Chapter5.gif History of Wargames

Hey, Let's Start a Wargame Company in the Basement!

How I got into the wargame business is one of those odd, series-of-coincidental-events things that often turn out to have far reaching consequences. The emergence of the wargame company (SPI) I founded in the late 1960s in effect signals the next major chapter in the history of wargaming.

I picked up on wargames in the early 1960s when I was in the Army. While I had always been interested in history, I had never been all that curious about military history. But while in the Army I came across some GIs who played the original Avalon Hill games and, as I was in the military, it seemed a logical thing to get involved with wargames. When I got out of the Army in 1964, I kept in touch with wargames in a casual way and became somewhat obsessed with the idea of using the games to teach, and better understand, history. Spending the next six years working my way through Columbia University gave me ample opportunity to do some writing on military history the way I thought it should be done. Note that at this stage I considered games a means of better understanding military history so I could write a better account of it. My goal of writing books took a detour when I got to know Tom Shaw down at Avalon Hill. We got along quite well, and in 1966 he asked me if I would like to design a game. At that point I had no aspirations to design games professionally, but accepted the challenge anyway. A year later, Avalon Hill published my effort, a game called Jutland, on the naval battle of the same name during World War I. A year later, in 1968, they published my second effort, 1914, which covered the opening rounds of World War I.

After doing two games for Avalon Hill, and carefully observing how they did it, I decided that there had to be a more effective way to publish games. It was at that point, I decided to found SPI (Simulations Publications, Inc). This was done in a rather impromptu fashion, much like the old 1930s movie in which a group of bright young kids gather around and say, "Hey, gang, let's put on a Broadway musical in dad's garage!"

I did pretty much the same thing in 1969. However, we were city rats and our first venue was not dad's garage but a windowless basement in New York city's lower east side district. Our neighbors in the basement were a puppeteer on one side and a pornographer on the other. A typical lower east side mixture, then and now. The initial staff was comprised of local gamers. I had come to know a number of other wargamers in New York city since 1964, and recruited as many as I could to form SPIs first staff. We had no money; so I borrowed a hundred dollars from Al Nofi, one of the original SPIers. I had to pay Al back in a month, but it was enough to get started. What we lacked in financial resources we made up in a lot of energy and a few ideas. When SPI began, we had the basic concepts which have remained the cornerstone of what all historical wargame publishers are still trying to achieve. First of all, we wanted games published by gamers. This meant hobbyists controlling all of the game development, production and marketing decisions. The second principle was one of publishing more games. At the time, Avalon Hill was only doing one or two a year, and Avalon Hill was the only show in town. The third principle involved being more directly responsive to gamer desires.

Initially, in early 1969, we were only thinking of designing and publishing games, advertising them through a new magazine called Strategy and Tactics (S&T), which had begun publishing regularly in 1967. S&T was the brainchild of Chris Wagner, who was at the time an Air Force sergeant stationed in Japan. In the middle of 1969, Chris Wagner's S&T went bust. He was not able to get much beyond a thousand subscribers, and that was not enough to make it a viable operation. Nobody else seemed interested in taking it over, and as we were planning on using it as our chief means of promoting our new line of games (Avalon Hill allowed no other advertising in its magazine), I had no choice but to become the new publisher of Strategy and Tactics. Thus, we found ourselves in the magazine publishing business, in addition to our efforts to publish more games. Doing the magazine also brought graphic design ace Redmond Simonsen into SPI. I knew that the magazine, and the games, needed a professional look. Simonsen was a native New Yorker, and a wargamer in addition to being a highly talented artist. So I made him an offer he couldn't refuse: half the business (we later shared some of this with some of the original staff). And together we proceeded to do the deed.

Those early days were pretty hairy. Anything was considered possible, and with that attitude we made things happen. In that period many of the still current concepts of designing and producing games were either invented or given some solid form. The process by which a game goes from concept to finished product was worked out because the pace at which we were working had to be highly organized or nothing would get done. When it was realized that we would have to simultaneously get our first issue of S&T out and have our first six games ready to go before S&Ts subscribers lost interest, we had to innovate and hustle. For a few frantic weeks in the Summer of 1969 we called ourselves "the game of week club" because I did, literally, design three games in three weeks. At the same time I was teaching the other lads the fine points of debugging the games and writing the rules up in a consistent and legible format. There were other complications, as I had a full time job (plus a part time job) and was going into my last year as an undergraduate at Columbia (on an honors program, no less, demanding that a thesis be written). One of our key people, Al Nofi, decided to sail over to Spain and back during that Summer. He was late getting back, as the sailing back he encountered a storm, the sailboat was wrecked and he was literally lost at sea for several weeks. He showed up, rather more sunburnt and lean than normal, for the furious last few weeks of preparations for out debut of S&T with its new format (with a complete game in it). We had everything ready on the Labor Day weekend of 1969, and rather than wait for the post office to open on Tuesday, we stuffed every mailbox on Avenue C with the thousand issues of S&T.

The response from the readers was quick, and overwhelming. Many ordered all six of our new games, renewed their subscriptions, and provided us with enough cash to get the operation off the ground. I also aced the honors thesis. While I didn't get to Woodstock (I was tending bar, a second job, down the road from all the traffic jams that weekend), 1969 was an interesting year.

