The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Kevin Zucker Interview

Bob Schwartz

December, 2003

Browsing the isles of your local game store, you are likely to see the names Kramer, Knizia, Moon, Weissblum Blum, Borg, Fitzgerald, Wallace and many others, prominently displayed on the boxes. Game designers can now develop a loyal following with consumers in the same way authors and musicians do with books and records. But it wasn’t that long ago, during the 1970s and 1980s, that a walk through a gaming section would have revealed a different group of stars, like Prados, Berg, Miller, Dunnigan, Chadwick and Zucker.

As Wargaming has fallen on hard times, most of the companies from those "golden years" have disappeared. However, Kevin Zucker and his company Operational Studies Group (OSG) are still at work offering quality and innovative designs. Recently, Kevin was nice enough to spend some time with me discussing a variety of gaming topics. I must add that after his response to the first question, I was sorely tempted to center the whole interview on current events, which probably would not have been appropriate for this forum. Still, maybe next time... Enjoy.

Bob Schwartz: You've designed over a dozen published games, currently run a game company (Operational Studies Group), and have a 700 page history book to your credit (The Habit of Victory). Yet somehow, I get the feeling that you consider yourself more of a historian.

Kevin Zucker: I am a historian, though your definition of "historian" may be different from mine. For me, history is not primarily about the past, as though the past were no longer active upon our world. Richard Wilhelm has said that the study of the past is not about "dead" facts but about applying our knowledge of the past to the present moment. Right now, uncomfortably for me, our nation is embarked on an adventurous new stage—attempting to create a "New American Century"—in effect, a world empire the scope of which has never been attempted. My primary subject of study is Napoleon, who had something similar in mind.

You worked at SPI back in the early 1970s. Was that the beginning of your life in gaming? What led you to this life choice?

Before I worked at SPI, I helped to found Conflict Magazine, with Dana Lombardy, in the early 1970s. Probably what led to this life choice was simply my great appreciation of wargaming. It provided the kind of mental stimulation I needed as a teenager and almost from the very start I was creating my own games. On the other hand, I never actually made a choice for this style of life: in fact, I studied music for many years and I play music every day and perform in public regularly. Gaming just came to me.

Do you prefer the term Wargames, Historical Simulations or some other tag?

I'd say the idea of Simulation has lost a lot of its popularity within the boardgame community. The hobby is "wargaming" now, but typically, OSG is still involved in the Simulation ideal. Our games are "studies." Unfortunately, they get lumped together with the other wargames and I think most of the content they have to show isn't seen for what it is.

In the 1970s, a game store could expect to sell 5-10, often a lot more, copies of any new wargame released by Avalon Hill, SPI, or GDW. It wasn't that different than what is happening today with Designer / Euro Games. Can you draw any parallels?

I think the German games and the other games from Europe are great! They are keeping our boardgaming market alive here in this country. I don't know why but Europeans seem to appreciate boardgames more than we do. I could guess that Europeans are a lot more social than we are: Americans are often isolated. A large minority of my customers live overseas.

Within 20 years, wargames became virtually non-existent as a viable market. Is there any danger of history repeating itself with Designer Games?

Many factors contributed to the collapse of the wargaming market: poor quality of products, a glut on the market, you could go on and on. However, looked at another way, wargaming provided the impetus to several new lines of business: miniatures, fantasy role-playing, computer games, the German-style games, etc. Our "cadre" if you will, was broken up into those new growth areas. I suppose every business you can name has a growth and decay cycle, just as each being on the planet experiences a life cycle. Absent a government bailout, there isn't much you can do about that. The only thing I know to do is to keep growing and changing and continue to put my heart and soul into each production.

Can there be even a partial recovery? What needs to happen to make this possible, and what's the best you can expect?

I am not looking at the hobby as a whole, just my little parcel. We tried, with La Guerre de l'Empereur, to create a product that would "branch" over to pick up some new folks into our hobby and for that our good, old grognards hollered loudly. We decided to just stick to our serious work. It is clear to me that the hobby as a whole can decline in size while OSG's share of that market increases. Theoretically, that is possible. But it may be that OSG games, with their emphasis on making you think, raising issues of conscience and reminding you of the human suffering that is so much a part of war, might even drive people out of the hobby. On the other hand, part of our hobby's cadre has gone into creating wargames for the government. There was an amusing quote by one of our generals this year, during the invasion of Iraq, who said, "It didn't game this way." So I don't think we want to leave the field of gaming entirely in the hands of the simply aggressive sort who think war is grand.

It may be a coincidence, but just around the time wargames started to decline, I began playing SSI games, mostly designed by Gary Grigsby, on my PC. I think I spent several years of my life playing War in Russia, Normandy, Tigers in the Snow, and others. What was the effect of PC games on the hobby?

The computer games are popular because of the popularity of computers, not because they are good games. If you scratch a computer wargame, you will find a board wargame underneath it; often, the programmers' research consists of buying a published boardgame.

