The art of war for fun and profit

Paul MacRae April 21 1980

The art of war for fun and profit

Paul MacRae April 21 1980

The art of war for fun and profit


Paul MacRae

Friday night at the games club on the third floor of Mr. Gameways’ Ark in Toronto, one of North America’s biggest game and hobby stores. The most striking feature in the room is a life-size plywood and plastic replica of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, bristling with buttons, lights and painted video screens. The Enterprise takes up one whole end of the room. To its left is a small, blacked-out

theatre. The remaining floor space is covered by a dozen or so Formica-top tables placed in no particular order, and around the tables sit some war-game players, half of them sunk in the state of intense and silent concentration usually associated with chess.

Three teen-agers have set up a naval war game on the surface of one of the tables. In a corner, two men in their 20s

huddle intently over a map of Scotland, refighting the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn between Robert the Bruce and the forces of England’s King Edward II. Three or four others look on. Behind them two tables hold a large map of the Normandy coast, ready for a replay of D day. And a dozen fellows from their early teens to early 30s are ranged beside a long table for a noisy game of Dungeons and Dragons.

In a separate room four tables have been pushed together to hold a gigantic map of Europe, covered with thousands of colored cardboard counters representing Soviet and German combat units. Nobody’s playing War in Europe tonight; it takes eight generals—four a side—to rise above the mass of detail and they can’t all get together until Sunday.

The 50 to 60 serious gamers who visit the Gameways’ club every weekend are just a tiny fraction of the estimated 250,000 North Americans attracted in recent years to a fast-growing hobby

known as war gaming—adult games of strategy as far removed in complexity and sophistication from the traditional family board games of Monopoly and Scrabble as a Formula 1 Ferrari is from Mr. Ford’s first Model T. For many years war games stuck to tank and infantry (or

cavalry and infantry) historical sub-

jects and re-crea-

tions of battles such as Gettysburg, Waterloo and Stalingrad. With their sometimes difficult

rules and long playing times—12 hours is not uncommon—these games required commitment and stamina and had only a small following of hard-core game and history buffs. But in the past three or four years, with what game manufacturers call improvements in the “state of the art,” games have been appearing on store shelves to appeal to every skill level and historical or imaginary interest.

The biggest breakthrough has been the introduction of science-fiction and fantasy games. “Not everybody can become a historian, but everyone fantacizes,” explains James Dunnigan, president of Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI) of New York, the second-largest publisher of war games after Baltimore’s Avalon Hill. Although they are spin-offs from the military stream, scifi and fantasy games have elbowed out

the conventional battles in sales and jiumber of players over the past three years. SPl’s current best seller, with sales of more than 70,000 units, is an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; second-ranked is Starforce, a space-conflict game, with 60,000 copies sold. By comparison, SPI expects to sell an average 10,000 copies each of its historical war games in their entire lifetimes. The current best seller among all war games? Dungeons and Dragons, the fantasy role-playing game that sold 250,000 copies in 1979 alone (see box page 48).

In 1979 North Americans spent more than $23 million on war games and related products, such as metal military miniature figures, about $2 million of that in Canada, a hefty jump of 30 per cent from 1978. “However you slice it,” says Dunnigan, “the war-game market has tripled in five years.” The figures are all the more surprising since war gaming is an industry that didn’t even exist 25 years ago. The first mass-produced commercial war game, using a grid map and cardboard pieces, did not appear until 1958. In the next 10 years

the publisher,'The Avalon Hill Game Co., marketed a line of about 20 games with almost no competition. Today the consumer is faced with a bewildering array of more than 400 game titles of professional calibre brought out by more than 20 game firms, most of them in the United States and a handful in Europe. Canada currently has only one company designing and publishing new war games—Simulations Canada of Elmsdale, Nova Scotia. Vancouver’s Gamma II Games brought out three war games, including two on Canadian subjects—the War of 1812 between Canada and the United States, and the battle between French and English forces on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. Sales were disappointing and after two years, in 1974, Gamma II stopped producing war games in favor of family games. A third firm, Waddingtons House of Games in Bramalea, Ontario, has a line of simplified “family” war games, and also distributes the popular Diplomacy.

