Sunday, May 1, 2011


After last week's foray into Looney Labs' Aquarius, it's back to the battle-board with this 1977 Avalon Hill title, which I haven't played in--easily--twenty years.

Few parts of the world are more contentious than the Middle East, and few states are subject to as much scrutiny as Israel--although the recent Arab Spring has drawn the spotlight away somewhat, for the moment. There are two major narratives about Israel, one in which its establishment and existence is a heroic act, and another in which Israel is an agent of colonial (or post-colonial) imperialism and repression. I grew up attending a Hebrew parochial school submersed in the first narrative; I've spent the rest of my life negotiating the perilous ideological terrain between the two. I highly recommend the books 1967, by Tom Segev, and How Israel Lost, by Richard Ben Cramer, for their attempts to tease out the many complex strands in this conflict.

Jim Dunnigan
Meanwhile, in the comparatively uncontroversial world of wargaming...The Arab-Israeli Wars (AIW henceforth) was the third game in a series which began, in 1970, with a game called Panzerblitz. It was designed by Jim Dunnigan. Anyone who grew up playing wargames in the 1970's knows that name; browsing through the list of games he designed is a tour through my wargaming cerebellum. Furthermore, he wrote one of the best books ever about wargame design, The Complete Wargames Handbook.

Until then, wargames covered entire campaigns (Anzio) or at least large battles (Gettysburg). Counters represented divisions or armies; maps portrayed large swaths of land and sea. PanzerBlitz was the breakthrough tactical wargame, focusing on what we would call small-unit tactics on the Eastern Front of WWII. Each counter represented a squad or platoon, and the map scale was small enough to show individual hills and forests.
Not only that: PanzerBlitz marked the first time I know of that wargames counters had ratings for range and type of weaponry--not to mention silhouettes of actual tanks, artillery, and AFV's. How cool was that? By differentiating units by weapon type, Dunnigan forced gamers to confront the nature of combined-arms warfare--how to make armour, infantry, artillery, SPV's, and transport work together to achieve victory. 
Furthermore, the mapboards themselves were geomorphic--instead of portraying historical locations, they were representative but carefully generic and could be set up in any combination to portray many different terrain configurations.

In an interesting twist, Jim Dunnigan sold the design for PanzerBlitz to Avalon Hill but then joined SPI, and most of his designs thereafter were published by them. SPI proceeded to crank out a bunch of games using the same basic system, covering modern warfare (Red Star, White Star), early World War I (Soldiers), not to mention the PRESTAGS series which ambitiously covered the period from chariots to early muskets. All these games sold well enough to show that there was a healthy appetite among gamers for small-scale tactical games. Avalon Hill was not completely asleep at the switch, either--they soon published an official (standalone) sequel: PanzerLeader, which covered battles on the Western Front. (Of course, in 1977 AH took the next logical step and published a game which zoomed in even more to look at squad-level combat--Squad Leader.) 

PanzerLeader is particularly special to me because it was the first wargame I ever played (a story I recounted in Week 11). I was immediately seduced by the cool-looking maps and counters and the ability to simulate "actual, historical" battles. I was hooked. As soon as I could I found my own copy (probably at Mister Gameway's Ark, the only store in Toronto that sold such games at the time). I played and played those PanzerLeader scenarios to death--always solitaire, because I had no friends to speak of who were interested in such pursuits. For some reason, I never went back and bought PanzerBlitz, but some time later, I came upon AIW and bought it.

Over the years I have acquired quite a few wargames with Middle-East themes:
The fact is, I'm always interested in games about the Middle East because I am Jewish and I have cousins on both sides of my family living in Israel. On my mother's side we go back to the late 17th century, when my umpteenth-great-grandfather made the pilgrimage from Germany to settle in the tiny religious community of Tsfat. My mother's elder brother was born there, although soon afterward my grandparents emigrated to Australia (where my mother was born and grew up). Later, my mother's family returned to Israel in 1956 and settled near Rehovot, and my mother got a job as a secretary at the Weizmann Institute.

My father emigrated to Israel from Europe after WWII, leading a youth group to live on a kibbutz. Two of his siblings settled in Israel permanently; my father and two others left to come to Canada, where ultimately he met my mother.

Geomorphic boards
I've been to Israel twice: once when I was 13 for my bar-mitzvah and once two years later for my brother's. We travelled around the country a fair bit each time, and in my mind I was designing scenarios for AIW in my head, mentally arranging and re-arranging the boards in my head to correspond to the terrain we were passing.

Playing the game this week, I was naturally struck by the political neutrality of the game--a kind of naivete I'm sure some would call willful ignorance. The rules and scenarios concern themselves totally with military issues--there are no rules for refugees, or camps, or indeed any civilians at all. Villages and orchards are merely terrain to enter; they provide cover against enemy fire, and nothing more (or less). 

Furthermore, since the scenarios concern individual battles, the designer saw no need for discussion of the larger political context, or who ostensibly started the war (1956, 1967, or 1973), or who really started the war, or the role of the Middle East in the context of Cold War politics, etc etc.

Nope, this was all about the hardware, how the Israelis made their own tanks and had better morale and tactics, while the Arabs used castoff Russian models and had masses of poorly-trained troops (except for the Jordanians) least, until 1973.

Where are the refugees?
To be fair, tactical-level games from any era tend to screen out political context--whether we're talking about Command & Colours, Battle Cry, or Combat Commander. It's just that when we're talking about the modern Middle East, many people have strong opinions--and their hackles get raised when their world-view is being attacked.
Anything having to do with the Middle East is tricky.


1 comment:

  1. I used to go to Mr Gameways as well and got my copy of Panzer Leader there too! AIW can stay neutral as its just tactics. I'm interested in the game 6 Day War that came out in recent times.