Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

WBC 2013 Friday: Gryphon and Avalon Hill

Continuing my saga from yesterday's post...

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
Room.  I had left a text message with a few gamers whose numbers I'd found on the "opponents wanted" clipboard, and a fellow named Mark called me back to set up a match.  We decided on a scenario that gave us each a squadron of three U.S. 44-gun elite-crewed frigates, which I thought would make for a fun maneuver battle.

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
Eventually, he collided with my lead ship, fouled my rigging, and grappled us together but did not attempt to board.  I was able to throw off the grapple, and I cut away rigging to get unfouled and clear the enemy.  Two turns later, he grappled the second ship in my line.  At first I held back one section of crew to man the guns, but this time he sent over an offensive boarding party, which significantly outnumbered my defenders, and I found myself in serious danger of losing the ship.  We remained grappled the second turn, and I reinforced my defensive boarding party with the third crew section, which gave me a slight melee strength advantage against the boarders.  My lead frigate meanwhile took up position across his stern and began to fire raking broadsides.  When we finally called time after about three hours and 40 minutes, we tallied up the scores based on damage.  I squeaked by with a score of 103 to 101.

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
Don Greenwood
director, Don Greenwood, made the following announcement in the Boardgame Players Association newsletter:
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

Stuart Tucker
The format of the discussion was very open, very cordial, and the Hopewell Room was standing-room-only with fans of the old company.  One of the panelists described the memorial service of S. Craig Taylor (designer of WS&IM) as a wake-up call for the AH veterans that I think helped motivate Don Greenwood to convene this reunion on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the sale of AH to Hasbro.

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
As editor of Avalon Hill's magazine The General, his biggest challenge was getting the designers and developers to write content.  He mentioned that the late Craig Taylor didn't like writing at all, and would avoid it if at all possible, but that what he wrote was very, very good.  Don Hawthorne mentioned that he felt intimidated by the brain trust that surrounded him, but when he wrote a B-17 scenario for The General and got the comment, "Yeah, it's fine," he felt like he'd won a Pulitzer.

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.

Carol Hamblen
Don G. admitted to an "increasingly depressing view of boardgaming" over the course of his years at AH.  He would see print runs dwindle from 20,000 or 30,000 copies in the 1970s to as few as 2000 copies in a single print run toward the end.  He attributed the decline in AH sales in part to the rise of computer gaming, a phenomenon in which he felt that AH did not adequately invest.

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."

Charlie Kibler
Don Greenwood referred to 1998 as the year of the "massacre of Avalon Hill."  By way of background, Charles Roberts, the founder of AH, had run up considerable debt early in the life of the company, and in 1963 had to sell ownership of the company to Monarch, to whom he owed money for printing services.  By the 1990s, AH was not profitable, and the owners of Monarch Services had never thought highly of AH nor its line of games.  Now in 1998, Hasbro, according to Greenwood, sought to buy the electronic rights to the game Diplomacy.  The owners insisted that if Hasbro wanted rights to Diplomacy, they would have to buy the entirety of Avalon Hill.  So one Monday, the staff of Avalon Hill was told that the company had been sold and that their services were no longer required.  Just like that, an era had come to an end.

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 leaderUp 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."

Richard Hamblen
Several of the former AH employees found new life in Breakaway Games, which brings game design talents to solve real-world problems.  I had never heard of this company before, but it seems to have been a source of new vitality for several AH veterans.

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.

Open gaming
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
It was getting kind of late at this point, so Keith and Brian were ready to call it a night, but I found T.C. Petty III, Tim Hing, and some others playing Wall Street Panic, which I later learned is a reimplementation of Masters of Commerce, a game that I was really excited to learn about on the Dice Hate Me podcast The State of Games.  I got really jazzed about WSP as a fast, frantic game of valuation and simultaneous bidding.  It conveys the urgent, crazy atmosphere of the floor of a stock exchange, so I hoped to get an opportunity to play later in the con.  

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.  


  1. Thanks for the recap of the Avalon Hill reunion, Paul - sounds like that place would have been a lot of fun to work for in the 70s and 80s!

  2. I was hoping someone would have some reunion pics. thanks for sharing!

  3. Keith, that does sound like a dream job, doesn't it?

    Ray, yes, I'm just sorry the pictures weren't any better. I wish I could have got shots of everybody. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

  4. Long live Victory in the Pacific!

  5. Oh, yes, VitP, and its sister game Victory at Sea, both Richard Hamblen classics. I only played VaS once and wish I'd made it part of my collection.

  6. Fascinating reunion of AH alumni! Thanks for the great summary.
    Yes, I seriously wanted to work at AH.

    From a business point of view, that likely would have worked. Not 20 pieces, but maybe 8 modules?
    Somewhere I remember reading about Up Front, the cost of printing the cards was outrageous.


    1. Hm, looks like cut and paste didn’t work there.
      The first <> was supposed to be:
      "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."

      The second <> to be
      "the owners interviewed one designer and summarily threw him out of their office; that designer, who went on to found Microprose, was Sid Meier."

  7. You know, I think in my mind, the concept of working at Avalon Hill was a fantasy, like being a professional baseball player or walking on the moon. (Which I guess it was, to all intents and purposes.)

    I think you're right about Up Front. From a business standpoint, it could have been serialized, rather like "living card games" today. The burning question in my mind is, what is Rik Falch of Radiant Gaming going to do with the Up Front reprint that he funded successfully - wildly successfully - on Kickstarter? He has posted countless updates showing art for all kinds of armies and troops, but it's not clear when the project will actually go to production and become available for sale.

  8. Wow, that's a great find on the Up Front kickstarter project. Looks like it's 1000% funded. And has been for some time.

    There are pages and pages of this, I still haven't gotten through all of it.

    More comments later.

  9. Yes, I thought that would interest you. :-)

  10. Well, I started researching this in November 2013, and haven't touched it since February 2014, so post as is. There are pages and pages of this, I still haven't gotten to all of it.
    BLUF: This approach seems to be focused on vanity and artwork. Sad.

    It remains > 1000% funded.

    Who is Rik Falch -- I don’t recognize the name in the UF design. Radiant Gaming.

    Up Front is a great game, but like any game, has some mechanics that could be improved. Based on the description, sounds like Falch is changing few mechanics; just adding nationalities, additional terrain cards, and artwork. I see no evidence they have fixed any of the few problems. Looks like the usual 2010 approach to gaming: let's add more toys!! I can highly respect the approach of, "Let's not mess with it, let's just reprint it." But clearly, they are messing with it. So if someone is going to mess with a good product, they need to mess with it in the direction of improvement.

    1. They've changed the concept of "relative range" to "range", and reversed how it is calculated. That wasn't broken, and didn't need fixing. Indeed, that was one of the great unique aspects of UF.

    2. They appear to reduce the font size on several of the cards, yet the art is not any larger. Why?

    3. They've restructured where the information is placed on the cards -- I see some strengths and weaknesses there.

    4. The video example seems to forget about wounds.

    Going through the various kickstarter updates (pages and pages of them), it appears they've spent their entire time worrying about artwork and vanity -- what a waste.

    Oh well. The original game is still superb.