As I write this, it is the last
day of 2020, the first year in around 40 that I have not attended
The chance to binge on board
games is, in the context of what’s happening in the world, not
the greatest hardship so let’s just say it is a source of regret
that it was not possible for MidCon to
take place this year because truly we are living in the golden
age of board games.
When I first started going to
MidCon the pool of games that appealed
to games enthusiasts was much, much smaller than it is today.
Before you start to worry that
this is one of those four Yorkshiremen sketch type of
declamations, rest assured that what follows is just some gentle
musings on what the gaming scene was like in the early eighties.
The debt to Diplomacy
In its early days, MidCon
was host to the National Diplomacy Championships and was thought
of as predominantly a Diplomacy convention.
I had played Dip a bit in
school – never finished a game of course – and might even have
been playing in a game in a postal gaming zine at the time I
attended my first con but it is not really my cup of tea and I
was a bit worried that there might not have been enough other
gaming activities going on to keep me occupied.
Put another way, would I be
obliged to participate in the Dip tournament to get in a few
games over the weekend?
I needn’t have worried. When I
arrived in the bar at the Royal Angus in Birmingham, some gamers
were already playing a game of Avalon Hill’s Titan.
he’s got a gargoyle!” I overheard one player say.
worry, my archangel will take him out,” another player said.
Since then, I have always
visualised archangels as being like East End gangsters.
hear you’ve been a very naughty boy, Mr Collins. You know what
happens to naughty boys, don’t you?”
I do a lot of that.
Despite my aversion to
Diplomacy, the game has played a significant role in
the development of board game conventions in Britain.
The game mechanism of everyone
writing their orders simultaneously and then executing them made
the game ideal to run by post, and some people did just that.
Others subscribed to their Diplomacy zines, a
community built up – I guess we’d call it a social network these
days – and inevitably games conventions followed.
Sure, we had commercial games
events, like Games Workshop’s Games Day in the Royal
Horticultural Hall in Victoria but they were more like market
bazaars, offering a chance to buy games and then take them home
UK games conventions have
traditionally been about meeting up, bringing your own games,
playing those games and then popping out every so often for a
And beer. Don’t forget the
Alternatives to Diplomacy
So what other games were there
that might have attracted a hardcore gamer who wasn’t into
wasting six hours of his life as a one-unit Turkey in a game of
Dip that was likely to end in a four-way draw that excluded him?
I say “his” and “him” because,
with very few exceptions – hello Kath Collman! - there were very
few women around in the hobby in those days.
Well, for “our” sort of games
the big two games companies were Avalon Hill and SPI.
They both did a fair number of
two-player “conflict simulations” – wargames played on a map
with a hexagonal grid overlay – that weren’t ideal fare for a
If memory serves, Avalon Hill
had a few more multi-player non-wargamey offerings than SPI. The
aforementioned Titan was one, Rail
Baron was another; Slapshot was
popular for a time, while both companies had offerings that
tried – and generally failed – to jump on the fantasy
role-playing bandwagon that was still in its first flush of
overwhelming enthusiasm at the time.
As for other games companies,
Flying Buffalo had the silly but enjoyable Nuclear War,
Steve Jackson Games had the innovative Illuminati
and some company whose name I can’t remember (Eon?) had
Cosmic Encounter, the Martin Peters of its generation
in that it was 10 years ahead of its time.
In the year
in which we lost my friend Colin Gamble, it would be remisss of
me not to mention that poker was also very popular in the early
days of the con. They played some weird version of it
called "Hold 'em", which I imagine never caught on ...
On this side of the Atlantic,
Ariel Games had Wembley, which I don’t remember
ever being played at a con. Philmar Games’ Goal!
- with a picture of Geoff Hurst in his pomp on the cover – was a
better game but I never saw that played either.
A much better offering from
Ariel was Kingmaker, which almost certainly did
get played at early cons. I think Ariel also did Mystic
Wood and Sorceror’s Cave, early
dungeon crawlers that were popular at the time.
Waddington’s had surprisingly
few games that appealed to the sort of gamer who went to games
conventions. Monopoly I have never seen played
at MidCon. There’s not a lot wrong
with Formula One but most gamers seemed to
prefer Avalon Hill’s Speed Circuit.
Games Workshop made a brief but
welcome foray into board game production with four games:
Talisman, Railway Rivals, Apocalypse and
Valley of the Four Winds.
The latter had the best cover
but was probably the worst game of the four.
very popular with the FRP crowd and of course, Railway
Rivals was almost certainly the second most popular
game in the postal gaming hobby after Diplomacy
while Apocalypse had a very Eurogamey combat
mechanism and was a good game for its time.
