Wednesday, 21 March 2007

The New Avalon Hill..."Wha Happin?"

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.



Other Problems

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!

41 comments:

robartin said...

I think the reason the new AH died is because it was a mismatch for Hasbro. Here you've got a monster mega-corporation publishing niche hobby market titles. The sales figures could never live up to expectations. They did some great games, so I don't think the quality of the games or the complaints of a few gamers on the internet had anything to do with the demise of the brand. It was just doomed from the start. On the other hand, look how successful they've been with Heroscape. That game is designed to drive the kind of sales that a company like Hasbro looks for.

Ken Bradford said...

It is quite possible it really is that simple. But Heroscape at its core is a hobbyist title through and through--a simplified miniatures battle game with fantasy/sci-fi elements, toy-ish bits and "customizable" armies.

Heroscape in all honesty shouldn't have survived, given the other games in the AH as a case study. (I like Heroscape very much, so don't misunderstand). The plan was certainly to have the game be expandable--generating the additional sales you mention--but if the receipt of the base game was tepid, then Hasbro would have had no problems putting the whole line on ice.


Plus, many of those AH titles were ripe for expansions anyway. Roborally, Cosmic Encounter had pre-existing expansions to be be ported/converted...you could've had small expansions with new monsters for Monsters Menace, new scenario books for Betrayal...the potential was there to turn some of these titles into constant revenue streams, but it just didn't happen.


Maybe Heroscape was a fluke and sold in metric tons of higher quantities than any of the other AH stuff. Maybe it was a case of right place, right time...after all, in 1999 BGG didn't exist yet, FFG hadn't risen to any form of prominence just yet...so maybe that critical mass of gamers who showed up for Heroscape a few years ago didn't materialize for these earlier offerings.

Robert Bowsher said...

What Robartin said. The profits on the whole AH line probably doesn't equal Hasbro's paperclip budget. Compared to _Monopoly_ sales, I bet the sales figures for _Nexus Ops_ look like line noise.

I remember stopping by the AH booth at Origins right before the rerelease of _Cosmic Encounter_. I took a look at the set and asked the AH rep there, "Only four players?"

'Freaked' might be too strong a word, but evidently this guy had had this particular conversation before. "Yes, only four players! Most people will only have four or less players at any time! This makes it simpler! We don't have moons or lucre or all the stuff the old-time Cosmic Encounter freaks want either! We've got to make this appeal to casual gamers!" Must've been a sore spot.

robartin said...

The reason Heroscape is successful is because it is a toy first and a game second. I don't mean that as a slight. The game looks like a toy and it's packaged and sold like a toy. Any kid could have a hell of a lot of fun with it without ever even learning the rules. And it's collectible, which has worked pretty darn well for Star Wars figures over the years.

the red phantom said...

As a wargamer and olde AH fan, I think Mr. Bradford gives more credit to Hasbro than I think they deserve. Queen's Gambit might have been great, but it was OOP before a consensus had been reached. Diplomacy is now played almost exclusively online, so they could have created gold-plated figures and that wouldn't have mattered. Cosmic Encounter was a mess and a lost opportunity (though I own a copy.) Battle Cry and Acquire are both OOP.

I can only speak for myself and what I have read on the BGG boards, but what I disliked about the new AH is they were neither fish nor fowl, and you never had a clue what kind of offering they would produce. One moment it would be kiddie fare (Sword & Skull), and the next moment a surprisingly deep tactical "wargame" (Nexus Ops).

Add on to all that their absolute silence about all the beloved olde AH titles created a huge amount of resentment until this year, when they finally seemed to be loosening their grip on OOP licenses.

To recap, their genuine, innovative, *available* hits (reprints and new games) were few and far between, their communication with their fans was spotty at best, and really, who was their fan base? The AT crowd? The general public? I have no idea, and I think it's pretty obvious neither did they.

Michael Barnes said...

There's a number of factors that go into this debacle, and a lot of it is stuff that we'll likely never know...so informed conjecture is as close as we'll ever get.

