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Influential Game Companies of the Past, Part 4: International Team

Transcript of the podcast published on July 16th, 2010.

After looking at some of the most important game companies of the US let’s move over the big pond to small and crowded Europe, and to a country that was nearly lost to gamers at that particular time in the past: Italy. That is until International Team came along.
In the year 1979 Renzo Angelosanto and Marco Donadoni decided to bring the joys of wargaming to the land of wine, good food and opera. They founded the company “International Team” which for nearly 10 years was an important presence in the European market.
At that time Wargaming was an extremely obscure hobby in Italy, even more obscure than in other European countries because of a huge language problem – as every American Tourist can attest Italy is not exactly a country with many English speakers, so it was no surprise that only a select few in Italy could actually understand English-language games.
Instead of translating titles from the US International Team decided to create their own line of mostly conflict orientated games, and from this decision resulted a line of the most beautiful, interesting and also frustratingly irritating games ever made in the history of mankind.
International Team’s games were always extremely pretty – they were published in huge and flat oblong boxes, difficult to store and easy to open while emptying all their contents on the floor. But pretty. Also the graphic design was always ahead of it’s time, featuring stylish illustrations which especially came to life in the many Science Fiction and Fantasy games that they published, like the game “Zargo’s Lords” which must count as the most successful game of their line. Boards were gigantic and always mounted – so from a sheer production viewpoint their games were superior to all other games published at the time.
But there was one big problem: The Rules.
Early on International Team decided to address an international market, hence their name, so rules sets usually came in Italian, English, French and German. So far so good, but sadly there never was any person in the whole company who actually ever checked the translations. This resulted in the most bizarre rulebooks ever published – the Italian rules were usually decent albeit imperfect, but all other languages sounded worse than even the worst on the spot babelfish translation you can get from the internet.
International Team’s most ambitious effort, the actually fabulous Science-Fiction-Roleplaying/Boardgame Hybrid “Legio VII”, was so lost in translation, that whole parts of the game became absolutely unplayable to anybody not speaking Italian. I would like to convey you the bizarreness of some German sentences in this rulebook, but I fear you would lose too much sanity if I tried.
But that was not the only problem – many games that International Team published were only vaguely tested, so sometimes they would simply break down once you tried to play them. Important rules concepts were not thought through, the rules would contradict themselves even in Italian, etc. This has been an ongoing problem with wargaming rules and certainly something that plagues games by SPI and Avalon Hill, but International Team brought the negligence in rules design to a never before achieved height.
The frustrating thing was that International Team’s games were actually no duds at all – they very often were full of beautiful ideas and interesting concepts, but trying to decipher what the game designers actually meant sometimes was a huge task.
Still, International Team enjoyed some success to the extent that their games are still sought after by collectors and they were very influential on the budding European games market and prepared the soil for later great designers to come from the country of Italy, like Nexus. But it was a venture that couldn’t last forever because of these problems, so in 1988 they declared bankruptcy and both founders moved on to other projects, still being influential in gaming circles. The most important lesson was perhaps learned by companies like Fantasy Flight – if you make your games beautiful people will most certainly look, but try to make them worthwhile as well.

Influential Game Companies of the Past, Part 3: SPI

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.

Combat Commander

Transcript of the podcast published on May 24th, 2010.

GMT’s hugely successful tactical WWII combat game “Combat Commander” is an interesting case. It proves that game design and rules design play an important part in the success of a game, perhaps even more so than a theme.
And let’s be honest: WWII tactical combat has been done already. A lot.

But for me Combat Commander really is the best of the bunch. It has already spawned 2 big box expansions, Combat Commander Mediterranean and Combat Commander Pacific, as well as various scenario packs. In scope and possibility for endless expansions it probably comes close to ASL, but CC makes an interesting decision to not go “all the way” like ASL did when it was developed past the original Squad Leader, the original game that many wargamers still miss for its relative simplicity compared to the Juggernaut that is ASL.

Let’s go through all the factors that make Chad Jensen’s wonderful game such a hit, and we will find that it is a hit simply because it succeeds on many levels not only one.

Factor 1: The Rulebook

Let’s start with the most obvious point: CC’s rulebook is simply a thing of beauty. It is perfectly organized, clear and to the point, well written and interspersed with interesting quotes to break the monotony of paragraphed wargame rules. And yes, it isn’t even difficult to understand, and a joy to read. Even though it has been slightly improved in later editions of the game the very first edition already was so good that there was little to complain about. For me it belongs to the best rulebooks GMT has ever published, up there with the equally excellent “Here I Stand” and “Pursuit of Glory” rulebooks. In a market where most rulebooks are obtuse, confusing or riddled with mistakes and inconsistencies it is really a joy to hold such a polished product in your hands.

Factor 2: Elegance of Design

Hardcore Anti-Euro Wargamers have to face a difficult realization with CC:
Without Eurogames there would be no CC, as Chad Jensen has taken many elements in which Euro Game designs shine to heart and applied them to the wargame world. First of all this means: no exceptions and no tables. CC completely lives from the info presented on either the counters or the status sheet where players track various things important for the game. The whole game hinges on opposed rolls: Single counters attack alone or in fire groups, perhaps the most important tactical element in CC. Defending counters also roll, trying to oppose the attack roll. There are no „to-hit”-charts or complicated accumulated modifiers.

