Saturday, September 05, 2009

Nostalgia Trip(s) Part II - Damsels in Distress and Slaying Orcs

At the time when I first started getting into wargames, I was in a hobby shop and saw this book that was just about the size of a magazine with very thin poster board covers. It was black and had a black and white photo of some people dressed up like people from the Middle Ages. Well, more like cheap movie props, but you get the idea.

I looked inside of it and saw some rough drawings of maps, along with more polished looking maps on graph paper. Each room had a letter or a number in them and there was a section in the book giving a description of what the room looked like, what was in it, etc. It was only a few dollars, so I convinced my mother to buy it. That book was the Book of Treasure Maps by Judges Guild - For use with the Dungeons and Dragons game.

I really had no idea what it was all about. There were cryptic codes like AC, HP along with lots of numbers . I was clueless as to what it all meant, but I enjoyed reading the description of the rooms in the various dungeons and imagined exploring them.

My friend who got me into wargames had heard of Dungeons & Dragons and even had some basic rulebook for it. He went ahead and tried to learn how to play it, then ran me through some basic dungeon. Wasn't much to it and I wasn't very impressed.

It didn't help that in games you always play to win against an opponent. I remember asking what I had to do to win in D&D. The answer was you don't. Huh?!? How could you play a game where there was never a winner? The only objective in it is not to die. If you die, the game ends. Ok, so I could lose, but I couldn't win. This was a completely new and radical concept in gaming.

Well, how does it end then? It doesn't. Double huh?!? How can it not end? Well, you get experience points for the adventures you go on and gain levels which make you more powerful. Ok then, how many levels are there? There is no limit. What? There is no board. There are no playing pieces. You just have your character and their stats written on a piece of paper.

Apparently he wasn't very impressed with it either because he went ahead and gave me the rulebook. In retrospect I think it had more to do with us being clueless about the whole thing! Besides, I was addicted to wargames and building up my collection of Avalon Hill stuff. Shortly thereafter, he ended up moving away.

I can laugh about all this now. As a very young teenager, these new ideas just seemed ridiculous to me. I was used to the rigid rules of wargames, somehow this open ended freewheeling Dungeons and Dragons stuff seemed a bit wishy washy to me.

Low and behold, I eventually moved and met a guy in my German class who had actually heard of Avalon Hill. He even had a few of their games. Finally! Someone to play wargames with. We would frequently play various games and even found another player as, like all teens, you develop a circle of friends.

The only difference was that they also played AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons). Remembering my previous experience with D&D, somehow the idea of an advanced version of it didn't impress me. I was invited to game with them, but wasn't interested in anything that had to do with a game you couldn't win. What was ironic is that I remember playing Squad leader by myself and thinking how cool it would be to play an individual soldier without the limits of a hex-based map - where you could make your own decisions and go where ever you wanted.

I finally gave in one day because I was feeling left out with them always talking about their adventures. There is a huge difference between playing a game of AD&D as a single player who doesn't have a clue and playing with a group of players who "get it".

There is something about the camaraderie that takes the games to a whole new level. It also helps playing with those who know how the game is played. That first game was a module which has always held a special place for me. Its the adventure that got me hooked. That module was Horror on the Hill.

The die had been cast. I was now an AD&D player fanatic.

To this day, I can still smell the pine trees and feel the soothing forest breeze on my face. There is no limit to just how far your imagination can go when you release it from any pre-conceived constraints.

We continued playing throughout our high school years bouncing back and forth between AD&D and wargames. They were great times filled with adventures and stories. Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, The Scorpions and Van Halen (Pre Sammy Hagar) filled our ears.

When I finished high school and went straight into the army, I thought for sure it was the end of my AD&D adventures. Turns out nothing could be further from the truth and the best was yet to come. Addiction and collecting games would take on a whole new meaning...

Next up: The Hobbit

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Nostalgia Trip(s) Part I - Wargames

Every now and then I get myself side-tracked going on nostalgia trips.

The other day I found myself looking at board wargames which led me to the history of Avalon Hill.

Avalon Hill was a wargaming company that revolutionized the genre by creating hex-based maps to play on. Their games ranged from leisure time to simulations of actual battles in history. I was around 14 years old when a next door neighbor introduced me to a game called Tobruk. Something about it just appealed to me - rolling to dice to determine if my shell landed in the same hex as an enemy tank, rolling again to see if I actually hit the tank and where. If I destroyed it, the little half-inch square piece of cardboard depicting a tank on it was flipped over revealing a picture of a burning tank.

