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A Short History of Paper Gaming

Children learn through play; so we may assume that games, which are merely formalized play, have existed since the evolution of language made it possible for people to negotiate and agree upon rules. Ball games seem universal; and dice of various forms extend back four thousand years. Indeed, the dodecahedral dice that roleplaying games have recently made popular are quite ancient; there's a very nice set, Roman in antiquity, in the British Museum.

The earliest stories, from Gilgamesh to Beowulf, were of an oral tradition; it was not until the Greeks that consciously-crafted works, attributable to individual authors, arose; not until then that plays and stories were thought of as art, their creators as artists.

Similarly, our earliest games are the product of a folk tradition: Chess and Go and O-war-ee. Not until the turn of this century did people begin to consciously craft games, attributing them to individual designers. Not until recent decades were games thought of as art, their creators as artists.

We're two and a half millenia behind the times, and we need to catch up right quick.

In my experience, designers of games for electronic media are quite ignorant of paper games, rather more so than paper game designers are of computer games; and I think both can fruitfully learn from each other. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, although the differences among media should never be minimized, and it is important to recognize the limitations and advantages and aesthetics of different forms, nonetheless all games share certain fundamentals; and that a broader understanding of all forms can only be beneficial to the designer who wishes to be in conscious control of his craft.

I propose, therefore, briefly to discuss the evolution of paper games, an evolution which continues through the present, and subsequently, to consider some of the fundamental principles and concepts that underlie games of all kinds.

The first consciously designed game I know of was The King's Game, designed by Helwig, Master of the Pages for the Duke of Brunswick in 1780. The King's Game was, in a sense, a Chess variant; but its board contained 1666 squares, containing different types of terrain, and the units represented infantry, cavalry, and artillery. This was a step forward from game to simulation; but it remained primarily an entertainment.

In 1824, Lieutenant von Reisswitz of the Prussian army devised a game using realistic military maps at a scale of 1:8000; he demonstrated it for the Chief of Staff of the Prussian army, who exclaimed, "It's not a game at all; it's a training for war!" And he ordered a copy for each regiment of the army. The game and variants of it continued to be played in the Prussian and German armed forces for decades thereafter.

In 1876, Colonel von Verdy du Vernois of the German army devised a new sort of Kriegspiel: the complex rules of von Reisswitz's games were dispensed with, and instead, an experienced officer was brought in as a gamemaster. Players were permitted to do whatever they wished, as long as the gamemaster ruled it feasible. In a sense, these less rigid Kriegspieler were forerunners of the modern roleplaying game.

Kriegspieler were widely used in training across Europe by the end of the 19th century; and their derivatives, complex combat simulations, both manual and computer-moderated, are widely used in the armed forces of all developed nations today.

Miniatures gaming evolved out of the Kriegspiel tradition; no doubt children have played games with toy soldiers ever since the first craftsman carved one, but the first professionally published set of rules for miniatures gaming was H.G. Wells's Little Wars, published in 1911. In delightful prose, it provides a rudimentary set of gaming rules, providing for movement, fire, and mêlée. Fire combat depends on spring-loaded cannon, which shoot match sticks; casualties occur when toy soldiers are knocked over by such fire.

Since then, miniatures rules have become far more complex and realistic, perhaps coming to culmination in the Wargames Research Group rules; and miniatures gaming remains a popular hobby, perhaps more so in Britain than here. Miniatures enthusiasts typically spend far more time painting their figures and preparing for games than actually playing them; and are extremely concerned with the details of their armies, sometimes to a risible degree. Miniatures rules continue to be published, and military miniatures continue to be manufactured; however, the price of figures has increased substantially in recent years, as concerns about lead poisoning have forced manufacturers to produce figures in more expensive alloys. Miniatures gaming remains unparalleled for pageantry and sheer tactile joy, and it is hard to imagine it ever disappearing entirely, no matter how computerized our society becomes.

