Although I have, in previous posts, already detailed my reasons for believing that the best games from the "Golden Age" of wargaming, the so-called 'classics', continue to have relevance and value today — both to the broader hobby, and to individual gamers — I thought that I would revisit this topic again; especially since my recent essays on STALINGRAD bring to light precisely those "historical" issues that — in my view, at least — are most worth discussing. This time, however, I have chosen to take a slightly different approach to my subject and to stress, not just the appeal of these early titles as the highly playable, yet challenging games that they are, but also to point to the large body of expert lore — in the form of countless articles on strategy, tactics, and player psychology, among other things — that have attached to them since their first appearance, decades ago. No contemporary design, because of the present-day glut of new game releases will, I believe, ever be able to match the 'classics' when it comes to the quantity and quality of the analysis that has been lavished on them (often by some very smart people) over the years. And this factor alone, I submit, makes them unique among all of the many, many titles currently available to gamers today.


After finally getting around to posting a couple of new game-related pieces on my blog, I decided to go back and review them both on the chance that I might want to do a little post-publication editing. Unfortunately, instead of finding a few small edits, I came away with the strong impression that, in my hurry to get my first couple of "STALINGRAD Notebook" essays written and published, I had neglected to make the case as to why I believe that the Avalon Hill classics (along with a number of other publishers' older titles) deserve a place in the game collections not just of long-time gamers like me, but in those of less-seasoned players as well. In addition, it also struck me that I had skipped over a significant part of the the intriguing, if dimly-remembered, Avalon Hill classics back story. This essay aims to rectify those lapses. And if the points I intend to raise are already at least vaguely familiar (as they doubtless are) to the grognards who regularly visit this site, I still think that the following discussion will be helpful to those players who have only recently developed an interest in these classic Avalon Hill titles from a simpler, less "frenzied" era. That being said, I hope that both veteran and newer players will find this short retrospective both interesting and thought-provoking.


For many of us who have been active in the board wargaming hobby pretty much from its beginning, the early Avalon Hill classics — games like D-DAY (1961), WATERLOO (1962), STALINGRAD (1963), AFRIKA KORPS, MIDWAY (1964), and BATTLE OF THE BULGE (1965) — will probably always occupy a special place both in our personal recollections of our early days of gaming, and in our current game libraries. For my own part, except for D-DAY and BULGE '65, neither of which I have played in ten or more years, I still try to revisit the other Avalon Hill classics as frequently as possible, both in face-to-face competition and in PBeM play. Of course, in the case of AFRIKA KORPS and WATERLOO, this really isn't all that difficult to accomplish: both of these titles, although more than four decades old, are still featured as tournament options — thanks to the scores of players who show up, every year, to compete in Bruno Sinagaglio's Grognards Pre-Con — at the World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) Convention in Lancaster, PA. Moreover, MIDWAY, old as it is, still enjoys a reputation among many long-time gamers (myself included) as being one of the most accessible and yet best historical simulations ever published on the decisive carrier battle that turned the tide against Japan in the Pacific War.

New Games versus Old 'Standbys'

Time, sadly enough, has not treated STALINGRAD or its Western Front counterpart, D-DAY, nearly as kindly as it has some of the other Avalon Hill classics. The proliferation of newer, better (read: more realistic) simulations dealing with the War in the East (starting with some of the earliest offerings from SPI and GDW), and the flashier, more sophisticated simulations of Operation "Overlord" that have appeared since D-DAY first saw print in 1961, have steadily drawn more and more of the older games' original players away, never to return. However, the fact that both STALINGRAD and D-DAY have managed — in spite of their dated graphics and obvious flaws as simulations — to hold onto an international cadre of loyal fans right up to the present is actually rather remarkable, especially since the popularity of both games was severely damaged by their almost complete disappearance from the tournament circuit ever since the debut of John Edwards' action-packed double-whammy, THE RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN (TRC) followed by FORTRESS EUROPA (FE), both in the late 1970's (the Jedco vesion of FE was published in 1978; the AH version in 1980). This is actually too bad because, although I personally like a number of the games that have taken their places, including TRC and FE; when it comes to simpler, uncluttered wargame designs that, nonetheless, reward precise play and strategic (multi-turn) planning, D-DAY and STALINGRAD are both solid, reliably entertaining games. And on those occasions that I find myself in the mood to play a truly chess-like wargame, I will still, more often than not, reach for my copy of STALINGRAD because — at least in my view — it continues to have few equals in this regard, even now.

So, Who Still Plays the Classics, Anyway?

