While attending college (Kean University in Union, NJ), I joined a game club called the Jersey Wargames Assn. Shortly thereafter I began writing the club newsletter and more or less running the club. Shortly after that, I began writing articles for The General, the Avalon Hill house magazine. I even had a series of humorous articles appear called The Asylum. The last time I read these articles, I thought a few of them were still funny, but most of them made me cringe. In my last year at Kean, I started bugging Don Greenwood at AH for a job. Eventually this paid off and I was hired to be the Assistant Editor of The General, with the overall plan being for me to take over as Editor after some seasoning. Guess I wasn’t quite salty enough.
So it was that I arrived in Baltimore in 1979 at the ripe old age of 27. My starting pay was $3.50 an hour! That meant that I couldn’t afford a place to live so I slept on a cot in the basement of the Read St. office downtown. After a couple of months, I got two pay raises which brought me up to $5 an hour. I then moved into a studio apartment one block from the office. I still had to work lots of overtime to pay the rent and afford to buy groceries, but it was a huge step up from the Read St. basement.
When I started at AH, I discovered a huge number of boxes and unopened packages in Don Greenwood’s office and in other offices in the building. I asked Don what these were and he said they were unsolicited submissions. Wow! There must have been more than a hundred of them, all containing prototypes. I said I’d be glad to take a look at them and Don said to go ahead. So I carted all of them into my office and started breaking them open. It was like Christmas.
After checking them all out and reading the rules to a bunch of them, I asked Don what he wanted me to do with them. He said it was totally up to me. Really? I wanted to ask more questions about the extent of my authority but quickly decided against it. I’ve always been a believer in the “better to ask forgiveness than permission” way of doing things. So there I was, having been at AH for less than a month, and I was in charge of deciding the fate of all these prototypes. The power, the power.
The first step was to read the rules to every game. That narrowed the field down to about two dozen games, with the rest all being sent back to their owners. I playtested the remaining candidates and wound up with a half dozen or so that I thought were really good. At that point, I felt like I needed to ask Don how he wanted me to proceed. After a short discussion, it was decided that I would develop some of the games and he or I would ask some of the other developers if they wanted to work on some of the others.
From this process, I became the developer on HEXAGONY and FORTRESS EUROPA. The other two games I remember being published were GUNS OF AUGUST and WAR & PEACE, both developed by Frank Davis.
Don Greenwood really wanted to develop FORTRESS EUROPA himself, but he was too busy with other projects. I wound up getting a lot of help from Richard Hamblen, for which I will be forever grateful. As one big example, Richard had the idea to divide the board into areas and restrict units within these areas, which made the game much more strategic.
I haven’t seen Richard for years now, but I have many fond memories of him from my years at AH. Richard is one of those truly good people, a gentle giant, polite and friendly, always interesting to talk to, and ever willing to help. Richard is also perhaps the best idea man I’ve ever met. He’s like a fountain. As you talk to him, it’s like ideas are shooting out of his mouth and flying everywhere. I would go to his office on a regular basis and try to catch a few ideas before they hit the floor and were forgotten. Sadly, Richard had a fatal flaw. He was far from the most organized person and often seemed to have no real sense of time. He was also a perfectionist. Because of this, he had a very difficult time finishing anything.
While MAGIC REALM was published before I got to AH, the stories were still being told. Usually, deadlines were virtually non-existent at AH. But because of all the hype and excitement from customers, MAGIC REALM became a hot product. Pressure began to mount on Richard to finish it. Richard started working at home in the final weeks, and every time he would come to the office, he’d look more stressed than the last. In the end, he was using a cane to walk. Mick Uhl said he could feel his pain as he watched Richard coming down the street to the office.
The game did get published though. Unfortunately, the reception was not the wide acclaim that had been expected. One funny moment was when a letter arrived, which began with something like, “I just bought MAGIC REALM. I’m a physicist so I consider myself to be a fairly intelligent person, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how to play this game.” The sad part is that MAGIC REALM is a great game. When I played the prototype with Richard, it was incredibly fun. Of course, Richard was there to explain every option, to answer any rules questions, and to resolve any difficulties. I tried playing the game years later, without Richard, having forgotten almost all the rules by then, and could easily understand how the physicist felt.
