This is quite a long piece (over 7000 words) weaving a narrative thread through my young life that I think illustrates a key principle of unschooling. That principle is that the natural desire and capability of a young human being to learn and the opportunity to take a “deep dive” into the subject of interest results in a profound degree of broad learning and development beyond the perhaps narrow area of exploration. Note that though the subject of my youthful interest was the “art of war”, the impact and benefit of my learning pursuing that interest was much broader than the narrow and arguably non-progressive subject matter. Also note that very little of this tale involves anything that I learned in school (beyond learning how to read and basic math).
As far as I understand it, the premise of sending kids to school is that they will be given an opportunity to learn things, and in particular, the things that the larger community feels are important for kids to learn to become successful and productive adults. For many if not most people, behind that premise is the assumption that left to their own devices, kids would not learn these important things, and instead will just “get into trouble”, “stare at the TV”, “read comic books”, “play games”, etc.
Certainly in a lot of conventional thinking, kids “free play”, motivated by their own personal developmental needs (whatever they might be) is considered secondary to the formal learning that society generally compels them to undertake. And for the older youth, “playing games” is considered a waste of time better spent learning or doing something more “important”.
That assumption seems to persist in our culture despite what an observant parent or person who has studied child development will tell you, that young people are naturally motivated to learn and develop, interested in the world around them, and if not constantly redirected or otherwise kept away from those interests, continue to explore and learn voraciously. I suspect that many of us adults see our own lives as all about doing what we have to do rather than what we want to do, so whether we are projecting or applying some sort of convoluted logic, we figure that kids are not really interested in doing what they are supposed to be doing (that is learning) either.
As a parent of two now young adult kids, I certainly saw how much they were “learning machines” who loved to dive into things of interest to them. One of the main reasons their mom and I let them leave school and “unschool” during what would conventionally be their high school years, was because school (and particularly all the homework after school) had managed to turn most learning into a chore for them, rather than a passion.
Sure I had gone to school when I was a kid, including to a conventional high school as an older youth. But somehow back then in the 1960s and early 1970s it wasn’t so psychically draining. Maybe because there wasn’t nearly as much homework and there was none of the current standardized test obsession. Though in a mostly white middle-class university town there was the assumption that most kids would be going to college, I don’t recall my parents or my friends’ parents constantly trying to stage-manage our young lives toward that end. Also at my high school I don’t think they even took attendance, because I selectively would leave school during the day and miss one or more classes, but none of the school staff or my mom ever said anything about it.
For me as a kid, my life revolved around the things I did outside of school, and without the pursuit of those things that really interested me, my young life would have been mostly an exercise in compliance at school and perhaps boredom (or worse) at home. One of those compelling self-directed interests that weaves itself through my childhood, older youth and young adulthood was my fascination with the history and the “art” of war.
And that… is my extensive unschooling narrative that makes up the bulk of this piece.
Inspired by My Dad’s Experience in World War II
My dad had fought in World War II, and in the early 1960s when I was beginning to become aware of the larger world, that huge cataclysm was still burned deep into his consciousness and that of his peers. It was also still a significant part of U.S. popular culture. There were shows on prime time TV like “Combat”, war movies like “The Longest Day”, and comic books like “Sergent Rock” that I saw or read which gave me a perhaps simplistic, glamorized or nostalgic view of how it was.
So it was only a matter of time before I learned about the war and my dad’s participation in it. When asked, he was happy to tell me stories of several dramatic exploits. He had been a lieutenant in general Patton’s army, and the commanding officer of a squad of motorized light artillery that saw action in the last months of the war in the allies assault on Germany. I recall my fascination with his stories (and the other popular culture narratives) rather than any sense of fear or horror at the carnage. The grimmest of those stories was when he 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 in a circumstance where “martial law” was appropriately in force.
Like other compelling stories I was exposed to, these World War II narratives became starting points for my imagination play in the basement or the backyard of our house. Not sure whether I asked for them or my parents bought me them unsolicited, but I had a big set of three inch German and Allied plastic soldiers along with tanks, bunkers and other such stuff. I 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, including history books about the real war that were part of my dad’s library, or borrowed from my school or the public library.
