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Bookcase games: a collector's empire

By Michael W. Ziegler author of article
Source: Interloc News, October 1997

When thinking of the term "board games," one might recall the games that were fashioned in one's youth, with theancient games of Chess, Backgammon and Checkers being among the more elite of these gemstones of man's effort to pass the time in thought. Others may have become aware of the existence of games of strategy in the late 1950's or l960's, with developments such as "Risk" by Parker Brothers, or "American Heritage Series" games by Milton Bradley, which included such titles as "Battle-Cry," a game of the Civil War, or "Broadside" concerning the War of 1812.

The real competition heated up on the battlefields of expensive historical recreations developed by the well-to-do miniature enthusiasts. These folks spent endless hours and a great deal of money recreating famous Napoleonic battles with leaded figures, painted by hand, and often painstakingly researched for accuracy.

The fascinating genre of historical board games known as "Book Case games" have captured the hearts and imaginations of gaming enthusiasts worldwide. And although they have generated a select following through the years, possibly due to the fact that most of these types of games have been distributed by just a few companies through limited outlets, such as specialized hobby stores, these types of games have now become valuable collectors items.

Unique Format

Book Case games are typically contained in an outer slipcase designed to fit like a book on a shelf. The title is printed on the spine, and a game board is neatly folded within. All of the pieces are contained in small boxes or trays which also fit inside the slipcase. Interestingly, these types of games were developed and distributed by only a few companies. Some of the better-known include the 3M Corporation, and The Avalon Hill Company (now Monarch-Avalon in Baltimore, Maryland), along with an offshoot of that company which later became SPI Inc. Two of these companies no longer exist. Now all of the games produced by these three are out of print and highly collectible, in some cases bringing in thousands of dollars at gaming convention auctions.

Created For Adults

Now you might ask, why would anyone be interested in collecting board games? After all, games are for young people! Actually, you'd be mistaken. These games were created for adults!

In the 1960's The 3M Company decided to expand its marketing potential by creating accessible, highly competitive, high- quality component strategy games for adult leisure. The results were no less than astounding! Initially, twelve titles were produced over a short period of time. Eventually that line was expanded and formats and boxing changed to appeal to travel-wise consumers. In the 1970's the company had produced about 38 titles, some of which became famous. The game "Acquire" is one of the most recognizable by the average consumer.

These games were compact and included plastic or wooden pieces. Many of games included artistic game board designs. Usually, the subject matter was inventive. Some titles were simply updates of ancient games known on other continents. For example, the game "Oh-Wah-Ree" was actually the ancient African game of "Mancala" in which players placed stones in small holes deposited in a circular pattern until he or she ran out of stones by bearing off the stones into corners. Other titles such as "Feudal" were new games utilizing plastic figures on a compact board which moved in chess- like fashion. Each piece had its own individual capability and function to win.

Some titles can be found in flea markets or yard sales today for cheap prices. But the extremely rare ones have never been seen by some collectors. Indeed it is believed that no collector anywhere in the world has a complete set! The reason for this is that there were variations among similar titles from year to year, and collectors being the picky people they are, have been very concerned about the make-up of each and every variation.

The Birth of a New Gaming Era

Now, where the 3M Company produced adult games which could be played within a half-hour time frame, Avalon Hill intended to become the masters of historical battles and high intellectualism. Here was the answer for those people who could not afford to spend all of that time and money on miniatures! For enclosed within the very same format, one could now refight tank battles between the Russian and German armies of World War 2, or recreate the Normandy invasions.

This idea was originally developed by Charles Roberts. In the late 1950's he decided that he would attempt to draw on his knowledge of warfare culled from his army experience to produce the very first war game, known as "Tactics." This game portrayed a fictional battle between two evenly matched armies, each with terrain that was peculiar to its territory, using paratroopers, mountain units, and amphibious assaults from beaches.

The game used symbols, actually the same ones standardized by the United Nations after they discovered that the German army used symbols on maps to indicate Infantry, tank and other special units. These symbols were printed on little pieces of heavy cardboard. Rather than moving one piece on each turn, players now moved all pieces in one turn to their full movement capabilities depending on the board terrain (the board actually represented a 3-dimensional surface!).

Mr. Roberts had limited money and sold only a few thousand sets. Eventually, he sold the company to others who brought in designers and expanded the line. In 1970 Avalon-Hill produced a bookcase game of high playability and strategy and known as "Panzerblitz." This game sold in excess of 200,000 copies and was popular among wargame people because it revolutionized the hobby in many ways. Articles were written in gaming magazines on strategy variants, and new units were added. The Avalon Hill company even had its own magazine devoted to their fans, who sent in articles on suggestions for better play.

