A 30th-Anniversary Salute to the GameMaster Series and How it Changed Wargaming
It was Christmas morning, 1986. Though I was old enough to be jaded about the existence of Santa I still knew there would be a couple of gifts under the tree for me, thanks to the two wonderful women in my life (mom and grandma). Sure enough, there were three gift-wrapped packages waiting to be opened. BIG packages. I hadn’t seen anything that size since they bought me the Star Wars Death Star playset nine years earlier. Tearing into the wrappings, I found three games, all from Milton Bradley and identified as part of the GameMaster Series. Axis And Allies. Fortress America. Conquest Of The Empire. I had three great wargames, with nearly a thousand toy soldiers—from Roman horsemen and galleys to WWII tanks and near-future helicopters. I had play money, including gold coins. Best. Christmas. Ever. Little did I know that I was participating in a sea change of the game industry.
Getting Here from There
It’s easy to forget how far board wargames have traveled since the GameMaster Series was released. The hobby that began in the 1950s and ’60s had remained a niche market into the ’80s. What games did exist were on paper maps, usually covered with hexes, with cardboard counters to represent the military units, usually with NATO symbols to identify the unit type. A cardboard counter with an X in a box was infantry, a diagonal slash inside a box was cavalry, and so on. As wargames sprang from a military background and became a favorite of history buffs, the rules were designed to simulate as closely as possible the events of a specific battle—sometimes in painful detail. By the early ’80s, rules were becoming inscrutable. Wargames were produced for wargamers by wargamers, with a seeming emphasis on minutiae. (“Roll d6, modify by the number shown on the Day Of The Week The Game Is Being Played chart, and if the result is less than the square root of the youngest player’s birth month, Napoleon’s hemorrhoids act up and the French are at -3 on the French Early Morning Command Chart.”) No one was trying to attract new blood into the hobby.
By 1984, following the demise of SPI (Simulations Publications Inc.), there was effectively only one major wargame publisher, Avalon Hill, the company that created the board-wargaming hobby in the 1950s; AH also owned Victory Games, which was comprised of former SPI employees. TSR (Tactical Studies Rules), which had acquired the SPI titles through a hostile takeover of SPI, was still producing wargames but focused most of its efforts on the license-to-print-money that was Dungeons And Dragons, so the company released only two or three strategy games a year. In those days before computers and small-run publishing, there were few other wargame publishers, and those that existed were selling only a few hundred copies of their games. You didn’t find the games in national chain stores such as Children’s Palace; they were a niche market lacking broad appeal.
But there were a few successes of mass-market wargames produced by large, “family game” companies. Parker Brothers’ Risk had never gone out of print since its US release in 1957 (it was originally a French design). Milton Bradley owned the rights to Stratego, another European import licensed from a Dutch company, and they enjoyed steady sales in that game. Milton Bradley had also produced a “Command Decision Series” in the 1960s that could be categorized as basic wargames. Each title began with the words “American Heritage”: American Heritage Dogfight (a World War One aerial combat game); American Heritage Broadside, (War Of 1812 naval game); American Heritage Civil War (later re-named Battle Cry) about the fight between the Union and the Confederacy; and American Heritage Hit The Beach, which involved American troops trying to take a Japanese-held island in World War Two. When the American Heritage Series was re-released in the mid-70s America’s bicentennial was at hand and Hit The Beach was replaced with a Revolutionary War game, Skirmish. These games all featured simple game play using plastic soldiers and vehicles, as did Milton Bradley’s 1977 release Chopper Strike.
By this point, the wars in Indochina had poisoned the image of anything related to war and social activists claimed war toys were too violent and protested against them. GI Joe was exiled from the toy shelves, and the sales of military toys fell into decline. The OPEC-manufactured oil crisis of the mid-’70s didn’t help either; plastic toys were manufactured from oil byproducts, so the impact on games like Dogfight built around plastic playing pieces was enormous. Even SPI wargames were issued without dice for a while because of the expense.
Origin of the GameMaster Series
Fast forward to 1984. Ronald Reagan was in office, and the post-Vietnam malaise was gradually evaporating. In fact, Chuck Norris was busy winningthe Vietnam War single-handedly in his film Missing In Action, and Sly Stallone’s Rambo was just around the corner. GI Joe was not only back but had become a multi-media success spanning comic books, cartoons, and toys. Those newfangled videogames from Atari and Nintendo were capturing a larger and larger market, and they were capturing it with unapologetically war-themed games. Milton Bradley, just purchased by toy giant Hasbro (the house that GI Joe built), decided to take a gamble: a return to the old Marx Toys playset boxes (small crates filled with toy soldiers). The age of big-box wargames had arrived.