Discovering the American Civil War
My fascination with these massive armed conflicts broadened when I discovered the American Civil War, an event a full century previous but still very much burned into U.S. cultural mythology. Not sure what turned me on to this conflict, but I guess it was only a matter of time given my perusing of the military history sections of various libraries looking at their WWII books. Soon somehow I had two-inch plastic Civil War soldiers to play with as well and set up various blue vs gray scenarios in my basement, based on reading library books and discovering the heroically framed characters and narratives of Generals Grant, Sherman and Lee.
The American Civil War was still so much a part of popular culture that I remember being able to go to the neighborhood newsstand (a dark and wonderful place in my hometown of Ann Arbor called the “Blue Front”) and buy “Civil War Cards”, which were sold in batches of five or ten like baseball cards (including the bubble gum in every pack). They would have a picture on one side of a general, a battle, some logistical or other detail, or some particular dramatic or lurid moment, and then on the reverse side a paragraph or two describing the content of the picture.
I bought my share of cards that my allowance and other earned monies would finance, but I also set about making my own set of Civil War cards as well. I took a stack of three-by-five index cards from my dad’s stash and drew pictures in pencil on one side (including my stick-figure people) and then my own sentence or two of explanation written on the back. I can recall one of mine with the headline “Crushed!” on one side and my picture of a stick-figure soldier trapped under a broken-down cannon.
Combining History, Fantasy & Imagination in My Play
Of course my play in the basement and backyard was never a slavish reenactment of the stories I read or watched in the movies or on TV, but started from those narratives and then often involved some creative hybridization. The hybridized play scenario I remember the most was inspired at age seven by seeing the 1954 movie version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the 1961 movie based on Verne’s sequel Mysterious Island and the 1960 movie of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The latter involved 19th century archaeologists and adventurers discovering a secret plateau in South America populated by otherwise extinct dinosaurs. Verne’s two stories were driven by the submarine Nautilus and its obsessively brilliant Captain Nemo leading his own deranged personal crusade against war by trying to sink all the world’s munitions carrying ships (circa Civil War era).
Pulling elements from all three stories, and leveraging my Civil War soldiers, plastic dinosaurs, Lincoln Logs, and a “submarine” I built out of a cardboard shoe box, I created my own play scenario in our basement of Union soldiers discovering “Jinx Island” (actually the area of the basement around my dad’s desk) which was rich with metals and other minerals needed for the war effort. The problem was that the island was infested with dinosaurs and Nemo’s submarine patrolled the ocean waters between the soldiers’ home base and the island’s “mine” (the underside of my dad’s desk) they had built to extract its precious raw material. I recall spending hundreds of hours in our basement playing out any number of story scenarios in my imaginary construct.
An Emerging Interest in Strategy & Logistics
As a seven and eight year old becoming further aware of the larger world and its history, what really attracted me to these historic conflicts and the related real and imagined stories around them was the massive logistics. The moving of large armies by land and sea and the grand strategies of great generals that leveraged those logistics to the highest degree possible. I read about General Sherman’s “march to the sea” in the Civil War and how it was part of an overarching strategy concocted by Sherman and General Grant to carve up the South and destroy its ability to properly supply its armies in the field. I read about Napoleon, and millennia earlier Hannibal, marching armies across the Alps. (I recall drawn pictures in a library book of Carthaginian soldiers leading one of their war elephants up a precarious mountain pass.)
Discovering Avalon Hill’s “D-Day” & Historic Military Simulations
By age nine, my growing obsession with experiencing and re-imagining the history and logistics of military conflicts could not be satisfied by playing with toy figures in my basement. Lucky for me, by age nine (having the confidence of my parents to let me ride my bike into town to the several local toy stores) I discovered (at one of those stores) a board game called “D-Day”.
Sitting in the aisle of the store with the not yet purchased game in my lap (but enough accumulated allowance money in my pocket to purchase it) I read the rest of the words on the box cover…
Now you change World War II History in this realistic Tournament GAME by Avalon Hill
Whoa! Yes! This looked like it could be the next developmental step in pursuing my obsession.
I opened the (luckily not shrink-wrapped) box. My recollection (which may not be exactly right) was that on the top of the stack of stuff inside was a sheet of shiny cardboard with an array of half-inch squares, roughly half of them a pale blue and the rest a pale pink, with printed black numbers, letters and symbols on them. With my rudimentary knowledge of military formation indicators from reading all those military history books, I figured out that each square represented a military formation, divisions in this case. There were over a hundred on the sheet and they were cut in such a way to facilitate being easily punched out and separated.
