A lot folks seem to be saying that the idea behind a simple boxed set version of D&D has been a long time coming, and that TSR/WotC should have done this ages ago. I’d like to point out that they have. When I was teenager, I loved trolling my local Kay Bee toy store for D&D stuff. That store seemed to buy into every attempt TSR made in this area, and it would invariably fail, and then I would pick it up at deep discount (often something insane like $2 or $3 each). Unfortunately the low price and my young age combined to me not taking very good care of these things, so not as many of them still reside on my shelves as used to, but I definitely recall buying them. So, let’s review past boxed sets of D&D I’ve owned.
In 1991 the 16th edition of basic D&D was released. Distributed in a rather standard sized board game box (think large flat landscape), it altered the format a bit from earlier editions as well by printing all the pages of the rulebook on individual cards set in a folder. Make no mistake though, this was the same content we’ve seen since the Mentzer era. It also included a rather clever adventure with full board-sized map that detailed an escape from a prison. The interesting thing about the adventure was that the encounters were built to introduce a single rule at a time. For example, in one room you’d find melee weapons and learn about melee combat. The next one had ranged weapons, etc. In fact, I believe you started play with nothing more than a name, and only learned race and class through course of play. Sadly, this is one of the boxes I no longer own. I wish I still had it.
In 1992 we saw Dragon Quest, yet another re-boxing of the basic rules, but this time we get a full board-game style board to play on instead of just a poster-sized paper mat. The D&D branding is clearly there, and it even claims to be an “introduction to adventure gaming”. Also came with that awesome over-produced set of adventurer minis originally made for the Dungeon! board game, of which I’m sure I have at least two sets at home. I think I still have this box in my basement somewhere. I recall dragging it out once during college when we decided it would be very amusing to try and roleplay drunk (which turns out not actually to be any fun at all). We picked this game as it seemed to be the lightest version of the game we could find.
And finally, in 1995 we get First Quest, interestingly billed as an “Introduction to Role-Playing Games”, and yet clearly also bearing the “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition” logo. This is a bizarre stripped down version of AD&D 2e and includes and audio CD that attempts to replace the DM. It worked pretty much as well as you’d expect it to. I was most amused by the fact that dialog was included in the audio for the player characters, and the voice actors actually refer to each other simply as “Fighter”, “Cleric”, “Magic-User” and “Thief”. I know TSR and WotC have come up with some lame names for their iconic characters of late, but this game didn’t even try and it just sounds painful. I definitely held onto this gem, along with all the other Mystara Audio CD adventures it led to. I assume based on the presence of subsequent adventures that it at least didn’t completely bomb, or perhaps they simply produced the base set and several modules all in one go.
So there you have it. Clearly, introductory boxed sets of D&D have had a long and continuous history. I know there are also 3rd and 4th edition introductory boxed sets out there as well, but Kay Bee stopped carrying them at that point and I never bothered to pick them up.