Labels: analysis, board simulations, board war game, Command Game Series, components, description, design, LEE vs. MEADE, Rand Game Associates, review, RGA
In 1973, a hitherto unknown game publisher named Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) introduced its first title: DRANG NACH OSTEN; a monster game on the German invasion of Russia, June 1941. A year later, Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) launched its own, long-anticipated —rumors had been floating around about Dunnigan’s ‘super game’ since at least 1969-70 — operational simulation of the entire Russo-German War (1941-45), WAR IN THE EAST. There was no doubt about it: this was a heady period for wargamers; things really seemed to be taking off, and those of us who had been in the hobby for awhile were full of optimism. Then, like GDW the year before, another new game company, Rand Game Associates (RGA), suddenly appeared on the scene. In the spring of 1974, the first copies of Rand Game Associates’ LEE vs. MEADE: THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG were shipped to a mob of eagerly waiting customers. This game was the first installment in a collection of nine brand-new titles which, when printed and mailed, would comprise Volume I of RGA’s ‘Command Games Series’. Moreover, it should be noted that, not only were these first lucky subscribers impatiently looking forward to the arrival of nine (already paid for) wargames, they were also slated to receive — along with their copy of LEE vs. MEADE — a spiffy red cardboard cupboard in which to store their soon-to-arrive collection of new games. Also, along with the ‘unique’ storage cupboard, RGA was sending its lucky customers even more game paraphernalia; hence, in addition to everything else, new subscribers were also fated to receive a ‘Universal Game Turn Record’, twelve tactical cards (six red and six white), and a six-sided die. I was one of those subscribers, and almost as soon as my first parcel arrived from RGA, I began — despite my receipt of the ‘one-of-a-kind’ game box, the new game, the ‘tac’ cards, and the die — to have misgivings about Rand Game Associates. As it turned out, my initial worries turned out to be well-founded.
In the beginning, Rand Game Associates looked like a winner. The first RGA full-page, four-color ads had started to appear, as I recall, in the hobby press towards the end of 1973 and they were eye-grabbing, to say the least. Moreover, the company’s initial pitch for subscriptions had looked mighty convincing. At a time when the typical SPI ‘flat pack’ game sold for $6.00 plus shipping, the RGA subscription package looked downright cheap. So, despite the fact that I knew nothing about the company other than what I had seen in a glossy ad slick; like a lot of other gamers, I decided to give the company and its games a try. In retrospect, I’m not really sorry that I did, but it is still, even after all these years, a very close call. Nonetheless, before I get to reminiscing further about my own love-hate relationship with RGA, a little company history is probably in order.
Rand Game Associates, according to David Isby, was the brain-child of Phil Orbanes and was initially formed in New Jersey. The company based its operations, for the most part, on the efforts of three men: Bill Vega, to handle the business end; David C. Isby, to do most of the actual game design work; and Al Zygier, to handle the graphics design for the finished games. Freelance designers, such as John Prados, Ken Smilgelski and Phil Orbanes, would periodically be brought on board to spice up the company’s offerings and to take a little of the design pressure off of David Isby. In addition, RGA could also look to the likes of Lenny Glynn, Al Nofi and Professor Milton J. Pierce, among others, for occassional help with game development and historical research. The basic business plan seems to have been to cut into SPI’s market niche by offering inexpensive games via subscription. Rand Game Associates could do this because, unlike SPI, it would not have the content, deadline, or production problems that inevitably go with publishing a fresh magazine issue to accompany each new game. Also, like Dunnigan’s ‘game mill’ in New York, RGA would make extensive use of customer surveys in order to select topics for future games and, by so doing, stay in tune with the changing interests of its subscribers. On its face, it all seemed very reasonable; unfortunately the wheels began to come off almost as soon as the first games started to ship.
