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A Brief History of Games

Meet your "Tree of Life"...

Marc Michalik, Blogger

April 29, 2016

8 Min Read

The history that has, until now, not been told among the modern game industry begins with the history of the hobbiest game industry, and how and why it reached its ultimate demise.  The modern game industry has this story wrong, which is one reason why they have, for the most part, never heard of the Star Fleet Universe.  Almost everyone assumes that computer games killed the old hobbiest game industry, but that isn't what happened.  Computer games would have eventually killed the hobbiest board game industry 5-8 years later, but they didn't get a chance too because the hobbiest board game business inadvertently committed suicide before computer games got the chance.

First, we need to define what the "hobbiest games" were.  Before the commercial computer game industry existed there were 3 basic categories of games.  There were the "classic" (which you might also call "ancient") games such as Chess, Checkers, Backgammon, and most card games.  Many of these games are so old that in a lot of cases we don't even know who made them or where they actually came from.  In the earliest days of the 20th century a new category of games emerged, these were the "family" games.  These were games such as Monopoly, Risk, Life, Stratego and children's games like Candyland and Chutes and Ladders.  Then in the late 1940's some WWII veterans wanting to make games about the war created the first "hobbiest" games, almost all of which were based on WWII, and created the game company Avalon Hill.  For about 20 years Avalon Hill was a unique phenomena and were essentially the only people who made what would later become known as "hobbiest" games.

Then the generation raised on Avalon Hill games, a small but significant audience of what was then a somewhat rare hobby, began taking the basic idea of more complex games like Avalon Hill's and applying it to other ideas that weren't necessarily the "counters on a hexmap" format of "their father's" generation of Avalon Hill games.  It began in the mid-1960's and by the early 1970's there were many hobbiest games and game companies.  This was the beginning of the "golden age" of the old hobbiest game industry which lasted from the early 1970's to the early 1990's.  Three games quickly emerged during this early period that would dominate the market and serve as the crutches that kept the entire industry alive.  Some called them "The Big Three" which had a dual meaning.  They were the most financially successful of the hobbiest games and, not coincidentally, they were also the largest of the hobbeist games in terms of volume... the number of products available for each.

"The Big Three" were Squad Leader/Advanced Squad Leader (Avalon Hill), Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games), and Dungeons & Dragons (TSR).  These three games were the basis of the retail success of the entire industry, and the industry could not exist without them.  A typical hobbiest game store in the 1980's looked something like this.  One entire wall of the store was D&D and TSRs other games.  Another entire wall of the store was SFB and TFG's other games.  In the middle floor area there were 4 isles, 3 of which were the games of Avalon Hill some of which dated back to the late 1940's.  What little space was left in the store was devoted to "all other hobbiest games".  This "balance of power" lasted for about 20 years, throughout an entire generation of gamers.  Then, in the early 1990s two games came along that upset this long standing situation.  Warhammer 40k (Games Workshop) and Magic: The Gathering (Wizards of the Coast).

There was a precursor of this... the Milton-Bradley Gamemaster Series.  Axis & Allies, Fortress America, and Shogun.  These games were hobbiest games, but at the same time were also family games in a way too.  They sort of sit on the fence between the two... and, compared to the traditional "black & white" hobbiest games like The Big Three, these games had stunningly high production values.  But these games, carried in stores like Sears and Target, were not really in direct competition with the hobbiest games like Warhammer and Magic would be and had little impact on the industry.  Warhammer 40k and Magic: The Gathering, however, was an entirely different matter.  They were sold in the same stores as the old school hobbiest games, and were therefore in direct competition with them.  And the old "black & white" hobbiest gamers too which visuals and color were irrelevant too in a game were turning 30 and 40.  The new generation of gamers who were looking for something more than Monopoly or Risk were drawn to the high production values and pretty colors of Warhammer 40k, and it began to steal the potential "Big Three" audience of new younger gamers away from the traditional, largely colorless, classics.

Then came the #2 blow of the 1-2 knockout punch that took down the hobbiest game industry.  Magic: The Gathering.  Remember that typical retail store of the 1980's that was largely filled by The Big Three and the other games of those companies?  Well, they ordered the new phenomenon of Magic and put it on a tiny little shelf under the glass at the cash register... and it out-sold all of The Big Three combined.  The new generation of potential Big Three players were all playing Warhammer now, few younger people took up any of the Big Three games anymore, not even D&D.  The owners of these stores assessed the situation, and realized they would make a lot more money if the rest of their store space was devoted to things that sold more like Magic than Advanced Squad Leader.  And, almost overnight, most of the hobbiest game stores became novelty stores that sold things like whoopy cushions, levatrons, and lava lamps.  Many kept a limited selection of games, like Magic and high quality chess sets, but the retail distribution network of the hobbiest game industry was gone and the new generation demanded production values far exceeding what companies like Task Force Games and Avalon Hill knew how to meet.  They were game designers, not artists, and saw no way to remain in business.  It would simply cost too much to produce what this new generation demanded.  And this was how the old hobbiest board game industry ended, with two self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head.  Computer games had nothing to do with it, although they certainly would have had a similar effect 5-8 years or so down the road.

How "big" were The Big Three?  Modern gamers probably have no concept of this and would be very surprised.  You young whippersnappers (I've always wanted a reason to say that!) know of the concept of an "expansion" for a game, and probably assume that these old games "had a few expansions".  These are rough guesses, but probably pretty close...

If you had everything for Advanced Squad Leader you would have about 1,000 pages of total material coming from about a dozen different products.  It probably cost you about $600.

If you had everything for Star Fleet Battles you would have about 2,500 pages of total material coming from about 30 different products (not counting about 50 issues, most of them 96-pages, of the SFU magazine "Captain's Log").  It probably cost you about $1,500.

If you had everything for Dungeons & Dragons you would have about 5,000 pages of total material coming from nearly 100 different products (not counting the D&D magazine).  It probably cost you about $3,000.  But D&D was almost entirely story where ASL and SFB were almost entirely rules and play-aids.

If you wanted miniatures for SFB or D&D, all of them... Probably tack on another $1,000 for SFB and $4,000-$5,000 for D&D.

This is how "big" The Big Three were.  Oh yeah, and that's in 1980's money...

The influence of "The Big Three" is still felt profoundly throughout the history of the modern game industry even to this very day, but is not recognized by it's history.  The modern game industry only remembers Dungeons & Dragons, and even then only has a vague idea of what it was through it's descendants, few have any real understanding of the true size and scope of any of The Big Three games... nor do they fully appreciate the magnitude of the broad reach of their influence.  All RTS games can trace their line back to Advanced Squad Leader.  All "energy allocation" games, "system display" games, and most space games, can trace their linage back to the Star Fleet Universe.  And, of course, the only one that most are aware of, all RPG games can trace their lineage back to Dungeon's & Dragons.  As an example, space games such as Homeworld and Sins of a Solar Empire aren't really space games, they are ground combat games painted to look like space games.  Or, said another way, they trace their lineage back to Advanced Squad Leader, not Star Fleet Battles.  This is the true nature of the unspeakable influence that all three of these massive and once dominant games have had on the modern game industry... they represent the very foundation of it.  They really do.

The history of the modern game industry begins with the trunk that roots it into the ground and carries it to it's greatest heights (Avalon Hill), along with it's two thick main branches (Star Fleet Battles and Dungeons & Dragons) supporting all of the little branches that ultimately comprise the entire "Tree of Life" of the modern game industry that exists today... but all that their history sees is the thickest of those main branches (D&D), which obscures even the trunk from the vision of their own roots.


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