Unfortunately, just because a game is both challenging and enjoyable is no guarantee that it will retain a following among gamers over time. New titles constantly appear and players' tastes change. In the "good old days", everyone knew how to play the same games because, frankly, there just weren't that many titles to choose from. In contrast, when we look around our game-cluttered hobby today, it seems to be virtually impossible to find, at least on an ad-hoc basis, opponents who are well-versed in almost any of the more recent game releases. Except for their development teams and play-testers, who ever really plays these brand new titles frequently enough to truly master them? [The recent experiences of a seasoned player I know hammers this point home nicely: while at PrezCon, he at last found the opportunity to play a new East Front game that he had been wanting to try for some months. As things turned out, because of a fairly loose convention schedule, he ended up playing the game three different times and, as is usually the case in these situations, felt that, not only had he enjoyed himself enormously, but he had also learned something substantial about the game system and its rhythms with each replaying. Unfortunately, once the convention ended, the new game, he noted regretfully, would go back into its box; and by the time someone finally got around to developing an online platform for the game on VASSAL, Cyberboard, or Zun Tzu, he was pretty sure that he would have probably long since moved on to some other title. Nor is the experience of this player — who, I should add, has decades in the hobby — at all unique.] This situation is, and has long been, a source of frustration to me; and, as my conversations with other gamers have revealed, to many others in the hobby as well. Which is not to say, by the way, that a determined player can not, with a little bit of effort (thank Heavens for the internet!), track down an opponent with similar gaming tastes; but only that, in spite of all of the people currently active in the hobby, it is surprisingly difficult to find, in any randomly-selected pair, two individuals who are comfortably familiar with any, much less several of the same games. For old-timers like me, this is a bit vexing because, while I continue to try out those newer releases that genuinely interest me, I also still enjoy playing many of the older titles in my collection. Thus, it should come as no surprise that, along with some of the newer games currently on the market, there are — as already noted — a number of early Avalon Hill (and SPI titles, for that matter) that I and others I know still like enough to play. Unfortunately, given the proliferation of competing titles available to players nowadays, I am only too well aware of the fact that, were I to suggest one of these older games for a "pick-up" match with the typical attendee at most of today's regularly-held wargame conventions, I would most likely get a puzzled look followed by a polite, but firm "no thanks". Time, as they say, marches on.

In one sense, I suppose, it is reassuring that at least a few of the "old" standbys have managed to hang on as long as they have. Hence, in spite of everything, classic games like STALINGRAD, AFRIKA KORPS, WATERLOO, and MIDWAY still retain, as pointed out previously, the loyalty of a dedicated, even if relatively small, pool of gamers. I think one reason for this is that, despite their crude graphics and simple design platforms, these games still present their fans with interesting and often truly taxing strategic and tactical problems. In addition, however, I suspect that there may be another less-obvious explanation for some of these classics' long-term staying power; one that derives, oddly enough, not so much from the innate qualities of the games themselves, but from the early (and downright odd) Avalon Hill business practice of only publishing one or two wargames a year. This assertion, I know, probably sounds a little strange, so permit me to explain.

If You Play the Same Game Over and Over Again, You're Bound to Get Better, Right?

What I mean by the closing statement in the preceding paragraph is that, because there was such a paucity of wargames available to players in the early days of the hobby, gamers tended to lavish an unbelievable amount of time — it helped that quite a few of us were students in those days — playing, analyzing, and fiddling with the small number of titles that actually were available. Not all of these repeated trips to the game table, of course, produced improvements in play. Like the old saying suggests: "A person can have ten years' experience, or they can one year's experience, ten times". Some players actually gained deeper insight into, and appreciation for, the games they were experimenting with in the course of their repeated play-throughs; other gamers, in contrast, appeared to benefit from their multiple gaming sessions — in the immortal words of Borat — "not so much"; which is to say: the more some individuals played the same games, the more they tended to lock themselves into rigid — and often not very effective — theories about the game. Nonetheless, as time went on, a few innovative gaming "pioneers" came to be generally recognized as experts in their specialties: for example, George Phillies and Dave Roberts in STALINGRAD; Omar DeWitt and Jonathon Lockwood in AFRIKA KORPS; Harley Anton in WATERLOO, and William Searight and Harold Totten in MIDWAY. And, of course, when you have experts, it is only a matter of time before you can expect to see expert opinions. Thus, the result of this increased strategic and tactical expertise was that games like WATERLOO, AFRIKA KORPS, MIDWAY, and STALINGRAD — because gamers tend to be a loquacious bunch — gradually came to generate a voluminous amount of print in the hobby press. Of course, not all of the early articles published on these titles were particularly useful (it should be noted that the early, semi-amateur wargame magazines often left a lot to be desired), but as my friend and GBACW expert, Russ Gifford, pointed out to me awhile back, by the early 70's, the quality of the game analysis finding its way into print had improved dramatically. The most obvious effect of this phenomenon was that the level of play associated with these titles, especially in tournament competition, improved noticeably. On the down-side, thanks to the steady flow of insightful gaming articles and the proliferation of wargame conventions (and their accompanying tournaments), the scourge of both the social and the casual gamer — the convention attendee who specialized in only one or two titles: the "tournament shark", as it were — came into being.

No Pain, No Gain

Now, if we fast forward to the present, the cumulative effect of the reams of expert commentary — along with the game lore that has evolved as a result of decades of play — together have combined to discourage more than a few otherwise interested players from trying any of the older Avalon Hill games: they know only too well that they will be at a pronounced disadvantage if they go up against a veteran classics player, and they would just as soon avoid what will almost certainly be a frustrating and disappointing outcome. This trepidation on the part of less-experienced gamers when it comes to games like STALINGRAD, AFRIKA KORPS, or WATERLOO is perfectly understandable; after all, almost no one wants to sit down at a game table knowing that they will have little, if any, chance of winning. Nonetheless, when it comes to the Avalon Hill classics (and some of the early SPI games, as well), I think that this quite understandable attitude actually ignores a major benefit of playing with a more experienced, more knowledgeable opponent; and that is the opportunity to learn something valuable about the game being played and, in the process, improve one's own abilities as a player. This, as regular readers of my blog will already know, is an argument that I make to new players, both face-to-face and in print, with monotonous regularity. [In my own defense, Dr. Frank Luntz, in "Words That Work", argues that repetition is the key to any successful messaging.] Whether Luntz' advice actually works or not, I still believe that while playing with opponents who are less skillful when one is starting to learn a game may massage one's ego, it will virtually never improve a player's understanding of the subtleties and nuances of a game. Drawing from my own painful experience, as someone who has lost more matches than I can count, both my understanding of a game (any game) and my skills as a player have vitually always improved as a result of competition with better, more experienced adversaries. In my early days in the hobby, I rarely won, but I learned an awful lot, and, happily enough, I also collected a load of interesting game-related stories and anecdotes along the way to go with my various matches. Moreover and somewhat unexpectedly, I have found that mastery of the classics tends to have a beneficial spill-over effect when it comes to other unrelated games. This is not to say that a deeper understanding of the flow and tempo of WATERLOO, for instance, will make you a better SETTLERS OF CATAAN player; on the other hand, it just might make you a more formidable NAPOLEON'S LAST BATTLES player.

