Monday, August 18, 2008

The Shoulders of Giants

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.


  1. Not only did AH fuel Gygax's imagination, it published one of his designs--ALEXANDER THE GREAT (1971).

    (Love the Blog, James!)
    --Ray W.

  2. Wow -- a celebrity poster! ;-)

    You're right about Alexander the Great. I'd forgotten about it till you now. I never played the game myself, but I always wanted to. Maybe I should look for a copy on eBay ...

    Thanks for stopping by, Ray. Glad you're enjoying the blog.

  3. I'm old enough to have been a wargamer myself, & I'd say Avalon Hill's Richthofen's War had at least some indirect influence on the creation of RPGs. I remember our extensive campaigns trying to get pilots through the whole of the war, and the random terror of the "Pilot Shot Down" table for seeing if you survived the crash & made it back across enenmy lines. Certainly anyone who experienced that wanted an RPG to enact their escape in more detail.

    I had similar luck with SPI - my dad knew James Dunnigan and several of the other SPI guys.

    My best wargame experience was also a type of RPG in that it was a double blind, refereed game played with SPI's Central Front series. All the other players & referees were my dad's friends from the Army & Navy, who being Soviet analysts mainly wanted to play on the Russian side. Thus I was fortunate enough to be one of the 3 NATO commanders. The experience of only seeing our own units for sure, and getting vague or misleading info on Soviet units gave a new level of excitement. I remember the gut wrenching stress of Soviet paratroop units appearing in our rear arears and sending our air mobile units to try to merely asses the size and goals of the paratroop landings.

    Anyway, glad to see someone giving proper credit to Avalon Hill and SPI etc. Recently when asked by some self-professed "gaming geeks" what I liked to play I said "Runequest" to which they replied "Never heard of it, is that new?" I shudder to think what they've have said if I'd mentioned Squad Leader. For all the talk of "geek culture" people seem to have as little idea of it's roots in wargaming as they do its roots in the fantasy literature of R.E. Howard or L. Sprague DeCamp, etc.

    Brendon R.

  4. For all the talk of "geek culture" people seem to have as little idea of it's roots in wargaming as they do its roots in the fantasy literature of R.E. Howard or L. Sprague DeCamp, etc.

    This touches on something I've been keen to discuss for a long time: there is no single "geek culture" anymore. D&D arose out of a particular unified culture of guys who all played wargames, were interested in history, and read the same SF/fantasy authors. They spoke a common "language" and had common experiences on which they could draw without having to worry that anyone else would misunderstand them. As RPGs became more successful (much as happened with SF and fantasy), that common language and those common experiences simply ceased to be common and it didn't take long before the past was forgotten and deemed irrelevant.

    It pains me horribly to see this happen, but I'm not sure there's much we can do about it except keep that history alive and teach those who know nothing about it. I was never much of a wargamer myself, but I always listened to the wargamers tell me how it was back at the dawn of our hobby. They had great stories and genuine insights and I'm grateful I took the time to hear them.

  5. This touches on something I've been keen to discuss for a long time: there is no single "geek culture" anymore. D&D arose out of a particular unified culture of guys who all played wargames, were interested in history, and read the same SF/fantasy authors. They spoke a common "language" and had common experiences on which they could draw without having to worry that anyone else would misunderstand them.

    Exactly - I run into alot of people supposedly into RPGs, but their "culture" is all about movies and Wii, which as a greying grognard I'm rather out of the loop about these days. And on their part, although some are well meaning, I keep running into people trying to run say, pulp adventure games, and thinking that steam ship can't have still been in existence in the 1930s, or thinking that airplanes were invented after WWI. Not knowing about the latest Wii game doesn't impede my playing an RPG, but some of the historical ignorance among "geeks" today throws a big wrench into trying to run a pulp or CoC game.

    Over on "Old Geezer" had a good quote about the old days -

    "Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax originally developed OD&D for adult wargamers. Those of us under 18 were there because we were invited, and because we could 'play like adults'"

    But you're right, creating a common culture is an up hill battle at this stage.

  6. ...And for those that want to get more grognard geek on than they can handle, visit The Hundred Years War and read the definitive book on wargaming, The Complete Wargames Handbook, by James F. Dunnigan, designer for Avalon Hill and SPI. Dunnigan set the foundation for my favorite AH titles, Panzerblitz and Panzer Leader with his SPI work Tactical Game III.