Below that in the box were various charts on card stock and an entire booklet of rules. I was of course familiar with game rules, usually on the inside box cover or an a single sheet… but this was a booklet with pages of rules with sections titled things like “Initial Set-up”, “Movement”, “Combat” and “Victory Conditions”, with little embedded diagrams to illustrate things referenced in the section text. I read enough to understand that the game was a strategic level simulation of the Allies invasion of France in 1944.
I got more excited with each piece of box content that I carefully exhumed and examined (being well aware that I was in the store and hadn’t bought the thing yet), but the clincher was the four attached sections of heavy fiberboard in the bottom of the box that I tentatively unfolded to reveal a shiny multi-color map with a grid of hexagons imposed over it. Unfolded, it was a colorful maybe eighteen by twenty-four inch map displaying the real terrain (including coastline, cities, fortresses, rivers and mountains) of France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and southern Germany.
With great excitement and anticipation I quickly refolded the map and reclosed the box with all its contents, took it to the rather school-teacher looking older woman at the store cashier’s counter and bought the amazing thing and road it home in the pressure basket over the back wheel of my bike. I think it was probably a Saturday with nothing in particular I had to do, so when I got home I took the game down in my basement (my main imagination venue), opened it up, took all the components out and spent the next couple hours examining them all, reading and trying to figure out the rules. The more than a hundred half-inch cardboard game “counters” were printed with the designations and quantified movement and combat “factors” of historical German and Allied division-level military formations, including the American 3rd Armor division that my Dad was part of.
The Zen of Playing a Historic Simulation Strategy Game
Playing “D-Day” from beginning to end took anywhere from two to five hours. With the need to master the eight pages of rules before playing, I only occasionally had a friend willing to play the other side. So I quickly became acquainted with “solitaire” play, where I played both sides. Playing solitaire presented some interesting philosophical dilemmas for my ten-year-old mind. From what I had read about the histories of wars, one general often was successful because they disguised their intentions and then caught their counterpart by surprise. Given that I was playing both sides, there was no way I could do that. And given that at any point that I might be biased to one side or the other, how could I best manage that bias so the game played out evenly. I had to develop the discipline of taking the point of view of one side, making the best possible move all its units and resolving any battles initiated by that movement, then switching to the other side, its point of view, and then making the best possible moves for that side.
I can remember spending the most time and getting perhaps the most enjoyment out of setting up all the German units in initial positions to best defend against the Allied invasion. After playing the game a number of times (mostly solitaire) and seeing the consequences of various initial set ups I became fascinated with the question of whether there was in fact one best way to deploy all the German forces initially on the map. So I would set them up and then stare at the setup for an hour or more making slight adjustments in the positions of key units, counting out how many hexes they were from key positions they might need to reach (and thus calculating how many turns it would take) depending on which of six or seven choices of beachheads available to them the Allies chose to invade.
Wrestling With the Systems Behind the Simulation
I was not only intrigued by the historical content of the “D-Day” game, but also the components of the systems, rules and algorithms built into the game to simulate the aspects of conflict, including how a degree of uncertainty in the results of a particular military action was built into the simulation. By age 10 I was developing the capability to do some pretty abstract thinking, and this subject matter engaged that developing part of my mind.
I was intrigued by the use of very simple arithmetic abstractions to simulate key aspects of the real world situation. In “D-Day” the four key elements were the units, “zones of control”, the terrain, and the combat results table (CRT).
The capabilities of a particular unit (represented by a half-inch square of cardboard representing a real-life military formation or 15,000 to 20,000 men) was boiled down to three numbers printed on the unit’s counter – an attack factor, a defense factor, and a movement factor. The first two were the relative strength that the unit contributed to any battle it was involved in. The latter was the number of hexes of clear terrain the unit could move into in one turn. So for example, all Allied units and German tank and “mechanized” units had a movement factor of four, based on the fact that all the soldiers in these units had trucks and other vehicles for transport. German infantry and coastal defense units had a movement factor of three or two because their soldiers moved about on foot.
Every unit exerted “control” of the six hexes surrounding it. If an enemy unit entered one of those hexes it had to stop and move no further during that turn, and must attack all enemy units it was adjacent to, after all other units on its side were moved for that turn.