Why Settle for Being a 1-1-6, When You Could Be a 7-7-10?

One fundamental difference that I believe separates at least some newer players from the grognard community, is the mistrust and even distaste that this group of younger gamers tends to show for game lore and for published articles on game analysis and theory. Games, these newer voices say, are supposed to be fun, and formal discussions on strategy, on tactics, or on efective lines of play, in their view, completely take the fun out of gaming. This attitude among younger players, by the way, is not nearly as unusual as one might think, and it crops up in the most unexpected situations. I remember, for example, an early-round AFRIKA KORPS tournament game at the annual WBC convention some years ago; this particular match has stayed with me because I think that it perfectly illustrates this all too common attitude among some (but, certainly not all) of the younger players in the hobby. My college-age opponent, who I had not met prior to our match, but who seemed amiable enough, volunteered, as we were getting started, that AFRIKA KORPS was his favorite game and that this was his first tournament ever. Given the gap in our repective experience levels, I suggested that we skip the regular "bidding" for sides and that he could just have his choice. This was a big relief, he explained as he picked the Axis, because he wasn't really sure how the "bidding" process even worked. With sides selected, each of us took our respective seats, and since the game board had been set-up in advance, we were able to start play almost immediately.

My young adversary opened by dispatching his Italians tramping up the Coast Road, while the 21st Panzer Division, along with Rommel and his single supply counter, were all sent racing due east across the desert. This, he informed me, was a new opening move for the Germans that he had only recently hit upon. As gently as I could, I explained that his opening move actually wasn't all that new, and that there was even a name for it: the "DAK". "After all," I continued, "the game has been around almost fifty years; it only makes sense that, in all that time, there has probably been very little that hasn't been tried by somebody, somewhere, at some time or other." He seemed genuinely surprised by this but — once I had completed my part of the first turn — reacted with seeming unconcern to the Commonwealth countermove, which was to send units both to seal the pass at N19 and to block the Italians on the Via Balbia. Although this British move is usually enough to force the German's to abandon the "DAK", my opponent seemed oblivious to the difficulties he was getting into and, leaving the Italians to await help from the incoming 15th Panzer Division, continued his run east with Rommel, the 21st Panzer, and what was now his second supply counter. This, as those who are familiar with the game will know, was a mistake. Although both quite intimidating at first glance, the threats posed by a single unsupported panzer division (with or without supply) and by the "recce down and out" are both comparatively easy for the Commonwealth player to thwart. So, it was not surprising that within a turn or two, the Germans' eastern drive sputtered to a halt. Unfortunately for Rommel, by the time he had decided to give up on the raid against the Allied Home Base, the British June reinforcements had arrived, and the July reinforcements (with their single dangerous "recce") were just around the corner. It was pretty much all downhill from there for the Axis; and the game, much to my dismay, was pretty quickly over.

I use the word "dismay" because, much as I enjoy the prospect of beating one of my fellow grognards like a "rented mule", I actually hate to trounce a younger classics player: new "recruits" that show an inclination to join the grognard ranks are hard to find, and I really don't like to turn an interested player off one of the classics before they have really even had a chance to learn it properly. In any case, as we went about the process of returning the game pieces to their starting positions, I complimented him on the game and then suggested that he might find it useful to consult some of the many excellent articles on different aspects of AFRIKA KORPS play that have appeared, over the years, in past issues of The General. His response to this, however, took me completely by surprise.

"Naw," my opponent replied, "I never read those kinds of  "perfect plan" strategy articles; I think they're lame. Besides," he continued, "using that kind of 'how to' stuff from other people would really take the fun out of the game for me: I like to use my own ideas and intuition rather than borrow someone else's." I was momentarily speechless and after shaking hands good-bye, glanced over at one of my friends (another old-timer) who was still involved in his own AK game a couple of feet away; he looked back at me, and, without saying a word, briefly rolled back his eyes. A few minutes later, having completed his move, my friend motioned for me to join him outside. As soon as we got outdoors, he looked at me and shook his head; it was clear that he was still thinking about my young opponent. "Why," he asked rhetorically, "would anyone want to be a 1-1-6 in a tournament world full of 7-7-10's?" I had no ready answer for him then, and I still don't. Why indeed?


