When a Giant Jumps In
  • When a Giant Jumps In


    Before the rise of TSR and its premiere game, Dungeons & Dragons, Avalon Hill was the dominant force in the tabletop gaming industry. Avalon Hill has since been absorbed by its competitor and is now a wargame brand of Wizards of the Coast. How did it comes to this?


    "Cooperating on Game Design"

    Charles Swann Roberts II (1930– 2010) founded the Avalon Hill Game Company in 1954. Avalon Hill wasn't a wargame company then, but rather a board game company with the distinction that its games were made for the adult mass-market. Roberts invented the first commercial board wargame, Tactics, in the early 50s. Jon Peterson explains his motivation in Playing at the World:

    His motivation for designing a military game was simply to acquaint himself with the mechanics of war, since, as an American reservist in the early 1950s, Roberts faced the prospect of a tour of duty. When it transpired that the Korean police action did not require his services, and he consequently found himself with a serendipitous opening in his schedule, he decided to market his game to the general public rather than see his creation go to waste. From 1954 to 1957, roughly 2,000 copies of Tactics were sold at $ 4.95 each, by mail order, under the imprint of the “Avalon Game Company,” mostly through the catalogs of Stackpole Books.

    Tactics' success led the formal incorporation of Avalon Hill, which led to more games. Many of Avalon Hill's games have elements modern gamers are familiar with today:

    The novice player of the day would find many elements of the game unfamiliar, including the opportunity to move all of one’s pieces during a turn (as opposed to, say moving a single piece per turn in chess or checkers), not to mention moving them several squares from where they started. Furthermore, the use of dice to resolve combats between units differentiated Avalon Hill games from prior offerings available to the American public.

    Avalon Hill's number one seller was Gettysburg, named after the Civil War conflict. Despite the company's success, a disruption in its distribution network caused Roberts to leave the company to a creditor, Eric A. Dott in 1963. But before he left Roberts had another major contribution -- the creation of the house magazine, Avalon Hill General. Peterson notes:

    Counterintuitive as this may sound, it is because of the existence and careful stewardship of the General that any serious history of Dungeons & Dragons must begin with Avalon Hill...The claim which belongs to Avalon Hill alone is the creation of American board wargaming fandom within the pages of the General. By enabling wargamers to connect with one another, and form organizations independent of Avalon Hill and its house organ, the General opened a reserve of distributed creative power that might otherwise have gone untapped.

    Thanks to Avalon Hill and its General magazine, the wargame company helped create one of the first widespread gaming communities. This was the playground where co-founder of D&D, Gary Gygax, would hone his own gaming skills and meet like-minded colleagues:

    “We want members of the USCAC, but all that’s necessary is a desire to play AH wargames,” writes a “Maj. Gen.” Gary Gygax, who had joined the group late in 1966, shortly after he submitted an “Opponents Wanted” advertisement noting, innocently enough, that he “will cooperate on game design.”

    It would be that cooperation with Dave Arneson that would sow the seeds for the creation of D&D.

    Missing the Market

    Avalon Hill games were board games first. The miniature wargame movement developed in parallel and required much more effort to field miniatures and create battlefield terrain. Gygax noted the disparity -- and opportunity:

    Gygax sensed that Avalon Hill had neglected a potentially addressable market for pre-modern games; later in 1969, he observed disapprovingly that “there are no wargames commercially available that are based on battles or campaigns prior to the end of the Napoleonic wars.” In the next couple of years he would take this matter into his own hands: first with his local gaming group, and then within the IFW, where he sparked a number of efforts around the ancient and medieval periods that influenced the evolution of wargames and of Dungeons & Dragons.

    Gygax saw Avalon Hill games -- and by proxy, the war gaming community he was a part of -- increasingly stuck in a historical mindset. Gygax encouraged the creation of scenarios by the players -- an approach the other co-creator of D&D, Dave Arneson, frequently dabbled in.

    It's difficult to comprehend today the level of gaming dominance that Avalon Hill had achieved by the time Arneson and Gygax launched Dungeons & Dragons. The game company was so influential that one of its games, Outdoor Survival, was referenced as a tool for overland exploration in the Original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. Indeed, the success of role-playing completely took Avalon Hill by surprise, who at that point had plateaued in the adult wargame market and -- despite aspirations of becoming another Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers -- never saw the new wave of gaming coming. Wargaming fell out of favor for another reason -- real life war:

    Vietnam went a long way toward discrediting war, and thus wargames, for Avalon Hill’s target audience; while it could not sour gaming for the hardcore established base, it did prove an insurmountable barrier to expanding further into a youth market which increasingly espoused counterculture values, and thus Vietnam hampered Avalon Hill’s ambition of rivaling Parker Brothers or Milton Bradley.

    All this added up to a perfect storm that would eventually fell Avalon Hill.

    The Giant Stumbles

    Monarch bought out J.E. Smith & Co., Avalon Hill's co-owner, in 1971, with Avalon Hill becoming a division of a renamed Monarch Office Services, Monarch Avalon. Given that Gygax was heavily involved in the wargaming community as a convention organizer, game club leader, and sometimes editor, it seems likely that Avalon Hill would be approached to publish D&D. Shannon Appelcline explains that might not be quite accurate in Designers & Dragons - The 70s:

    The second draft of Dungeons & Dragons was mature enough that Gygax was ready to sell it (along with Megarry’s “Dungeons” game, which he was now representing). He tried Guidon Games first, but they were by now downsizing and not interested in publishing Megarry’s board game or the large Dungeons & Dragons rule set. Gygax may have offered the games to Avalon Hill too — though this point is in contention. If so, he met with failure there too.

