Wednesday, April 30, 2008

History of wargaming 1975-1990

Author's note: This article orginally appeared in Strategy & Tactics No. 136 in July 1990


(Jim Dunnigan's) Editor’s Note: This article was commissioned by my predecessor, Tyrone Bomba. I told the author, a newspaper journalist from Massachusetts, to go ahead and gave him the phone numbers of several people I knew so he could dig out whatever additional information he needed. My only input was some names and dates. This was how I handled the assignment for the 1975 History of Wargaming article by (Stephen B. Patrick). Deja vu all over again. Well, not exactly. I’m looking forward to the 2005 installment.

by Seth Owen

“...while still very much a special interest within the broader area of leisure time activity, simulation gaming is exhibiting a growth and diversity that can only be inter­preted as a positive sign for the future.”

—Stephen B. Patrick, S& T #53 (Nov/Dec 1975)

A decade and a half after the history of wargaming was last ex­amined in these pages a lot of things have changed. SPI has ceased to be the leading firm in the hobby—now it’s merely a trademark owned by a company few had heard of in 1975. Rand Game Associates, Taurus Games and Jagdpan­ther Magazine, which altogether rated two pages of ink in 1975 are now nearly forgotten, joining Conflict magazine in “...the dustbin of history”— or at best dusty wargame shelves.

Some things look much the same. There is still an Avalon Hill Game Company, PANZERBLITZ is stili in print—and a certain James F. Dunni­gan edits a magazine-with-a-game-in-it-called Strategy & Tactics.

The hot news in 1975, according to Patrick’s S&T 53 article, was the “new life in Baltimore” as Avalon Hill emerged from a period of stagnation by publishing eight wargarnes in 1974, followed by four more in 1975. AH also opened a new phase in hobby history by sponsoring the first national wargames convention ORIGINS, in Baltimore.

But the real news was being made on what were, in 1975, the fringes of the wargaming hobby, as a new genre of game began to catch on. These were known as Fantasy Role Playing Games, and the first example was a supplement to a set of miniatures rules. A minor wargame publisher, known as Tactical Studies Rules, in 1974 published a supplement to its mediocre CHAINMAIL medieval miniatures rules. That supplement was the fantasy role playing rules called DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

The popularity of the fantasy role-playing games was phenomenal. By 1979 author Jon Freeman was calling it “the tail that (threatens) to wag the wargaming dog.”

Role playing games hit a responsive chord that traditional board and miniature wargames never did. Within the first few years more people were playing D&D alone than ever played all other wargames put together. The role players, or “adventure garners” as they preferred to be called, outgrew their wargaming roots and formed their own hobby, complete with magazines and national conventions.

Hard on the heels of the conceptual breakthrough represented by role playing was the technological breakthrough represented by the microchip.

As affordable small computers became available in the late 1970s, garners began to experiment with their potential. Preventing explosive growth like that of RPG’s were the plethora of incompatible operating systems and the inexperience of the designer/programmers.

Neither would last long.

Both computer games and role playing games appealed to the edu­cated young males that formed the backbone of the wargaming hobby. While no data exists to show that these new types of gaming were choking the growth of board wargaming, that growth did stop around the same time that role playing games and computer games became available.

In 1975 these trends lay in the future, of course and their impact could not be foreseen.

A GOLDEN AGE, 1 976-80

While the potential of computers remained unfulfilled, and wargamers regarded the growing ranks of role players with a mixture of amusement and disdain, the hobby mainstream was vigorous and innovative.

The leading force in the hobby during the late 70s continued to be Simulations Publications Inc. Through S&T magazine SPI reached over 35,000 gamers every two months. In addition to subscribers, pass around of issues brought an estimated additional 60,000 garners in contact with the magazine and its games.

The late seventies were the era of the so-called “monster game.” Talked about for years —as early as S&T 11 (Jan 68) there is talk about a division level wargame of the eastern front campaign called STALINGRAD II — the publication of Game Designers’ DRANG NACH OSTEN in 1973 opened the floodgates.

GDW may have been first, but SPI soon took the lead. Massive WAR IN THE EAST soon led to WAR IN THE WEST, then WAR N EUROPE. Classic subjects such as Gettysburg (TERRIBLE SWIFT SWORD), Waterloo (WELLINGTON’S VICTORY) and the Bulge (WACHT AM REIN) all got
growth pills.