íe ;s íe ig )f >y m n íe w jf

’s ;e ,n n íe h n d [I >r 1a, l-

At first sight it’s a trend that appears sinister. “War is repugnant to some people,” admits Thomas Shaw, Avalon Hill’s executive vice-president, “and this has been a problem for us. During the Vietnam hostilities it was hard to market war games, and we never published a Vietnam war game. But with the cessation of that war, our sales have gone up. We think it’s more than a coincidence.”

A sudden interest in war after almost 40 years without a major world conflict also raises disturbing questions about some innate need for aggression in the human species, especially among males (only one per cent of military war gamers are women).“Once in a generation,” wrote General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the British Army at Gallipoli during the First World War, “a mysterious wish for war passes through the people. Their instinct tells them there is no other way of progress and escape from the habits that no longer fit them.” Alternately, are people subconsciously preparing for a major war that is coming up, even if no one knows when or where?

The rising interest in war games does reflect a more militarized North American society, argues University of Waterloo sociologist Gerard DeGre. He has taught a social-conflict simulation workshop using war games for six years and plays naval games at home with some of his students. War gaming is a symptom of the United States’ “loss of innocence,” he believes. “It’s true that before the Second World War America as a whole was not interested in military affairs.” The growing role of the U.S. as a military superpower changed all that, he says. “English and German children, living in societies with a strong military orientation, have always been fascinated by war games. Robert Louis Stevenson spent half his time up in the attic playing war games with his tin soldiers.” (British author and pacifist H.G. Wells also loved war games; he even published a book in 1913 called Little Wars, the first, and for many years the only, set of comprehensive rules for civilian war gaming using tin soldiers.)

But the negative image of war gaming has been a problem for retailers and players as well as manufacturers. “If they were known only as historical games, we could sell three times as many,” says John Pozer, owner of a Vancouver-based game-store chain, Good Stuff Games. Debra Drillick, a buyer for Mr. Gameways, laughs as she recalls the problems she had with Parker Brother’s Risk, a family-oriented game of world conquest. “When I put it in the war-game section, mothers buying games for their kids wouldn’t touch it. It was about war. So I moved

Risk to the family-games section. Now we sell about 24 copies a week.”

Some critics think that because someone plays war games they want to beat someone else up, but John Dunn, owner of Toronto’s Battered Dwarf games store, argues that it’s the complete opposite. “Because you play war games, you know what can happen to you in a given battle situation. Would you want to be one of those infantry charging a German tank company?” War games are just another form of competition, argues David Simpson, two-year member of the Montreal War-

gamers’ Association two years ago. “Some people will never be great athletes, but they can be great armchair generals.” Simpson, 27, a consultant for a construction products company, spends at least one and sometimes as many as five nights a week at his club. A player of both military and sciencefiction games, he has a collection of more than 800 titles. He has the military gamer’s fascination with history. “Gaming brings historical facts home far more than reading about them,” he says. A war game can vividly illustrate why Napoleon was unable to conquer

Russia in 1812 (“Adverse weather and lack of supplies,” says Simpson) or what would have happened if Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 instead of a year later (“He’d have won”).

For Desmond McGarry, a 27-year-old Toronto law student, war games are a psychological rather than historical thing. His game is Diplomacy, a simulation of national rivalries among the European powers that caused World War I. It’s a multi-player game and it is the dealing among them—the making and breaking of alliances—that fascinates McGarry. “In Diplomacy you can cheat, lie and develop your ability to avoid telling the truth without seeming a liar,” he explains. “If you did that in real life, people wouldn’t talk to you.” He adds that some of the qualities making a good Diplomacy player are also found in successful lawyers, particularly the ability to persuade others to perform actions in your best interest. But a warning: Diplomacy can be hazardous to your friendships. Alliances between players are usually made in secret, and double crosses are part of the game. Sometimes spouses or friends won’t speak to each other for weeks after a hard-fought match.

