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Tiny Little Branches: The GameMaster Series

Axis & Allies and it's siblings. The first hint of the games of the 21st century, and maybe a warning to the modern game industry as well.

Marc Michalik, Blogger

June 2, 2016

7 Min Read

The next most historically important, and still relevant, games of the "golden age" of the hobbyist game industry, after The Big Three and the Puffing Billy games (...train games are not about trains!!!), would have to be the first glimpse the gaming world ever got of the future.  The first games that hinted at what games would be like in the 21st century.  The Milton-Bradley GameMaster Series.  One of these games has become so iconic that it has essentially become a "family game" like Monopoly or Risk that most Americans have played by the time they reach 20.  You've all probably played Axis & Allies before.  It actually had 4 siblings.  Fortress America, Shogun, Conquest of the Empire, and Broadsides and Boarding Parties.  The first two are classics, in fact many people liked Fortress America better than Axis & Allies back when they were new.  The last two games of the series really weren't very good.  But they still had the trademark production values of the series.

These games were unique in several ways.  They had stunning production values compared to the hobbyist games, even far surpassing any of the family games.  They included concepts from hobbyist games, translated to a more simple and iconic family game nature.  They sort of sit on the fence between family and hobbyist games.  Their "genetic line" goes back to Risk much more than Avalon Hill, but did contain many simplified concepts from Avalon Hill games.  They are largely unique games of the era, there were only a few similar games made during the hobbyist game period, and they were a glimpse of the future of games.  Far more abstract and simple than the "realist" nature of Avalon Hill and The Big Three.  Single box games, with no expansions.  A successful game would no longer lead to decades of expansion into a massive Big Three-like game.  The next generation wanted high production values, simplicity, and as little reading as possible.  The exact opposite of what the old-school hobbyist game industry had to offer.

While they were a glimpse of the future of games, the GameMaster Series was a failure.  Of the five games of the series only one was truly financially successful.  In the 1980's all those little plastic pieces and double-sided colored counters cost a fortune to produce and these games had to be tremendously successful by the standards of the day to even turn a profit.  Only Axis & Allies succeeded in doing this, Fortress America essentially broke even.  Axis & Allies ultimately made the entire effort worth it for Milton-Bradley as it was so successful that it actually took it's place among the family games as the most complex game of the category.  Axis & Allies isn't really a hobbyist game anymore, and never really was to begin with.  But the other games of the series, with the sole exception of Fortress America, lost huge amounts of money.  Shogun was a very good game, it just didn't sell enough copies.  Conquest of the Empire & Broadsides and Boarding Parties were full-blown failures that resulted in huge losses for Milton-Bradley.  While it was a glimpse of the future, it was also a warning and example to companies like Task Force Games and Avalon Hill.  If Milton-Bradley couldn't afford to make these types of games... the smaller hobbyist game companies could not even consider such a thing.

Today the GameMaster Series has left the world with three excellent games that were decades ahead of their time when made.  They stand out as some of the very few games of the hobbyist game era with production values that still satisfy modern gamers.  There were a few others, but these were the most famous and widespread of the high production value hobbyist games.  Most people have probably played Axis & Allies, but are unaware of the two other similar games of the series that are just as good in their own way, and just as modern looking and well-made.  In fact, like Axis & Allies, they live on to this day and updated modern re-makes are available for all three of the succesful designs of the GameMaster Series.

Fortress America: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2S0JUSt608

This was the only other financially successful game of the series, but was only barely so.  Fortress America was one of the most popular games of it's generation, almost anyone in their late 40's or early 50's probably played this game at least once when they were in their teens.  It is best described as "Red Dawn: The Game".  If you've seen the movie Red Dawn, the situation portrayed in Fortress America is identical to that.  Your perspective is from that of the President and Joint Chiefs, in other words it is what the hobbyist game industry called a "grand strategy wargame".  This is not what your industry calls a "4X" game, it is very different, your "4X" games partially come from grand strategy wargames.  But I'll save that discussion for the "Civilization Killer" article.



Ikusa (Shogun): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IEdzoBWJpbo

Not the first game about feudal Japan, but the first popular one.  Another of the GameMaster Series visions of the future that has passed Sid Meier's test and stood the passage of time well.  Shogun (called "Ikusa" today) is a truly great board game.

For the last decade or so there has been a resurgence in what I would call "neo-hobbyist" games.  Now, in the 21st century, producing things like double-sided colored counters for use as markers in neo-hobbyist games and "mini-miniatures", or even full-sized miniatures, as pieces are much cheaper than they were in the 1980's and 90's.  It can be done now, without the need to sell 200,000 units to be profitable.  Hobbiest games are a unique thing, and draw a unique audience.  Those who work in the modern game industry probably don't give the neo-hobbyist games much thought.  As someone who has lived through both the final days of the hobbyist game industry, and literally all of the days of the modern or commercial computer game industry... I wouldn't be so comfortable if I were you.  

From the perspective of someone who understands and enjoys both, to the type of "serious" gamer that is the backbone of the success of the industry (both of them)... your games look like great tutorials for transitioning to neo-hobbyist games.  Having to know all the rules and work everything out for yourself is the next step for any "serious gamer".  It is a totally different experience than a computer game as it requires near-complete knowledge about how every aspect of the game really works to even play it at all.  All of your thoughts, plans, tactics, and strategies in such a game are, therefore, far more informed decisions than the ones you make while playing a computer game.  This is very appealing to the types of gamers who form the backbone of the game industry's audience.  I wouldn't actually be surprised if the neo-hobbyist games someday draw most of this audience away from computer games.  Computer games ultimately cannot compete in the areas of "massiveness", complexity, or the "completeness of knowledge" that the player of a hobbyist game possesses.  You think that you can do more in a computer game than can be done in a board game, but you are wrong, you have that backwards.  You really do.  Your great grandparents were not nearly as primitive as you believe they where.  It is also a far more social experience, which you might also see making a comeback at some point in the future as a social rebellion against the isolationist nature of much of our information age technology.

Games like these two below could be the same precursor to the modern game industry that the GameMaster Series games were to the the hobbyist game industry.  It's been about 20 years, the natural cycle that seems to repeat itself... if you hadn't noticed that re-curring generational cycle in the history I have told in these articles.   And the two primary genres lead the way, as usual, sci-fi and fantasy.  Games like these can be made today, they couldn't in the 1980's & 90's, and will only become even cheaper to produce in the future.  History certainly does seem to be keeping it's cycle so far, doesn't it?  The future of "hardcore gaming" really might look something like this...

Star Wars (sci-fi): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars_Miniatures

Dungeons & Dragons (fantasy):  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dungeons_%26_Dragons_Miniatures_Game

Take, say Dungeons & Dragons here... add some Magic-like cards too it... maybe with a "track & train game influenced" strategic level aspect to creating/summoning your forces... then add in a cultural swing toward more social activities occurring among a generation raised on games, computers, and cell phones...  Are you starting to worry yet?  Maybe you should...  It's not far-fetched at all, these two games really could be your industry's version of the Milton-Bradley GameMaster Series.  A glimpse of the future to come.


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