Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Strategy & Tactics

By now, regular readers of this blog are no doubt tired of my constantly reminding everyone that I have never been much of a wargamer. Despite that, I've long had a fascination with wargames, given the number of roleplayers I knew in my formative years who were wargamers. So, despite not playing many wargames myself, I was always aware of them and the companies that produced them, particularly Avalon Hill, which was located in my hometown of Baltimore.

I also knew of SPI, which, by the early 1980s, was producing the vast majority of all wargames published in the world. When SPI went bankrupt in 1982, its assets -- but not its debts and liabilities -- were acquired by TSR. Being a subscriber to Dragon at the time, I read about this acquisition from TSR's point of view, which, of course, did not mention that among the debts TSR didn't acquire was honoring existing subscriptions to SPI's magazine, Strategy & Tactics, an advertisement for which appeared in issue #95 (March 1985):
TSR published S&T for 21 issues before selling it off to the British company World Wide Games (3W). As I understand it, the magazine was poorly received by wargamers during TSR's ownership, as were most of TSR's wargames, which was likely a disappointment to staff designers who saw the acquisition of SPI as an opportunity to expand the company's repertoire beyond RPGs. Alas, it was not to be.


  1. By now, regular readers of this blog are no doubt tired of my constantly reminding everyone that I have never been much of a wargamer.

    What is clear, dear James, is that though you deny it, it is in your genes....and much like the Innnsmouth taint, know that the change will come to you. No matter if you will it or not, the rules will call, and you shall follow, there to live forevermore in glory amidst boards and counters......

  2. Join us in the world of wargaming James...the water is fine, at least until you hit a mine.

    TSR went out of their way to piss off past SPI customers by not honoring subscriptions. Just seems like an utterly foolish decision in retrospect, but in 1982-83, in what was arguably the height of Old School D&D popularity was probably something they thought they could get away with.

    Anyway, I think wargaming has always been a few years ahead of RPGs on the "product life cycle" if you will. They rose in popularity prior to RPGs and declined beforehand too. I'm not sure anything, including better TSR games, would have prevented their decline, just as TSR couldn't prevent the decline of RPGs from a mainstream product in the Sears Catalog to a more niche market.

    Why they declined, I can only speculate: rise of RPGs themselves and video games and the end of the draft cut a connection to the military and war for most people.

    Anyway, I can't say I owned many SPI games. Played a few, such as "Battle of Austerlitz". Always wanted to try "The Creature That Ate Sheboygan" but never had a copy available.

  3. Heh...was typing my comment the same time as Doc...Had I known where he was going, I would have changed "mine" to "torpedo".

  4. As somebody who was a board wargamer at the time, and fond of some of SPI's titles, I'm firmly convinced that TSR bought SPI not for the sake of their wargame properties (which were considerable), but specifically to take a pair of RPG properties OFF of the market, specifically SPI's Dragonquest and Universe.

    Both were fairly innovative for the time, and like TSR, had managed to get themselves into wide distribution.

    The purchase wound up being a fiasco for TSR, overall. The bulk of SPI's design staff resigned en masse. Most to form Victory Games, a design studio that was a subsidiary of the same parent company as Avalon Hill.

    As for SPI's titles, SPI actually sold most of their better selling wargames titles to Avalon Hill pre-buyout...AH sold these for a few years.

    TSR gave it a try in terms of continuing to publish S&T for a while (after alienating a good chunk of SPI's subscribers), Ares (the SciFi wargame/rpg mag), and published a few wargames titles (most of which were poorly received), but like so many of TSR's non-AD&D related 1980's moves, one is really left wondering why they bought SPI at all.

    They took what was the largest inventory in terms of titles of wargames and basically sat on it (including some titles that folks were basically begging them to reprint), they pissed off a lot of potential customers (I didn't buy much from TSR for a long time after 1982), and created a lot of ill will.

    S&T eventually wound up going to Decision Games, who did a decent job of reviving it.

