Strategy & Tactics
Strategy & Tactics got its start in January 1967 under the auspices of its original editor, Chris Wagner, offering what he saw as a better alternative to Avalon Hill's gaming magazine, The General.:101 Strategy & Tactics began life as a wargaming fanzine published by Wagner (then a staff sergeant with the US Air Force in Japan), at first in Japan, then moving to the United States with Wagner.
Graphic designer Redmond Simonsen was hired to improve the quality of the 'zine.:101 When subscribership stagnated, debts began to accrue.:101 Jim Dunnigan created SPI in order to save Strategy & Tactics.:98 Dunnigan had been a contributor to the magazine since Strategy & Tactics #2 (February 1967), and when Wagner was having financial difficulties with the magazine he sold Dunnigan the rights for $1.:98 A persistent rumour that Dunnigan had purchased S&T from Wagner for one dollar, and that furthermore the dollar was not paid until much later was confirmed by Wagner during an interview printed in S&T issue #83 (The Kaiser's Battle).
Dunnigan set up shop in a windowless basement in New York City's Lower East Side, and published his first issue from there, Strategy & Tactics #18 (September 1969); starting with that issue, every issue included a new wargame.:98 Albert Nofi became an associate editor in 1969.:186 The first game published in issue #18 was Crete. Not only did this represent a break from the cautious policy of Avalon Hill (pioneer company in modern commercial wargaming and the leading company in the fledgling wargaming industry) in publishing only one or two games per year (for fear of new games cannibalizing sales of old ones), but the need for new game designs spurred research into many of the lesser-known corners of military history. Despite the diversity in themes, the style of the games was fairly consistent. They predominantly used a hexgrid for the maps and many rule concepts such as zones of control were repeated in many games.
In addition to the games, the magazine featured many articles on military history, many of them notable for applying modern quantitative analysis to battles that had traditionally been described in a narrative "heroic" style.
Avalon Hill continued to produce more than just wargames, priding itself on other themes, such as party games, sports titles, and children's games. Dunnigan's focus remained primarily on military history, and he felt that there was a market for detailed historical articles as an accompaniment to detailed and accurate games. (A single experiment in using the S&T game format to explore the use of strategy and tactics in professional sports, Scrimmage, in issue #37, was not repeated.) S&T now embarked on providing six new games a year, and at a much lower cost per game than was to be found elsewhere, with the magazine itself almost being a bonus. There was no middleman in the form of a local games store; subscribers got their games delivered right to their homes. Circulation of the magazine was substantial and games that might not otherwise sell went to subscribers automatically, eclipsing expected independent sales of most titles. SPI also benefited from having the magazine as an advertising vehicle for boxed (i.e. non-magazine) games, sold directly or through local games stores.
- It is hard to overemphasize the importance of S&T to the history of wargaming; indeed, the rise and fall of the hobby can virtually be correlated with the rise and fall of S&T. SPI's staff freely discussed future plans, down to details of marketing and distribution, in the pages of the magazine; its subscribers began to feel a personal stake in the company's survival, going so far as to write long letters of advice and volunteering time and effort to help the company survive. The historical articles were of the highest quality, and quite unlike anything being published in the historical magazines of the period, since SPI, befitting its gaming orientation, tried to quantify almost everything, providing copious tables of comparative data on, for instance, the merits of World War II-era tanks. Other journals tended to be far more descriptive. As a result, S&T acquired a readership even among military history devotees who had no interest in the games.
S&T's circulation exceeded that of Avalon Hill's The General by the mid 1970s, improving its physical appearance dramatically under the guidance of Redmond Simonsen. (SPI's non-magazine games were improving by leaps and bounds also - their first games were made in black and white on regular paper; counters were simple coloured paper that had to be cut out and glued to cardboard by the purchaser. Rules were not done in booklet form, but on large sheets of paper folded to letter-size as a cost-savings measure. There were no costs incurred, then, for cutting, collating or binding - nor for boxes or counter trays.) As die-cut counters, printed on both sides in full colour, became the norm, they were included in the magazine games, as were two color and finally full color maps.
S&T eventually made its magazine games available for purchase in stores with standard boxes, dice and counter trays, and also sold boxes and counter trays separately for the convenience of subscribers who wanted to store their subscriber game components in something other than the envelope the magazine had been delivered in.
