And Simulations Publications, Inc., better known as SPI, published hundreds of games, ranging all over the map in subject matter and quality, but always rich in unbridled ambition. Producing dozens of games a year, including a complete game in each bimonthly issue of the remarkable Strategy & Tactics magazine, SPI simulated nearly every major military engagement from the Bronze Age to Vietnam, with side visits to the 1968 Chicago Riots, the Reformation, guerrilla war in Yugoslavia, Canadian separatist politics, speculative visions of a Sino-Soviet war and World War III, and American football. SPI's Terrible Swift Sword, War in the East and many others continued GDW's Europa idea of "monster" wargames, multi-map, multi-thousand-counter, hugely complex simulations that take weeks or months to play.
Some highlights, lowlights and sidelights of the copious SPI line:
- In Russian Civil War, you can sometimes score victory points by firing on your own troops.
- The Fall of Rome, a solitaire simulation of the entire late Roman Empire, was notorious for errata longer than the original rules.
- The designer's notes for Balaclava, one of SPI's Crimean War games, consisted entirely of Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade."
- Grunt, a 1971 game of Vietnam published while the war was still going, included rules for torturing prisoners.
- Outreach, a 1976 science-fiction game, is the largest-scale game ever published. Its single map covered two thirds of the Milky Way Galaxy; each hexagon measured 1,000 light years. A big part of the game involved opposing units in the same space trying to find each other.
- Campaign for North Africa, a monster game presented as a "HIMS" (Heuristic Intensive Manual Simulation), replicated the World War II desert theatre at such length (an estimated 1,200 hours for the full game), with such exhaustive attention - skill ratings for individual pilots, and Italian regiments' water requirements for pasta - that ten playtest teams bombed out before publication. When the game shipped, no one had played it through. To this day, it may never have been played to a conclusion.
In the 1970s many wargame publishers sallied forth onto the field of hobbyists. Some did well. Top titles could sell thousands of copies, if not the tens or hundreds of thousands Avalon Hill (AH) and SPI enjoyed. The whole field fizzed with vitality.
Today, if you're a wargamer - in Kankakee or anywhere - you're probably the only one in town.
Decline and Fall
Future Smithsonian curators will someday display board wargames from the 1960s and '70s alongside astrolabes and orreries. Each represents a tremendously imaginative and intricate solution, realized through herculean labor, to a problem that later technology rendered trivial.
For example, David Isby's wargame Air War is played on an entirely blank poster-sized hexagonal grid. Each player may control as little as one single cardboard counter, representing one modern jet fighter. The rules to manipulate these two counters on this blank hexmap comprise 28 pages of tiny print plus 39 charts and tables. Cardboard markers on a separate display track each plane's throttle, acceleration, turning, altitude and attitude, plus weapons use; there are individual data sheets for each plane and each type of missile. A later Update Kit adds 16 pages of rules and a 72-page chart booklet. A three-minute Air War engagement requires six hours to play, nevermind the labor of mastering rules of fabulous complexity, all so players in 1979 could achieve the same effect today's X-Plane player can see by launching the game and pushing forward lightly on a joystick.
In 1982, after many years of mismanagement, SPI went bankrupt and was seized and destroyed by TSR, makers of Dungeons & Dragons. GDW shut down in 1996. In 1998, Hasbro bought the Avalon Hill name and game line and let most of its classic titles fall dormant. The company licensed AH's popular Advanced Squad Leader to Multi-Man Publishing, a hobby operation funded by Boston Red Sox pitcher and longtime grognard Curt Schilling. Over the decades, other wargame publishers have vanished and revived and vanished again like aging garage bands. Greg Costikyan, who was an SPI developer while still in high school, says, "Wargaming is not quite extinct, no; but all that remains are the reflex twitches of a still-warm corpse."