Avalon HillJanuary 31st, 2009 at 10:47
Avalon Hill is a company that developed and marketed a series of historical war and other board games, including games that simulated historical military conflicts in World War II, the US Civil and Revolutionary Wars. When I was 10 years old I bought their “D-Day” game, which covered the Allied invasion of France through the defeat of Nazi Germany.
My dad had fought in World War II and had shared with me many stories about dramatic and horrendous events that he had experienced. I had no firsthand experience of the horror of war myself, and had only the somewhat romanticized or nationalistic versions of it that you could get in the early ‘60s from books, movies and TV shows of the time portraying that great world conflict. And my dad, who I indicate in the “Adventures in the Wayback” chapter believed that, “Life is an adventure”, told me his stories of war experiences in that context. The grimmest of those stories was when he, a young officer in charge of his unit, ordered his sergeant to shoot an unarmed prisoner, a German SS officer that refused to get on a truck with the other captured enemy soldiers. I was riveted by this story and the moral ambiguities of killing a man in cold blood, but a man who was part of essentially an officially sanctioned terrorist organization, the German SS.
My Dad’s other stories from the War were more daring do than that summary execution, and like every other dramatic story I heard about, read about or saw on the big movie or small TV screen, I incorporated into my imagination play. I had a big set of three inch German and Allied plastic soldiers along with tanks, bunkers and other such stuff, and used them along with the “terrain” of our basement to recreate the dramatic battles of the War as I imagined them, based on listening to my Dad and voracious consumption of all manners of media on the subject.
But with the purchase of “D-Day”, my first Avalon Hill game, my exploration of the War was taken to a new level. Now I was in possession of a simulation of a key campaign of the global conflict, including:
1. A colorful maybe eighteen by twenty-four inch board displaying the real terrain (including coastline, cities, fortresses, rivers and mountains) of France, Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg and Germany
2. Over a hundred game pieces, half-inch squares of cardboard printed with the designations and quantified movement and combat “factors” of historically accurate German and Allied division-level military formations, including the American 3rd Armor division that my Dad was part of.
3. A “CRT” (Combat Results Table) to be used to determine the results of a battle by adding up the combat factors of the attacker versus those of the defender, expressing them as a ratio (1 to 2, 1 to 1, 2 to 1, etc.) and then cross-referencing that ratio with the result of a roll of a six-sided die to add a degree of realistic randomness to the outcome.
4. Maybe eight pages of game rules and commentary, including some three-thousand words alongside explanatory diagrams.
Playing “D-Day” from beginning to end took anywhere from two to five hours, and with the need to master the eight pages of rules, I did not often have a friend willing to play the other side. So I quickly became acquainted with solitaire play, where I played both sides.
Besides my fascination with playing out the “content” of the conflict using this historical simulation, I was also struck by, and instructed by, the “process” of such a simulation in the four elements of the game I described above. And in a series of other Avalon Hill games I bought or got as Xmas or Birthday presents after “D-Day”, I continued to learn more about the world’s geography, the representation of events and outcomes by numeric abstractions, and the elements of strategy and logistics associated with war.
The sophistication and complexity of the games Avalon Hill produced over the next ten years increased as my appetite for these simulations continued and my growing ability was challenged by that increasing complexity. It came to a peak in my early twenties, with a game called “Drang Nach Osten” (by a competitor to Avalon Hill) that represented the German invasion of the Soviet Union with a board that needed an entire ping pong table to contain it, over a thousand cardboard “units”, maybe forty plus pages of rules and ten to twelve charts to simulate various types of battle outcomes, supply, weather, special capabilities of different military formations and the like.
I can not share all this with you without expressing the ethical ambiguity and my later discomfort at sharing this “hobby”, which I continued to pursue into my young-adulthood, with a separate circle of friends compleletel different than my circles of theater and political activist friends. Here was I, playing both the German and Allied side of the Normandy invasion. Half the time taking the view of Hitler and the German command staff surveying the geography of France and how best to defend it with the remnants of their army. I was worried I would be perceived as a warmonger by my friends and acquaintances in these circles, and maybe at some level I was captivated by this, admittedly abstract, warmongering and megalomania.
Given that disclaimer, the many war simulation board games were a great learning experience for me. I spent hundreds of hours in my teenage years pouring over the maps, the units, the charts and the rules, all the ratios, distances, strengths, movement capabilities and other attributes of geography, military formations and logistical considerations of supply, weather and the like.
Rather than having a girlfriend and going out on dates, I gained an intimate knowledge of the geography between the Confederate capital of Richmond Virginia and the Union capital of Washington D.C., including the strategic significance of the Shenandoah Valley and the wooded area they called “The Wilderness”. I was familiar with all the capital ships in the Japanese navy of World War II, and particularly the varying capability of each of the Japanese carriers, the heart of their fleet. Every detail fired my imagination and I would often have more fun obsessing with setting up the game pieces in the absolute best initial positions than actually playing the game.
And since these games could take many hours to play, and other comrades who would rather play these games in dark basements than go out on dates were often hard to find, I had to develop the ability to play these games on my own… solitaire. Playing two or more opposing sides in a game is an acquired skill unto itself. You need to keep changing your frame of reference, putting yourself in the shoes of one side and then their enemies. Eschewing partisanship for a more unbiased assessment.
Of course, I still wonder about all those interesting experiences with young women I could have had!