Boston North Shore Sunday Paper
War and pieces
By Chad Konecky
Friday, June 4, 2004
Hamilton game designer Larry Harris launches a D-Day edition of his world-famous Axis & Allies - complete with tanks, planes and soldiers to spare
From his dual-monitor workstation in the basement studio of his Hamilton home, Larry Harris gets daily affirmation that he is, in fact, a cult hero.
Fluorescent-orange desk and guest chairs on wheels - which in an oddly appropriate way evoke the Star Trek Enterprise's bridge - face computer screens overrun by e-mails from around the globe. The 56-year-old Vietnam-era veteran is besieged by admirers and addicts alike. Kids and kids-at-heart, all united in their adoration of an adventure board game Harris conceived and designed 26 years ago as an expat living in Paris.
Harris is more than three-decades removed from a five-year stint in the 82nd Airborne Division. The native of New London, Conn., was stationed at NATO offices in Paris and Belgium for much of his tour and returned to the City of Lights "for a summer" in 1970. He stayed 10 years. He loved the Parisian grit of the era.
Like Paris, Harris is softer around the edges now. Though he still looks like he can handle himself. With his gray goatee, piercing blue eyes and gravelly voice, he's got a little bit of a James Coburn thing going on. The son of a World War II combat vet, Harris spent formative teen years abroad as a military brat. