The WargameRequiescat in Pacem
The scene: Saturday morning at Origins 77, the national simulations gaming convention, hosted that year at a college on Staten Island by SPI. Inside the dealer's room, game companies feverishly prepare for the onslaught. Outside, beyond the locked doors, visible through the glass wall of the room, are the gamers, hundreds of them, pressed against the glass. At ten, the doors open, and the hordes pour through, charging into the dealer's room. Most make a beeline for the SPI table, where they stand, six deep, demanding copies of the new wargame releases, overwhelming the dozen staffers who stand behind the table to fulfill orders.
The scene: GenCon 96, the largest adventure gaming convention, Saturday morning in the open gaming area. We browse around, moving from table to table, seeing what people are playing. D&D, of course; Magic; Vampire; GURPS. Perhaps a game of Civilization, or Rail Baron.
Oh, here's someone playing a wargame. What's he playing?
Why, an out-of-print SPI wargame. From the seventies.
The time has come to admit defeat, to say a farewell to hexes. One might as well inscribe the tombstone: The Wargame, Requiescat in Pacem. Born, 1958; died 1996.
Even a few years ago, there was some doubt. As late as 1984, for instance, some claimed that there hadn't really been a decline in wargame sales, merely a dramatic increase in those of roleplaying games; but the claim was fallacious, even then. And by the present date, the precipitous decline of wargaming is clear, to everyone in the field.
What happened? Why did it decline? And -- who's to blame?
When you talk to industry professionals about the decline in wargames, they tend to sigh resignedly, and say, "It was inevitable." It seems that way, because wargaming's decline has been inexorable and irreversible, despite many efforts to halt its slide. But I don't believe it for a minute.
Wargaming's heyday was the 70s, when America was in the throes of post-Vietnam malaise, when anyone with an interest in military affairs was thought to be a fascistic warmonger. In the 1980s, military affairs became respectable once more, with the Soviet Union's renewed aggressiveness and the American defense build-up -- yet wargame sales declined. In the late 80s, Tom Clancy and others established a whole new genre of fiction -- the technothriller, the modern war story, which appeals to precisely the same set of interests and emotions as the wargame. Far from seeing the decline of wargaming, the 1980s should have been its golden age.
Why didn't it happen? What went wrong?
One theory is that wargames just got too complex. The earliest Avalon Hill and SPI games were simple; a gaming novice picking up STALINGRAD in 1964 could have taught himself to play it, perhaps with a little difficulty, since even that was far more complex than mass-market offerings like MONOPOLY. But a novice picking up WAR IN EUROPE in 1980, or ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER in 1985 would be completely at a loss. SQUAD LEADER is perhaps the ideal illustration of the trend; the original John Hill game was simple enough to be accessible, and sold in excess of 200,000 copies, making it the best-selling wargame of all time. Over time, Avalon Hill published expansion upon expansion, turning it into a game of rococo complexity, culminating with the release of ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER, a game so complex than one could teach college-level courses in its play, so convoluted that its developer, Don Greenwood, felt compelled to include such minutiae as the Kindling Availability Table and the Sewer Emergence Chart. It is hard to believe that even the most macho of 'I-know-the-rules-so-I'm-better-than-you-you-poor-pathetic twit' complexity enthusiasts play this thing much.
This is all very nice, but it is important to realize that most wargames were always sold to wargame hobbyists; WAR IN EUROPE may have been too complex for Joe Maninthestreet, but good old Joe doesn't spend much time hanging around The Compleat Strategist or the Game Gallery anyway. Joe might find a wargame at the local mall -- but it would probably be an older, and simple, Avalon Hill game. And throughout the period of wargaming's popularity, simple games were always available -- the SPI Quads, later the micro and capsule games. While wargame marketers might have made more of an effort to reach out to new customers, the 'hypercomplexity' theory alone can't explain the industry's decline.
