The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

A Brief History of Gaming

Dave Shapiro

March, 2004

The Sand Box

It may seem unusual to state a disclaimer prior to even hinting at the topic to be examined however, in this particular case I believe it necessary and appropriate. Though I am beyond the point of being eligible for a mid-life crisis I am not old enough to remember much of what is discussed here as first hand knowledge. The statements are based on research and discussions with people that were cognizant of these events at the time. Where appropriate I have stated the source of the material; the interpretation is my own. Though I am confident in my conclusions, I think it would be beneficial for someone with an opposing view, someone who experienced this exciting period, to counter these positions. I was in high school and college in the Seventies and though a good deal of my time was spent gaming it was not a primary concern. (My recreational interests tended more toward potentially increasing the genetic pool.)

The Golden Age

Recently, there have been rumblings that this is a Golden Age of gaming. It is possible that we are entering just such a period; if true, then we are very near the beginning and the evidence seems to indicate that the momentum exists. Hasbro, the world's largest game manufacturer, reported record sales of board games last year. There are new board game companies entering the field regularly. New game introductions have increased at a rapid pace and the rate appears to be accelerating. We may very well be in the early stages of a Golden Age in board gaming.

However, this would not be the first Golden Age nor are we anywhere near the apex of that time. Twenty-five years ago board gaming flourished and initiated a revolution in gaming that continues to this day. No one can pin point the exact date and few agree on the exact year but most agree that it began sometime in the early 1960s. I suggest that the origin was 1962 as statistically from 1962 and each year thereafter the hobby grew, peaking in 1979 or 1980. Nothing today rivals the late 1970s and early 1980s for the sheer number of titles produced. The king-of-the-hill, ruler of the roost, the dominator and driving force was the historical simulation or wargame. The variety of game genre offered today is the direct result of the revolution created by wargames. More people entered gaming and stayed with it than ever before. The tremendous number of players interested, increased opportunities for greater experimentation in design and more obscure topics. It is difficult to fathom the enormity of the popularity of these games as board gaming today is far more splintered and certainly less visible. To offer some perspective on this, a quick comparison between the world of games then and now is in order.

Historical simulations were so popular, so mainstream, that they were even carried by Toys-R-Us and their largest competitor, Toy Country USA. It was not unusual to stroll the aisles of either chain and see such titles as The Russian Campaign, Napoleon, PanzerBlitz or StarForce. Today these aisles continue to be dominated by the general pap published by Hasbro and nary a Euro is to be found. (Though there are rumors that Hasbro is attempting to enter the Euro market through the New Avalon Hill.)

Gaming related magazines today include Counter, Games Magazine, Scrye, The Dragon and the on-line zines such as The Games Journal, Games!, and The Game Report. Twenty-five years ago the Web was a science fiction notion so everything was hard copy and everything was sent by snail mail. The gaming magazines then included Strategy & Tactics, The General, Moves, Fire and Movement, Campaign, The Grenadier, The Phoenix (U.K.), Ares, The Journal and The Dragon. This does not include the game specific magazines such as The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society. SPI's Strategy & Tactics magazine Strategy & Tactics had a subscription base of more than 30,000 and boasted that their surveys indicated with copies of the magazine passed around in game clubs, there was actually more than 100,000 regular readers. Strategy & Tactics was published by Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), the David to Avalon Hill's Goliath. Avalon Hill published The General that at one time had been edited by Alan R. Moon. It didn't end with magazines though, there were more than three dozen books published on how to play, how to design and how to become familiar with these games. Playboy magazine felt that the dashing man about town required a primer on games and published a guide book to board games in which 40% of the book was dedicated to wargames. At one point Playboy Enterprises owned Games Magazine. By 1980 historical gaming was declared "the fastest growing hobby".

