I was re-arranging my games stash this past weekend and took a few moments to look over one of my "grails"--the game that brought me to Boardgamegeek in the first place--Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit. I've mentioned that game no telling how many times, did a very favorable review of it on BGG, I put it in my top 10 boardgames of all time...so to say I think very highly of it is an understatement.
I got to thinking, though, while I looked at it--there on the front was the Avalon Hill logo emblazened on the front. Now, of course, this wasn't "Avalon Hill" as most gamers used to know it...no no, this was the NEW Avalon Hill, as acquired by the Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast conglomerate.
Of course, you may have read that as of mid-to-late last year, most of the "new" Avalon Hill's offerings were being put to pasture. Games such as Betrayal at House on the Hill, Nexus Ops, Vegas Showdown, Monsters Menace America, and several others were essentially being euthanized. This explains why you can wander into almost any Toys 'R' Us these days and find several of them sitting on the shelf with a $20-or-less price tag.
One question should enter the mind of the Ameritrash fan as you evaluate this situation--what happened? You look at this line-up, and it looks custom-tailored to the Ameritrash fan. Plastic, heavily-themed dicefests, accessible...
So...yeah...what DID happen?
A History Lesson
There is absolutely no doubt the impact and influence that the old Avalon Hill company had in the boardgaming industry. Founded by Charles S. Roberts (you know, the guy in whose name they award the wargame of the year to), Avalon Hill was for a long time considered the creme de la creme of hobbyist boardgaming. The impact on the wargame genre alone is staggering--many of the concepts that are carried forward even today were pioneered in some of the earliest Avalon Hill titles.
Though I personally associate the old AH primarily with wargames, I was surprised to find that (according to Wikipedia) only about half of their titles were actually wargames. Here is an excerpt from that selfsame Wiki article:
"While wargames were always what Avalon Hill was best known for, Roberts had founded it as a company for adult (that is, thinking) games. His own favorite game that he designed during his time with the company was Management. Through much of its history, wargames were only about half of the Avalon Hill line. The non-wargame side of the line picked up several good titles such as Acquire and Twixt from the purchase of 3M's line of games in 1976. During the 1970s, Avalon Hill published a number of tabletop sports simulations, culminating in the popular Statis Pro line in 1978 which was based on the names and statistics of actual players."
At any rate, like many prominent hobbyist companies (such as the also legendary TSR) AH floundered as the 1990s wore on. By 1997/1998, the company was no longer financially viable, and would have winked out of existence save for the fact that all of its assets--including intellectual property rights--were purchased by Hasbro for a reported $6 million.
A New Promise
Despite many of the opinionated railings you will read these days about "Hasborg" and its mistreatment of the Avalon Hill name and product line, the beginnings of the new Avalon Hill were actually quite promising. In 1999, under the Avalon Hill name two old favorites were re-released with a deluxe treatment: Acquire, replete with nice plastic building pieces, and Diplomacy, with heavy, sturdy metal pieces. Also 1999 saw the Avalon Hill branding get applied to the Axis and Allies brand (a brand with a long history and a soft spot in the hearts of most AT fans) in the form of Axis and Allies: Europe, an attempt to expand the venerable old line and expose it to new fans.
While those were indeed promising beginnings, the line would really take off in 2000. That year saw the release of Richard Borg's first commercial entry in his now monstrously popular Commands and Colors system in the form of Battle Cry. Another old favorite saw re-release, again with deluxe plastic treatment--Cosmic Encounter. Also that year saw the released of the aformentioned Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, widely heralded as one of the best movie/game conversions ever (the venerable Dune would probably be considered a closer adaptation of the novel rather than Lynch's barely coherent film, and the AH version predates the film by several years anyway, leaving TQG with a strong claim to "best film game").