When the computer gives you the answer, you lose touch with the process and end up lost. I still believe in doing arithmetic in my head. People who don't understand the mathematics behind, say, the attrition table in Napoleon at Bay will certainly be unable to take that principle and make another game. I think gamers are getting lazy as a result of computers. They never used to complain of the Attrition Table: it's not that complicated. Yet, I am told, it has given at least one gamer a headache.

I realize OSG Operational games are different than the simple move and fight wargames. Still, Napoleon at Bay seems easy to learn. Can you explain what Operational simulations are, and the difference between them and other games on the market?

The operational level was critical in Napoleonic times. It is the scale for looking at the workings of Napoleon's method. Because of his success as an operational strategist, because of the way he set his forces in motion to arrive on the battlefield, the battles themselves were, if all went according to plan, merely a matter of taking advantage of the situation prepared in advance. That means that the player of the tactical games is already benefiting from the advantages inherent in the situation set up during the advance to the battlefield. In my opinion, Napoleon was the first strategist to lay so much stress on the operational level. (The term "operational" was coined much later, by German strategists who were steeped in the study of Napoleon).

Bonaparte in Italy detail courtesy Boardgamegeek

We strive for accuracy, and (in my opinion) we set the standard for accuracy. Many wargames out there cannot bear detailed geographic and historical examination; they are more of a rough impression. But we put the effort in, knowing that the more accurate we make the games, the less we will have to fiddle with rules to make the games "work."

The experience that the games are designed to duplicate, is one I found, sitting in the New York Public Library, or the Peabody Library here in Baltimore, opening up old books that crumbled as I turned their rusted pages. This history was once reality, and for a moment, I want people to forget they live in the year 2000, and send them back to 1806. That is also the effect the games are designed to achieve; everything about them, from the box cover to the meticulously-researched orders of battle and accurate maps.

Tell me a bit about your book, The Habit of Victory. Is it available?

This book, at 700 (printed) pages, covers the campaign of 1806 and 1807 in diary format. There is an entry for each of 200 days of campaigning, usually several, datelined by town. In writing the book my understanding of the campaigns and the personality of Napoleon reached a new level. I drew on material from as many participants as possible, who often had somewhat contradictory views. However, I liked the more rounded picture obtained in the book of Napoleon himself, as he was described by people with varying degrees of admiration or contempt.

With the book's original publisher, there was a contract signed. I probably wrote another book's worth of correspondence providing background and documentation for what I had written, but was not able to persuade them to allow me to retain quotes from Louis Adolphe Thiers, the only author to have written 20 or so volumes on Napoleon and the history of the period. I didn't agree with their bias against this author, so had to withdraw my book from publication. The manuscript is still looking for a publisher.

You've devoted an extraordinary effort to the life, times, and battles of Napoleon. What led you to settle on him?

I had no really special interest in Napoleon when I first started out. But my first games on the subject were very successful, and that led to further work in the field. With each new project I gained more understanding of what was going on—the best example being the workings of the administration, which are generally not touched upon in most military history; yet these were almost always critical. I really had to figure out things that no known author has shared.

Can you tell us about any projects that you are working on now?

Right now the project underway is titled The Seven Days of 1809, covering the Battles of Abensberg, Tengen/Hausen, Eckmühl, Ratisbon and many smaller combats over the period from April 17th to 23rd, 1809. This game uses the Six Days of Glory system, and we are developing new ideas in the area of Command and March orders. Following this will be a Quad Game—Four Lost Battles (from the 1813 campaign) using the Napoleon's Last Battles system. Next in development is Swords Around a Throne, a two-map game that covers Europe from Lisbon to St. Petersburg, focusing on the military campaigns from 1805 to 1815. We also have two WWII titles that are ready for publication, waiting for pre-orders to hit the magic 250 mark: Dark December II (Battles in the Ardennes) and Combined Fleet (a one-map Pacific War, 41-45). These and other pre-publication titles can be viewed and pre-ordered at our website: www.napoleongames.com.

Credits:

  • 1806: Rossbach Avenged (OSG)
  • 1807: TheEagles Turn East (Clash of Arms)
  • 1809: Napoleon's Danube Campaign (Victory)*
  • Battle for Italy a.k.a. Arcola (OSG / Avalon Hill)
  • Battles of the 100 Days (OSG / Avalon Hill)*
  • Bonaparte in Italy (OSG)
  • The Emperor Returns (Clash of Arms)*
  • Highway to the Kremlin (OSG)
  • La Guerre de l'Empereur (OSG)
  • Last Days of the Grande Armée (OSG)
  • Napoleon at Bay (OSG / Avalon Hill)
  • Napoleon at Leipzig (OSG / Clash of Arms)*
  • Napoleon's Last Battles (SPI / TSR / Decision Games)
  • Six Days of Glory (Clash of Arms)*
  • Struggle of Nations (Avalon Hill)
  • The Sun of Austerlitz (OSG)

*Extensive development and graphic design credits

-Bob Schwartz

Horizontal line

About | Link to Archives | Links | Search | Contributors | Home

All content © 2000-2006 the respective authors or The Games Journal unless otherwise noted.

http://www.thegamesjournal.com/