Wednesday, February 6, 2013

On The Shoulders Of Giants: Don Greenwood On Avalon Hill And The History Of Wargaming

A big shout out to fellow blogger Itinerant Hobbyist for his post last week, noting an interview with Don Greenwood of Avalon Hill on the excellent Guns, Dice and Butter podcast. While the name may not be that familiar to those on the miniatures side of the wargaming hobby, he is an iconic figure to those of us who remember and/or are shaped by the revolution in board wargames that occurred in the 1970s. I hadn't thought much about Greenwood since I sold my original Squad Leader products in the early 90s and moved on to miniatures gaming, but now that I think about, his influence on my own gaming was huge, either through the games he designed or the games he influenced and produced when he was the driving force at Avalon Hill after its initial Charles Roberts days. For me, just hearing a pioneer of the hobby talking about its early days and casually dropping names to conjure with like Dunnigan and Nofi was amazing. For me the only thing more exciting would be a podcast where the Apostle Paul talks about his struggles with Corinthians, but I digress.

As the Intinerant Hobbyist noted, one of the most interesting (and saddest) parts of the interview was Greenwood saying that he regretted the two years of his life and energy he poured into Advanced Squad Leader. As he puts it, he didn't perceive that the hobby was going in a different direction at the time, and didn't need an even more complex rework of a game system that had grown into an ungainly mess since the initial Squad Leader came out in the mid 1970s (I still remember how excited I was when I got my hands on the original SL in 1978). You have to admire Greenwood's passion for the project, just as you have to regret that he was a victim of the technology on hand. It's mind-boggling to think that all the SL and early edition ASL rules were produced on paper and ribbon typewriters, so that if you made a change, as Greenwood recalls, you had to retype the whole page. The first edition of ASL came out in 1985, and I never touched a word processor until 1986 (how well I remember that airless graduate faculty computing centre with its tractor feed printers and amberchrome monitors, and loading Word Perfect off 5" disks). I wonder how much of Greenwood's decision to rewrite the whole system was based on the technology available to him.

As I was listening to this interview I was reminded of Rick Priestly's essay, "A Second Bite", in his "This Gaming Life" column in Wargames, Soldiers, and Strategy 63. As Priestly puts it, for the game designer, a second edition of a rules set "is a second bite of the cherry, a chance to correct, improve and perfect. The trouble is - second editions bite back!" Part of that bite back is that your most obvious target market for the second edition is the user base of the first edition, and of those users, perhaps half will be enthused and dedicated enough to welcome an improvement on their initial investment. But, because the "second bite" has to be made new enough to enthuse new users, a significant part of the first edition user base may well be alienated if the changes are so substantial that they see their investment in time, money, and figures to be invalidated. This is the "bite back" of the what Priestly calls the "design-led approach":

"Games designers like to innovate and change things: they just can't help themselves. Yet, the player base is fundamentally composed of customers who like the game the way it is. Thus a radical change, whilst presenting opportunities for publishers to re-market a game and designers to practise their craft, risks alienating a game's most loyal and appreciative supporters. A radical re-write of a popular wargames system will soon see the torch-bearing mob clamouring at the castle gates. Even today, the transition from the second version of Warhamer 40,000 to the third is enough to set grown men ranting uncontrollably on Internet forums."

As Priestly notes, GW is able to offset the loss of alienated existing customers by the recruitment of new ones, but not all publishers have this luxury. I was one of those SL players who walked away when I realized that ASL meant giving up everything but the game boards. I felt abandoned by Avalon Hill, and yet my experience of small-scale, tactical gaming led me to miniatures, while I continued to satisfy my taste for operational and strategic gaming through boardgames and later through a few computer games from publishers like Matrix. Had I been integrated into a community of SL players at the time, and had a better appreciation of what Greenwood was trying to do with SL, I might have seen a bigger picture and stayed loyal to the brand. To be sure, many many SL players stayed loyal, and I would not want to deny the validity of the ASL community, but that community seems to me a small cadre that revels in granularity and in a certain subculture status. Pray correct me if I have that wrong.

Technology is a factor here, surely. Greenwood says in the podcast that the internet came along too late to save Avalon Hill. He wasn't able to use the internet for playtesting until he was working on Breakout: Normandy. By contrast I think of my own experience as a very minor, mostly lurking member of the Too Fat Lardies internet community. A committed player of their signature WW2 rules, I Ain't Been Shot, Mum!, I was willing to buy the third edition of IABSM, and some extra bits and pieces, because I felt there was a consensus among the TFL comunity as to where the designer, Richard Clarke, was wanting to go with IABSM. It helped that the investment was limited to a rules set, vice the all-new counters and rules books that ASL required, but the fact that technology enabled the third edition of the rules to be an evolving process is a significant change from the SL/ASL transition, and one that Greenwood would envy, I suspect.