The author mulls over an Afrika Korps move at WBC 2008
while a smiling (and winning) Bert
Schoose looks on
In the end, of course, each player will approach wargaming with his or her own set of preferences and biases. I know that many current players prefer recently-published titles in which the turn-to-turn play tends to be spontaneous and free-wheeling, as well as being relatively unburdened by pre-existing game lore; that is: games in which no player is likely to have a significant advantage in either experience or in skill over that of their most likely opponents. On one level — that is: purely in terms of casual recreation — I can certainly understand the appeal of this approach to gaming; however, it is not now, nor has it ever  been my own. Speaking purely for myself, I play wargames for one of two reasons: when it comes to "serious" historical simulations, I play because I want to understand the central themes that the designer presents as being critical to the game narrative that he is trying to depict; in the case of less rigorously-detailed games (e.g., games like WAGRAM, CAULDRON, AFRIKA KORPS or STALINGRAD), these titles I play because I want to test my own understanding of the game (that is: its basic structural underpinnings, its dynamics of play, and its underlying rhythms) against that of my opponent. In both cases, I have found that — for me, at least — the higher the skill level of my adversary, the more enjoyable the entire gaming experience becomes. Call me old-fashioned, but, given my druthers, I would still much prefer to face a seasoned expert in an old Avalon Hill or SPI classic, than a fellow novice in a brand new release. And it is this feature of the classics — for me, at least — that represents their greatest advantage over most contemporary titles when it comes to the realm of competitive play. When I take my seat across the game table from another grognard to fight it out in one of the classics, I can pretty much bet that I will be in for a hard-fought, expertly-played game; perhaps, I'm being unfair, but I cannot think of a single contemporary title about which I can say the same thing.

Related Posts


  • i believe a lot of the appeal of these classics is the lack of chrome. there are no "special" rules that a player can manipulate for victory. with the classics you get a true gauge of a players skill,assuming equal experience. they hold a special appeal to the most competitive players and like chess,victory is often determined by very subtle moves.

  • Greetings Brian:

    I don't think that the problem with some newer games is necessarily the sheer number of their rules, (e.g., "chrome) but the types of rules that contemporary designers have decided to add to the players' decision processes. In some ways, I would argue that the designer has tried to interpose himself into the game as a silent "third player".

    What I actually mean by this is that, ever since Frank Davis' excellent tactical game, WELLINGTON'S VICTORY, appeared on the scene, one designer after another has rushed to incorporate morale, cavalry charge reaction, formation, and command and control rules to games that simulate combat at the grand-tactical (battalion/regiment/brigade) level and/or operational (division) level; organizational levels where one could reasonably argue -- as earlier game designers, in fact, have -- that, in the course of a major action, such factors would actually tend to cancel each other out.

    Since I have already referred to the Battle of Waterloo earlier, let us use that engagement as an example. If the old Avalon Hill game, WATERLOO, is fought out to the bitter end, it is not unusual for there to be only a handful of units still on the map at game end. Historically speaking, of course, such an outcome would look to be ridiculous -- over 230,000 men reduced to a few thousand? Come on. However, given the spare simplicity of the "classic" games' combat systems, is such an outcome really that ahistorical?

    In the actual battle, somewhere between 42-45,000 Frenchmen, and 23-25,000 British and Prussians ended up as casualties at the end of a single day's battle. These numbers sound pretty horrific until you remember that a substantial percentage, of both armies' numbers, actually represented wounded and missing, and not just those killed in action. In point of fact, the French probably lost somewhere between 8-10,000 killed to the P.A.A.'s 6-7,000. The rest, for one reason or another (wounded, missing, captured, or deserted), were simply no longer capable of participating in the fight. Thus, if one looks at the old game WATERLOO in that way, the bloodshed created by the AH CRT is not actually killing that many units, it is simply rendering them incapable of further effective (military) action. This, to my way of thinking, is a lot better approach than rolling for everything (including movement) that a unit does while it is on the battlefield.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • lol yes! that experience of just a few guy's left at the end of WATERLOO is an oft occurrence- I imagine a Monty Pythonesque scene with two men on top of a huge pile of dead bodies cheering "we won"! But as you point out,the numbers are staggering and are well reflected in many play's of the game.

  • And another great essay from Joe on our beloved Golden Oldies ;)

    When you read the post over on Consim you can see where the AH Classic's or the old SPI games(for that matter any game from the 60's/70's) tend to be the one's where the talk on tactic's/strategy or Tourney play are the more intense.These games have stood the test of time.
    Those old AH games are almost like Chess where each move or countermove has been discussed in magazines or discussion folders and the perfect plans laid out to have them chopped up to bits with a counterplan.

    I had to smile with Joe's answer to Brian about Waterloo because it made me think of my first playing of the game. Waterloo was one of my first two true wargames bought by my Mother at J.C.Penny of all places(Gettysburg was the other AH game).
    I played G-Burg first then sat down and played Waterloo. At one point I looked at the dead pile and I was shocked seeing more units eliminated then G-Burg even had in the whole game. Oh the memories.

    I still will sit and just look at the collage of those pictures on the Stalingrad box like I did way back when,or stare at the G-Burg map which I still think is a great map and it always had the period look about it. Or still reading the story on the Afrika Corps box about Rommel.I still read the full game history of the SPI folio's on the back cover(The DG remakes of the SPI folio's haven't come close to the feelings I have for the original games). Silly yes but they still give me that same feeling they did oh so many decades ago and thats what counts most for me.

  • Joe

    You should have a download pdf for us to be able to print out on this great topic.

  • Greetings Again Brian:

    Yes, I confess that -- surveying the "dead piles" in STALINGRAD or WATERLOO -- I used to have pretty much the same thought. On the other hand, D'Erlon's entire infantry corps was shattered at Waterloo by British cavalry and artillery (all in the space of only a few minutes) when he attempted to assault Wellington's left while in column.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Greetings Kim:

    I have added the "PDF Gadget" at the bottom of the post; my wife, it seems, doesn't like the distorted look that the gadget has when it is placed at the top, near the header.

    So far as the good old days go ...