Though boardgames were commercially published in Europe and the United States throughout the latter part of the 19th century, they were, for the most parts, either commercial versions of folk games like Checkers and Snakes and Ladders, or minor variants thereof. It wasn't until the Depression that the enormous success of Monopoly created a mass market games industry; and it wasn't until after the Second World War that this industry grew large enough to support a handful of full-time, professional game designers. Of these, perhaps the best known is Sid Sackson, designer of Bazaar and Acquire and a great many other games for Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, and the much-lamented 3M games venture. Also of note is the British Hartland Trefoil group, creators of the 1829 series of railroad games and Civilization --the boardgame, not Sid Meier's computer game of the same title.

The aesthetic of these designers is quite interesting, because it is so much at variance with our own; Sackson once told me that "there is no need for any more games." I was astonished; to me, every game is a novel work, and the saying is tatamount to, "there is no need for any more books." But from Sackson's perspective, almost everything he sees is a variant on a theme: a Monopoly, a Snakes and Ladders, a Rummy, a Chess. And perhaps it is in the nature of the massmarket boardgame that this be so: the market requires rules that can be learned in a minute or two, and there are only so many possible permutations on the board, the plastic pawn, and the die. It is a credit to Sackson's work, actually, that it is so original given its limitations.

Alas, mass market gaming has become even more highly concentrated than publishing or Hollywood; there is now only one major publisher of mass market boardgames in the United States, since both Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley are know owned by Hasbro. It is now difficult or impossible for someone to make a living as a freelance designer of such, and, increasingly, boardgames are designed in-house.

In this context, it is worth mentioning the importance of Trivial Pursuit. It was the first highly successful boardgame aimed not at "the whole family," but specifically at adults. It spawned a great many successors, and for that reason alone must be considered a seminal design. And it is interesting that the independent boardgame publishers that survive sell mainly into this market.

The wargames industry began, in 1953, when Charles S. Roberts first published Tactics. Tactics is not wholly dissimilar from Helwig's The King's Game; it is a somewhat abstracted game of war between two hypothetical countries with World War II-era armies. It was successful enough to encourage Roberts to found the Avalon Hill Game Company in 1958, a company which continues to publish complex adult games, wargames, and computer games today. Avalon Hill's first two games were Gettysburg and Tactics II, a revision of Roberts' earlier game. After an early bankruptcy and reorganization of the company under the control of Monarch Printing, Avalon Hill's printer and chief creditor, the company expanded rapidly, and by the mid-60s there was a substantial wargaming hobby, consisting mainly of teenage and college-age males, avidly devoted to Avalon Hill's games.

However, one company does not make in industry. In 1969, James Dunnigan and Redmond Simonsen took over a wargaming fanzine called Strategy & Tactics, improved its graphics, and began including a wargame in every issue. They quickly discovered that there was enormous pent-up demand for more games among wargamers, who weren't satisfied with the one or two that Avalon Hill published each year. With Strategy & Tactics as a base, they founded Simulations Publications, Inc., or SPI which, by the mid-70s, was publishing nearly 100 titles each year. Avalon Hill and SPI were not long alone; Origins, the annual wargaming convention, soon saw dozens of exhibitors.

The wargaming audience grew along with the field, and demanded increasingly complicated and realistic simulations, culminating in games like War in Europe and War Between the States, games involving thousands of pieces and playing surfaces that covered as much as 30 square feet.

Wargaming's heydey was notable for two things: this was the first time that game designers became stars, and the first time that designers began to think of their work as art-- related phenomena, to be sure. Avalon Hill printed the names of people who designed their games in their rules books, a first; and SPI went one better, printing designers' names on the covers of their games. Consequently, gamers came to know people like Jim Dunnigan, Rich Berg, and John Hill by name. And it became usual to talk about "the state of the art," and the evolution of wargaming technique over time.