Avalon Hill and SPI were the two industry giants. Over a ten year period (1970-1980) more than 50 of the games Avalon Hill published had sales of at least 50,000 units (Panzer Blitz was the first Avalon Hill game to sell over 200,000 units). SPI was more daring, selling fewer units of each game but offering greater variety as they published more than 260 games in the same period. 1979 was a banner year for SPI as they introduced 40 new games. To place this in perspective, most of the game companies today sell 4,000 to 10,000 units of a particular game. (Hasbro, of course is the exception.) Nipping at the heals of SPI was Game Designer's Workshop (GDW) who produced among others, Europa (a monster game) and A House Divided (now published by Phalanx Games). Literally dozens of other companies joined the fray. Even some of the "mainstream" game companies saw the potential and could not simply ignore this surge. Milton Bradley produced the Gamemaster series of games which included fine, mounted map boards and plastic figures. Sales surveys indicated that the average gamer owned 50 games.

Some of today's designers were contributing during this period. Alan R. Moon is credited with the design of Fortress Europa. Richard Berg, probably the Knizia of the period, has more than 70 games to his credit including the incredible Terrible Swift Sword, considered the definitive Gettysburg game. Even the venerable Sid Sackson participated with his Major Battles and Campaigns of George S. Patton (RGI/Athol). For those interested, the game contained three maps and three scenarios: The Sicily Campaign, Prelude to D-Day and Battle of the Bulge.

Eventually celebrity endorsements entered the mix. Retired military personnel hawked certain Avalon Hill games and claims were made that both the Kennedy family and Henry Kissinger played Diplomacy. It was a wild and amazing time for board gaming.

The Old Sand Box

Historical gaming is old, real old (old as in even your great grand daddy won't remember, on a good day). The origins are buried in the history of the evolution of Chess and is lost to antiquity. Many speculate that Chess did not begin as a game but rather as a military tool; a method for plotting battles or determining strategy. Only later did it assume the mantel of a game, certainly there's some substance to this argument. Ancient armies chose to fight in open plains whenever possible as the size of the armies proved unwieldy and were extremely hampered by rough terrain. The flat board represents the battlefield with the alternating colors (a later addition) reflecting the limitations of movement. The units have changed through the years though; they were originally all military units with the queen alternating between a weak and a strong piece. The difficulty in communication is simulated by the one move/piece per turn restriction. Development of ancient battles was slow as transportation and coordination was more luck than skill. Infantry (pawns) advanced very slowly but could envelope an enemy (en passant). Elephants (rooks) were fast and powerful and so on. A strong case can be made for Chess being the first historical simulation; the first wargame.

By the 17th century, Chess had been relegated to game status only as the weapons, methods and battlefields were radically different. It no longer sufficed as a military planning tool. It was not until the early 19th century that a working replacement was developed. Legend has it that a Prussian general used a sand box to model the terrain and metal markers to represent the troops in planning strategy for the German wars of unification. By 1870 this "wargame" was known throughout Europe and by the turn of the century, every major European power was experimenting with wargames. The new wargame experiments were not limited to troop movements and battles alone; supplies, rail management and economic considerations were factored into the games.

Modern commercial wargames have an odd parentage; there are two fathers. The first is the famous author H.G. Wells who published a book titled Little Wars. These were rules for a simpler game than the military or historical simulations; it was more "game" than simulation. As he recommended using metal soldiers, he is technically the father of miniature wargaming which has established its own niche in the game universe.

Avalon Hill logoThe father of board wargaming is Charles S. Roberts. In the early 1950s, Roberts designed Tactics, the first commercial board wargame. It was produced by Stackpole, a book publisher. Based on the enthusiastic response, Roberts founded his own company to produce a line of historical simulations including a revamped Tactics aptly titled Tactics II. By 1962 Avalon Hill was thriving with sales in excess of 200,000 units annually. The late 1960s saw a new member of the design community. SPI (Strategic Publications Inc.) entered the market and in a very short time Avalon Hill and SPI would become behemoths, dominating the market for adult games. Avalon Hill sold more games but SPI produced a greater variety. Eventually both of these companies were absorbed by others. Hasbro acquired Avalon Hill while SPI went to TSR. Later, TSR was sold to Wizards of the Coast which was itself acquired by Hasbro; today they are all one big happy Hasbro family.