By the mid 1970s, SPI's annual income rose to the 6 figure range, with paid staff numbering as many as forty people, and with 40+ games being produced through both the magazine and boxed sales annually. Competition began to spring up, with many new companies appearing in the mid to late 1970s. Wargaming was reaching its high-water mark, just as the release of Squad Leader by Avalon Hill took the wargaming world by storm (eventually resulting in an unprecedented 200,000 copies sold). Such faith was placed in the future of the industry that a Game Designer's Guild was even created, in the hope that it just might be possible to earn a comfortable living providing wargames to the public.
However, despite annual income declared at two million dollars, SPI's sales declined, and while monetary income remained constant, increasing inflation eroded the company's profits. Dunnigan's departure in the late 1970s led to internal struggle at SPI in 1980; chief among SPI's problems was poor marketing. Howie Barasch's departure as marketing manager in the late 1970s was never properly rectified and the founder of S&T, Chris Wagner, who was now a management consultant, was brought back into the fold to address SPI's marketing problems. He found that many sales representatives, previously independently commissioned by SPI, had no idea they were still representing the company and some didn't even realize the company was still in operation, as no one had been in touch with them for several years.
From Greg Costikyan:
- TSR indicated initial interest, and SPI, desperate for cash, asked for the loan of a few thousand dollars to meet its payroll. TSR agreed, requiring that the loan be backed by SPI's assets, making it a secured creditor. Shortly after SPI paid its employees, TSR demanded repayment of the loan. SPI agreed to be taken over by TSR, for no cash money.
- TSR sent out a press release announcing that they had taken over SPI. Soon, however, they realized the extent of SPI's liabilities; and, horrified, "clarified" their own initial announcement, claiming that, instead, they had assumed SPI's assets but not its debts.
- Now, while TSR had been a secured creditor, it was a tiny one. SPI's printers and the venture capital investors were owed far more money. Legally, TSR's position gave them first crack at SPI's assets, but hardly entitled them to take over the company, lock, stock, and barrel, without assuming any liabilities. However, no one in SPI's management was going to sue over the ownership of a bankrupt company, and TSR's takeover seemed the only shot at keeping the company together. And TSR quickly paid off the major creditors, at some cents on the dollar, to avoid the possibility that anyone else would challenge the transaction.
By the time of the buyout in 1982, SPI was selling, it is estimated, some 60-70% of all wargames in the world. Avalon Hill remained a bigger company, but only because it sold many more sports and general interest games than wargames. By this point, S&T boasted 30,000 subscribers and the magazine was truly the flagship of SPI.
The popularity of S&T reached the point where SPI began publishing a second magazine, Moves, that consisted primarily of articles on winning strategies for playing SPI games and additional scenarios for them. A third magazine, Ares, devoted to science-fiction and fantasy games and including one in each issue, was also published for a time.
One innovation of S&T was its feedback system, in which readers could answer various multiple-choice questions on a return card, whose data would then be entered into a Burroughs minicomputer for analysis. Thus S&T always had good information about which games readers were looking for.
Again, from Greg Costikyan:
- Perhaps S&T's most important innovation...was its feedback system. Using primitive Burroughs, later IBM, minicomputers, Dunnigan put together a highly sophisticated system to obtain marketing information from his customers. In every issue of the magazine, there was a response card, with 96 numbered blanks. At the back of the magazine were a series of questions, to which a reader could respond by entering a number between 0 and 9 on the blanks of the card. Some questions provided marketing data, e.g., average age of the readership; some were used to provide competitive rankings of SPI's and other publishers' products, charts that S&T's readers pored over when deciding what game to buy next. And some were used to ask the readers what kinds of games they'd like to see. Indeed, every issue provided brief write-ups of game ideas, and SPI would design the games which received the highest ratings.
- This kind of market research was astonishing for the field, remains astonishing for the field, would be astonishing in any field. SPI had immediate, timely data telling it precisely what its most valued customers thought. For years, the sales of SPI's games correlated very closely with the feedback results; SPI could predict, with virtual certainty, a game's sales before embarking on its design.
Through this feedback, it became obvious that S&T's readership included many of the avid wargamers - over 50% of readers claimed to own 100 or more games; many bought a dozen games every year on top of those contained in the magazine. SPI estimated that 250,000 people in North America had ever bought a wargame based on the total number of games sold by all companies to date, and felt that its subscribers probably owned a disproportionate share of those games. In other words, these subscribers were the key market audience for the entire wargaming industry. And SPI had its finger on their pulse through the feedback system in S&T.
