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August 28, 1998
A Requiem for the Hill
I Dreamt I Saw Charles Roberts Last Night
by Greg Costikyan

Before Sid Meier's, there was Avalon Hill's.
Hasbro bought Avalon Hill the other day.

Sigh. I doubt whether that means much to you....

Let me tell you a tale of the olden days. Let me tell you of a time when men were men, and smoked Camel straights and drank scotch whiskey and played games on hexagonal grids with cardboard counters. Let me tell you a tale of the Boys of Baltimore, the grande dame of gaming, the greatest game publisher that ever lived:

The Avalon Hill Game Company.

Once upon a time, there was a man named Charles Roberts. In 1958, he founded Avalon Hill, and published Tactics II and Gettysburg. They were the first board wargames, and spawned a whole wargaming industry that reached its height in the early '80s, and has since declined, but still struggles on.

Roberts lost the company in 1962 to his major creditor, Monarch Services, a printing company. Monarch later went public, but throughout its history, controlling ownership was held by the Dott family--Eric, later his son Jackson, known (not to their faces) as Papa and Baby Dott. And as long as we're naming names, let's credit the two men who did the most to ensure that Avalon Hill published such fine games: Tom Shaw, and later Don Greenwood.

The Civil War
The Victory Games label.
Avalon Hill was throughout its history the major wargame publisher, rivaled only briefly during the late '70s by SPI. It published some of the best wargames ever to see the light of day: Panzerblitz, Squad Leader, Russian Campaign. Complex, sophisticated, intelligent games, not games for dummies. And its Victory Games label, in the mid to late '80s, published if possible even finer work: Civil War, Sixth Fleet, Ambush. (And also, um, Dr. Ruth's Game of Good Sex, their best-seller--but we won't talk about that.)

AH brought the War of the Roses to America.
But Avalon Hill was not merely a wargame publisher. It published Allan Calhammer's Diplomacy, the most seminal boardgame of the 20th century, the multiplayer diplomatic game par excellence. It brought to the States the finest boardgames published abroad: Kingmaker, Civilization, History of the World, Kremlin. It produced some of the most compelling boardgames ever to appear from American designers: Rail Baron, Titan, Source of the Nile.

And it bought the rights to the late, lamented 3M games, including staggeringly original boardgame designs by the great Sid Sackson, the Master himself: Bazaar, Acquire, and others.

It would have been nice if they knew how to market themselves out of a paper bag, of course.

Avalon Hill stagnated for 20 years. They missed the role-playing boom. They missed the collectors' card boom. They published some of the earliest computer games--and blew their early reputation, publishing computer gaming crap year after year after year.

When I was a lad, I'd await each new General, each new catalog from Avalon Hill with baited breath. And I and my friends would play the games, hour after hour, dice tumbling, little cardboard squares moving about. And lo these many years later, though I now have enough hardware to have won World War II, and spend untold hours at the keyboard, when I get together with friends, what do we do?

We pull out a boardgame, like as not; and very often, one from Avalon Hill. Not necessarily the games of yore, either; a lot of good work is still going on in boardgaming, for all that it's a tittle of an industry next to computer games.

It is an end of an era, my friends. The nail in the coffin of serious, adult boardgaming in the United States. The end of Avalon Hill. A toast for Charles Roberts, please; and a silent moment for old Sid Sackson, up with his pile of games in the Bronx.

So what's Hasbro going to do
with its new property?
Read on.

© Copyright 1998 by Greg Costikyan.