Intellect Games had
Election, which was another groundbreaking game.I'd
still be happy to play that now.
The dawn of Civilisation
If I remember correctly,
however, the “hot” game in the early 80s was
Civilisation by Francis Tresham, surely the greatest
games designer Britain has ever produced (and I say that as a
big fan of Martin Wallace).
It wasn’t commonplace in those
days to know the name of the person who designed a board game
but we knew Tresham; he was the bloke who designed 1829,
another hobby stalwart.
Both Civi and
1829 were on the long side and both have
inspired innumerable game designs that have borrowed Tresham’s
ideas; Die Siedler von Catan borrowed the
trading mechanism; Attila borrowed the combat
mechanism and countless games, such as Outpost,
have borrowed the technology tree.
Crucially, all of those games
are playable in a much shorter time than Civi,
which probably explains why Civi has fallen out
of fashion. If you feel cheesed off by playing six hours as a
one-unit Turkey with no hope of winning in a game of
Diplomacy, try falling one stage behind early in a game
of Civi, with no chance of ever catching up.
Sid Sackson, the godfather of
If I had to pick one game from
the early days of game conventions that was the most widely
played, it would be Acquire.
we spend a whole weekend playing lots of board games, including
one that features hotels. No, it’s not bloody Monopoly.”
Just as Civi has had its game
mechanisms adapted, so has Acquire, a game
first published in 1964.
Where would we be without the
whole n points for having the most of something (shares in a
hotel chain, in Acquire’s case) and x points for having the
second most scoring system?
Sackson proved it was possible
to design an absorbing game that did not take hours to play,
which did not involve waiting for ages for your turn and which
had ABSOLUTELY NO CONNECTION WHATSOEVER WITH BLEEDIN’ HP
his piece de resistance but he designed a few other classics,
such as Executive Decision and Can’t
Stop, and some that, while they may not be classics,
are still worth checking out, such as Maloney’s
Inheritance, Choice, New York,
Bazaar, Samarkand and
I’m the Boss.
Mike Siggins, the Marco Polo of
the Eurogames hobby
I’m no games historian (as you
can tell) but it was around about the mid-eighties that these
things we called “German games” (that we now call Eurogames)
started to appear.
I can remember 6-Tage
Rennen absolutely blowing my mind.
You can essentially explain the rules in two minutes, your turn
takes less than 10 seconds and yet you can still totally stiff
your oldest and dearest friend by refusing him a slipstreaming
6-Tage Rennen is traditionally the first game my gaming group
plays each MidCon
so it has stood the test of time even if my copy of the
game has not.
If Francis Tresham, Sid Sackon
and David Watts (designer of Railway Rivals)
were the godfathers of the hobby in terms of game design then
Mike Siggins is the evangelist who introduced so many of us to a
better world of gaming. He was the guy who removed the first
bricks from the dam that started the deluge.
I am not saying he did it
alone; Ken Tidwell in the US was another important evangelist
with his Game Cabinet resource on something called “The
Internet” while Brian Walker, editor of Games International,
also deserves a tip of the hat; those of us who worked (unpaid)
for him know he was not without his faults but his brash
confidence and of course his publication, Games International,
were instrumental in kick-starting the modern hobby.
But for me, Mike Siggins is the
top geezer – probably the most important person in the history
of the universe to come from Essex. It’s a shame that he never
comes to MidCon (although I think he
might have turned up once or twice).
you forget Empire of the Petal Throne etc?
Doubtless I have overlooked or
forgotten some games that were popular with the gaming crowd in
the early eighties – feel free to send in your suggestions.
I’ve just thought of another
one: Win, Place & Show.
Game design has come a long way
in the last 40 years, although people are still bringing out
“roll the dice and move the dobber” designs to this day.
To be fair, these games can
occasionally be enjoyable; hard though it is to believe but “Trump:
the board game” was just one such game and it was not
I also have fond memories of
playing a game called Fortune, that was an
investment game that used the “roll the dice and move the
One of the companies the game
of Fortune allowed you to invest in was
dataSTREAM, who apparently made mainframe computers. This was
news to me as I was working for dataSTREAM at the time and was
under the impression it was a stock market and economics
database that people could access via computer terminals.
I do a lot of that.
As we come to the end of the
year, I’d like to wish a happy New Year to the scores – nay
hundreds - of friends I have made at MidCon.
I hope to see many of you
again in 2021 if that total arse Boris
Johnson does not completely feck things up with the vaccine
roll-out and lockdowns strategy.