The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Who Mourns for Avalon Hill?

Kevin Maroney

July, 2000

The biggest news in the American board game industry over the last three years was the sale of Avalon Hill (AH), the most successful publisher of "hobby" board games from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Originally founded in 1958 by Charles Roberts to publish his own games, AH was purchased in 1962 by Monarch Services (now Monarch Avalon), the printers of the AH games. The resulting company, which I will call "Monarch Avalon Hill" or "M/AH", lasted until 1998, when Eric and Jack Dott, the owners of Monarch Avalon, sold AH to Hasbro, the world's largest publisher of games, for $6 million.

A great many people were upset by the sale. For them, the sale of Avalon Hill was like losing an old friend. I didn't see it that way. M/AH was a moribund giant that hadn't realized it was dead. It had been barely profitable for years (according to Don Greenwood, manager of M/AH in its later years), and a series of legal missteps in 1997-98 left it in serious financial trouble. The sale to Hasbro was just turning off the life support for a patient who had died years before.

M/AH were publishing around eight titles a year (41 from 1993 to 1998), two-thirds of them expansion sets, follow-up games in series, or republications of other publishers' titles. Of the 10-15 original titles, only Guerrilla, We the People, Geronimo, and Air Baron received anything like substantial success and praise.

Before 1970, more than 80 percent of AH's games were designed by Roberts himself or by his partner Tom Shaw, who became manager of M/AH after the Monarch takeover. But a sea change occurred in the early 1970s, when M/AH bought the legendary 3M board game line. Around the same time, M/AH started republishing titles from smaller developers like Gamma II (Napoleon), Jedko (Russian Campaign), and Ariel (Kingmaker). This trend accelerated in the 1980s, as M/AH bought titles from SPI (Panzergruppe Guderian), Gorgonstar (Titan), and Hartland Trefoil (Civilization). The 3M takeover signaled M/AH's move from designing games to publishing games mostly designed by non-AH employees.

Monarch/Avalon Hill was a moribund giant that hadn't realized it was dead. But M/AH's proprietary attitude toward its games never changed. Every game they published was, in their eyes, primarily an Avalon Hill game; the designer was secondary. Nowhere was this clearer than in giving box credit—listing the designer's name on the box. Calling Avalon Hill "grudging" with box credits would be generous. The first M/AH board game that listed the designer's name on the box was Mark Herman's We the People, in 1994. WtP's follow-up, Hannibal: Rome Versus Carthage (1996), did not credit designer Mark Simonitch—though Kurt Miller did get box credit for the cover art. Reiner Knizia, a star of the German game scene, received a microscopic credit on the cover of Titan: the Arena (1997), a game developed by Greenwood from Knizia's Grand National Derby. Klaus Teuber didn't even get that much for Adel Verpflichtet (1990), which had won the Spiel des Jahres, the foremost European game award. M/AH deserves respect for listing designer, developer, artist, and other credits within their games—which Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley still do not do. But they were dead-set against giving designers box credits. Leonard Quam, who ran AH's Victory Games imprint, fought to have box credits on Victory titles, and was consistently overruled by the Dotts. The single most appalling example was the role-playing game Runequest. Chaosium published Runequest in 1977 (revised 1979), and Avalon Hill published the third edition in 1984 as the flagship of their new RPG line.

This exchange of letters took place in 1984:

Don Greenwood, letter to The Fantasy Gamer #6:

"[Greg Costikyan] laments the fact that the adventure gaming establishment does not give game designers ... credit more in proportion to that enjoyed by authors in the book industry. ... [Simply, they] don't deserve it.... The majority of so-called "professional game designers in the adventure game industry are incapable or unwilling to submit a finished, polished product.... One of these days, I'm going to put a designer's name on the cover, but when I do it will be because I've published his game exactly as he submitted it."