Under the Hood

For those unfamiliar with historical simulations a short, admittedly bare bones, description is in order. Historical simulations (a.k.a. wargames) were/are board games that attempt to re-create a specific event or concept allowing the players to experience the event and tinker with various possibilities. Though predominantly based on military conflicts (hence the "wargame" moniker) there were a sufficient number of non-military topics to engage anyone. Accuracy and scale were the engines driving the games. These two constraints continuously created problems for designers as in many situations the greater the realism, the less playable they were. Debates over realism versus playability raged. Hard core wargamers sided with the greater realism while the casual gamer enjoyed a more stylized game. Topics ranged from military conflicts to science fiction to fantasy and the systems employed presented the chosen themes in a variety of different ways. From role playing to card games, from economics to diplomacy, it was all present.

The complexity of the games usually determined the playing time and this could be extensive. A short game might last 30 minutes while the playing time for the Campaign for North Africa was estimated to be 1200 hours! Based on surveys conducted by SPI, younger players craved the more complex games while the older folk (who probably had greater demands on their time) preferred the less complex and shorter games. Increased complexity did not translate to greater depth though and some games appeared to have overly complicated rules for no apparent reason. As the competition among the game manufacturers intensified, each attempted to discover alternate methods for nabbing customers. Innovation was the order of the day and not everything worked but it did result in some strange and interesting designs and topics. (e.g. The Creature that Ate Sheboygan.) It was common for companies to publish several different games addressing the same topic in order to satisfy the demands of the players. Avalon Hill for example offered a variety of Napoleonic games designed for various levels of play and complexity beginning with Waterloo and Napoleon at the introductory level, War and Peace at mid-range and Struggle of Nations at the top of the complexity bar. This scale of complexities crossed all topics; from Rail Baron (easy) to 1830 (complex), Naval War (easy) to Flat Top (complex).

Historical simulations were not without their critics; the most critical being within the hobby itself. The obvious, surface complaints that these games glorified war and would result in a more violent society were as ignorant then as they are today. (Note: The same charges were leveled against Bridge in the late 1920s!) With few exceptions, the two areas targeted most often were the inclusion of nuclear weapons in a game and the problem of World War 2. A debate raged over how to present the German army, what symbols were acceptable and whether such a topic should even be presented in game format. Many publishers opted to use a variation of the Iron Cross rather than the swastika. This did not prevent the games from being banned in certain countries and the debate continues as many of the bans remain in effect today. (A similar type of criticism arose after the release of Puerto Rico; many stated their concern over the color of the settlers/colonist pieces. As that great gamer Will Shakespeare once said, it is much ado about nothing.)

Criticism from within the ranks of gamers was something else; this was the customer and could not be ignored. Setting aside all of the arguments about historical accuracy, the criticism usually centered around balance. For the designers this was a Catch-22, a game that was designed to be historically accurate was likely to be unbalanced. (Think France, 1940 or the 1967 Six Day War.) A game that was more playable was accused of lacking realism, of being a-historical. Efforts made to rectify the problem met with little success.

Jim Dunnigan, a major force in historical simulations, discounted the debate by suggesting that winning was not a prime reason for playing wargames; "by far the most common reason for playing the games is to experience history". Eventually players split into two groups: the "historian" looking for the experience and the "gamer" looking for the competition.

Many people today have the impression that every wargame involved a map, hexes and hundreds of cardboard counters with enough numbers and symbols to require an advanced math degree to decipher. This is incorrect. While a majority of the early simulations were presented in this fashion, there were many other systems employed. The difference in the various game systems then, is similar to the difference in Euros today. Princes of Florence, Condottiere, Medici, Princes of the Renaissance, Doge, Kontor, San Marco, Traders of Genoa and Serenissima all are set in the same period yet the game systems are dissimilar.