    As for the decline of board wargames, I'd suggest that they are a cautionary tale for the likely fate of pen and paper RPGs (and comic books, IMO). The audience just got old, and didn't attract new (read: younger) players. The games got complex, which satisfied the grognards, but didn't attract new people. Computer wargames also took a slice out of the market, though they've declined as well

  5. I posted this the other day on mine and want to share it here:


    Gaming is stronger now than it has been in years. I have yet to read a negative report out of GenCon or DragonCon.

    Hell, even wargaming is up. Real, with miniatures and terrain, not just little cardboard punch outs (and don't get me wrong, I love those games and was raised on them...the look on my older brothers face, home from the air force with a fresh copy of Decline of the Third Reich, was priceless when my 9 year old ass beat him...playing the Germans).

    The doom and gloom scenarios all seem to center around a company who can't seem to find their ass with both hands these days (WotC) and the shop owners who don't understand that you can't just push retail priced product out the door anymore. You have to change with the times and actually have a reason for folks to show up.

    And these Neo-Grognards and Grognardlings as they call themself, young kids coming back into the old school style...

    We're doing fine...chin up...now if we could just do the same for the economy :)

  6. I'm not sure if S&T was poorly received. Well, maybe under SPI, but I think it was an excellent magazine by the late 80s.

    My group was primarily an RPG group, but some of us were fascinated by, and played constantly, Avalon Hill's Squad Leader. I remember being like 14 years old in 1982 and playing it 12 hours straight. Even back then, I was a Russian Front aficianado.

  7. Although I've played Axis and Allies, both the board game and the computer version, I'm not really a "war gamer" myself. I'm predominantly Greyhawk and Pahtfinder.

    So stand your ground, James. You are not alone!


  8. And if you want a go at something free and simple try this:


    this has been part of my collection since I first ran across it.

    (Hey, that 'G' word up there ain't just for show :)

  9. When I started rpg's and hung out at the local game shop as a kid, there were a couple of much older wargame holdouts who were playing the rpg's because nobody wanted to play their dusty old boardgames. They were stereotypical wargamers of the time (older, bearded, heavy with stink, etc), and did not seem like the type of guys who should be around young people.

    Still, I did love silly boardgames such as Snits Revenge,and also was a big fan of the John Carter of Mars boardgame. I bought a copy on Ebay recently, but realized that I would probably never get anybody I knew to play it and resold it.

    Also loved the microgames like Chitin and Rivets. But as far as true wargames, with tanks and units running around maps of WW2 era France and such - well, now as then just thinking about them bores the hell out of me.

  10. I keep hearing people talking about how miniature wargaming is dead while RPGs is on the decline to follow. Yet in every game store I have visited in the past 5 years, there have always been people playing miniature wargames (mostly Warhammer 40k, though now I'm seeing a lot of Warmachines, Hordes and Dystopian Wars) and yet I was the only one with an RPG group.

  11. We SPI'ers boycotted TSR after that merger. I even refused, and still refuse, to buy any more D&D material or other TSR material on principle.

  12. Compared to role playing wargaming is doing fine in the Uk. There are three pro wargame magazines that you can often find in non hobby shops and thriving Convention scene

  13. I always respected wargaming as a kid, because my dad's a big military history buff and even worked up his own Battle of Franklin game. But it always seemed a bit remote and arcane to me, mostly because I stink at tactics and strategy!

    But one thing that made wargames more real to me was taking archeology, because our teacher was a great one for encouraging us to really look at the landscape.

    I wonder if people would enjoy wargaming more if they were pretending to drive tanks around the neighborhood terrain? Zombie War? Home Defender vs. terrorists? I mean, it's not like most people are likely to go to Europe.