    Yes, I still remember the unique feeling of anticipation I had every time I stripped the plastic off of a brand new game box (or opened a Ziploc bag, in the case of GDW) and took out the various game components to survey them, for the first time. I think it was Omar DeWitt who, in a long ago piece in "The General", said that, for dedicated gamers in those days, the smell of a freshly-opened game box was, if anything, even better than that of a new car.

    Perhaps the greatest thrills that most of us got was when we cracked open our first one or two "Monster" games. My first look at both DNO and WAR IN THE EAST, and the excitement that both games elicited, will always reside in my memories.

    Those, indeed, were the days.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Hi Joe

    Thanks for another thought provoking article. I’ll keep my response short, and rather than referring to any number of the themes you discuss, I’ll alight on only a couple.

    My board wargaming dates from the early 70s, therefore I missed the ‘classics’ period as such. The production of games was already becoming something of a deluge, but a surfeit of time and coincidental lack of money enabled me and my opponents to concentrate on certain titles and ultimately play them to an exacting level.

    Whatever skill set is required to be an effective wargamer, I had it, and was a natural talent, but I was also willing to put in the work and long consideration necessary to be formidable. This was a killer combination, historian (my masters was in military studies) and super-competitor (a so-called ‘assassin’ gamer). However, this was all rather less enjoyable than it might appear. I was forever nonplussed at others’ acceptance of being also-rans, or inadequate at their chosen hobby, by simply being unwilling to study or incapable of learning from experience. Over the years this became unsatisfying for me and doubtless somewhat tiresome for the opposition.

    About twenty five years ago I discovered poker, and found that not only were my skills transferable, but that the other players were, with two notable exceptions, the equivalent of poor wargamers. The exceptions were that they were immeasurably worse as players, and that whether I liked them individually or not, I respected them for putting their money where their mouth was. These guys were not the mama’s boys I was used to; they actively liked raw meat on the table and blood on the carpet.

    Frankly, I loved it; this was the kind of competition I had always craved. A tough game on a playing field tilted in my direction! I spent twenty years studying, analysing and playing this fascinating game and over time made (looking back on it) eye widening amounts of money. Whilst I continued to wargame, it was a pale comparison to poker.

    However, the rise of the internet and online gaming, together with TV exposure, began to draw in thousands, and now millions, of players, and the best of them are better than I was. As only the best survive, it is these players that now flood the casinos. The arms race has passed me by, and a talented, studious social player has no chance against this new breed. These people are vastly experienced and also very well read; indeed the growth of technically advanced poker literature is phenomenal.

    The point being, this has given me an insight onto the other side of the fence. My reaction is to cease playing poker, which I have done, as playing losing poker is injurious to one’s wealth in addition to any psychological distress induced. But further than that, I’ve adopted a far more relaxed attitude to wargaming, where I don’t want to read strategy articles or endlessly re-tread games that I know inside out, and thereby trounce less committed players. Within the constraints of very limited time, I now like to take on new games and play them against someone similarly fresh to the subject.

    Now, this last paragraph may appear to my group as slightly unrecognisable, as we continue to play an annual competition made up of classic games that are highly analysed, played to a nicety, and there is no quarter asked or given. But the truth is, whilst not wishing to adopt the role of also ran, I’m not anymore the wargamer I was. Maybe I’ve exchanged that skill for a little belated wisdom.

    Regards, Tim A

  • Greetings Tim:

    Thank you, as always, for sharing you thoughts.

    I suppose the issue (among several) that most troubles me, as I alluded to in my essay, is the burgeoning number of players who not only are content to play most games poorly, but who seem perfectly happy to play their "favorite" titles without any real effort to improve their own skill or insight. This is not to say that I believe that gamers, even "grognards" like us, should compete only in those titles that they have mastered -- I, for example, genuinely enjoy games like WAR AT SEA or VICTORY IN THE PACIFIC (just to name a couple), but usually find myself getting thoroughly trounced by more skillful players with painful regularity -- but, instead, that I find it disappointing that, except for the "classics", it now seems almost impossible to find truly expert competition within the ranks of the gaming community as a whole. Stated differently: where are the experts and the expert commentary and analysis for the newer titles? And does anyone even care anymore?

    Of course, it is certainly possible to make the argument that replaying the same few titles over and over again is stultifying, boring, and pointlessly limiting. On the other hand, while I -- at the height of my game collecting days -- owned somewhere in the neighborhood of 800+ titles, I felt then that I could play about 25% of them moderately well, and perhaps 50-60 games at the expert or near-expert level. This range of experience, except among the thinning ranks of "grognards" seems to be fading from the scene. So far as I am concerned, this is an unfortunate trend. There is no gaming experience, to my mind, more pleasureable than testing one's own mastry of a favorite game against that of a fellow expert.

    I suppose that I, like you, am content to be an "also ran" in some games, such as UP FRONT, CIVILIZATION, or CIRCUS MAXIMUS, but I still, even now, con tinue to study and refine my play in those titles that truly interest me, old or new.

    When it comes to the subject of poker, I understand your concerns and, at least to some degree, share them. I have played the game virtually all of my adult life, both socially and in casinos; unfortunately, the rapid growth in the popularity of the game has brought a whole new generation of young, hyper-aggressive positional (I tend to play Texas Hold'em) players to the gaming tables who, besides making for a tougher game, also tend to make for a less-social, even ruder (verbal "bullying" particularly of less assertive players has increased dramatically) gaming experience. And frankly, it has been this last aspect of the poker experience that has largely turned me off casino play.

