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Urbanite #59 May 09
By: Greg Rienzi


Chairman of the board: Game inventor Charles S. Roberts, whose pioneering company celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, takes little notice of any acclaim that comes his way. “I would rather be known for something I had set out to do,” he says. “This just happened.” | photo by Tasha Treadwell


Each spring throughout the early 1980s, the full roster of every Major League Baseball team showed up at my house in Yonkers, New York. No caterer or valet parking needed; the players arrived on 8-by-11-inch perforated sheets in an envelope addressed from Baltimore.

These were the player cards for a new season of Statis Pro Baseball, a board game from the Avalon Hill Game Co. Enraptured, I would delicately tear each player off the sheets, careful not to mangle Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, or that obscure utility infielder from the Tigers. Avalon Hill, self-billed as the first and largest strategy and war-game publisher in the world, rarely cut corners on details: Some of their games notoriously took hours just to set up. The company—founded and once based in Baltimore, now a division of the toy goliath Hasbro—recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, a milestone that came as a surprise to founder Charles S. Roberts.

“Is Hasbro doing anything?” Roberts asked me in a raspy but potent voice when I contacted him. Well, I told him, it designed a nice logo to mark the occasion. “Really? It didn’t dawn on me, the anniversary.”

To be fair, Roberts and Avalon separated a lifetime ago and only came together by accident. As he likes to say, he never intended to be the father of board wargaming.

Roberts, 79, grew up in Catonsville, the son of a B&O railroad man. His father dissuaded him from a career in railroading, so Roberts planned for either a life in the military or in journalism. After a few years of enlisted service, he joined a National Guard infantry regiment in 1952 and applied for a tour of duty in Korea. To “practice for war,” he decided to supplement field training with the principles of combat played out on a board. With no such games available, he made one on his own.

War games had always held a fascination: During his school days, Roberts and his friends improvised their own military games, which he vaguely recalls involved moving pins and needles on a map of fictional countries. So, out of his apartment, he designed the map boards and rules for what would become Tactics, a war game that introduced features that would become industry standards.

As Roberts toiled away on Tactics, the Korean War subsided and the Army suspended competitive tours. He considered U.S. Army Ranger School, but the two-week jungle tour “made his hair curl.” When the Air Force rejected him for failing the hearing test, he turned to a writing career.

In 1954, Roberts published Tactics under the corporate name Avalon Game Co., a reference to the nearby town of Avalon, and sold about two thousand copies via mail order. “I found game design interesting, and I knew a thing or two about marketing,” Roberts says. “I didn’t start out to build a board game business. Fate just led me to that point in my life.”

He hired a staff and in 1958 launched the company, renamed Avalon Hill after a last-minute spat with another firm. The inaugural line of games, all designed by Roberts, included Gettysburg, the railroad game Dispatcher, and Tactics II, which improved on the original’s basic game design. Avalon Hill popularized game boards with hex (hexagonal) grids and superimposed terrain maps that allowed for realistic movement. With the assistance of game developer Tommy Shaw, a longtime friend, Roberts added more war and “civilian” games, including Verdict, Le Mans, Air Empire, and then Baseball and Football Strategy. He’s most proud of Management, a corporate strategy game he designed that would be used for years in many college-level business courses.

Hit by a recession, Avalon Hill began to falter in 1961. By 1963, deeply in debt, Roberts handed the company over to one of his creditors, Eric Dott of Monarch Services. “I was going broke,” he says. “And I had a wife and family I had to consider. I opted for a corporate career and in those first six months made more money that I ever had at Avalon Hill.”

Under Dott, Avalon Hill flourished into a major game developer. In its heyday—roughly the mid- to late-1970s—the company published such popular games as Outdoor Survival, Panzer Blitz, Squad Leader, and the Statis Pro sports line. In those leisurely pre-video game days, playing one of these titles was a deliberate, almost novelistic experience. Avalon Hill rule booklets, especially for later games such as Advanced Squad Leader, were multiple-chapter tomes full of complex game play details and historical arcana. One game might last days or weeks.

But the rise of the computer game industry in the 1980s devastated tactical game publishers; in 1998, Eric Dott and his son, Jack, sold what remained of Avalon Hill to Hasbro for $6 million.

Following his departure from Avalon Hill, Roberts held positions in the publishing and advertising industries. In 1973, he founded Barnard, Roberts & Co., a small press in Halethorpe that specializes in railroad history. Roberts—the great-great-nephew of former B&O Railroad president Thomas Swann—writes or co-writes many of its books, including the Triumph series that chronicles the history of the Pennsylvania and Baltimore & Ohio railroads.

Roberts may have left the gaming industry more than four decades ago, but his legacy is secure: In 1974, a group of enthusiasts established, with Roberts’ reluctant consent, the Charles S. Roberts Awards, which are given annually for excellence in historical wargaming.

Roberts takes little notice of the acclaim. “I would rather be known for something I had set out to do. This just happened,” he says.

Still, he’s been tempted a few times to return to gaming; he’s toyed with a few concepts, including a “project” that remains somewhere in storage. He pauses and smiles. “I do read that board games are coming back.”

—Greg Rienzi




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