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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.
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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A Subjective List of My Personal Picks of the Best S&T Magazine Insert Games Published during the 1970’s and 80’s
INTRODUCTIONA few days ago, a visitor to my blog commented that, because he had only become interested in conflict simulations a few years ago, he felt that he had missed the “Golden Age” of wargaming. Having come “late to the party,” as it were, this reader lamented that he now had to look to internet sites like mine to help him separate the early game design “nuggets” from the far more abundant “dross” of those early years. I sympathize with his problem: a great many wargame titles were produced by different (often short-lived) game publishers during the 1970’s and 80’s, both as regular commercial offerings and as magazine “insert” games; and although some of these games were truly excellent, ground-breaking designs, most, alas, were eminently forgettable. That being said, the obvious question then becomes: How does a relative newcomer to the hobby tell one category of game from the other?
Putting myself in the reader’s shoes, it occurs to me that a pretty good place to start with a “winnowing out” project like this one would be to examine some of the titles from the most prolific game publisher of the 70’s and 80’s: Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI). Moreover, since the driving force behind much of SPI’s early game production originated with the company’s magazine, S&T, it might be especially useful to look at a representative cross-section of the various S&T magazine “insert” games that were published during the years when James F. Dunnigan (design) and Redmond Simonsen (graphics) pretty much ruled the whole game design roost at SPI.
This sounds pretty easy, right? Maybe, maybe not; at six magazine games per year, old S&T titles begin to pile up in a hurry; so when it comes to actually following through with a project like this, where does one start? Stated differently: given the 100 plus magazine games produced and mailed during the two decades that are most commonly associated with the “Golden Age” of wargaming, which titles really represent the best of the S&T insert games to appear in the 70’s and 80’s? This is a tough, maybe even an impossible question to answer fairly. In reality, it is highly unlikely that any diverse group of experienced gamers would ever be able to unanimously agree on such a compilation; therefore, any such list, of necessity, would be both subjective and arbitrary. Fortunately, “subjective” and “arbitrary” both happen to be right up my street; thus, this quasi-rhetorical question provides me with the perfect excuse to catalog my own favorite picks — twenty, in all — from the many, many S&T magazine games published during the period in question. These games, I believe, should be a part of any collection of those players with a serious interest in older SPI games.
Finally, before actually getting down to the “nitty-gritty” of this self-indulgent essay, I should note that certain early S&T games were not considered for this list — whatever their other qualities — if they were published before SPI began to include “backed” counter sheets in their magazine games. In addition, a number of otherwise worthwhile titles, published in the 1980’s, were eliminated from consideration because of shoddy production practices on the part of SPI. For a time, certain later-issue S&T magazine games were mailed to subscribers with “tissue-thin” map sheets. These maps tended to split along the folds as soon as they were opened for the first or second time. Because of this serious quality control problem, all of the magazine games produced during this period — fairly or unfairly — have been omitted from the following list. That being said, the following catalog of titles represents the twenty S&T magazine games that I personally think are the best all-around “insert” games from this early period in the development of the wargaming hobby.
MY PERSONAL “TOP TWENTY” S&T MAGAZINE GAME PICKS
1. USN, S&T #29 (Nov-Dec 1971)
2. BORODINO, S&T #32 (May-Jun 1972)
3. WINTER WAR, S&T #33 (Jul-Aug 1972)
4. YEAR OF THE RAT, S&T #35 (Nov-Dec 1972)
5. DESTRUCTION OF ARMY GROUP CENTER, S&T #36 (Jan-Feb 1973)Despite its uninspiring title and bland graphics, James Dunnigan’s DESTRUCTION OF ARMY GROUP CENTER: The Soviet Summer Offensive, 1944 is actually an interesting operational simulation — based on the KURSK Game System — of the Red Army’s brilliantly successful “Operation Bagration.” This offensive destroyed an entire German Army Group and tore a 250 mile gap in the Axis frontline in Poland in summer, 1944. The German player in the Historical Scenario will have his work cut out for him avoiding the fate of his historical counterpart, but with exactly the right blend of audacity and careful defensive play, he just might be able to turn the tables on an unsuspecting or overconfident Russian commander. Players will tend to like or dislike this game based on their view of the challenging defensive problem confronting the Germans. For my own part, I find it quite engaging; other players, however, may well find the German situation a bit too depressing to interest them.