The initial problem was pricing: by focusing so heavily on keeping prices low, RGA inevitably cut back on revenues and thus, limited its options when it came to producing its finished games. The end result of this pricing pinch was that the games all seemed just a little bit ‘cheesy’. The maps, rule books, and game charts, for example, were all relatively small by the standards of the rest of the industry. And with games, just like many other things, size really does matter. The utility of the rule books and game charts, particularly, suffered because their small size inevitably led to small and, in some cases, even tiny, hard-to-read print. This was off-putting, to say the least. The game counters, on the other hand, were generally well-done. However, by sticking with a single counter sheet and then by opting to use die-cut game pieces with rounded corners, the typical RGA game design was limited to a maximum of seventy-two unit counters; in the age of DRANG NACH OSTEN and WAR IN THE EAST, seventy-two counters did not, in the eyes of many players, seem to be nearly enough. This was particularly true when it is remembered that most SPI games during this era had from 200 to 400 game counters. More than one fellow subscriber to the ‘Command Games Series’ that I talked to echoed my own thoughts when they observed that it would have been better for RGA to have skipped producing the essentially useless game cupboards, and to have spent the savings on the game components, instead.
Omaha Beach map
The second major problem for the Rand Game Associates brand was the graphic presentation of the games, themselves. Al Zygier, sadly, was no Redmond Simonsen. First impressions are important. A mediocre game with clever or visually appealing graphics will, almost without exception, find a wider audience than a good game with awful artwork. And RGA managed, against all odds, to produce some of the most vividly amateurish graphics that I, personally, have ever encountered. But it need not have been so. For several years, the map for Avalon Hill’s ALEXANDER (1971) had been, I thought, the most repulsive (almost vomit-like) game board that I had ever laid eyes on. But I was premature. RGA utterly crushed its competition in the ugliness category by publishing my hands-down choice for the most revolting 17” x 24” piece of commercially-printed paper ever, the game map for OMAHA BEACH. To be fair, it should be noted that the game map and counters for THE WAR OF THE WORLDS II, when seen together, came in a very close second.
The War of the Worlds II
Of a piece with RGA’s uneven map quality was the format and print size of most of its game charts. Instead of listing battle results using traditional and familiar abbreviations — like DR, DE, or Ex, for example — tiny abstract symbols such as solid or hollow dots, and solid or hollow arrows were instead printed on many of the RGA charts to indicate combat outcomes. This irksome little convention was pointlessly obtuse, and would have been wholly unnecessary if the charts had been bigger and more legible in the first place. However, the use of symbols in lieu of letters for combat results was not the only pointless innovation that RGA introduced. Combat Results Tables (CRT’s), for example, became Combat Computation Charts (CCC’s), and Zones of Control (ZOC’s) became Ranges of Influence (ROI’s).
Lee vs. Meade Time/Space Grid map
This smacked a little bit of conceit on the part of the designer; after all, even Jim Dunnigan and Frank Chadwick had not attempted to completely change ‘game speak’ in this way. Moreover, this pernicious custom of game designers rechristening existing (and perfectly adequate) simulation concepts, thanks to Rand Game Associates, has now become a pervasive and common design element in contemporary American Civil War and Napoleonic simulations. In addition, everyone presently in the hobby also has Rand Game Associates to thank for the ground-breaking introduction of German military symbols into the mainstream of contemporary board gaming. This pointlessly confusing little affectation first appeared in RGA’s INVASION: SICILY, then in OMAHA BEACH, again — just in case you hadn’t noticed the first two times — in ROMMEL: THE WAR FOR NORTH AFRICA, and finally in the first of the ‘Command Series II’ games, HITLER’S LAST GAMBLE: THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE (1975). Despite RGA’s fixation on this graphic formula, however, their obnoxious innovation really only reached its apex when Randall Reed, apparently channeling the Führer Bunker over in Baltimore, adopted this pretentious and distracting style of unit annotation for both German AND Allied units in THE LONGEST DAY (1979).
