The hobby is dying.
Nobody plays wargames anymore.
Computer games have killed the hobby.
Unless you're brand new to the board gaming hobby, or have lived in the back bayous and swamps of Louisiana for your entire life (hey wait, that's not a good example — that's where I live!), you have undoubtedly heard these and similar despondent cries from anguished gamers. These cries and claims of impending doom and despair have been echoing throughout the gaming community for as long as I can remember.
I remember the first big "the hobby is dying" crisis which occurred with the demise of SPI. SPI was a pioneer in the wargaming field, introducing a virtual avalanche of games upon the gaming hobby. It seemed that not a week went by without spotting a new SPI release on the shelves of the local hobby shop. It was viewed as a welcome breath of fresh air by most gamers as the legendary Avalon Hill had become a bit, well, static and stale. There was much excitement and always something new to drool over and force me to crack open my wallet. That wasn't an easy thing to do back then, as I was working my way through college and could barely scrape up enough money to pursue other interests... namely, girls!
Well, the inevitable occurred... SPI went bust.
The hobby is dying!
The cries arose almost immediately. The doomsayers were having a field day, spreading their pessimistic philosophy of gloom and doom to every forum they could ooze their way into. There were many scapegoats, including much finger pointing at the emergence of the roleplaying craze, led by the phenomenally successful Dungeons and Dragons. "We're losing the future of our hobby to this roleplaying crap!" was their near universal clamor. Never mind that there were many factors which contributed to SPI's demise, not the least of which was poor management and an over-aggressive release rate of what ultimately evolved into mediocre to poor games. In retrospect, the roleplaying craze ultimately exposed more people board gaming and undoubtedly increased our numbers.
Then along came Magic: The Gathering, followed by a seemingly infinite number of collectible card game clones. Just trying to make a comprehensive list of all of these games would rival War & Peace in length. The doomsayers were at it again:
Collectible card games are going to kill our hobby!
Umm... we're still here. And I will contend again that the CCG craze has introduced many new folks to our board gaming hobby. Far from being the death of our hobby, it has infused our ranks with innumerable fresh faces and has provided an abundant resource for recruiting new board gamers.
The most recent blow was the heart-breaking sale of the venerable Avalon Hill to Hasbro. I grew up with Avalon Hill and could always count on them to release a handful of games each year that I simply had to have. For the most part, the quality of Avalon Hill games were beyond reproach. Sure, there were the occasional gaffs and mistakes (who can ever forgive them for Global Survival?), but by-and-large, the Hill could be counted upon to release quality, top notch games which had been well-researched and playtested. The news of the insatiable Hasbro's gobbling of Avalon Hill hit me like a blow to the stomach and even had me wondering about the future of board gaming. There have been some promising developments and signs that Hasbro is, indeed, planning on continuing to release adult strategy games under the Avalon Hill label, but I still have lingering doubts as to their long-term commitment to the line.
But, in spite of the virtual disappearance of Avalon Hill from the hobby scene, there have been other developments which have brightened the picture considerably:
Several game companies have stepped forward to fill the void. Most notably, GMT Games, Clash of Arms, and Moments in History have been releasing a series of quality wargames which have met with critical acclaim and seem to have gamers genuinely excited. Several designers who formerly worked closely with Avalon Hill are now submitting their designs to various game manufacturers, and many new faces have emerged to offer fresh and enticing ideas. Many of these firms are venturing into the family game market as well, jumping on the German boardgame craze.
With the emergence of more and more sophisticated computers and related hardware, it's becoming easier and easier to produce quality, professional-appearing games and components right from the desktop PC. This has resulted in a large output of small wargames from designers who heretofore were unknown and unable to get their designs published by large game companies. Indeed, there seems to be more wargames on the market today than what was around just a few years ago when Avalon Hill was still in stride.
The new German blitzkrieg
No, panzers aren't rolling across the borders of France again. This time, we're being invaded by something much more pleasant and socially redeeming. German-style boardgames have stormed the shores of America and are being met with wild acclaim and a level of excitement I haven't witnessed in this hobby since the early days of SPI.
What makes these games so unique is that they're aimed squarely at the adult population. These aren't the games we've been accustomed to from most American game manufactures, who still seem enamored by the roll the dice and move around a track mechanism which has existed since Moses was sent adrift in a basket on the Nile. Rather, these "German" games emphasize strategy, skill, and wholesome family entertainment, all complete with high-quality components and artwork. These are games that your family and friends will play and become addicted to. But what's more, they even have broad appeal amongst traditional wargamers, too. And if that's not enough, most can be played in one to two hours, meaning time-pressed folks no longer need to struggle to find the time to complete lengthy wargames. It's a combination that's simply irresistible.
It's no longer difficult to get folks interested in playing games. My extended family and non-gaming friends would not have even considered playing Squad Leader, Civilization, Panzer Leader , or any of the other games I owned. Now, however, they actually request that I bring my "neat" games to family functions and get-togethers. What a difference this new wave of games has made!
Rio Grande Games, under the tireless leadership of Jay Tummelson, has helped lead the charge of this new German invasion. They are taking the best of the German games, re-packaging them with English components and penetrating markets that heretofore have been untouched by traditional wargames. It's becoming more and more common to spot these games on game, toy, and bookstore shelves, as well as catalogs, where before we found a depressing lack of enticing titles. More exposure will ultimately mean more sales, which will mean more folks playing the types of games we enjoy.
So to the prophets of doom who proclaim our hobby is dying, I say "phooey!" Our hobby is growing by leaps and bounds and is on the threshold of a great, new golden age of gaming. In my nearly 30 years of strategy gaming, I cannot recall the future looking any brighter than it does now. Our hobby, which has always been considered a fringe group, may well be on the verge of becoming a mainstream family activity. We are living in terribly exciting times. I can't wait to see what's up ahead around the bend!
We truly are living on the threshold of a dream!
- Greg J. Schloesser