Taking a moment to pause here, it's obvious that rather than just using the Avalon Hill name to "cash in"--as they certainly could have--Hasbro was making a real effort to connect with the hobbyist market here. Though SW:TQG is certainly accessible and easy to learn, it is miles above the typical two-page of rules affair that you would normally find on the Wal-Mart shelf of Hasbro offerings. The Queen's Gambit was populated by a metric ton of beautifully crafted plastic bits, a three-dimensional palace, hit points, attack and defense dice of varying colors and strength, the idea of a "decoy" queen, rules for the "Gungan Shield", threaded turns with pseudo pre-programmed instructions, and the need for balancing *four* theaters of action that involved a more complex set of victory condtions than your typical Hasbro customer might be used to.
Also looking at this line, these were games that were near and dear to the hobbyist gamer's heart. Cosmic Encounter? Diplomacy? Acquire? Not to mention that the AH line provided a new avenue for Hasbro to publish strong hobbyist titles such as Battle Cry, which went on to father incredibly popular titles such as Memoir '44 and Battlelore.
As time wore on, more and more titles saw release under this branded line. Risk: 2210 demonstrated that there was indeed life after the vanilla Risk that most hardcore gamers left for dead many, many years ago. The Axis and Allies line continued to expand with D-Day, Battle of the Bulge, Pacific, and even a new Revised version of the basic game that addressed several of the old balancing complaints that fans had with the original version (including the dreaded "SUPER BOMBERS" that always wrecked every game in which they made their wretched appearance....gah, bad memories, bad memories!!) Another old favorite returned in the form of Roborally, and the stream of re-issues and new hobbyist titles continued with games such as Monsters Menace America, History of the World, Nexus Ops, and even a surprising entry into the Eurogame-style market in the form of the acclaimed Vegas Showdown.
Old Habits (and Grognards) Die Hard
Man, that's a pretty beautiful picture I painted up there, wouldn't you say? Well...to be honest, both as a gamer and a student of business, the failure of the AH line mystifies me. (Much as the swift death of the Sega Dreamcast back in the day, but let's not go into that here). I mean, on the surface, it appears that the new AH was firing on all cylinders. Re-releasing old favorites? Check. Releasing new titles with hobbyist leanings and nice plastic bits? Check. Hobbyist titles appearing in mass market stores, expanding the visibility of the hobby and improving their accessibility? Check.
(I mean, think about it. Remember in the old days when you could wander into Toys R Us or Kay-Bee Toys and find good boadgames to buy? Sitting right there nestled amongst the Monopolies and Lifes would be...an Avalon Hill title. Or a Gamemaster title such as Shogun/Samurai Swords. For awhile once the new AH brand resurfaced, those days were back! You could find these games at both outlets. Heck, Hasbro was even one of the original publishers of one of Reiner Knizia's masterpieces in the form of Lord of the Rings, a game I saw sold at Toys R Us, Kay-Bee...and Wal-Mart! Think about that!)
But old-time fans of AH were not amused by the stylings of the "new" AH. With each subsequent release, there were more and more grumblings. THESE weren't the types of games that the REAL Avalon Hill would release, many would say. (Never mind the factoid I found out above about only 1/2 the titles of the original AH being wargames). Also, much was made about the games that Hasbro weren't releasing--chief among them being games such as Dune, Titan, and Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage.
Another problem that seemed to plague Hasbro's AH was the fact that each game released seemed to have some "issue" that was a sticking point for a vocal segment of fans. Cosmic Encounter was lacking its expansion content as well as some stacking issues with the plastic components. Diplomacy fans were not fond of the new metal pieces which made on-board calculations/examples more difficult. Betrayal at House on the Hill had many, many misprints in its documentation and on some of its game components. Monsters Menace America was plagued by an end-game problem that ruined the entire game for some. Roborally and Vegas Showdown were both cited as having poor components (thinner boards and plastic 'bots for Roborally, and admittedly lame paper player mats for Vegas Showdown).
