“Influential Game Companies of the Past” Part 2: Avalon Hill

Transcript of the podcast published 13 May 2010:

How can we not talk about one of the greatest game companies ever when following up last week’s segment about 3M: and that company was called Avalon Hill!

Now many of you will say: “but why, Avalon Hill still exists, aren’t they the publishers of Axis and Allies?” And I will say: “You Heathens! How dare you compare the monstrous Hasbro corporate monster who bought the sad remains of a once proud company in 1998, when I had just bought a subscription to the “General”, and which are now defiling the holy name of Avalon Hill by branding a game with it which wasn’t even an original Avalon Hill game, how can you compare all this… with the best game company ever?”.

Ok, many of you, used to the sleek and slim designs of today, might wonder why Avalon Hill, with it’s trademark unwieldy rulebooks in boring black and white print which often read like lawyer’s notes and were ordered in their trademark paragraphs, and with their sometimes incredibly complex games like Advanced Squad Leader or Magic Realm should be so great when compared to eye candy like Fantasy Flight’s games.

And I tell you why: because Avalon Hill was the most pioneering, daring and varied game company ever, with a backlog of games that still are considered all-time classics after being around for decades.

Taking the cue from 3M-games Avalon Hill was the first gamer’s game-company, a company that from the beginning on tried to address a market of specialist gamers, even though they sometimes dabbled in simpler family games and even notoriously published “Dr. Ruth’s Game Of Good Sex” and a “Witchcraft Kit” for young girls.

A short history is in order: In 1954 the company was started a small enterprise by the now fondly remembered Charles S. Roberts, the grandfather of wargaming as we know it. Roberts can be credited as the inventor of the modern wargame, and had some moderate success with games like Tactics I and Tactics II, which were still quite abstract wargames, but already a first step into the direction of the historical simulations we play today. He followed this up with a line of more historically oriented games like “Stalingrad” or “U-Boat”, which seemed to find a target audience with teenage boys who grew up with the war stories of their fathers. One of the major inventions of the then new Avalon Hill game company was the use of the hex-grid as a means to simplify movement and to be able to transport some concepts of miniature wargaming – a trend that developed at the same time – to a game board.

But also from early on Avalon Hill sought non-wargaming themes, Roberts’s own favourite design was a game called “Management” which was far from being a wargame.

In 1962 the company became a subsidiary of Monarch Printing Company, and from then on began to act similarly like 3M games in the context of a larger, non-game company. With the new owner came heightened popularity and improved distribution, and for a long time, at least the 70’s and 80’s, Avalon Hill was the absolute market leader in the realm of everything related to gaming. They continued to use the ingenious bookcase format for most of their games, and their graphic design set new standards.

Wargaming was probably the main fundament for the company, and the list of classic games in this field is immense. During their great years they boasted a staff of excellent game designers like Richard Hamblen or Don Greenwood, and had a fantastic development team that really enjoyed what they were doing. Many inhouse-game designs of AH became classics, but they also had – at least most of the time – a good knack for buying game designs from independent game companies or designers, like the classic “Dune” (by EON) or the legendary “Titan” (privately published by two friends as a game to sell at conventions), or “Civilization” by Francis Tresham and Hartland Trefoil, which today can be considered three of the greatest games of all time.

AH games were never facile, and often astonishingly deep and rich in detail, sometimes to the effect that the games became nearly unplayable except for people with lots of patience and a high IQ, but that was rarer the case than with some designs from their big competitor, SPI.

In general most Avalon Hill games fulfilled a high standard of rules organisation and quality, rarely did they do cheap one-shot games. Avalon Hill also went with the times – for a certain time they were actually a sales leader in computer games, publishing a huge number of either conversions of their own games (sometimes bizarrely bad like the computer version of “Diplomacy”, another Avalon Hill hit), but from a certain point on they just couldn’t compete with the new kids on the block, console and graphics-intensive games with huge development budgets.

They also tried out RolePlaying, by buying the rights to “Runequest” and also later creating a “James Bond Role Playing Game” with their sibling-company “Victory Games” (where also the legendary “Ambush” was published), which was created when they bought a part of the SPI-design team when SPI was bought by TSR (which was later gobbled up by Wizards of the Coast, then Hasbro – strange how the gaming scene somehow reminds us of a game of PacMan, isn’t it?).

The “General”, AH’s inhouse magazine, can be considered as one of the most influential game magazines ever, even though many complain about that it was quite boring to read, consisting mainly of deep analytical discussions and replays of complex strategy games and dry historical articles.

Sadly the good times couldn’t last forever. When Monarch got into legal trouble in the late 90’s the effect on AH was disastrous. The company had already struggled in the years before that – after the big wargaming and sportsgaming (another staple of AH) boom of the 70’s and 80’s had died out, it found it was increasingly difficult to compete with Real Time Strategy computer games and other computer games, which had become the new dominant hobby. One can also argue that the Eurogame boom of the 90’s did also play a great role in the downfall of AH, because they could not switch quickly enough the new elegant and more simple designs that suddenly came from Europe. Still, the AH design team tried to change things, and the last games of AH actually contain many gems, like the still excellent card game “Titan: The Arena”, which was simply a Don Greenwood conversion of an older Eurogame by Reiner Knizia. We can only speculate what might have become of AH if they had had more luck with money and management in the last years, I personally like to think they would still rule and bring countless hours of enjoyment to gamers all around the world, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

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