Friday at the World Boardgaming Championships was the first day that the vendors set up shop, and my friend Keith Ferguson was eager to be there when the doors opened. Somehow I got the Friday morning schedule wrong and missed out on competing in a morning tournament, so I went to the vendors' hall instead. As soon as I walked in, I saw the Gaming Nomads booth with Incan Gold (designers Bruno Faidutti and Alan R. Moon, artist Matthias Catrein, publisher Gryphon), which my family had been playing using a makeshift homemade version. For $20, it seemed reasonable to get a copy of the real thing, since it gets some play in my house. I overheard someone ask for Salmon Run (designer Jesse Catron artist Eric J. Carter, publisher Gryphon), which I didn't even know they had until they pulled it out from under a low shelf, so I picked that up, too. Finally, I decided to get Pergamon (designers Stefan Dorra and Ralf zur Linde, artist Klemens Franz, publisher Gryphon Games), which has been on my wishlist for a long time but which I just never picked up until now. So I bought three Gryphon games from the first vendor I saw. I decided discretion was the better part of valor at that point, and turned around and walked out again before my credit card got any other bright ideas.
Wooden Ships and Iron Men
I still needed to qualify for the WS&IM semifinal, so I headed down to the grognards' den in the Lampeter
|My lead ship (black hull, facing left) |
begins to split the enemy fleet
I was fortunate to be able to maintain my line, gain the wind gauge, and take advantage of a mistake by my opponent to split his fleet. I knocked down masts on two of his frigates, which made it possible for me to remain upwind of him and maneuver at will. Still, because I'd focused so much on his rigging while he pounded away at my hull, I'd suffered a lot of damage; the game was very long and very close.
|Close aboard, fouled, and attempting to repel boarders,|
while my lead frigate (foreground) rakes the enemy's stern.
Models provided by Tim Hitchings
I tagged up with Josh Tempkin, who was demonstrating several of his game designs over the convention, including a favorite of mine, "WarTime." When I first saw this game at WBC two years ago, I called it the most innovative mechanism in a game that I had seen in a long time. This realtime eggtimer-driven wargame plays out in about eight and a half minutes, and it is an adrenaline rush to play. Now, as it happens, in 2011, Josh had reached an agreement with Valley Games to publish "WarTime." I was a little surprised when I saw it at UnPub 3 just last January, though, and could find no reference to it on Valley's website. Well, it turns out that for a variety of reasons, Valley Games is not in a position to take on "WarTime," and since they never actually put a contract in writing, Josh still owns the entire rights with no entanglements. So, the good news is, he owns the game; the bad news is, he's back to looking for a publisher.
Avalon Hill Reunion
The highlight of WBC for me was not a game at all, but a very special panel-seminar. The convention
AVALON HILL REUNION: For many of us, the "hobby" began with the products of one company. This year, WBC occurs during the 15th anniversary of the sale of The Avalon Hill Game Company to Hasbro, which ended the Avaloncon era - and gave birth to WBC. The passing of two of their colleagues in the past year has brought many of those employees back together again in 2013 to relive the old days one more time. Join us in Hopewell on Friday afternoon as the largest gathering of AH designers ever assembled retell old tales.When I saw the list of people coming together for this AH reunion, I felt as though I was a teenager all over again, with a copy of The General or an AH catalog in my hand.
- Don Greenwood, WBC convention director and longtime editor of The General
- Bob McNamara, Advanced Squad Leader
- Rex Martin, who later went on to Firaxis Games as a senior writer and historical researcher
- Mick Uhl, Civilization, Gettysburg and Battle of the Bulge
- Jack Greene, who later went on to found Quarterdeck Games
- Robert Alders, editor of The General after Don Greenwood's tenure
- Kurt Miller, lead illustrator; he expressed personal gratitude to AH
- Don Hawthorne, general editor, now writing combat science fiction
- Ben Knight, Atlantic Storm; he had high praise for Don Greenwood's work to make WBC a success
- Charlie Kibler, artist on many games (and Civil War re-enactor)
- Stuart Tucker, last editor of The General
- Carol Hamblen, whom the others cited for much of the success of the company
- Richard Hamblen, Merchant of Venus, who for health reasons had been out of circulation but who is currently working research projects
- Glenn Petroski, head of the AREA rating system
- Mark Herman (We the People) was a late arrival
- A few others whose names escaped me in the introductions
It was funny to hear the panelists describe working at AH. The address I always remembered for The Avalon Hill Game Company was 4517 Harford Road, Baltimore, Maryland. To hear the stories, that location was ridiculously difficult to find. The office space was terribly run-down. Rex Martin told a story about a resident of a second-floor apartment across the street who had the distracting habit of undressing in full view of the artists' office windows.