I think there were a couple of key problems, and two of them (touched on already by Ken and others) are a lack of focus combined with a stupdenous failure on the part of the AH brand managers to really understand either where the brand belongs in the hobby or its reputation and heritage. Like Robert pointed out, the teaming of a hobby industry titan with a mass-market corporation was just a bad match...what's left over, all these $20 neo-AH titles is the board gaming equivalent of cut-out bin CD- products overmanufactured in anticipation of demand that never materialized.

I don't think Hasbro ever really appreciated the rich history of AH beyond name recognition in hobby circles...why would they? Their reputation rests on games that have been out of print for 20, 25, even 30 years. "Out of print" also means "out of the marketplace". They saw a potential niche market but it was like a square peg/round hole sort of thing.

I do think there's a few other factors at work- internet buzz (sniping comments on BGG for example) had to have affected sales...back in the day the screw-ups and weird situations generated in a game like BETRAYAL would have been handled by the end user or they would have wrote a letter asking a question to THE GENERAL. Nowadays, that person gets online and bitches on and on about how broken the game is. 25 people see this one person bitching without context or frame of reference (or the realization that maybe the OP is just _stupid_) and think "Hmm, maybe I'll spend my money elsewhere".

I also think that AH unfortunately bought into the Euro/casual gamer myth too much- someone there was likely saying "Hey guys, these Euro games are the hot thing!"- so we have titles like the universally panned ROCKETVILLE, and the completely deplorable copycat game VEGAS SHOWDOWN. Rather than continuing to make great hobby games (QUEEN'S GAMBIT, BATTLE CRY, NEXUS OPS) it seems that they lost focus...maybe Richard Garfield had something to do with it?

The bottom line is that they went for a casual gamer market that doesn't even really exist on the level they likely projected, and they completely failed to see that casual gamers won't play things like NEXUS OPS...and the casual gamer market that does exist is more interested in buying Eurogames than anything with the AH stigma attached to it...I also don't think they counted on the forces of Eurosnootery to derail sales.

Add into all this the classic "big corporation can't hear the man on the street" syndrome and a complete failure by AH to engage in dialogue with a market it could never really identify, and you've got the makin's of a deeeeeeebacle.

Ironically, the best selling AH games? RISK variants and the original AXIS AND ALLIES. Says a lot, doesn't it?

Wargamer66 said...

Ya, Micheal is right, they just dont understand what Avalon Hill means. As a wargamer, the focus of AH is truly horrifying in light of all the fun I had playing the the games from the original boys from Baltimore.

That said, Nexus ops is really good, and Hasborg got into my good graces by allowing Hannibal to be reprinted.

Ken Bradford said...

But...they weren't trying to be the old Avalon Hill. And why should they? That way ended in bankruptcy and being bought out.

They were trying to bring new life to the brand, and were doing it in much more than some corporate automoton way.

I suppose they really should have ditched the AH name and just created some new name for this offshoot of titles. I suggest "ULTRA".

Robert Bowsher said...

>>>
...the completely deplorable copycat game VEGAS SHOWDOWN...
>>>

For some reason, there's been a resurgence of this at CABS. I've seen three or four games of it being played over the past couple of weeks.

'Completely Deplorable' might be a bit strong - 'Plain Vanilla' seems more like it. Aside from the crappy components, I haven't seen a lot to like or dislike there. To its credit it's fairly well themed - you are sticking casino-like stuff onto your existing casino-like stuff.

At the time of the buyout, some people thought that the _real_ target was the AH IP for use in computer games. But looking back on it, what would be usable? I'm not sure any of the wargames are bringing anything to the table that hasn't already been brought by Steel Panthers or Civ IV, to name two examples at opposite ends of the scale.

I suspect that Hasbro was just trying to capitalize on the goodwill of some of us old-timers, without really having a firm goal in mind.

teknomerk said...

