Thursday, December 01, 2005

It started 30 years ago...

Today is my birthday. It also marks the 30th anniversary of my most loved hobby: strategy gaming, also known as wargaming.

Actually, my love of strategy games predates 1975. I remember having a number of strategic games a few years before this. One of the early ones had a square grid with plastic tanks, the name of which escapes me. I also had a pair of very simple games that were essentially wargames featuring Patton and McArthur, but I seem to recall that they weren't "serious" wargames, just positional games with a military theme.

My first miniatures game pitted my Airfix Scottish Napoleonic figures against a friend's (David Higham, whom I haven't talked to in decades) French figures. He had more than I did. I lined mine up in a "wedge" formation (no idea why). He split his into three waves. In spite of being outnumbered, I won simply because of the laws of probability. At the time we were both reading library books about miniature wargaming by Charles Grant and Donald Featherstone, but neither of us could paint at the time and neither of us could afford metal figures. We played in his basement. I can't date that game. It could have been as early as 1973 or as late as 1977.

The next time I remember miniatures gaming, my family lived in the house that my mother still owns. We moved into that house in the summer of 1975. I set up a small battle on a table in the basement. Buildings were constructed from bristol board (poster board) and I used plastic 1/32 scale figures. Based on my memories, I'd put it no later than 1978. I recently gave Logan my plastic 1/72 scale figures. They still have paint on the bases where I had written unit organization numbers back in high school.

The precise dates for my burgeoning interest in wargaming are murky, but there's one date I know for certain. For my 13th birthday I received the game Panzer Leader by Avalon Hill. I still have the game. It's one of my favourites.

Panzer Leader is the younger sibling of PanzerBlitz. Avalon Hill was one of the first companies (the first?) to produce board games based on historical battles. Starting in the early 1960s, they created games based on such battles as Gettysburg, Waterloo, and the D-Day invasion. Their games focused on strategic (dealing with whole armies) and operational (dealing with divisions up to corps) campaigns. PanzerBlitz was a revolution in gaming. Released in 1970, it was the first truly tactical game. Instead of a cardboard counter representing several thousand soldiers, a counter represented 30 or 40 men or four or five vehicles. PanzerBlitz was set on the Eastern Front of World War II with Germany fighting the Soviet Union. It came with three "geomorphic" boards that did not represent a "real" battlefield, but could be arranged to roughly represent a host of battlefields. Instead of squares, movement on the board was regulated by a grid of interconnected hexagons (not a first for PanzerBlitz, but it was the introduction to the "hex grid" for many a young wargamer). There were 12 "situations" in PanzerBlitz, so it was like getting 12 different games in one box. The rules also encouraged players to design new situations. PanzerBlitz was very popular at the time, and can still be purchased at a reasonable cost on eBay. I bought my copy used in the late 1980s.

Panzer Leader was the Western Front version of PanzerBlitz. It covered the conflict between Germany and the armed forces of the United States, Britain, and Canada. The rules were a little more complicated than PanzerBlitz, but not a lot more complicated. More importantly, it fixed a number of issues that appeared between 1970 and Panzer Leader's release in 1974. It was also a bigger game than PanzerBlitz: more counters, four boards instead of three, and 20 situations instead of 12.

I first saw the game in a Shoprite catalogue (one of two catalogue stores in Canada at the time, Shoprite was the only one to carry wargames). I will never forget its yellow and black cover. I can still remember what it was like to open the game box that day. I remember the smell of the components and the slick feel of the rule book. There might have been snow on the ground; I vaguely remember that, too. The game was fascinating. Over 400 counters to punch out and organize into little baggies. A rule book that, at the time, was the most complicated set of rules I'd ever read (I recently re-read them, and compared to some of today's monster games they are incredibly compact and clear) was devoured before the week was out. I was hooked!

