Yesterday, I found buried among my various quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore a 24-year old issue of Empires, Eagles, and Lions. I thought about the era of amateur wargames newsletter publishing it represented and the words of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach came to mind:
...Now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Long out-of-print, Empires, Eagles, and Lions (EEL) was a nifty little bi-monthly newsletter put out by the, apparently now defunct or disbanded, New Jersey Association of Napoleonic Wargamers. It had a run of 118 issues being published by RAFM in Canada over a period of 20 years. After that, The Emperor's Press in Chicago took it over in 1995, gave it a cosmetic makeover, and restarted at issue #1. It soon fell into a bit of disrepair, nearly died, revived again, but after just 13 issues, it ceased publication for good.
It was a labor of love by a group that was devoted to gaming the Napoleonic era, the quintessential wargaming period—quintessential regardless of whether one considers it the apogee, nadir, or "black hole" of the hobby. As such, it was a beautiful example of a dead genre: the hobby newsletter for, by, and about hobbyists and their hobby.
EEL was mostly the product of Jean A. Lochet, who was the managing editor and a notable authority on all things Napoleon. The illustrator and "Misc. Subjects Editor" of EEL was Mike Gilbert. Back in the 70s and 80s, Mike illustrated several rules books for Fantasy Games Unlimited (including Down Styphon! which he also authored and about which I have blogged in the past). Mike's playful artwork graced many pages throughout the newsletter and included section and article headings.
As well as regular comic features.
I've enjoyed Mike Gilbert's art wherever I've encountered it (see below). He had a distinct style that was simply fun. Sadly, Mike passed away in 2000 due to complications during heart surgery.
The EEL issue I found seems to be the only one I have left, though I never had many to begin with. I discovered EEL around 1993 and managed to get about a half dozen issues or so (older and newer versions). At the time, I was much involved playing Napoleon's Battles and imagining that I would be a dedicated Napoleonics gamer. Silly me.
Mulling over my serendipitous find, I couldn't help but think that some kind of shift has happened over the last quarter century. The genre represented by EEL has died out. Sure, there are a lot of wargaming magazines, perhaps too many, but the current crop of available publications has lost something. They're a new genre unlike the old genre, which has died, is dying, and shall die.
The great example of that dead genre was Hal Thinglum's MWAN. It was first issued, I believe, by Dave Arneson (of D&D fame). I'm not sure when Hal took it over, but it became the finest example (but maybe the only example) of a one-man operation that had a very large international distribution. MWAN was a 5.5" x 8.5" (8.5" x 11" folded and stapled) format that grew and grew. By the time I started reading it, it was a fistful of paper held together by a few groaning staples (though it soon went to a perfect bound format). The articles were uniformly good and Hal, who had a real day job, did a masterful job getting it out regularly. Reading MWAN, even though one wasn't a member of the Midwest Wargamer's Association, felt homey. Hal was everybody's friend and because of that, MWAN was your local newsletter, no matter where you were.
The Courier came out in 1968 as the newsletter of the New England Wargamer's Association. It started out as a thin 5.5" x 8.5" booklet. I recall D&J Hobbies having a small stack of them on hand in the mid-70s. I'm sure I picked up a few now-lost copies back then. I wish now that I'd kept them, but like so much ephemera, they're made to be discarded, so they were. The Courier had a makeover in 1979 when it became a truly national bi-monthly publication and restarted with Volume 1, Number 1.
Wargamer's Digest started in 1973 and ran until 1985, when it made a name change to Military Digest (for legal reasons, I recall), and then continued on to 2000. I cut my wargaming teeth on Wargamer's Digest (WD) all through the 70s. The articles were always enticing and they had a WW2 gaming series that I enjoyed immensely. The series featured a lot of scenarios and tactical problems that would make the basis of a nice game system. WD had their own set of rules that were a bit fuzzy. They gave glimpses of the mechanics over several issues, but never actually published them as far as I know. I had a nice stack of WD at one time, but again, the need to purge was greater than my desire to horde, so I sold them off some time back (I think, or maybe they're in a box in my garage...).