I was hooked. (yeah, this is before computers..!)

Getting my hands on as many of those wargames became a bit of an obsession for me. I used to get a dollar everyday for lunch at school, but I would pocket some of those crappy Sara Lee individually wrapped cupcakes from the cupboards and eat those for lunch and pocket the dollar. After a month, I'd have enough money to buy another Avalon Hill game. Back then they were $18 and you could find them everywhere including Toys-R-Us.

My favorites were Squad Leader, France 1940, D-Day, Tactics, and Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. All WWII-based games. My love of the games led to a love of military history - WWII in particular. I would read every book I could find on the subject.

These games were nothing to scoff at when you consider the complexity. Many of the rulebooks tapped 36 pages of 8.5 x 11 paper in very tiny print. Avalon Hill had this cool system though where you only had to read the first 2-3 pages in order to play the first scenario. They would gradually add more rules with each scenario so that you could learn to play the game in small bites. I remember sitting in the back of an Algebra class in high school with the Squad Leader rulebook open inside of my textbook while the teacher gave his lecture...

The hardest part though was finding others to play. There were countless games that I played by myself - jumping back and forth across the map to switch sides. Sounds silly now, but I was having a blast. I eventually did find some people who did play and we had this nice pool table in the basement we would play on. So many battles... good times!

It was with wargames that I also achieved a first. Something that, nearly 30 years later, I still find myself doing - losing track of TIME. I remember one night when my gaming buddies came over and we played Third Reich (high-level war game of the entire European theatre of war during WWII). I remember looking up and asking if someone had parked their car on the neighbors front lawn because light was shining through the basement window.

"'s the sun."

Holy crap. We played all night long. It was the first time of what was to become commonplace - staying up all might playing games. Wargames, AD&D, computer games, etc. They say time flies when you are having fun. So true... The funny part of this was that instead of going to sleep, we all jumped on our bikes and peddled to Wings in Lakewood to pick up another game.

I'm going to move ahead here a bit as another game became my obsession from around 1983 to the early 90's (I'll save that for another blog post) just to touch on another foray into wargames that cropped up in the mid 90's. There were several attempts at bringing wargames to the computer and when I first encountered them I was pretty excited about them.

There is an awful lot of logistics and tracking involved when you play these things - not to mention keeping all the rules straight! The idea that a computer could handle that work seemed like a major breakthrough. The problem is that when I first tried one on my Commodore 64 (back in the mid 80's) I found I sucked at them against a computer opponent. Frustrating indeed. I finally saw an article in a computer magazine that had an interview with a computer wargame developer and he was quoted as saying "sometimes it becomes necessary to make the computer cheat..." That pretty much sank my desire to play wargames on the computer...

Well, years later an opportunity arose that had me giving them a second chance. Avalon Hill was focused on converting their wargames to the PC market. I landed a spot as a beta-tester for Third Reich. The boardgame was faithfully recreated on the PC right down to every detail.

Here's a link to the manual in PDF form: I'm listed on the last page under the beta testers. It was the first time my name was ever in a commercial game and well... the first is always special...

There were several other games slated to be converted and I got to talk with one of their senior PC department heads (at least I thought he was) about doing a PC version of France 1940. They were interested. In addition to my beta-testing, I got busy on making the game. In retrospect, I had no idea how I was going to code the AI, but figured I'd cross that bridge when I got to it. I faithfully recreated the map and got busy with the rest of the game. Third Reich was now done and released.

Then my emails started to go unanswered. From my understanding, my contact left Avalon Hill shortly after Third Reich was released and well, no one there seemed to have any idea what I was talking about...nice...well there went that.

A year or two later and Avalon Hill was no more... They got bought out by Hasbro who ceased production of AH wargames. Sad times indeed.

I still feel that urge to check out the wargaming scene every now and then. I just can't bring myself to committing the amount of time required to learn the rules and sit for hours on end playing a boardgame.

Once in a while I'll be in a gaming store and nearly have a heart attack looking through their wargames section. They have become such a nitch market that the games are expensive as hell. $60-$80 seems to be the norm. I feel so old as I end up sounding like my grandparents, "When I was a kid, those things only cost $18!"

Next up: Damsels in Distress and Slaying Orcs