The obituary was headlined “Charles S. Roberts, train line expert, dies at 80.” You could read the entire story and not realize they were describing one of the most important figures in the history of gaming.
Charles S. Roberts was indeed an expert on trains, which were his passion. He had several careers in his long life, but his most enduring achievement was as the inventor of the wargame.
Yes: you read that right. Charles Roberts invented the modern wargame. Movement on a grid (and later on hexes)? Combat results tables? Cardboard counters representing military units? Paper maps? Variable movement costs for different terrains? The entire idea of a packaged boardgame simulating military history?
All of it these things were the invention of Charles Roberts.
There were other forms of military gaming before Roberts: miniature soldiers on table-top terrain, or the “Little Wars” of H.G. Wells. But the modern wargame emerged from a game called Tactics.
In Tactics, two players moved little cardboard squares over a map. A grid printed on top of this map (hexes came later) helped regulated movement, while different kinds of terrain slowed or sped a unit’s progress. A combination of dice rolls and reference tables determined the results of combat encounters.
Robert invented Tactics in 1952. When no one was interested in publishing it, he sold it himself out of his garage in Avalon, Maryland. In the process, Roberts and his Avalon Game Company (later called Avalon Hill) would create an entirely new kind of adult boardgaming: complex, detailed, and historically based.
Two years after founding Avalon Hill, Roberts invented Gettysburg: the first boardgame to simulate an actual battle.
The games sold well, but Roberts couldn’t keep ahead of the printing costs. By 1962, his printer, Monarch, took over his company as repayment for his debts. They would run it for another 36 years, until mismanagement finally took it down. Hasbro picked up the pieces, and continues to publish updated versions of Avalon Hill’s more mainstream titles, but the glory days of tabletop wargaming are gone.
Wargames have faded from popularity. At first, they found a comfortable home on computers, where the calculations and setup were automated. In time, even those faded away, and now only handful of dedicated hobbyists still play historical simulations.
That’s a shame, because wargames are history you can hold. When you game a particular battle, you understand it far better than you could by simply reading about it. It’s almost like role-playing, as you try to make the decisions faced by the great battlefield commanders, and see how they may have turned out differently. Wargames require time, thought, and study: things that seem in short supply these days.
If you were a certain kind of boy in the 1960s and 1970s, this was one of the things you did. Dungeons & Dragons changed all that, and most young gamers drifted from historical gaming to fantasy RPGs, myself among them. I believe that without Roberts laying the groundwork, RPGs never would have even happened. He created a new kind of gamer, and proved that there was a market for long games with complex rules and lots of numbers.
Charles Roberts never set out to create a whole new hobby. He invented his first game as a way to study military tactics in preparation for joining the military. He never did join the military, but his designs and the company he founded changed the face of gaming.