An Ode to Books

Early on, I had a vision for Avalanche Press – and for the whole concept of historical wargames - that over the last few years I’ve worked to make the core of what we do.

There are a lot of games out there. They get published, played (maybe), and then forgotten (definitely). Despite their expense, most of them are pretty much disposable; you might not toss them in trash bin, but you’ll give them away or sell them on some website for a pittance.

I never owned a huge number of games, but those I did, I played many, many times. I still have them: Third Reich, Destroyer Captain, Empires in Arms, Imperium, Panzerblitz, Ironbottom Sound. I never had much desire to move on to learn and play more, different games. Instead, I wanted more of those games – more ways to play them, more about their history. That’s how I stumbled into game design, in my quest to add things I found interesting to the games that I liked.

That experience shapes the games we make today. I don’t enjoy learning new sets of game rules; I want to start playing right away. So we try to cater to those who feel the same way, with just a few series of games, each series having one rulebook to rule them all. Panzer Grenadier, Second World War at Sea and other others should be the games you pull off the shelf when you’re ready to play right away, and don’t want to spend hours reading a new rulebook (or months waiting for the publisher to “fix it in the living rules”).

It was the history that drew me to these games, and I always wanted to know more of the story than the games told. Designing role-playing games showed me how the same techniques used in those games – which center story over game mechanics – could be used to put the history of an event closer to the center of a board game. The game’s scenarios, interwoven with historical background, tell the story of the campaign or battle at the center of the game – this is what we call the story-arc format.

So anyway, to pull all of those impulses together – more history, consistent rules, non-disposable games – we’ve hit on a publishing strategy. We have core games, the complete ones with rules and everything you need to play. And then there are the expansion books.

This is where we get to expound on even more history. The games in story-arc format have a good deal of this, but I make historical games because I’m fascinated by the history. I’m not sure that’s the best approach from a marketing standpoint, but it does set us apart.

No one else produces books anything like these, bringing the history into even sharper focus and tying the game experience to the actual events. That’s probably because they take a lot more effort to make, at least on the design/writing end, than the games they expand.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Franz Josef’s Armies
This is our most recent such release, at this writing. The core game, Infantry Attacks: Fall of Empires, has 40 scenarios, all of them involving actions of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial & Royal Army (the so-called “Common Army”) against the Russians at the August 1914 Battles of Kraśnik and Komarów. But one-third of Austria-Hungary’s divisions came from the two national regular armies, the Imperial-Royal Austrian Landwehr and the Royal Hungarian Honvédség. So for Franz Josef’s Armies, I gave them pieces in their own colors (plus separate pieces for the Bosniaken) and 28 more scenarios. It also includes ten “battle games” that link together the scenarios from Fall of Empires and Franz Josef’s Armies.

The book is more than a little of an indulgence; I didn’t really need to give the national armies and the Bosniaken their own colors, though there is some game justification (there are scenarios where they appear together with the Common Army, with different morale levels).

It’s very much the book I wanted to write, balanced roughly evenly between historical background and scenarios (not counting the history interwoven with the scenarios). It turns Fall of Empires – which was the model for the story-arc format, even though it wasn’t the first such game we released – into a very deep and rich historical experience. That’s the kind of game I want us to publish.

You can order Franz Josef’s Armies right here.

The Deluge
We probably should have presented this subject – the September 1939 invasion of Poland – as a complete game, with maps and German/Soviet pieces and rules. I went with the book approach, and focused on just the first few days of the German attack, something we probably couldn’t have done with a complete game (which implies completeness).

The Deluge is heavier on scenarios than what I consider the perfect ratio, with forty of them in eight chapters, with six battle games to link the scenarios together. It needed that many to hold to the theme (the first days of the invasion), and it turned out really well as a story-telling device.

To make it work, it needed more than one source game: Fire in the Steppe, 1940: The Fall of France and Slovakia’s War (you get to fight the Slovaks!). But I thought that was a worthwhile tradeoff for the depth of historical story-telling.

You can order The Deluge right here.

Jutland 1919
I had this notion, that you (as the writer/designer) could test out a historical thesis using a wargame as the basis for it. I did that with Jutland: High Seas Fleet, and decided to try it again with Jutland: 1919.

Jutland 1919 takes the drawing-board battleships and battle cruisers (and some smaller cruisers) of both Britain and Germany from the drawing board to the game table. It’s a mix of technical detail (everything about the ships) and scenarios so you can play with them. While the scenarios are by necessity hypothetical (since the ships were never built), I tried to base them on the situations that gave rise to each navy’s desire for them.

I like writing the tech stuff, though not as much as social history, and the new printing process we use for game pieces these days let the new artwork really pop off the pieces. This turned out to be one of our best expansions.

You can order Jutland 1919 right here.

Black Panthers
As far as I know, this book remains the only example of a wargame publisher portraying the story of segregated African-Americans in World War II. It’s a third rail for, apparently, good reason: right after we announced the book’s upcoming release, we got ejected from American game distribution.

That cost us, yet I’m glad that we did it anyway. I’m not willing to hide my beliefs, to scuttle about trying to please the fringe by pumping out bland and bloodless gruel that dances around painful historical truths. America’s racial history is its original sin, it’s ugly as all hell, and I wasn’t prepared to remain silent any longer.

I am enormously proud of this book. The history section is searing, embracing its topic without the mealy-mouthed euphemisms we were required to use back in my journalist days. The game part is outstanding; this book came after we had matured the story-teller approach with other games and books and that shows.

Black Panthers is the best thing we’ve ever published. You need to own it. You’ll need Elsenborn Ridge (only) to play the scenarios.

You can order Black Panthers right here.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published zillions of books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his dog Leopold, who is a good dog.

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