The Making of a Geek Part Two: Wargamin’

Read through any history of RPGs, whether Jon Peterson’s laser-focused Playing at the World, or Shannon Appelcline’s more expansive Designers and Dragons series, and you’ll start with the history of wargames. Role-playing games were an outgrowth of the wargame subculture, and wouldn’t exist today without that fertile ground of gamers, grognards and gearheads. But like many gamers my age, I suppose coming to RPGs first and wargames second is more common. I’d say this current generation is more coming to tabletop RPGs from either CRPGs from the consoles or watching streamed games like Critical Role.

Not that I’m a wargamer in any sense. In forty years, I’ve only every played Risk twice. I’ve never played Axis and Allies. The only time I’ve played Diplomacy is the 1984 IBM-PC version, which as anyone could tell you is not an authentic experience, especially when playing against the computer. I’ve used the game Hearts of Iron only for comedy games, like the Italian takevoer of the West and the famous Canadian and Iraqi sack of Berlin. I don’t push lead Napoleonics around on a sand table every Thursday night. I’ve gone so far as to shoot peanut butter cups in Attack Vector: Tactical, but never played a human opponent. Strategic, abstract, or tactical wargames are simply not my thing.

But I started with wargames. In a very technical sense I bought a wargame first and a RPG second, but considering my brother and I played Marvel Super Heroes a good time before we finally cracked the box on some old Avalon Hill games…well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Realistic GAME of Lightning Warfare

That same summer of 1989, when we purchased modules (but no rules) for MSH, my folks were big into flea markets. Not selling anything, just driving an hour both ways to load musty furniture and antique milk crates into the back of our International Scout. It was exceeding boring to be a kid at a flea market, rows and rows of tables with sour faced crones and scowling old men behind them. But there was always a shining beacon of hope at this things, in the form of 4 for a dollar longboxes of old comics. And it was while trying to find issues of Legion of Super-Heroes that my eyes fell on a large box, featuring a purple sky and lines of barbed wire across the front. “BLITZKRIEG” it proclaimed in red letters. “The Realistic GAME of Lighting Warfare”. It had a note saying “Complete” and a price of 5 dollars. The Legion could wait. I had to have this game.

This was the Dark Ages of boardgames, so the most high-end boardgame I’d played was Fireball Island, or maybe Survive! And yes, I realize I’m going backwards in years (1986, 1982, 1975) to talk “high-end”. But the amount contained in the Blitzkrieg box was staggering, and probably a bit much for a 10 year old dyslexic to figure out. The Combat Results Table was straightforward enough. Zones of control less so.

Blitzkreig was my introduction to both hex-and-chit wargames and the Combat Resolution Table, which featured in games like the scifi tank game Ogre and influenced combat lookups in RPGs. You have infantry, armored units, tactical and strategic bombers, artillery and special forces via the Ranger and airborne units. You need to control cities in both minor countries and the enemy country — two of the three victory conditions demand controlling cities — but that ties up valuable units.

Terrain makes a difference in your unit’s combat score, sometimes for the better in offense, sometimes in defense. It affects movement, which could prevent your reinforcements from getting to your now cut-off armor brigades. Armor can’t pass through forested hexes. Armor moves faster in deserts and everyone is screwed by mountainous terrain. Roads triple movement, but just because you built the road doesn’t mean your enemy is barred from its use.

My brother and I could never understand why you needed anything but a token ground force and overwhelming air superiority; such are the military minds of children. We jumped to playing the Tournament rules even though we didn’t have a grasp on the Basic rules. And I doubt either of us would have thought it a World War 2 “fictionalization”; still in my mind it’s strictly 1960 Cold War, an interpretation not supported by the text.

But the map board, it was beautiful. 3 piece foldout of FakeEurope, with the Koufax Desert to the north (I’d overheard enough games of Trivial Pursuit to get that lousy pun). Looking at images of it now, I’d use it in a heartbeat for a D&D campaign, in homage to the Outdoor Survival map. Look at those wonderful points of light!

This review is what most of our games boiled down to, although they seemed more successful in continuous play. We never tried a multi-day game; that didn’t make any sense. Our family called an end to Monopoly games if they went over 2 hours. Some folks say Blitzkrieg could be completed in two and a half to three hours. Those people are not my brother and I.

Across This Line, You DO NOT…

A few years later I picked up TSR’s 90s effort A Line In The Sand, a strategic wargame vaguely about the Gulf War. I said “vaguely” as the game was released January 16, 1991, the first day of the air campaign. Fair enough, as the game just sets up the then-current ticking time bomb of diplomatic crises and hair-trigger tempers in the Gulf during the early Nineties. Combat resolution was uninteresting in the game. The real meat was the diplomatic game, with secret messages and the Sabre Rattling vs Jihad meters, and world events conspiring to ruin coalitions. But even with all that going for it, I still bought a sealed copy of A Line in the Sand for 5 bucks at a Toy Liquidators (I bought a lot of games at discount/factory outlet toy stores and/or only paid 5 bucks) in 1992.

A Line in the Sand had a couple interesting concepts. It had secret objectives, which I’d never seen before, and offered some unique replay value. The terms Jihad and Sabre Rattling were new to me as well, but became commonplace in the news around 1991. Combat was easy, needing to roll equal or less than your rating of 1-6. Oh, and this had ten-sided dice, those funky things we’d needed back with Marvel Super Heroes. Too bad I picked this up three years later.

It’s more in the vein of Diplomacy than Blitzkrieg. There’s multiple sides, and not all of them will or need to be present. America, Iran, Iraq/Yemen and Israel are represented individually, while Moderate Arab, Volatile Arabs (probably wouldn’t be using these terms on a 21st century re-release) and Coalition Forces are also available as playable factions. Combat will happen, but the meat of the game is in the diplomatic turns. Secret messages in the diplomatic pouches, the espionage pouch (where diplomatic messages go to be spied on by others), speeches that will shift the Jihad and War Fever meters, random events that throw monkey-wrenches into your detailed plans, decisions about the use of nukes (!!), all these drive the game more than the simple combat resolution.

Since to really enjoy the game (I thought), you needed 6 players, I didn’t bust out the large game box very often. The two player option was a tutorial more than an actual game, and my brother at this point was 14 and done with little brother games. But in 1994 most of the cardboard pieces and plastic stand up bases were re-purposed for use in another wargame I picked up, a smaller box proclaiming to contain “A Board Game of Armored Combat.” I was 14 years old, and was about to fall in love with BattleTech. But that’s another story.