What Was It Like Working at SPI?

Looking Back

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Chapter 9: Working at SPI

SPI exuded an air of cool that we 'geeks' - a word not yet in use - loved. But that begs the question - what was it like working at SPI?

This is an early ad from 1970 (S&T 21).

Fifty years later, people still seem moved by their experiences working at SPI. Today we can say they were one of the early 'disrupter' businesses, but the disruption was not created by technology changes we would recognize.

These changes were powered by an early allegiance to instant 'feedback' cards from the marketplace, providing customers with a method to vet the games the company would produce.  The key was the Feedback system, geared to a card in every S&T.  But that was the result of the overall mindset of the young group of entrepreneurs that created SPI.

Coming out of the 1960s era of 'Power to the People' and 'Damn the Man!' attitude, they took the idea of transparency to a new level in business. Their mantra seemed to be one of 'tell it all, brother' while adhering to the concept that one must 'be real' in all things. Or as they would likely have phrased it, 'don't bullsh*t me.' Thus, they were their harshest critics. Examples of slamming their own games are easy to find on the pages of their own magazines, first Strategy & Tactics, and later Moves, and finally, Ares. They sought customer input, and used it to direct their business efforts. A radical idea, indeed.

But what was it like to actually 'work' in such an environment? We have many eyewitnesses. Most of them young. (The reports say so - the six staffers at S&T in 1972 are "all under 30." (S&T 33).

Eric Lee Smith wrote:

"SPI was such an amazing place, it was like a frat house for game geeks, with dozens of games in various stages of completion going on at any time, magazines in constant production, arguments in the halls, playtesters in nooks working on the latest game, new people being trained, game designers pounding out manuscripts on crude typewriters, the smell of coffee constantly brewing, the Xerox machine coping and breaking down daily, the odor of a rubber cement and Berol markers coming from the art department, the typesetting crew cranking away all day and virtually all night, a constant hubbub of activity. But it was not chaotic; it was systematic."



own ads made it clear it would not be a glamorous job, but it also seemed like it might be ... different?

By Moves 3, June/July, 1972, the staff is already at 30 people, and the article tells us they average $107 a week! (oh my!) But things are growing fast. S&T is up to 15,000 subscribers - that's a 650% increase! (Considering S&T was all but dead when they 'bought' it, any increase was amazing.) But also remember, by issue 19, it is actually a real magazine, too.

 Here is a view from the Outgoing Mail column from S&T 58, in 1976

Continued below...

Despite the light tone of the column, one can see the jobs have developed into a serious process. As time went on, SPI became more serious about their job postings. Understandable, as by the late 1970s, the company consistently produced over $1,000,000 in sales a year and likely produced half of the total Wargaming products sold.

This ad, from S&T 64, September of 1977, seems to spell what is needed to work at SPI as a researcher and developer. It is by Brad Hessel and Joe Balkoski:


They end the posting with this:

This posting, a  year later (from Moves 38, 1978) gives an outline of jobs at SPI. It also delineates the real work needed now.


If you were to answer one of these ads below might be the letter you received:

Click here to read the entire letter - "Getting a Job in the SPI R&D Department"

This letter certainly gives us a view of the expectations and duties from SPI circa 1980!
Special thanks to David James Ritchie's family for providing this.

So what was it like to WORK at SPI? Comments from different employees:

"SPI was filled with all sorts of techniques, approaches, methods, and procedures and you were taught how to use them. RAS was a genius in a number of ways, systemic thinking and creating systems that worked was another. To this day, I have still never worked in a place that was anywhere near as productive as late SPI."  -- Eric Lee Smith

"As the youngest kid at SPI, there were some designers who were very kind to me, in manner as well as to include me in the process: Eric Smith, Joe Reiser , Joe Balkoski, John Butterfield. Then there were the ones who were gruff and sometimes scary but you could tell that beneath all that they cared about the work and wanted to get more people involved - JFD and Redmond. Then there were designers like Ritchie and Berg who were terrifically talented and cared about the craft..." -- Justin Leites

If you worked at SPI, and would like to share your notes or stories, I'd love to add your stories
 to this page.  Write me here


If you are like the other 99.9% of us who did not work there, but remember the vibe this company transmitted through their articles, notes, and most importantly, their games. I hope this page helps remind everyone of the things that made SPI a special company to so many of us, and why we all felt like we had a part in the company. Perhaps it was because we had a voice, via the Feedback process, but it was also because they treated us like we were the ultimate insiders. Their articles talked to us about their choices, their decisions, and their reasoning. We were a part of the company, and in their mind, an important part: we paid the bills.

SPI leveled with us every step of the way, and refused to engage in the now time honored business practice of public relations double speak and misinformation. They did, indeed, 'keep it real' every step of the process, at least until the last few months of their existence. It was an impressive effort, and it is a reason why so many people remember this company so fondly almost 40 years after their demise. We have truly never seen their likes again.

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Below - think you could write for Moves?  "Writers Guidelines For Moves"


"MOVES aims at integrating historical and game approaches. Thus articles on games are particularly welcome if they treat the games as models and learning devices that illuminate real historical conflicts. This approach tries to avoid the puerile tone of many gaming magazines.

"There is a whole range of articles that can be written on games themselves, criticisms, revisions, additions, new scenarios, new rules, (i.e. new rule modules for existing games! and suggestions for changes. We welcome articles that catch our errors, because as games are revised we can correct them.

"One final inducement to all potential authors: MOVES pays. We pay 5c per column inch per 1,000 subscribers. With 2,000 subscribers this means we pay 10t a column inch for material !roughly comparable to most fiction magazines)."

Next - SPI by the Numbers  Click Here

Box List only Click here
Capsule List only Click here

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This site was last updated 09/30/21