LA. Airport Hilton, June 28th-July 2nd.
It is always tempting to overdo the doom and gloom. Origins '89 had plenty of both but there were enough compensating high points to make my first visit a memorable one. My initial impressions mainly related to the sheer size of the event. There were three large ballrooms full of games, numerous smaller rooms for specific competitions and a massive dealer area. The miniatures people were tucked away on the lower level and were not exactly short of space either. I don't know for sure how many attended but it was well into the thousands and represented the usual international mix of weirdos, spotty teenagers, tossers in fancy dress and, for once, some decent women. Despite the numbers, it is believed the organisers were less than pleased with the turnout. The venue was first class as one would expect of the Hilton but it suffered from those common convention drawbacks; intense heat and expensive food, which both combined to create a steady stream of people between the hotel and the various fast food establishments nearby.
I arrived on the Friday morning which gave me three days to fill. That is not at all difficult if you are of the 'game till you drop' mentality but I was looking for a little more than that. The available activities broke down into five areas: playing games and competitions, watching games, buying games from and chatting to the dealers, attending seminars or sitting in on the auctions. To get straight to my gripes, I found the products on show and most of the events disappointing and although the organisation was well done, the actual content lacked originality and spark. The seminars, or at least the ones I saw, were staid and boring with only the panel sessions giving good value as the public got a chance to have a pop at the designers and publishers.
The biggest let down were the new products which, in the historical boardgame field, were both thin on the ground and rather lacklustre. There was however no shortage of launches at the Battletech, RPG and computer game booths and that side of the 'adventure gaming' hobby seems, at least on the surface, to be thriving. While all the major players were present, not one of the big companies had encouraging news. In fact, GDW have announced a complete freeze on new wargames until Spring 1990 at the earliest, hoping that Space 1889 will carry them through what are presumably hard times. The general mood seemed, to me, to be one of gloomy resignation and only the smaller companies like Clash of Arms, GR/D and The Gamers claimed good sales which help to preserve their obvious enthusiasm for the hobby. From what I could gather, the main reasons for the worried frowns were falling sales and thus cash flow problems, lack of original 'blockbuster' titles and a general downturn of interest in the historical games area. Very few leading lights looked anything but jaded and harrassed, which at the biggest event in the hobby calendar must be regarded as grim news. Sure, they've been there before and sales have picked up, but this time, taken with the underlying problems of the big companies, it all sounds quite serious.
Before the event, much was made in the hobby press of the upcoming game releases at Origins. In the event, several games didn't show and 3W managed to steal some thunder by having all their promised games available. That said, what was available was nothing to write home about. 3W had Tomorrow the World (Bomba's dream of German-Japanese combat), Hitler's Last Gamble (Danny Parker's ultimate Bulge game (again)), Modern Naval Battles (Naval War meets the Exocet with bags of luck), Light Division (Balkoski's latest which I hope is a better game than the godawful 3W graphics) and the splendid ASG Baseball. Their computer games, which are still under development, look average to poor and I don't think they will cause any major ripples in an already mediocre market. Avalon Hill had Turning Point: Stalingrad (revised Storm over Arnhem system), Hollow Legions (ASL Italians), Desert War (French and Italians for Up Front), MBT (strongly miniatures based modern tactical battlefield) and the ASL Annual. GDW had nary a sausage apart from Space 1889 but GR/D launched their Urals expansion for Europa. GDW's The Sun Never Sets is cancelled by the way. Time for a new paragraph.
West End showed just Desert Steel (Tank Leader Pt.III) amid rumours that this is the last wargame they will produce. West End were notable only for their creative use of bimbos to sell their wares, but as bimbos go they were pretty fair. Clash of Arms had Napoleon at Leipzig (ex OSG) which is not a straight reprint; it has new rules additions and wonderful counters. Looks good. I think they may also have had Edelweiss but I cannot be sure. SDI (Richard Berg's new company) had Guns of Cedar Creek which is a TSS system upgrade using a completely new move structure and I would think it is a required purchase for aficionados of the GBACW series.
On the magazine front, Avalon Hill had the new General that covers Patton's Best and is up to the usual high quality. They just keep cranking it out and is still the standard that others should aim for. 3W had a couple of issues of S&T (Rush for Glory and East Africa) but there was no sign of either Battleplan or the much vaunted sports and computer magazines. One staff member, who I suspect said far too much, admitted that 3W were having trouble getting advertising so I suspect they may not now appear. The very quiet Counterattack is, after all, alive and well but lacking in funds. Pacific Rim, the publishers, are launching a new line of basic wargame kits to fund CA 3 - quite why the funds can't be made available from their reputedly high selling Battletech lines is a mystery. Write to Mr Tibbetts now and ask him what he is up to. The new Wargamer confirms the trend of recent issues and it certainly seems to be going mainstream. The latest issue features those well known highly complex games, Risk and Axis & Allies. I can see why this is being done, as apart from Battleplan there is little coverage of such games elsewhere, but what it means to the apparently ailing boardgame industry is the potential loss of another mainstay journal. Either way, under the guidance of the likeable Cummins duo, I think both Fire & Movement and The Wargamer are going to make it, and on time.
