ON A COLD AND GREY NOVEMBER DAY
When I visited London in November 1988 one of my usual evening strolls led me to "Just Games" a small games shop just off Regent Street. I had visited them before and knew that I would find a wide range of imported boardgames, in particular those from the United States.
This time my attention was drawn to something completely different: a magazine called "Games International", which not only appeared to be produced very professionally but also carried an interesting combination of articles about foreign and German games. At the time I was not aware that German games were known in Britain at all.
Hence, I bought a copy and spent the rest of the evening in my hotel room, reading what appeared to be the first issue of a very different games magazine. I was so intrigued by the mag that I filled in the subscription form that very night and sent it off the next day.
At that time I already subscribed to one of the most popular German game journals "Pöppelrevue", which covered the German boardgame market pretty well. But much to my surprise GI provided me with a new view about the games I thought I knew pretty well. On the one hand there was none of the rather dry style of writing I was used to from Pöppelrevue. Many articles had this humorous kind of "straight from the heart" style elegantly spiced with the odd pun, which made reading them not only interesting but fun. On the other hand, the mag contained details about strategies and variants, which were completely new to me.
THE BRIGHT SIDE OF THE MOON
The type of games covered and their rating made me feel sort of "at home". The first issue had favourable reviews about "Kremlin", "6-Tage Rennen" and "McMulti" - games we liked and played a lot at the time. In addition, GI #1 included a strategy article about "Schoko&Co.", something of a size and depth I never seen before in a German games magazine. Taking a note of the author provided some clue, as Alan R. Moon was known to me as a writer for Avalon Hill's house magazine "General". Besides the fact that the "General" was quite expensive in Germany it also was pretty hard to find. So seeing that GI managed to get one of their authors on the payroll convinced me that GI was the right mag for me.
Talking about Alan R. Moon: he was introduced as GI's "American Desk" and Brian Walker, GI's editor, wrote a rather strange (in my eyes) staff profile about him. It commenced with providing a photo of an empty suit of armour as "Alan R. Moon" - something which later proved to be some kind of a GI policy: "Never provide a photo of any of the staff". To my knowledge, this policy has been broken only once when issue #4 carried a photo showing Brian "Schoko & Co." Walker together with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Unless, of course, this was some kind of an inside joke; so I provide the photo for reference and I'm happy to receive comments on this.
Other now well known names of the gaming hobby contributed regularly to GI: Derek Carver ("Blood Royal", "Showbiz"), Stuart Dagger ("Counter"), Phil Orbanes ("Infinity"), David Parlett ("Hare and Tortoise"), David Pritchard ("Games and Puzzles") and Mike Siggins ("Counter") to name just a few.
The structure of GI's content was based on game categories: general games, abstract games, war games and role-playing games besides "standard" columns like an editorial ("Up Front"), travel reports and reader letters ("Rebound"). I cannot remember a mag where I enjoyed the editorial as much as Brian Walker's "Up Front". Besides being informative the tongue-in-cheek humour sometimes was hilarious. The way Brian dealt with the uproar about Metal Magic's ad (with the "orcs with the dorks" photo) in his "Members not allowed" column was simply fantastic.
GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
German games were covered regularly, not only by reviews but also providing in depth strategy articles. "Die Macher", "Schoko &Co." and other games were covered together with excellent strategy advice or variants. GI later decided to import German games to make them available in the UK via national mail order. Good for the German games industry but also a clear indication of the condition the British game market was in at the time.
The competition amongst the game mags in the UK must have been fierce as shown by the problems "Games Monthly" went through in 1989 and the quarrel between GI and "Games Review Monthly" in late 1989. Luckily, GI had decided early to not only address the UK market but to make the mag available in the US and Germany as well. Nevertheless, in 1989 GI had to realize that boardgaming was getting competition from a different direction altogether: computer games. So during what must have been a sort of self finding break the September issue of GI was skipped and appeared as Sep/Oct issue (#9) in October 1989 - containing the first articles on computer games. Consequently, the cover photo showed "Millennium 2.2" to clearly demonstrate the change.
CYBER HOUSE RULES
At the time I was just getting into computer games myself so this change was rather welcomed. In the summer 1990 I decided to buy my first PC - at a ridiculously high price compared to today's standards - mainly because of Brian Walkers and Bruce Shelley's coverage of the computer game "Railroad Tycoon" in GI issue #16 in July 1990 - take that as an example of the press influencing decisions.
While GI was still covering both boardgames and computer games a principle change in marketing strategy became visible when the August and September 1990 issues of GI were skipped and the mag's October issue appeared under the new name "Strategy Plus" issue #1 with a clear focus on computer games. It took however another 9 months until Brian Walker decided to convert "Strategy Plus" into a computer games only magazine - issue #10 of SP was the last one with a boardgame section.
More changes followed course: from issue #18 SP was no longer printed in the UK but in the States, probably due to Brian Walker's moving house to the United States. But things didn't work out the way Brian had intended and hoped (see the interview below) and in the end the August 1993 issue (#33) of SP was the last with him as the editor. Following this SP dwindled into irrelevance - at least from my perspective.
So why do I write this article? GI was an excellent boardgaming mag which I liked very much and the demise of which I deplored a lot. So this is supposed to be a homage about the magazine. But there is more than just that. In the meantime the same has happened to another excellent boardgaming publication I had subscribed: "Pöppelrevue". This indicates to me that the market for such publications is rather small probably because only diehard boardgamers will spend money for game reviews, news and strategy articles. While the Internet was not around in the late 80's it may well present an additional threat to printed boardgame magazines today. Reviews, session reports, strategies, variants and other articles are readily available on the Net - for free. And sites like ours may well expedite the end of printed game magazines. And what shall I read in bed when that happens?
TALKS WITH MR. WALKS
The following interview with Brian Walker, the former editor of Games International and Strategy Plus, was conducted via email in late December 2003.
WPG: Brian, we'd like to thank you very much for the interview and wish you all the best for the future. We do hope to see more on boardgames from you soon. (Brian can be reached at Mr.firstname.lastname@example.org)
©2004, Aaron Haag