Chapter5.gif History of Wargames

Into the 1980s

In 1979, what was a gamer to make of all this, and what were the gamers doing? Tastes were changing; so were the publishers-but not always in the same direction. The class of grognards was growing and changing, and becoming more influential while the new generation of gamers was larger and was cutting their teeth on fantasy and science fiction games, not these simple wargames and tactical armor games of the previous generation.

Gamers have changed over the last twenty years, from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, primarily because the games that they have been exposed to have changed. In the early days there were very few games. If you had any desire at all to be a wargamer you had to like what was available. As more games were published, more people got interested. There was, so to speak, something for everyone. Beginning in the late 1970s, with the emergence of fantasy role-playing games and many more fantasy and science fiction games in general, people who were not history buffs but had the mental capabilities to handle a game also became hobbyists. This has helped gaming in general since many of the people who were not all that interested in history became interested through their exposure to fantasy and science fiction games. This may, in a perverse way, demonstrate the most successful method of teaching history ever discovered.

Gaming had also gotten out of the earliest stages of development in which a handful of visionary (or sometimes just a little demented) people, perhaps a little too far ahead of their time, produced most of the games. Many players eventually lost their awe of the game-designing and publishing processes, decided to do it themselves and, as a result a far greater number of games were being produced.

By 1980, the beginning was over. The hobby was not "new" anymore, but the most fascinating things were still to come. What made the developments of the 1980s so interesting was that most of them would happen on microcomputers. But while the next stage of wargame history had its share of innovation, it didn't have the kind of innovative excitement that existed at the beginning, even though the future will produce many far better games. There's nothing like being there at the beginning, with the opportunity to make a big difference. But for every beginning, there's an end, or at least a second act. The second act in this case wasn't nearly as much fun as the first one.

The Dark Ages and Renaissance

In the early 1980s, wargaming went through a period of tumult and subsequent renaissance. I saw it coming, but no one paid much attention. When I wrote the first edition of this book in 1979, I knew that changes were in the wind. Big changes. I knew this because SPIs game buying customers had told me. One of my favorite innovations was to include an extensive questionnaire with each issue of S&T. This ran to fifty or more questions and was used to keep tabs on the demographics of our market as well as to test new product ideas and to measure the acceptance of existing games. We ran twelve of these voluntary response surveys a year, plus one random survey for validation. I would spend one weekend a month running data through our minicomputer, performing all manner of arcane statistical analysis on the information received from our customers. A side effect of this system (called "feedback") was to make the gamers feel they were directly part of the decision making process. They were, and what they were telling me in 1979 was disquieting.

Existing gamers were telling anyone who would listen that they were getting into microcomputers, and non-wargames. Although only five percent of wargamers had PCs in early 1980 (including myself, since 1978), the number was rapidly increasing. Given that PC ownership had nowhere to go but straight up, these PC owners were going to have less time, and money, for paper wargames. The second, and more ominous trend, was the increasing popularity of fantasy and science fiction games: at the expense of historical games. Interest was most keen for these games, especially role playing games (Dungeons & Dragons) among the youngest gamers. Many new gamers were avoiding historical games altogether. In other words, the rapidly growing wargame market of the previous ten years had developed a bad case of clay feet. The older and more affluent gamers were wandering off towards PCs and the younger ones were turning into dwarves and trolls.

Just to make matters more interesting at this point, my partner, Redmond Simonsen expressed a keen interest in selling out his share in the company. This was not the best time to sell, as SPIs recent major expansion into retail distribution had vastly increased the managerial workload and cashflow requirements which produced an ugly balance sheet. However, it was a suggestion I could hardly ignore. So I scrounged up some buyers. Their offers all had two things in common: not enough money to satisfy the stockholders and a demand that I sign a long term employment contract. A low selling price didn't bother me as much as five years of involuntary servitude. At that point (about when the first edition of this book was published) it dawned on me that it was time for another dramatic change in direction. I started SPI on a hunch, and by doing what no one expected, so now was an opportunity for more of the same. Thus I decided to leave SPI, giving my partners complete authority to sell the operation for whatever they could get. I could always make more money, but having left SPI I couldn't be pinned down by a long term employment contract. I couldn't make more time, but I could avoid losing it.