Lee vs. Meade
Rand Game Associates, of course, had other problems besides graphic design. Product presentation is important but, in the end, it is the games themselves that actually matter most. And the game designs produced by RGA were, to say the least, a little uneven. Errata — the bane of all players — reliably followed each new title’s introduction. These types of post-publication corrections, needless-to-say, were hardly unique to RGA; what was unique, however, was that the errata that inevitably accompanied the next game — in far too many cases — dealt with simple errors or omissions in the rules that should have been caught during proof-reading, or with glaring problems in the game system that should have emerged in the first few ‘play-tests’. Blame for these lapses is difficult to assign. Rand Game Associates — wisely, it turned out — usually did not list game design or development credits; so, while there is a popular consensus as to which designers created which titles, there is no general agreement as to who handled the critically important development chores for the various games.
As to the various games, themselves: opinions, even today, will vary as to which of the RGA games were ‘good’, which were ‘mediocre’, which were ‘bad’, and which were just plain ‘ugly’. The ‘ugly’ titles I have already touched upon. As to the others, estimates vary wildly. I personally detested INVASION: SICILY and NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGNS; other players, much to my surprise, liked one or both of them a lot. Both LEE vs. MEADE and ROMMEL, I considered on the borderline between mediocre and good; on these appraisals, at least, I have generally found few players who strongly disagree. The best of the lot — in the eyes of most players, at least — undoubtedly were SARATOGA: 1777, CAMBRAI, 1917, and MISSILE BOAT. Oddly enough, despite the justifiably bad odor in which Rand Game Associates tends to be held by today’s crop of players, virtually everyone that I know who has actually played these three RGA titles thinks that they are, given the production limitations imposed on their designs, outstanding little games. Interestingly, the creator of CAMBRAI, 1917: THE FIRST BLITZKRIEG, David C. Isby, revisited the same topic four years later with the SPI title, TO THE GREEN FIELDS BEYOND (1978); unfortunately for SPI, despite the six-times larger, more colorful counter-mix, the much nicer Simonsen graphics, and the denser, more elaborate game system that accompanied the newer title, most people that I know who have played both designs still consider CAMBRAI, 1917 to be, far and away, the better game. And pretty much in the same vein, despite the fact that SARATOGA: 1777 is vulnerable to almost the identical bit of tactical gamesmanship that detracts from SPI’s VERACRUZ (1977); I would still probably jump at the chance to play the game again. In any case, good or bad, the RGA titles continued to arrive in the mail at regular intervals into the spring of 1975. Once all of the first batch of games had been delivered, by the way, a complete Rand Game Associates ‘Command Games Series Volume I’ collection of games would include the following titles:
1. LEE vs. MEADE: THE BATTLE OF GETTYBURG (Time/Space Grid
Game System), by David C. Isby
2. SARATOGA: 1777 (Strategic Points Grid Game System), by David C.
3. INVASION: SICILY (Hexagonal Grid Game System), by David C.
4. NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGNS (Area Game System), by David C.
5. CAMBRAI, 1917: THE FIRST BLITZKRIEG (Hexagonal Grid Game
System), by David C. Isby
6. MISSILE BOAT (Hexagonal Grid Game System), by David C. Isby
7. OMAHA BEACH (Time/Space Grid Game System), by Ken Smigelski
8. THE WAR OF THE WORLDS II (Orbital Grid Game System), by
9. ROMMEL: THE WAR FOR NORTH AFRICA (Hexagonal Grid Game
System), by David C. Isby
Rommel: The War for North Africa
At the end of March 1975, the last of the ‘Command Games Series Volume I’ games shipped; and enclosed with the final game in the series, ROMMEL: THE WAR FOR NORTH AFRICA, was yet another in the long string of more and more frantic appeals that, with increasing frequency, had been bombarding current subscribers urging them to sign up for the new improved, bigger, and better ‘Command Games Series Volume II’ collection of five or maybe six new games. I decided to pass, and apparently, I was not alone. Subscription rates plummeted. Rand Game Associates struggled on for awhile longer, but was only able to finish work on two more of the Volume II games before it ran out of cash and finally gave up any pretense of honoring its obligations to its subscribers. Bankruptcy was the next stop, and, as quickly as it had come on the scene, Rand Game Associates disappeared permanently from the game publishing business.