There was another problem too that was less visible but certainly did not help matters. Two of Hasbro's best designers are undoubtedly Craig Van Ness and Rob Daviau. Either one or both had hands in designing some of the best of the best of Hasbro's/AH's offerings, including Risk: 2210, Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, Star Wars: Epic Duels, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (generally considered one of the best TV adaptation games made), Battleball (think an entry-level Blood Bowl), Axis and Allies: Pacific, and both are the creative minds behind current Hasbro mass-market/hobbyist behemoth, Heroscape, which continues to receive expansion after expansion with no end in sight and will be receiving a licensed treatment this summer in the form of Marvel Heroscape, a game that looks to be a real threat to Wizkid's Heroclix.
Something happened though roughly around 2004--and I do not have a definitive time frame on this--but Hasbro essentially "handed off" the AH line to its subsidiary, Wizards of the Coast. What this unfortunately meant was that neither Rob nor Craig made the leap with the change (as can be heard on their Geekspeak appearance in late 2004 to which they no longer had knowledge--or even the capacity to speak about--future plans with the AH line).
Did this lead to the decline in quality? That's possible. Several of the later games that had component issues were actually released during WotC's watch, leading to the impression that AH games were beginning to "cheap out" on components. Ditto printing errors that plagued Betrayal, though Wizards did provide new rule books via their website. A few pretty craptacular games saw release with the AH stamp during this time too--Sword and Skulls (think "Pirate Monopoly") and Rocketville, and game supposedly carrying the pedigree of Richard Garfield of Magic: The Gathering fame but by all reports turning out to be a rancid, random blind-bidding fest with little creativity or fun.
That's not to say that there weren't gems in there too, especially when talking about Vegas Showdown. This game took a lot of Euro elements and blended them with an appealing Americanized theme, in the process winning Games Magazine Game of the Year award in 2006 and finding itself nicely nuzzled at spot #124 as of this writing on Boardgamegeek's top games listing.
Where We Are Today--$19.99
Needless to say, coming off the success of Vegas Showdown it was quite a suprise when it, along with most of the other AH hobbyist titles were put on "discontinued" status and marked down to firesale prices for $19.99. Those may not seem like clearance prices, but one only has to look at all the cool plastic bits inside each copy of Nexus Ops to know that this is a below-cost sale. (In other words, think of what you normally get for a $20 game, such as Fantasy Flight Games Silver Line...usually a deck of cards, some chits, MAYBE a plastic piece or three).
What's worse is that in many Toys R Us, they're still sitting, even at this price. I was in a Knoxville store two weeks ago and they had almost all of the AH discontinued titles for $19.99, still sitting there. Obviously, something wrong happened here.
Did Hasbro/WotC misjudge the number of these titles to be made available? That's possible. When you deal with a large company like Hasbro, the term "niche" has a very different meaning indeed. An independent publisher might be thrilled to sell 5,000 copies of a title, but for Hasbro that isn't even worth firing up the production lines over.
Did the new AH underestimate the "bad" weight the name would bring with it along with the good--in other words, would they have been better off 'retiring' the AH name to avoid expectations from older AH fans who didn't understand that without Hasbro, the name would have completely faded from view?
Worse, did Ameritrash fans--whom many of these titles were obviously aimed at--"betray" their heritage by skipping "Hasborg's" offerings, or refusing to see past some issues in these titles that for other games, from other publishers they would've gladly houseruled or played through in the past?
I don't know. Here's the part of the article where I turn the floor over to you. I want to know...what happened? Except for the negative connotations of "Hasborg", I'd like to know where the new AH went wrong. Because from all reports, the days of new hobbyist titles from AH are over, and we'll only be seeing Axis and Allies games including the collectible miniatures as part of this product line from now on. Once these AH titles are gone, that will leave Hasbro's own Heroscape as the only product on mass retail shelves with any foot in the hobbyist market at all. Isn't that a bad thing? I don't know. You tell me.
Sound off! I'm especially interested in hearing from fans of the old AH line as to why, exactly, you felt "betrayed" by the new AH line. Thanks for reading!