I've been an AH gamer since 1976. Gettysburg was what officially started me in wargaming. Overall, the AH situation is sad, but forseen for a while.

All the major points have been hit. AH was going for a lighter game, causal gamers, broad market appeal and euro designs. As a former participant on the AH forums, I agree that the big corp doesn't really listen to us "little guys". Thinking games are just too small a market to show up on someone's spreadsheet. Now all they seem to be able to produce is crap like "Fu Grammar". The Titanic has lost its way and the iceberg is near.

Shellhead said...

There was definitely a chasm separating the brand name and the target market. Avalon Hill is not a brand name that means anything to the vast majority of people shopping in a toy store. To reach those shoppers, there should have been tv commercials during the Simpsons or least the Cartoon Network.

The relatively few people who did recognize the Avalon Hill brand aren't buying their board games at toy stores, they're going to more specialized retail stores, if any in their area. And if they see a game with the Avalon Hill brand, they are expecting a boardgame, at least when Hasbro first started up this newer product line. That's why I initially ignored the newer AH games when I saw them at GenCon... I was already thinking "eh, wargame, none of my friends play those anymore."

Wargamer66 said...

Ken, imagine if you will... FFG being bought by Hasbro and producing nothing but fantasy monopoly variants. This is sort of how us old-time grognards feel about AH, even though we know fully well that they were on their way out of business.

Ken Bradford said...

Aw, c'mon now...that's a bad example. These games that Hasbro were putting out were several levels higher than "Fantasy Monopoly".


Monopoly needs to be the Godwin's Law of boardgaming--once you invoke it, it's over.

;))


Maybe a better analogy would be Hasbro buying up FFG and doing nothing but tactical WWII games. That...maybe closer?

Because in essence, what Hasbro did was "FFG-up" the AH name. Many of these titles would have been right at home as FFG titles. Queen's Gambit? Nexus Ops? Cosmic Encounter? All of them would've been good fits for the FFG brand.

But again, they hadn't risen to where they are now during that point in time.

Wargamer66 said...

Maybe I wasn't clear. The point was take your favorite company and let them get bought out and then watch them churn out wildly different products for a different market. Maybe you won't like them as much? Grognards see the old AH as the best game company around, now we are reminded of their former greatness everytime we gaze upon Rocketville.

Mr Skeletor said...

Apart from Nexus Ops, the rest of the lineup just wasn't that great.
Also spending a few bucks on adds would have been a good idea. That is why I wanted Heroquest all those years ago after all.

BrayD said...

Another fantastic article, Ken! Well done!

I never felt "betrayed" by the sorts of games that the new Avalon Hill under Hasbro has produced. If anything, I think the niche boardgame community under-appreciates and undervalues AH/Hasbro. Our loss.

You'll notice a common pattern to many AH/Hasbro titles that have been published since their debut in 2000-01:

Hasbro researches catalog and market for likely reprints (Cosmic Encounter, Robrally, Acquire) or fresh, new games (BattleCry, Queen's Gambit, Nexus Ops.)

Ah/Hasbro publish game with fresh art, uniformly high production values, and slight rules tweaks from original (often after consulting the game's original designers).

Game is slagged on BGG over slight tweaks in rules and picayune production "flaws"; thus alienating possible trendsetters that could give the game and company good word-of-mouth.

Game goes into clearance bins after 6 months.

Cheap screws and initial-review scaredy cats buy game at a heavy discount and write second wave of reviews along the lines of: "Good game! Whodda thunkit from Hasborg? And I got it 50% off! Go me!!!"

Game goes OOP due to overall sales figures after a year. Maybe two.

The usual me-tooers on BGG excoriate AH/Hasbro for "mind-bogglingly stoopid" decision to discontinue title.

Cheap screws buy spares on clearance for resale on ebay.

AH/Hasbro banks instead on (generally good) RISK and Axis & Allies variants, because the mass of consumers brought up on these titles like 'em and don't give a rat's ass for BGG.

Michael Barnes said...

