I have always been interested in World War II. When I was a kid, I’d put the TV on and flip the channels looking for any old World War II movies. Yeah, I knew they were glorified accounts, but as I got older, I did a bit more research into the battles and the strategy involved. By the time I was in my mid-teens in the 1970s, I had done reports on the Battle of Midway, The Battle of the Bulge and the North African Campaign. And it was right around that time that Avalon Hill gave me an outlet for the strategy I craved.
What follows, in chronological order, is my fond and rose-colored recollection of a several Avalon Hill games that I spent way too many hours playing – as well as screaming at my sister “Don’t kick the table!” These weren’t all the best games, and this is by no means an all-inclusive list, but they are the games that helped shape my current love for real-time and turn-based strategy video games.
Of all the Avalon Hill games I played, this was the one that I invested the most time in. It gave players the opportunity to play as Germany, Great Britain, Russia, the United States, France or Italy, but in the end, my friends and I usually ended up playing just Great Britain, Germany and Russia, with the Great Britain player tackling the French until defeat, and bringing in the Americans when they rolled in in 1942. The German player would take on the Italian role as an Axis cohort, as well as the minor Axis allies of Finland, Bulgaria, Rumania and Hungary.
What made this game so special was being able play the entire expanse of the Eastern and Western front land war of World War II, complete with the possibility of paratroop drops, naval invasions, interdicting air battles. Players would get resource points for every country they occupied and would be able to spend those resource points through declaring war on various countries, buying units, or declaring the start of an offensive if you wanted to attack the enemy.
The game was massive in scope and an incredible time sink. I ended up setting the game up far more times than we ever finished it. Invariably, we always got bogged down in the summer offensives of 1943, but half the fun was trying new and different things, such as assaulting Malta or Gibraltar, doing a German amphibious landing in England or trying to take out Spain or Turkey. Another aspect of the game that was always interesting was trying to figure out all your attacks in such a way to get the best “odds” while taking out as many stacks of units as possible to gain the most number of hexes. Heaven forbid a bad die roll when you had 3-1 odds that took out much of your attacking force.
Even as I began to get involved in other Avalon Hill games, this one was always my “go-to” for large scale grand strategy.
Awards: Origins 1975, Best Professional Game of 1974.
Panzer Leader (1974)
This was the first Avalon Hill game I ever played, despite the fact that its predecessorPanzer Blitz had come out four years earlier. I was drawn to the Western Front game play, while at the time marveling at the game boards, hexagonal grid, and the various units. It was fun – in a purely tactical sense – to recreate the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge, especially after having watched the movies. Being older, it gave me the chance to be the general and try different tactics. A friend had Panzer Blitz and we gave it a try a few times, but Panzer Leader was always the more entertaining game for me because of its focus.
Both Panzer Blitz and Panzer Leader are credited with bringing plenty of new gamers to the hobby of tactical war gaming because of the intricacies of individual units and combat.
Wooden Ships and Iron Men (1974)
This was my first “non-World War” game and one that kept me intrigued for a few months. Based on naval warfare from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the rules were a bit easier to comprehend than say Third Reich, but adding in such variables as wind speed, direction, and how many guns you could bring to bear for an effective attack made for a strategy game that was easy to grasp, if a bit difficult to master.
The game was originally played with cardboard ship counters, with each ship having a sheet where the player kept track of crew, guns and ship damage. The fun part was plotting your moves, and then waiting to see what position you were in at the end of movement to determine whether to fire your broadside guns or send a boarding party. Too many times I got entangled with another ship and was forced to board or defend, when I should have played it safe.
The game did enjoy some longevity, and in some tournaments (none of which I ever participated in) the cardboard counters were replaced with painted miniatures for a more authentic feel.
What made Tobruk interesting was its focus on the North African campaign of World War II, recreating many of the infantry and tank battles featuring the German forces of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the British forces under General Bernard Montgomery, with guest appearances by the lousy armor of the Italian army.
The units represented single vehicles and platoons of infantry. I was attracted to this game because, as a kid, I had watched the TV show Rat Patrol, which followed four Allied soldiers and their two machine-gun wielding jeeps during the North Africa campaign. Even though the show only lasted a few years (and can still be seen in re-runs), the show was enough to fuel a young kid’s fascination with World War II.
Of course, being a desert campaign, the game boards of Tobruk were pure orange. Any fortifications were represented by counters, such as trenches, barbed wire or bunkers. The rules were simple and took into account how effective various weapons were against the armor of the tanks used by Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the British Desert Rats (among others). Sheets were also used to track casualties of infantry platoons.
This was a very tactical game given the openness of the terrain, and it was also very specific with a limited set of scenarios. Didn’t hold my interest as long as some other games, but the mix of TV show reminiscence and game make it very memorable.