    In any case, thanks again for your thoughtful comments and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Two observations:

    1) From one of Joe's responses, I think it is important, and way too often ignored, that it is more important what a designer leaves out of a game, than what he puts into it. In other words, what is abstracted. The reason for putting stuff in is often "realism", but as anyone who has ever served in the military knows, there is nothing realistic about even the most realistic game. Or, as I say when presented with the "realism" argument, "If you want realism, join the Army and go to Iraq." (Substitute whatever war is appropriate for one's own period in history.) So, to me, the important thing is not that a game be perfectly accurate, especially in its mechanics, because it can't be, but rather than it produce a reasonably accurate historical outcome on a semi-regular basis. Plus that it actually be fun to play, not work. Which leads to ...

    2) I tend to agree with Joe's Afrika Korps opponent. I used to subscribe to The General. (In fact, I have a tattoo based on of their late 70s articles, "laever dae as slaef".) But reading articles for helpful hints is one thing, actually devoting chess-like study to a game is another. At that point it ceases being play, instead becomming work. If I wanted to work, it would be at things that make money. Play is for relaxing and not working. That is not to say I do not want to do well, and do not care about winning -- I do -- but rather that it should not be work. An example: I am an elite-level "Blue Max" player. I did not get that way by endless study of articles, or even of looking at the charts (I don't) but by repetition. I've literally played the game over 20,000 times. So, I think intelligence, desire to win, and repetition are more important than study. :-)

  • Oh, and a realization that no matter how good you are, there is always something more you can learn. :-)

  • Greetings Preston:

    You raise a couple of interesting points, so allow me to address them in turn.

    First, having served in the army and having, unlike virtually all of the game designers I have met, actually heard shots fired in anger, I agree that layering additional subroutines onto a game platform does very little to actually improve genuine "realism"; what it does do, however, along with giving the illusion of greater historical accuracy (note that I say "illusion") is to make the play of such a game far more cumbersome, with very little gain to the player.

    In the case of my amiable, but clueless AFRIKA KORPS opponent from years back, I think that we will have to agree to disagree. If, as he claimed, AK was his favorite game, then I cannot help but think that his enjoyment (and his play) would have been greatly inhanced if he had done no more than read Jonathon Lockwood's or Omar DeWitts's excellent primers on the game. It certainly would have saved him from the speedy defeat he experienced because of his unfamiliarity both with the faults of his opening moves, and with the most likely Commonwealth reposte. One advantage, after all, of reading articles on game analysis, is that the reader (hopefully) can, by drawing on the expert knowledge of others, avoid having to play a game thousands of times in order to gain some mastery of its play.

    On the subject of work: I suppose that, to a certain degree, a lot depends -- as you note -- on what each of us actually views as "work". For my own part, studying an interesting game problem (or sitting at a keyboard for hours, blogging) are not work, any more than reading military history books or watching TV programs of physics and cosmology are work. I enjoy all of these things and, for that reason, find it pleasureable rather than tedius to commit a percentage of my free time to them. Just as some people enjoy crossword or other mental puzzles, I personally enjoy the challenge of attempting to tease the secrets of an interesting game design out into the open where I can examine them and, hopefully, put them to use in future matches. For me, at least, studying and analyzing games is not so much about winning anymore (my days of counting "coup" at the game table, I like to think , are long past), but about deepening my own understanding both of the designer's original ideas about the situation being depicted, and increasing my own appreciation of the nuances contained in even many of the "simplest" of games.

    Thanks again, as always, for your thoughtful comments and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Greetings Again Preston:

    Your second, brief comment, I think, goes to the heart of my own approach both to the play and to the anlalysis of games. let me use a little anecdote to illustrate.

    For the first few years that I was actively engaged in the hobby, I, like most of the other players I knew, tended to subscribe to any number of opinions about various familiar game titles with nothing more substantial to back them up but hearsay and popular opinion. Then, in the course of a PBM game of WATERLOO, I experienced something of an epiphany; and although I have related this little story previously, I will revisit it again now.

    Many years ago, in order to expand my circle of opponents, I took up PBM play; and took it up in a big way: sometimes running seven or eight postal games at once. My usual titles of choice, not surprisingly given how long ago all this was, were D-DAY, AFRIKA KORPS, STALINGRAD, BULGE '65, and WATERLOO. Some of my postal adversaries, as you can probably imagine, were pretty good and some, as Borat would say: "not so much." One of my opponents, who I found through the pages of "The General" was a retired army officer who, it turned out, wanted to play WATERLOO; even better, he wanted to play the French. I say "even better" because, among my circle of friends, it was common knowledge that the French absolutely could not win against a competent PAA opponent. Needless-to-say, I promptly took him up on his generous offer and, much to my surprise, proceeded to get one of the worst drubbings that I have ever received in any PBM game.

    My experience with this WATERLOO game completely changed how I thought about games and gaming, and how I approached my own play. Never again would I accept the unsupported opinions of other players as fact; moreover, I also, for the first time, realized that there was a depth to many of the familiar games that I had been playing for years that I had, up until that time, been completely oblivious to. To make a long story a tiny bit shorter, I have approached the analysis of games, gaming, and game design with this skeptical, but inquisitive attitude, ever since. And all because a postal opponent showed me that the only reliable thing about "conventional wisdom" is that it is "conventional", not that it is "wisdom".

    Best Regards, Joe

  • By way of background, I got into war gaming in 1971 when I started high school. I was introduced to it through Diplomacy, but quickly became a devoted follower of the products produced by SPI. I have only played one game of Bulge '65, which is the only AH Classic I have ever played.

    Fairly early on in my exposure to the hobby, I came to realize that there were two kinds of war gamers - "game players" and "historians."