The Players

Included with every issue of Strategy & Tactics magazine was a survey card that polled the subscribers about a variety of topics. Most of the questions concerned opinions on previously published games and proposed games. On occasion there were personal inquiries used to develop a profile of the players. The following information was published in 1980:

  • The average gamer was predominately male and well educated.
  • 75% had attended some college.
  • 34% of the players were professionals.
  • 42% read Scientific American regularly and 24% read Marvel comics.
  • 36% belonged to book clubs.
  • 50% played the games solitaire.
  • The average gamer owned 50 or more games and spent 16 to 20 hours per month gaming.
  • Younger players indulged in very complex games and complained that many of the games were too simple. Their periods of choice were WWI and WWII. 
  • Older gamers preferred shorter, less complex games in the Ancients or Medieval periods. 
  • The average gamer was considered to be very well read and wargaming became known as "the hobby for the overeducated".

The King is Dead

Board gaming grew and diversified and the historical simulation, the wargame, was king. The interest and growth in historical simulations drew more people into the hobby, people with new ideas, different and exciting ideas. Two gamers, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, decided to apply the rules they had written for Napoleonic miniatures to a fantasy setting. They opened a small company named Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), offering a game with no board or pieces, just a couple of dice and a rule book. At the time few people realized the impact this would have on gaming. Dungeons & Dragons dominated. Despite the claims of SPI, this was the first successful role playing game. (SPI claimed Sniper was the original.) A significant number of wargamers moved into the D&D world. This struck the first blow at the dominance of wargames. Sales of wargames tapered off as those of D&D rose. Within a few years all of the major wargame companies were offering role playing games. Two of the more successful were GDW's Traveler and West End Game's Paranoia. However, none of the wargame companies enjoyed the success of TSR in this arena. All hobbies depend on new blood, usually young people who will remain with a hobby. Unfortunately for the wargame community, the young gamers had turned away from historical simulations. Strike one.

The second blow to the king was the aging players. The teenagers had turned away leaving an aging group to sustain the hobby. By the mid 1980s the baby boomers began having babies of their own. (Shapiro's Law: The amount of leisure time available is directly proportional to the inverse of the number of children in the home.) More responsibility and less leisure time decreased the available players and continued to harm sales of the games. One unwritten law in business is that profit covers many mistakes. The profit margins of the game companies declined and, to be blunt, many of the decisions they made suggest they lacked even rudimentary common sense. It appears that no attempt was made to counter the problems, to try to produce something the market demanded; they continued to turn out the same basic product: complex, long playing games and sales continued to slide. Strike two.

The final assault began with a computer game: Dune II from Westwood Studios. Though not a best seller it introduced the concepts of fog of war, combined arms and real time strategy (RTS). Shortly after the introduction of Dune II Westwood released the first of the Command and Conquer series while another company (Blizzard) entered the market with Warcraft. These games were best sellers and drew the wargamers into the computer game market as no other games previously had. RTS was a dramatic asset to wargames ratcheting up the tension but there were three additional features that appealed to the player/parents: the games could be saved so it could be played in spurts, it had an acceptable A.I. so an opponent was not required and you could play over the internet when time permitted. Variations of the RTS were applied to everything from fantasy worlds to outer space but the final nail-in-the-coffin for war games came with the release of a computer game designed by a former Avalon Hill employee, Bruce Shelly. Microsoft introduced the game that swept away all but the most diehard historical board gamers; it introduced Age of Empires. This was it; this was the big one. Resource management, fog of war, empire building, control of armies, combined arms, a variety of historical campaigns, an A.I. that could be tailored for difficulty; Age of Empires was the wargamer's dream game. Millions of copies were sold and the demographics crossed all age groups. Strike Three.

Board wargames, the king that dominated the Golden Age was dead. The entire board gaming market suffered as the computer games grabbed greater market shares. The historical simulation market was decimated. What survives today is a shell of what had been. That there would be some loss to role-playing games and computer gaming was inevitable but the wargame industry itself is to blame for the exacerbating the problem; they continued to re-issue the same product. When Ecclesiastes said "there is nothing new under the sun" he could have been referring to the wargame vendors at GenCon in the late 1980s. Two small exceptions, two rays of hope appeared in the 1990s; Avalon Hill offered the We the People system and Columbia introduced Wizard Kings and Victory. Both systems had potential but were years too late to save the hobby. For Avalon Hill, the loss of sales, the ill-conceived attempt at entering the computer market and the entire Civilization fiasco resulted in the demise of the company. The circle was complete.