A final thought from the interview was Greenwood's comment that the fundamental difference between AH and its contemporary, Simulations Publications Inc, was that AH games were designed for replayability, and many to this day have fans who have played them hundreds of times. I think of the AH games I know and love, like Victory in the Pacific or Russian Campaign, and have trouble thinking of many SPI games that come close - Terrible Swift Sword, possibly, or my favourite SPI monster game, Wellington's Victory. Most SPI games are forgotten today, I think. It is interesting to ask the same question of miniatures rules sets. Which miniatures rules have attained a degree of replayability and affection comparable to certain Avalon Hill games? Which rules sets have been, or will be, played once or twice and then relegated to the shelf? It's an interesting question, especially at a time when the hobby enjoys a surfeit of new rules sets out or soon to be released. It will be interesting to see, when I am a very old man, if I look back on today as a golden age, as Greenwood remembers his best years at Avalon Hill as being. Time will tell.

In the meantime, thank you, Don, for all you've given the hobby. And now I'm all nostalgic. Does anyone have a copy of Breakout: Normandy they are interested in selling me?


  1. Great post. I still remember the joy of original Squad Leader. And as Cross of Iron and Crescendo of Doom augmented the boards and nations...I was thoroughly immersed in the game. To this day, I feel that the Crescendo of Doom rules were the perfect iteration of Squad Leader. The games were playable, fun and didn't get ground down in rules smithing. Then came GI Anvil of Victory. That was the moment that I felt betrayed by Avalon Hill. Terrible boards, terrible counter art, unreadable rules filled with so many acronyms, I thought it was another of Tolkien's unfinished tales appendices.

    Then came ASL, which I resisted until 1989. And though I love the game and play as often as I can, it has never given me the singular joy I experienced playing Squad Leader.

    As you point out, there is a subset of board gamers who mistakenly believe that you can create enough rules to simulate any actuality. And of course you cannot. Instead you play a game where sound tactical moves are made worthless by the vagaries of a bad dice roll. In the end you are left with poorly managed chaos...which may in fact be the most accurate part of the simulation itself.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful post.

  2. Thank you for the shout out and for a way more thoughtful post than I threw out there.

  3. Excellent, thought provoking post. AH got me started on the path to miniature with my copy of Panzerblitz for my 14th birthday. Loved AH and yes, we played The Russian Campaign over and over. And over. I can't say we did the same with Drang Nach Osten!

  4. Thank you chaps, I appreciate your comments, especially as you aren't the usual suspects who carouse here.
    @Grumble: I also remember COI and Crescendo as being well thought out advances on the SL system. Much to like with those add-ons. By the time I could afford GI as a starving student, ASL had come out and the whole business lost its attraction. Your comments about chaos are interesting in light of the fact that the miniatures community has become much more willing to embrace friction in game play, especially through card drive systems such as Sam Mustafa's Honour series and of course the Too Fat Lardies' approach. I think the most we can hope for in wargaming, or in war for that matter, is that if the balance of our tactical moves are sound, we can mitigate friction sufficiently to succeed, but as anyone who has worm the uniform knows, it don't always work that way.

    @ Itinerant: No sweat, man, love your blog.

    @ Monty: Thanks. The comparison between AH's RC and GDW's DNO is apt and makes Greenwood's point well. I am really enjoying your blog and will link to it in my sidebar.

  5. in the IT world, it's called 'second system syndrome'. You write the first one, then you get all enthused, and write a second one that fixes all the things that annoy the crap out of you in the first one...

  6. Mike, I think I have a copy of Breakout Normandy. I own many AH titles and I'm 99% sure that I bought that one too. It should be at my parents' house in the mountains; should the snow allow travelling, I may be checking that this week end
    Contact me offline if you remain interested

  7. Thanks for posting your thoughts. Game designers are only one of many creative endeavors that suffer from 'design-led approach' or the 'second bite.' Review the Toyota Camary or the Mars Rovers or any Military simulation. Each bite is a little bigger and more complex, designers wanting to do everything the most current technology will let you do, whether a mechnucak engineer or game designer or computer software designer.

    Bigger, with more 'add ons' and more complex isn't necessarily better or do the job any better.

    Bill Haggart

  8. What is amazing about Greenwoods Interview is the comment on the wasted two years to develope ASL. The diehard ASL players would be shaken to their core in realizing that the GOD of SL/ASL has abandoned his creation, if they read anything else except the rules. I fell into that blackhole of more is better, collecting all the addtions to ASL. The best game to come out of all of that is Advance Squad Leader Starter Kit (ASLSK) which has about 15 pages of rules, images and play examples which actully regressed from that massive tome of ASL rules. Great review.

  9. Couldn't think of anything clever or relevant to say but I enjoyed the post. Board wargames were always on the very fringe of my consciousness, something to be suffered largely to please a friend or as a last resort but I did occasionally rifle them for ideas and have great respect for designers who can translate ideas into mindful fun for thousands.


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