While not the last monster game, the genre reached a psychological, and physical, peak with the legendary CAMPAIGN FOR NORTH AFRICA in 1979.

While SPI poured out titles, large and small, Avalon Hill sought growth through acquisitions. AH bought the rights to DIPLOMACY, 3M games and Sports IIllustrated Games in 1976, Aladdin in 1977 and Battleline in 1979.

Taking the hint from TSR’s huge success, GDW carved out a niche for itself with the science fiction role playing game TRAVELER. The financial success of TRAVELER propelled GDW out of the third world of game pub­lishers. It wasn’t a giant like SPI, AH or TSR, but it wasn’t small either.

For Avalon Hill the most significant game was undoubtedly SQUAD LEADER in 1977. The company reinforced success by issuing gamettes such as CROSS of IRON and CRESCENDO of DOOM. The game seemed to take on a life of its own. Many players dove into the rules with an intensity heretofore seen only in RPG circles. Many played nothing else but SQUAD LEADER.

As the decade drew toward a dose several other companies seemed only one big hit away from breaking out of the pack. Simulations Canada, Yaquinto Publications, Inc. and Operational Studies Group were leading the “third world” of small publishers specializing in historical subjects. A few other firms such as Metagaming and Task Force Games, while empha­sizing sd-fl, also dabbled in historical topics.

Soon after Patrick’s article in S&T 53 appeared, Conflict magazine folded. The field was not abandoned to house organs, however. In 1976 Fire & Movement appeared. The hobby was large enough to support a magazine that was about the hobby itself, as distinct from the history be­hind the games or the virtues of a single company’s product line.

F&M set as its task the reviewing of the flood of new games coming out. It seemed that the bad old days of one-game-a year were gone forever. Even AH started pumping out titles. Avalon Hill averaged five new wargames per year from 1975-80.

The undisputed champions of profusion were the folks at SPI. The 1980 catalog listed 196 games! Eight years before, the 1972 catalog listed only 30. Taking into account the games that had gone out of print, SPI aver­aged about 27 new games each year through the late 70s.

SHAKING OUT, 1981-84

As the new decade opened, Patrick’s predictions of wide popularity and continued growth seemed destined to be fulfilled. But before the decade was half over some of the biggest names in the hobby would be out and the survivors struggling to stay solvent.

Grabbing a lot of attention in 1980 was Dallas-based Yaquinto. The firm specialized in splashy graphics and innovative, if poorly organized, rules. Yaquinto assured itself a distinctive look with its line of “album” games. These tended to be simpler designs aimed at the more casual gamer. One of these attempted to cash in on the popularity of the then-popular TV show “Dallas.”

Among the harbingers of the future were the creation, by Avalon Hill, of a computer game publishing sister company and the appearance in 1977 of a new magazine-with-a-game-in-it in England, The Wargamer.

Despite the vigorous appearance of hobby giant SPI, serious problems were beginning to undermine the financial health of the company. All but a few hobby insiders were stunned by the news, early in 1982, that fantasy game superpower TSR had just bought SPI.

The full story of SPI’s demise is still obscured by the reluctance of many of the principals to talk about what went wrong, and why.

The underlying problem was apparently a sharp drop in the cash flow. It seems that SPI’s finances depended on continued growth. Besides publishing over 200 game titles in the seventies, SPI had boosted the circu­lation of S&T from about 1500 in 1970 to over 36,000 in 1980. The rocket-like growth of the mid-seventies slowed dramatically towards the end of the decade.

In 1979, SPI’s lease on their offices and warehouse in New York were up and they had to decide to go for larger space, the same amount of space or to even shrink. They went for smaller space for offices in New York and the same amount of space for a warehouse across the river in New Jersey. Pulling off this reorganization took a lot of time, and money. Coupled with all the other problems that came with the huge growth of the 1970’s, a sudden downturn in the retail market in 1979-80 put the company in a cash crunch.