In 1982, alas, SPI was taken over by TSR, publishers of Dungeons & Dragons; and TSR, in an amazingly short-sighted move, decided not to honor the subscriptions of the 60,000 people who subscribed to SPI's flagship magazine, Strategy & Tactics. These were wargaming's best customers; by SPI's own surveys, the average S&T subscriber bought a dozen or more games a year. TSR told them, in effect, "your custom is not wanted," and it is no surprise that wargaming went into an immediate and precipitate decline. Though the mid-80s saw some first-rate games published by Victory Games and GDW, by the end of the decade, it was clear that the heydey was over. Although dozens of wargames continue to be published annually, wargaming is a sorry shell of what it once was, and the average game is undeniably far inferior in quality to games from the 70s and 80s.

Roleplaying grew out of the wargames field, and the two continue to share the same distribution and retail outlets. The first roleplaying game was Dungeons & Dragons, published in 1973 by Tactical Studies Rules. TSR was a little publisher of miniatures rules, run as a sideline by E. Gary Gygax, a Midwestern shoe salesman; Dungeons & Dragons began as a variant to Chainmail, a set of rules for medieval miniatures battles from TSR. Dungeons & Dragons was designed by Dave Arneson, a Minneapolis game enthusiast, who took it to Gygax. Gygax recognized a good thing.

Despite poorly written rules and dismal graphics, the original Dungeons & Dragons immediately found andenthusiastic cult audience, an audience that, like Topsy, just grew. By 1978, TSR was a major force in hobby gaming; and in that year, it published Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a far more comprehensive and more attractive set of rules that soon gained mass market distribution. They also were attributed solely to Gygax, and marked TSR's first step toward screwing Arneson out of both credit and money from his design; when the 2nd edition rules were published in 1986, they were attributed solely to Zeb Cook, a TSR staff designer, and culminated TSR's efforts to likewise shaft Gygax, who had by then left the company.

Regardless of the company's ethics, TSR did become highly successful; it published, and continues to publish, expansion upon expansion, supplement after supplement, to Dungeons & Dragons; and became an extraordinarily successful publisher of fantasy novels based on its game. Whereas Avalon Hill had never grossed more than $8 million annually, by the mid-80s, TSR was grossing more than $20 million; to a degree, roleplaying supplanted wargaming, but to a larger degree, it vastly expanded the market for hobby games.

And it spawned a whole industry of competitors: companies like FASA, publishers of BattleTech and Shadowrun; White Wolf, of Vampire and Werewolf; and Games Workshop, which dominates the British market even more than TSR dominates the American.

And all this, it should be noted, occurred during the first and second booms in electronic gaming; indeed, hobby gaming probably benefited, rather than suffered, from the existence of electronic games. While some people no doubt played computer or video games in preference to roleplaying, still, the computer revolution exposed a whole generation of people to the notion of games as recreation. Just as the paperback boom of the 60s introduced a whole generation to the joys of recreational fiction, to the ultimate benefit of hardcover publishers, so videogames ultimately benefited paper ones.

From a designers' perspective, the roleplaying boom brought a new boon: while wargaming had brought designers some recognition, roleplaying brought them money. Not much, to be sure, but enough that it become possible for designers to make a fulltime, freelance living in hobby games. There were so many products being published, and so few capable professionals, that an Aaron Allston or a Mike Stackpole was able to cobble together enough contracts, year to year, to make a modest living. Alas, the living is indeed modest, and roleplaying's best designers tend to gravitate either toward computer gaming or to novel writing, both of which pay rather better.

Unlike wargaming, roleplaying goes from strength to strength. Dungeons & Dragons may be waning, but a whole slew of remarkably original games, like Shadowrun, Vampire, and Amber continue to appear. One interesting development in recent years is the importance of underground culture. While Dungeons & Dragons was widely seen as a game for geeks, games like Cyberpunk cater very consciously to the Bruce Sterling/cyberpunk/technorave crowd; and games like Vampire to the Anne Rice/vampiric horror/gothic dance audience. Roleplaying, like popular music and cult novels, seem to have become hip in the Bohemian demimonde.

