challenge the player's brain.[15]


  1. ^ a b c d "GameSetWatch COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - The Fool's Errand". Retrieved 2019-02-20.
  2. ^ "» Cliff Johnson's Fool's Errand The Digital Antiquarian". Retrieved 2019-02-20.
  3. ^ "Just Adventure 2012". Retrieved 2019-02-20.
  4. ^ "Gaming Obscura: The Fool's Errand". Gaming News, Reviews, and Articles - 2015-04-02. Retrieved 2019-02-20.
  5. ^ Wallis, Alistair. "Gamasutra - The Art & Business of Making Games". Retrieved 2019-02-20.
  6. ^ "Sea Jay". Retrieved 2019-02-20.
  7. ^ a b Maher, Jimmy (2015-11-20). "Cliff Johnson's Fool's Errand". The Digital Antiquarian.
  8. ^ "Cliff Johnson's classic Mac games get new lease on life". Macworld. 2002-07-11. Retrieved 2019-02-20.
  9. ^ Roberts, Alan (Oct 1988), "the fool's errand", Computer Gaming World, p. 18
  10. ^ Scorpia (February 1990). "Scorpion's Mail". Computer Gaming World. p. 30. Retrieved 15 November 2013.
  11. ^ Gregg, Dave (February–March 1991). "For The Fun Of It". STart.
  12. ^ "Inside Mac Games Feature: The 20 Mac Games that Mattered Most". Retrieved 2019-02-20.
  13. ^ "GameSetWatch COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - The Fool's Errand". Retrieved 2019-02-20.
  14. ^ Selinker, Mike (2012-10-29). "Fool's Gold: Cliff Johnson Puts His Money Where His Mouth Is". Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. Retrieved 2019-02-20.
  15. ^ Sykes, Tom (2018-12-12). "Free games of the week". PC Gamer. Retrieved 2019-02-20.

External links[edit]