Growing up as a gamer in Baltimore during the 1970s meant that it was impossible for me not to know about Charles S. Roberts and the company he founded, The Avalon Hill Game Company. Called by some the "Father of (Board) Wargaming," Roberts was the designer of the classic Tactics, which he published in 1954, a game that revolutionized the way wargames were published and played forever after. Between Tactics and his second game, Gettysburg (published in 1958), most of the features we now associate with wargames (hex maps, cardboard counters, combat resolution tables, etc.) became established as standards that all subsequent wargames would either imitate or react against. Originally located in Avalon, Maryland (hence the name of the company), Avalon Hill eventually moved to Baltimore in 1962, after Roberts sold the company to one of his creditors, Monarch Printing. The company remained there at 4517 Harford Road until 1998, when the company and its properties were acquired by Hasbro.
As I've said before, I was never much of a wargamer myself, but I knew wargamers, mostly my friend's father and his buddies, as well as guys I knew through various hobby shops I'd frequent. I'd occasionally join them in playing various games -- 1776, Gettysburg, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich and, of course, Squad Leader -- and I enjoyed them well enough. I was never very good, of course, which may explain why people liked playing wargames against me, but I didn't mind. I found the games fascinating as physical artifacts, with all those counters and hex maps. I used to use my Squad Leader maps when playing D&D, because they worked great as generic wilderness areas. Little did I realize I was recapitulating history, albeit with a different game. I also played a lot of other "wargames," like Diplomacy, Freedom in the Galaxy, Kingmaker, and so forth and was generally more adept at them.
Given all of that, it was rather hard not live in awe of Avalon Hill. Sure, there were other wargame companies out there, most notably SPI, but AH always seemed to me to be the king of this particular hill (no pun intended). I felt considerable local pride in the company and its accomplishments, even if it had (as the legend goes) turned down the opportunity to have published D&D and thereby deprived me of the chance to work for my favorite game's publisher in my own hometown. Not that I'm bitter about that or anything ...
Anyway, my father, as was often the case, knew one of the printers who worked for Avalon Hill and he arranged for me to get a tour of the place. I still have very fond memories of that day, as I watched men laying out books -- by hand -- on these giant machines. I realize it only confirms my Luddite credentials, but there's something so right about old fashioned printing. I was absolutely captivated by it, so much so that I almost forgot where I was. I met a number of editors and designers too, although, for the life of my I can't recall a single name. Back then, if you weren't Gary Gygax or Marc Miller, you really weren't a "name" in my book. Still, just being there made me feel like I'd died and gone to Valhalla; this is the place where games were made. And I mean literally. This is where they were printed and packaged and shrink wrapped and all the rest. I mean, people used to hand pack these wargames. I saw huge stacks of cardboard counters and the machine that made them. It was an astounding thing.
Like many companies, Avalon Hill fell prey to a combination of economic factors that led to its being purchased by Hasbro in 1998. In a strange irony, Avalon Hill is now a brand name under the auspices of Wizards of the Coast, the company that bought TSR, publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, and itself purchased by Hasbro in 1999. Disappointingly, very few classic Avalon Hill games have been re-released since Hasbro bought the company (Diplomacy being the notable exceptions). AH is now mostly a brand name, like Parker Brothers or Milton Bradley, without much connection to its history or origins. Under WotC/Hasbro, Avalon Hill's logo goes on "strategy" boardgames like Axis & Allies or Risk 2210. A few classic AH wargames of old, like Advanced Squad Leader, have been licensed to other publishers, but most are in the vault somewhere, unlikely ever to see the light of day again.
Avalon Hill occupies a strange place in my history as a gamer. Even when the company was still around, I viewed it as a relic from an earlier age, but one that welcomed me into the borders of a wondrous kingdom, like the Argonath. There were untold riches here; this was, after all, the company that had created an entire hobby around itself and whose games had nourished the imaginations of my heroes, Gygax and Arneson. I might not have ever been a true wargamer, but I always had respect for Avalon Hill. It was an institution and a link with the past and I took great interest in that past. The stories my friend's father told us about the games he had played in his own youth with his friends and the real world history that I learned from these games are memories I'll always carry with me. They're part of what drew me into roleplaying, strangely enough -- a desire to be part of something that had been going on for decades, ever since Charles Roberts changed the world forever in 1954.