John Vernon, one of the executives at Milton Bradley, wanted to expand the company from traditional boardgames into “adventure gaming.” Vernon approached game designer Larry Harris, recently brought in to a staff position at the company. Milton Bradley purchased the rights to three of Harris’ games that were already in production as traditional wargames that used paper maps and cardboard counters. Under Harris’ direction, miniatures were sculpted and mass-produced, the rules were streamlined for a broader audience, and by the fall of 1984 the first series of games were ready. Milton Bradley really pushed the games, bundling them together as The GameMaster Series (a term borrowed from roleplaying games) and setting up a grand display at the New York Toy Fair. Larry Harris recalls, “I was given this very large room that was totally dedicated to just these three games of mine … Spotlights, huge murals on the walls, big presentation tables with blue skirts hanging from their edges, the works.”
First in the series was Broadsides And Boarding Parties, a two-player battle between a pirate ship and a Spanish galleon, originally produced by small-press Citadel Games. The most toy-like of the games, it included two huge plastic sailing ships with dozens of plastic miniatures representing pirates, crewmen, and cannons. The game was played in two distinct phases; the first part of the game was played on a large mapboard as the two ships maneuvered towards each other and fired their cannon, then when they came together the miniature figures would move from ship to ship in a boarding fight straight out of Errol Flynn films.
The game VI Caesars, also purchased from Citadel Games, was re-issued as Conquest of the Empire. Following the death of Marcus Aurelius, up to six rivals battle to become Roman Emperor. It was a strategic game played out across a 33 x 19.5 inch mapboard, using over 200 plastic miniatures of infantry, cavalry, galleys, and catapults. The most memorable feature of the game was its economic system simulating inflation; when any player conquers territories giving him more than one hundred talents of tribute (used to purchase new units), prices for everyone in the game permanently double. Hitting two hundred talents of income triples prices. Having your income represented by big plastic gold coins was a bonus.
Acquired from wargame company Nova Games was Axis And Allies, destined to be the breakout hit not only of the series but of the wargaming hobby. A World War Two strategy game it, too, featured a 33 x 19.5 inch mapboard, one that displayed the whole world. Two to five players maneuvered infantry, armor, air forces, and naval vessels to capture enemy capitals or accumulate enough territory to gain an economic victory. The game presented players with 299 high-quality miniatures, and the combat system—each unit has a combat strength which is the number or less on a d6 that has to be rolled by that unit to score a hit—has become a common design element in other wargames, creating an Axis And Allies “family.”
Wargame purists sniffed, their complaints the same then as today. The games were too simplistic, had too much dice rolling, were not balanced enough, and did not accurately represent the historical period they were simulating. These complaints missed two main points. First, by those very standards much of the “official” wargame hobby was itself open to the same criticism. Long-time classics such as Tactics and 1776 were fairly basic games. The GameMaster Series had players roll dice only for combat; other wargames had players roll dice for initiative, reinforcements, supplies, movement, and Napoleon’s Hemorrhoids, as well as combat and casualties and morale checks. Balance? Play The Alamo and see how balanced that game was! Besides, the GameMaster Series wasn’t aimed at historical buffs who wanted to re-enact the Persian flanking movement at Guagamela; it was bringing new players to the hobby. Some of those newcomers might eventually become interested in Persian flanking movements or deep tactical simulations of the U.S. war with Mexico—but they had to start playing wargames first.
The general audience at whom the games were aimed embraced them enthusiastically. Although late deliveries caused the games to come in at the tail end of the Christmas shopping season, by spring 1985 the sales were in and the games were bona fide hits. Axis And Allies alone was selling thousands of copies per week at $35 per game, so the money was good. Broadsides And Boarding Parties and Conquest Of The Empire were both nominated for prestigious Origins Awards, the Emmy Awards of the wargaming hobby. The GameMaster Series was a success and Milton Bradley kept it rolling.
Let The Games Continue
Fortress America followed in 1986. Seemingly inspired by Red Dawn (the Patrick Swayze version, kids), this “only in the ’80s” wargame has the US invaded by European, Central American, and Asian communist armies. The format was similar to the other GameMaster Series games; 33 x 19.5 inch mapboard, nearly three hundred plastic miniatures of near-future infantry and vehicles, with a combat system based on die rolls (tanks and helicopters roll d8, bombers roll d10, lowly infantry roll d6; any roll 5 or higher is usually a hit). Designed by Mike Gray, this game went on to win an Origins Award for 1986, putting the stodgy gaming industry on notice.