The effects of terrain (in “D-Day” particularly coasts, mountains, cities, fortresses and rivers) were simplified to an impact on movement (of mountains) and a multiplier applied to the combat factor of a unit based on the terrain. Though all other hexes cost one movement point to enter, and you could continue moving through additional hexes if you had unspent points in the unit’s movement factor, once you moved a unit into a mountain hex it could move no further in that turn. As to terrain’s impact on combat, the defense factor of a unit located on a city or mountain hex was doubled, and was tripled on a fortress hex. Coastlines and rivers had a similar impact on combat, but one based on the relative positions of the attacking and defending units. Units attacking across a river or a coastline had their attack factor halved.
Suffice to say that for this ten-year-old it was a revelation how, these fairly simplistic movement, terrain and combat rules, applied in their various permutations and combinations, added significantly to the strategic complexity of the game. The geography of the country being fought over, including the locations of mountain ranges, rivers and cities became particularly significant, in the overall strategy of attack and defense.
In the many hours I spent playing “D-Day” I became intimately familiar with the geography of France: its extended and not completely defensible coastline, the coastal cities and fortresses that made defending a particular section of that coastline so much easier, its difficult to traverse mountains in the south and northwest, and its numerous rivers in the northwest providing great defensive positions because they flowed mostly east to west rather than north to south. Eight years later, when I was backpacking through France, believe me, I always new where I was!
Finally, the success or failure of the Allied or German side in the game revolved around the results of the movements of each side and the subsequent battles that resulted from those movements. For the simulation to be roughly realistic, it had to give an advantage to the stronger force in a battle (as modified by the effects of terrain aiding the defense) but build in a certain amount of realistic uncertainty in the outcome. This was accomplished by a “CRT” (Combat Results Table) to be used to determine the results of a battle by adding up the combat factors of the attacker (as modified by terrain) versus those of the defender (as modified by terrain), 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 that degree of realistic uncertainty to the outcome. Outcomes could involve one side or the other being forced to retreat, or part or all of the attacking of defending force being destroyed.
Having the best chance for success in a battle involved carefully planning out your moves so that units with a sufficient sum of combat factors attacked to get the best possible ratio relative to the sum of the combat factors of the units attacked. This could be maddening, because attacking units with a sum of 29 attack factors attacking defending units with 10 defense factors was still a 2 to 1 and not quite a 3 to 1 ratio, with the latter being a much better attack in favor of the attacker. You can imagine that I got really good at doing simple sums, multiplications and divisions quickly in my head.
By age 11 or so I was beginning to wrestle with these arcane thoughts about simulation systems design, a tussle that would continue and grow over the next decade of my youth and on into my adulthood.
Subsequent Games and Increasing Complexity
After my “deep dive” into the “D-Day” game, I was definitely hooked on these historical military simulations, and the Avalon Hill company produced a bunch of them that I subsequently bought or received as birthday or Christmas presents. Games for various theaters of World War II, including “Stalingrad” (the German invasion of Russia), “Afrika Corps” (the North African campaign), “Anzio” (the Allied invasion of Italy), plus games like “War in the Pacific” and “Midway” focused on the naval battles that dominated the war between the Americans and the Japanese. Other games for earlier wars, “Guns of August” and “Jutland” (World War I), “Gettysburg” (U.S. Civil War), “Waterloo” (Napoleonic Wars), and “1776” (U.S. Revolutionary War). All of these games involved a similar size of fiber board map, number of die cut cardboard units, plus similar rules for movement and combat (though somewhat different in the naval games), and similar combat results tables.
I continued to spend many hours pondering and playing these games, again occasionally with a friend but mostly on my own. The games motivated me to read more about the history of and surrounding these military simulations. Learning about the generals, their actual strategies, the historical results, and the larger context of the wars (to understand the implications if any of these conflicts had been won by the other side), made the pondering and playing that much more involving.
Given my penchant to create my own play scenarios, I even made a couple attempts at age 11 or 12 to make my own games, not based on anything historical but imagined battles. I drew my own gridded out maps with terrain and creating my sheets of units on paper with pen, pasting them on cardboard and then cutting them out. I used the same movement, combat rules and CRT as the Avalon Hill games. None were great successes, but I tried.