Another theory is 'computer games killed wargames.' And again, there is an argument here. SPI's feedback showed that 90+% of all wargames were played solitaire. Board games are not particularly well suited to solitaire play; computer games are solitaire by their very nature. Computer wargames have, with few exceptions, been derivative and intellectually void; still, their attractions for the avid gamer are obvious. It seems likely that many board wargamers have drifted off to computer games, and that many younger players who might otherwise have been attracted to wargaming have gone to computer games instead.
But again, this argument does not explain the whole. Few computer wargames match paper games for sophistication, depth, and accuracy. And computer wargaming is a miniscule part of the computer games industry; in that field, the conventional wisdom holds that computer wargames sell to a small, niche market. And finally, military conflict is by its nature a clash between two opposing strategists, something that solitaire computer games, with their clumsy artificial-intelligence opponents, simulate rather poorly. Computer roleplaying games have not killed D&D; computer adventure games have not killed novels; and computer wargames did not kill paper wargames.
What, then did? Where's the smoking gun?
Perhaps we need a little history.
The first wargame was TACTICS, designed and published in 1953 by Charles Roberts. It sold a mere 2000 copies, but emboldened Roberts to start the Avalon Hill Game Company in 1958. Avalon-Hill published TACTICS II and GETTYSBURG in that year.
In its first four years of existence, Avalon Hill published eighteen games, half of them "general interest" adult games, the other half wargames. The wargames began to attract a following, a group of gamers who looked avidly forward to the next such product.
In 1962, Avalon Hill stumbled, failing to adapt to rapid changes in its system of distribution, and was taken over by Monarch Services, Avalon Hill's printer and one of its two largest creditors. Eric Dott, Monarch's president, became head of Avalon Hill, which he remained until recent years, when his son, Jack Dott, assumed the position. (In industry circles, they are known -- not to their faces -- as 'Papa Dott' and 'Baby Dott.')
In 1964, Avalon Hill began THE GENERAL, the field's first magazine. It was, and has remained, a house organ, publishing variants and supplements for use with Avalon Hill's games, along with articles about developments at Avalon Hill and works in progress. To this writer's mind, it has always been excruciatingly dull, but in the mid-60s, it was instrumental in bringing together a self-conscious community of wargamers. They read THE GENERAL avidly, devouring news of games under development, and contacted each other through the classified ads the magazine offered as a free service to its subscribers. Just as the letter columns of the science fiction pulps were instrumental in forming science fiction fandom, so the classified ads in THE GENERAL were critical in the creation of the wargaming hobby.
In the mid-60s, indeed, well into the 70s, Avalon Hill had no full-time design staff. Tom Shaw, who had been hired by Charles Roberts, remained on staff, doing some design work and developing the games of others, but his main job was managing the company. Avalon Hill used a number of outside designers, and in 1966 they turned to Jim Dunnigan. Dunnigan published a military history fanzine (he would call it a series of monographs) called KAMPF, and had written a detailed critique of Avalon Hill's BULGE game. On the strength of this, Avalon Hill asked him to design his first game, JUTLAND. This was quickly followed by 1914, and later a number of other games, including PANZERBLITZ, for many years Avalon Hill's best-seller.
In the 60s, wargaming clubs sprang up and fanzines began to appear, like John Boardman's GRAUSTARK, still being published, which founded the postal DIPLOMACY hobby. One of the best fanzines, STRATEGY & TACTICS, was begun by Chris Wagner, then a staff sergeant with the U.S. Air Force in Japan, in 1966. S&T was started with the serious intention of providing competition to THE GENERAL. Initially typeset and printed in Japan, it moved back to the States with Wager, but failed to achieve its circulation goals. Still, it attracted considerable interest among wargamers, who were happy to have an alternative voice to the corporate one of THE GENERAL. Too, S&T covered miniatures and games from other publishers, something THE GENERAL did not. (And never has; reading THE GENERAL, you would still never know that other companies exist.) In 1967, a graphic artist, Redmond Simonsen, agreed to do the design and layout for the magazine, and its appearance rapidly improved.
