Formats - Boxes and Mounted Counters 

Tracing the Evolution of SPI Game Formats

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Chapter 2: The Advent of Mounted Counters, Retrofit and 'Second Edition' Games - the SSG

From 1970 to 1971, SPI was growing quickly. They had taken on Strategy & Tactics magazine, which really was a rescue, not a purchase. It was down to next to no subscribers, had fallen off any reliable delivery schedule. If Dunnigan and Simonsen didn't take it on, it was going to become a former magazine.

But Dunnigan knew S&T was their only method to reach their new market - a fact proven by the incredible sales of the TSG games following the first ads in S&T.

Dunnigan and Simonsen created SPI, and with a $10,000 startup investment - some of it funded by their sale to The Avalon Hill Game Company (AH)  of Tactical Game 3 - they had achieved much. 

In January, 1970, they launch the S&T Supplement newsletter, to supply gamers with information that 'no longer fits' in S&T. Mainly, things about the creation of games.

After a year they will end that effort, and replace it in January of 1971 with the Game Design Newsletter specifically to talk about how to create and design wargames.

With all this, they are, after 18 months, on top of the game.  S&T arrives nearly on time, sometimes early. The games in those earliest issues are not all blockbusters, but many are great. Bastogne is JFD's first effort at a game on the Battle of the Bulge, and it has some good points. While  Chicago, Chicago is not a crowd pleaser - even then it was 'NATO, Nukes, and Nazis' that sold - it had been included in the same issue with Flight of the Goeben.  Thus, criticism was muted. Well, no - but the anger was molified. SPI encouraged feedback, and often courted it by defying conventional wisdom of 'the customer is always right.'

The first year would end with historian Al Nofi stepping into the designer role to create the more-than-credible tactical game Renaissance of Infantry. His first effort would serve as the model for most of the foot tactical games for the next 4 years that went on to become the well-remembered PRESTAGS series. My personal favorite, Centurion, arrives a few issues after ROI t0 kick off 1971!

But what next?

The first change was a big one, but certainly a necessity to be taken seriously:

S&T issue 26 arrives - and the game (Grunt) comes with die cut counters - just like Avalon Hill!

Announced: Strategy & Tactics 26

Outgoing Mail column, March / April 1971

"Now that we have a little money," all games from this issue on will be published with die-cut counters  [page 20]

So, a little over a year of the new regime taking control, the physical quality of the games were changing dramatically. From only rudimentary rules and counters and maps printed on pages of the magazine, to the interim step of thin black and white normal paper maps and pressboard counters. Early suggestions for the unmounted games included stick the counter sheet to a floor tile and cut them! (Don't laugh. I still have at least one game like that, and it worked. Plus they make a cool clinking sound when you place them in the plastic bag!)

So now that they have invested in die cut counters, what next? Again, quoting from the same article:

"An additional spin-off is the use of die-cut counters in many of the Test Series Games, as well as much better quality mapboards (new artwork) for these games. As soon as we get new rules for them we will announce them in the magazine as 'second editions,' which is exactly what they WILL be. We expect to expand the TSG [Test Series Games] line considerably this year."

Here is their next step: Announced as an insert in S&T 28:

They go on to say they will be upgrading the maps, too:

(See this entire insert at this link.  UPGRADING TEST SERIES GAMES )

Though Strategy I was touted as the next TSG, there were many changes to come in the next few months. The successes of the TSGs had changed everything.

In reality, the TSG phase is over.

With the ability to now offer die cut counters, the next step is to 're-do' most of the TSGs into the higher quality games that are now being produced for S&T.

Quoting Dunnigan, "After the first wave of TSG (numbers 1 to 9) were published, the same crew also found themselves stuck with the publication of S&T. Basically, the choice was between publishing new games, or revising old ones."

With limited numbers of people, time, and money, the choice was an important one.

"Mortals that we were, we opted for new games," says Dunnigan.

The result? Enter the Simulation Series Games (SSGs).

The SSGs offer:

bulleta 22"x 34" game map printed on card stock with blue and black ink;
bullet1/2" die cut printed counters;
bulletand professionally typeset printed rules.

The point, clearly, is to upgrade the physical part of games, and make games with better rules for a better simulation. And to blow away the idea that only two games a year can be created.

While Dunnigan said they would "let the old games fend for themselves," that wasn't exactly true. A number of the TSG (Test Series Games) would graduate to a 'second edition' as some of the first SSG (Simulation Series Games) over the next year. Specifically, Korea, Leipzig, Barbarossa, Normandy, and 1918 would make that leap.

That path was lighted by the bright example of the best known TSG of all: Tactical Game 3 (Russia, 1944), which had been purchased by The Avalon Hill Game Company. Dunnigan and Simonsen would do all the revising, but the deeper pockets of AH allowed them to pull out all stops to make the game a gem. While Dunnigan honed the rules, RAS polished the physical side to make the game an eye catching gem for its time - and technically, I am not certain its time is past.

While the rest of the TSGs would fade into history, Tactical Game 3, renamed PanzerBlitz, would hold the record for most wargames sold for at least a decade.

PanzerBlitz set the standard with production troupes that would appear in wargames continuously from that time on: oversized mounted counters, using stark silhouettes of the tanks to identify the vehicles; separate cardstock holders for the scenario setups, with a breathless if brief overview of the coming encounter;  geomorphic map boards that can be fit together in a variety of ways to get different terrain features into the many different scenarios; and a high quality colorful box cover with striking colors. (See the original Tactical Game 3 here. )

By mid 1971, S&T issue 27's game, The Battle of France, 1940 would also sell to AH.

S&T, and thus, SPI, had proven themselves. The subscriptions alone would float their company for the first two years. But game sales are brisk too - and remember, that's mail order only. No retail yet. 

SPI successfully upgrades their existing games, while continuing to create new games for their excited customers. S&T continues to improve. By 1972, they will report $300,000 in sales in these years, based on a $10,000 initial investment!

But don't get excited - they have $310,000 in expenses. So, as will be their situation for most of their life, they are 'sales rich and cash poor.' Any business major could point out the obvious - they are undercapitalized. And they are. They know it, but, what can you do about it? The process forces them to  live off incoming sales rather than saving any of it for future needs. It is an old story, and it is why so many businesses fail in their earliest years when demand is not as strong as they predicted.  

But that is not SPI's issue. Demand is very strong. They were correct - the market could easily bear more than 'two games a year.' They are living the dream, and they are not about to back off now.

SPI will continue to design more games, and more products. They will move more sales out the door to happy new customers who approve of the stiffer maps, the more history based simulations, and the improved quality of the games. That means more in expenses after a point - more bodies to fill orders, more costs in printing. But in the early years, the economies of scale are working in their favor. All systems are go!

And Dunnigan eyes what it would take to do the impossible - to move into retail.

Below: Some examples of the unmounted and mounted counters, and the differences the addition of a single color can make. (Click on the thumbnail picture to see it enlarged.)


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Original Renaissance of Infantry Map

Thin paper, no color at all. The early standard for S&T maps in the pre-issue #26 days.

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Next page, we will examine the SGB - the original "Standard Game Box" - Next

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This site was last updated 01/08/22