Exploring the array of Avalon Hill games kept me occupied and gave me a very needed diversion from three years of junior high school, where puberty, extreme shyness, mostly uninteresting curriculum, plus the aftermath of my parent’s divorce made for very difficult and trying times. Setting up a board game in my room, pondering and playing it, took me away from the real world into replaying and re-visioning the dramatic narratives of history.
When I reached my later teenage years the opportunity presented itself to take even a deeper dive. In high school, I found an entire circle of friends who were devoted to playing these military simulations, and through them became aware of other games by other game companies representing historical military simulations of larger scope and complexity. This was a group of guys that were nerds and geeks before there were personal computers and all the associated gaming and online culture to be the object of our passion. While other high school kids might have gone out on dates and such, this group would gather together weekend nights to play war simulations, either large complicated board games (behemoth successors to the Avalon Hill games I played when I was younger) or Napoleonic miniatures.
Dipping a Toe into Miniatures
The miniatures was an entire game-nerd sub-culture all its own, and a “crafty” and artistic one to boot. The games were played on a “board” that was anywhere from half to the full size of a ping-pong table. (In fact a lot of these kids lived in family homes with basement rec rooms or garages with ping-pong tables.) The “units” were miniature figures (generally one-inch or two-inch depending on the scale) made out of metal or plastic and mounted on square or rectangular stands, generally two, three, four, six or eight figures to a stand. The four main time-periods or genres for these miniature figures I was aware of were ancients (Greek, Roman, etc), Napoleonic, World War II and fantasy (with the whole Dungeons & Dragons spectrum of wizards, elves, dwarfs, haflings, men, orcs, trolls, etc, along with various sorts of mythical dragons and other critters). My experience was mostly with the Napoleonic variety.
There was a significant amount of money, research, craftsmanship and artistry involved, because you generally had to buy the unpainted figures, research the appropriate military garb for the period, then paint each figure to the appropriate specs and finally mount them to wood (usually balsa) stands. Building just one battalion of Napoleonic miniatures (maybe 20 to 30 figures either standing or mounted on horses), particularly with all the detailed painting work, could take 10 to 20 hours. And these were the days before the Internet, so the detailed pictures of uniforms, armor and other military garb needed to be looked up in books either purchased from arcane bookstores or found in the recesses of academic libraries.
I myself researched and built only one battalion of French regular Napoleonic infantry, a huge enough project from me who was not particularly craft-wise or artistically skilled with the paint brush. My friend Ned, who was a very skilled artist, built maybe a dozen units, including infantry, cavalry and cannons. He taught me how to use the metal seal from a wine bottle, cut down to a rectangle and bent to look like it was flapping in the breeze. Lucky for me, the French tricolor flag, simply strips of blue, red then white was relatively easy for me to paint.
Comparable to miniature train hobbyists, you would create battle terrain using cut pieces of foam to create hills and ridges then covered with a large sheet of green of brown felt to be the grassy or dirty ground. Rivers, streams and roads could be added by cutting strips of blue, brown or gray felt. Towns, farms, castles, fortifications or other structures could be bought or built in scale. And finally trees and bushes could be added for woods or just to place about to give that added touch. When all the figures were placed on such a decked out battlefield, it was quite a sight to see, and we spent many of a late-night hour in someone’s often poorly lit basement just admiring the tableau.
The mechanics of the miniatures games were pretty basic, you played with rulers and dice, plus charts consulted for movement ability, weapons fire, melee (hand to hand) combat and morale. In terms of simulation theory, I found the concept of morale interesting. Each unit had a morale “factor”, a number that represented the relative ability of the unit to continue fighting and not “break” (retreat or just completely disintegrate and flee the battlefield). A unit’s morale at any point was a combination of that intrinsic factor plus the condition of and around the unit. If a unit had sustained heavy losses, that decreased its morale. If an infantry unit was attacked by cavalry (and the infantry unit was not in the appropriate formation) that did so as well. Finally if another unit from the same side in the battle next to or even in line of sight of the unit in question “broke”, that would impact the morale as well. Finally to all these weighted factors the amount of a die or dice role would be added, to add that additional amount of randomness and uncertainty.
Though I probably spent at least one hundred hours playing miniatures, ultimately they did not engage me as much as some of the board games. As I mentioned earlier, my passion was for grand strategy and logistics, not the tactics and excitement of battle.