SPI president Jim Dunnigan, his partner Redmond Simonsen and other senior staffers reached an impasse over which direction SPI should go, and disagreed over some business decisions. There were disagree­ments on how to solve the problems, which eventually resulted in the resignation of SPI president Jim Dunnigan in October, 1980. Accounts differ over how much acrimony was involved, but the result was that Simonsen and Brad Hessel were in charge. Before Dunnigan left, it was agreed that S&T’s founder and former editor Christopher Wagner would come back and take over as president of SPI.

Whether it was because of earlier errors by Dunnigan, new mistakes by Wagner, or market forces beyond anyone’s control, a disastrous 1981 Christmas season brought SPI finances to a crisis. Wagner began looking for help. His most noticeable move was to obtain an infusion of $300,000 from a venture capital firm. It was not enough. In the eighteen months after Dunnigan left, SPI lost over a million dollars.

TSR loaned SPI a substantial amount of money to keep operating, with SPI’s trademarks and inventory used as collateral. Meanwhile, Avalon Hill and SPI negotiated over the terms of a possible buy out. Apparently an agreement was almost reached, (leading one hobby newsletter to errone­ously headline “AH buys SPI!”) but at the last minute the deal fell through.

Instead, it was TSR that held the cards. When the AH-SPI deal didn’t happen TSR foreclosed on the loan, bringing it ownership of nearly every­thing of value SPI had. In May of 1982, SPI ceased to exist.

Avalon Hill did not go away empty handed. Just about the entire SPI design team deserted the sinking ship and signed on to a new sister company for AH called Victory Games.

The sudden (in the hobbyists’ eyes) downfall of SPI stunned the hobby. The way TSR took over SPI’s assets caused bitterness and bad feel­ings that S&T was never able to overcome.

For a number of years S&T had offered subscribers lifetime subscriptions to the magazine. The most loyal and committed readers forked over hundreds of dollars for a guaranteed lifetime supply of magazines and games. When TSR took over, the company took the position it was under no legal obligation to honor those lifetime subscriptions.

While the policy may have been correct on legal grounds, it was a disaster for marketing and public relations. Many of the lifetime subscribe­rs were opinion leaders in their gaming circles. Certainly they were the most committed fans. They felt betrayed. TSR had long been viewed with widespread distrust throughout the hobby because of wrangling over con­vention scheduling and questions about its commitment to historical gaming. By abandoning the lifetime subbers TSR dumped S&T’s most zealous fans. The magazine went into a subscription free fall that wouldn’t bottom out until the last part of the decade (from 36,000 in 1980 to 10,000 in 1990).

Contributing to the decline were cutbacks in the frequency of issues containing games and a decline in quality for the few that were published.

In the general hobby-wide retrenchment following the death of SPI both OSG (in 1982) and Yaquinto (in 1983) folded.

Two new magazines attempted to bridge the increasing fragmenta­tion of the hobby by including articles running the gamut from wargaming to role playing. The first of these was Adventure Gaming, which resembled some of the fantasy game magazines in layout and approach, although it tried some wargarne coverage. The second was Gameplay, which tried a more mass market look and appeal. It had a very balanced presentation of role playing, wargaming, miniatures and general interest games. Both foundered on the rock of parochialism. It turned out that very few garners were interested in more than one type of game.

Some were interested in only a single game, (SL fanatics had On All Fronts, D&D and The Dragon) or one genre (Miniatures players had The Courier) or even one period within a genre (Ancients players had Slingshot).

Few garners had the wide gaming interests assumed by the maga­zines. None were satisfied with the scant coverage their favorite type of game received.

As the board game hobby staggered along, adjusting to the loss of SPI and reduced sales in general, the computer gaming hobby began to sort itself out as several manufacturer’s systems became standard, the power of the machines increased and the designer/programmers learned to take advantage of that power. By 1984 computer game reviews and ads were taking up a significant portion of hobby magazines.

Stepping into the void left by S&T’s decline was World Wide Wargames’ (3W) The Wargamer. Originally somewhat amateurish, the magazine began to improve graphically, though the quality of games was still spotty. General disaffection with Strategy & Tactics caused many garners to turn to The Wargamer, which began to challenge S&T’s status as the hobby’s premier magazine


Like a game of musical chairs, the middle years of wargaming’s third decade are a confusing tale of trades, acquisitions and newcomers.

