It was July of 1970, and my mom had taken me into downtown Chicago to have an allergy test taken. The results would require two weeks, meaning we would have to return. But before going home, mom wanted shop at Marshall Fields. Well, that meant I was going too.
In one of the display cases in the toy department, in a glass display case no less, sat a box with the word "U-Boat" on it. It was a game, but the game company wasn't Ideal or Hasbro or even Milton Bradley. It was a game company I had never heard of before- Avalon Hill. Asking the woman behind the counter if I could open the box, I soon became transfixed. Here was a "game" that was about war. No, not like Milton Bradley's Dogfight, or Broadside, with their bright, shiny, colorful pieces and simple rules printed on the inside of the box lid. Nope. This game had four full pages of rules including illustrations on how to conduct depth charge runs and torpedo attacks. It was a game about war, not a game about fun.
Thousands of dollars, and decades later, I am still as giddy about opening my latest GMT or MMP acquisition as I was about that old (1959) Avalon Hill title. All of the magic is still there for me, and it always will be. U-Boat cost all of $5.95 then, while some of today's games are pushing well north of $170 (and rising). I remember telling my German teacher in high school (Frau Korem) that I had paid $40 for a game (Campaign For North Africa by SPI). She said, "I would never pay $40 FOR A GAME!!!"
I was shocked! And you call yourself a German? Didn't she know that the Germans invented war? Didn't she know that the very German she was teaching us was the Language Of Invasion? (Ever notice that whenever you're watching TV and a country is being invaded, the invaders are always speaking German?)
After high school came Inland Steel and I would meet a steelworker, Harold, who played Advanced Squad Leader with the same passion I did. We played a number of the extensions like West Of Alamein from start to finish. We flipped a coin to determine who got what side, and then we played each scenario to a decision. Once, in the course of playing these ASL games, Harold had an eight game winning streak going against me; then I came back with a nine game run against him. We played like gentlemen, but we both wanted to win... bad.
We also played my favorite game system of all time - Europa by GDW. I built a table extension for my ping pong table to hold all the maps. My family's house had a basement that was built a little too close to the water table. When it rained hard, the basement would get about a quarter inch of standing water as it made its way to the floor drain. So here's our war game, sprawled over a ping pong table, and the table is standing in a quarter inch of water. So we put on rubber boots and played on, slowly sloshing through the water, and often till one in the morning or later, and both of us had to go to work in the morning. In looking back over my four decades in the hobby, the greatest wargaming experiences I ever had were with Harold.
In the late 80's came the Valparaiso connection- a group of gamers I joined who primarily played Advanced Squad Leader (ASL). ASL is easily the greatest war game system of all time. It has a cult following and deserves it. If you buy into the system, you're easily in for over 2K. And now they're taking the system into the Korean War, and I'm buying into that adventure too, and who knows where this will end?
Anyway, learning ASL is on par with taking a college course. I'm lucky to have had a friend mentor me as I learned it. It's not the hundreds of pages you have to learn in order to play this thing, it's the Swiss watch accuracy by which all of the game's moving parts seem to flawlessly interact with one another that is so impressive (and daunting to learn). No matter what question you may have about some procedure of the game, the rules have the answer- they are that well written. Never in the hundreds and hundreds of hours that I have played this system have I ever found a question that the rules did not answer. And being that these are the most complex war game rules ever written, that's really saying something.
More amazing than that, is the game's ability to create drama. Ask any ASL player if he has ever won or lost an exceptionally hard fought scenario on the last roll of the dice- on the last game turn? Just about all of us have.
More so, the squads and their leaders seem to take on their own personalities. Once while playing Red Barricades I had a Russian 10-3 leader in a fortified location with a couple squads and a heavy machine gun. I thought this hex of "world-beaters" will surely anchor my line. But a lucky "critical hit" against this hex killed the squads and broke the leader's morale. He fled.
Wanting him dead, the Germans in the next turn fired on him in his broken state with the intent of finishing him off, but the Russian leader heeded Stalin's sacred call to duty and rolled what we call "Dice Of Iron." This roll of snake eyes can produce either cowardice or heroism. The leader became heroic, rallied, and on his next turn, ran back into the fortified location, repossessed the heavy machine gun and began whaling on the Germans single-handed. It doesn't get better than this on the soaps.
Multi-man Publishing will soon be releasing RED FACTORIES, which is Red Barricades mated to another large series of factories (The Red October Complex). We're talking about several feet of sprawling factory complexes on your game table, and all of it in the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood of downtown Stalingrad.
Things have come a long way since Avalon Hill's U-Boat, and I am forever grateful to MMP and GMT games for having preserved the war game industry as it passed through a number of hard times in years past. Backed by outstanding game designers, graphic artists, and cartographers, and supported by new novelties like Card Driven Play, etc. war gaming has got some really good days coming just ahead.