The Beginning: 1968 and Meeting Gary Gygax and the Gygax Family

Roughly two years before Luke Gygax was born I walked through the front door of the Gygax residence at 330 Center Street in Lake Geneva. This was at the invite of Gary through his gamer friend and a very recent acquaintance of mine, Larry Zirk. Very few people from that time know of Larry Zirk, so I will tell the story of our meeting and how that would, soon thereafter, lead me to Gary's doorstep.


Note from Morrus -- this is the first in a series of monthly articles by TSR veteran Rob Kuntz. Don't forget to also check out the monthly columns by
Jim Ward, Ed Greenwood, and Jonathan Tweet!

Larry lived on the same side of the street, two properties down Center, from Gary's residence--a 1 minute walk between. He worked as an assistant manager at Schultz Bros. Co. variety store (a regional chain encompassing 5 states that ended in 1988) on Main Street adjacent to the Clair Hotel (the latter which was purchased by TSR prior to its move there from the Williams & Marshall Street location).

It is worth noting, as an aside, that Shultz Bros. was one of two "dime stores" that Gary would later frequent in his search for toy figures to use as fantastical creatures for his Chainmail Fantasy supplemental rules; and that I accompanied him on a great number of those forays, then, as it was (solely) him and myself who had locally (Jeff Perren who lived in Rockford, IL had his own collection) invested in 40mm Elastolin miniatures to play-test the original Chainmail rules (first occurrence of the rules being 1970, Geneva Medieval Miniatures rules, Perren & Gygax, in Panzerfaust Vol. V., #1).

Back to meeting Gary via Larry.

My (single) mother had been institutionalized August of 1968. Prior to that my brother had been placed in foster care. My Aunt Minnie traveled from Delevan (7 miles away) every weekend to see to my extended needs while the upstair's neighbors, a young, married and pretty liberal couple, saw to my immediate needs. I went to school and pretty much came home. As I had a key to their apartment I would often be there by myself.

One day while awaiting their arrival I began flipping through their stack of magazines, which included issues of Playboy. After perusing the usual in the November issue of Playboy I finally settled on a pictorial Christmas game list of many offerings. One caught my eye: The Dogfight board game (WW1 air combat) by Milton Bradley. I already had their Battle Cry (American Civil War) that my brother and I had played and enjoyed so I (naturally) wanted this new game!
#1 Nov 1968 PB.jpg
So when my aunt showed up about a week in advance of my upcoming birthday in September, I immediately asked (i.e., "begged") to visit the stores in search of said game. Off we went to Shultz Bros. (first stop).

#2SchultzBrosw:notice.jpg

The assistant manager, a young, black-haired gentleman, attended us as we perused their game section. Not finding Dogfight we inquired about it. They didn't have the game but he suggested another one on the shelf, Jutland by Avalon Hill, a WW1 naval battle game. He then noted that he and others gathered nearby on Center Street to play these games at Gary Gygax's house; and that if I wanted to learn them then he'd give me his own telephone number and arrange for a visit to do so. I looked at my Aunt Minnie. She considered for a while and then agreed and phone numbers were exchanged. Fate could have swung the opposite way but it had not. Before departing, Larry--for this was indeed Larry Zirk--noted that there was one other place in town that carried these games and he gave us directions to it. Since I had not been interested in purchasing Jutland, off we went

#3JutlandBoxFront.jpg

Second stop was a very small variety store on Wells Street near the Dairy Queen--the Jack in the Box--whereat we located and bought AH's Afrika Korps (WW2 combat between the Allies and Germans in North Africa).

Later, with my pre-birthday gift secured (and with all thoughts of Dogfight permanently grounded), I rang Larry to tell him of the purchase and to thank him; and he suggested I read the rules and study the game (for what would turn out to take 1-2 weeks) and he'd call back. During our second call he inquired about my progress with the game and I stated that there was more to it than Battle Cry but that I was not giving up fully understanding it.

Larry stated that he had arranged for me to visit the aforementioned Gary Gygax who would show me how to play these games. He noted that it was up to me and also said that he lived nearby and once off work he would pop by to see how it was going. I agreed to an upcoming weekend meet-up without pause. I really wanted to crack this game!

