Works of fiction appearing here are © 2011-2018 by Jack H. Tyler, and are not to be assumed to lie in the public domain.
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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Don't be Left 4 Dead!

          Literally from the time I was able to sit up and hold a deck of cards in my tiny hands, I have been a gamer of one sort or another.  I've never been a big proponent of self-analysis, but as the lonely child of no parents, maybe I found the acceptance my blood relatives never accorded me in the wink of the one-eyed jack.  It hardly matters at this point, I am who I am.  For thirty of my sixty years of gaming, I was a wargamer.  Wargaming, from its introduction to the general public in the years around 1900, has ever remained a fringe hobby, pursued by people who would fit the general definition of geeks, and often generating controversy, at least in my generation, due to its perceived glorification of violence.
          For several months I have been tip-toeing around the idea of a post to cover my involvement in this hobby, but have been unable to find the key ingredient to make it "jell" into something with a wider interest than a simple bio/nostalgia piece.  That ingredient was provided over the weekend by my young cyber-friend, CT, on his wide-ranging blog, Nerd Lunch.  He is a lover of comic books, another hobby viewed as nerdy by those who don't partake, and his post concerns itself mainly with the pending reboot of the DC Lineup.  In his general remarks, he touches on how comics are going more and more digital, and there, friends and neighbors, is my hook, because this is happening to everybody in every aspect of life, work and play.
          First, some background.  In 1958, a brash young entrepreneur named Charles Roberts opened a small publishing house he called Avalon Hill, and for forty years, this little company both dominated and supported the hobby it had created.  In the first year, it published Tactics II, an abstract study of military operations, and Gettysburg, the first true historical wargame.  I encountered Gettysburg at a friend's house in 1961, was blown out of my socks, and requested and received it for Christmas of that year.  I.  Never.  Looked.  Back!
          Gettysburg looked like this in its original 1958 incarnation.  By the time my aunt Marie found a copy in 1961, it had gone through its first "reboot," and my copy had luridly colored hexagonal spaces and square unit counters.  It was disappointing after watching those lines of infantry marching along country roads, making contact with the enemy, and swinging into those wide Civil War battle lines I'd read so much about, but it grew on me, and I continued to burrow into the hobby with every dime I could lay hands on.
          Avalon Hill was part of a larger publisher that made its profits elsewhere, and for the first decade or so, it followed a very slow publishing schedule of one or two wargames (it was also publishing in other genres) per year.  They had, for the most part, clean, attractive graphics, a reasonable playing time (two to six hours was the norm), and simple rules that produced a result to the battle that you could accept as plausible without excluding the casual gamer.  All that changed in 1969.
Berlin 1985, a typical SPI offering
          In that year, Jim Dunnigan founded SPI, and the whole landscape changed.  SPI produced a game a month, bound into their hobby trade magazine, Strategy & Tactics (S&T).  You bought their magazine, which was a little pricey, but not outrageously so, and you got a game.  The production values were a little rough, but they put irresistible pressure on Avalon Hill.  Let's face it, you can't stay in business producing one Cadillac a year when the guy across the street is turning out a dozen Fairlanes.  But there was more to it than that.  Mr. Dunnigan believed, and staffed his company with designers who believed that no detail was too small to be included.  An example will suffice:  In an Avalon Hill game, a unit would have a "movement factor" that defined how many spaces it could move over clear terrain.  If it had to cross a river, it typically cost it one extra movement factor to get across.  In an SPI game, you had to track the weather so you would know when it rained last, and how hard.  Then you went to a table that cross-referenced that information with possible river conditions, and rolled a die to see what exact thing the river was doing at that point, and then you cross-referenced that result with the type of unit making the crossing (foot, horsed, wheeled, tracked, amphibious capability, etc.).  This was to get one unit across one space on the map, and while you may have needed to be a Rhodes Scholar to figure out these rules, you certainly didn't need to be one to see what effect they were going to have.
Gettysburg 1977
          Avalon Hill felt the pressure to keep up.  They began to publish a lot more games, and the quality suffered accordingly.  Oh, they still published the landmark games of the hobby, the ones we remember and speak fondly of today, but gone were the days when the purchase of an Avalon Hill product guaranteed satisfaction; now you had to do your homework.  The complexity went up as well.  Gettysburg, the beloved title from the dawn of the hobby, had its third reboot and grew into what you see to the right, an unplayable monster with two rulebooks that totaled over a hundred pages.  Games were no longer played in a day, nor even in a weekend.  You needed a place to set up a map, with all the accessory components arranged around it, where it would be undisturbed for a period of weeks, or even months, until you and whoever you found with a similar level of obsession could finish it, likely at a pace of one turn per day.
          This, in its turn, had the effect of splitting the hobby into two factions, the casuals (into which you can securely place yours truly), and the hardcores.  The hardcores viewed us as less than real gamers, piddling around with some fantasyland version of history, while we viewed the hardcores as raving lunatics with no grasp on reality, since if they had one, they would put down their rulebooks, come outside, and live in it.  This hobby was never big.  In San Diego, which in the '70s was reaching toward its first million in population, I, immersed in the hobby as I was, knew of less than fifty gamers in the region, and now we were divided against each other.  Well, not against each other, but divided into two seperate hobbies, really, and never the twain shall meet.  And then the next coffin nail was driven home.