Listen, it's not my intent to slag BGG due to recent "political events...but there is a distinct "BGG effect" on game sales- I saw it time and time again in my shop. A new game- let's say for instance BETRAYAL- would come out. I'd see people pick it up and literally say "I'll wait and see what the rating on the Geek is". These people go on to BGG, see the tastemakers/trendsetters slagging AH, new AH, or the game specifically and the sale is lost- who knows if they would have liked the game or not? The followup on that is hearing customer after customer say things like "Well, that game has a 5.56 rating on BGG so it's definitely a try before you buy". I hope you imagined me saying that in the most condescending, mocking tone possible.

We'd all better be thankful that there's plenty of gamers who, as Brady put it, don't give a rat's ass about opinions on BGG.

The thing is, AH fired back up right when the internet was really hitting its stride as a reservoir for ten gigandomillion useless, baseless opinions...there was bad "buzz" due to a mix of (justifiably) grumpy old timers and folks who had either heard from a tastemaker that AH games were too complex/stupid/inferior or just wouldn't give the games a chance.

No, the games weren't on par with classic AH titles and a couple were terrible. Yes, they screwed up the COSMIC reissue. But still- NEXUS OPS is a modern classic, QUEEN'S GAMBIT is going to be a $300 Ebay title at some point, and they did the best edition of ACQUIRE to date...they did some good, no doubt. Can we forgive them for STRATEGO LEGENDS, though?

milgate said...

I started playing Avalon Hill games in 1975. I also live in Baltimore, just a short drive away from where AH had its design offices and corporate offices. I visited the design offices frequently during my college years (1981-85), as they has set aside the building's basement for visitors to browse through everything and make purchases, and visited the corporate office when I designed an advertising campaign for the company for my college marketing class.

I also hung out at the company's short-lived Baltimore retail store (the perhaps unfortunately-named "Games and Toys Galore") in the mid-80's.

(By the way, Don Greenwood pointed out in the pages of "The General" that it was the non-wargames that were "paying the bills" for AH).

Anyway, I never considered this "new" Avalon Hill to be Avalon Hill; it was a completely different company just using the AH name. To me, what made Avalon Hill was its people -- Greenwood, Mitch Uhl, Thomas Shaw, Richard Hamblen, Rex Martin (to name a few) -- and, particularly, The General magazine.

I was an Electronics Boutique store manager when Hasbro bought AH, killed The General magazine and axed the entire staff. I immediately pulled every piece of Hasbro software off my store shelves (although EB higher-ups eventually made me put them back up).

What caused the AH's bankruptcy, from what I understand, was the lawsuit battle with Microprose over the rights to the "Civilization" name. Avalon Hill lost, and the settlement it was required to pay was a blow from which the company couldn't recover. But, AH was struggling, the computer games weren't doing as well as they hoped, and perhaps it was inevitable.

So, I guess the reason this "Old" Avalon Hill fan didn't support the "new" AH is partially because of a grudge against Hasbro, partially because it wasn't making the type of games (hardcore wargames) that I prefer. I have purchased "Nexus Ops", entirely because of the recommendations of people here and on BGG, and will likely snag "Monsters Menace America" while it's still available (I'm a Godzilla movie buff, and I had intended to get the original AH version). Games like "Acquire" and even "Diplomacy" never interested me.

Now, if they were to reprint "Titan" (I think of all the times I passed up buying this game in the late 80s when it was around $15-$20 used at Wargame Depot in Beltsville)and some other old classics ...

the red phantom said...

Oh, I quite like Stratego Legends, and acquired the full set. It doesn't hit the table often, but it is fun. Should not have been collectable, though.

I think Mr. Barnes is far too hard on the BGG sages and trendsetters *of which he was one.* Did Betrayal have issues, or did it not? Were there more Hasbro/AH clunkers than classics, or not? I really don't know of a game on BGG that has been totally unfairly reviewed or rated. Am I wrong?

