Transcript of the podcast published on December 1st, 2010.
I have just come back from BGG con and it was a blast to meet all you Dice Tower fans out there. Thank you for all the great moments I had there – the Dice Tower fans are the best! But I have to hurry on as Tom only gives me 5 minutes…
We are nearing the end of my 10-part series about game companies of ‘ye olden times’, and this time I would like to counter my last segment about Games Workshop with a segment about a company with a very similar name: “Game Designers’ Workshop”, or short GDW.
The two companies have nothing to do with each other, and they also existed on separate parts of the globe, as Games Workshop is British and GDW was an Illinois based American company founded by four game designers who then went on to regularly create games from 1973 to 1996: Frank Chadwick, Rich Banner, Marc Miller and Loren Wiseman.
It’s active life of 23 years makes it one of the longest running game companies in my list, and their output was truly impressive, even though it is probably still more known for its role playing games than its boardgames, the most famous being the most influential SF role playing game of all time, “Traveller”, a game which solely used 2 normal dice for the resolution of everything from skill checks to character creation.
How did such a company come about? Chadwick, Banner and Miller were the founding and basically only members of the Illinois State University Games club. Rich Banner was into graphics and secured a grant that enabled him to print blank hex paper to be used for wargames, something that wasn’t as easy then as it is today. Shortly after that Illinois University suddenly became a haven for gamers, as educational initiative SimRAD (Simulation, Research, Analysis and Design) was founded to encourage the use of games in the classroom. Chadwick, Banner and Miller began work on a huge World War II boardgame using the blank sheets and the fund money. For this they founded the game company with the name GDW. Soon after they shifted to the commercial sector when the grant money got cancelled, and they did so with no little success.
This can mostly be attributed to the incredible hard work of the founders of this company, (especially Frank Chadwick) who were joined by Loren Wiseman in 1974 – there was probably never a small game company that was run so efficiently by a small group of people that also mostly designed all their own games. The Wikipedia entry states that GDW published a new product every 22 days average and that for 23 years, which is quite a feat. This is why mentioning every game in this feature is a futile task – there are way to many!
GDW was famous for their game presentation which can be described as minimalist. Most games came in small boxes featuring bound rulebooks which always had a similar cover design, paper maps and charts. The first edition of Traveller the role playing game had barely any graphics and used a font that became GDW’s trademark for science fiction games. Also their later games kept eye-candy to a minimum, rather concentrating on story and atmosphere. “Traveller” became the first SF roleplaying game and also spawned a couple of boardgames related to its universe. My favourite were always the 2 sci-fi skirmish games “Snapshot” and “Azhanti High Lightning” which were the first games featuring single-man combat on starship maps using role-playing style characters. These games actually had relatively simple and elegant rules using Action Points, and were closely related to Traveller’s combat system, which is known to be extremely lethal – when you were hit by anything you basically died. This gave the scenarios a usually rather short playing time, but one played the games again and again because of the great starship maps.
But these games were not their most famous SF-boardgame, this honour goes to “Imperium”, perhaps the most influential SF-boardgame ever created, and predecessor to contemporary games like “Twilight Imperium”, which even honours GDW in its name.
In “Imperium” – a game influenced by the writings of Isaac Asimov and especially the Foundation series – a young upstart human space empire fought against a Roman like “old” alien imperium who at first underestimates them completely. The battle rages across the galaxy, depicted by a web of jump points that basically form a point-to-point map. Both players can run a huge assortment of small and big ships, and there are Star-Wars-like space battles galore, as well as epic ground combat. This is even more impressive when one thinks about the fact that “Imperium” was published in the same year that “Star Wars” was first screened, so there must have been some prescience by the designers, as there are certain similarities, especially the “Death Star” like units.
Before that game there was also “Triplanetary”, a game that is now less known, but which already featured the same ship types of “Imperium”. “Double Star” featured two planets battling that were also moving in an orbit around the same star, ensuing in interesting tactical challenges. “Asteroid” was a pulp-exploration game of an asteroid controlled by a mad computer. But there were also many traditional wargames, classics like the Civil War game “A House Divided” or submarine warfare game “Harpoon” by Larry Bond. The list of games is huge, as well as their output of roleplaying games which saw several editions of Traveller in various time periods, like Traveller 2300 AD, but also horror and historical roleplaying games.
One genre totally missing is Fantasy – there are no fantasy boardgames by GDW, only historical and SF, and with the exception of “Asteroid” even their SF games were usually of the “hard SF” variety trying to base their rules on real physics. There was only one attempt at a fantasy role playing game called “Dangerous Journeys”, which was a design by Gary Gygax, abandoned in the end.
The output of GDW was so persistent and of such a persistent quality that only one thing could end their run – and this was of course financial troubles suffered as late as 1996, long after other industry giants like SPI had folded. This long life can be attributed to GDW’s quite good management. But apparently it was simple burnout that ended the run of one of the most successful and influential game companies that ever came out of a university experiment in a basement.