The long journey away from rolling the dice and moving the dobber

by John Harrington

As I write this, it is the last day of 2020, the first year in around 40 that I have not attended MidCon.

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.

Eeek, he’s got a gargoyle!” I overheard one player say.

Don’t worry, my archangel will take him out,” another player said.

Since then, I have always visualised archangels as being like East End gangsters.

I hear you’ve been a very naughty boy, Mr Collins. You know what happens to naughty boys, don’t you?”

I digress.

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 to play.

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 meal.

And beer. Don’t forget the beer.

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 games convention.

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.

Talisman was 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 the Eurogame

If I had to pick one game from the early days of game conventions that was the most widely played, it would be Acquire.

Yes, 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 LOVECRAFT.

Acquire was 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.

Wait! 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 opportunity?”

Incidentally, 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).

How could 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 half bad.

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 dobber” mechanism.

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 digress.

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. 

 


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