As a young boy growing up in the 80s, the idea of large armies and fleets engaging in titanic battles to decide the fates of nations never failed to get my heart pumping, or inspire my imagination. I played soldier along with the rest of the neighborhood kids. With our trusty plastic toy M-16A1s and AK-47s we staged late night raids on neighboring developments in the summertime, and fought endless small unit actions amid the 7-11s, schools, parks, and strip malls that made up the suburban landscape of Central New Jersey circa 1983-88. I dare say that we (Generation X) were more imaginative, and better-informed children than were those who came after us, although this might not be an entirely fair comparison.
It was a different time back then. The Cold War was in full swing and the Soviet Union was the greatest threat to world peace. Nuclear war was a frighteningly real prospect, not merely the abstract concept it became in the early post-Cold War years. The threat of global war, nuclear or conventional, erupting was quite real back then. Even as kids, it was practically impossible not to grasp what was going on in the world. The Cold War, and the US-Soviet rivalry dominated and influenced everything from popular culture, to sports, and literature. My friends and I knew the Russians were the bad guys. Maybe we didn’t fully grasp what that meant, but we incorporated the evil communist enemy into our neighborhood battles. Good vs Evil. Eagle vs Bear. Sam vs Ivan.
As the eighties stretched on, I began to grow up. My interest in playing soldier, collecting GI Joe toys, and such waned. Sports became more prevalent. My thirst for knowledge on the ongoing Cold War, on the other hand, continued to grow. I wanted to know what World War III might look like if the balloon ever went up. I read every book I could get my hands on and gradually gathered knowledge about things like the importance of a valley called the Fulda Gap, and some sort of barrier in the middle of the North Atlantic called GIUK.
In 1989 I was 11 years old. My mother, tired of my constant badgering, took me to a hobby store in Somerset, NJ to peruse their selection of wargames. The store carried a wide selection of titles that, at the time, were alien to me. Tac-Air, NATO:The Next War in Europe, and Sixth Fleet were just a few of the titles available. After a good hour of browsing, and salivating, I wound up buying 2nd Fleet with my allowance money. The game is a highly complex operational level simulation depicting naval warfare between NATO and the Soviet Union in the North Atlantic during the late 1980s. For an 11 year old it was almost incomprehensible, but I persevered, read the rules, and began playing it nearly every day for at least two hours. Thus began my lifelong love affair with operational level wargames depicting the World War III in a single or multiple theaters.
My tastes were not limited to operational level games, however. Squad level, company, brigade, and division sized simulations also filled my wargaming collection at one point or another. The setting for the majority of World War III wargames in the 80s was Central Europe where the war was largely expected to be fought. The variety of games available then, and now, gives players the opportunity to command any and every unit from a tank platoon at the Fulda Gap, to a NATO army group, or, if ambitious enough, command of the entire European theater. I even became interested in post-World War III games like Twilight 2000 and still play that particular game from time to time.
Starting after the Fourth of July, I will post a new entry in this series every couple of weeks and discuss World War III games then and now, their progression over the years, and how wargaming has been a vital part of building this timeline. I’ll also discuss miniature gaming and my growing fascination with it. Steve from Sound Officer’s Call is largely responsible for introducing me to that realm.