Avalanche Press


'Operation Cannibal':
Artistic Insanity, Publishing Idiocy
and the Goodness of Callie Cummins

By Mike Bennighof
June 2006

We started Daily Content in November 2004, and since then have posted hundreds upon hundreds of historical background pieces, strategy tips, variants, extra scenarios and such. Only one published boxed game has never received the Daily Content treatment:

Operation Cannibal.

We published Operation Cannibal in 1997, alongside Red Steel. I chronicled the misbegotten birth of Red Steel in an earlier piece but the circumstances around Cannibal are far worse. Publishing it was just as bad a decision, but that might have been the least of its problems.

The game we released as Operation Cannibal began as a small game design by Brian Knipple he called “Arakan,” as it was based on the first battle of Arakan in southwestern Burma in 1942. This game design pre-dated Avalanche Press, and had been finished while Brian worked for me at another game company. That outfit was loaded with problems, at times going years between magazine issues, and the game never appeared there.

But the game system in the little Arakan game was an intriguing one. It was unique, at least to me, in that it combined the random draw of “chits” with varying capabilities. Each player had pieces labeled things like “Full,” “Move” or “Attack,” and each player had a different mix of these reflecting each side’s capabilities. In the Arakan game, the Japanese player for example had a better mix of chits and would be more likely to be on the offensive with “Full” and “Attack” chits but didn’t have a guarantee of this. The game system nicely modelled chaos without requiring many rules for it at all. Many “historical” games are pretty much failures as models of events, because they give players far more information than the historical actors possessed, thanks to hindsight. This simple mechanic invoked the uncertainty faced by all military commanders, who don’t really know what’s going to happen next.

I liked this aspect very much and was eager to publish the game. But that company was riding the hot rails to hell, and we of the staff were handed ever-stranger excuses for why product was not published (and of course, with no new product, we weren’t getting paid). For at least six weeks the truck bringing the new product had “broken its axle” on the way. I had a day job then, and one sunny spring afternoon was informed by phone that the new game that had been in production for over a year at that point would be delayed again because “a hurricane hit the printer.”

“The printer,” that nameless evil entity on which we in the game industry blame all ills, was about four blocks from my office and thanks to a miracle of landscaping was in plain sight from my basement window (I didn’t have much status there). It looked pretty damned intact; there was a robin perched on the rim of the window well giving me the eye as though I were some prime example of brainless worm. There really was a hurricane — about 300 miles to the east, in South Carolina. I took the robin’s advice and quit. I would eventually get the chance to find out what a real hurricane can do to a small business.

When Less Isn't More

When we founded Avalanche Press, Brian used the same game system for a game we called MacArthur Returns, on the American invasion of Leyte in 1944, and it worked very well. We used it again the next year for a small game called Blood on the Snow. Blood on the Snow did very well, and I wanted to do another small game like it, with the same low price point and game system.

Brian Knipple is an outstanding designer of hard-core wargames. Like any creative type, he has his odd quirks; for example, many of his raw designs carry the inherent assumption that the rest of humanity shares his near-photographic memory. And like any good creative, he’s grown and matured in his craft over the years.

Small wargames are much harder to design than large ones. When confronted by a difficult play or modelling issue, the fallback solution for inexperienced designers is almost always to add more rules or pieces. To stay within tight physical parameters and keep the rules short and direct is a very difficult challenge. By the time I asked for the Arakan game in the winter of 1995-1996, Brian had improved the game by expanding it. The new game covered more of the fighting in the Arakan region, had a larger map and 420 pieces rather than the original 100.

Instead of going with that, I asked him to strip it down to the original size, a small map and 140 pieces (at Avalanche Press, we had a larger die than that other non-publishing company and so 140 pieces went on a half-sheet as opposed to 100). A decade later, Brian has become very adept at design of small games; Gazala for example is an outstanding game that does everything it was meant to, in a tiny package. In 1996, Brian still needed the larger canvas. Shrinking the game also removed the most interesting scenarios; already, I had directed the creation of a flawed game. It would get worse.

The original map assignment had gone to a freelance artist as a package deal — the map for Arakan plus the operational map for the original Great War at Sea: Mediterranean. At this point I had hopes of releasing it alongside Mediterranean in the summer of 1996, and to speed delivery I made a crucial error: I paid for it in advance.

The Map to Hell

In the spring of 1996, we went to Atlantic City for the Game Manufacturers’ Assocation annual trade show. The map artist lived nearby, and one evening Brian, my wife, Carole, and I made the drive through central New Jersey to visit him in person and pick up the new map art. After some time we finally found the place, and met our artist and his wife.

Before we actually stepped through the front door, the wife opened up with a barrage of complaints about her husband, her home, her job, her health and a dozen others I’ve blocked out of my mind. All in a terribly grating Joisey accent. He took us to see his studio in a converted back bedroom, while she stood in the doorway and did not let up. On an artist’s table he had a sketch map pinned up, on a computer screen was the final version of it. It wasn’t ours.

“Where’s the Mediterranean map?” Brian asked while Brunhilda gasped for breath between a diatribe on bunions and one about the broken gas stove.

“Here’s all I’ve got.”

The artist handed over a standard piece of paper, with a section of color printout about 4 inches on a side.