However, in at least one instance, the readers' feedback was disregarded. SPI sometimes published games exploring hypothetical—sometimes seemingly far-fetched—conflicts such as warfare in the United States following an all-out nuclear war, or what might happen if the Soviet Union and/or the People's Republic of China attempted to invade the United States under some set of circumstances. In 1978 a proposal for another "what if? game titled Case Geld, a game that explored the ways that Germany might have been able to attempt to invade North America during World War II, scored very high in feedback but was not published because a faction within the magazine staff felt that the subject encouraged "fascist fantasizing". The decision was discussed in one of the magazine's regular opening features ("Big Tsimmis"), but SPI did not publish the game. Games on the subject of a hypothetical German attempt to land somewhere in North America were subsequently published by other companies. The original 'Case Geld' design was eventually published by 3W in 1990, under the title 'SS Amerika'. The designer notes include a history of the argument at S&T.
When TSR purchased SPI in 1982, the company did not honor lifetime subscriptions to Strategy & Tactics.:14 SPI unfortunately had no assets to its name when the takeover occurred, but there were over 1,000 subscribers who had made a significant payment (in c. 1978 terms) for a "lifetime subscription" to S&T, meaning that they were entitled to all future issues without any further payment. These subscribers were informed that their subscriptions would not be honored. People who had placed pre-release, paid, orders for certain games that had been in development were informed that they would receive neither the game they had paid for nor a refund of the money they had paid for it. TSR saved money in the short term, but alienated its best customers.
Greg Costikyan claims that this was the turning point in the wargaming industry; few S&T subscribers renewed, even though the magazine continued to be published; many also refused to buy any TSR titles due to bitterness over the handling of their subscriptions.
SPI's design staff moved on to Avalon Hill, where they set up a subsidiary company based in New York called Victory Games. It produced many unique and popular titles, which by the late 1980s were outselling even Avalon Hill games. TSR continued making games, hoping to recoup its investment in SPI (another reason was the enthusiasm of some staff members for wargaming), but despite a healthier distribution chain than SPI had enjoyed, its wargame line was never successful. S&T Magazine was eventually sold to 3W, a small company which published The Wargamer magazine, a direct competitor. By this time, other companies were also stepping up production, and a splintered market ensured that the days of selling 50,000 copies or more of a title were gone. Publishers became happy to sell 10,000 copies, with 20,000 being considered phenomenal.
3W and Decision Games
3W published the magazine from #112 (June 1987) to #139.:101 It was during this decline that 3W continued its publication of S&T, and James Dunnigan returned for a brief stint as editor of the magazine (Keith Poulter was the editor from issues #112 to #119, Ty Bomba from #120 to #129, James Dunnigan from #130 to #139). Although circulation began to increase again, subscriptions never recovered fully, and most sales were through game stores and not subscriptions, which meant third party retailers cut into profits. Sales were also no longer guaranteed.
3W's Keith Poulter got out of the business, and in 1991 Strategy & Tactics was sold to Decision Games, which has been publishing the magazine since issue #140 (February 1991).:101 Since issue #176 (September/October 1995), Decision Games has also offered a cheaper, newsstand version without the wargame that comes in every regular issue.:101 According to the official website "by issue #216, more copies of the magazine edition were being produced than the game edition." In 2003, Decision Games spun off Strategy & Tactics Press as a sister company for magazine and media development. In 2008, World at War magazine was begun which covers World War II. In 2012, Modern War magazine began which covers post-World War II military history. Strategy & Tactics continues to cover all periods in history and so the periods covered may overlap.
As S&T reached its 40th year as a professionally produced magazine, as opposed to a fanzine, it laid claim to being the longest continually published wargame magazine. S&T also survived many of its competitors, including Command, which also came with a complete game in each issue, and which was created by Bomba when he left 3W. Bomba named his publishing company XTR (as in "Cross The River"), a reference to Julius Caesar's decision to cross the Rubicon which he used in this case regarding his future relationship with Dunnigan and 3W upon leaving S&T. However, Dunnigan is long-gone, S&T is no longer published by 3W, and the masthead of the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of S&T (Number 253) listed Bomba as assistant editor and as one of the magazine's four copy editors.
Awards and value
Back issues of Strategy & Tactics are highly valued by wargame collectors, and some have become quite expensive. S&T magazine games that have not been played and have counter sheets intact ("unpunched") are worth much more than played ("punched") games.
- Shannon Appelcline (2011). Designers & Dragons. Mongoose Publishing. ISBN 978-1-907702-58-7.
- A Farewell to Hexes, Greg Costikyan, 1996
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