Whither the Gamemaster Series?
About five years back, I sent a letter to Milton Bradley's offices in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts. The response was terse: If there were plans to publish any more Gamemaster Series, then I would know through the proper channels such as press releases, but of course they could give me no information at this time. Oh, and thanks for contacting us. So, the silence of a decade, and then this letter, pretty much confirmed the suspicion I'd had for a while—there would be no more in the series.
My reasons for believing that there might be more were based on the surveys that came enclosed with my copies of Axis & Allies and Broadsides & Boarding Parties. Along with asking you how you heard about the games, how you received them, where they were purchased, your name, etc. was the question—from what historical period would you most like to see another Gamemaster Series game? As I remember, the options were: American Civil War, World War I, Napoleonic Wars, American Revolution, and one or two others. I remember checking off "Napoleonic Wars" and sending them back in, hoping for a Milton Bradley big box treatment, but eager for anything. No such luck.
So where do those of us who like the simplified combat, sprawling colorful maps, and detailed plastic pieces of the Gamemaster Series games go to now? Thankfully, within the last few years, we have our choice of not one, but two, companies that have risen to meet our demand. Alas, one already seems to be dead, although its products are still readily available.
This article highlights that particular heir of the Gamemaster Series: Hasbro's Avalon Hill line, a line of games from the company that bought both Milton Bradley and Avalon Hill (and initially needed a short while to figure out which it was more like).
The purchase of Avalon Hill by Hasbro is well-documented in this publication, and now that the name has been transferred to Wizards of the Coast, perhaps we have seen the end of the Avalon Hill/Hasbro line with 10 releases. Looking at Avalon Hill/Hasbro's releases, it sure looks like they had adopted the "Gamemaster Series" formula—even down to the oversize colorful boxes. The reader will recall that the Gamemaster Series took gaming components to a new level with their big, beautiful gameboards, hundreds of detailed plastic bits, and nicely printed, easy-to-read rulebooks. Gameplay was a mixture of low-complexity strategy, tactics, and luck.
After the purchase of Avalon Hill by Hasbro, there was a lot of concern among the wargaming crowd (or "grognards") that Hasbro would dumb-down the Avalon Hill name. Under its previous owners and throughout three decades of game publishing, the Avalon Hill name became known largely for its high-complexity wargames with cardboard chit components and dense rulebooks. Much to my delight and to the mixed reactions (largely negative) of grognards, Avalon Hill/Hasbro largely ended up being a reincarnation of the Gamemaster Series.
Look at the games. Avalon Hill/Hasbro released 10 games, not including the expansions for Stratego: Legends. That game was Hasbro's first under the new label, an attempt at a "collectible board game" that did not do all that well. Grognards hated it; some of the younger crowd liked it; Gamemaster Series fans hadn't noticed Avalon Hill/Hasbro yet. Three of their other releases, Diplomacy, Acquire, and later, Cosmic Encounter are deluxe treatments of older board game "classics", elegant and fairly abstract games that are veritable standards (I am exceedingly grateful to Hasbro for re-issuing Cosmic Encounter even though it tanked for them, for the older versions are long out of print and command outrageous prices on eBay. I bought two copies and used the second to make my own expansion). The other six releases could all have been Milton Bradley Gamemaster Series games and accordingly tagged with the Gamemaster Series' motto: "A GAME OF HIGH ADVENTURE".
Two are direct descendants. Axis and Allies: Europe and Axis and Allies: Pacific are treatments of the basic Axis and Allies game focusing on those particular theaters. To do this, Hasbro brought in Larry Harris, designer of Axis and Allies, who worked with Hasbro's developers. Axis and Allies: Europe was one of Hasbro's first releases under the Avalon Hill name, and gamers who'd been popping in to game shops every now and then to see if there would be any other Gamemasters were very pleasantly surprised by this. I remember when I first heard about it, I figured it was some low-budget package of house rules and a black and white map. Then I saw the big box, and wow! To the top of my Christmas list it went. Both games did pretty well (although Hasbro, as a big company, was definitely hoping for more) and continue to generate discussion on the Internet, an achievement every game should strive for.
The other four games are indubitably Gamemaster Series games in all but name, featuring the low complexity, dice rolling, and plastic pieces of their '80s kin. Battle Cry, another early release, brings the scale down to the battlefield of one of 15 Civil War scenarios. Players command their blue or gray plastic units via command cards, a neat mechanism that lets players feel a "fog of war" and spotty communication perhaps akin to what pre-20th century commanders felt on the field. History of the World, another re-release, got the Gamemaster treatment by Hasbro: the rules were tweaked, simplified, and trimmed, and hundreds of detailed, colorful miniatures were produced. With its grand scale, hundreds of detailed plastic pieces, and lack of player elimination History of the World should be warmly welcomed into the home of every fan of the Gamemaster Series as a very close cousin, if they haven't yet. Risk 2210 A.D. is a futuristic extravaganza built off of the basic Risk board game, and prominently features the "bidding for turn order" device of Shogun. Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit also was a lavish production: hundreds of plastic pieces that make even the most spoiled child goggle are commanded by cards and fight by dice. Although a chunk of the wargaming grognards had accepted Battle Cry (while many others detested its lack of attention to detail and use of dice to determine outcomes), Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit provoked a heavy round of clucking, snickers, and outright excoriation from "old Avalon Hill" and SPI wargamers. Ironically, there are some big similarities between Battle Cry and Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, including a card-driven mechanism and rules for "line of sight" targeting. But for many the offense was not much more than the fact that the Avalon Hill name was applied to Star Wars material.