Perhaps the most significant of the latter was the self- proclaimed “SPI of the West” in sleepy Cambria, California. By late 1986, TSR was looking for a buyer for the rapidly sinking S&T. While the quality of S&T re­bounded somewhat in 1986, it was not enough to save S&T in the face of a vigorous challenge from 3W’s The Wargamer. After 3W moved its opera­tions from England to California, the magazine began a frenzied publica­tion schedule that reached a monthly pace by 1986. The games not only increased in quantity, they also increased in quality, surprisingly.

TSR then sold S&T to 3W, retaining the SPI trademark for use on wargames. This finally cut S&T off from the name that made it big. 3W’s acquisition of S&T set off a chain reaction of mergers, trades and spin-offs among hobby periodicals. By the time the dust had settled in 1988, 3W had S&T, while a reborn Wargamer (Volume 2) ended up with independent publisher, and former editor Christopher Cummins. Cummins later also took over F&M.

3W was not the only potential buyer for S&T. Jeff Tibbetts, publisher of the irregular wargame review magazine (and former GDW house organ) The Grenadier and sci-fi oriented Battle Technology, came out with Counter­attack. This was another magazine-with-a-game-in-it. Unfortunately, either finances or commitment were in short supply, as the “bi-monthly” maga­zine struggled to maintain an annual frequency of publication.

As if to prove that it couldn’t be done, in 1985 another general interest game magazine called Game News lasted for fourteen issues before it went the way of the dodo.

Computer gaming continued to grow as more gamers discovered computers and more computer owners discovered computer wargames. The more powerful machines and sophisticated programs were beginning to exploit the potential of computers.

Historical documentation started to appear in game manuals, adding a new dimension besides spiffy computer graphics.

TSR attempted to capitalize on the SPI trademark by reissuing ver­sions of some old SPI favorites such a TERRIBLE SWIFT SWORD and SNIPER, along with some new games in the old tradition such as REBEL SABERS. These games were well received in the hobby, but compared to the huge sales TSR was accustomed to with its D&D related products (by now including mass market paperbacks, toys, computer games and even a Saturday morning cartoon show), the wargames were a poor return on the investment. TSR turned to a new strategy of easier-to-play wargames that could appeal to the casual gamer. The first of these was ONSLAUGHT, but the more important was THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER.

Also plunging into the historical wargame market was Milton Bradley, with its “Gamemaster” series. Using plastic pieces and top notch production, these games made it onto the shelves of the major toy chains. The MB foray was not ~ destined to last. While best-sellers by wargame hobby standards, they weren’t another MONOPOLY or CLUE.

For Avalon Hill, the eighties saw continued retrenchment, but the comuany’s course was remarkably stable, despite the ferment in the hobby and rumors about AH’s finances. AH seemed determined to weather the hard times by building on the success of ASL and simpler games as PLA­TOON and a new GETTYSBURG.

AH’s sister company, Victory Games, kept putting out a steady num­ber of impressive “SPI-style” games. But slowly the old SPI staff left for other jobs, however, and in 1990 Victory would close up shop in New York and move to Baltimore.

There was a general push towards simpler games, as the hobby began to recognize that its demographics were changing. While S&T reader polls in the 1970s had found that only one in twenty readers were 35 or older, by 1990 the ‘average’ age of the readership was over 35. It was clear younger people were not getting into the hobby in large numbers.

Hobby pundits began to worry about its future. Without new players joining the hobby, it would, necessarily decline. Fewer garners would mean fewer games.

Many blamed the high complexity of games and said simpler games were needed. Introductory games such as GDW’s BATTLE FOR MOSCOW and AH’s PLATOON were designed. The simpler games also service an­other audience, for the single college student of the seventies had given way to the busy married breadwinner of the eighties. This cut into playing time.

Another symptom of the Yuppification of the hobby was the popularity of solitaire games. Most computer games were primarily solitaire, of course, but game design attempts in the 70s to produce an acceptable manual solitaire game failed (WOLF PACK, FALL OF ROME).

In 1983, the design barrier was broken by two titles. The first, VG’s AMBUSH, used a paragraph book to solve the problem of an intelligent opponent. This concept was borrowed from fantasy gaming. Around the same time AH used multiple charts and die rolls to create variety and interest in B-17. Both games were successful and followed by other titles using similar concepts.

