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Posted on Oct 19, 2004 in Stuff We Like

Let the Games Begin

By Peter Suciu

Classic military board games from Avalon Hill, SPI and other publishers are still allowing for strategic recreations of famous battles along with human interaction.

The debate over the outcome of many famous battles, or rather more importantly how it could have been different, often begins almost before the wounded have had a chance to heal or the long-lasting results are even understood. Historians and military buffs alike pose questions on how the littlest decisions could have turned the tide and resulted in a different set of events.

Military simulations have even been around for almost as long as there have been organized military forces, but those accessible to the general public are actually part of a fairly new trend that began after the Second World War. The Avalon Hill Game Company, a division of the Monarch Avalon Printing Company, released its first three board games in 1958. These titles included Tactics II and Dispatcher, two generic simulations, along with Gettysburg, the first strategy game based on historical events.

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These early war games allowed two players to make command decisions that would essentially affect the outcome of the engagement. The playing boards were maps of the appropriate terrain, with the Gettysburg map being appropriate to the terrain of the real world setting, and small cardboard counters approximately a quarter-inch square represented the individual military units. Each counter provided various unit attributes including movement, attack and defensive points; while combat was determined by a series of dice rolls based on a set of fixed odds. Terrain, including woods or rivers, would further have an effect on the odds – defenders odds would improve for example if their units were on high ground.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s numerous additional companies entered the military board game arena and a whole new genre of history buffs was spawned as a result. War gamers began to attend specialized conventions and hobby stores around the world began to stock titles by the dozen. With publishers like Avalon Hill, SPI, Yaquinto and Game Designers Workshop entering the arena it was possible for avid war gamers to recreate virtually any historical period’s classic engagement from ancient times to the modern era. Especially popular were those that covered the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War and certainly World War II. Each of these conflicts often featured battles and campaigns with well balanced forces and evenly matched armies – something that is all the better for recreating.

A3R Game Box

Advanced Third Reich by Avalon Hill

Additionally adds Paul Meyer, who has been in business selling out-of-print games for twenty-five years, that the last two millennia had a virtually uncountable number of conflicts but that these wars stand out for several reasons. “You are seeing games in these particular areas because there has been a lot of interest by gamers,” says the self-proclaimed old panzer pusher and owner of Crazy Egor’s, a Hilton, New York store dedicated to out-of-print and hard-to-find titles. “There is also a lot of reference material and research on these wars. That’s what makes them easier for game publishers. Additionally, these were wars with very fluid battles and those make for excellent games.”

Meyer further comments that the lack of games simulating World War I, one of history’s bloodiest and most terrible conflicts, has been the subject of very few games as a result. “World War I was just a slugfest, and that doesn’t necessarily make for a good game. There have been a few but for the most part it is an area that hasn’t been covered in very great depth.”

Interestingly the conflicts of Korea and Vietnam, which did feature highly fluid action, have only occasionally been the focus of war games but Meyer stresses that it is because it is difficult to simulate the guerilla style of warfare. These conflicts featured different strategies and tactics and were essentially different in character and as a result cannot easily be recreated – at least not in the typical parameters of a board game.

Perhaps because of the limited interest and possibilities for historical recreations, many of the game publishers attempted to explore new gaming directions. Over time the various companies also expanded their product lines to appeal to more than just hardcore war gamers, with Avalon Hill creating a leisure time games division in 1976, which utilized their newly acquired line of 3M. This coincided with the growth of popular family games that continued in earnest until the arrival of computerized war games.

Most of the early video game systems of the 1970s failed to successfully recreate the board war game experience but early home computers – most notably the Apple II and Commodore 64 – were able to start to accurately duplicate the gameplay very well. This began to lead to a decline in the traditional war game of paper and cardboard. After failing to adapt to the changing marketplace, including attempts at entering the PC arena in the 1980s and 1990s and even making PC versions of their popular titles, Monarch Avalon sold Avalon Hill Game Company to Hasbro. While numerous classic titles, including History of the World and Diplomacy, have since been re-released, old time war gamers still cherish their old and worn copies.

Finding replacements for those tattered classic games is possible, even for titles that haven’t been published in many years. While many local hobby and model stores may carry newer releases some may also deal in used games or will at least be useful in tracking down those titles that aren’t currently being published. In addition there are several stores that specialize in out-of-print and hard to find games and can fulfill orders by mail order. Of course it is advisable to check with the store by phone or e-mail before sending any form of payment as stock can change rapidly, especially for highly sought after titles.

There are also a handful of dedicated clubs and networks that are devoted to the hobby and Gamers Alliance is probably one of the best places to start looking for that must-have but hard to locate strategy simulation. It is an international network of game players and industry professionals. The alliance has been around since 1986 and in addition to keeping its worldwide membership informed about the newest and best games on the market today they can also help track down titles that are no longer being published. 

Herb Levy, president of Gamers Alliance explains that both collectors and those looking to replace worn copies are buying these war games. “Owning a fondly remembered game to rekindle those warm feelings is often enough,” explains Levy. “Sometimes, parents like to introduce a great game to their children. Sometimes, there’s a great game that has, sadly, gone out of print and gamers want to grab a copy and play it again. Then again, there are those collectors who try to complete a run of a company’s issues or the rare and elusive gem of a game.”

It must be noted however that an out-of-print title’s price can be substantially more than its original selling price. The more rare titles of course draw bigger prices, but condition certainly plays a very big factor. Those games in their original packaging whose pieces haven’t been punched apart will be worth considerably more than even a slightly used game.

“In my opinion, pricing is based on a number of factors,” describes Paul Meyer. “It is based on condition and playability of the game. People don’t mind paying more for a game that they’ll play and enjoy but there is also the collector’s value in addition to the playable value. There are many games that don’t have much playable value but are still popular with collector’s because they are rare, and there are many very playable games but nobody knows about them.”

Even those who do track down a mint-condition copy shouldn’t feel bad about using it as a play copy if that was their intent all along. “I don’t really see much of a market to resell games,” says Dave Gerardi, senior editor of Playthings, the 98-year old trade magazine of the toy industry. “There hasn’t been a lot of a rush to put out the old games and therefore there hasn’t been the demand.”

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