As the consumer demand grows, science-fiction games are heading in two directions: hypothetical wars of the future on earth (World War III, The Next War, After the Holocaust, Invasion: America [Commies invade North America] and Objective Moscow [Europeans and Chinese gang up on the Soviet Union]) and wars in space (Stellar Conquest and Imperium [the clash of galactic empires], Cosmic Encounters [human vs. alien], Traveller [science-fiction role-playing with plots like mutiny on a starship], Battlefleet Mars [human on Mars revolt against an oppressive Earth]). Fantasy games lean toward the magical and mythical in which wizards and sorcerers fight alongside (or against) muscle-bound heroes, evil dwarfs and hungry monsters, using brains, brawn and magical spells.

At the same time, publishers have been combing every continent and era for conflicts they can turn into new historical games. Almost every action of the First and Second World Wars, the American Civil War and Napoleonic era has been “gamed,” and game-makers have been forced to range farther afield into prehistoric times (Sticks and Stones), ancient Rome (Centurion, Caesar’s Legions), Greece (The Peloponnesian Wars), China (Emperor of China, Warring States), Japan (Samurai) and European history (Agincourt, Siege of Constantinople, Frederick the Great).

Not content with war, game manufacturers are also producing sophisticated lines based on sports and business. You can play and manage your own baseball,

basketball or football team using computerized statistics from real team or individual performances of the previous year, or try your luck at the Fastnet yacht race or the ponies. Considering that so many people think business is “dull,” the number of games coming out in this area is surprising—Acquire, Stock Exchange, Stocks and Bonds, Executive Decision, Business Strategy, North Sea Oil and Foreign Exchange (this one almost requires a PhD in economics for the advanced version).

The structure of games is also changing. On one end of the scale, games are

dealing with smaller and smaller combat units. In Squad Leader, for example, the player becomes a platoon lieutenant rather than a general and his objectives are pillboxes and clumps of forest rather than whole territories or cities. As units get smaller, the amount of detail and realism increases to include varying types of weapons, company morale, ability to carry ammunition, type of formation (column, line, square) and so on. At the other end of the scale, game-makers are turning out more and

more of what they call “monster” games—simulations with thousands of pieces, hundreds of pages of rules, map boards 48 square feet in size which require four or five kitchen tables to carry them. A new Second World War game, Campaign for North Africa, has a suggested playing time of 200 hours, notes John Dunn of the The Battered Dwarf store. “And that’s for the guy who designed the game. It would take you or me triple that amount of time. The rule book is about two inches thick.”

While the future of war gaming looks good, some war-game companies are hedging their bets by bringing out nonwar games for the profitable familygame market. Hard-core war gamers may find them oversimplified and predictable, but the family games like Monopoly, Risk and Scrabble sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year, compared to tens of thousands for war games. Close behind the top-selling Dungeons and Dragons last Christmas was a family-oriented board game, Class Struggle, a Monopoly-type treatment of the battle between capitalists and proletarians.

The industry is also studying computer and electronic games. Most of the current electronic games are not true war games, even if they do pit tank against tank, or jet fighter against jet fighter. Like TV Ping-Pong they are tests of manual dexterity, not military strategy. But as the number of home computer terminals grows, manufacturers expect to transfer more and more of their games from cardboard boxes to computer programs.

Meanwhile, Avalon Hill’s Shaw at-

tributes the current war-game boom to better games and better marketing of games. Others point to the depressed state of the North American economy. “It’s just a fact that games do well during a recession,” says Vancouver game retailer Pozer. “Scrabble and Monopoly became tremendously popular during the Depression of the 1930s, when people weren’t well-off and couldn’t go out much.” Today, he observes, a Vancouver couple with children must pay $20 or more for a night at the movies, once you add the costs of baby-sitter and gasoline to the tickets. A game costs less than that, “and you can play it over and over again with friends in your home. It’s a good investment.”

In addition, North Americans are better educated and have more leisure time, despite the economic slump, than ever before. Observes Mr. Gameways’ Pappin: “Games are a much more positive way of spending your time than watching TV; to play them you have to think. You have to stay on your toes or get smashed. Watching football you don’t have to do anything but burp.” War games are tense and exciting, but they also stretch the intellect to its limits. And they are a way of letting off steam in a tense economic climate, says Pappin. “Not everybody can go to the Bahamas, but anybody can conquer Moscow.”