When the new releases are so weak and so few, the mind of the collector turns quickly to old games. Origins has, in the past, been one of the big events in terms of availability of cheap out of print titles but in 1989, although the supply was as good as ever, the demand was substantially curbed by some of the most ludicrous prices I have ever seen. For once, it felt quite good paying the prices for new games as they seemed like bargains by comparison with their older relatives. The so called 'collector' prices have gone through the roof across the board. This is no doubt mainly due to the influence of Ken Fonarow of Weekend Warrior and his pricing structures but there are new me-too companies appearing who are selling games at prices even higher than him. I think it is true to say that, apart from a few items in the flea markets and auctions, there wasn't a bargain to be found. Everyone was out to make a lot of money from their old games and magazines, and some of the comments heard ('If I don't get more than $150 for Issue 1 (of the Dragon) in the auction, I will buy it back myself and sell it through a proper auction house"!) indicated that it was, on a small scale, capitalism gone mad. To me, this is sad and I suppose inevitable as long as people are willing (and able) to pay these prices. Here's hoping for a return to sanity.
By far the best part of the convention were the open gaming areas and the competitions. There was, in the main, plenty of room and enough variety in the competitions to please everybody. I entered just one, the Abalone tournament, and was swiftly despatched in the second round by a child prodigy who had, I suspect, a rigged chess clock. For the rest, you could happily play the quick and exciting Modern Naval Battles which was surely the game of the convention or, at the other extreme, settle down for a four day game of War in Europe or World in Flames. Brian Walker, waving the flag for Games International, introduced allcomers to the very fine Die Macher which attracted both puzzled glances and several avid converts. Aside from these, you could play just about any game you can imagine, and then some.
Downstairs in the miniatures room, things were on an even larger scale. Being accustomed to large amounts of room, the games were massive. There was even one chap with boxes full of superb 1/35th scale tanks and troops running a WWII game on the floor. But quantity does not mean quality in every case. I watched most of the games and, ignoring the WRG Ancients bozos who are the same the world over, there was little to see that was above average or had any degree of innovation. You will see a lot better at Salute or any big UK convention. Even the leading lights offered little hope: Frank Chadwick was running an interesting game (in terms of scenario choice) of Command Decision and Craig Taylor was showing the upcoming Napoleon's Battles rules but these look, at best, average. There were also several games of Harpoon run by Larry Bond himself which, to me, appeared to be two or three hours of paperwork and plotting followed by a frantic half hour of table top action.
Being the dutiful Sensation reporter, on the Saturday night I made my way to the awards ceremony which turned out to be a highly amusing event. The presentation of the Origins awards was conducted by a presumably famous lady from GAMA dressed in army fatigues who attempted, without success, to put on a humorous show using every wargame joke in the book. Sadly, because of shoddy visual aids (some really poor wargame maps which prompted cries of 'Who did the graphics? Frank Chadwick?') and a pathetic script, the whole thing almost fell foul of the rowdy audience. Roger McGowan attempted to restore order for the more serious Charlies (which have now dropped the pompous and unnecessary F&M moniker) and this went rather better, though in both cases there was an evident effort to make the awards seem very important and meaningful, which of course they aren't.
For those of you who follow such things, the winners of the Charles S Roberts awards were as follows: Best Historical Article - Forrest at Bay, S&T: Best Game Review - Lee vs Grant, The Wargamer: Best Graphics - tie between Campaigns of Robert E Lee, Clash of Arms and Lee vs Grant, Victory: Best Amateur Magazine - Volunteers: Best Pro Magazine - S&T: Best Pre 20th C Computer Game - Battles of Napoleon, SSI: Best 20th C Computer Game: Fire Brigade, Panther: Best Pre WWII Game: Lee vs Grant, Victory: Best WWII Game - Tokyo Express, Victory (collected by a much moved Mr Southard, 'Thankyou Dahlings (Sniff)'): Best Post WWII Game - Tac Air, TAHGC: Hall of Fame: Ty Bomba (Which I guess goes to show the true value of the awards)
I have a big problem with awards. In theory, awards are to reward the efforts and achievement of quality work, in this case, in the games industry. How then does it work out that the public, in their infinite wisdom, consistently make the worst possible choices? In truth, I rarely agree with committees either, but at least they might be formed from people with some brains rather than the horribly mediocre standard of public opinion. I am enough of a cynic to realise that awards such as these have little value in any sense (especially if there is any question of a rigged ballot) but if they are going to have them, why don't they do them well? My main gripes this time are the Pro Zine and the Hall of Fame categories. Most of the others I either agree with or can see why they have won. But how S&T can be determined as the best pro magazine with it's recent performance and exactly what Mr Bomba has done to warrant the Hall of Fame award, I have no idea. It is even more galling to think that the ridiculously talented Joe Balkoski has not yet been honoured. But given that the category has now, to my mind, been cheapened for both past and future inductees, I am not sure it really matters.
I do not want to give the impression the whole convention was totally downbeat and uninspiring. In fact, in the gaming areas the opposite was true with games being played with something fast approaching fanaticism. In addition, new games are are still being published, even if they are sometimes re-hashes of existing systems, and the hobby continues to support the peripheral areas like magazines and 'collector' games. In general, the gaming public seemed to be enthusiastic and enjoying themselves and most were clutching piles of new games; the question is, are there enough like them to keep the industry going?
Mike Siggins. 5/8/89.
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