When you attack you create a Fire Attack Strength based on your combat values printed on the counters and a 2 dice die roll which is not actually rolled but looked up on a card. This attack roll is only modified through one single factor, and that is hindrance through intervening terrain or terrain features, like smoke. The defender opposes this roll with a roll based on the defending units Morale value to which “cover” through certain terrain like walls or boscage is added.

Even though the difference between hindrance and cover is unusual at first, it really is everything that you need to understand about combat. Everything else is on the counters.

Combat itself is elegant and easy, and as basically everything comes down to a defense roll based on your unit’s morale it is easy to resolve various situations in the game, because they always follow the same, easy-to-understand logic.

Factor 3: The Cards

Not only Euro Games have been an influence on CC, also card-driven games have played a part in the shape of its design. In CC everything is resolved through multifunctional cards, an idea that goes back to old designs like “Empires of the Middle Ages” or “Gunslinger”. Each card can be many things:
an order, a special action, an event, a designated hex and a die roll as well as a time trigger. This makes planning your turns very interesting: you could use a certain card for a special action, but perhaps you need the order later on? Especially the “Fire” cards which let you – well, you guessed it – fire against other units, are much rarer than you wish for, and you also want to have “Fire” cards in your hand to create reaction fire when your opponent moves. “Ambush” cards are extremely powerful in skirmish combat, but also fill up your hand when holding them. CC involves everything that a good card-driven game has: bluffing elements, hand management and also an element that is often underrated in card-driven-games: conscious reduction of choices to avoid analysis paralysis and endless pondering. Even
better: each faction has its own set of cards, so it becomes a really unique experience to play the Russians instead of the Germans for example, as many things that tactically work for one faction don’t work for the other. This is especially remarkable, as most other games only can manage this kind of distinction through complicated info on counters or exception rules.

Factor 4: Story Elements

CC comes close to a role playing game in the management of your forces.
Individual leaders and heroes really have their moments, which is a cue most certainly taken from ASL which attempts similar things. But the heart of the game is the various events, some of them common like Snipers, some of them really rare. One can literally play dozens of games of CC before a certain event happens, and one never knows what will happen next, as there is no set turn-order – each player decides himself when and how to play his cards and can stop playing anytime, replenishing his hand. Sometimes several turns go by with each player simply preparing his hand for the next decisive attack, and just like on a real battlefield sometimes also a lot happens in a short time. For me this is the main improvement on ASL, which always follows the same strict and highly complicated turn order – in CC one never really can be sure of anything. The victory point system allows for wild swings – I have seen games with fantastic comebacks of the losing side for example.
Still it is also not completely random – CC is less about doggedly following a pre-determined know-all strategy (which would also be ridiculous in a Squad Level situation – every real-life soldier knows that), but more about constantly adapting your play to the situation at hand and working with what you got. One can never be sure of anything. And that creates tension!

Factor 5: Scale

The element that CC is mostly criticized for: In contrast to ASL CC makes a conscious decision to concentrate on the grunt, the common soldier, instead of machinery. The scale of CC is roughly half that of ASL, which means that group counters are always half-squads, and that individuals play a bigger role. Hexes are large to allow uncluttered management of weapon and other special counters, but this also means that there are no tanks, as a tank could simply move from one end of the game map to the other in one single movement action at this scale. Everything else is there – detailed weaponry with huge differences of various nations, artillery, smoke grenades, assault fire, but players who absolutely have to have tanks will be at a loss. But this is one of the reasons why CC is so elegant – tanks would simply be to much. Still, there might be an attempt to translate CC’s concepts to a larger scale at some point, and the result might very well be a new “Panzer Leader” game.

Factor 6: Length

Combat Commander is not an endless game – a scenario will probably take you about 2-3 hours, and even though the scenarios can often be wildly different or even linked campaigns, they never outstay their welcome. Game length itself is handled by the “Time Trigger” mechanic – games can be shorter or longer than one expects, but also this creates a welcome change to other games, where both players boringly know that a particular scenario ends on turn 7 and always exactly know, when and where reinforcements appear. CC lacks any scriptedness, and that is a huge advantage, also for replayability.

Factor 7: Scenarios

Like with ASL, there is already a huge range of CC scenarios on the market, each of them using different maps. But even better according to many are the completely random scenarios, where both players create forces and victory conditions on the fly, often these scenarios are the most fun, as nobody knows what they can expect!

Hidden victory point info is a decisive element to the game – both players will always know more about the victory point value of certain areas than their opponent, which creates interesting situations on the map. Any new player to the CC universe will know for sure that the game never ends – even if you have mastered the impossible task of playing all known CC scenarios playing them for a second time would be such a different experience that it would be worthwhile doing so. And the random scenarios literally last forever.

As you can tell I am a big fan of this game, and can only heartily recommend to you playing it. For me it is the number one tactical WWII game, and I have never looked back to other games with that theme that I have played. CC surpasses other games simply because it works on several levels – the casual player will enjoy it as well as the history buff, and even Euro Gamers could find it an experience that they will like, in contrast to many other wargames. This concludes my first little feature for this show – I hope you enjoyed it!

See you next time, when the Noise before defeat is making itself heard.

“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.