Out of roleplaying grew an extremely interesting hobby known as live-action roleplaying (or LARPS). In contrast to "tabletop" roleplaying, live-action games involve dozens or even hundreds of people, physically acting out some or all of their characters' actions, often wearing costumes, and wandering across a physical space--a hotel, a wilderness area--that bears some physical relationship to the imaginary world in which the game takes place. Like tabletop games, LARPS have gamemasters; but unlike tabletop games, the players are expected to interact with each other without gamemaster intervention most of the time, and call for a gamemaster only when some otherwise unsolvable conflict occurs.

Live action gaming began in the US in 1981 with the formation of the Interactive Fantasy Gaming Society, and in Britain in 1982 with the first staging of Treasure Trap. Both TreasureTrap and the IFGS game were what are now called "line games" or "adventure LARPs" they were strictly linear, and ran the players through a series of staged encounters. Line game have become a major social form of gaming in Britain, where dozens of groups run them, some of them commercially; in the US, groups like the New England Roleplaying Organization have attracted a whole subculture of dedicated LARP players.

More interesting from a design perspective are Rekons, or "interactive LARPS," the first of which, Rekon-1, was designed and run by Walt Freitag and the Society for Interactive Literature in 1983 at Boskone, a major regional science fiction convention. In a rekon, the LARP producers devise a whole fantasy world, complete with characters and their backgrounds, plots and subplots, and rules. Players write in before hand, and receive massive packets of background information and their character write-up; they then show up for a weekend of gaming, interacting with the other characters and working out the permutations of the plot. The whole comes to some sort of satisfactory resolution by the end of the weekend.

A whole subculture of production groups has evolved around LARPing, and dozens of "interactive" LARPs are staged annually in the US, and more in Britain and Australia. I use the terms "production groups" and "staged" advisedly, both because LARPers use the terms themselves, and because the similarities with theater are hard to avoid. In point of fact, the interactive LARP owes at least as much to the tradition of theatrical improv as it does to roleplaying game design.

LARPs are notable partly because this is almost entirely a voluntary, nonprofit, hobby activity, both for LARP designers and participants. Despite, or perhaps because of this, LARP design is a veritable hotbed of artistic seriousness and clever design. And I can give no better advice to someone who wants to think about the potential development of realtime online gaming involving dozens or hundreds of players than to get involved in LARPs--because they involve realtime physical gaming involving dozens or hundreds of players. Yes, this is amateur hour, but there's more interesting work being done in LARP design than almost anywhere else in gaming at the present time.

We come at last to the most recent evolution in paper gaming, the collector's card game. This genre began, in 1993, with the publication of Richard Garfield's Magic: The Gathering, by Wizards of the Coast. Magic is a card game; its basic rules are simple. But each card has particular powers and abilities in the game; and, when you purchase a basic set, you get a random selection of cards. The original edition contains some 300 cards, and 50 someodd come in a basic pack. To build a strong deck to play against others, you must purchase more and more cards, or trade with others; so it has a collector's appeal as well as an appeal to gamers. It is also a truly evil marketing concept; you can never have enough cards, so although you can certainly play by buying one basic set for $8, you are gradually hooked into paying more and more to build the perfect deck. And, not content with 300 cards, Wizards of the Coast produces expansion set after expansion set -- each published in a limited edition, so you much rush out and buy it at once -- with new cards with new powers.

It is an amazingly simple, and amazingly strong game; both from a design and a marketing standpoint. And, like Dungeons & Dragons before it, it has swept the hobby market. In one year, Wizards of the Coast has become treble the size of TSR. And Magic is, naturally, spawning any number of imitators.

If all goes well, the collector's card hobby, like roleplaying before it, will vastly expand the size and reach of hobby gaming.

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© Copyright 1994 by Greg Costikyan.