    The game player is more interested in mastering the strategy and tactics of the games and sees them as games per se. That's not to say the game players are not interested in the history that the games purport to simulate, but it usually takes a back seat to the game play itself.

    The historian looks at war games as a "paper time machine" of sorts. They are a means of recreating the situation that the historical commanders faced and determining how things may have turned out differently (or the same) if certain actions were taken or not taken. The historical side is of more interest to the historians than the competitive aspects of the game. This is not to say that the historian does not like to win, but merely that is not the prime motivator for playing the games. It probably goes without saying that the historians are often far more interested in solitaire gaming than the game player, especially if the game being played solo is not designed as a solitaire game.

    I find that most war gamers tend to fall onto one side or the other of the continuum to a greater or lesser degree. I'm not saying one approach is superior to the other, but I will say that, in my opinion, the gaming experience is usually greatly enhanced if one finds a regular opponent or opponents who approach the hobby from a perspective similar to one's own. It doesn't hurt to play someone who is from the opposite camp once in a while, in order to gain a deeper appreciation for one's own preferences, but I've found that one gets more out of the games if one's opponent is bringing a similar set of assumptions to the gaming table.

    Fascinating article, Joe. As always, your insights into the hobby are insightful and a pleasure to read.

    Ed Pundyk

  • Greetings Ed:

    Thank you for your kind words, and for your thoughtful comments.

    I think that there is probably a great deal of truth in what you say. However, the division that you describe, I think, was more pronounced years ago , than it is today. If you look back to the early days of the hobby, when earnest, but zany organizations like Spartan International were still active in organizing and promoting tournaments, then I would say that the gulf between the two groups (although subdivisions within the two camps, even then, were certainly identifiable) was both wide and, for some of us, almost unbridgeable. On the other hand, the aging of the earlier cohort of players has -- based on my own experiences with other "grognards" -- tended to close quite a bit over the years.

    For my own part, although I enjoy competition enough to try my luck at major tournaments, at least from time to time, I also enjoy (and always have) the historical element that the hobby makes possible. For example, long before the curre nt batch of WBC WATERLOO tournament rules changes, I had already begun playing the game using historical corps organizations for both the French and the Prussians (corps for the Anglo-Allies being a purely administrative organization); a practice that I also carried over into a number of early SPI games (e.g., KURSK, THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN, WAR IN THE EAST, etc.). So yes, I would definitely acknowledge that both general types of player exist, but I think that time has tended, in many cases, to fog the boundaries between them.

    Thanks again for visiting and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • It's all good. :-)

    - preston

  • Greetings Preston:

    Indeed, it is; or, to paraphrase a very old saying: "Learning (about any topic, including games) is a journey, not a destination."

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Bravo!!!!
    As I have just returned home from trouncing my regular opponent in a 'new' classic (is there such a thing?), I am reading your post agog! Yes. There is so much truth in your article and the wise comments that follow from readers.
    - Daily I struggle to encourage my children to master their topics. Adequate grades are not enough! An ok game of American Football is not sufficient. Nor is playing pointlessly, a wargame.

    Tonight I watched my erstwhile opponent make the same errors, use the same 'philosophy' ....why?
    Tonight whilst driving home the satisfaction of victory faded as I thought that if he does not improve, then I do not improve!
    Tonight I read these comments and desire to do more and better writing about newer games, so as to encourage new gamers, and prod old ones to be better!

    At the moment if I review my blog I see that play is focused on learning 3 major gaming systems TCS (GAMERS) GBOH (GMT) and LnL (LocknLoad Publishing). I desire to be passably good at the games, nearly all of them I play solo, with some F2F play. I have started to shy off one off games, except classics.

    Before I 'invest' in a game or a game series I like to read what others experience, ask about major flaws, discover important house rules, and understand the basic premise of the system, the designers intent, and the history of the situation (if relevant).

    For the longer games, I viciously question player communities about balance and campaign scenario design, as I fear spending our most precious capital TIME is not something to be frivolous about. For a game to consume 100 or 200 hours I want to know when I leave the table (solo or otherwise) that I gave my best, played it right, and had the "full" experience.

    For classic games such as Stalingrad (which thanks to you I am revisiting), I am collecting opening moves, ideal defenses and intend to play as many variations as a I can over the coming months, I cannot recapture 20 lost years of gaming, but I can distill,reduce to essence and ponder others choices!

    Why would I do that? As I learned when I re engaged with The Russian Campaign 2 years ago, there is so much more to a game than my experiences 20+ years ago as a novice 'consumer' of games. Designers leave us hints in war games in the design notes, rules and comments. They express thier intentions. Often however words cannot express the sublties the tactics, and strategies that are possible. To merely "rush" thru another session is fruitless.

    At some point I shall publish play thrus or AARs to share the experience.

    As new returning player, my initial urgency to play has been replaced with a desire to understand and know. I aspire to elicit wisdom from war games.

    Thank you for another wonderful and thought provoking article. Also thanks to your readers for their thoughtful well structured posts. I'd love to write so well!

  • Greetings Kevin:

    Thank you, as always, for your kind words and for your thoughtful comments; both are appreciated.

    The fact that -- having returned to wargaming after a twenty-year hiatus -- you elect to focus your attention (and time) on those titles that seem to offer the greatest prospect of return on your investment makes perfect sense to me. Of course, with the older games, as you acknowledge, there is a body of game lore already available to study and consider. Alas, would that that was the case for many (if not most) of the newer titles plopping into the market, one after the other. Unfortunately, when it comes to the newer titles, what we usually get instead of serious analysis or reasoned commentary, are Utube AAR's and straight forward -- "this is what I liked, this is what I didn't" -- game reviews. Neither of these things, however erstwhile their authors may be, really offers the prospective buyer (or even the prospective player) much to go on.