Seeing the pictures of miniatures units, like on the cover above, I'm tickled by the bare-bones basing that was de rigeur for the times. These days every base is meticulously terrained with some kind of putty to build it up and ballast, flocking, etc. to simulate the ground covering. Back then, you painted the figure base green and mounted them in multiples on balsa wood painted the same green. Some things do improve over time.
Another lost gem from our bygone era is Wargaming: The Magazine of Fantasy & Historical Simulation. The magazine debuted in 1977 and was published by Fantasy Games Unlimited. It wasn't, however, a house organ for pumping FGU games. In fact, a browse through the four issues I have doesn't show much mention of FGU at all. Apparently, there were only four issues ever published. So it goes...
The articles in Wargaming came from various contributors about many aspects of the hobby. Most were about historical miniature gaming with a minority about fantasy and sci-fi minis. There was a smattering of board game articles, mostly reviews, and a lot of advertisements for figures, rules, games, etc. all circa late 70s. Each issue also came with a little boardgame stapled inside.
There was also a lot of clever art, again contributed by Mike Gilbert (he was more ubiquitous back then than I knew), but also some cartoons by José Neira (who also contributed to The Courier) and Dick Bryant (who edited and published The Courier).
Wargames Illustrated was, for a while, the premier glossy magazine of the hobby, something referred to by some as "war-porn." But its origin in 1987 was a bit humbler. It always had a full-color cover and a color section inside, but most of it was black and white pages with hand-drawn art. The feel of being a hobby mag for, by, and about hobbyists was there.
The magazine got glossier and glossier until it was all gloss. Battlefront Miniatures took it over in 2009 and made it much more of a glossy advertisement sheet for Flames of War and Warlord Games. They even changed the magazine logo. I haven't been able to generate any enthusiasm for WI for many years, but I can always call on Phil Bardsley if I need to consult an old issue (as I have done). He has every one.
Miniature Wargames came out in 1980-something touting itself as The new monthly magazine for the discerning wargamer. MW, like Wargames Illustrated, had color covers and a color section inside. In fact, MW seemed to be almost a mirror image of WI for a long time.
They had a great series by a young Guy Halsall on wargaming early Medieval battles that came out over several issues (all of which I retain). MW is still with us and better, I think, than its near neighbor WI. MW became slicker and more professional over time, but never devolved into someone's advertising sheet.
I've also picked up over the years some issues of Gorget & Sash: The Journal of the Early Modern Warfare Society. This was a nice little magazine for a niche market. Aimed at wargamers, though not exclusively a wargaming magazine, G&S wanted to present the background historical information to gamers interested in the period 1500-1800.
G&S published its first issue in 1983. The idea was a bit of an experiment, as the editorial in the first issue states. As it turned out, the experiment didn't pan out. After 12 issues over three years, G&S folded. The production values were generally OK, not slick and glossy, and the typesetting looked to be mostly just typed. The covers of the first issues were on better stock with 2-color printing. Inside, the printing was all black and white. Later covers were black and white only, though some were printed on colored stock, which gave a tint to them.
The articles were pretty good. However, the 300 year span of focus rather than being narrow, seemed too broad. An interest in Swiss phalanxes does not necessarily translate to an interest in the American Revolution or the Seven Years War. I think that if yer gonna go niche, go niche. I would have focused on only the later 16th c. through the Nine Years War, but that's me. In any case, I'm still looking for issues in order to complete the set.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't reflect back on my own contribution to this departed genre. Starting in 1992, I collaborated with Kevin Smyth on publishing The Citadel - The Quarterly Journal of the Northwest Historical Miniature Gaming Society. The newsletter was begun by Rich Knapton back in the 80s and taken over later by Kevin who became editor and publisher with Bill Stewart performing the tasks of production, mailing, and "guilty conscience."