          Around the end of the '70s, while this internal battle was raging, an insidious little cancer called Dungeons & Dragons came out of its lair to conquer the gaming hobby.  Casuals and hardcores alike united in our disdain for all the little fairies playing with their elves.  Probably the same disdain that buggy whip manufacturers displayed when the first horseless carriage drove by.  While we were looking down our noses at a pastime we considered barely suitable for the kiddies to occupy themselves while we played real games, D&D took over our world, and Adventure Gaming became the tail that wagged the Wargaming dog.  SPI went under in 1982, driven into Oblivion by armies of miniature wizards and barbarians, and then the real Shadowlord made its appearance.
          That's right, kids, the PC finally arrived to sound the death knell of this feuding little fiefdom.  Granted, the early PCs weren't much.  Avalon Hill took a stab at programming some of their products for IBM, Commodore, and TRS, but they didn't pan out.  Then, in 1994, software publisher SSI released their flagship product, Panzer GeneralFor the first time, a lifelong wargamer could look at his PC screen and see a beautifully rendered wargame map.  Casual and hardcore alike could throw away their rulebooks.  You clicked your mouse on a unit, and every space it could reach, regardless of terrain, was instantly highlighted.  The cherry on top was the fog of war.  You no longer sat on the throne of Zeus, looking down at the whole battlefield with omnipotent knowledge of everything in sight.  Are those woods being held by a third-rate conscript unit, or is the lead strike element of a panzer division lurking in there?  Really want to find out?  Send some poor bastard to take a look!
          That was it, done.  In 1998, the Avalon Hill brand was sold to Hasbro for enough money to settle their outstanding debts.  It can still be seen on the Axis & Allies series, and a few others, but it no longer has anything to do with traditional wargames.  It's sad for those of us (Chops) whose napes still tingle at the very mention of Avalon Hill.  Better to have met a warrior's end; 21-gun salute, and over the side.  Gone, but fondly remembered.  Wargames, in their traditional form, are still produced by tiny companies, and played by nostalgic gamers on dining room tables.  For me, Panzer General and its progeny are my outlet.  It's just too easy to click that mouse and see it all light up for me to go back to flipping through a rulebook, looking for the section on River Crossings Under Fire, but I understand why they do it.
          See, I don't own a Kindle.  I like to feel the crisp edge run along my fingertip as I turn the page.  I like to put a bookmark in that thick block of paper, and hear the thump as I lay it on the nightstand.  My grandchildren have difficulty understanding the concept of clockwise.  I wonder whether their grandchildren will have any idea what a book was.
          As a young man, I watched and loved Star Trek.  When Shatner would whip out that communicator and call up anybody in the galaxy, when Kelley would put you on the table that diagnosed every ill, when Nimoy said, "Computer, call up all information on..." I have to admit I was profoundly jealous.  I wanted to live in that world, and control those gadgets.  Well, guess what.  In a lot of respects, the world has caught up to Roddenberry's mid-sixties vision, and you know what?  I don't want it.  I don't need that much organization in my life, I don't want to be controlled.
          It's here.  How many times have been in the middle of a conversation with a live human being, maybe with someone you like, or conducting business of vital importance to your personal situation?  How many times has your cell phone/i-pod/e-pad/artificial brain played a catchy little tune, or given a single chirp, and you have cut that person off in the middle of a word to kowtow to your electronic master?  How many times has that been done to you?  Have you ever liked it even once?  I have considered taking people off my A-List for it.  Ever been in a crowded room and heard an electronic chirp?  Isn't it hilarious how everyone drops what they're doing to check their devices?  Or are you one of them?  Sorry...
          Like it or not, computers are in the process of taking over society.  Your representatives are discussing the future of the U. S. Postal Service as I write this.  Are we going to get mail delivery three days a week (or less)?  Will our children play in a park that used to be the neighborhood Post Office?  Everybody sends e-mail; who needs the Post Office?  Personally, I don't feel that three or four carefully sterilized sentences on a computer screen take the place of a letter that someone felt emotionally engaged enough to sit down and write, put it in an envelope, buy a stamp, and put in the mail.  But that's just me, and it's an indication of how out of touch I am.  I've had my cell phone, a model with very few features, for three years, and my personal e-mail account for eight months.  I don't own a credit card, and I pay my bills with personal checks.  I am proud and happy to have lived in a society where you interacted with other human beings.  I miss it, and will cling to every bit that's left until they put me in the box, an event I'm sure will be fully digitized by the time I check out...
          One last caveat about all this digitization:  At some point, some measure of security is going to have to be perfected.  I've heard all the experts who are quick to say, "Can't be done, the next hacker's always out there," etc.  Well, it better be done.  My employer, the Government of the United States, doesn't cut paychecks.  If I want to get paid, I have to have direct deposit, and that means a bank has all my financial records.  My medical records are held on computer by an HMO.  There are many others.  You can't turn on the news without seeing the latest story of how a hacker has crashed into Sony and gained access to a hundred million customer accounts, or that CitiBank has lost control of the financial records of tens of millions of customers, exposing them all to malicious activity through no fault of their own.  This has to cease.
          As does this post.  I've gone on far too long, which is an indication of my level of interest.  I hope you enjoyed something here.  If not, maybe you'll enjoy pondering this little conundrum:
          If vegetable oil is made from vegetables, what, pray tell, is baby oil made from?