  7. I missed wargaming's glory days, but I wanted to play AH games before I even wanted to play RPGs!

    See, Avalon Hill also made "smarter" boardgames, of which my dad had a few. The sports titles and such. They were smart enough to include catalogs. Seeing stuff like Squad Leader sounded cool, even if to a 6-10 year old in the early-mid 80s the difficulty meant it was beyond me. But it was there, tempting me.

    In the 2000s I finally got a copy of Squad Leader and ran it with a 20 something friend.

    WE LOVED IT. We have also played some other AH wargames, and some titles from other companies.

    Wargaming can really get the brain cells moving.

    And there is just... something about those hex maps, isn't there?

    Of course I am a wierdo when it comes to gaming. I usually hate new editions of stuff. I like to play multiple games. I have no one preferred gaming niche.

    How many gamers own and actively want to play Larps, Tabletop RPGs, Miniatures wargames, card games, boardgames both American and Eurostyle, hex and chit wargames, dexterity games, videogames, computer games, some collectible games, and almost every other game type out there?

  8. I had a dual entry into the gaming hobby. I think I was first exposed briefly to D&D (white box), then I got my hands on War at Sea (AH). That set me (and my friends) off into wargame-land, after which we had a new infusion of D&D. Basically we came into contact with "adventure games" through our slightly older brothers, although they usually didn't play them with us; they just past them down to us, voluntarily or not, as they headed off to college, and then some of us started buying/playing/collecting on our own.

    Luckily for me (?) I had no kid siblings so my collection is intact.

    Branduan, I really envy the opportunity you had to play the Central Front series at all, let alone with some actual military experts! Someday, someday...though I think I only have Fifth Corps...

    James, about the cultural changes, to paraphrase what someone wrote on a blog some time ago: wargamers were more grinds than geeks. Which isn't to say there aren't some choice characters among them--just visit Consimworld and see.

  9. Ah, AH games.

    My first was Starship Troopers and my second was Kingmaker.

    I can remember getting home every day from junior high and asking if my games came from the few times I actually got the money together to mail order them...specifically Squad Leader and it's first expansion Cross of Iron.

    In a way that's probably the best way to measure the point when I crossed from being an early teen wargamer to an early teen RPGer...I owned D&D when Cross of Iron came out and CoI took priority over new rpg material. I never owned Crescendo of Doom. Although I would buy wargames after that my priority had clearly shifted to roleplaying.

    Sometimes I go on eBay and look at old hex games. In fact, I bought a few then had them destroyed in a move. Every now and then I get the urge to pick up a couple used (my college sits, even now, on a shelf at my parents not having been important enough to cart all over the country while in the Navy) and take it down to open board gaming at my local club.

    Wonder if all those "German" boardgamers would warm to hex maps.

  10. Recently when asked by some self-professed "gaming geeks" what I liked to play I said "Runequest" to which they replied "Never heard of it, is that new?"

    There was a recent thread on asking what was the most played fantasy game after D&D right now this minute.

    When some people suggested Runequest or Rolemaster as contenders we got "never heard of it" or "haven't heard of anyone every playing it" or "isn't that too new" (thinking RQ was a new Mongoose game).

    Made me feel old faster than hearing Cheap Trick on an oldies station.

  11. Wonder if all those "German" boardgamers would warm to hex maps.Prolly not, you may have missed it but just as with RPGs, there's a gulf of misunderstanding and condescension between Euro-game players and wargamers.

    Captain Rufus, those "smarter" non-wargames by AH (many of them originally by 3M or Time-Life) were definitely part of the 70's milieu, along with other odd games by companies such as Eon that weren't quite wargames but where definitely in a different vein from the usual Milton-Bradley/Parker Brothers fare. Some of them do get love from the Euro crowd; others are referred to as "Ameritrash".

  12. 3M ... Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. Stamped on the "spine" of the classic "Thinking Man's Golf" bookshelf game. My dad had that... grease pencils and plastic overlays.

    I'm dating myself.

  13. well, if it makes you feel any better elliot, that was the only time I got to play from the Central Front series ;-)

    hey, herb, I was a fan of Squad Leader too, even though my brother was plainly superior at tactics and walloped me every game. I managed to snag both Crescendo of Doom and Cross of Iron. Another favorite of my from AH was Afrika Korps. I've probably played that almost as much as Richthofen's War. I'm fortunate I've still got most of my & my brother's old wargames.

  14. My dad had that... grease pencils and plastic overlays.

    My friend's father had that game too; I remember it very clearly, particularly because I never understood why anyone would want to play golf in "board game" form when you could just go to the course.

    Silly me.