By late 1969, S&T was in financial trouble. Chris Wagner cast about for someone to take over the magazine, and eventually made an agreement with Jim Dunnigan, who founded Poultron Press, later renamed Simulations Publications, Inc., or SPI, to publish it. Simonsen continued on as S&T's (and SPI's) art director.
Under Dunnigan, S&T made a rapid and complete change in direction. Dunnigan was convinced there was a large, pent-up demand for wargames. Avalon Hill had a conscious policy of publishing only one or two a year; they feared that publishing more would be self-defeating, as games would compete with each other. More, Avalon Hill always viewed itself as a publisher of adult games, with wargames only a part of its line.
For Dunnigan, the interest in wargames was an intellectual one, an extension of his interest in military history. He was convinced wargamers would appreciate detailed historical articles on the subjects of their games, and games that paid more than lip-service to the notion of historical accuracy.
Starting with issue 20, S&T began to publish a game in each issue, a startling concept for the time. This made perfect sense for everyone involved. Gamers got six games a year, at a considerably lower per-game cost than six games bought independently -- and a magazine to boot. SPI sold games directly to its customers, cutting out the middleman; and since the magazine's circulation was substantial, each magazine game was guaranteed substantial 'sales,' indeed, sales larger than SPI could expect for games sold separately. Moreover, SPI got an enormously valuable promotional vehicle: a magazine going to its core customers, in which it could promote its non-magazine games.
It is hard to overemphasize the importance of S&T to the history of wargaming; indeed, the rise and fall of the hobby can virtually be correlated with the rise and fall of S&T. SPI's staff freely discussed future plans, down to details of marketing and distribution, in the pages of the magazine; its subscribers began to feel a personal stake in the company's survival, going so far as to write long letters of advice and volunteering time and effort to help the company survive. The historical articles were of the highest quality, and quite unlike anything being published in the historical magazines of the period, since SPI, befitting its gaming orientation, tried to quantify almost everything, providing copious tables of comparative data on, for instance, the merits of World War II-era tanks. Other journals tended to be far more descriptive. As a result, S&T acquired a readership even among military history devotees who had no interest in the games.
Perhaps S&T's most important innovation, however, was its feedback system. Using primitive Burroughs, later IBM, minicomputers, Dunnigan put together a highly sophisticated system to obtain marketing information from his customers. In every issue of the magazine, there was a response card, with 96 numbered blanks. At the back of the magazine were a series of questions, to which a reader could respond by entering a number between 0 and 9 on the blanks of the card. Some questions provided marketing data, e.g., average age of the readership; some were used to provide competitive rankings of SPI's and other publishers' products, charts that S&T's readers pored over when deciding what game to buy next. And some were used to ask the readers what kinds of games they'd like to see. Indeed, every issue provided brief write-ups of game ideas, and SPI would design the games which received the highest ratings.
This kind of market research was astonishing for the field, remains astonishing for the field, would be astonishing in any field. SPI had immediate, timely data telling it precisely what its most valued customers thought. For years, the sales of SPI's games correlated very closely with the feedback results; SPI could predict, with virtual certainty, a game's sales before embarking on its design. How could the company lose?
[The real question, of course, is: why hasn't this been imitated? In the early 70s, SPI had to hire keypunchers to sit there by the hour, entering this data, then crunch the numbers hour by hour using expensive computers and expensive custom software. Today, reproducing SPI's feedback capabilities would be trivial, using OCR technology, flatfile database software, and cheap PC clones. And yet every company in the field continues to publish by guess and by God. Think what TSR alone could do with THE DRAGON....]
