Boys in the Basement

This post is dedicated to Pat Farenga, a friend and an intelligent and well-spoken advocate for unschooling. Check out his website at He sent me a nice email based on my “Avalon Hill” post so I decided to kind of reprise it with my continuing obsession with ever bigger, ever more complex simulation board games. After all those hours wrestling with all the rules, logistics, charts, etc… no wonder I ended up as a systems analyst. Anyway…

During my high school and college years I was part of a group of guys that were nerds and geeks (uber nerds) before there were personal computers to be the object of our passion. We gathered together to play large complicated board games (behemoth successors to the Avalon Hill games I played when I was younger… see “Avalon Hill”), mostly historical war simulations ranging from ancient times to the present day. We would spend long hours together in one or the others basement or family room late into the night hunched over a table containing a large paper map board with color coded cardboard pieces designating the various formations of the various armies, navies, etc.

These games generally included…

1. Twenty to forty pages of rules
2. Hundreds of cardboard counters representing units
3. Game boards that needed a ping pong table to lay them out on
4. Numerous charts and tables for combat, supply and other logistical considerations where numerical values and ratios were cross-referenced with a die roll to add some realistic uncertainty to the results
5. Set up time, before you even played the first “turn”, that might take an entire evening
6. Play time for one complete game that could be one hundred hours or more (played realistically on successive days or weekends, though we rarely actually “finished” any of these big games)
7.More than one player on each side, thus requiring some distribution of command authority

Some of the big games we played included…

La Bataille de la Moscova (The Battle of Moscow)

This was a simulation of the 1812 battle of Borodino with Napoleon’s Grand Armee fighting the Russians at the gates of Moscow. Hundreds of half-inch square cardboard pieces representing infantry regiments, cavalry squadrons and artillery batteries on a thick paper board the size of half a ping pong table including roads, rivers, towns, woods and hills.

Panzer Blitz

Tactical tank and infantry combat on the Russian Front during World War II. Again half-inch square cardboard counters representing tank and infantry platoons, artillery batteries played on 9 by 24 inch boards that were ingeniously designed to be modular and fit together in a number of possible configurations. We would combine the boards and pieces of several game sets, along with additional boards we made ourselves with photocopiers to create huge battle boards that would fill an entire ping pong table.

We even played a “blind” variation of the game, trying to create more of the realistic “fog of war”. We would have two identical boards, separated by some sort of a divider to hide one player or team’s board, and the placement of units on that board, from the other player or team. A third person “judge” to determine which of your opponents units (infantry, tanks, artillery, etc.) you could see on your board based on lines of sight given intervening woods and hills.

Napoleonic Miniatures

A simulation of tactical combat between infantry, cavalry and cannons using 3-D painted lead figures played generally on someone’s ping pong table covered with green felt over sculpted Styrofoam to make hills, with blue felt streams and model trees for woods.

Much of the effort was in researching, purchasing, painting and mounting the 1.5” metal figures. You would go to the hobby store and buy say a set of twelve French Guard Dragoons (metal figures on horseback), research in the library (before the Internet, remember) the colors and detail of their uniforms, buy model paints and brushes and paint them, then mount them on wood stands in groups of two, four or six as appropriate to how the unit was configured.

Money and time also went into creating the battlefield. First you needed a ping pong table (generally the preferred platform). You would buy one-inch sheets of foam and cut out the shapes of your hills, piling up two or three pieces as necessary for higher elevations. Then you would cover the entire ping pong table with sheets of green felt, cutting ribbons of blue felt for streams and brown felt for roads. Houses and other small buildings (to scale) were either purchased or built and painted to make a small village on the battlefield. Finally trees (to scale) were bought and placed for woods.

You can imagine that miniatures in particular became quite an expensive hobby. I only invested in a couple battalions of French infantry, but several of my fellow gamers spent hundreds of dollars earned in near minimum-wage jobs to outfit their armies and well appointed battlefields.

Making Our Own Games

Several of my friends and I even made a couple of attempts at creating our own big games. We spent many hours in the University of Michigan Graduate Library sweating over a large (hot) light table tracing old 1940 era maps of Europe onto sheets of card stock preprinted with the ubiquitous hexagons (which divide the terrain and control movement in many of the war board games) in a half-baked effort to create a monstrously sized World War Two game. When we finally sorted out how big the map was going to be for the thing we would have needed two ping pong table placed side by side to hold it. We had more success later with a simulation of the Napoleonic Wars that involved a strategic level board of reasonable proportion (maybe 2’ by 3’) and then creating “battle boards” the size of that good old ping pong table, and hundreds of units on either side, when two nations’ armies confronted each other. Six of us actually managed to stumble through a game with several large battles.

Hopefully you get the picture. We loved the history, the strategy, the logistics as well as the systems we would need (in terms of maps, units, scenarios, charts and rules) to simulate that history, strategy and logistics. We were gaming enthusiasts and budding amateur game designers actually finding simulated real-life reasons for employing many of those math, geography, economics concepts we had learned or might later learn in some school along the way. We were developing research and analytical skills. We were learning how to work in project teams and create hierarchies of command and control.

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