To celebrate the release of the new fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I'm taking a look at two D&D box sets: 1994's "Classic D&D game" (a reprint of the 1991 boxed set) and the 2014 fifth edition "Starter Set." Read on to see how they compare...
The Old: "The Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game" box set, circa 1994
Twenty years ago, I walked into a bookstore looking for a way to teach my kid sister to play D&D. Rather than overwhelm her with the 2nd edition AD&D Player's Handbook
I had at the time, I wanted a simple, fun way to get her spelunking into dungeons and kicking kobolds in the face.
The "Classic D&D game" box set fit the bill exactly. It came with one softbound "Rules and Adventures Book," which packs in rules for creating characters (with classes like "Elf" and "Magic-User"), a condensed tutorial adventure, and a bestiary of monsters for the DM. The book was big, and still a bit daunting for a grade-schooler, but it was more approachable than the PHB:
The set also came with dice, fairly well-detailed (but nonpainted) plastic figures for PCs, cardstock standees for NPCs and monsters....
...a large, attractive poster-sized battlemap to use with the tutorial adventure...
...and a DM screen.
The set had two major downsides. The included adventure only supported two or three gaming sessions, and the characters and rules in the set were largely incompatible with the main 2e AD&D rules being used by everyone at the time. Still, I thought (and still think) the set was a great value.
The New: D&D 5th Edition Starter Set, circa 2014
In terms of physical components in the box, the new Starter Set is a little underwhelming. You get a set of dice, a rulebook, pre-generated character sheets, and a booklet that runs you through the adventure "Lost Mine of Phandelver," but there's no battlemap, miniatures, or DM screen. The slim rulebook is especially disappointing considering that Wizards of the Coast released the "Basic D&D" rules as free downloadable PDFs.
In terms of content, though, this is perhaps the most complete game tutorial ever released for D&D. The "Lost Mine of Phandelver" booklet aims squarely at newbie DMs and players, and does a pretty good job explaining how to handle common D&D tropes (an ambush on the party, a dungeon crawl, pumping NPCs in a town for quests/information, and the like). There's enough story, monsters, encounters, and dungeons here to support a couple months' worth of play, and everything is 100% compatible with the complete set of D&D 5th edition rules.
[One word of warning: they had to condense everything down a lot, so some encounters don't give as much explanation to the DM as they should. For instance, there's a dragon midway through that will easily kill off the entire party of adventurers in a straight fight, but no explanation that the PCs should try bargaining or sneaking past the dragon rather than attacking it.]
These starter sets do different things. The old "Classic D&D" game shows off all the cool chrome of the D&D world - plastic figs, funny dice, a DM screen - but basically assumes that people will graduate to AD&D afterward. In contrast, the "Starter Set" targets folks who want to play 5th edition D&D but don't know how, whether it's because they're computer/video gamers or because they're coming from other tabletop RPGs (i.e., Pathfinder). As such, including little toys in the box isn't as important as giving people a serious look at the new game system.