Invasion of Sicily
By the time of its demise, Rand Game Associates had actually published a total of thirteen titles. Besides the nine games that collectively made up ‘Command Games Series Vol. I’, RGA also published several larger, more complex titles as part of their ‘Military Time Capsule Games’ series of independent offerings. These were: the John Prados design, VON MANSTEIN: BATTLES IN THE UKRAINE 1941-44 (1975), which has subsequently been reissued by several different publishers under the title, PANZERKRIEG; the John Prados game, VICKSBURG: THE WAR IN THE WEST (1975); and David Isby’s BRANDY STATION: THE CLASH OF CAVALRY (1976). It should probably be noted that BRANDY STATION was originally slated to be the second game in the ‘Command Games Series Volume II’ collection of RGA titles following HITLER’S LAST GAMBLE: THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE, but when the struggling game company began to finally slip beneath the waves of insolvency, it was offered as part of the ‘Military Time Capsule Games’ series of independent titles.
For those readers who are interested, the three bigger 'Military Time Capsule' games were packaged in a window-style game box and came with a larger map, much more extensive and detailed rules, and significantly more counters. This trio of games included, in the order of their publication, the following titles:
1. VON MANSTEIN: BATTLES IN THE UKRAINE 1941-45 (Hexagonal Grid Game System), by John Prados
2. VICKSBURG: THE WAR IN THE WEST (Hexagonal Grid Game System), by John Prados
3. BRANDY STATION: THE CLASH OF CAVALRY (Time/Space Grid System), by David C. Isby
4. WELLINGTON IN THE PENINSULA (Area Movement System), by Vincent J. Cumbo, Albert A. Nofi, and John Prados
In addition to their publication as ‘Command Series’ games, a few of the Rand Game Associates titles were repackaged for independent distribution. David C. Isby’s ROMMEL: THE WAR FOR NORTH AFRICA was the first and, so far as I know, the only offering from RGA as part of the ‘Great Battles of History Series’ of games. And, last but not least, fairly early in the 'Volume I' subscription cycle (sometime around September 1974), Rand Game Associates licensed the first three of their titles to Gamut of Games (GOG) for outside distribution. As part of this arrangement Gamut of Games republished LEE vs. MEADE: THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG; SARATOGA: 1777; and INVASION: SICILY in a modestly upgraded (mounted map board and colored charts) boxed version.
Looking back at the short, sad saga of Rand Game Associates, it is easy to see the flaws in the company’s original business plan. By focusing on keeping prices, and by extension, production costs low, RGA underperformed in the area that was most critical to their ongoing success: game quality. This realization, which was reflected in their plans for the ‘Command Games Series Volume II’ collection of five to six titles, came too late to salvage, much less to grow, their original base of subscribers. Moreover, nine original new designs, magazine or no, were simply too many games for David Isby — or anyone else, for that matter — to produce in a single calendar year; particularly without a lot of very experienced development help. This meant that unmitigated ‘turkeys’ like THE WAR OF THE WORLDS II found their way into the RGA lineup. Obviously, Phil Orbanes went to Rand Game Associates with his Sci-Fi design because no one else would touch it; and for good reason. And RGA’s main designer, David Isby, deserves some of the blame for the company’s failure, as well. His use of Phil Orbanes' ‘retro’ Time/Space Grid game system was moderately interesting, but never particularly popular; this fact was something that RGA’s own customer feedback should have told him.
Napoleon's Last Campaigns
And there was something else, even more fundamentally wrong at RGA. In countless little ways, it just didn't seem like the physical production of the games was ever really in the hands of an experienced 'gamer'. The much touted storage cupboard is a perfect example of this disconnect. When examined closely, it was obvious that the little red box, drawers or not, was simply too small and flimsy to meet the game storage needs of a typical player; it looked good, but it was essentially useless. In the end, Rand Game Associates did something that no business can afford to do: it disappointed the majority of its customers. One of my friends, and a fellow subscriber to the ‘Volume I’ series, probably said it best. He was in the process of rereading the game rules to NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGNS for the umpteenth time,; finally, he put the rules booklet down and observed resignedly: “I think that Rand is where bad game designs go to die.” In more than a few cases, I think that he was right.
Posted by JCB III at 8:13 AM
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