Greg Stafford, letter to The Space Gamer #72:

"We [Chaosium] submitted Runequest in its final format: typeset, art in place, color separations done, and all. We had been told we would have authors' names on the box-front, but were rather surprised when the color proof came back without them.... I do not disagree with Avalon Hill's right to do [this]... but I do not feel [Don] should mislead his potential contributors about AH policy."

For the record, the three Hasbro/Avalon Hill titles that have been published as of this writing all feature their designer's names on the box.

So. By the end, M/AH was largely a publisher of games developed outside their offices, but still had a great deal of their corporate pride tied up in the work they did in "developing," even when they actually did no development work at all. But when they did, did they do it well?

To Read the Rules, Hire a Lawyer

Avalon Hill's development staff, headed by Greenwood, was always temperamentally inclined towards complex games. Even when they were publishing relatively simple games, they approached them with the light, fun-loving touch that so distinguishes the Advanced Squad Leader rulebook.

This aspect of M/AH is best summed up on the rec.games.board usergroup by regular contributor Bob Rossney:

"…it would not be out of character for an AH game ... to have the player roll two dice and consult the following table:"

1 2 3 4 5 6
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Duh...

For a company that had been developing games for so long, obvious mistakes continued to the end of M/AH's career. Several AH games of the 1990s had impenetrable rulebooks. There are two different fan web sites explaining how to play Titan: The Arena—a game that can be explained in five minutes. It's hard to believe that the rules were never sent to blind-testers (players unfamiliar with the game) for review. Blind-testing is one of the basic steps of good game development, and there's no evidence it was done, leaving Titan: The Arena with a rulebook written in Old Middle Gobbledook. And there's no mistaking that M/AH was still publishing stinkers in their last few years. Assassin (1994), a repackaging of a self-published title, is a strong contender for M/AH's worst game ever, a tedious and overly elaborate board and card game in which players can spend literally the entire game stranded with nothing to do because they didn't draw the right cards. For every groundbreaking We the People, there was a humdrum Princess Ryan's Star Marines (1997). And in 1995, three years after Victory Games had closed its doors, M/AH besmirched VG's memory with the shamefully bad Look at the Schmuck on That Camel, a Yiddish trivia game as stupid as its title. Finally, there's the question of what has actually been lost in the Hasbro take-over. Fans' biggest concern is that M/AH's important titles are now lost to history, that a company like Hasbro would never republish Empires in Arms or Advanced Third Reich.

Rob Daviau of Hasbro/Avalon Hill said this recently on rec.games.board:

"I'd hate to say it is 'official' but it is a good rule of thumb[:] If we have the rights to games that we will not make but another company wants to, then we are willing and eager to talk to them. Now, the key is that another company needs to want the rights as we would want minimum production, a commitment to make the games, etc."

Multi-Man Publishing has already taken over Advanced Squad Leader, and have announced reprints of nearly 20 other M/AH titles, including classics like PanzerBlitz, Up Front, and Wrasslin'(!). GMT has published Paths of Glory and Galaxy, which were under development at M/AH, and have inquired about reprinting older titles. This did not happen under M/AH. Some titles reverted to their authors eventually, but many titles disappeared into AH's back catalog never to return—games like Conquistador, War at Sea, and Panzergruppe Guderian. It remains to be seen exactly how forthcoming H/AH will be with the backlist, but the signs are promising. Oh, and in their last act as owners of Avalon Hill, the Dotts fired the entire staff of Avalon Hill, including Greenwood, who, frankly, deserved better from a company for which he had worked for 20+ years.

So let's review.

In 1998, Avalon Hill went from being a failing company with a vast and unpublished backstock, to being the hobby arm of the world's largest game publisher who has thrown open the backstock to the world.

Avalon Hill has not died, but has been given a new lease on life. Why should we mourn?

Notes:

A list of Avalon Hill's games can be found at Web Grognards I am very grateful to Richard Heli and the others who worked on it.

Thanks, as well, to Greg Costikyan for his article Simple Justice which has had a tremendous impact on the way I view game credits.

- Kevin Maroney

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