Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I Miss SPI, Avalon Hill et al

Until I came to the USA I was a rabid consumer of board games and wargames, especially the products of Simulations Publications International, Avalon Hill and Task Force Games. In those days there was a hard core of gamers who didn't find the idea of a few pages of complex rules daunting and I had a lot of fun buggering about in the trenches of France in 1917, the plains of Russia in '43, the open bled of Arrakis in 10,000 someodd and Rome during Augustus Ceasar's reign.

I got a very special rush from opening the box of a new game and punching the counters. Lots and lots of counters. The typical count for an SPI game was 200 counters. Some games had as few as a couple of dozen. Didn't matter. The anticipation of the new game and how it would play with my steady group of co-players was a special pleasure that I haven't felt for a very long time, on account of how it is bloody near impossible to scare up players for anything these days. No-one wants to put in the effort any more.

Favourites that lie sitting on my bookshelves include

  • Diplomacy - The people I have persuaded to try this can't separate game play from real life and end up not speaking to each other afterwards. Baffling
  • Civilisation - Almost plays itself but can I get people to play? Can I buggery
  • Circus Maximus - Ben Hur on your tabletop. This little beauty was so popular when it was produced that I had to allow players to book future games but now?
  • Machiavelli - some call this a Diplomacy variant. Another screamingly popular number in 1981, no-one now wants to try it out
  • Star Fleet Battles - Star Trek on a paper map. This game was the most popular board game at the Lanchester Polytechnic Game Society for two years. I know because they used my copy for the first four months or so. Now, the arithmetic is too hard for people
  • Dune - a wonderful game of intrigue and underhanded backstabbing that no-one plays any more
  • Kingmaker - the ultimate in easy-to-learn fun games. Needless to say, no-one will try it out here
  • Imperial Governors - a six-player game set around the Med in the late bronze/early iron age that pits half a dozen kingdoms against each other in a light-hearted framework. So poular that at Games Day 80 both the Saturday and Sunday participation games with the designer were booked solid within 15 minutes of the doors opening. Dead easy to play. But isn't the subject about history? History is boring
Games lying in my basement due to my certain knowledge of not having a snowball's chance in hell of getting an opponent to play include
  • Star Soldier - a great tactical game of squad-vs-squad in the far future. The rulebook is 25 pages long. Nuff said
  • Starforce Alpha Centuri - Tactical starship combat on a 3D map. 3D? Too hard
  • Outreach - strategic level game of galactic exploration and civilisation building. Takes several hours to play so...
  • Global War - WWII in a box. World War What?
  • Submarine - Fabulous simulation of WWII submarine actions. Who would want to waste time on that? No-one apparently
  • Triplanetary - nice little vector-driven space thing playable with some chinagraph pencils in about an hour or so. Vectors? Isn't that math?
  • About a dozen simulation games encompassing everything from sea battles between the American colonial forces and the British Royal Navy to proposed actions in the Fulda Gap in the 1990's. Too 'army'
Azathoth, the only games I can scare up are very rare games of Risk these days. Everyone is too busy playing World of Warcraft on their PCs it seems.

I dunno why things have got to the state they are. Gaming people complain constantly about the high-cost and lack of "realism" in the hugely popular Games Workshop figure-based games yet cannot be persuaded to try anything else. Trying to explain that even though there are 8 pages of rules that the case-based system means you can learn them as you play cuts no ice with the new crop of wunderkinder. No attention span.

Some have blamed the advent of Role-Playing games for the death of the board game market. Role-playing games are fun but take up as much if not more time as any of the evening-length board games and often offer much less bang for the buck, experience-wise. I've probably spent as much if not more on Call of Cthulhu (a role playing agme I started running in 1981) than on all my other Avalon Hill, SPI and TFG games combined, and getting a game of that started involves me personally in much more work than any of those other games. Besides, we also played Call of Cthulhu, Traveller and Villains and Vigillantes in the same group that played Junta, Dune and Star Fleet Battles.

There's a product that allows two people to play an SPI type game over the web but a big part of the experience for me is the face-to-face nature of the games themselves. The out of game chat (something that can ruin a Role Playing session) is part of why I did it.

It's dead annoying.

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