SPI designers look at Operation “Zitadelle” in 1971 and again in 1980

One of the interesting things about having been in this hobby almost from its beginning is that it gives a person a unique perspective when it comes to the evolutionary progress of game design. Time and again, a curious observer can find experiments that were tried and then abandoned in favor of some other game mechanism or design approach: proverbial game design “dead ends” that, while intriguing, somehow ended up leading nowhere.

The best and most obvious example of this evolution in game design can probably be found with SPI’s KURSK Game System. Originally offered in 1971 in the games KURSK and later, FRANCE ’40, this design architecture became the foundation of a whole generation of SPI World War II games. In 1973, EL ALAMEIN was published, which added “sticky” zones of control to the basic KURSK package, but was otherwise very similar to its East Front cousins. Three years later PANZERGRÜPPE GUDERIAN — with its “sticky” zones of control, step reduction, divisional bonuses, and more complicated supply rules — appeared as an S&T magazine insert game. This event clearly showed that the KURSK Game System had veered off in a new, more detailed and interesting direction. In 1977 the PGG Game System made another evolutionary jump from operational (divisional/regimental-level) games, to grand tactical (regiment/battalion-level) games with the publication of WACHT AM RHEIN. In 1980, the Battle of Kursk was revisited by SPI in ERIC GOLDBERG’S KURSK; this edition presented a still more richly-detailed version of the original game system. The irony, of course, is that surprisingly little real additional progress has been made since this one incredibly innovative burst of design creativity in the 1970s and early 1980s. The personal computer has, unfortunately, changed the gaming landscape forever.

The other aspect of the hobby that is interesting to examine critically, over time, is the graphic presentation and design of games. While a number of artists and designers certainly contributed to the steady and dramatic improvement in game graphics during this “golden age” of game design, I think it is fair to say that Redmond Simonsen was the dominant influence on the entire process. Redmond may have been a terrible game designer — DIXIE and AFTER THE HOLOCAUST are ample proof of this assertion, I think — but he was a truly inspired graphic designer. It is difficult to imagine what war games and their components would look like today without Simonsen’s often brilliant and inventive graphics touch. A fellow gamer, only partially in jest, once observed years ago that Simonsen played Albert Speer to Jim Dunnigan’s Hitler: he managed to make almost everything that Dunnigan designed, look better than it actually was. A little strong as criticisms go, maybe, but I am not convinced even now that it was completely inaccurate.

Perhaps no better example of the rapid burst of “Simonsen sparked” progress in game graphics can be found than in a comparison of SPI’s WAR IN THE EAST (1974) with the follow up version of the same game, WAR IN THE EAST, 2nd Edition, which appeared only two years later in 1976. Every aspect of the second edition game’s graphics represented a significant improvement over its predecessor. The maps were vastly improved, the counters more colorful and varied, and the rules and game charts better organized and easier to use. In short, the dramatic differences between the two versions of the same game were nothing short of stunning.

Given my own personal interest in these several design themes, I am going to be offering posts over the next few weeks, off and on, which should clearly illustrate some of these evolutionary design changes. I only hope that some of my visitors find this short detour down memory lane both informative and diverting.

For my first attempt at one of these comparative examples, I am going to publish a game review of ERIC GOLDBERG’S KURSK. Other comparisons will follow from time to time, as I continue to review my personal collection of old games. In the meantime, I invite those of my visitors who are interested, to contrast Mr. Goldberg’s 1980 version with the original KURSK (1971) which was reviewed on this blog at the beginning of April.


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