By this point Broadsides And Boarding Parties, the lowest-selling game of the series, was allowed to sell out and was not republished. Axis And Allies and Conquest Of The Empire had already blown through several print runs by the summer of 1987 when the game Shogun, also by Mike Gray, was released. Featuring over 300 highly detailed samurai miniatures stored in styrofoam Japanese fortresses (!) and with a combat system similar to its forerunner Axis And Allies (but using d12 instead of d6), it too was a popular seller and was nominated for an Origins Award. However, Shogun would be the last in the GameMaster Series.
Instead of releasing further games in the line, Milton Bradley decided to build on the success they had enjoyed. In an effort to capture the still-growing Dungeons And Dragons crowd, the company partnered with Games Workshop from Britain. Using molds from the miniatures wargame Warhammer, in 1987 Milton Bradley produced the fantasy game Heroquest. It was a hybrid game, a dungeon boardgame played as a roleplaying game with miniatures of heroes, monsters, and furniture such as a torturer’s rack and sorcerer’s bookcase. Four years later they again used Warhammer molds to produce Battle Masters, the ultimate big-box wargame; played on a four-by-five-foot soft vinyl map overlaid with hexes, the game had over 100 plastic miniatures of beastmen, wolfriders, and mounted knights, along with an eight-inch tall tower to fight over. The games failed to capture an audience; people who wanted roleplaying games bought roleplaying games instead of Heroquest, and although Battle Masters was both impressive looking and an excellent wargame in its own right, it was simply too big for the popular market.
Follow the Leader
Coming in from the other end of the spectrum, roleplaying expert TSR jumped into the mass-market wargame field. Under the guidance of designer Flint Dille, the company in 1988 produced Buck Rogers Battle For The 25th Century Game. Buck Rogers featured nearly 400 miniatures of soldiers and starships, including six leader / commander figures. The game pieces and artwork had a cool retro ’30s feel to them, and the yard-wide mapboard had an excellent moving solar system that influenced starship movement as well as keeping track of the game turns. Plastic miniatures and uncomplicated game mechanics also figured in their boardgames Dragonlance (based on the novels) and Sirocco (a World War Two wargame). TSR efforted the hybrid roleplaying game / boardgame with their 1991 release Dragon Strike, and they suffered the same backfire as Heroquest.
Having dropped the SPI games from their line, TSR pushed ahead with some new wargames based on Tom Clancy Cold War novels. Hunt For Red October was a great naval wargame, and Red Storm Rising featured a Soviet – NATO conflict in Germany. They also used a similar combat system two years later for Line In The Sand, a game about Operation Desert Storm. The rules for each game were “crunchy,” which is to say they were fairly deep and complex, with lots of steps and phases—lots of minutiae for the wargame purists. But rather than use flat counters in the new wargames, TSR opted for cardboard stand-ups in a manner similar to the way miniatures were used in the other big-box wargames. Stand-ups had become an economical method of replacing boring flat counters without spending on plastics.
Many other companies followed similar paths, in attempts to bring wargames to toy stores. Mattel toys released Dark World, a fantasy roleplay / boardgame hybrid (that suffered a fate similar to Heroquest and Dragon Strike). Pressman Games partnered with another British company, Heartbreaker Hobbies, and put out Mutant Chronicles: Siege Of The Citadel, a dark future science fiction wargame that had plastic armored troopers and demonic aliens battling each other across an actual miniature fortress. At the close of the ’90s, FASA Games produced two miniatures games and released them in mass-market, big-box format, but Vor and Trinity remained at heart miniatures games with complicated rules sets, and they were released just as FASA was about to collapse from market pressures, so they failed to capture a broad gaming audience.
Market pressures hit the GameMaster Series as well. Four of the games were re-issued in 1991. Conquest Of The Empire and Axis And Allies were put out without change. Shogun was re-titled Samurai Swords. (Stories persist that this was done because of copyright issues over FASA’s boardgame James Clavell’s Shogun or at least to clearly distinguish MB’s Shogun from other games, but possibly someone in marketing just thought Samurai Swords sounded more exciting and would sell better.) Fortress America had an odd cosmetic change. The 1986 box cover by Jim Butcher (who did all of the wonderful box art for the GameMaster Series games) showed Iraqi leader Sadaam Hussein as one of the enemy invaders of America, but Iraq was an ally of the United States at that time. Following complaints—that, according to an unsubstantiated rumor, included an official letter from the Iraqi government—Hussein was given the worst disguise job in history with sunglasses and a turban added to his picture. (As fate would have it, by the time the new box art was released, Hussein had become our enemy following his invasion of Kuwait.)