  14. Most US and Canadian people, I mean, unless you get a job there or join the military.

  15. The reason I'm not convinced that RPGs will survive my lifetime (in their current form) is simple. While WotC does not equal the RPG hobby, the truth is that the two 800 lb. gorillas in the room, even as recently as five years ago, are either a. getting out of the hobby (White Wolf), b. in a serious tailspin (WotC). Yes, Paizo clearly is taking up some of the slack from WotC's ill-fated 4E experiment, but it's easy to forget that in terms of volume, WotC and White Wolf represented about 80%+ of the volume of sales. Paizo isn't taking up all that slack.

    Yes, I know the Indie companies have grown a little bit within their niches, but for all I admire Evil Hat and the Dresden Files RPG (and I'm not picking on Evil Hat as any thing more than an example), they're not going to sell as many units as WotC is, or even come close to what WotC and White Wolf were doing even earlier in this decade.

    The bulk of retail sales for RPG products are still via the booksellers, online and offline (Amazon, the late Borders, B&N). The FLGS's simply don't compete. Two of the three RPG companies with the marketing clout to get their books on the store of thousands of bookstore shelves are either dead, or seemingly dying.

    The question doesn't become how many people are in the hobby now. The question is how many people of the next generation will venture to an FLGS and pick up the hobby in a decade. Will there be any FLGS's? Will there be as many as there are today? Will there still be a Barnes and Noble around? The push toward e-publishing, the demise of the big box retail bookstore (Borders is dead, B&N is flailing around looking for a buyer) certainly doesn't bode well.

    To go back to the Wargames example, you could find Avalon Hill wargames as late as the early 1980's in Toys R Us, department stores, and even drugstores. I picked up a lot of my early RPGs and board wargames in general hobby shops. They haven't carried the things in 25 years. I picked up my copy of Panzer Leader in a Walgreens, for heaven's sake. RPGs were much the same way at one time.

    Now, you're lucky to find a decent selection of board wargames in a FLGS (some are better about it than others). Ditto RPGs and some comic book shops (and those are in a tailspin as well, with one of the big chains here going under just last month).

    The bottom line, no matter how much you want to spin it, and no matter the con attendance, is that the sales of RPGs are down. From a model of an in-house design staff (which was the model for the bigger RPG publishers up until 10 years ago) even the biggest of them are now freelance. Outside of Paizo, and to a lesser extent WotC, most of the RPG hobby can't even keep the owner of the company comfortably employed. The business is a hobby even for the owners of most of these companies. And White Wolf still exists for one reason, and one reason only...for the purposes of turning its IP into an MMO.

    Now I don't have sales figures at hand (let's face it, outside of what you can find in Hasbro financial reports, nobody outside of the owners do), but I've been around businesses to know that you don't cut staff during boom times.

    I've been around businesses enough to know that if things were going gang busters, the publisher wouldn't be working a night job to pay the bills. I listened to one fairly well known successful indie publisher admit this on a podcast recently.

    Don't get me wrong. I'm not belittling these guys by any means. I appreciate their work in what is my main source of entertainment. But to pretend this is a growing business model is simply living in denial.

  16. Hmm, not sure why some people seems to think that board wargames have declined as a hobby.

    I think, if anything, the opposite is true and that far more wargames (and boardgames generally) are now being produced than we're ever published back in the seventies.

    You only have to look at Boardgamegeek to see what the current state of play is

  17. @Red_Cardinal

    I'm not sure if there are hard figures anywhere as to the exact number of wargames being produced and sold today as opposed to the late 70's, but companies like SPI would churn out some 40 different games per year on their own back then.

    It's possible that there are large numbers of small companies producing wargames today, but I seriously doubt the volume of sales is anything like what it used to be. James Dunnigan’s "Complete Wargames Handbook" says that in 1980 alone there were 2.2 million copies of various wargames sold. I think James' own game 'Panzerblitz' sold something like half a million copies for Avalon Hill. I'd be shocked if any wargame has come close to that today.

    If anything, wargames were far more prominent in the mainstream culture, not even that long ago. Used to be rows and rows of Avalon Hill games in toy stores, book stores and game stores. Now, you're lucky to find anything other than Yu-gi-oh Price Guides and 'Battlefield Earth' card games and their ilk.