Wrestling with the Ethical Ambiguities
I can not share all this with you without expressing the ethical ambiguity, and my later discomfort at sharing my “hobby” with people I knew outside the military-simulation-game-nerd world. The kind of person I consider myself and try to present to the world is a peace-loving person who abhors war and violence. I was worried I would be perceived as a closet warmonger by my friends and acquaintances outside this small circle. That maybe at some level I was captivated by this, admittedly abstract, warmongering and megalomania.
But there I was (and there I am still at times today when I play one of these games solitaire) orchestrating an assault that, if it had been real, would kill or maim thousands of soldiers, taking the strategic point of view of the Nazi war machine or defending the Confederacy and its privilege to retain slavery. But despite these ambiguities, I continue to be gripped by the strategy and logistics of these huge human conflicts.
Diving Deeper into the Really Big Games
The sophistication and complexity of the games Avalon Hill and other games produced over the next ten years increased as my appetite for these simulations continued and my growing logistical skill and sophistication was challenged by that increasing complexity. It came to a peak in my late teens and early twenties, when my circle of fellow game nerds turned me on to a new generation of really big, really sophisticated military simulations. While other teens pursued romantic relationships and/or their sexual libidos, I lusted after these huge games with their sophisticated systems and high level of historical detail.
These mega games generally included…
1. Twenty to forty pages of rules, plus additional historic commentary, essays on game strategy, and extensive game scenario introductions
2. Hundreds or even thousands of cardboard counters representing units
3. Game boards that needed a ping-pong or other large 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 (sometimes even two ten-sided dice instead of the classic single six-sided one) to add some realistic uncertainty to the results
5. Sophisticated game systems that took into account things like: separate yet integrated air, sea and land operations; supply; weather; limitations on command and control; politics and diplomacy; industrial development; technological development; and dynamics of strategic initiative flowing back and forth between the sides; partisans; and varying levels and conditions of victory that in some scenarios could allow both sides to “win” or “lose” a single playing of the game.
6. Set up time, before you even played the first “turn”, that might take an entire evening.
7. 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, just played them until there was a consensus of boredom and wish to move on to something else).
8. When not played solitaire, the possibility for more than one player on each side for a distribution of command authority and the resulting need for collaboration.
During my teenage and young adulthood I probably spent over a thousand hours pouring over the maps, units, rules, charts and playing these sorts of big games, throwing myself whole-heartedly into their complexities and levels of historical detail and accuracy. Games such as…
1. “Drang Nach Osten” (In English “penetrating the East”) – A strategic level simulation of the German invasion of the Soviet Union from 1941 thru 1945.
2. “La Bataille de la Moscova” (The Battle of Moscow) – The 1812 battle of Borodino with Napoleon’s Grand Armee fighting the Russians at the gates of Moscow, with hundreds of units representing infantry regiments, cavalry squadrons and artillery batteries on a board the size of half a ping-pong table. It was one of a series of grand-tactical battle games, but on this big scale with complex rules and systems.
3. “Empires at Arms” – A strategic level simulation of the entirety of the Napoleonic wars, encompassing all of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Atlantic ocean.
4. “The World in Flames” – Perhaps the largest, most complicated and most extensive game I have ever encountered, a strategic level simulation of the entirety of World War II, playable with the extended editions from 1936 thru 1945 and beyond if necessary. The various maps, diplomatic matrix, and production “spiral” needed nearly 40 square feet of table space to deploy and represented nearly the entire Earth’s land masses and oceans. Literally thousands of units represented: all the historical division and core-level land units of over 30 participating countries; hundreds of actual ships (one counter for each, including aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, commerce raiders, and classes of submarines); and air squadrons of every type of fighter, tactical and strategic bomber, carrier and other naval aircraft, and air transports. One “turn” represented two months of game time and could take maybe ten hours to play and involved any number of separate “phases” until the turn finally ended.
So rather than having a girlfriend and going out on dates or to parties, I gained an intimate knowledge of 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. I had an in depth 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”. Every detail fired my imagination and I would often have more fun obsessing with pondering the map and setting up the game pieces in the absolute best initial positions (shades of “D-Day”) than actually playing the game.