I warned all and sundry about the vast changes developing in the wargame market, but, as subsequent events demonstrated, many people in the wargaming business weren't listening, or they weren't listening hard enough. I then went off to do what I intended to do before getting caught up in running SPI for eleven years: write books. My first book, the first edition of this book, stayed in print for over ten years. Not bad for a quickie on a "contemporary fad" (wargames). Before leaving SPI, I cut a deal with my publisher to do another book and in early 1982 "How to Make War" was published and became a best seller. This edition of the Wargames Handbook is my ninth book, with several more in the works. It was a long detour through wargaming, but I finally got to where I was headed back in the late 1960s. During those last few years at SPI, I also discovered that it was more profitable modeling money than warfare, another new direction that paid off during the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the new leadership at SPI sought to exploit what they thought was the growing wargame market. Trouble was, the market was no longer there, it was fading fast. Instead of hunkering down to transform itself, SPI spent big in an attempt to capture a large market that was shrinking. A venture capital firm had entered the picture during 1981, and were not happy with the way things were developing. In January, 1982, the venture capital outfit (which now had a large measure of control over SPI), asked me to take over running SPI once more. That was a tempting prospect, for about 15 seconds. I had other commitments at that point and I knew that trying to turn SPI around in the then current market place would be a daunting job. I turned the offer down. By mid-1982, SPIs assets were acquired (in a rather complex deal) by TSR (the Dungeons & Dragons people). They got a bargain price, but didn't know quite what to do with it. In 1983, I got an offer from TSR to move out to Wisconsin and run the their new wargames operation (what was left of SPI). Another offer that was easy to decline. I knew that it was only a matter of time before computers were owned by a sufficient number of people to enable wargaming to make a comeback. It had not happened by 1982, or 1983. It took most of the 1980s for wargaming to transform itself from a paper to an electronic medium.

The shakeout in the wargames business during the early 1980s was not a pretty picture. Consider the circulation of S&T, a good barometer of interest in manual wargame wargames. When I left the wargame business at the end of 1980, circulation stood at 36,000. It was downhill from there.


S&T Circulation

November 1980   36,000
November 1981   30,000
November 1982   26,000
November 1983   17,000
November 1984   15,000
November 1985   13,000
November 1986   12,000
November 1987   11,000
November 1988   11,000
November 1989   9,000
November 1990   11,000

The slight pickup between late 1989 and late 1990 was partially my doing, as I returned to edit the magazine for a year or two (18 months, as it turned out). The reason for editing the magazine once more were not too complicated. I got tired of gamers complaining to me about the constant decline in the quality of the magazine. When an opportunity to take over the editorship once more presented itself, I said, in effect, "gimme that damn thing, now THIS is how you do it." The quality of the magazine (and to a lesser extent the games) had, indeed, declined after I left and particularly after TSR took over in 1982. When I came back on board, I turned things around, at least to the extent that readers noticed a difference from issue to issue. But the major reason for the decline was wargamers becoming more interested in computer wargames and other types of simulations (fantasy and science fiction). All the talent was where the money was, fantasy, science fiction and computer games. TSR had taken over publication of S&T in 1982, but was unable to make a go of it. In late 1986, TSR sold S&T to 3W (a California wargame publisher). In turn, 3W sold S&T to Decision Games in early 1991. S&T is still being published by Decision Games, and 1992 marks the 25th year of the magazines existence. The old rag is a survivor.

The relentless decline in wargaming activity during the 1980s was the result of a long list of factors. Including the ones we've already mentioned, they were:

As the S&T circulation numbers demonstrate, wargaming did not disappear, it merely contracted. There were still several major publishers. The major one was now Avalon Hill, which had hired many of SPIs product development staff and set them up as a subsidiary game publisher (Victory Games) in New York City. Victory Games continued the SPI style, and tradition, of games although on a much reduced publication schedule. In 1983, Victory Games continued to demonstrate the old SPI ingenuity with the first of a series of easy to play solitaire games. "Ambush" was the first of the series, and it used a paragraph book format to generate an intelligent and difficult to defeat opponent. This was a concept already present in fantasy gaming. Other publishers issued similarly easy to play solitaire games and this was one of the reasons wargaming was able to survive at all. Unfortunately, Victory Games had a difficult time recruiting and retaining skilled staff. This was always a problem with the wargames industry, as it was basically a low profit business that required very capable people (who could make a lot more money doing something else) to keep going. The remnants of the New York staff of Victory Games was disbanded in 1989, although games under the Victory Game label continued to be published from Avalon Hills Baltimore facilities.

GDW continued to operate in the midwest, although they published a larger number of non-historical games in order to do so. There were several other companies of note that did not survive the early 1980s. OSG folded in 1982 and Yaquinto Games in 1983. Several other smaller operations folded, but that was normal.