So on a Saturday in mid-October, 1968 this recently turned 13 year old walked in the afternoon sun to Gary’s house, a mere three blocks away. I was ushered into his residence by Gary and introduced to Bill Hoyer (then the International Federation of Wargaming’s president and who was living in Chicago; and a future TSR/RPGA employee). Both of them had been busy setting up the game Afrika Korps on a card table in the living room. I excitedly exclaimed (not knowing, then, that Larry had informed them of my purchase of same), “Hey! I have Afrika Korps too!’ Unfortunately I pronounced ‘Korps’ as ‘corpse’.

#4Afrika_Korps_game.jpg

Gary chuckled as Bill grinned along, “Hah! It’s not a “corpse” yet.” They then explained the word differences to me and further instructed me to watch a game of it being played between them. And so I was hooked...

I left Gary’s before Larry arrived so he called me later to ask me how it had gone. After describing my meeting he suggested that him and I play a game of it at his house. I agreed, but school got in the way of that meet-up until mid-November... And then I was finally playing the game; and I was playing the Germans led by Rommel who I had been reading up on in our family encyclopedia set.

Sometime during the game Gary arrived. It was Lake Geneva’s first seasonal snow and he wore a thick, dark coat and what appeared to be a black ushanka-hat, both flecked with new snow.

After gauging the play between us Gary suggested that he teach me a little by making a move on my behalf. Larry and I assented and Gary proceeded to deftly and quickly move the German chits. Upon finishing he had isolated and surrounded the city of Tobruk (a major German objective). Larry cleared his throat, “That’s enough help...” Gary laughed lightly in response. Gary finally bade us good night and left; and we soon wrapped up my learning under fire experience.

Larry would soon be gone from this circle. He married a fine woman and moved away and his gaming diminished prior to that move and we saw less and less of him.

But for a precocious kid seemingly lost it turned out to be the opposite--instead of “The End” it was “The Beginning”. I continued to accept Gary’s invites to come over and play games and I soon became part of the Gygax family. Which begs a question: How can one truly be lost when surrounded by such wonderful serendipity and the good people associated with it?

© 2019. Robert J. Kuntz. All Rights Reserved.
 
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Robert J. Kuntz

Comments

Hussar

Legend
Interesting stuff.

Totally side note, and meant without the slightest hint of judgement, it's funny how different things are now. Could you imagine a 13 year old going to an adult man's home to play games? Never minding leaving a 13 year old largely unsupervised? This is stuff that just would not happen anymore.
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
Interesting stuff.

Totally side note, and meant without the slightest hint of judgement, it's funny how different things are now. Could you imagine a 13 year old going to an adult man's home to play games? Never minding leaving a 13 year old largely unsupervised? This is stuff that just would not happen anymore.
Yeah. Times have changed and not exactly for the better in many cases. I was also taught to say hello to those townsfolk passing on the street. I oftentimes still do; but the reactions these days are quite the opposite. Many look askance and even some look back, worried, like, "what do you want"? We could also go up to people's houses in Lake Geneva and ask for a glass of water or to use the phone; and many doors, then, were not locked. And so it goes... BTW: I did not remain unsupervised for long, but that's another story. But it was certainly like the "Old Yeller" film which involved coming of age.
 
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Zardnaar

Hero
Do you have any more information in dogfight! In the 80s I got some hand me down board games from the 60s. Normal games were Monopoly, and The Game of Life.

There were two wargames though. One was called Hit the Beach. The other was a WW1 Biplane game.

British were green biplanes Germans red the middle of the map had a trenches. Game had squares.

Neither had rules and both had missing pieces.

Is that dogfight? It had a box but I can't recall the name. There were plastic roundels in it with holes in the middle.
 

ccs

39th lv DM
Do you have any more information in dogfight! In the 80s I got some hand me down board games from the 60s. Normal games were Monopoly, and The Game of Life.

There were two wargames though. One was called Hit the Beach. The other was a WW1 Biplane game.

British were green biplanes Germans red the middle of the map had a trenches. Game had squares.

Neither had rules and both had missing pieces.

Is that dogfight? It had a box but I can't recall the name. There were plastic roundels in it with holes in the middle.
Yep, that's Dogfight.
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
Nice!