Creating Our Own Big Games
My game-nerd friends and I had a creative side which we expressed by creating, or at least trying to create, some of these big sort of games of our own. We were inspired (or maybe better to say “driven”) to increase the scope, because the larger it got the more we felt like we were capturing the grandiosity of these huge conflicts.
To this end we focused in on the Avalon Hill game “Panzer Blitz”, which simulated tactical combat between German and Russian armies during World War II. Each game set came with several hundred units representing platoons of infantry, tanks and artillery, enough to form perhaps a full battalion of troops on each side. The game came with the requisite rules and charts, but also a set of three 9 by 24 inch “modular” maps that included terrain in such a way that they could be rearranged side by side or end to end with the roads and rivers connecting.
We quickly realized that we could actually combine multiple game sets to make for bigger battles. We even figured out how to photocopy and build additional copies of the modular game boards so we could create huge game maps that again filled a ping-pong table or the floor of my friend’s family’s basement rec-room. We researched the organizational hierarchies of platoons, battalions, regiments and brigades within German and Russian infantry and armored formations and experimented with various scenarios of throwing these formations against each other across the simulated rolling hills of western Russia.
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 (perhaps a couch in our friends rec room) to hide each player’s “board” from the other. A third person “judge” would 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. It was generally more fun for the two players but perhaps a boring evening for the person who wore the “judge” hat.
The Unschooling Legacy of All this Time Spent
So first of all, my acknowledgement (and perhaps condolences) for those of you who have slogged your way through this very very long piece. It just felt like it took this extensive a narrative to capture the full scope – length, breadth and depth – of my “deep dive” over some 13 years into this obsession framed as a “hobby”. If nothing else it documents an important and unusual thread in my young life that is still today part of what make me uniquely me. If I happen to have grandkids someday, they can read about their crazy grandparent!
But I think it also provides an extensive personal account of thousands of hours of researching, collaborating, pondering, plotting, preparing, and “playing”. All completely motivated by my own quest to understand some of the arcane and detailed knowledge around just one of a myriad of human endeavors. Leveraging at least somewhat unfettered personal curiosity and passion for learning. I suspect I spent several thousand hours during my teenage years in this personal pursuit, and I suspect undergoing a lot more profound deep learning and personal development than that facilitated by my formal schooling.
Looking back in retrospect four decades later, we were driven by a fascination, even a “love” of 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 military history, employ those strategies, and manipulate those logistics.
As I wrote at the top of this piece, in a lot of conventional thinking, kids “free play”, motivated by their own personal developmental needs, is considered secondary to the formal learning that society generally compels them to undertake. This conventional thinking extends to older youth, “playing games” instead of learning or doing something considered more “important”.
I certainly did not submerge my entire youth playing military simulation board games. There were other “unschool” type “deep dive” pursuits I was involved in extensively in my teen years, like spending several thousand hours in mounting and participating in theater productions or spending ten weeks backpacking through Western Europe.
I also spent the required 6000 or so hours in school during my adolescence, taking a not so deep dive into a range of subjects that the State of Michigan wanted me to learn. There were interesting classes, books and teachers along the way (experiences I learned from and was glad to have had), but like most bureaucratic exercises (not designed to be personalized), looking back I’d say that at least half those hours spent were not the best use of my time. In retrospect, it might have been better spent invested in one of my two “deep dives”, or maybe indulging in a third or forth in some other area.
Coming back to the present, one of the things that sets me apart in my “day job” from other people who wear the hat of business or systems analyst is my ability to synthesize, format and present information in a clear, concise and compelling format, using color and various formatting constructs creatively to aid in the easiest, most intuitive capture and presentation of the material to the reader or viewer. The thousands of hours I spent on my obsessive “hobby” acquainted me with over a hundred different games and their presentations of a range of systems and content information in artifacts such as maps, units, charts, rule manuals, diagrams and more. In playing the games, often many times, I had to really use all these artifacts and developed an extensive sense which worked better than others and why. This included the use of tables, charts, formatting of text components, and the use of color to add meaning rather than just make things more “colorful”.
I can only speculate on what other unique skills I could have brought to my adult life if I had had the opportunity to control more of my own time. Being able to more selectively choose the elements of the education the State of Michigan provided that were of most interest to me, so I could spend more of my time and psychic energies taking the “deep dives” that are so much about who I uniquely am today.