One of the things many of us seem to remember fondly about Simulations Publications, Incorporated, and its stable of talented designers and developers were the courage and spirit of innovation they brought to producing commercially published wargames.  For those of us who'd grown up on the staple diet of Avalon Hill wargames with standardized CRTs and movement/combat systems that didn't vary all that much from game to game, SPI was not only a breath of fresh air, it brought a gust of wind through the open windows of the house that sent the curtains waving!

It's interesting to look at the epistemology of commercial wargame design and identify those titles that appears be "breakthroughs" in design mechanics and/or "benchmarks" that related subsequent efforts seem to trace from.  It can be that a single wargame title can be both--arguably PANZERBLITZ was both a "breakthrough" design as it basically established tactical World War II ground warfare games back in 1970, and it is arguably the "benchmark" that we seem to compare later efforts to.  Others will concede that PANZERBLITZ is indeed a "breakthrough" design, but prefer to "benchmark" more refined later designs by Avalon Hill to be the basis of comparison for platoon-level tactical 20th Century ground wargames (typically PANZER LEADER and ARAB-ISRAELI WARS).  

So this discussion group is meant to identify, describe, and justify those SPI games that were "breakthrough" and/or "benchmark" designs.  Some will be well known, others may not be.  Some may have achieved a stellar reputation, others won't have but will have proved to be necessary evolutions for the other well-regarded titles that followed.

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The first game to mind is To The Green Fields Beyond that I've never played although I bought, sold, bought again, sold again and bought a third time because I really want to play it.  Stonewall and the Terrible Swift Sword [early] system games were quite fun, especially as refined today by GMT in GBACW.  Those are two unique SPI systems. 

I own the Central Front games like Fifth Corps, BAOR, etc.  Never played them but like the idea of friction points.

Panzer Group Guderian and Op. Typhoon had their fans but PGG was just so-so for me.   Fighting Sail was an S&T magazine game and a fun light alternative when you didn't want to play AH's WSIM. 

SPI's Sniper! House-to-House Fighting in World War II (First Edition, 1973)

This title was the first board wargame we would today term as a "skirmish-level" simulation; it was a ground tactical wargame, certainly, but in this case each piece was an individual soldier.  Other counters indicated various weapons or equipment (e.g., a hand grenade rifle grenade, etc.), status (e.g., unloaded, unarmed, prone, stunned, panicked), a smoke marker, floor level, wall breach, and more. The board was a distorted urban block and--because of this functional perspective--vehicles (cut out cardboard pieces that covers at least six hexes) were rendered in the same slanted way.  Players plotted actions (e.g., "prepare grenade") every turn and executed all combat simultaneously, then all movement.  

SPI was to try the same philosophy of a "skirmish-level" simulation in the notorious sports game Scrimmage:  Tactical Professional Football which--while somewhat interesting--was far less successful.

Why was this title a "breakthrough" design?

Tactical wargames involving single platforms had come into their own for naval and air combat--these were individual ship versus individual ship and individual plane versus individual plane.  SPI had published Flying Circus in 1972 and was working on "CA," a game on South Pacific surface naval warfare, in 1973, along with Spitfire that same year.  These games were not dealing with aggregate formations (at least not for the major combatant ships in the naval game), so perhaps it was natural to think about breaking down the ground force companies and platoons seen in Dunnigan's PanzerBlitz into discrete "platforms" as well.  

After this game was published, SPI followed up with its sister game, Patrol! (1974), and SPI as well as other companies would publish a series of games involving individual soldiers.  Not all used the simultaneous plotting system.  Some seemed relatively similar (Avalon Hill's original Starship Troopers (1976) and SPI's Star Soldier (1977), Victory Games's solitaire Ambush system (1984), and Avalon Hill's Firepower (1984) and Platoon (1986), West End's Soldiers: Man-to-Man Combat in World War II (1987), to Lost Battalion Games's Sergeants!  On the Eastern Front (2004)).  But this notion would go well beyond this, to include GDW's Swashbuckler (1980), sci-fi Snapshot (1979), and Metagaming Microgame 3 Melee (1977), to provide just a few notable examples.  In more current derivatives we enjoy Lost Battalion Games's Sergeants Miniatures Game series (2011) and--most recently--the solitaire wargame Combat! (2019), which is inspired by Ambush.  All of these titles, plus a few more that aren't as well known (e.g., 3W's Khyber Rifles (1983) and Iron Cross (1990)) all trace their lineage to this Dunnigan design.

Last but not least, TSR did a reboot of both this game and Patrol in a single Sniper! Second Edition (1986) package, as well as Hetzer: Sniper! companion game (1987), Sniper! Special Forces Companion Game 2 (1988), and the sci-fi Bug Hunt Sniper! Companion Game 3 (1988).  These games were great improvements on the original system.  

Could a case be made that this title represented a "benchmark" design?