  18. It's possible that there are large numbers of small companies producing wargames today, but I seriously doubt the volume of sales is anything like what it used to be. James Dunnigan’s "Complete Wargames Handbook" says that in 1980 alone there were 2.2 million copies of various wargames sold. I think James' own game 'Panzerblitz' sold something like half a million copies for Avalon Hill. I'd be shocked if any wargame has come close to that today.

    Yep. Generally, when someone speaks of wargaming being "dead" or "in decline" today, they mean in terms of numbers of sales. Back in the 1970s, wargames regularly moved 100,00 or more units per title. Nowadays, I'd be amazed if any moved a tenth of that.

  19. Many people are moving into playing their "own" game on their computer. I, myself, play Baldur's Gate and have a good time.

    That's what's I think is killing "live" RPGs, at home and in the store.

  20. "Yep. Generally, when someone speaks of wargaming being "dead" or "in decline" today, they mean in terms of numbers of sales."

    Fair point; although given the number of different game companies around today it may be tricky to quantify how many units are being sold in the current market. What one can say however is that it appears that sales are healthy enough to keep a large number of producers in business.

    One could also argue that if we were to include games such as Axis and Allies and Shogun I'd venture to suggest that these have in fact sold huge numbers of copies.

    I am unconvinced that a comparison of numbers of units sold between the seventies and now should be taken as the sole indicator of a decline.

    There are far more individual games being produced now than were produced in the sixties/seventies. This would indicate to me that the war/board gaming market is alive and flourishing.

    Anyway, S&T was good magazine in SPI's hands and I still have the issue with the Fall of Singapore minigame :)

  21. @Red_Cardinal

    So what appears to be a large decline in sales doesn't mean the popularity of the genre is declining, just that the appeal is becoming more selective...

    Apologies to Spinal Tap aside, I'm not even sure if Axis and Allies and Shogun can fairly be considered to be anything of the recent era. Axis and Allies came out in the early 80's, Shogun in the middle somewhere.

    Axis and Allies has had nearly 2 million copies printed in that time if Wikipedia is to be believed, and we all know it is. That's over a period of 27 years. That's not even 100k copies a year of what is likely the most market-friendly wargame ever. Comparing that to the supposed 2.2 million assorted wargames sold in 1980 alone seems to suggest there has been a decline in popularity. Settlers of Catan has sold something like 15 million copies since it was introduced in 1995 for comparison's sake.

    I'm not sure there are far more individual games being produced today than there were in the 60's/70's, it's just that the internet and lower production costs have increased visibility and professionalism. Back in the 60's/70's you's find ads for games in the classified sections of assorted magazines and the games themselves would amount to a manila envelope containing some hand-drawn maps and a page or two of mimeographed rules. Now they are fancier and easier to market, so those same games that might have sold a few dozen copies back then, might sell a few hundred or thousand now.

    And if there really was a market for millions of copies of wargames annually out there, I'd feel fairly certain a major company would have jumped on that market.

    Anyway, I'll still play, so there's a market of one...how much more selective appeal can their be?

  22. Eurogames tend to have taken over the boardgame market, and whilst Eurogames have some level of strategy thought to them, and may even be simulationist to a degree, they tend not to be wargames. That is, in a Eurogame it is the game that is important rather than the situation that it portrays. Often the situation it portrays is just colour to support a certain game mechanic.

    The thing I miss about S&T (and especially it's companion Ares) is that they tended to be platforms for experimenting with new approaches in boardgame design and market research. Hence the extensive feedback section which was very important.

    And SPI games had the advantage of being cheap enough that they could experiment freely. So they built up a stable of experienced designers under the leadership of Redmond Simonsen (who emphasised the importance of good user interface design), and an exhaustive casenote system which made reading the rules quite easy.

    Is it any wonder that the SPI staff was like gold to the fledgling computer gaming industry.