Transcript of the podcast published on June 2nd, 2010.
SPI, or Simulations Publications Incorporated, was to Avalon Hill what Marvel was and is to DC Comics: the former new kid on the block, which then went on to become a bit louder, a bit more in your face, a bit more bang for your bucks than its competitor.
For ca. 15 years the rivalry between SPI and Avalon Hill was something that incredibly enriched the wargame hobby, because both companies had their unique strengths and weaknesses, and competition meant that both their games became better and better.
SPI started small – founder Jim Dunnigan took over small wargame magazine Strategy and Tactics (S&T) and quickly realized that wargaming was a new and exciting hobby that was quickly growing.
He began to pursue the policy of publishing one complete wargame in each magazine of S&T. These were simple affairs consisting of a game map, a counter sheet and rules while the rest of the magazine was devoted to military and strategic articles. Another magazine, “Moves”, quickly followed, in which there was more talk about the design of games.
The first SPI game of note was most certainly the now famous “Napoleon at Waterloo”, a simple introductory wargame that could be taught to anyone in minutes, but which proved to be almost chess-like in its myriads of applicable strategies. In an early and wildly successful marketing coup this little game was actually distributed for free to attract new gamers to the hobby. It proved incredibly popular, and the game is played even today, belonging to the most-played wargames ever. Hey, even Tom Vasel would play it, as a typical game only lasts an hour!
The early SPI output of games basically went through three phases. In long questionnaires usually published in “Moves” or “S&T” gamers where asked in detail what kind of design they would like to see and what themes would interest them. According to this data games were created, usually with one general rules set that could be adapted to several scenarios of a given period. Single games were then often published either in S&T or in flimsy plastic trays that had a shelf life of a few months before falling apart. Wargamers will immediately recognize the early SPI games, with the plastic trays usually brown with age, but they will also have fond memories of the games themselves. Later they went on to produce cardboard boxes, but even these were incredibly flimsy.
It was also popular to combine games into quadrilogies, different games using the same rules-set. Most famous is probably the quad-game “Napoleon’s Last Battles” by Kevin Zucker, which broke up the famous Waterloo battle into 4 single battles that could be combined into one large monster game if wished for. All of SPI’s Napoleonic period games had common features for example, so that it was easy for anybody that had played one of them to play other games of the series practically out of the box.
Monster games in particular quickly became a staple of SPI – most infamous is probably “Campaigns for North Africa”, a game so overblown, detailed and complicated that it even contained a rule for the influence of spaghetti cooking on the water supply of Italian troops in North Africa in WWII. The game had been developed for years but never been playtested in full because it took so darn long to actually play it; it therefore must count as the only game in existence that has never actually been fully played from beginning to end.
But other monster games like “War in the East” proved more playable and SPI quickly gained a reputation for producing hugely thematic and long games with actually not too unwieldy rules. For a while they ruled supreme and were hugely influential, especially because of their trademark graphic design that was pioneered by the wonderful Redmond A. Simonson and which still fascinates because of its relative simplicity and clarity compared to the often garish and overproduced art of today.
Like Avalon Hill SPI quickly branched out into other markets – they quickly adapted the fantasy fad and produced innovative games with Tolkien themes, but also excellent Science Fiction Games like the highly interesting “Freedom in the Galaxy”. This was also the time when they began producing the fantastic game magazine “Ares” which had only fantasy and SF themed games and must still count as the most interesting magazine-with-game-included publication ever done, containing also short stories by highly renowned SF and fantasy authors.
SPI’s own fantasy roleplaying game “DragonQuest” was actually more successful than Avalon Hill’s roleplaying attempts for a while, but SPI also landed a huge flop with the “Dallas” the TV series roleplaying game, for which they had paid a lot in royalties.
For 13 years SPI was the industry’s work-horse, producing an incredible number of games in a short space of time. But exactly this overstretching also produced its downfall – earlier than Avalon Hill SPI went bankrupt and was taken over by TSR, the roleplaying company that became a giant through Dungeons and Dragons. But TSR was already also not in their prime anymore, and the SPI games by TSR where shoddier and less playtested than their predecessors. In addition the new management alienated many of the former game designers working for SPI, who then went on to work for their biggest former rival, Avalon Hill, by creating their new game line “Victory Games”, which had its moment of glory for a while. The experiment TSR/SPI didn’t last for long, and also TSR was later gobbled up by Wizards of the Coast. The SPI era – short but influential – had come to a sudden end.
But not quite – small company Decision Games managed to acquire the rights to many of SPI’s titles, including S&T, and by reducing print runs, using P-500 like schemes and careful pricing managed to keep the glory of this magazine up to today, as well as producing new versions of many of SPI’s games. In many ways they have tried to keep the old SPI spirit successfully alive, so if you are interested in this fascinating wargame period the Decision Games website is a good place to start. You might also want to check out their new solitaire wargames like D-Day Omaha Beach and RAF, by the way.