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

Now, greater experience has since taught me that the reality was even worse. Computer-generated maps aren’t drawn as a whole from side-to-side but as layers — a partial one might just have the coasts outlined or the grid of squares. His little complete corner had to have been created just to have something to show us.

“What’s this map here?”

“It’s for (another game company) for (some Napoleonic battle game).”

“Have they paid you for it?”


“So, you took our payment, cashed the check, spent it ...”

“Not on me he didn’t,” interjected the wife.

“Spent it, and worked instead on a map for (another game publisher)?”


It Gets Worse

Screwed, off we went to see our then-art director, who lived a few miles away. He would have to do the maps, it seemed, and this was not his specialty. There was now no way it would be produced alongside Mediterranean. He did turn out the maps, and for emergency work they’re not at all bad.

With this many strikes on it, I really should have just canceled the project. But now publishing the game, which had received the terrible title Operation Cannibal, became an urgency. I slotted it alongside Red Steel, and by the next spring it was ready for press. Sort of.

Red Steel’s game pieces weren’t done by our art director, who was tied up in the (for us) enormous project that became Great War at Sea: Northern Waters. A freelancer did them, who worked by day at the pre-press house where we made our film from which to print (this was in the days before direct-to-plate technology). I had a thought that this might also buy us some special, faster treatment in film production. Instead, the project ground very slowly and the first set of film for the box wrappers came back terribly flawed — font substitutions had popped up in numerous places, the sign of poor file preparation. The game pieces dragged on until time was very tight to get the games to the summer convention season.

Normally, we would receive a “color proof” of the film for a final check. I’d seen the printouts for the game pieces and approved them, but our freelancer insisted that there would not be time to send a color proof of the film and still get said film to the printer who made the game pieces by deadline. But he had 20 years’ experience and could check the printout, which I had approved, against the film to make sure there was no problem. I authorized him to sign the proof.

When making game pieces, there are a couple of final stages that elude some graphic designers, even very experienced ones. One of these is what Peggy Gordon always calls “snapping to paths” — all text must be turned into images or it will not appear on the film. Our art director gave the files to our freelancer without all the text “snapped” and he apparently never checked them. On the film, about 2/3 of the Cannibal counters had no factors or other text. Our 20-year veteran signed off on them. And they went to the printer with what is called a “match proof.”

Supplying a match proof relieves the printer of the contractual obligation to supply a proof of their own — they’re required to match what they’re given. And they did. Five thousand sets of Operation Cannibal game pieces showed up with no text on them.

Callie to the Rescue

Meanwhile, the box wrappers had been properly printed, ugly as they were. And so had the map. At the same printer, Decision Games was urgently trying to get their own summer relases off the presses, some Civil War battle game. I’ve known the Cummins family, who owns Decision, for many years, and Callie Cummins asked me to go over to the printer and actually look at their problem maps.

Still fuming over our game pieces, I drove over and looked at the Decision proofs. Their artist had left his own personal notes in the file and, on the (very pretty) game map, his “notes to self” marched right down the center of the Manassas battlefield. The press guys showed me how they’d tried to get them out, and sure enough, the file had been “flattened” — they could not make changes to the type in that file. I suggested knife work — slice it physically out of the film. The personal notes were on the same layer as the hex grid; even Samantha Woodham, our part-time artist and as steady a hand with the Xacto as I’ve seen, couldn’t excise them without damaging the rest of the layer.

I called Callie from the printer saleswoman’s office and told her she’d need a new file. Callie is a born-again Christian, and until that moment I didn’t think she even knew the words with which she responded. And if it wasn’t bad enough, she said, she’d had to toss out the artwork half-sheet of game pieces as unacceptable and several of her games were now held up.

Game pieces in those days, and today at most printers, were “gang printed” — large sheets of four, six or eight 8x10 sheets were printed at once. Unless you wanted to run blank cardboard, you had to have several games ready at once (or one big one). This dictacted our production for years, and it did in those days for us and for Decision.

I told Callie of our own problem. “Get me that file right now and I can have your game for Origins.”

So I hung up and called our art director, who objected that he did not want Callie to delve into his secret methods. I made some rude comment to the effect that unlike our freelance hero Callie at least knew how to read a blue line and told him to send it anyway, and recognizing the rising insanity in my voice he put out a pretty strenuous effort to get a clean file to her within a few hours. Callie got the game pieces done and handed them to us at the convention; we passed over her maps that had ridden to the show with me.

After all that, Operation Cannibal turned out to be a weak seller. Its low price point carried it through its first months, but the fact is, the game’s best scenarios are in the 420-piece version. It’s not so much that the game is flawed, it’s that it models its campaign too well: a slow, painstaking British advance through the jungle. It’s the sort of thing we put in our wargames these days for the sake of completeness and as a historical illustration, not because we intend them to be the centerpiece of the game’s play.

I’ll be glad to see this one burn; while I’ve written a sheaf of content for games like Red Steel, Imperium and America Triumphant, when I even think about Operation Cannibal the burning in my guts that had me hospitalized for much of 2000 and 2001 is back. I should never have green-lighted it for production, and I should have made the decision to cut our losses and spike it on the drive back from Ozzie and Harriet’s. Callie’s good deed went for little gain.


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