While this title is certainly presents a "breakthrough" in tactical wargame design, it's more difficult to make an argument that it is a "benchmark" from which other derivative designs are measured against.  Certainly some may make that claim.  The difficulty is that Sniper!'s progeny are more of what today's warmers will evaluate current designs against.  For example, the notion that a few soldiers do most of the work and most of the killing is well documented in history, but we see none of that in the SPI game; it's far better portrayed in the TSR/SPI second edition Sniper! series games, and in Avalon HIll's Firepower and Platoon titles.  These human factors are just much better captured and do a far better job.  West End's Soldiers deals with a soldiers notions of self-preservation and sense of personal risk in taking action, also not treated in the original game.  This too deserves design consideration given the subject.  So if the original SPI Sniper! was a breakthrough in creating the 'skirmish-level" of tactical ground combat simulation, its design philosophy seems rooted in the too distant past to be a useful reference point to assess our current games against.

Greetings Eric:

This is a laudable project and, I might add, one that I have attempted, off and on, to promote in a small way on my blog "Map and Counters." Of course, the many innovative SPI game designs that actually ended up shaping the trajectory of the hobby is doubtless a lot more familiar to "old-timers" like us than they are to newer (younger) players.  Nonetheless, I think that reminding people of just where a lot of the contemporary gaming concepts -- that, I might note, tend to be taken for granted nowadays -- actually originated is worthwhile, both because it gives credit where credit is due, and because it demonstrates the creative vision of many of the earlier designers.

So far as my own picks are concerned, given my druthers, I would probably end up cataloguing too many different titles for such a list to be useful, especially in a venue like this.  That said, however, I will at least contribute a couple of my personal favorites as a way of (hopefully) of prompting further discussion; to whit: the NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO game system; the LEIPZIG game system; the KURSK game system and it's offspring, the PANZERGRUPPE Guderian game system.

Best Regards, Joe

PS:  Since I choose not to belong to either "Twitter" or "Facebook," my social media options are quite constrained.

Greetings Again Eric:

At the risk of being a bit tedious, I have decided to add a quartet of other SPI games that, for whatever reason, failed to spawn follow-on titles, although -- at least to my way of thinking -- they were quite innovative and original in their day. These unappreciated "gems" are USNFREDRICK THE GREAT, PANZER ARMEE AFRIKA, and the much-maligned LOST BATTLES.

Best Regards, Joe

Joe, I was just thinking about this--games that were unique for their time and yet treasured for what they brought to the design table, even if they were never imitated.  We probably need another discussion thread for them; it's just a matter of coming up with a suitable title for it within the "All That Is SPI" group.  Such games don't readily fit either the "breakthrough" design appellation nor the "benchmark" design characterization but seem to be in a category all their own!

I'd put CITYFIGHT! in that category.   THE PLOT TO ASSASSINATE HITLER fits there as well, as does AFTER THE HOLOCAUST, RUSSIAN CIVIL WAR, CONQUISTADOR, and CANADIAN CIVIL WAR.  How about BATTLEFLEET MARS?  FREEDOM OF THE GALAXY?  SORCEROR?  EMPIRES OF THE MIDDLE AGES?  SPIES?  Food for thought.

Greetings Again Eric:

You are quite correct that a number of very innovative SPI designs just never seemed to go anywhere after their initial titles saw print. Speaking for myself, I was very disappointed that Dunnigan never tried to model an East Front campaign using some variation of the PANZER ARMEE AFRIKA game platform, or other game situations using the FREDERICK THE GREAT game system. On the other hand, Frank Chadwick claims that the initial inspiration for GDW's DNO/UNT lay with many of the concepts introduced in LOST BATTLES.

So far as the titles that you have just presented are concerned: I think that I would definitely agree when it comes to CITY FIGHT, which, for a variety of reasons, was just a much better simuaton than it's precursor, FIRE FIGHT. I would also, with a few reservations, include THE PLOT TO ASSASINATE HITLER,THE RUSSIAN CIVIL WAR (a great favorite with my college-days fellow gamers), and even CONQUISTADOR. As to the other titles that you suggest, however, I would personally -- Science Fiction games not being my thing -- probably take a pass. 

I will add, in passing, that one alternative SPI game system that, I think, really begs for recognition from contemporary gamers is WELLINGTON'S VICTORY. A great design that, although certainly not without its flaws, still captures the flavor and tempo of a Napoleonic battle extremely well.

Best Regards, Joe

So, let's call the new discussion thread "One of a Kind SPI Designs."  I'll handle the sci-fi games!  :-)

So glad this thread brought Joe to the table! I was trying to decide how best to quote him on the importance of the original KURSK system, and the influence it wielded as the design points washed across a decade (or more) or later designs! I had never considered the influence of LOST BATTLES, though! 

Greetings Russ:

The chronology of SPI's several pre-KURSK attempts to inject a more realistic level of battlefield mobility into those of their games that were intended to model "modern" 20th century combat operations is actually quite interesting and probably merits a bit of elaboration. 