Creating a brief stir in the hobby were “double-blind” games. The concept was nearly as old as board wargaming itself — Midway used it in 1964 — but its application to land campaigns seemed to promise new levels of realism. The few bold experiments ended in failure. Gamers found out they had too LITFLE information, and the games foundered on cumbersome mechanics.


“I don’t see them around in stores any more.”
— Stephen B. Patrick, Interview, Mar. 1990

Perhaps the most significant hobby event of 1989 had nothing to do with the hobby itself. The collapse of European communism and the appar­ent end of the cold war raised interesting questions for the hobby’s future. While future history games didn’t appear until 1972 (RED STAR/WHITE STAR), in a larger sense boardgaming is a creature of the cold war. The first wargame (in the 1950s) was designed by a young reserve officer who thought he might have to go fight Communists. The generation that plays the games is the baby boom generation that grew up in the aftermath of the greatest war in history and the nuclear bomb.

Rodger MacGowan wonders whether “It was the clear perception of danger, feeling that maybe it’s inevitable that there be a war between the US and Soviet Union that created the interest in wargames.”

That world is disappearing into the history books. The children of the 90s will probably not understand why the children of the fifties thought war and history were fascinating.

Is the hobby doomed to join the hula hoop and Mah Jong as curiosities of another age?

Rejecting the notion that there should be a “malaise” in the hobby is feisty Command magazine, founded by former S&T editor Ty Bomba and two associates. The appearance of Command gives the hobby three maga­zines-with-games-in them for the first time, though one of them may be down for the count (Counterattack).

Meanwhile, over at S&T, Jim Dunnigan has returned as editor. Dunni­gan was, more than any other single individual, responsible for the growth of the hobby in the seventies and started off his new tenure as editor by proclaiming the need to “re-invent the wargame for the 90s.”

Computer games are becoming more sophisticated, affordable and common. The histoncity of many are approaching boardgame standards.

The hobby may be at a crossroads. It may continue its decline. It may experience a rebirth, or it may simply evolve.

Just as computer chess programs have not made traditional chess sets obsolete, the computer wargarne will not make all manual wargames obso­lete. The most resilient will be the simpler games (AFRIKA CORPS), games with fun game mechanics (MODERN NAVAL BATTLES) and socially interactive games (DIPLOMACY).

The games most likely to face the fate of the dinosaurs are those using detailed mechanics to simulate an event. Only a few garners enjoy the computations required. Computer games will win over the rest, as soon as serious gamers are satisfied they do as good a job at simulating history as better board games do.

As the last decade of the century begins, it is hard to be as optimistic about the hobby as Steve Patrick was in 1975. It’s clear that the study of war, and playing games about it, will never replace Monday Night Football.

But Patrick’s 1990 observation is not completely true, either. Wargames CAN be found in every mall. Is a wargame truly defined by card­board and hexagons? If not, computer games can be seen for what they are: just another technique for modeling what can never really be simulated, the business of, as H.G. Wells called it, “Great War.”


Rodger MacCowan, Interview, Mar 1990.
Patrick, Stephen B. Patrick, “The History of Wargaming Update”, Strat­egy & Tactics magazine, #53 (Nov/Dec 75).
Patrick, Stephen B., telephone interview, March 1990.

Freeman, Jon, The Playboy Winner’s Cuide to Board Games, Playboy Press, 1979.
_______ Avalon Hill Silver Jubilee Booklet.
Allen, Thomas B., War Games, McGraw Hill Book Co, New York, 1987.

Perla, Peter P. The Art of Wargaming, Naval Institue Press, Annapolis, MD, 1990.
Freeman, Jon, The Complete Book of Wargames, Fireside Press, New York, 1980.
Palmer, Nicholas, The Comprehensive Guide to Board Wargaming, Hippo­crene Books, New York, 1977:
Dunnigan, James F. The Complete Wargames Handbook, William Morrow and Col., New York, 1980.

Various issues of the following magazines:
The Wargamer
The Courier
Game play
The Kommandeur
The Avalon Hill General
Strategy & Tactics
Fire & Movement
Game News
Little Wars

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