The Answer to Everything

The Answer to Everything
The Revolution Began With Paper

Greg Costikyan | 25 Apr 2006 12:01
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The mass market boardgame industry continued to grow throughout the early 20th century, and, in the post-war era, grew enormously with the spread of department and chain outlets and with the growth in leisure time. In the latter half of the 20th century, a handful of game designers, such as Alex Randolph and the immortal Sid Sackson, found it possible to make a full-time living from games, and began to evolve a language and approach to game design that is recognizable to modern designers. Sadly, however, a combination of American unease with "childish" entertainment and the eventual establishment of a virtual monopoly in the market by Hasbro (which now owns Parker, Bradley, Selchow & Richter, Avalon Hill, TSR, and Wizards of the Coast, among others) has relegated the American boardgame market to the publication of old standards and licensed drivel for pre-teens. Those of us who are admirers of the art of board and card game design today gravitate mainly to German imports, because Germany retains a thriving and highly competitive boardgame industry, where designers such as Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber and Alan Moon (an American forced to seek publication abroad because of the deficiencies of the U.S. market) continue to do highly creative and innovative work.

The mass market boardgame industry, however, was instrumental in paving the way for the modern digital industry. It established a distribution channel that the earliest console games sold into (toy and chain stores); it established the idea of games beyond the traditional ones in the public mind; it demonstrated the importance of design; and the kinds of games it fostered continue to influence modern digital games, particularly in the "casual downloadable" market.

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That, however, is only one strand in the skein of influences that brought about the games revolution. To explore another, we must begin with The King's Game, created in 1780 by a man known to history only as Helwig, Master of Pages to the Duke of Brunswick. The King's Game was, in a sense, a Chess variant; but its board contained 1,666 squares, containing different types of terrain, and the units represented infantry, cavalry and artillery. In other words, unlike Chess, it was a simulation, an attempt to represent military conflict of the era, not an abstracted pastime. The connection between The King's Game and the rise of kriegspieler in the 19th century - military training games intended as both simulations and training for warfare - is uncertain, but we can imagine The King's Game served as inspiration. The first kriegspiel we know of was invented in 1824 by Lieutenant von Reisswitz of the Prussian army, who devised a game using realistic military maps at a scale of 1:8000; he demonstrated it for the Chief of Staff of the Prussian army, who exclaimed, "It's not a game at all; it's a training for war!" and he ordered a copy for each regiment of the army. The game and its variants continued to be played in the Prussian and German armed forces for decades thereafter.

In 1876, Colonel von Verdy du Vernois of the German army devised a new sort of kriegspiel: The complex rules of von Reisswitz's game were dispensed with, and instead, an experienced officer was brought in as a game master. Players were permitted to do whatever they wished, as long as the game master ruled it feasible. In a sense, these less rigid kriegspieler were forerunners of the modern tabletop roleplaying game.

Kriegspieler were used in military training across Europe by the end of the 19th century; and their derivatives, complex combat simulations, both manual and computer-moderated, are widely used in the armed forces of all developed nations today. But they remained a non-commercial game style, until 1911 ...

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