Don mentioned, "any success I had publishing games came from playing them a lot." He emphasized his preference for playing a game over and over again, thoroughly exploring all the nuances. "I still discover new things about the games I love." He contrasted AH games, which he felt could be played many times over and held their repeat play value, with SPI games, which he saw more as historical studies that would only be played a few times before their value as games was exhausted.
Someone asked Don about a rumored meeting with Gary Gygax, who would later find tremendous success with TSR Hobbies and Dungeons and Dragons. Don simply answered, "Gary wouldn't sell it to me."
|Don Hawthorne and Ben Knight|
Don G. described himself as not strong on the business side and (unfairly, to himself) assumed some responsibility for the company's failure. He made what I thought was a surprising comment about Up Front, in which he was the most disappointed (in terms of sales). He admitted to being overawed by the game, with the result that the final product was "overdone," an attempt to put everything into one box. In hindsight, he wishes he had broken the game up and sold it in 20 pieces; he feels it would have been a greater financial success that way.
Don G. made an interesting observation about the big box retailers. He said that ToysRUs would only take Avalon Hill's top sellers. But the higher-volume games like Third Reich and Outdoor Survival were not good introductory games for new customers to pick up off the shelf, so that outlet didn't work well for AH.
Don Hawthorne described a visit to a convention in which he was first introduced to Collectible Card Games (CCGs). He came back and said, "I've seen the future of gaming, and it ain't us."
After AH, Don set up the Boardgame Players Association as a non-profit and has been running WBC for the 15 years ever since. Interestingly, he observed that even the old wargames are experiencing a resurgence as part of the new boardgaming phenomenon. He put it in an interesting way: "Computers killed us off, but the internet brought us back."
The AH veterans described some of the games they enjoy playing today, to include Advanced Squad leader, Up Front, Diplomacy, Afrika Korps, Gettysburg, Age of Renaissance, Merchant of Venus, Breakout Normandy, Napoleonic Wars, and even Settlers of Catan. Don G. at one point said that there are "very few Euros I don't like," and he specifically called out Spartacus among recent games that he enjoys, although he still always goes "back to the same old wargames."
I think it's fair to say that there was a general sentiment of fondness for the games that these designers, developers, and artists put together. There was also voiced perhaps some disdain for the family that came to own Avalon Hill through the Monarch Services company due to the circumstances under which AH came under their control and the complete absence of understanding or interest in the true value of AH. One said, "The owners were never gamers. They did not value the product that they sold. [They had] no appreciation for games." One described the family as "oblivious to gaming." Another told a story in which the owners interviewed one designer and summarily threw him out of their office; that designer, who went on to found Microprose, was Sid Meier. Yet another described a meeting in which one of the owners killed an interview with an art representative from Osprey Publishing seeking to make a deal to provide art for the cards in Up Front.
The reunion was extraordinarily well received by the audience, which included a number of other former AH employees and playtesters. Afterward, I managed to corner Ben Knight and asked him to sign my copy of Pacific Typhoon, the GMT sequel to AH's Atlantic Storm. He was happy to oblige, and we had a nice chat afterward about what a special opportunity he felt that it was to work at Avalon Hill and be part of that whole wargaming phenomenon.
After the Avalon Hill reunion, I got together with Keith Ferguson and Brian Greer for an evening of open gaming.
- Le Havre, which I'd never played with more than two people before. Keith really got the engine going and won this one running away.
- St. Petersburg, which Brian and Keith were not as crazy about as I am but which Keith won owing to some pretty hefty building acquisitions early in the game
- Pirate Dice, one of Keith's acquisitions that morning, a kind of smaller, faster, dice-driven version of Robo Rally. I won our first game of this frantic little dice-fest.
|T.C. Petty III's array in Wall Street Panic|
I should have gone to bed at that point, but Tim and T.C. convinced me to stay on and play Guild Hall, an interesting set-making card game with some very interactive mechanics. I started to get the hang of it toward the end. I found myself only mildly interested in the game, but that ennui could have been a function of the sleep-deprivation I was feeling at the late hour.