6. PANZER ARMEE AFRIKA, S&T #40 (Sep-Oct 1973)It’s not every day that players open up a game and see combat units with mobility ratings of 40 to 60 movement points; nonetheless, such is the case with James Dunnigan’s PANZER ARMEE AFRIKA, a regimental-level simulation of the most decisive months of the seesaw North African struggle between Axis and Commonwealth forces in 1941-42. Almost everything about this game sets it apart from other titles that have attempted to deal with this popular topic. Thus, players will have to rethink their favorite strategies as they cope with unexpected design features such as: a ‘strength differential’ CRT; special supply rules that dramatically influence the combat effectiveness of attacks; and, perhaps most frustrating of all, the built-in, random hex-based movement inhibitions on Commonwealth forces. Players may love this game or they may hate it, but whatever one’s opinion, no one can accuse Dunnigan of being afraid to “think outside the box” when it comes to this innovative and ingenious new take on the battle for North Africa.
7. WOLFPACK, S&T #47 (Nov-Dec 1974)
8. FREDERICK THE GREAT, S&T #49 (Mar-Apr 1975)Designed by Frank Davis and Edward Curran, FREDERICK THE GREAT: The Campaigns of the Soldier King, 1756-1759 is one of those real finds among S&T inserts: a game that turns out to be vastly better than either its title or its somewhat nondescript game components would otherwise suggest. This cleverly-designed gem of a game is an operational-level simulation of warfare during the Seven years War and, as such, focuses on the critical importance of leadership and logistics. The rules are clear and intuitively reasonable, and the various scenarios are virtually all exciting and challenging. Even more importantly, the game’s two designers succeed surprisingly well in conveying the limitations and battlefield dynamics of warfare as practiced during the time of the great Prussian soldier-king. FREDERICK THE GREAT, as noted earlier, is not particularly impressive at first glance, but, once mastered, the game is — in my opinion, at least — a minor masterpiece. Unfortunately, the historical period showcased in FREDERICK THE GREAT is not especially popular with most players; and for that reason, although I personally think that it is a truly brilliantly-crafted game, I will refrain from recommending it as a MUST OWN.
9. BATTLE FOR GERMANY, S&T #50 (May-Jun 1975)
10. WORLD WAR 1, S&T #51 (Jul-Aug 1975)
11. THE PUNIC WARS, S&T #53 (Nov-Dec 1975)
12. BREITENFELD, S&T #55 (Mar-Apr 1976)
13. PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, S&T #57 (Jul-Aug 1976)
14. ROAD TO RICHMOND, S&T #60 (Jan-Feb 1977)
15. OCTOBER WAR, S&T #61 (Mar-Apr 1977)
16. COBRA, S&T #65 (Nov-Dec 1977)
17. STONEWALL, S&T #67 (Mar-Apr 1978)
18. THE CRUSADES, S&T #70 (Sep-Oct 1978)
19. NEY VS. WELLINGTON, S&T #74 (May-Jun 1979)
20. FIFTH CORPS, S&T #82 (Sep-Oct 1980)
CONCLUSIONWhen I initially contemplated this project, I only planned on cataloguing five or so S&T magazine titles that, when they first appeared, I felt were both clearly representative of the design trends at SPI at the time of their publication, and that were also notable for their quality, purely as games. In essence: a sort of “short list” of the greatest “insert” games from the 1970’s and 80’s. That was the plan, anyway. Somehow, in spite of my best efforts, the list got longer and longer, and I finally simply pulled the plug at twenty games; which, if the truth be known, is probably at least five titles too many. Be that as it may, this collection of games — for better or worse — is the one that I have decided to stick with. Of course, I am absolutely positive that my picks of the best twenty S&T magazine games from the 1970’s and 80’s are not going to meet with everyone’s approval. That’s as it should be. Individual players will inevitably differ when it comes to their personal tastes in games; so I’m sure that any number of visitors to my blog will take exception to one or more of my choices. Moreover, I’m certain that, in almost every instance of disagreement, a strong case can be made for an alternative choice. In a number of different instances, I could make such a case, myself. So, to those readers who disagree with my selections, I invite you to present your own picks; after all, that’s why there is a “comments” section at the end of each of my posts!
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Back on 18 July, I foolishly volunteered the details of my then in progress AFRIKA KORPS PBeM Championship match with arch rival, Bert Schoose. At the time, Bert’s Axis held a modest advantage, but I was still hopeful that something might happen in the game to improve the prospects of my beleaguered Commonwealth forces. Unfortunately, no such miraculous turnaround was forthcoming; quite the opposite, in fact. After reducing Tobruch without losing a single unit, Bert’s Axis forces methodically advanced east to meet the British field army near Mersa Matruh. There, on the January I ’42 game turn, General Auchinleck’s Commonwealth forces suffered a pair of devastating defeats that, in combination, spelled the end of any further meaningful British resistance in North Africa. Faced with inevitable defeat, I resigned at the end of the game turn.
Needless-to-say, although I hated to lose the game, I still want to publicly extend Bert my thanks for an exciting and well-played match, and my sincere congratulations on his capturing of this year’s AFRIKA KORPS PBeM Championship. After winning five games in a row against very tough competition, he certainly deserves the title.
AK PBem Tournament Round 5 Schoose
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