In Memoriam: The Founder of Modern Board “Adventure” Gaming, Charles S. Roberts, Passes Away

Charles Swann Roberts, the father of modern wargaming, passed away on Friday, 20 August, 2010. Roberts was 80 years old. He leaves behind four sons and four daughters, and is also survived by twelve grandchildren. His passing is a great loss to his family and to his many friends and colleagues. Roberts’ passing, however, also marks a notable and somber date for the multitude of gamers — of whom many probably have never even heard his name — who currently participate in the “adventure” board gaming hobby that Charles Roberts single-handedly invented.

Charles S. Roberts, 1961
Prior to Charles Roberts’ arrival on the gaming scene, civilian involvement with historical simulations of military events were restricted mainly to the ranks of historical “reenactors” and to a well-established international community of “miniatures” enthusiasts; the few commercially-available “strategy” games that existed at this time were either highly abstracted models of conflict (i.e., Chess) or, alternatively, were almost completely dependent on luck. In 1952, that all changed. Working in his spare time, the then 22 year-old reserve Army officer designed the first commercial board wargame, TACTICS, while living in a small apartment in Catonsville, Maryland. In 1954, Roberts moved to Avalon, near Baltimore, from whence the young designer began to sell his innovative new “military strategy” board games through the mail. After upgrading and refining his first game’s design, Roberts launched a serious effort to market this improved and retitled version, TACTICS II, in 1958, under his own newly-established corporate banner: the Avalon Hill Game Company. During this first year of Avalon Hill’s existence, Roberts was also able to design and bring to market two other titles to supplement his admittedly meager product line: GETTYSBURG, the first commercial wargame ever published that was intended to simulate an actual historical battle; and DISPATCHER, a railroad game.

Several years of modest commercial success followed Charles Roberts’ move into full-time game marketing, but an economic downturn during the early 1960’s hurt the fledgling company’s sales badly, and unplanned-for losses finally induced Roberts to turn control of the Avalon Hill Game Company over to his printer and main creditor, Monarch Services, in 1963. Once the game company that he had created had been placed under the direction of his friend Eric Dott at Monarch Services, Charles Roberts left the field of board games. He flirted briefly with a new design project in the early 1970's, but ultimately abandonned this second foray into game design in favor of traditional publishing; and for the rest of his long career worked in several areas of publishing all of which were completely unrelated to games. Interestingly, in the years that followed his stint at the helm of Avalon Hill, Roberts and his wife formed their own publishing company which — in spite of the fact that Roberts was not a Catholic — concentrated almost exclusively on printing Catholic religious materials. However, after two decades in religious publishing, Roberts finally shifted his company’s emphasis to focus on one of the great interests of his life: railroads and their colorful histories.

Regrettably, among contemporary gamers, Roberts’ several critically-important contributions to game design are now largely forgotten. Nonetheless, it should be remembered that it was Charles Roberts who introduced the hexagonal-grid map board (to replace square-grid maps) and who, in a flash of genius, first invented the concept of the “odds-differential” Combat Results Table; and both of these game concepts, in spite of their age, continue to play an important role in conflict simulation design, even today. Perhaps most importantly, it was the formation of the Avalon Hill Game Company that really made the future growth of the wargaming hobby possible. Just the existence of a company that regularly published conflict simulations created opportunities for other designers to enter the field of "adventure" gaming. certainly, it can be argued that a number of other creative talents have contributed more, in terms of innovation and freshness, to the progress of wargaming over the years; but Charles S. Roberts was the first. Thus, it is no exaggeration to declare that Roberts’ pioneering work with history-based strategy games not only broke new ground in the realm of game-type entertainment, it was also instrumental in creating a completely new competitive gaming genre. In 1974, the commercial board game industry formally recognized Roberts’ contribution to the hobby and established the annual “Charles S. Roberts Awards” for excellence in various areas of the wargaming hobby. These awards continue to be presented to this day, concrete proof — at least when it comes to the professionals in the wargaming field — that even after almost sixty years, Charles Roberts’ unique place in the history of board “adventure” games remains secure.


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