Mary Russell

Years ago, I was reading James Dunnigan's Complete Wargames Handbook, and I came across a passage that I thought was so ridiculous, I had to read it out loud to share it with Mary:

"Reading" games rather than playing them is quite common. Always has been. Many gamers "collect" games. They buy them, but never play them. This does not mean that they are not used. Quite often, the hobbyist will spend several hours with the game. The usual procedure is to lay out the map, examine the pieces, read the rules and scenarios and perhaps place the pieces on the map, but that is generally as far as it goes. The player has been satisfied with experiencing the dynamic potential.

I recall that I was pretty much cackling by the time I got to the end of the passage: who would shell out cash on game after game but never actually play them? Coming from a rather more impoverished financial background, it sounded like some kind of bizarre extravagance for the upper classes, like ancient Chinese emperors who swam in lakes of wine with forested islands made out of meat, or James Hay's notorious "double feasts", in which the same sumptuous spread would be prepared twice, the first time merely to look at it and smell it (and then throw it all away), and the second to actually eat. 


James Hay, 1st Earl of Carlisle, by unknown artist. Hay loved extravagance and lavish expenditure. He was known for his double suppers and costly entertainments, and they in turn were the theme of satirists. It has been said that at his death his debts exceeded more than £80,000 (that would be 1636 monies).

Now, to be clear, I understood the concept of not having enough time to play a game that you had bought, or having difficulty getting it to the table. But the idea of obtaining a game without any real intention of actually playing it? That was bonkers. Those people were crazy.

Well, folks, the joke's very much on me, because over the last year, thanks in large part to the invaluable Facebook group Wargamer Pay It Forward, I have acquired a handful of games that I knew at the time I was probably never going to play. That I was going to look at the counters, lay out the map, read the rules, and that would pretty much be it, and I was okay with that. How did I find myself in this bizarre place?

Friends, it started with my acquisition of Avalon Hill's D-Day. A game that I fully intended to play. I set it up in my garage, taking quite some time to put every little chit in the right box on the Reinforcements Track. And I did play the first several turns of the game. It was... underwhelming. Charming, in its way - I love that the rules explain what hexes are and how they work, but then proceed to call them "squares" - but it was clear that game design had advanced quite a ways in the fifty-plus years since that copy of the game was printed. Still, I got to experience one of the foundational games of the hobby, and to observe how far it had come. And that box cover is still aces, which is why I was very happy to steal borrow Avalon Hill's early house style for our Teutons! cover.

And it became clear at that point that I probably wasn't going to enjoy (or even play) any other early Avalon Hill titles. I might not even be all that interested in the later Avalon Hill titles. But, at the same time, I now had one Avalon Hill game, and I supposed, in abstract, I wouldn't be terribly opposed to getting another. I put my name in on a few other Pay It Forward threads, trying to score a copy of Anzio, but nothing came of it. Probably for the better; like I said, the chances of me actually playing it were nil. 

But then someone put up two "diplomatic" Avalon Hill games - the newer, WOTC reprint of Diplomacy, as well as Origins of World War II. And I knew, from reading up on both games, that Diplomacy was long and ruined friendships, and that Origins was a bit of a dud. But I said to myself, "Self, Diplomacy is an important part of hobby gaming history, and it might be the sort of game I can guilt my friends into playing once a year, for example on my birthday, like we did for 1830". So I put my name in for the two of them, and lucky me, I won them.

And I read the rules (and historical background material) for Origins, and yeah, it's not the best or most nuanced take on the topic, not by a long-shot. The bookcase format is rather handsome though, the historical background material is pretty good (better than the game, I'd say), and it came with an awesome little Avalon Hill catalogue:

So, now I had two Avalon Hill games that I had no intention of actually playing - D-Day and Origins. And since I had two, it was now a lot easier to make it three, and so of course I put my name in for Bull Run, and of course once I got it, I looked at the mapboards, and read through the rules, and of course the chances of me getting it on the table are practically nil. I feel no shame. These things happen sneakily, and by degrees, and oh my goodness, did someone just put up Afrika Korps? Ooh, dibs!

If I went back in time, and arrived just after Me From the Past had read that passage, and had told Me From the Past that he would be collecting, and coveting, Avalon Hill and SPI games he had no intention of playing, Me From the Past would have... well, he would have believed Me From the Future, because it's Me From the Future. Obviously if I'm traveling through time to tell me something, I'm going to be telling me the truth. I can't think of any Me from any present day who wouldn't believe Me From the Future.

But I'm digressing: Me From the Past would, as previously established, totally listen to and believe Me From the Future, but he'd probably ask for some context, and there are two important bits of information that would probably make the whole thing more palpable for Me From the Past.

First, that his primary objection to Collecting - the spending of vast quantities of money on things one would never actually use - doesn't really figure into it, because the cost is actually quite minimal. One of many great things about running your own board game company is that when it's your turn to put something up in return for your Pay It Forward win, you can put up one of your own products, new and in-shrink, shipped directly from your printer/fulfillment guy. This has the added bonus of drumming up (and gauging) interest for a given product. I think every time I've put one of our games up as a PIF, we've gotten at least a couple sales for that game in the next handful of days. So in a way, we're coming out ahead. 

Second, I'm learning something from each of these games, even if I'm not getting it on the table. Sometimes it's as simple as confirming my own preferences and instincts. Bull Run's command-control structure, for example, reminds me why I prefer to keep things simple. Origins and its Diplomatic Combat Results Table reminded me why it's important to think outside the box when covering non-military subjects, and in some ways formed a sort of anti-influence on my Optimates et Populares. D-Day's influence was largely aesthetic, as I mentioned previously, but the bloodiness of its combat (a necessity, perhaps, with single-step units) gave me some ideas that are slowing simmering on my back-burner.

Because of this, I'm now a bit more understanding of folks who buy games only to "read" or collect them. I don't think that's ever going to be my primary way of experiencing a game - I'm too much of a gameplay guy - but I do see where they're coming from.


1 comment

  • I passed into the reading/ collecting end of things more than 20 years ago.
    I have a collection that is large by any standard, but it serves more as a reference library of interesting treatments of historical situations and mechanics than a closet full of things to play… this is even more so now that my son has grown and doesn’t have much time to play anymore.

    I am also suspicious that many of my own game designs probably end up being studied just as much as they are played.
    Maybe more….

    Brian Train

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