From 1972 to 1977, SPI grew by leaps and bounds. S&T's circulation soon outpaced that of THE GENERAL, and, under Redmond Simonsen's guidance, its graphic quality improved enormously. SPI's first games had been published with black-and-white maps, printed on paper. The counters for its games were printed on colored paper; buyers had to glue the paper to shirt cardboard, then cut the counters apart with an X-acto knife. Rules were printed on "bedsheets," large sheets of paper folded down to normal letter size, saving the cost of cutting, collating, and binding. And there had been neither box nor counter tray. But as SPI grew, it began to add better components, bit by bit. Counters were mounted and die-cut; later, most were printed on both sides, and full color became the norm. Maps went to two color, then eventually to full color reproduction. Rules were printed in stapled books. Boxes became the norm -- first awkward, folded cardboard ones, then the plastic "black box" of late-70s fame, then the same cardboard "telescoping" boxes used by Avalon Hill and virtually all game companies today. Additional components were added, most importantly the plastic counter storage trays which became ubiquitous in the field. Although SPI experimented with mounted maps, they never became the norm, because mounting is (and remains) enormously expensive. [Avalon Hill mounts all its games, partly because it owns its own mounting machinery.]
In the mid-70s, SPI was grossing $2 million annually, and employing as many as forty people. It was publishing forty or more games every year. As it appeared at the time, SPI, and wargaming as a whole, was on an upward trend.
The mid and late 70s were the heyday of the field. New companies sprang up every year: Rand Games Associates, Simulation Design Corps, Panzerfaust, Conflict Games, Operational Studies Group, Yaquinto, Worldwide Wargames (3W), Simulations Canada.... The most successful and enduring was Game Designers Workshop, founded by a group of game enthusiasts who met at the University of Illinois's Champaign campus. From the very first, GDW's games were innovative, well-designed and of the highest quality. They tended, however, to deal with more obscure topics than SPI's, and often had fairly opaque rules; in general, GDW appealed more to the hardcore hobbyist.
At the time, sales were increasing everywhere; Avalon Hill sold more than 200,000 copies of John Hill's SQUAD LEADER, the best-selling wargame of all time. And game designers, beginning to believe that their vocation could become a permanent occupation, a developing art form, an industry capable of supporting its artists in at least modest comfort, banded together to form the Game Designers' Guild. Wargaming, everyone seemed to believe, had achieved a permanent presence in American life, if a tiny one by comparison to fields like film or publishing.
That, alas, was the high water mark.
From 1977 onward, SPI's sales declined, mainly because of mismanagement. The dollar volume remained nearly constant; even in 1981, SPI (not publicly traded) was claiming an annual $2 million in sales, the same figure it had reported as early as 1975. But these were, of course, the years of double-digit inflation, so that SPI's income, in real terms, was declining year by year. In 1980, an internal struggle began at SPI, as many staff members strove to replace Jim Dunnigan as the company's manager. The name of Dunnigan had been virtually synonymous with SPI since its foundation; his personality, vigor, and intelligence had made it a success. Yet, like many entrepreneurs, he proved incapable of managing it as an ongoing business.
One problem was an inattention to marketing. SPI had, in the person of Howie Barasch, a capable marketing manager, but when he left SPI in the late 70s, he was never replaced, with Dunnigan ostensibly assuming his duties. But Dunnigan was overstretched himself, laboring sixty hour weeks keeping the place together and designing a big chunk of SPI's games. When Dunnigan was eventually replaced by Chris Wagner -- S&T's founder, by now a management consultant brought in to try to turn SPI around -- new management discovered that many of SPI's independent commissioned sales reps didn't realize they were still representing the company, and one thought SPI had gone out of business. Nobody had bothered to contact them for years.
Another failing was inadequate attention to financial details. New management discovered that SPI's highly successful line of Capsule games -- small, limited-component products sold for $6 -- actually lost money. Given distributor discounts, $6 would about cover the cost of shipping blank, white boxes without games inside them. The Capsule games had sold very well -- and SPI lost money on every one it sold.