I’ve always felt Richard should be hired by the government or some large corporation. He should be given an office and told he can do whatever he wants to do. His only responsibility would be to make himself available to other people who could come to his office and talk to him about their jobs or projects. They would be able to take as many ideas with them when they left as they could catch.
I quickly garnered a reputation at AH of being the person on staff most interested in non-wargames. Not surprisingly this led to me being the default choice to develop all the non-wargames. So I wound up working on games like INTERN, BUREACRACY, GOLD, TWIXT (on which I did nothing to except coordinate the production and add my name to the credits) and MOONSTAR. I did enjoy playing non-wargames even back then, but I did not really enjoy working on these games very much.
One of my all-time favorite game experiences was the time I played the original prototype of GUNSLINGER. I remember Mick Uhl playing, as well as Richard of course. I think there were 6 of us in all, but I don’t remember who else played. The scenario was the Shootout at the OK Corral. At that point, the game was very simple. You either moved or fired, or maybe you could aim as a third option. It was incredibly fun, tense and fast-paced, and just dripping with the feel of a gunfight (or at least my impression of what one would feel like). I think we played the scenario several times. I didn’t see the game for several weeks after that. The next time I got to play it, it had changed quite a bit. I still enjoyed it, but nowhere near as much as that first time. And so it went. Each time, Richard would bring the prototype out, it had gotten more complicated, finally adding aim points (in the tenths of seconds?), and I would enjoy it less than the previous time. I so wish I had made a copy of that original prototype.
During my four years at AH, I only remember playing two games with the whole staff. CIRCUS MAXIMUS was one of them. Rivalries were intense at AH. There was Don Greenwood vs. Tom Shaw, Don vs. me, Mick vs. Richard, and many more. Also playing were our in-house graphics guy Dale Shaeffer and Bruce Milligan who did all the sports games and edited the short-lived but fun All-Star Replay. The CIRCUS MAXIMUS game brought out the best and the worst in all of these rivalries and the game was a riot right from the start. The race became almost secondary to the goal of flipping your rivals’ chariots, sending them into the wall, or just whipping them or their horses. It was hugely fun and one of those unforgettable game experiences. Coming down the final straightaway, Don was in the lead with Mick and me following. On my turn, I pulled up next to Don and used all my remaining points to attack him. On his turn, he could have just pulled away and been a shoo-in to win. But incensed by what he saw as pointless attacks, he couldn’t resist attacking me back. And just like chips, you can’t attack just once, once you get started. On his next turn, Mick, chuckling, sped by us and went on to gain the laurels. Don left the room, mumbling about stupid games full of too much luck and stupid co-workers.
Another one of my unforgettable gaming memories was the first time I played CIVILIZATION. I think there were 7 of us when we started at about 6pm on a Saturday evening. We were on the third floor of the Read St. office. I was Asia and Bill Cleary was Assyria, or it could have been the other way around. On turn two or three, Bill and I started squabbling over a territory. The game quickly degenerated. At some point, both Don and Richard left to go home to their wives, while the rest of us, bachelors all, stayed on. The war between Bill and I continued for hours. Finally, peace was somehow declared. Of course, by then it was clear neither of us could win. So we agreed to become pirates and just harass the other players as much as possible. Someone suddenly looked up from the game and noticed that the sun was coming up. The game had been going for more than 12 hours at that point. Eventually, someone won an hour or two before Noon. Despite the fact that I had no chance to win probably from turn three on, this was one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences ever.
When Bruce Shelley came to Avalon Hill, it was like the beginning of a new era. Bruce quickly introduced Mick and I to games like 1829 (and later 1830 which he developed for AH), TITAN, and CIVILIZATON. Bruce was a very good player and it took the rest of us many games of 1829 before we were able to beat him. I also remember spending many evenings engrossed in two-player games of TITAN. Beyond that, Bruce introduced me to my first designer games. He told me about a magazine called Cut & Thrust, and through the editor, I found Brian Walker, which in turn led to my purchasing games like KREMLIN, HOMAS TOUR, WILDLIFE ADVENTURE, NIKI LAUDA’S FORMEL 1, and many more. That was the beginning of the end of my life as a wargamer.
