My Life with Games (part 6)–Wargaming

Aside from my parents, probably the most formative adult in my upbringing was David Baniszewski. He was the principal at North East Christian Academy, the school I attended from eighth to twelfth grade. Don’t let the name fool you. At its height, the school had sixty students from K-12. I was in a graduating class of two. Just so we’re clear. Given that, you’ll understand how Mr. Baniszewski (or “Mr. B.” as he insisted on being called) was also the teacher for grades 8-12.

Mr. B was a cool teacher. He’s the one who first taught me how to appreciate the image composition in movies and, by extension, photography and comics. He loved Star Trek, and it showed. He hung a sign on his desk with a big “Q” on it. He was balding, which was okay, because Picard was balding. And he introduced me to wargaming.

I don’t remember how it came up, but one day Mr. B. lent me two old wargames. He was in no rush for them to come back, either. I looked them over. Both were published by Avalon Hill, some company I’d never heard of before. The rules were more complex than anything I’d played before. To be fair, the one game, Afrika Korps, was simpler than Anzio, the other one, but neither were simple games to just pull out and play. But we had a table set up in our basement where games could live, safe from meddling by younger siblings and generally out of the way. So, that’s where my brother and I would set up these games and play over several days.

These games introduced me to hex-and-counter historical wargaming in all its glory. I appreciated the historical details in the game. Each game included histories of the different theaters of conflict (North Africa in World War II for Afrika Korps and the Italian peninsula in World War II for Anzio), which I found fascinating. Gameplay included its own details. For example, certain Allied units like the 88th and 101st Airborne Divisions would get pulled from Anzio so that they could redeploy for the Normandy invasion. So, best get good use out of them, because they’ll soon be gone. As I’ll discuss later, this has shaped my connection to wargaming, which has become a way for me to engage with history, not just gameplay.

And then there’s OGRE.

The same company that produced the Ultima series of games also had ported a couple of Steve Jackson Games’ titles to the computer: Car Wars and OGRE. (In fact, I think it was advertisements for these games in Compute Magazine that introduced me to Steve Jackson Games.) I remember getting a mail-order catalog from Steve Jackson Games and ordering Car Wars by check. Ah, those halcyon days of yore.

But I kept hearing about OGRE, so I decided to scrape together my allowance and buy it. One problem: it wasn’t in the catalog that I got from Steve Jackson Games. So I called them to find out what was going on.

Disaster. SJG was moving the OGRE line over to miniatures, and the original game was out of print. The woman on the phone was very sorry. I was sorry, too.

But she wasn’t done talking yet. She said that they had all the components (rulebook, map, and counter sheets) lying around. She couldn’t send me a box, but if I’d give her my address, she’d pull together all the necessary components and mail them to me.

For free.

I wasn’t sure that I heard that part correctly. She was going to just give me a copy of OGRE? Yep. There wasn’t even an entry in the computer to bill me.

Steve Jackson Games gets a lot of grief from people from time to time, but they earned a giant pile of goodwill that day which, frankly, extends to this day. I can’t say that I’m really interested in any of the thousand Munchkin variants that they’re churning out these days. But I remember a day over twenty years ago when they took care of me, and so I cut them a lot of slack.

I still have that copy of OGRE, by the way. And yes, I’d still play it. SJG recently did a crowdfunding initiative to fund a super-duper “designer’s edition” of OGRE, and I wish I’d had the $100 to get in on that action.

And now that I’ve talked up the story around OGRE, I should probably explain what the game is.

OGRE is a near-future wargame focused on tank warfare. The game posits the development of “biphase carbide armor”. As the techobabble of the introduction notes, “[t]he equivalent of a ton of TNT was needed to breach [several centimeters of] BPC armor–which meant that, in practice, nothing less than a tactical nuclear device was likely to be effective.” That’s right. The battlefields of the future are fully nuclear. We also get infantry in power armor, which is awesome. And then we get cybertanks. Robotic tanks with 2-3 meters of BPC, bristling with weapons.

The rulebook says it like this:

One fact, more than anything, points up the feeling that developed toward the cybertank. Unlike other war vehicles, they were never called “she”. Friendly units of the speaker’s acquaintance were “he”; others were “it”. And the term “cybertank” was rarely used. people had another name for the big war machines–one drawn from the early Combie units and, before that, from dark myth.

They called them Ogres….

The basic scenario in OGRE was asymmetric, with one player attacking a hardened defensive position. The defender has an armored battalion, with howitzers, tanks, hovercraft, and infantry, all protecting a forward command post. The attacker has one Ogre Mark III.

That’s right. One Ogre versus an armored battalion. It wasn’t a fair fight. In my experience, it was much harder to be the defender.

There was a spinoff game (GEV) with additional rules, and a couple of expansion packs, with cruise missiles, more maps, and additional units. However, there’s something almost mythic about the core scenario. A desperate defense against a single implacable foe, rolling ever onward. Something about it captures the imagination.

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