The Retro-Grognard: The Birth of the Wargame
Gideon Marcus takes us back in time, kicking off a new series featuring board wargames of old. Sit back, relax and enjoy the flashback, as he talks about what's inside his time capsule.
We live in an age of post-future shock—yesterday is forever ago. Who remembers the Blackberry, or George Bush (the second one, much less the first)? Much is made of the “Cult of the New” in wargames too. We anxiously wait for our P500 lists to fill up, for the newest miniatures to go on sale. It is easy to forget that some of the best games ever made are older than we are, or at least were born around the same time. And even when these old games show their age, they still remain important ancestors to the games we know and love today.
I'm only 38, but I'm an unabashed retro-gamer. I love the old chits and CRTs. I love feeling transported in time to a day of wide-open frontiers and undiscovered gold. This column is going to be a time machine offering you tours of games of yesteryear. You may even be tempted to take some of these vintage games for a spin.
Does anyone even remember how wargames started?
The first commercial wargames, released in 1958, were Gettysburg and Tactics 2 by a company called Avalon Hill founded in 1954 by Charles S. Roberts to market sports, business and other "family games" to the public. Wargames of sorts had existed before. German generals played refereed miniature battles in sandboxes in the 19th century. H.G. Wells espoused miniature wargaming as an alternative to the real thing. Fletcher Pratt, the fantasy novelist, invented a tactical naval miniature game that was very popular in the 1940s. These weren't pop culture hits, though. By the 50s World War 2 was still a recent-enough event to make war a compelling theme for a family game while being old enough not to be a painful memory. Roberts was the first to marry the game board and counters of conventional tabletop games with wargaming. They were quality efforts for the time too, featuring mounted maps and thick pieces.
So, Gettysburg was the first historical wargame, though it essentially used miniatures on a game board. Tactics 2 used squares and two generic countries. These, and the two games which came out the following year (U-boat and Diplomacy), were transitional forms to the wargames we play today. Only Gettysburg portrayed an actual battle. U-boat simulated the cat and mouse pursuit of a single destroyer against a submarine. Diplomacy was a very abstract and “dice-less” game of strategic intrigue, loosely based on World War 1.
It was not until 1961 that the first true wargames came out. Chancellorsville and Civil War were the spiritual successors to Gettysburg, but they introduced concepts that are now the signatures of the hobby. Instead of squares (which allowed units to go much further on the diagonal than horizontally/vertically), Roberts borrowed a concept in vogue with military simulations of the 50s—the hex grid. He also invented the classic Avalon Hill "Combat Results Table," or CRT, which was based on the conventional wisdom that 3 to 1 odds were necessary to ensure the success of an attack. The CRT used a 6-sided die to determine the results of combat, with the odds of victory increasing as the ratio of attacking to defending strength increased. Chancellorsville also introduced “Zones of Control,” the idea that each unit also exerted some influence on neighboring hexes. Early zones of control were generally "sticky;" units moving into them had to stop and fight adjacent forces.
1961 was also significant for the release of the Avalon Hill game, D-Day. In addition to starting the trend of Avalon Hill games named after battles but modeling whole campaigns, it also introduced the first alternate history scenarios as the Allied commander did not have to choose to launch an invasion on Normandy beach. D-Day was followed by another hex-and-counter game, Waterloo, simulating Napoleon's last battle and Bismark, another naval hunt game. Stalingrad, the company's Eastern Front game, was released to rave reviews in 1963. This game set the template for the dozens of Barbarossa games that followed.
With the 1964 release of Afrika Korps, a hex-and-counter simulation of the World War 2 campaign for North Africa, Avalon Hill became popular enough to start a small news magazine to support the fan community. Called The General, the 16-page bi-monthly was a place for game variants, session reports and want-ads. Now, the wargamers of the world were linked in a way they never had been before. The General was an opportunity for enterprising young men (always men—wargaming was a boys-only club back then) to become columnists. It was also one of the first places that Lou Zocchi, who went on to found Gamescience, was regularly featured.
In 1965 Avalon Hill came out with another blockbuster, the Battle of the Bulge, as well as something of a “sleeper,” a generic wargame a la Tactics II called Blitzkrieg. These games (and, if you stretch the point, Guadalcanal and Jutland, which came out over the next two years) are known as Avalon Hill's classic line-up. They were the first generation of wargames, and you've probably at least heard of them even if you've never played them. Of course, they've long since been superseded by newer games on the same topics/battles with far more sophisticated rules. So is there any reason to play these hoary old things?
I think so. For the student of history, old wargames are like a time capsule. They show the state of the art of simulation technology. Stephen Jay Gould wrote Wonderful Life in the 90s about the very first evolutionary explosion in the Pre-Cambrian period, some 600 million years ago. Life burst forward in myriad forms, and soon after, settled on a comparatively few basic body forms. Wargames were like that too. They were a brand new art, and they had a level of innovation that was remarkable. We take for granted these days a lot of the basics of wargame design; but back then, nothing was standardized. Plenty of ideas ended up falling by the way-side, but it is worth revisiting these evolutionary dead-ends to see why we ended up with the rules we like today—maybe to rediscover a forgotten system that still has merit.
Classic wargames represent a common wargaming experience, which contrasts with today where we have thousands of gaming options. In 1965, if you were a wargamer, you knew about Afrika Korps and D-Day and Stalingrad. Very few games these days have that kind of universal recognition. As the only wargames available, they formed the bulk of what was played in tournaments, and as a result they can still be found in tournaments today. When you play old Avalon Hill games, you are sharing an experience enjoyed by literally millions of people.
Perhaps most importantly, whatever their historical simulation value, Avalon Hill designed these games to be fun; and they still are. Their rules were universally simple: rulebooks were four pages, so learning the games isn’t as time consuming as most modern games. As for mastering the games... articles are still being written about that.
I have a confession to make though: Avalon Hill is not my favorite publisher, for all their importance and production values. In the late 60s a rival company sprang to life. Called Simulations Publications Inc., their aim was not to make simple, family-oriented board games with a war theme. To them, wargaming was serious business calling for serious simulation. Over the next decade, SPI released dozens of new games on virtually every topic imaginable. These are the games I really enjoy.
So watch this space and keep an eye on this series. On a regular basis, I'll be bringing to you reviews and recommendations for these classics, along with interesting historical tidbits both on the battles they simulate and on the development of the games themselves. The first stop of the time machine will be January 1970, just in time for the release of SPI's Anzio Beachhead.
Article written by: Gideon Marcus
About Gideon Marcus
Gideon Marcus, 38, has been a board wargamer since Strike Force One in 1979. A professional historian and journalist, he has been published in Quest: Space Quarterly, Ancestry, Medieval History, and many other places. Two of his greatest passions include playing old games and bringing new people into the hobby. Proudly married to a young “Grognette” (Grognatrix?), Gideon’s 8-year old daughter is also an avid wargamer.
Gideon's forum username: neopeius