And I respectfully think Brayd has it all wrong on the timeline. *Parts* of it may be true, but I think the consensus here is that Hasbro/AH simply didn't make or re-issue many great games and did not target their chosen audience well. Whoever that was.

Edmund said...

I think that Hasbro should have taken a page from the playbook of some of the major brewers. Seriously. A few years ago the beer market in the US pretty much stagnated. The one segment that was booming was microbrews. So, Bud and Miller decided to get into the business. Rather than just tooling up their own lines to make IPA, stout, etc., they bought some of the bigger microbreweries (millibreweries?). In Bud's case, they pretty much kept hands off on the breweries and from what I have heard, simply allowed the small brewery to get cheap raw materials and some consulting help from the Bud factories. Next, they did careful expansion into new markets and piggybacked onto Bud's distributors.

Now, Hasbro had a few problems on their hands when they bought AH. They had a few titles that might fit their distribution system that depends on selling caseloads to mass market stores. They had some good trademarks and games that might be good computer games. They had the whole wargame line that was essetially a microbrewery to their mass brewery. From what I have heard on some podcasts and seen on ConsimWorld, they initially intended to keep the wargame company going - they let contracts, had games in development. Then it stopped.

The computer games market was probably a bust for them due to other factors: the three "brand names" they had were Civ, Risk, and A&A. Civ was already out there. Risk had been a game and flopped. A&A was a turn-based game, and they don't do that well in the market. (Civ excepted). As for all the other AH IP they owned, who needs it to develop a computer game? Most of the games were niche games that major publishers won't touch and casual game publishers can't afford licences.

Nonamnon said...

My uninformed conjecture in response to this fine article is as follows:

The new AH emerged into a niche market all ready filled with stiff competition. I, myself, remember seeing some of these new AH gems being released, but was too occuppied with great new offerings from Fantasy Flight Games, Warfrog, Eagle Games, etc. This would have made it very tough to maintain high enough sales to justify continuation of the line by a corporate behemoth.

It is sad to me, because I am just now beginning to discover how enjoyable games like Vegas Showdown, Nexus Ops, and the like are. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Betrayal.

Such is life in this industry, I suppose.

dbuel said...

Nexus Ops came out in 2005 and it's already being discontinued.

Now, Carcassonne came out in 2000. I personally did not play it until 2005 or so. Settlers of Catan came out in 1995, and I don't believe I played it until 2004 or 2005.

Imagine if the maker of Settlers of Catan had said, "Well, the game's been out for a year and a half, I think it's time to pack it in and discontinue it." I don't know about you, but if that had happened, I don't believe I ever would have played those games.

I would say that if Avalon Hill is going to cancel Nexus Ops et al after only that short a time, then that represents a lack of a proper commitment to those games on their part.

Tim said...

Don't forget the incentives of the up-and-coming exectuive who is the AH product manager. ALL the AH titles probably would never sell as many copies as Sorry or Clue, so to be successful, you'd need to be managing a successful game, not a line of crappy niche games that lose money.

It's REALLY difficult for a large company to afford the kind of personal commitment and passion that these type of games require. You're certainly unlikely to get rich doing it. So you really have to BELIEVE.

BrayD said...

It's true that our niche games can't compete on the economies of scale that Hasbro is used to selling games at. But consider:

Are the games that AH/Hasbro had been producing harder to play than, say, Magic:TG? Or Yu-Gi-Oh? Or Heroscape or HeroQuest?

I think that when AH/Hasbro picked up the old AH catalog, they may have thought that by streamlining and sprucing up some classics, they could tap into the niche gamer market.

Unfortunately, Hasbro divisions Milton Bradley and Parker brothers acquired a reputation for producing "bad" or "kiddified" games. Whether true or not is for an another article, but the point is that the reputation was, and continues to be, held against them despite the fact that they have produced a lot of great games (HeroQuest, Fortress America, BuffyTVS, Samurai Swords, Epic Duels,...)