I’m a competitive player. I’ll do my best to win whenever I play a game. But when the game is over, I rarely care who won anymore. A big exception to this was my years in the Avalon Hill Football Strategy League. Anyone who thinks FOOTBALL STRATEGY is a luck-driven game is just plain wrong. It’s all about psychology and individual tendencies and play styles. The AHFSL was all about respect. You were either regarded as a good player or a fish. My first year, I was a new fish. I was determined to improve though, and I did, ending the season at just under 500. My second year, I finished just above 500. In year three, I started out 11-0. There was one awesome stretch of four games which included two victories against Don and one against the designer of FS Tom Shaw. I would come into the office everyday and say things like, “I’m going to take my undefeated self upstairs.” Obnoxious? Oh yeah. I was dreaming about the first undefeated season ever in league history. The glory of it stayed with me every minute. You can probably figure out what happened. In game twelve, against one of the worst players in the league, I couldn’t do anything right. Even playing defenses randomly in the second half, I was unable to hold. When the game ended, I was crushed, literally and figuratively. I basically asked the other player to leave my office and slammed the door behind him. Later on, someone got up the courage to knock on my door and tell me that my opponent’s jacket was locked in the office with me. Life’s lessons are not always easy, but they are almost always valuable. I ended the season 12-4, slaughtered by Bill Cleary in one of the other losses and narrowly beaten by Bruce Shelley on a punt runback for a touchdown (grrrrrr). Still confident going into the playoffs for the first time, I was humbled again in the first round. Thus ended my FOOTBALL STRATEGY career. I wrote one or two articles about my seasons in the AHFSL for All-Star Replay. When I left AH, I had thoughts of commuting back to Baltimore on weekends to continue playing the league. I never did, and now that I have the time and money to, the league is gone. The memories of the most competitive gaming I’ve ever been involved in remain though.
Chronologically, THE PACIFIC THEATRE VIA MIDWAY and WAR AT SEA II are listed as my first game designs. But both are really just variants of existing games. My first design was BLACK SPY. I’d had the idea for BLACK SPY in my head for years. Like so many other games, it came from playing lots of games of HEARTS and was my attempt to make a better mousetrap.
One of my favorite Richard Hamblen stories, and there are way too many to include here, involved this classic wargame. Richard and I both considered ourselves RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN experts. I had played tons of games of RC, including having played two boards at once, playing one side on one board and the other side on the second board. Knowing that time was not Richard’s friend, I cleverly got him to agree to use CHESS clocks, with each of us getting two hours for the whole game. I was the Germans and finished my first turn in less than 5 minutes. Richard then took more than an hour to take his first turn. I left after 10 minutes and went back to my office until he called me. I completed my second turn in less than 5 minutes again. Richard’s two hours ran out during his second turn. He refused to concede victory though, saying the time limit was unrealistic.
Okay, okay, one more Richard story. Richard smoked cigars. Remember, this was back in the days before smoking became socially unacceptable. One day, Don, Mick, Dale, and I were in the art room, looking over some artwork on one of the tables. Richard strolled in. As was his habit, he was smoking a cigar, and from time to time, unseen by any of us, he would tap the cigar ash into the big plastic garbage can next to the table. All of a sudden, a huge flame shoots out from the garbage can, because of course it was full of paper and probably some chemicals too. There were some frantic moments before the fire was doused by someone smart enough to grab the nearest extinguisher off the wall. Don had a few choice words for Richard who seemed very contrite. Several months later, almost the situation was set in place. Again, Richard joined a bunch of us in the art room, again he was smoking, and again the garbage can caught on fire. While Don proceeded to chew Richard out, Mick and I tried to control our laughter in the next room. Don banned Richard from the art room for awhile after that. Later, this was amended to allow Richard in but not his cigars. Don probably had nightmares for years about Richard burning the Read St. office down someday when he wasn't there.
I had the same experience with UP FRONT that I had with Gunslinger. The first time I played the original prototype, I loved the game. Most turns, you had a simple choice between moving your men forward or staying put and firing at the enemy. The goal was to either advance to the objective in the middle of the table (or to eliminate all the enemy men). The game just had that special something. I can still remember the good tension and the knot in my stomach I got when playing it. I dare say that if the game had been published in this form, it would still be one of my favorite games today. Sadly, for me at least, Don changed the game a lot and developed it into more of a SQUAD LEADER card game and right out of my heart. Oh how I wish I’d made a copy of that original prototype. I wonder if Courtney Allen still has it?
