Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The first rush of the New Avalon Hill

For more than 40 years the premier adult gaming company was Avalon Hill. While most famous for its wargames, the Baltimore-based AH was always more than that. Perhaps ahead of its time, it always realized that games were not just for kids. Right from its start under Charles Roberts, AH always had a balanced line, with at least as many family and adult games as wargames. This continued throughout the Dott ownership.

When the Dotts finally tired of the game business and sold the Avalon Hill name and line to Hasbro, gamers everywhere lost quite a bit. But change is inevitable, after all, and we all have to just get on with it. Gamers wondered what Hasbro had in mind for AH, and it doesn't appear that Hasbro had any deeply thought-out strategy. Hasbro has been making it a policy to buy up adventure game outfits of late, most notably the Wizards of the Coast, and some, at least, thought it was merely a ploy to win more shelf space.

So it was with considerable interest that gamers watched the relaunch of the Avalon Hill brand by Hasbro in 2000. The first seven games of the new line ran the gamut of genres, titles, and age, but they all had one notable thing in common - not a single one was a "real" Avalon Hill game, in the sense of a game designed and marketed by the Baltimore crowd.

The First Seven were:

Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit -- An original design taking advantage of Hasbro's Star Wars licensing. A light wargame featuring 160 plastic pieces, it's a title that would never have appeared in the old AH line.

Cosmic Encounter -- Previously published by several different companies -- but not AH -- this was a reissue returning the game to its simpler roots with nicer components.

Battle Cry -- An original wargame, although a very stripped down and simple one. I've seen accounts that suggested the old AH was planning to publish the game before it went out of business. I'm not sure what that would have looked like, but I doubt it would have involved plastic figures or wooden blocks.

Stratego Legends -- A fantasy-themed version of the long-time Milton Bradley (also now owned by Hasbro) game Stratego. Obviously this would never have been in the old AH line.

Axis & Allies: Europe -- A refocused version of the Axis & Allies wargame published by Milton Bradley. Obviously not a candidate for the old AH line, it would have been too "light" for their customers.

Diplomacy -- A new, very nice edition of the classic diplomatic game that has been published by many companies, and was a prominent part of the old Avalon Hill line, although designed elsewhere. As a matter of fact, Allan Calhamer and Charles Roberts were working on their games around the same time.

Acquire -- Also a new edition of a timeless classic game, in this case designed by Sid Sackson. Originally a part of the 3M game line, it was bought by AH and a favorite part of their lineup until the end.

So, while the initial offering of the new AH resembled its predecessor with a balance of wargames and non-wargames and even included a few familiar titles, overall it was a much lighter group than the old Avalon Hill line. It did provide a good indication of where Hasbro was going with the Avalon Hill line, however. The rights for real hard-core wargames were mostly transferred to Multi-Man Publishing if AH-owned. Many of the other games, whose designers had retained rights, have reappeared with different publishers.

The more recent AH/Hasbro offerings have resembled the first batch, with most of the wargames also bearing the Axis & Allies brand in addition to AH. Except for Diplomacy and Acquire, which are being reissued again in new versions, the only New AH game that is a re-issue of a prior AH title is Monsters Menace America.

It seems evident that there will be no resurrecting of the hard-core historical Avalon Hill wargame under Hasbro. Only games light enough to merit the Axis & Allies label will show up, although some of those such as the A&A miniatures line and A&A:Bulge are definitely real wargames.

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