The games were still selling steadily. But Hasbro, which owned Milton Bradley, bought up Avalon Hill and accumulated their large inventory of wargames. Then they bought rival Parker Brothers and took control of Risk. Staffs were combined and cut, budgets juggled, and the GameMaster Series got lost in the multi-company shuffle.
The End Is Not Near
Avalon Hill kept the torch alive. They were the grandfather of the wargaming industry, and they took advantage of the marketing presence and deeper pockets afforded to them by being affiliated with Hasbro. In 1997 they produced Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit, a fantastic wargame simulating all four of the major battles that occur concurrently at the end of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It had over a hundred plastic miniatures of characters, battle droids, and a starfighter to maneuver across three battlefields including a two-foot tall 3D palace. At the same time, Avalon Hill re-issued several of their older games with miniature soldiers replacing counters and packaged in big boxes (instead of their standard “bookcase” format, game boxes the size of a hardcover book). Chief among these releases were History Of The World and Diplomacy. In 1999 the old Milton Bradley game Battle-Cry was re-issued through Avalon Hill; although the plastic miniatures were similar to those used in the earlier game, the game itself underwent a major revision into a tactical battle game. The system by Richard Borg morphed into the Commands And Colors system and led to other related games using plastic miniatures over the next decade, including Memoir 44, Battlelore, and Battles Of Westeros.
The first five years of the new millennium featured the rise of Eagle Games. Unashamedly following the GameMaster Series model, Eagle Games produced wargame after wargame packed with miniatures and featuring rules that didn’t get in the way of gameplay. American Civil War, Age Of Mythology, Age Of Napoleon, Attack!, War In The Age Of Imperialism—big boxes, big maps, tons of miniatures, tons of fun. They also re-issued Avalon Hill’s classic Civilization as a big-box game, and distributed an updated edition of Conquest Of The Empire that featured work by the original designer Larry Harris.
Not that he needed the work; Axis And Allies had by then become an entire family of games in its own right that continues growing to this day. The game has never gone out of print in over thirty years (dating back to its Nova Games days), putting it in the same rarefied strata as Risk and Monopoly. In the ’90s it was bifurcated into two new games; Axis And Allies Pacific focused on and updated the naval and air units, while Axis And Allies Europe did likewise for ground combat. A revised third edition of Axis And Allies was produced in 2003 featuring two new units, an altered map, and improved set-up. A Deluxe Edition put out shortly after has become a Holy Grail of gaming, an extremely limited print run making it one of those seemingly legendary games. (I personally know someone who knows someone who saw the deluxe edition at a convention once.) Three games also brought the system to a more tactical realm; Axis And Allies D-Day and Axis And Allies Battle Of The Bulge introduced concepts such as air interdiction and supply, and Axis And Allies Guadalcanal is a release that Harris is proud of for very personal reasons. His father fought in that battle, and it was his father who engendered in him a love of history that led to his choice of careers, so Guadalcanal was a labor of love. Wizards Of The Coast (WOTC), which bought out Hasbro (which bought out Milton Bradley, which bought out Avalon Hill, sort of like that little old lady who swallowed a fly), even used the Axis And Allies brand as base for a collectible miniatures game.
Along with Axis And Allies—a World War One variant was released in the past year by WOTC—the legacy of the GameMaster Series remains with us today. Fortress America was re-released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2012; the re-named Samurai Swords has been re-named again and is now available as Ikusa. Every year since 1984 we have seen several big-box games released, including such recent gems as Heroscape, Mage Wars, and Conquest Of Nerrath. Wargames are available not only at Toys R Us but in mainstream retail stores such as Wal-Mart and Barnes And Noble. Recent releases such as War Of The Ring and Age Of Conan owe a debt to Broadsides And Boarding Parties and its five siblings.
Indeed, the influence of the GameMaster Series can be measured in the continuation of the hobby itself. The children who, like me, opened those big wargames in the 1980s were the college students in the 1990s who made miniatures games such as Warhammer such a raging success, and they are the parents today looking for games they can play with their own children.
This Christmas, celebrate the 30th anniversary of the GameMaster Series. Go out and buy a big strategy game, heavy with miniatures, one that’s fun and easy to play without being too simple. A wargame that emphasizes gaming, and that looks good on the table. Thanks to Larry Harris, John Vernon, and their GameMaster Series, you have a lot of games to choose from.
About the Author
Sean Michael Stevenson has been gaming since the days of SPI. Some of his fondest gaming memories involve marathon Axis And Allies games. When not gaming or writing about gaming, he can be found working at a local department store. He wishes to extend thanks to Larry Harris for his assistance in producing this article for Armchair General by answering several questions on the origin of the GameMaster Series.