After struggling for two years just to get the thing off the ground, I developed a marketing/advertising campaign in 1971 which really got us rolling. Within two years we were reaching more than half of the active gamers in the country. While in 1969, fewer than 100,000 wargames were sold, almost all by Avalon Hill, three years later, this number had more than doubled, largely because of our efforts. Ten years later the number of wargames being sold was more than two million. Unlike Avalon Hill, we actively promoted other publishers' games. Thus our promotional efforts gave all of the new publishers a leg up and expanded the reach of wargames even more.

To give you an idea of what this promotion campaign meant, consider the history of wargame sales.

Manual Wargame Sales: 1960-1991

Since 1960, over twenty million paper, or manual historical wargames have been sold.

Unit sales of historical wargames (paper, or "manual" type games) per year indicated.

Year Wargames Sold
1964 62,000
1965 65,000
1970 129,000
1975 743,000
1980 2,200,000
1985 900,000
1990 450,000
1991 400,000

These are sales of historical wargames, excluding science fiction and fantasy titles. Nearly fifteen ten percent of these were games published in Strategy & Tactic magazine. As with most books, about half of all sales were concentrated in less than fifty of the best selling wargames. Several paper wargames have achieved extraordinary sales figures. PanzerBlitz has sold over 300,000 copies, but it has been in print since 1970. Squad Leader has sold over 100,000 copies of the basic game, plus many more of the add on modules. About 1200 game titles were published during this period, most selling at least a few thousand copies. Avalon Hill, with the widest distribution, could usually rely on a decent game selling at least 25,000 to 50,000 copies. This number has come down a bit since the boom times of the 1970s. But even today, Avalon Hill can move at least 25,000 copies of a decent game over its two to five year publishing life. Smaller companies, with more limited distribution, can usually move at least a few thousand copies. SPI stood somewhere in the middle, being able to sell at least 5,000 of a title and moving over 30,000 copies of best sellers. The games in its magazine, Strategy and Tactics, sold as many games as there were buyers of the magazine, plus a few thousand additional copies when some magazine game was later published separately.

Computer wargames did not enter the market until 1980. In that year only about 100,000 units were sold. By 1985, computer wargame sales moved past manual wargame sales. By the late 1980s, some individual computer wargame titles had sales exceeding 250,000 units after several years on the market. Currently, several million computer wargames are sold each year. Over 25 million computer games of all types are sold each year (not counting the Nintendo types). Up to ten percent can be classified as wargames, and this excludes all the fantasy titles that feature a lot of combat activity. Computer game sales more than tripled between 1985 and 1992. There are only about thirty million PC's (of all types) in homes. Nearly as many are in commercial locations, where there are more games being played than management will generally admit. Surveys indicate that about two thirds of the homes of actual or potential wargamers contain PC's. Currently, several computer wargames each year exceed 100,000 units sold. However, the average computer wargame sells more like 20,000-30,000 units.

During these first three years at SPI (1969-1972), Redmond Simonsen further refined the standards for editing and designing game components. Simonsen also had a flair for editing and this, combined with his artistic skills, created a system for presenting games that has never been surpassed and is still widely imitated. While I was self taught in the wargame business, Simonsen had graduated from Cooper Union with a degree in design. Cooper Union is one of those uniquely New York institutions. It has a huge endowment, so charges no tuition. However, entry is competitive. Other graduates have told me that getting in was worse than any job interview they subsequently had to go through.

By providing a model, SPI spawned dozens of other game companies, each following the SPI system to one degree or another. This system emphasized keeping the cost down, not having a mounted (paper map glued to cardboard) mapboard. The mounted mapboard was a habit Avalon Hill picked up from the mainline toy and game publishers and increased the cost of the game considerably. Initially, SPI marketed games solely by direct mail rather than trying to get them into stores. Some new companies, such as Simulations Design Corporation (SDC) in California, even attempted to put out a magazine with a game in it. The head of that firm, Dana Lombardy, came to us for advice in the early 1970s, which, as was our custom, we freely gave. SDC eventually folded, as did many of the other young publishers, but a large number survived. Although SPI published nearly 400 games between 1969 and 1982, the dozens of other smaller publishers published that many and more (depending upon how you define "publishing") to date. Some of these smaller publishers developed highly innovative ideas and have themselves contributed to profound changes in the hobby.

The most innovative and influential of these new game systems was the role-playing game (Dungeons & Dragons) developed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1973. The closest SPI ever came to this was a game we published in 1973 called Sniper, which involved man-to-man combat in an urban area. Players had a tendency to individualize their playing pieces in Sniper. But I, as the designer, did not bother to take it as far as Dungeons and Dragons, which was also the first, or at least the most widely successful, of the fantasy games.

SPIs first science fiction game, Star Force, was published in 1974 and went on to become one of SPIs best sellers. After StarForce, SPI published many other fantasy and science fiction games, almost all of which did very well and by the late 1970s, many of the smaller publishers realized that the quickest way to survival and success was to concentrate on fantasy and science fiction topics.

This shift towards fantasy and science fiction somewhat dismayed many of the older gamers, the grognards ("grumblers" in French, a term originally applied to Napoleon's old soldiers who knew what was going on, but were powerless to do little but grumble about it). Most of the original wargamers were history buffs. But about 30 percent were also into fantasy and science fiction, and their number greatly expanded when there were actually fantasy and science fiction games to be had. The second big burst of growth in the hobby took place in the late 1970s as a result of the widespread introduction of fantasy and science fiction games.

The three other big forces to emerge in wargaming in the late 1970s were the gaming conventions, the increasing flood of gaming periodicals and the publication of "serial games."


  The Conventions

  Table of Contents

  Chapter 5 Contents