Will Fresno Survive? : Players Save, Destroy World--for Fun

Times Staff Writer

Aliens have invaded California, and in what's left of Fresno the Marines are desperately trying to fend off the attack.

The situation appears hopeless; the National Guard and local SWAT teams have already been slaughtered, much of the heavy weaponry is gone and the city is in ruins. The battle has deteriorated into a street-by-street guerrilla war, with the enemy lurking behind every corner as the Marines try to keep them from the crucial grain supply.

Worse, for every alien "bug" the Marines kill, another three seem to take its place.

No, the scene isn't from another summer movie, and the action isn't really taking place in Fresno. It's happening in Los Angeles, in the basement of the Airport Hilton, where seven dedicated war-game players are huddled around an 8-by-4-foot scale model of what Fresno might look like if it really had been invaded by an alien race called Dreenoi. The seven commanders are fighting out an imaginary scenario they've dubbed "The Bugs That Ate Fresno, Part II."

"There are zillions of bugs and they've got far better weaponry than we do," explained Keith Postel, 33, a movie prop maker from Northridge who is commanding the losing Marine company. "The only thing saving us are the air strikes we can call in."

"Fresno is going to be our feeding area," gloats a player representing the dreaded Dreenoi.

This science-fiction game was just one of thousands played over the weekend by more than 4,500 hobbyists who converged on Los Angeles for the annual four-day Origins War-Gaming Convention.

While millions of Americans celebrated Independence Day with fireworks and the television mega-spectacular Liberty Weekend, these gaming enthusiasts re-fought the American Revolution and virtually every war ever waged--as well as many that never were.

The Fresno game, for instance, was the brainchild of Los Angeles gamer Dave Williamson, who took for his scenario an alien invasion close to home.

Using a table model built out of charcoal-darkened cardboard and fiberglass, almost a dozen people over the last several weeks had helped create the demolished ruins of Fresno banks, churches and police stations. Inch-high lead figurines represented the Marines and aliens, plastic models the jet fighters and Matchbox cars the destroyed automobiles.

"The surprising thing is this can get really intense considering" you're playing with toys, said Postel, who has been participating in role-playing and war games for five years. "I mean, you can get really involved with what's happening out there, feel as if you're part of it, you know?"

The thousands of enthusiasts who filled the Hilton's halls last weekend did indeed know. In fact, many came from as far away as Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Japan and the East Coast just to find people who felt the same way.

They came to phaser-blast the Klingons in Star Fleet Battles and hack evil trolls to pieces in Dungeons and Dragons. They came to re-create Waterloo, Gettysburg and D Day. And they came to share a weekend with others involved in their increasingly popular, if somewhat eccentric, hobby.

The convention--which began Thursday and ended Sunday with a collectors' auction of vintage games--included more than 700 game tournaments played around the clock, 50 seminars, five auctions, a dealers' room and an award ceremony. Convention manager Alan Emerich of Long Beach called Origins the "Super Bowl of gaming."

Now held annually, the convention got the "origins" part of its name from the fact that its first host city--Baltimore in 1975--is also the home of the game company Avalon Hill. That company, aficionados say, started the war game craze in 1958 when it came out with a board game called Tactics that involved a no-frills, generic battle between the blue nation and the white nation across a hypothetical continent.

State of the Art

By comparison, games at the Hilton were state of the art. Some involved 100-square-foot table-top areas with miniature soldiers, fake grassy terrain and hills in a precise model of the way things were at, say, Bunker Hill--accurate almost down to the placement of individual bushes. The board games varied from the complex--such as imaginative World War III simulations--to the downright wacky--such as the Awful Green Things From Outer Space and Toon.

(In Toon, players assume the identities of their favorite cartoon characters for a madcap adventure that some said should have stayed on Saturday morning television.)

But most of the games are quite serious.

About half a dozen players set up games of War in Europe for the weekend, and just the setting-up was no easy task. With about 1,000 small cardboard counters representing army units from Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States, the game is a grand campaign-style re-creation of World War II with an average playing time of "two to three years," according to players.

Since each turn takes up to an hour and represents only one week of the six-year war, players cannot start a match lightly. In fact, this weekend was the second sitting for three players, who began playing in February and got through less than a year of game time in a solid weekend of playing.

None of the players expected to finish it at Origins 1986, either. Indeed, by Sunday evening, the United States had yet to enter the war. Undaunted, players said they'd simply pick up the game where they left off at the next Southern California regional convention, in Pasadena over Labor Day weekend.

In another game, some three dozen players commanded vintage World War II naval ships, from destroyers to dreadnoughts, in a precise to-scale confrontation between the British and German fleets of the 1940s. Model ships ranging from two to six inches were divided into two fleets separated by about 50 feet across an open room.

When a player ordered a round of fire, he would pick out a target and estimate the range. Then impartial judges stretched a tape measure across the distance to determine if the shot was short, over or on target.

Once a ship had been hit enough times and was left burning and immobile, the small, wolf-like destroyers moved in for the kill. In addition to firing powerful torpedoes that could finish off the enemy cruiser's hulls, they swept the decks with machine gun fire, killing the crew as it attempted to put out the fire and leaving the ship to die of its own accord.

