Avalon Hill and the Civil War Centennial

Wargamers tend to know that Charles Roberts began the wargaming concept with the self-published Tactics in 1954, a game which featured many of the concepts found in todayís games. The biggest difference is that it employed squares instead of hexes to regulate movement. Tactics featured two hypothetical countries dueling over an island continent with modern (by 1950s standards) units. After coming close to breaking even, Roberts decided to form The Avalon Hill Game Company in 1958 to publish adult games. Roberts defined these as not only wargames, but other games that would appeal to a sophisticated audience. Avalon Hillís debut line included Tactics II (a revision of the first one), Gettysburg, and Dispatcher. Gettysburg was the first wargame done on an historical topic.

Avalon Hill enjoyed enough success to encourage Roberts to produce more adult games. U-Boat and Verdict came in 1959, and 1960 brought a Junior edition of Gettysburg along with Management. He was even more productive in 1961, bringing to the market Air Empire, D-Day (the first hex-based game), LeMans, Nieuchess, a second edition of Tactics II, Verdict II, and Waterloo. The company brought Tom Shaw aboard along with his Baseball Strategy and Football Strategy games.

In the larger world, American attention was focused on the Civil War Centennial, fueled in part by Bruce Cattonís Pulitzer Prize-winning Army of the Potomac trilogy. The Civil War was hot, and numerous companies rushed to take advantage of the phenomenon. For example, Life magazine featured an extensive series on the war, and even included a game that was later published by Parker Brothers as 1863. Milton Bradley also did its own interpretation of the war with its Battle Cry (part of its American Heritage series and a strategic level game like 1863).

Roberts was not to be left out of the craze and he entered the market with three games on the war: Chancellorsville, Civil War, and a second edition of Gettysburg, all released in 1961. Surprisingly, none really did well in terms of sales, despite being based on what was then a tried and true formula for the company, and all vanished from the line by 1964.

The Games

Avalon Hill believed in formulas. Most of their early games featured versions of the same system, with the mapboard being the main difference. A typical game had half-inch counters, with some variation among unit strengths and movement factors, a hex map, a standard combat results table, terrain impeding movement and helping defense, zones of control, alternating turns involving movement then combat, stacking restrictions, a time limit for the game, and victory conditions that normally involved wiping out most of the other sideís army. Games usually included a reference manual giving examples of play and historical data. The similarities made it easy for a gamer to pick up a game and play after learning the few differences from the others. (The other Avalon Hill belief was that titles sell games, so their first games had titles that would be instantly familiar to the casual buyer). Surprisingly, the most significant departure from the Tactics formula was Gettysburg 1958 which was a miniatures-based system. This heresy was extirpated in Gettysburg 1961 which was a rehash of the other games.

Of the three Civil War games, Civil War deviated the most from the formula, resembling Nieuchess more than anything else. It had a half-sized map and used pawns for combat units. Both games were intended for beginners but the concept did not seem to catch on. Both featured terrain rules, movement bonuses, replacements, ZOCs and the standard CRT. Interestingly, Avalon Hill, Milton Bradley, and Parker Brothers all chose simple systems to cover the strategic picture.

Gettysburg 1961 and Chancellorsville were clones of the other hex based games, with the usual combat, movement, and terrain rules, along with the standard counters. All three Civil War games referred to the hex spaces as squares, a throwback to the Tactics rulebook. Gettysburg and Chancellorsville were so similar that the rule books used the same phrases in each section with only minor revisions, if any. Both used the Combat Calculator, a slide rule contraption that figured the odds for each battle, though the results echoed the standard CRT. One major difference was the concept of primary and secondary ZOCs. Secondary ZOCs were available to artillery units and functioned in that context like the usual ones. The differences between the two games came from the situation. In Gettysburg, both armies entered the board over three days, while in Chancellorsville both sides went through a setup procedure that had all their units on the board at the start. In addition, the latter game incorporated river crossing rules, fortifications, and brigade substitute counters.

The Three Gettysburgs

As mentioned before, Gettysburg 1958 debuted along with Tactics II and Dispatcher. It was a miniatures-based system which is not surprising in that miniatures were the major wargame activity at the time. The map was a square grid which was used for hidden and road movement. Players had a ruler which calculated movement and combat. Odds were not rounded down automatically. Instead the final ratio resulted from some die rolls. The CRT had no exchanges and 1-1 produced even results instead of being biased towards the defender. Units were not the standard half-inch counters. Instead, infantry were one inch by a half inch, outposts (useful for spotting hidden units) and headquarters were half-inch square, and cavalry three-quarters inch by half-inch. The North had 55 units while the South had 36.

As noted before, Gettysburg 1961 followed the standard Avalon Hill formula, but never really caught on with gamers. Its unpopularity was such that the company replaced it with Gettysburg 1964, in some ways a return to 1958, but without the miniatures concepts. Once again came the square grid map, unit facing rules, optional hidden movement and counters with different sizes although without outposts, . Terrain had no effect on movement but did change combat. More than one unit could be on a square. Probably the biggest departure from the formula was including the rules, historical data, and examples of play in a single battle manual. The game did retain the wording from other games and the standard CRT. It had fewer turns and counters (41 North, 27 South) than 1961.

The Two Chancellorsvilles

Chancellorsville appeared in 1961 along with the other two games, and bombed just as badly. It was essentially a frustrating river crossing game which used the standard Avalon Hill approach. Much of its troubles were due to the nature of the battle. It is simply too hard to recreate meaningful historicity considering how the battle developed. The company took another shot at the battle in 1974 with a second edition originally available only by mail order. The revamp consolidated the rules, historical data, orders of battle, and the playerís manual into one rulebook Differences started with the map, completely redrawn in a more artistic fashion. Wood hexes were moved around and the railroad and unfinished railroad features vanished. The Combat Calculator was replaced with a new CRT which included disruption results. Combat dropped the primary and secondary zones of control concept although artillery still fired two hexes. City, woods and hill hexes blocked artillery. Both sides had a defensive artillery phase, attacking was optional for units in city, woods and fortification hexes and cities doubled defense factors. Set up and river crossing rules differed a bit, and there were new night turn rules. The game now had twenty-one turns as opposed to the first edition's twenty-five. Optional rules include Command Control, Unit Function Differentiation, Inverted Confederate Counters, Historical Disposition, and Stonemanís Raid. In addition, The Avalon Hill General 12-6 included scenarios for Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and two for Spottsylvania (sic) Court House. Chancellorsville 1974 is a big improvement over 1961, but again it is all but impossible to simulate the battle.

Overall, 1961 represented an odd year for Avalon Hill. Many of its offerings (Tactics II 2nd ed., D-Day, Verdict II and Waterloo) enjoyed commercial success and remained in its line for many years. Conversely, the three Civil War titles avoided that, despite being designed to capitalize on the Civil War mania of the times. Nieuchess also went down hard, probably because the introductory game concept did not work in that format. Gettysburg and Chancellorsville suffered from being poor games compared to the other ones of that time. To put it another way, trendiness was not enough.

Peter L. de Rosa

For more information on Tactics II and Nieuchess, see this.
For my take on Avalon Hillís company history, see this.


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