Long Live the King

The adult game market, "the hobby of the overeducated" has a new king (well at least a prince): the Euro game. As with the historical game market there is a plethora of topics and game systems. Napoleonic and Civil War themes have been replaced by the very popular Renaissance theme. Many of the new games are genetic descendants of the old, light war games. El Grande is probably the most obvious with the stylized map of Spain and a scoring system reminiscent of History of the World. Mammoth Hunters includes a variant of the same scoring system and has adapted the area population limitation from Civilization. In the past, losing units were removed from the board; today the units remain, they simply don't score (as if they weren't even there). Some of the wording of the rules has changed to accommodate the "politically correct" cultural demands of today. For example, in the rules for Tigris and Euphrates, civil war is called an internal conflict while wars between empires are designated external conflicts. This renaming of actions does not alter the nature of the action.

Other obvious descendants of the old war game include: Wallenstein, Serenissima, Mare Nostrum, Liberté, Wongar, Verräter, Wild Life, Bridges of Shangri-la, Vinci and many, many others. These are the new wargames; clean, fast and balanced. In the opinion of many (myself included), these games are a vast improvement over the games of the Golden Age. These games offer greater strategic possibilities with fewer rules and significantly better balance.

Consider where the market would be today had the American designers turned to the Euro-type game while they still had the huge customer base. It is only recently that the American game companies have turned their attention to this area. It will certainly be interesting to observe how the Euro game accepts the challenge.

The New Sand Box

What of board gaming today? Is this the initial stage of another Golden Age or has the recent boom in board games peaked? Will the market continue to expand or will interest evaporate as in the mid 1980s? Will Hasbro, admittedly the largest board game company in history, enter the Euro market and if so, what power do they have to reshape the current commercial family market? An elementary question arises, is the future of board games even in Euro games?

I am uncertain whether we are witnessing another Golden Age, however, this is a fantastic period for gaming in general. If you examine the condition, the options for gaming in the 1970s (the first Golden Age), it is stunning how severely limited a gamer's choices were when compared with the opportunities today. Previously, a Golden Age gaming catalogue included traditional games (Chess, Go, Monopoly, Rummy, Poker, etc.), early versions of Dungeons & Dragons, rudimentary electronic games (Pong, Pac Man, etc.) and historical simulations. Given these options it is easy to comprehend the popularity of wargames.

Players today have unbelievable opportunities to game in a variety of fields and genre. The sand box has become a beach. Electronic gaming, the dominant force today, has matured with the early beeps and boops evolving into a symphony. Card games have been reworked, reformatted and the addition of the Collectible Card Game has created an industry that introduces and entices the younger player to the world of non-electronic gaming. Many then gravitate from Magic to deeper strategy games.

WizKids Heroclix figureThe miniatures niche has experienced new growth and a whole new generation is becoming involved. Inexpensive plastic molded pieces has reduced one of the barriers to miniature gaming by decreasing the initial cost. New themes and units, many modeled after comic book or film characters, are replacing the old Napoleonic figures. Wizkids introduced a new system for playing, the "Clix" product, that eliminates the need for calculators and measuring tape and it has proved extremely popular in the teen market.

Second only to the dynamic improvements in electronic games, the strategy board gaming market has been redefined with the Euro game. In less than ten years these Euro/Designer style games have surpassed all competition save that of the traditional Hasbro fare. Board games today offer what their electronic counterparts cannot: player interaction. Even with the advent of internet gaming and the Xbox Live program, electronic gaming is a cold world. Real strategy (versus twitch gaming) and player interaction differentiates the Euro from other styles and has contributed to its popularity.

Player interaction is a derived attribute in the Euro as the key to the Euro is the non-linear core mechanism; there is no programmed method for winning. Compare the linearity of Chess with the dynamics of El Grande. Chess has a few obvious, basic openings that any mildly competent player will employ. For example: as an opening move, advancing the king's pawn is obviously superior to advancing either of the rooks' pawns one space. What is a good opening move in El Grande? In the mid-game, do you attempt to prevent opponents from scoring or position yourself for additional second place scores? How many, if any, blocks should be dropped into the Castillo?