Gruesome stuff, some say.

Most war-game players insist they aren't "Rambo types" and don't play the games because they glorify violence or war.

"Most of the people I know are pretty friendly, not obsessed with war," said Robert Vulgamore, a 20-year-old Irvine computer consultant who has played war games for eight years. "It's not like you're playing and thinking, 'Oh, wow, I'm blowing up a lot of people.' It's mostly the strategy in the game. It's kind of like playing chess, really."

Of course, there are some players who enjoy more "real-to-life" competition. One common game among this group is "Killer," where players physically hunt down and "kill" each other with toy guns with suction-cup darts, contact poison (Vaseline on doorknobs), and paper bombs (folded notes that say "boom, you're dead"; if you read them, you are).

But most "serious" competitors prefer to stick to more abstract board games, and convention organizers banned such games as "Killer" for the weekend.

Convention literature traced the history of war-gaming from its beginnings in the 1950s through the first convention of a few hundred "eccentrics" in Baltimore to an established industry that players say encompasses several dozen companies and hundreds of new items each year.

Game companies have replicated virtually every war ever fought, from Alexander's elephantine foray into the wilds of India to the recent British-Argentine "unpleasantness" over the Falkland Islands. Last year Mission to Grenada was introduced and the only question players had was why it took so long.

Players have also simulated many wars that have yet to happen and have postulated some that never did.

A Japanese game called Red Sun, Black Cross, for instance, is set in 1948 on the premise that the Axis won World War II; now Japan and Germany fight it out over the spoils.

"All war games can be considered hypothetical because the ending is never fixed," said Andrew Hunt, vice president at Diverse Talents Inc., the Los Angeles game manufacturer that sponsored Origins. "Even if you're re-creating a real historical battle, you can have it end any number of ways."

For war-game players, their hobby is a serious commitment of time, energy and money, and although the convention attracted its share of dabblers, most gamesters here scrimped and saved for weeks to afford the weekend's festivities.

"This is my spending spree. I mean, I spend more this weekend than I do for Christmas," said Ken Primer, 20, a community college student from Urbana, Ill., who lives at home and often buses to class. "I would've felt bad if I hadn't come. It was worth it. I would've been home thinking, 'Gee, all those things going on, and I'm not there.' "

'Broke and in Debt'

Primer flew out here from Urbana with his friend Richard Klein, and each ended up spending more than $500 on air fare, their hotel, food and plenty of new games.

"I'm broke and in debt, and my next paycheck is not mine," said Klein, 18, who will be a sophomore at Michigan State University next year.

Still, Klein said his first Origins was "definitely worth it."

Like many convention-goers, Klein and Primer spent a lot of time browsing through the dealers' room, where 170 gaming companies paid as much as $400 each to set up shop for the weekend. With more than 30,000 square feet, the room offered everything a player could want, including T-shirts, artwork, lead figurines, books and, of course, games.

Several tables sold little but dice, so important are they to the hobby. Hundreds of 6-siders, 8-siders, 10-siders and even the new 100-siders were available.

"I think none of the dealers will complain about business," said Hunt, one of 350 volunteers staffing the convention. "I've had a number of dealers come to me saying they're all sold out."

Between the five auctions and the dealers' room, players probably spent more than $200,000 just on games and accessories, Hunt estimated. By convention's end, organizers figured that the average fan spent $50 to $100.

One company, Strategic Studies Group, came all the way from Australia to introduce its newest computer game, Battlefront, and already has space reserved for next year's convention in Baltimore.

"It's been our realization right from the start that we have to establish ourselves here--after all, 90% of our games are sold in the United States," said Roger Keating, who co-founded the company 3 1/2 years ago. "We feel we have to make our sales visible to the buying public, so Origins is going to be the place where we go out and meet the people who play our games."

Across the aisle from the Aussie group was a booth set up by a man who started playing war games in college and then decided to make a career out of it.

"I got into it as a career, kind of by accident," said Steve Jackson, 32, designer of about half a dozen role-playing games, among them Car Wars, Toon and the just-released Generic User Role Playing System (GURPS).

"I was reading a newspaper when I should've been studying, and I saw an ad that impressed me. It was for a job at a game company, editing a magazine, and I decided to give it a shot. I didn't get the job, but I did get a job editing games for them, and pretty soon I showed them one I designed. That was Ogre, and it's done pretty well."

That may well be an understatement. Ogre, a game pitting ordinary military units against a huge futuristic juggernaut-tank, became so popular after it was introduced in 1977 that Jackson soon broke off from his old job and formed his own game company.

Steve Jackson Games, now with a staff of 20 and a building of its own in Austin, Tex., is a rising star in the gaming world, and as he chats, Jackson himself is bombarded with autograph requests.

"The independence is nice and I'm supporting myself," he said. "I'm probably not making as much money as if I had stayed in law school, but I wouldn't be having as much fun either. That's the thing--I'm enjoying myself."

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