When I moved out from Chicago, I started working for Aldus Corp., producer of the then-mighty DTP product Aldus PageMaker. PageMaker was a perfect tool for getting a bit better polish to our production, though that polish was an evolving thing. My initial amateur design got a little better as time went on. Kevin was editor, I took over publishing, and Bill maintained "midnight production" with the City of Seattle's printers and then collated, folded, labeled, and stamped every issue that went out. (The US Postal service then took over and made sure that several copies were mutilated before making their way to subscribers.) It was a great time, though I'm sure that Bill's tongue must have revolted every quarter at all the stamp-licking it was being asked to do.
Eventually, I took over editing too when Kevin became President of NHMGS after Dick "President for Life" Larsen stepped down. For quite a while NHMGS offices and roles revolved around a few people who stepped up to fill the needs and do the things no one else would do—except for stamp-licking, that role stayed with Bill to the bitter end.
I have a stash of The Citadel issues started with April 1991 through the time I stepped down from being editor. By that time I was getting more involved with producing the NHMGS website (www.nhmgs.org). It's quite a nice diversion to read through the articles from yesteryear. Kevin and I seemed to do the bulk of the writing overall (being wordy types with little compunction about holding forth), but there are several nice articles from other NHMGS members as well.
Doug Hamm, then VP North for NHMGS, wrote a regular column called "Cry of the North." He also debuted Larry Leadhead in The Citadel before pairing with Eric Hotz (who is actually an artist) on the more polished version.
Other contributors read like a who's who of NHMGS in the 90s: Wes Rogers (who also wrote some articles for The Courier back in the day), Bill Stewart (when he wasn't licking stamps), Mike Pierce, Bill Cooper (The Beast from the East), Charles Sharp, Russ Bauder, Lance Runolfsson, Chris Leach, Dick Larsen, Steve Walker, Bryan Booker (who provided a couple articles about his nifty self-published ancients rules Warriors of Antiquity), Phil Bardsley, etc.
The thing that stands out from The Citadel and several of the other publications, like Empires, Eagles, and Lions, is how much fun they expressed. The contributors were not professional writers, but their creativity and enthusiasm for the hobby was obvious and infectious. The more tight-knit a group, the more likely its publication will reference inside jokes and local lore. Even though that's mostly opaque to outside readers, it still provides an expression of the pure enjoyment that the hobby brings.
I'm not totally down on the current crop of magazines available. They're well-done professional publications with high production values. But maybe that's what sets me back. By becoming more professional and publishing for profit, today's magazines have lost that essential quality that made the older, home-published, hobby newsletters so endearing. They've replaced community with business and gamers seem to have gone from being participants to spectators in regard to all that's fit to print about their hobby. That's a shame.
Of course, blogging has filled that gap to some degree, but blogging lacks editorial control. So many blogs are hit or miss as far as well-developed content goes. It's also hard to find things on the blogosphere. The sheer number of blogs is overwhelming.
I also think it represents or goes hand-in-hand with tendencies in the hobby to spoon feed games to customers. The older magazines really brought out the adventure of the hobby with articles on things like terrain building, figure conversion, figure reviews, scenario planning, etc. The Games Workshop and Battlefront/Flames of War approach is to remove from the gamer any need to research and be innovative, which is, or was, a big part of the hobby. Younger gamers playing Flames of War or Bolt Action have no idea about the history of WW2. They have a nice system where everything is supplied for them and they just build their army lists from preset unit types. The available magazines are bound to evolve to become attractive to that gamer and not the crusty older grognards who recall fondly the time they converted several boxes of Airfix ancient Gauls into Napoleon's Imperial Guard using just an X-Acto knife and hot needle.
The gentleman researcher/writer who birthed the amateur magazines of the 60s to 80s is a dying breed and his ilk won't likely come again. The glory has departed (1 Samuel 4:22).