It was early 1998 when I first read the staggering news that the venerable Avalon Hill had been purchased by Hasbro, the giant American toy and game manufacturer. I was crushed. I grew up in this hobby playing Avalon Hill games, from detailed and highly complex war games to their lighter family style games. Even when my tastes in gaming moved away from traditional American style war games to the multi-player style games, I still looked forward to the new releases from The Hill and almost invariably purchased most of them. Sure, there were some clunkers along the way, but for the most part I could always count on the Hill to produce top quality games which had been thoroughly playtested and developed.
Then the news came of Hasbro's absorption of The Hill. "Not Hasbro!", I screamed. Hasbro was infamous for producing Ameritrash; games which relied solely on luck and had few if any strategic redeeming values. Visions of "Panzer Leader Monopoly" and "Age of Candyland" danced in my head. I feared we had seen the end of Avalon Hill and the wonderful games I so enjoyed would be lost to the gaming world forever.
Early reports and rumors did little to dispel my fears. Nearly everyone was convinced that the purchase was prompted by Hasbro's desire to obtain the rights to the games so they could release many of them as computer game titles. Hasbro has made no secret about their intentions to increase their line of computer games and become a major player in the computer game industry. The fears were rampant that Hasbro would introduce a few computer games using the themes from some of the Avalon Hill board games and promptly bury the remaining titles. These fears still persist today.
But, ever so slowly, positive signs began emerging from Hasbro. They sold or licensed the rights to many of the "hard-core" war games to Multi-Man Publishing. Included in these titles is the greatly respected Advanced Squad Leader line of games and modules. They have also publicly announced that they are willing to license other titles to any "serious" companies or individuals. That, indeed, is a promising development.
Then came the news that Hasbro would be re-releasing two Avalon Hill titles under the new Hasbro AH label. The even better news was that these two titles were recognized classics: Acquire and Diplomacy. Further, they announced they would be releasing three brand new titles under the AH label during 1999. "Fantastic!", I screamed. New visions danced in my head: Walking into a Toys R Us store, rushing to the games section and seeing the store shelves lined with copies of adult strategy games, including the likes of Acquire, Diplomacy, History of the World, Age of Renaissance and more. Surely, with Hasbro's marketing clout and might, this couldn't be too difficult to accomplish.
Then the bad news came. No, Hasbro would not be marketing the Avalon Hill line of games in "mainstream" game and toy stores. Rather, they would simply continue to pursue the hobby store market, the same market which had been used for decades by the old Avalon Hill. My hopes were dashed that Hasbro would use its marketing clout and savvy to move adult strategy games into the mainstream market. No, it seemed that Americans would continue to be fed a steady diet of mindless, roll-the-dice-and-move games. To say I was disappointed would be a vast understatement. Angry is more accurate.
More shock was in store, however. In a classic good news / bad news story, Hasbro opted to produce extremely high quality version of their games. Top notch components, artwork and materials, complete with oversized, eye-catching boxes. "What's wrong with that?", you might ask. Well, all that top quality material and production value comes with a hefty price tag. Most of the games will retail in the $40 - $49 range. Ouch. That's not quite the price point which will cause massive "spontaneous" purchases and move huge quantities of games off store shelves. The problem is even further compounded by the fact that the games which are being re-released (Diplomacy and Acquire) are still readily available in many hobby stores and quite prolific on internet trading and auction forums for prices considerably less dollars than the new versions. If Hasbro had pursued a more aggressive approach and marketed these games in mainstream stores such as Toys R Us, then they would have had much greater exposure, especially to folks who would be new to these types of games. Using the same, tired distribution channels, they aren't likely to be tapping into new markets. Sad, and a bit strange.
I discussed this subject with a Hasbro / Avalon Hill key employee and he agreed that the company considered two marketing alternatives:
Market the game at a lower price, which would mean less profit per unit sold. However, the upside would be the potential of selling MORE units.
Market the game at a higher price, which would require less units sold in order to generate the profit required. The downside to this approach is the danger of losing potential sales due to the higher price.
Only time will tell if Hasbro / Avalon Hill has chosen the correct path by choosing strategy #2.
1999 approached its waning months and still there were no Avalon Hill releases hitting store shelves. Gamers began getting a bit antsy and the anti-Hasbro rhetoric flared up on various internet forums. Finally, Stratego Legends: The Shattered Lands hit the shelves. Stratego Legends was the first release under the new Avalon Hill banner and combined the classic game Stratego with features of Magic: The Gathering It was a first—a board game with collectible card game elements. The game has been met with generally favorable reviews, although I was a bit disappointed. Although the game is quite beautiful and the production elements, for the most part, top notch, I find the game just a notch above Stratego in complexity and not truly the type of "adult strategy" games I expected from the "new" Avalon Hill. I'm not saying the game shouldn't have been produced. No, it is an entertaining game and one which could easily meet with far more widespread success in the mass market than the current limited distribution will allow. My main complaint is that it is firmly in the same strategic class as Stratego, a game I left behind long, long ago.
Fortunately, the four subsequent Avalon Hill titles have been much more appropriate for the Avalon Hill line of games. Diplomacy and Acquire are recognized classics and fully deserve to be a regular staple of the AH line of games. The other two "new" titles include Axis & Allies: Europe, a revamped version of the old GameMaster title Axis & Allies, and Battle Cry, a truly entertaining two player game which recreates various Civil War battles. Axis & Allies: Europe is a very good introductory "war game" which should please fans of the original game. Battle Cry is definitely on the "lighter" side, but does offer some strategic decisions and choices. More importantly, it is a fun game to play, and could easily be used as an introductory game to entice folks to delve deeper into the AH line of games. That is assuming, of course, there will be "deeper" titles being released.
The only other "firm" release that Avalon Hill has announced is a revamping of the immensely popular Cosmic Encounter title. This game has been published by several different manufacturers and has reached near legendary status. Photos of the "new" AH version look extremely promising. This is a most welcome addition to the line.
Cosmic Encounter prototype
So, it appears that Avalon Hill is not dead... yet. It is very clear that this is certainly an experiment by Hasbro, one which I sincerely hope succeeds. If the games sell well, then more games will be released and Avalon Hill will continue. If, however, the games fare poorly in the market, then the Avalon Hill division will likely be closed for good. Again, only time will tell.
Although I am thrilled to see Hasbro supporting the Avalon Hill line, I have grave concerns as to the approach they are taking. I am not on the Hasbro / Avalon Hill payroll, so my opinions likely carry no weight whatsoever with them. However, I can't help but feel that Hasbro is in a unique position to broaden the appeal of board gaming in our society, particularly in regards to the adult population, the vast majority of whom view board gaming as a purely childish activity. This should come as no surprise as the vast majority of games released over the past few decades have catered exclusively to children. Why Hasbro isn't aggressively attempting to get their Avalon Hill line of adult strategy games into mass market outlets is beyond me. By continuing to exclusively pursue the same hobby distribution channels, their sales are not likely to exceed the sales experienced by the old Avalon Hill. They won't be breaching any new markets or reaching any new customers. In business, one has to tap into new markets if you want to continue to grow and expand. There is a vast adult market out there just waiting to be properly tapped. It doesn't appear that Hasbro is interested in doing this. And that is a shame.
- Greg J. Schloesser