Alas, Dunnigan's ouster came too late. The country was in the throes of a recession, further depressing SPI's sales; the company's cash position continued to deteriorate. Even with $400,000 of venture capital money from Alan Patricof Associates, SPI was unable to make a go of it. After negotiating, unsuccessfully, with Avalon Hill, SPI entered into negotiations with TSR toward a buy-out.
TSR indicated initial interest, and SPI, desperate for cash, asked for the loan of a few thousand dollars to meet its payroll. TSR agreed, requiring that the loan be backed by SPI's assets, making it a secured creditor. Shortly after SPI paid its employees, TSR demanded repaymentment of the loan. SPI agreed to be taken over by TSR, for no cash money.
TSR sent out a press release announcing that they had taken over SPI. Soon, however, they realized the extent of SPI's liabilities; and, horrified, "clarified" their own initial announcement, claiming that, instead, they had assumed SPI's assets but not its debts.
Now, while TSR had been a secured creditor, it was a tiny one. SPI's printers and the venture capital investors were owed far more money. Legally, TSR's position gave them first crack at SPI's assets, but hardly entitled them to take over the company, lock, stock, and barrel, without assuming any liabilities. However, no one in SPI's management was going to sue over the ownership of a bankrupt company, and TSR's takeover seemed the only shot at keeping the company together. And TSR quickly paid off the major creditors, at some cents on the dollar, to avoid the possibility that anyone else would challenge the transaction.
And then, TSR shot wargaming in the head.
In 1982, SPI was the largest wargame publisher in the world, not only in terms of number of titles produced, but in terms of dollar volume as well. Oh, Avalon Hill was a larger company, but much of Avalon Hill's sales came from sports games and its 'general interest' line. SPI was solely responsible for 60-70% of all the wargames sold in the world.
In 1982, the 30,000 subscribers of Strategy & Tactics, SPI's flagship magazine, were the most avid wargame enthusiasts on the globe. More than 50% of them, per SPI's own feedback, owned 100 or more wargames; most of them bought a dozen or more games every year, not counting the games they received as subscribers to the magazine. SPI estimated that perhaps 250,000 people, in the whole of North America, had ever bought a wargame; and the 30,000 subscribers to S&T bought an enormously disproportionate number of the games sold.
They were the hard core, the fundament upon which the whole wargame industry was built.
So naturally, when TSR took over SPI, the first thing it did was give the finger to S&T's subscribers. The first thing it did was say to the best customers of its new subsidiary, "Go take a hike; we don't want your custom; your concerns mean nothing to us."
You see, almost every magazine in the country can declare bankruptcy tomorrow, if it wants to, because every magazine in the country has enormous liabilities: the obligation to provide issues to its subscribers. The subscription money came in long ago, and has been spent, and that liability remains. Magazines continue, and make money, because they sell advertising, and expect their subscribers to resubscribe. But SPI had no money -- and S&T had 30,000 subscribers. Over a thousand were life-time subscribers, owed issues in perpetuity in exchange for no further income.
TSR didn't want the liability. Fulfilling S&T's existing subscriptions would have cost it money.
So, TSR decided, it would not honor any subscriptions.
TSR had taken over SPI's assets, but not its liabilities, so they claimed; therefore, they had no obligation to S&T's subscribers.
Gosh. Guess what happened? Few of S&T's subscribers reupped. Few wanted to send more money to the company that had just ripped them off.
And few of them ever bought any of the wargames TSR began to publish.
And TSR never could figure out why their wargames never sold.
Who killed wargaming?
You tell me.
The industry's best customers, the most avid wargamers in the world, were collectively told to piss off. How many never bought a wargame again?
In the 1980s, as I have argued, the shift in the nation's mood meant America should have been more receptive than ever to wargames. Wargaming might have survived, grown, and prospered -- but the hard core was gone. The grognards, as SPI called its best customers, after the veterans of Napoleon's Grande Armee, the people who bought many games each year, the solid fundament of the whole field, were gone.