It is easier to develop an acceptable A.I. for Chess, being linear, as once all of the pieces and combinations have been valued, a brute force comparison program may be implemented. What value though, can be assigned to any given block in El Grande? Is a block in the Castillo worth more or less than a block on the board? The relative values of the blocks are in a continuous flux and, with some exceptions, it is fairly difficult to evaluate a player's real position in a game. (Games such as Magna Grecia are even more difficult to evaluate as positions change radically and the end scoring plays contribute significantly to the final result.)

This is the strength of the Euro game and why they have this growing presence. Players enjoy and crave this non-linear type of play. Because the relative strengths and positions are so very fluid, the complexity of the games is determined by the play of the game itself, not the rules and this is revolutionary. Of the traditional games, only Go exhibited this trait. 25 years ago wargames dominated the board game universe. The complexity of a specific game was determined, programmed by the rules and details of the components. Allow me one analogy here: let us represent the wargame with a game where two boys are tossing a ball back and forth. The complexity of the game will be determined by the rules we establish for the various tosses. How high the ball must be tossed, how hard or fast the ball must be thrown, which hand must be used to catch the ball, how many feet must separate the players; these specifications determine the complexity of our little game. Combinations of rules could stretch for pages making the game more complex with each addition. The Euro version of this same game has one simple rule: players must alternate tossing the ball to each other in any manner they desire and need not remain stationary while doing so. It is that simple.

A Caveat

There is a real danger that the Euro market is slipping into repeating the mistakes that doomed the historical simulations market. The designers and publishers of Euro games need to seriously examine the rise and decline of the wargame or they are doomed to repeat it. The disaster that transpired could have been avoided with common sense and respect for the consumer, the player. Last year several games were released that "took advantage" of the popularity of the Euro game market. (I choose not to specifically name these games here but those familiar with the games will recognize the offenders.) One publisher released a game that employed many of the mechanics found in Puerto Rico. Though it was their initial attempt at entering the Euro market, there is no excuse for the apparent lack of play testing as the game suffers significantly in its present form. The game appears to have been released before it was completed, possibly to reach store shelves in time for the lucrative Christmas season.

The second instance was a release from a publisher with a solid record in Euro games; as this is a company experienced in this area, the offense is intolerable—the game could lock up! A fix was posted to the BoardGameGeek but let's be honest here, the vast majority of gamers do not access the BoardGameGeek and are therefore unaware of the fix; they purchased a broken game.

Finally, due to the popularity of some designers, some game companies have found it acceptable to repeatedly release the same game with different packaging. I am not referring to the various Settlers or Carcassonne games as these are basically variant scenarios. Nor am I suggesting that reworking a game, changing and improving it as in the case of Alhambra, is unacceptable. The game in question is a card game that has now been published four times with only cosmetic changes. Accessing the Board Game Geek, Spielfrieks or Google might have prevented a consumer from accidentally duplicating a game in his collection but, again, most gamers do not visit these sites. The practice of identifying previously published games is not new. For example, the box cover of the Milton Bradley game Samurai Swords indicates that the game was "Originally sold as Shogun".

To foist these on the consumer indicates arrogance on the part of publishers. To publish games that are incomplete or broken is unacceptable. (As my late mother-in-law was fond of saying: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me".) Errors can be made, especially when there are language differences, and although unpleasant they're understandable. However, the apparent deliberate disregard for the consumer does not bode well. People have a right to quality; anything less is a breach of trust, a breaking of the bond between the producer and the consumer and it is very difficult to repair this damage once inflicted. (Just ask General Motors.) We may very well be on the verge of another Golden Age, the success of which depends on this critical bond.

I sincerely hope that board gaming becomes greater than ever. I enjoy gaming but I do not appreciate being conned. The wargame publishers learned that the players, the consumers, speak with their wallets but they learned too late. If this behavior continues in the Euro market, if it propagates, then the Euro game will simply follow the wargame into oblivion.

This ends my diatribe... I will go back to my room now... I will behave.

- Dave Shapiro

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