Panzer Leader is not my favourite wargame (that goes to Avalon Hill's Up Front, which I bought in college) but it's one of my favourites. Later games were better simulations. In particular, there are no command control rules in Panzer Leader ("command control" rules model the difficulty in commanding troops in combat, and explore the reason soldiers were organized in particular formations). In some ways, it was ahead of its time. PanzerBlitz was sometimes called "Panzerbush". Counters receive benefits for being in tree areas, so players often ran vehicles from one tree hexagon to another. Opposing forces couldn't touch the counter even if the counter spent the vast majority of its time moving in plain view. Panzer Leader fixed this problem with an optional "opportunity fire" rule, a rule that's sometimes missing in games produced today.

Unfortunately, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I played Panzer Leader against an opponent. This was (and continues to be) a common problem for wargamers. The last time I played it against someone was in the winter of 1984/1985 (yikes, more than 20 years ago!). There's a reason wargames began to list their "solitaire suitability" in the late 70s.

Board wargames started to die off in the late 80s/early 90s. Powerful home computers and video game systems attracted the attention of players more than the more complicated board games. It took hours (sometimes days!) for someone to read the rules (and in the case of Advanced Squad Leader, months or years). They got more and more expensive as production values went up. Panzer Leader's boards are mostly off-white with the occasional splash of green (trees), brown or orange (hills and ridges). Towns are a cross hatch of lines. The boards for games like Avalon Hill's/Multi-Man Publishing's Great Campaigns of the Civil War, by contrast, are almost beautiful, with exquisite, accurate detail. All that colour and detail costs money.

Avalon Hill's main rival, SPI, was purchased by TSR (the Dungeons and Dragonscompany) in the 1980s. Those games were out of print before TSR itself was saved from bankruptcy by Wizards of the Coast. Avalon Hill was folded by its parent company, only to be snatched up at the last second by Hasbro. They still produce games under the Avalon Hill banner, but only Diplomacy and Acquire date back to the old AH, and these are games of easy mechanics and mass market appeal.

I noticed that there's been a resurgence of wargames in recent years. Computers just can't match the tactile appeal of unfolding a map and moving counters with a friend. Computer programs, like VASSAL, allow games to be played by e-mail. (You could play Avalon Hill games by mail for many years, using things like random number tables or stock market quote lookups for dice rolls, but you were stuck playing at the speed of snail mail.) Web sites devoted to Panzer Leader, PanzerBlitz, and The Arab-Israeli War (Panzer Leader's more complex and less successful younger brother) add new situations, new counters, and new board layouts. Some new games look absolutely gorgeous. There's a new wargame magazine that produces four games a year; one of their most recent games, about the fall of Berlin in 1945, is stunning in its graphics and use of colour. The old AH games are long out of print, but thanks to eBay they are still in circulation (as are the games of Avalon Hill's competitors: SPI, West End Games, and GDW). I think the Shoprite catalogue pegged it at C$10, a monumental sum in those days. You can now get it for US$10 to $20 on eBay. PanzerBlitz sells for just a little less. Some enterprising folk are selling die-cut variant counters and new mounted game boards. These games may be out of print but they are not gone.

My Panzer Leader box is over full. I purchased an expansion set for it in the mid 1990s which added counters and situations for the fight between Germany versus Britain and France in 1940. Somewhere along the line I picked up an additional copy of board D. I would still like to get another copy of the game, as my boards are slightly torn at the joins and I'd like to keep the game for many more years to come. Multi-Man Publishing has the rights to Panzer Leader and PanzerBlitz. The company, whose president is Curt Schilling, the Bost Red Sox pitcher, has yet to re-release the game.

Sometime this coming weekend I intend to play the game again, some 30 years after I first opened the box. I'll post my impressions of the game after that, to let you know if it still feels the same after all these years.

(For the record, I wrote this on the 2nd, but only because I didn't have time to write it down on the 1st.)


Timberwolf Pup said...

FYI: Multiman Publishing has announced a release of a "new" PanzerBlitz. The fight for a key hill outside of Caen in 1944. Check their website as I believe its in pre-order.

Allan Goodall said...

Thank you! I hadn't heard about it. It is in pre-order, and fairly close to the number needed, too.

I'm also interested in Crucible of Courage, Richard Berg's Civil War tactical game.

Darn, I suspect I'm going to be adding to a pre-order soon!