When it first apeared in 200, I loved BattleCry from the start. I thought the new Acquire great. Diplomacy was a strong, established pick. Stratego is not a game I would have considered for a face-lift, but Legends was a gutsy choice that spawned 2? 3? booster packs. Cosmic Encounter is a game I never really grokked but I though the reprint looked good (apart from the ships) and it is true that the oriinal Eon teeam was assembled to help AH/Hasbro produce a base game.

What I saw on rec.games.board back then is what I continue to see today: initial shock, dismay, and hatred anytime AH/Hasbro releases a new title. Even the Robo Rally reprint was cudgeled despite Garfield's assistance with the reprint and great production.

Probably the smartest move Hasbro has made to date is to divest winning, money-making brands (RISK, Stratego, Axis & Allies) from the AH division and to keep potential winners and money-makers (Heroscape) out of it.

It's still Hasbro making good game, folks, but they picked up from niche gamers that putting good games under the AH label is a title-killer. And before you wax nostalgiac about the old Avalon Hill, remember that during the 70's, snooty gamers used to kick AH around because their games weren't as realistic as SPI's or as wildly wacky and inventive like TSR's. Avalon Hill back then was "The Man" and gamers were gonna take him down.

This prejudice that niche gamers hold for Hasbro today is really beyond me. They'll pay $25 retail for a good cardgame like Citadels but balk at $45 (retail) a pleaser like Nexus Ops—dayglo bits and die-cut glory and all—until they can find it on sale for $20—or less!

It may be too late for Hasbro to resuscitate their AH brand. But remember that there were a lot of good games in the line that folks were late to appreciate and support.

In the future, if AH/Hasbro (or any of their other divisions) puts out a game that the niche market might enjoy, give it a chance before jumping on the "I hate Hasbro" band wagon. And I don't mean the sort of sniggering, half-hearted attempt gamers are entirley capable of. But a genuine, "Okay, we'll put comparisons, who made it, and knee-jerk reactions behind us while we give the game a shot on its own."

Can you imagine what BattleLore might be like if initial reviewers looked past the initial faults (if it really had any) of BattleCry and grasped instead the genius of its mechanics? I can imagine that a game like Divine Right being revived as a standalone game AND as a backdrop for [BattleLore] battles and armies. I can see Axis & Allies D-Day as a standalone game AND as scenario generator for [Memoir '44] battles. Titan could be republished as a standalone that might also be tied with Heroscape!

Not asking anyone to like a game that they really don't. If the subject interests you, just give these games a fair shake on their own before buying into the hate of others.

BrayD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ken Bradford said...

Amen, Brother Brady. Amen.

Anonymous said...

I kick this idea around on BGG, with minimal agreement but I'm sticking to it (I can't help but think the real world reaction is something to the effect of "yeah, gramps, whatever").

I can't help but think I've seen this time and again before. Hasbro puts out a series of high production quality games requiring more than the usual minimal thought, they sell a large quantity but not the levels Hasbro wants, and the general public clues in on what they missed (and possibly even dissed) only after the line is cancelled and the games have vanished from the bargain bins.

I lamented the demise of the Gamemaster line. I lament the demise of the Neo-AH line. But I remember an old timer telling me back when the Gamemaster line went belly up that it wasn't the first time and it was all cyclical, give it a decade and it will be back in one form or another. And damned if he wasn't right. My money says the same reincarnation will happen again in the not too distance future. It would be better if it didn't have to go in boom-bust cycles, but we've got a legacy of good games to help tide us over until the next wave.

Ken Bradford said...

You know what? I never made the mental connection.

Hasbro Avalon Hill = Gamemaster 2K.


Makes the effort all the more noble, and sad that it is in recession. Of course, if you're correct, we'll see another stab at it in a few years.

Kevin_Whitmore said...

Avalon Hill died in 1998. Everthing that followed was just a dream.

Ken Bradford said...

"And when Pam woke up, there was Bobby Ewing, playing Decision Point: Erection at Stalingrad."

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