    Appelcline continues in Designers & Dragons - The 80s:

    Perhaps because of their success in the wargaming market, Avalon Hill was at first entirely uninterested in roleplaying games. Some sources suggest they rejected Dungeons & Dragons (1974) when Gary Gygax submitted it to them, even though they’d previously published his wargame Alexander the Great (1974). Even when D&D proved successful Avalon Hill opted not to move into the new industry — unlike smaller wargame companies like Chaosium, FGU, GDW, and Metagaming Concepts. They did, however, note the commercial interest in science-fiction and fantasy board games that kicked off with SPI’s StarForce (1974).

    Avalon Hill surely knew something was up when at Origins II, D&D's tournament participation (240 players) far exceeded any other game there -- the next closest being 182 participants for Diplomacy. Avalon Hill eventually realized that RPGs were the future, and rumors abounded that the company was about to enter the RPG industry. The company's marketing and distribution might was justifiably feared by smaller RPG companies. Their fears were immortalized in Steve Jackson's Fantasy Gamer #6, which showed a giant leaping into a lake filled with other game design companies submerged up to their eyeballs.

    TSR, by then a dominant force in role-playing games, had acquired Avalon Hill's smaller competitor SPI. Avalon Hill lured ex-SPI talent to a new division, Victory Games, which in turn launched 50 games during its tenure. The most successful of those was James Bond 007, a competitor to TSR's own spy-themed Top Secret. Avalon Hill also licensed RuneQuest from Chaosium. The company's relationship with Chaosium was tumultuous:

    RuneQuest: Adventures in Glorantha began to falter further in 1996 when the lead author was charged with an Internet-related sex crime. He was convicted, but later freed on appeal, and the case was dismissed with prejudice. In 2004, the author sued the city of New York for $10 million for prosecutorial misconduct, but his case was dismissed six years later in 2010.

    By 1998, Monarch Avalon had enough and sold Avalon Hill to Hasbro for just $6 million -- a paltry sum in comparison to Hasbro's purchase of Wizards of the Coast for $325 million.

    Avalon Hill Returns

    Avalon Hill remained largely invisible in Hasbro's hands until 2003, when the company turned it over to Wizards of the Coast. Over a half-dozen games were published, including Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004) and Vegas Showdown (2005). With the resurgence of board games (an increase of 25 percent a year in sales), Wizards of the Coast CEO Chris Cocks has signaled an interest in reinvigorating the Avalon Hill brand:

    Wizards approach to Avalon Hill is, in many ways, the most evident sign of how it likes to sort through both a long-lived history and create new properties. In figuring out what to do next from Avalon Hill’s library, Cocks says they look for the Zeitgeist. “What are players asking for,” he says. “We watch social media. We survey our players.” That also ties in nicely with the company’s approach to hiring. “The most important, if not fundamental, thing we do to have a holistic approach is to hire fans of the games,” he says. “We want people who are passionate and feel ownership. What that tends to do is create authentic experiences.”

    It seems we haven't seen the last of the Avalon Hill giant. Maybe it was merely submerged all this time, waiting for the right time to stand up again.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 8 Comments
    1. Schmoe's Avatar
      Schmoe -
      Thanks for this. Fascinating history that not many know about the origins of wargaming and our hobby.
    1. Rhineglade's Avatar
      Rhineglade -
      And this was my absolutely favorite Avalon Hill game EVER:
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    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      According to former AH employees, among them Don Greenwood, at a get-together at WBC a few years ago, Hasbro asked to buy Diplomacy, and was told they'd have to buy the entire company.

      Rex Martin, formerly of the General magazine IIRC, wrote a doctoral dissertation showing that wargames are a Baby Boomer hobby that didn't translate, by and large, to later generations.

      Hasbro had no idea what they had. One of the games was my Britannia. They sent that on to Multiman Publishing. Fortunately, MMP didn't republish it, because the rights had reverted to me when it went out of print - but Hasbro had no clue. I was unaware of all this because I spent 20 years away from the hobby (except for playing D&D). When I came back, in 2003-4, I sorted this out and did a new edition for Fantasy Flight.

      Lew Pulsipher
    1. WillTriumph's Avatar
      WillTriumph -
      Quote Originally Posted by Rhineglade View Post
      And this was my absolutely favorite Avalon Hill game EVER:
      Which game?
    1. WillTriumph's Avatar
      WillTriumph -
      Sorry Dupe
    1. Rhineglade's Avatar
      Rhineglade -
      This game:
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    1. WillTriumph's Avatar
      WillTriumph -
      Ah, cool.
      My favorite AH game is The Game of France, 1940: German Blitzkrieg in the West (1972), where a skilled allied player can blunt the invasion through the lowlands, having come from wargaming into ther original D&D RPGs. (I developed Chainmail supplements for house use role playing before D&D took hold). The original Chivalry and Sorcery was also fantastic, even though the article is not about FGU being not a "giant." That said I did like pre-merger SPI DragonQuest, SpaceGamer, and the AH RuneQuest editions even after coming from the first RQ version. It is great to see the latter evolve, even if it seems like it will take another 3 years for 13th Age in Glorantha to come out
    1. Jhaelen -
      I'm not sure I'd call it my favorite, but there's this gem from Avalon Hill called 'Magic Realm':

      It's considered one of the most complicated board games, and the rules have been rewritten several times, the current version being over 200 pages long. It's one of the most ambitious attempts to recreate that feeling of playing an RPG in a board game. I find it quite fascinating, although I still struggle to fully grasp how combat against multiple opponents is supposed to work. It's definitely unlike any other board game I know.
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