    I guess I'm getting old, but I genuinely do miss the "Good Old Days"; then things seemed a bit simpler. There was a time, for example, many, many years ago, when I bought virtually everything that the game publishers of the day saw fit to print. No longer. Now, if I don't receive a strong "thumbs up" from at least one or more experienced players whose judgment I trust, I don't even give a new game a glance. I'm sure that I have probably missed a few "gems" along the way, but, as you suggest: time is the one commodity that we can't buy more of. And at my age, I simply don't have any time to waste on those things that don't interest me.

    In any case, good luck with your ongoing journey of "game rediscovery" and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Another thoughtful and enjoyable article. I mostly missed this wave of "classic" games, with the exception of Midway (I pretty much broke in with Midway and War at Sea; the game I really wanted -- had I only known of its existence at the time -- was Jutland, but that's another story).

    Long story short, I played a lot more Squad Leader, Wooden Ships & Iron Men (nowadays it's Close Action, the game WS&IM should have been), and the like than any of the classic titles. Shortly thereafter I got into miniatures. However, I am starting to play Tactics II with my sons (12 and 9), along with a self-modified version of Joe Morschauser's horse and musket miniature rules. They have a lot of fun with Tactics II, and I'm getting interested in it as a corps-level study (plus, I have a recollection of one of my professors from my undergrad days in the early 1980s saying they'd found a saddle point in Tactics II that needed fixing).

    I see Tactics II as a way of teaching mechanics and having fun before moving on to other games. I have the Yaquinto Borodino and Shiloh games; I think we'll be able to break those out soon.

  • Greetings Ken:

    Thank you for your kind words and for your thoughtful comments; both are appreciated.

    Regarding transitioning your sons from square ot hexagonal games: you might consider picking up a used copy of SPI's classic introductory game, NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO. It has the advantages of being simple, fast-playing, and yet relatively complete in terms of the gaming features that it incorporates; that is to say, it introduces concepts such as "sticky" ZOCs, different unit types, bombardment, soak-offs, and "demoralization".

    In any case, good luck in introducing gaming to your two boys and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Hello Joe,

    I'm slowing making my way through your articles, having only discovered your site a few months ago.
    What you've written here really hit home with me. I grew up in what I would consider the "late classical period of board wargaming" :). I remember well those trips to our local hobby store at a time when it seemed like game companies were turning out new titles almost weekly.
    I lost a lot of my games when our shed in Arizona was flooded (yes it can rain a lot in Arizona!) back in 1992. I lost over 100 games, mostly old SPI and Avalon Hill titles. Within the past year I've started keeping my eyes open for old titles that were especially close to my heart and buying them when I see one offered online for a fair price.
    Buying games that were a big part of my growing up (memories of summer gaming sessions with friends, and playing with my brother) and seeing them after 20 years has been a unique experience, and one that has made me think a lot about games now and then.
    Nostalgia? Perhaps, but not totally. The games I liked to play then, I have found I am making time to play now--not always an easy a thing to do with all the joys and responsibilities that accompany becoming older!
    For me, the war games of my youth set the stage for an interest in military (and general) history that has stayed with me a life-time. I also believe they gave me a more in-depth and "tactile" understanding of what I was reading in books. Now that I'm older, and having moved in the academic environment in the realm of military history, I am convinced of the value of war gaming as a teaching tool to better understand the conflicts that shape our world.
    Of course, this is hardly a revelation when one considers the value placed by the Prussian (and later German) General Staff, as well as other countries in Kriegsspiel in its various forms!
    I really like the old games. "Soldiers" was one of my favorite games as a kid, and still is now--40 years after it was published. But is this really surprising? Why do we consider games differently than literature? They both have many of the same elements of story-telling and creativity in an effort to draw you into the experience.
    New isn't necessarily always better. High-colored maps and a 60-page rule booklets are not a recipe for a successful game.
    A simple map, a well-designed and simple system, and two willing minds are all you need for a great game!


  • Greetings Paul:

    Thank you for your kind words, and for your interest.

    Obviously, although I have a certain amount of affection for some of the "monster" games that, big and complicated though they may be, offer interested players a unique gaming experience, I still have a deep fondness for the older games of my "long past" youth. Their value as "simulations" (whatever that actually means in the context of recreational games) may have often been suspect (if not nonexistent), but their ability to entertain and challenge players has never really diminished, at least in my view.

    On a completely different topic ...

    Unlike last year -- in which I was only able to spend a few hours at the Consimworld Expo -- this time around, I have made plans to attend all six and a half days of the convention. Since you, like me, live in Arizona, it is possible that I will see you at this year's Consimworld Expo in Tempe.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Hello Joe,

    I have to admit being guilty of living in Tucson for five years and never making it to Consim...looking back on it I just have no excuse!
    Arizona hasn't been home for almost 20 years now--I'm hanging my hat in Europe for a few more years.


  • Greetings Paul:

    Well, in that case, you should consider "crossing the pond" to at least attend this summer's World Boargaming Championships Convention in Lancaster, PA. I can guarantee that you will find plenty of opportunities to play the "classic" titles that you remember with such fondness. Alas, I wouldn't recommend that you make the trek to this year's Origins, however; although it is a much larger convention, it has pretty much morphed, over the years, into a cross between a "Star Trek' and "D&D" convention, and an "Auto Show".

    Best Regards, Joe

Post a Comment