Monday, August 30, 2010

Charles S. Roberts, Inventor of the Wargame, Dies at 80

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.


accordeonaire said...

Wow. Of all the types of gaming that I've encountered over the years, I am the most fond of Avalon Hill style war gaming. I remember hours with Panzer Leader, and hours reading the rule book to Squad Leader in its various forms (Complexity level 10!!). I remember vividly landing an entire squad of Troopers on top of a Bug mine (I loved war games, but was never very good). These were a great way to pass a lot of time with friends actually in the room. I remember attempting to get back into it just before my first kid was born. The newer Avalon Hill game models (Stalingrad, Cassino) simulating city fighting were gripping. Thanks for posting this.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

Actually, I'm pretty sure I still have your copy of Panzer Leader. Or was UpFront?

James Stripes said...

Once upon a time I played Panzer Blitz and its sequel Panzer Leader, Tactics II, Gettysburg, Tobruk, and other Avalon Hill games. Some games put out by their competitors, such as Highway to the Reich, required half a day to set up, a ping pong table to play upon, and weeks to play from start to finish. Eventually I gave up games so as to spend my time with chess (a war game that is 1500 years old).

Thomas L. McDonald said...

I find I have less time for the big wargames, but I made a point of taking out Gettysburg yesterday to play with my young son. I plan to teach him some more advanced ones as well. That's the only way these things get passed on.

Richard L. Kent, Esq. (MichiganSilverback at gmail dot com) said...

I have been in love with the hobby since I bought my first wargame, Third Reich, on my sixttenth birthday at Christmastime 1977.

My life has never been the same.

Thank you Mr. Roberts. May you have all the gaming space and time you need. :0)

Post a Comment

All ad-driven comments will be marked as spam and deleted.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.