Somewhat surprisingly, the first SPI title to incorporate "dual" movement phases, THE BATTLE OF MOSCOW (1970), was not even designed "in house," but was actually the "brain child" of ANZIO designer, Dave Williams. In Williams' innovative new take on modern combat operations, all units moved, initiated combat, and then moved and fought again. This ingenious "double move/double combat" approach not only injected a lot more mobility into the game's basic architecture, it also added whole layers of additional complexity for non-phasing players when it came time for them to organize an effective defense.

Somewhat surprisingly, although Dunnigan incorporated elements of Williams' approach in both SPI's KOREA (1971) and in LOST BATTLES (1971), he ultimately decided to discard it in favor of the dual "mechanized" movement approach that he pioneered in FRANCE 1940 (a 1972 S&T magazine game which was sold to Avalon Hill) and KURSK (1972). This decision on the part of Dunnigan, however, did not mark the end of Williams' influence on the design platforms of future 20th century game titles.  In point of fact, John Edwards (of Jedco) would go on to incorporate Williams' basic "dual movement/dual combat" approach into a whole series of his own designs (e.g., THE RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN, FORTRESS EUROPA, etc.).

Best Regards, Joe

Joe's point on WELLINGTON'S VICTORY is certainly apt. One thing I regret to this day is that the variation on the system that ERIC LEE SMITH created for BATTLE OF MONMOUTH was not duplicated for 4 to 6 more American Revolutionary war battles. I still find it far superior to the more recent AR games that like so much of modern day gaming adds excessive dice rolling to approximate the 'chaos' of battle.

I guess I see CITYFIGHT as a breakthrough that went no where, but could have gone anywhere. I frequently wonder if SPI had survived, had Dunnigan stayed with them, had they entered the then-being-born computer era, would CITYFIGHT have been used as a format and a method that could have powered a breakthrough in all computer gaming? Could it have re-directed the computer games from stealing the simple move-fight systems, and thus also pre-empted the later unfortunate 'first person shooter' games that grew up instead? 

The task point / command driven method of CITYFIGHT, coupled with limited information and even more limited knowledge of enemy intentions that would have been simple for the computer umpire to deliver would have ported easily to a computer driven system. It  COULD have become a much needed benchmark, instead of an award winning salient to nowhere.... 

Russ, I definitely perceive CITYFIGHT: MODERN COMBAT IN THE URBAN ENVIRONMENT (1979) as being incredibly innovative for its time but I'm wondering whether it was a breakthrough game.  I think one might make a case for it when comparing the game to Tsukuda Hobby's LEOPARD II (1986); both aimed at limited intelligence in urban fighting--LEOPARD II only had vehicles, however.  It was also much clunkier to play, a whole lot less elegant.  The urban terrain that it portrayed really only managed to channel the movement of the tanks, too--not a whole lot of variety is possible given that we're talking about vehicles hunting each other at close range.  So one can also say that--even with this Japanese effort--it's just not related enough.  So CITYFIGHT still stands alone and does not seem to advance the state of wargame design.

A portion of the Cityfight map, rich with urban terrain detail.  But it was the system combined with the components that made it unique!

One of the two map sheets in LEOPARD II, with the "urban terrain" showing in the bottom half.  

That said, I think it is perhaps one of the most important benchmark games SPI ever did, precisely because it was never copied and yet was so successful in simulating its subject.  With all the urban warfare games out there, it's natural for the grogards to compare those titles with this venerable SPI one.  As good as Nuts! Publishing's block tactical game URBAN OPERATIONS (2017) is, some us will say it's still not on par with the nearly forty-year older SPI game.

URBAN OPERATIONS game in execution.  It's somewhat inspired by CITYFIGHT but takes a different tack using blocks, but the older gamers cannot help but compared the two.

Other games featuring urban warfare are also different enough so that they stand apart from the SPI urban warfare effort but can't help but be compared to it.  Titles such as Lock 'N Load's DAY OF HEROES (2008) and Worthington Games's BOOTS ON THE GROUND (2010), while at the very least interesting, aren't as well loved--comparatively speaking--by the gray gamer crowd familiar with these and CITYFIGHT.  Don't get me wrong--these newer titles are fun to play, but don't come across as being quite so rich and versatile.  Part of this, of course, is due to their focus on Mogadishu, Somalia, and COIN operations in the Middle East.

The Somalian urban landscape in Lock 'N Load Tactical DAYS OF HEROES.

The more generic urban grid of BOOTS ON THE GROUND, somewhat reminiscent of Sadr City in Baghdad.

We'll stop here as the other better known urban warfare games are centered in World War II conflicts and ground tactical warfare series.  Suffice it to say that while CITYFIGHT is so unique that it's hard to see how it--as a breakthrough game--steered urban warfare wargame design in certain directions, it most definitely is a benchmark simulation as so many other games since its publication are naturally going to be compared to it!

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