One of the most popular features in The General were the Series Replays. In a Series Replay, both players would record all their moves and write comments about their strategy and the way the game was progressing. They were great to read, but they were a huge amount of work to create. I was involved in several Series Replays over the years. Don Greenwood and I had many great games of STORM OVER ARNHAM during the development of this game, almost all of which were close contests to the end. So it was only natural that we would create a Series Replay. In our first attempt, the dice Gods must not have gotten the memo detailing our interest in a close game, and Don conceded after the first few turns. Our second attempt was almost as unbalanced, except that Don had the upper hand in this one, so despite the fact that this was not the best example of how the game usually went, we finished the game and it was published in The General. Too bad. There must have been at least a half dozen classic battles between the two of us that would have made perfect Series Replays.
Or maybe it was just me. Because when Richard and I set about creating a WAR AT SEA Series Replay, we had almost the same experience. One very unbalanced game, then a second one that was almost as bad that was published anyway. I have to think it would be so much easier today to create a Series Replay. Because back then, we weren’t using computers. We were hand-writing everything, and then typing them up using typewriters. Seems like the dark ages and that was the 1980s.
One of the marks I made at AH was when I introduced ACQUIRE to our regular game group. They loved it. So much, that it was their favorite game for more than a year and was their number of one choice of the game to be played. That drove me crazy. I liked ACQUIRE and still do, but I’d already played a lot of it before that. The good news was that ACQUIRE was a big factor in moving my friends Mick Uhl, Bill Cleary, and Cliff Willis away from wargames and moving them more towards designer games.
For the first two years at AH, I was in heaven. The work was challenging and fun. But sometime in the third year, I suddenly realized I was less happy than I had been. I was tired of having to work 5-15 hours of overtime each week just to pay my bills. I wanted more of a normal life. So I started looking around to see what other possibilities existed. I hired a Recruiter. I went on interviews at Milton Bradley but was not offered a job. I went on interviews at several other companies and either wasn’t offered a job or decided not to take the job offer. Finally, in 1983, I got an interview at Parker Brothers. The location in Beverly, MA was great, I liked the people who interviewed me, and it seemed like working there might be a dream come true (It wasn’t!). At the second interview, I was sure I was going to be offered a job and sure enough, the next day the Personnel guy called me and made me an offer. Funny thing about that. I’d asked for a salary of $28,000, which would have been about a ten thousand dollar increase. I was offered $30,000. This impressed the hell out of me. When I left AH, I was still only making $8.50 an hour.
I’m still good friends with Mick Uhl and Bill Cleary and always will be. I haven’t seen Bruce Shelley for years but we’ve touched base with each other a few times over the years. Of all the AH employees, Bruce became the most successful by far. When he left AH, he went to work for Microprose (as did Mick Uhl). Bruce worked on RAILWAY TYCOON and CIVILIZATION there, working with Sid Meier as a co-designer. From there, Bruce married and moved to Chicago, and started writing manuals on computer games. These days, Bruce is a bigwig executive at Ensemble Studios.
I see Joe Balkowski and Bruce Milligan now and then at conventions. I hadn’t seen Tom Shaw for years until I met him at Origins this past July where we were both Guests Of Honor. I enjoyed talking to Tom, who is now retired and living in Florida. My relationship with Don Greenwood over the years had its ups and downs. Don is a very black and white person, with almost no grey. You’re basically with him or you’re against him. But despite our differences, I respected Don. He was one of the hardest workers I’d ever met. Every morning, he’d be at his desk by 7 and he rarely left before 6 in the evening. His salary was better than mine, but not that much better, especially considering how many years he’d worked at AH. But among his other good qualities is also loyalty and he stuck by AH when many others gave up on it, including me.
It’s hard to believe that those four years at AH happened over 20 years ago. One of the reasons I created this Geeklist is to make sure I have a record of some of my memories, before they fade even more than they have. I also hope you enjoyed this small look inside the old days of Avalon Hill. Because for me, while it is gone now, it will never be forgotten.
One of the other reasons I created this Geeklist was because the second issue of Knucklebones will be available soon. Dudes, I’m here to tell you that Knucklebones is a most excellent new magazine about games. I’m honored that there is a story about me in the second issue too, and I want to thank Ward Batty for writing it.