And I would have pronounced "Korps" as "corpse" as well, but seemingly Gary and Bill were right:

Hey. Since WOTC owns all of the old AH titles Like Afrika Korps, perhaps I should pitch them a new version for modern-day sensibilities, like Afrika Corpse, this involving Undead, just like their Axis & Allies Zombie Apocalypse game (or whatever the proper title is...) ;) I can already see the companies of Zombie Italians, Aussies and Brits manning their Mad Max style vehicles! :)
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
Do you have any more information in dogfight! In the 80s I got some hand me down board games from the 60s. Normal games were Monopoly, and The Game of Life.

There were two wargames though. One was called Hit the Beach. The other was a WW1 Biplane game.

British were green biplanes Germans red the middle of the map had a trenches. Game had squares.

Neither had rules and both had missing pieces.

Is that dogfight? It had a box but I can't recall the name. There were plastic roundels in it with holes in the middle.
Sure sounds like it. I could have included a better snap of a board for it and the pieces but I took that from the November Issue of Playboy and thus the article referenced in the text. If you Google "Dogfight Milton Bradley" and then look under their "Images" category you can see better examples of the game board, box and units, as well as note it illustrious history over its many printings.
 

Mica Fetz

Community Supporter
Rob, thanks for sharing your particular remembrances of our beloved hobby. It's so cool for me to imagine you as a teen meeting Gary & Co., not knowing where they were headed. Then looking back on all of it from 2019. I was first introduced to D&D via Mentzer's edit of the Basic rules in about '82, but my introduction to wargaming preceded that with my mother's copies of RISK and STRATEGO. I've never stopped playing D&D and other RPGs. I feel as though I owe you and the other founders a deep debt of gratitude. Thank you, sir.
 
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Zardnaar

Hero
Sure sounds like it. I could have included a better snap of a board for it and the pieces but I took that from the November Issue of Playboy and thus the article referenced in the text. If you Google "Dogfight Milton Bradley" and then look under their "Images" category you can see better examples of the game board, box and units, as well as note it illustrious history over its many printings.
Yep that's it. Never had rules so used toy soldiers on hit the beach and bits of paper.

Kind of an let's pretend rts game.

Lacked the rules for both games and was missing a few planes I think.

A copy of Dogfight made it to small town New Zealand population 4000. I inherited it via cousins or uncles I can't recall it was pre 1988 so I would have been 8 or 9.
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
Yep that's it. Never had rules so used toy soldiers on hit the beach and bits of paper.

Kind of an let's pretend rts game.

Lacked the rules for both games and was missing a few planes I think.

A copy of Dogfight made it to small town New Zealand population 4000. I inherited it via cousins or uncles I can't recall it was pre 1988 so I would have been 8 or 9.
You would have fit in well with the LGTSA as were were cobbling together everything in sight like grown kids. ;)
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
Rob, thanks for sharing your particular remembrances of our beloved hobby. It's so cool for me to imagine you as a teen meeting Gary & Co., not knowing where they were headed. Then looking back on all of it from 2019. I was first introduced to D&D via Mentzer's edit of the Basic rules in about '82, but my introduction to wargaming preceded that with my mother's copies of RISK and STRATEGO. I've never stopped playing D&D and other RPGs. I feel as though I owe and the other founders a deep debt of gratitude. Thank you, sir.
It's always good to know that what we had pursued as a hobby was, in ways unforeseeable, then, transmitted to so many to make such wide-ranging and profound impacts. Gary, Arneson, Perren and myself were just aspiring gamers and designers/writers (my real slant had always been fiction and film and Gary really thirsted for the fiction route); and just like you and others we were enjoying the hell out of designing and/or playing games. BTW: My forte back then was Stratego (and for the first year of my friendship with Gary was the only game I could beat him at, though that was to change soon thereafter). Thanks for continuing to support the principles of good design and the fruits therefrom: outrageously fun times. :)
 

styopa

Explorer
Thanks for the memories, Rob. Great read. As a 52 year old, I too have seen that difference in society. I remember my parents cheerfully helping me load the car for me to go off to Gen Con with a friend from school and his mom they knew NOTHING about when I was maybe 13? (1980). Or running into some guys at a gaming store, and making plans to play in their campaign, my dad dropped me off at these two strangers' house out in the middle of nowhere as a 15 yr old.
Different times, man.
Again, thanks.
 

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