And this is where I think Hasbro made a misstep: using the Avalon Hill label for this line of board games, rather than herald the rebirth of Milton Bradley's Gamemaster Series. At the time Hasbro acquired Avalon Hill, they already owned Milton Bradley, so they could have. But this is how it happened, according to Hasbro game designer Rob Daviau in a message to the Avalon Hill forum, dated April 27, 2001:
"AH was bought by Hasbro Interactive as a way to add AH's titles to the fledgling Interactive Games division. At the same time, the games division fought to include the AH board games as part of the deal. The idea was to join with HI to make board and computer games, revitalize some old products, reinvent other ones. We would release a product a month (or close to), starting simple and growing more complex.
Three years later, Hasbro Interactive is gone. AH has put out 10 titles (including expansions), with 2 more on the way. Sales, for any hobby gaming company, would be stellar. For a Hasbro, they are...less so. We are at a cross-roads. Hasbro doesn't usually distribute to hobby markets, so it has been a learning process in many ways. The complexity of the games has been a source of discussion. The audience is somewhat elusive (is it 40 year-old old AH fans, 25 year-old MB Gamemaster Series fans, perhaps 15 year-olds who just discovered Risk a few years ago?). We're doing research. Figuring out what has worked, what hasn't, and how to go forward. Titles that we will never make are licensed out or allowed to revert to the original inventors."
Well, they pegged me: at the time this message was written, I was 27 and owned every one of the Gamemaster Series games. At any rate, the idea was grand: Avalon Hill would be a Hasbro brand, spinning out both strategy computer and board games. Now for an interesting little fact about this, from a message on the Avalon Hill forum by former Hasbro game designer Eric Jandorf, dated April 17, 2001:
"It was at the time of acquisition, that Mike Gray (Senior Design Director, Hasbro Games) made a plea for the game board division to remake classics and offer new games. Mike has been in the game design industry for over 20 years. He has a passion for strategy gaming, German gaming, and specifically Avalon Hill. Mike worked for TSR for a stint and has given us games like Fortress America and Shogun (Samurai Swords). Mike leads a passionate team of designers."
That's right, Mike Gray, who is perhaps "the man" who made The Gamemaster Series a reality, was a major force behind getting the Avalon Hill/Hasbro line board games going. Hasbro had a tough choice in remaking classic games and producing new games, though. Both Rob and Eric indicated in messages that they faced the choice to either produce $20-$25 games or $35-45 games with top-notch components. Guess which route is the one you might call the "Gamemaster Series" route?
Hand in hand with the decision on production level was the decision on the level of complexity of the games Hasbro's Avalon Hill would produce. Which came first is perhaps a "chicken or egg" question. So, Gamemaster Series production level went with Gamemaster Series complexity level. Rob Daviau, again from the April 27, 2001 message to the Avalon Hill forum:
"There are gamers here who are working hard to figure out the best way for a large company to make a small product. We have a lot of overhead and you need to sell more games than a small company just to break even. I think we'll succeed with the line. I'm happy with the games we've put out so far, for what they are. They do not satisfy the old AH guard. You know that. I know that. We've tried to provide a way for those types of games to get made by others. What we're trying to do is provide accessible, relatively easy, quick, and visually appealing games that either draw people to games with some substance or, at least, keep them playing board games as they approach the teen years."
Did Avalon Hill/Hasbro consciously develop the Avalon Hill/Hasbro line after the Gamemaster Series? I asked this of Rob, and this was his response:
"I wasn't around for the GM line but I can surmise that they both had similar goals -- provide cool games that appeal to the 'semi-mass market'. Not true niche games or wargames, but games that stretch a kid beyond RISK or show an adult that you can play a game with some teeth to it. To keep them accessible, we tried to put plastic in for eye appeal and make sure production levels were high."
"We were really trying to make a Gamemaster line for the next generation of teenagers. Perhaps we did. The Internet provided more opportunities to get talk about the games, get distribution, etc."
If trying to make a "next generation" Gamemaster Series line was one of Hasbro's goals, then they succeeded. Perhaps no single game caught on the way Axis & Allies did in the '80s, but the games market, like the music market, has expanded and fractured significantly since that time. The teenagers who got an Avalon Hill game or two (or more) now have a big, light strategy game with great bits to play all night with friends, to talk about at school, to make a web page for, and to take to college with them and introduce to others. Could Risk 2210 A.D. be the next Axis & Allies and continue to snowball its way into dorm lounges everywhere? Could Battle Cry be the next Conquest of the Empire, commanding both respect and high prices on eBay, fifteen years after its release? It's certainly very possible.
Did Hasbro make the right decision? Of course, it depends on your perspective. Both Hasbro and the grognards well-familiar with the Avalon Hill name were disappointed with the Hasbro/Avalon Hill line; the games neither caught on with the "semi-mass market" nor the grognards. But as a fan of the Gamemaster Series, the Hasbro/Avalon Hill releases are very satisfying to me—10 releases that are fun, have strong visual and tactical appeal, and generate lots of thoroughly enjoyable "light" strategizing. And for what they are, I would trade all 5 Gamemaster Series games straight up for 5 of the Avalon Hill/Hasbro releases (History of the World, Cosmic Encounter, Battle Cry, Risk 2210 A.D., and Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, assuming I already had my older version of Acquire on the shelf already).
In other words: Hasbro/Avalon Hill is a better line of games than even our beloved Milton Bradley Gamemaster Series. Sure, to some extent, this line "stands on the shoulders" of the Gamemaster Series, but they have surpassed their forbears as faithful heirs to the premier line of light strategy games.
Next month, the other (and still kicking) heir of the Gamemaster Series: Eagle Games, Inc., a company that unquestionably has the Gamemaster Series games and fans in mind.
- Rob Burns