The king of all bookcase games for fame, interest, play, strategy and entertainment is "Diplomacy," a multi-player game for up to seven people. The map situation is Europe in the Spring of 1901. Each year is two turns long. Players represent a country with fleets and armies. The nations involved are France, Britain, Russia, Turkey, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy. Players are not able to obtain the winning objectives (or supply centers) without making deals or agreements, and often strategy involves plenty of back-stabbing, and/or outright cheating!

Once in a postal game, a player sent a postcard to a fellow player which contained a message as part of the "secret negotiation" process. The message read "ATTACK on Liverpool agreed." Interpol investigated the matter, worried that Irish terrorism was about to be renewed! Diplomacy was also a favorite of many a politician. In fact, in the Nixon administration, Dr. Henry Kissinger and others of the cabinet were known to play this game regularly as part of their "political exercise."

There are other titles worthy of mention. "Kingmaker," a game about the English Civil War is highly competitive and entertaining. "Britannia," is a four-player game in which players command a group of ethnic peoples which invaded the Isle over the entire course of its history. These include the Romans, Jutes, Irish, Welsh, Caladonians, Scotts, Birgantes, AngloSaxons, Normans, etc. By the time you finish only one game you will know everything about every one of them, i.e., where they invaded and how they adapted or survived! (No doubt by hacking each other to become dominant!).

And finally, "Civilization," which is not to be confused with the popular computer game. This strategy board game allows up to seven players. Each player must take his or her civilization (Iberians, Egyptians, Africans, Minoans, Illryians, Asians, Etc.,) from the stone age and march though time gaining in "civilized" elements such as Pottery, Agriculture, Philosophy, Democracy, Coinage, and others, all with the end result of developing the most dominant empire. But the game is also stocked with disasters in which a player can trade to another player by exchange with other empires, e.g. a deal involving a trade of Salt for Wine may contain a card which obligates the bearer to reduce a city due to an Earthquake or Volcano exploding!

Same Game System

The only drawback to these games is that people unfamiliar with the system look into the box and see a rather lengthy rulebook and become discouraged. But what is not generally known is that once one game is mastered you'll find that a majority of the other games follow the same system! This makes future purchases much less intimidating. Games such as "Diplomacy" have only four pages of rules to explain the "mechanics" of moving units and supporting others. It is one of the easy games to play and enjoy. There is even a rating system on the back of most bookcase boxes from 1 to 10. "1" being the easiest to play up to "10," which is for tournament enthusiasts only. (These are the games with 6O-page rulebooks!)

Thriving Collector's Market

The market for resale of original titles at auction for both dealers and collectors is realizing high prices! An original copy of the first war game, "Tactics" in mint condition, recently brought $4,000. The average Charles Roberts era war game can bring $150 to $200. Some rare SPI games sell for $200-$400 with the average sale around $50 to $75 for lesser quality collectibles.

Should you as a dealer run across one of these bookcase games you will no doubt want to know its value and whether or not it is marketable. There are price guides available. Tom Slizewski wrote "The Wargame Collectors Guide," published by the Panzer Press. This Guidebook contains war game prices realized according to condition and what the replacement cost would be if you were going to insure them.

Some collectors have games valued in total over $50,000. Conventions such as "Origins" have auctions where these games are sold to collectors and merchants who deal in older games. The conventions are regional, so if you are in the West, there is Pacific Con, East is Origins, South, etc. You'll find out about these conventions by signing on to a game store mailing list. There are also several on-line dealers who sell old collectible games.

Should you wish diversion like you have never experienced and want to gain some historical insights into the books of famous battles that you have read about, I suggest you contact the game companies directly. Avalon Hill is at 4517 Harford Rd., Baltimore, Maryland 21214. Phone: 410- 254-9200. Their Internet address is ahgames They also have some of their games translated onto computer, which reduces a lot of the mechanics of play. The most recent edition is "History of the World," which costs about $42.00. The games are now being sold in retail electronic outlets also.

Monarch Avalon, which bought out 3M years ago, still sells some of the titles I mentioned. SPI games are being updated and improved upon by some smaller companies. But the older collectible ones are still the best and are available at auctions, or if you can get them, at flea markets. Remember they are at least 25 years old already!

Michael Ziegler, an avid gaming enthusiast, and owner of Fountainhead Books, now has over 900 games in his extensive collection, including a complete set of original Charles S. Roberts games. He frequently writes strategy articles on game play for The General magazine, an Avalon Hill publication. He also competes on a national level at gaming competitions each year and won the national title for Tactics II in 1995. Weekends and holidays, you'll find Ziegler, his two sons, and a houseful of guests engaged in heated battle at his Philadelphia home.