As wargaming companies finally took note of the substantial market changes going on, there emerged a growing movement to recast the image of the wargame industry, including the related offspring the Role Playing Games. This resulted in the concept of an "Adventure Gaming" industry. The idea actually began in the late 1970s when it became obvious that the RPGs, although an offshoot of wargaming, were not only becoming a much larger business, but also quite different. In the early 1980s this concept found expression in several mass market magazines devoted to "Adventure Gaming" (Adventure Gaming Magazine and Gameplay Magazine and in 1985 Game News). All soon folded, even though they were well produced. They tried to cover historical, fantasy and science fiction games in one magazine and not enough people were interested. Specialized magazines were the way to go. TSR was quite successful with their Dragon magazine, getting circulation up to over 100,000.

Although no one was ever able to successfully compete with S&T (as a magazine with a game in it), there was a new magazine of that ilk begun in Britain in the late 1970s: The Wargamer (published by World Wide Wargamers, or 3W for short). Rather crude by S&T standards, it was serviceable and enjoyed some success in Britain and in the early 1980s the operation was moved to California. In the wake of SPIs demise, The Wargamer improved its quality and frequency of publication. While S&T, and previous competitors, had been bi-monthly, The Wargames reached monthly publication by 1986. But this was pushing it. It was difficult to get a new game out every month. A novel solution to this killer schedule was achieved when TSR began shopping S&T around in 1986. There were eventually several bidders, and 3W acquired S&T in late 1986, merged The Wargamer into it and began publishing S&T eight times a year.

Even with a circulation of 12,000 in 1986, S&T was profitable. This profitability was enhanced, ironically, through the use of PCs. Microcomputer technology was now capable of handling layout and production of the magazine. The low overhead of 3Ws rural California location also helped.

Although the circulation of S&T had declined seventy five percent from the glory days of the late 1970s, the number of wargamers had shrunk a bit less. Those games that were distributed through stores sold about half as many units per titles as in the past. Publishers adjusted for this by raising their prices. Because most of the remaining wargamers were well educated, older guys with high incomes, the price increases did not have much effect. Sure, these men still didn't have much time. In fact, surveys in the late 1980s indicated that 40 percent of them simply "studied" the games they bought, only a third actually played while the remainder put it on the shelf for future reference. This is remarkably similar to what happens to a lot of books bought. The publishers really doesn't care, unless the customers stop buying.

Several novel methods were adopted by wargame publishers in an effort to increase sales. Many of these ideas worked, but only to a limited extent. Large and complex games could be priced quite high, with hefty profit margins built in. But if one of these didn't achieve the usual (low) sales, there was a significant loss incurred. GDW and Avalon Hill tried publishing very simple games. But these were intrinsically low priced games, with little in the way of generous profit margins and you had to move a ton of them to make any financial progress. The only games of this ilk that did respectable numbers were the movie tie ins. Avalon Hill did well with a "Platoon" game (after the movie of the same name). Victory Games did a line of James Bond RPG products. Ironically, Victory Games greatest commercial success was a "Dr Ruth Sex Game." But this was not wargaming and the publishers were aware that they were getting away from their reason for being by publishing games that much removed from historical simulation.

TSR, which had acquired the rights to SPIs backlist, made steady, if modest, profits by republishing some of the more popular SPI titles. This is not a big money maker, but it has made wargamers happy by keeping some of the classics in print. More profitable was the tie ins, especially games like "The Hunt for Red October." TSR also published some original games under its SPI trademark, but this has been a minor part of its publishing activity.

Inexorably, computer wargames became more prominent, with reviews of and ads for computer game reviews and ads becoming increasingly prominent from 1984 on. S&T regularly featured full page color ads for computer wargames. An encouraging development was the increasing use of historical material in the games instruction manual. By the late 1980s, some games had separate "data manuals" running to a hundred pages or more. This appealed immensely to the historical gamer, who was essentially an information junkie. By the early 1990s, a lot of this information began to appear within the games themselves. This was possible because most games now require a hard disk. This means that thousands of words of text (plus illustrations) can be stored on the hard disk without interfering with the play of the game.

History has also caught up with historical games. Ever since SPI published the first game of NATO/Warsaw Pact combat in 1972 (Red Star/White Star), this new genre became the best selling of historical periods. This even though it was "history" that hadn't happened yet. But the most salable games always featured Europe and a clash between NATO and Russian forces. When peace broke out in Europe with the collapse of communism collapsed in 1989, interest in games of this type also collapsed. At the same time, interest increased for games on older periods, particularly pre-medieval history. Wargames went back to their roots.

  The Conventions

  Analytic History, and What Is a Simulation Anyway?

  Table of Contents

  Chapter 5 Contents