Starship Troopers (1976)
Starship Troopers was the only sci-fi board game I ever played, and only because I loved Robert Heinlein’s book of the same name. The game and the scenarios stay fairly true to the book, much more so than the campy movie, which was still good in its own right. Side note: Avalon Hill re-released a version of the game called Starship Troopers: Prepare for Battle in 1997 to coincide with the theatrical release.
The scenarios are designed in such a way that a) they coincide with the major battles as described in the book, and b) they slowly exposed the players to the game rules in much the same way early missions do in some video games. What I appreciated about the game after seeing the movie was that it incorporated the Skinnies, a race of aliens that start out being Arachnid collaborators, but then join the cause of the Mobile Infantry. (Do you want to know more?)
The game was fun to play as an Arachnid because you could tunnel around the map and pop up under the enemy. All-in-all, an incredibly fun diversion from my fascination with the Avalon Hill war games.
Air Assault on Crete (1977)
Another in my long line of World War II board games, I gravitated to this one for two reasons. First, it represented the first total airborne assault of an objective in history, and second, offered a separate game (and board) that recreated Operation Herkules, the never-carried-out invasion of the heavily fortified island of Malta in the Mediterranean.
For those unfamiliar with the Crete campaign, Germany decided to drop in paratroops to the island beginning on May 20, 1941 under the code name Operation Mercury. Germany took heavy casualties on the first day, but due to a miscommunication among the Allies, were able to capture the island’s only airfield the following day. With the reinforcements, the Battle for Crete was over within 10 days.
The game does a good job of approximating the troop strengths, drops and reserves from the battle, offering several scenarios set over the course of the 10-day battle. The appeal was in the massive airdrop and then trying to secure the airfield, which would have turned the tide of the real battle if it had not have fallen.
The Invasion of Malta bonus was a fun game in its own right, and a much shorter campaign of course, given the size of the fortified island. Ironically, it appears that the Malta game had more longevity than its counterpart.
Submarine (Avalon Hill version, 1978)
Another game that appealed to my fascination with the warfare of World War II was Submarine. With many WW2 scenarios featuring German, American, British and Japanese ships, this game also sparked my interest in submarine and wolfpack-style computer games years later.
The game originally appeared in 1976 from Battleline, but Avalon Hill scooped it up and republished it in 1978 with more advanced rules.
This was the first modern sea battle game that held my interest for quite awhile. I was interested in the hidden movement, the sonar pings, as well as plotting torpedo paths to take out merchant ships. I played a sub captain more often than I did the merchant/escort fleet, and eventually felt confident enough in my ability to enter a tournament, where I finished second.
Many war game aficionados claim the game was weak as a simulation, but given the game’s popularity both in play-by-mail campaigns, create-your-own scenarios and continued multiplayer tournaments, it is safe to say the game was a huge success. It also held my interest longer than many of the games on this list.
Squad Leader (1977)
I save the best for last, not only because Squad Leader took up so much of my time, especially with the ensuing expansions, but also because it had the most involved ruleset I had ever played to date. I knew this was a game for me when, while playing, I had to constantly double check the rules to make sure I was playing properly because of the rules complexity. I was hooked.
Squad Leader took the game to a new level of minutiae at an infantry level, trying to simulate leadership, morale, much closer combat, and a more intricate line of sight approach than previous tactical games. Armor made an appearance, but it was rare. The game also introduced geomorphic map boards that could be placed in various different combinations to offer quite a few more terrain options. It also had some damn fine looking unit design and maps.
The game had 12 basic scenarios, but since it was designed as a game system – one that allowed “design your own” scenarios and variations on the basic ones – there was much more replayability. And since this was game system, Avalon Hill was able to build on this with various expansions.
Cross of Iron arrived a year later in 1978, offering some tweaks to the rules, as well as a forest map board and eight new scenarios. These scenarios focused on the Russian and German troops, including most that saw combat on the Eastern Front. It also brought in more of an emphasis on armor not seen since the days of Panzer Blitz andPanzer Leader.
Crescendo of Doom came in 1979, with more rule tweaks and additions, two new map boards for orchards and river terrain and 12 new scenarios focusing on British, French and German troops and armor from 1939-1941. Also during this time, Avalon Hill released an additional 10 scenarios for Cross of Iron.
Needless to say, this all kept me quite busy, virtually cutting off any other Avalon Hill game I was playing. Just trying to keep up with the rules was an adventure, and given the chance to create my own scenarios just added to the furor.
By this time, though I was preparing for grad school and never had a chance to tackle the final Squad Leadergamette, GI: Anvil of Victory in 1982. It was probably a good thing too, because this addition was larger than the original game, adding five more boards and numerous terrain “overlays”, 13 scenarios and a large number of changes to what had been fundamental rules from the initial game. This was the last official expansion, but Avalon Hill released – via mail order only – several additional scenarios and three new map boards.
Awards: Squad Leader, 1977 Best Tactical/Operational Game. Cross of Iron 1978 Best Physical Systems & Graphics. Crescendo of Doom 1980 Best 20th Century Boardgame.