Oh, wargaming didn't die at once; it lived on, a shadow of what it once had been. The bulk of SPI's design staff had, uneasy with the prospect of working for TSR, negotiated a deal with Avalon Hill. A-H set them up, in New York, as Victory Games, with the freedom to publish more or less whatever games they liked. In a clever promotional campaign, Victory established itself as "the real SPI," achieving immediate success as a wargame publisher. Indeed, by the end of the 80s, the typical Victory-label wargame outsold the typical Avalon Hill-label game by a considerable margin. Unfortunately, Avalon Hill starved Victory. It never authorized raises for Victory's staffers, who gradually drifted away; and it never authorized Victory to hire replacements for those who departed. Consequently, by 1990, Victory's full-time staff consisted of one person, Len Quam, who developed and did the graphics for the games out of his house in New Jersey. Essentially, Victory Games no longer exists, except as a marketing label for Avalon Hill.
TSR attempted to continue publishing wargames, partly because it was determined to get some benefit out of its expensive investment, and partly because a number of its staff designers, including Doug Niles, loved wargames and very much wanted to design them. Despite better distribution than SPI, TSR was never able to make a success out of its wargame line. After several years, they sold S&T to 3W, a small wargame publisher which produced THE WARGAMER, a competing magazine; and the rights to most of SPI's jold titles were eventually sold to another publisher. TSR continues to publish the occasional game under the SPI logo, but has effectively withdrawn from wargaming.
With the collapse of SPI, a number of other publishers saw a void in the field, and decided to expand their wargame lines. GDW, long a publisher of fine wargames, increased its production; and West End Games, an operation run as a hobby by Daniel Scott Palter, a leather-goods millionaire, decided to turn itself into a real games publisher. But both companies rapidly discovered the obvious; there was no void.
In the heyday of wargaming, a hot product could sell 50,000 to 200,000 copies; by the late 80s, 10,000 in sales was a major success, and this held true for every company in the field. No wargame has sold more than 20,000 copies for years.
3W continued to publish STRATEGY & TACTICS and its line of mediocre wargames for some time, and even attracted some attention when it brought Jim Dunnigan back as the magazine's editor for a brief period. Even so, S&T's circulation had declined precipitously from the glory days -- and the bulk of its sales were now through game stores, rather than by subscription, meaning retailers took a big cut, and sales were not guaranteed. Eventually, Keith Poulter, 3W's head, tired of flogging this dead horse, and sold S&T to Decision Games, a hobbyist group.
The professional designers who learned their craft at Avalon Hill, SPI, or GDW have largely left the field for greener pastures -- in computer games, defense consultancy, or science fiction. The professional companies who once published so many games are either, like SPI and GDW, out of business, or, like West End, have abandoned wargaming for roleplaying. All that is left to carry on the tradition are a few small companies like Fresno Game Associates, run as labors of love by hobbyists, who manage, in these days of desktop publishing, to produce games of remarkably high graphic quality which are, by and large, thoroughly derivative and quite mediocre. Where wargames once sold in the hundreds of thousands, a game that sells a few thousand units is accounted a success; an industry that once sold in department and chain stores across the country now has products only in a few scattered hobby outlets. Wargaming is not quite extinct, no; but all that remains are the reflex twitches of a still-warm corpse.
It is hard for those of us who grew up with wargames, who loved them, who spent so many years studying them and taking them seriously as works of scholarship and art, it is hard for us to acknowledge this. We keep on hoping for some last minute reprieve, some renaissance; how could so much effort, so much inspired work, go for nought? How can it be that all of our labors will be forgotten? Yet it is so: whole artforms, whole genres grow and disappear. Where now is vaudeville? Radio drama? The air story? Perhaps board wargaming will survive in some form, greatly diminished from its glory days, as have poetry and the western; but that is all that can be hoped for.
So Percy Shelley has it. But Ozymandias could take pride in his work for his own lifetime, at least. Ours has fallen away, fallen into dust, and before our very eyes.