          Be safe, and watch out for each other.  Now, get out there and live life like you mean it!



  1. I too remember spending time with another human being over a wargame and enriching my own life as well as creating fond memories and a history to tell our children about...How funny that we both see the cell phone, texting, and everything done via the magic box as an intrusion rather than a means of getting things done. I too wonder if generations to come will know what a book is. Great writing babe. You always hit your mark.

  2. I don't know if you remember or not, but a few months ago we were all watching the news together and they aired a story about dogs becoming more popular than cats for the first time in blankity blank years, but no research had been conducted regarding why that change had taken place. You made a sarcastic remark about people wanting something they could dominate (I think it was sarcastic anyway). I said that I thought it was because everything is digital and computerized and people are losing human contact with each other. Dogs are lovable and loving, and people probably have some unconscious desire for contact with something else living. This is exactly what I was talking about.

    I came in on the bubble. Atari came out when I was very young, and it has snowballed since then. But I am old enough to remember playing wargames and card games thanks to my gaming dad. I played with sticks (Link-n-Logs?), "rode" the tree branches like horses playing cowboys and indians with my brothers, and actually touched dirt when I was young! At the same time, technology has always been a growing part of my life. As with most things in life, there are parts I like and parts I don't.

    If I never have to write a personal check again I'd be ok with that, but I have to potentially compromise my financial future for the convenience of online banking. I love being able to send and recieve a flurry of emails in "real time" as opposed to waiting for the mailman, but they lose a lot of their personal meaning. Gaming is beautiful, but kids today don't need imagination, it's all layed out for them what everything should look like. It's sad.

    Like you, I prefer an actual book. But I love my texting too, which you know. There are conveniences and drawbacks to everything, but I think the biggest loss that people are just beginning to recognize, is each other. The social skills of people in general are awful. It's not natural to be cut off from each other, and I think it's catching up to people. I just hope the next generation isn't cut off completely and remains unaware because they don't know anything else. Scary thought....

    Sidebar: They don't know what "roll up the window" means either, lol.

    Good food for thought, as usual.

  3. Thanks to y'all for dropping by. I really didn't expect much in the way of commentary on a post about an obscure hobby from a long time ago (though I wouldn't have discouraged Chops if he'd dropped by), but this was really more about modern technology than ancient games. Nonetheless, good to hear from you, and maybe next week I'll find a subject with a little more broad appeal... Or maybe I won't. This is MY soapbox, after all. Til then,

    - Jack

  4. Hi Jack! Great stuff. As much as I love some of the modern conveniences of gaming, I definitely prefer to spend time with real people, rolling dice, tossing cards, pushing counters and pawns around, and generally playing while we game. Peace!

  5. Hi, Bob. Thanks for dropping by. Here's the primer on our blogs: Both are general interest, but is done by me, my wife, and my daughter. We try to keep it current (movies, tv, games, restaurants, etc.). (this one) is my forum for whatever strikes my fancy, for example, if I want to talk about a movie from 1960, this is where it will be. Look for me on your followers list, and look for yourself on recommended sites here. You also may enjoy The Irish Navy (linked here), especially if Chops ever puts anything else on there! They're working him like a rented mule right now, but he'll find a way. Look forward to talking again, and if I'm ever headed that way, I'll drop you a line.

    All the best
    - Jack