Personal Gaming History Part 2: Wargames

I’ll be turning 40 this month, and I’ve been a gamer for 30 of those years. To commemorate that “achievement” I’m writing up my Personal Gaming History. Part 2 is my first experience with wargames, in the form of Avalon Hill’s classic Blitzkrieg. Enjoy!

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.

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 Hills games…well, I’m getting ahead of myself. 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 sourfaced 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. “BLITZKREIG” 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.

Blitzkreig’s an interesting introduction to wargames. 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 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. 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 continous 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.

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 timebomb 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) in 1992.

Since to really enjoy the game (I thought), you needed 6 players, I didn’t bust out the large game box very often. But 1994 most of the carboard pieces and plastic stand up bases were repurposed 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.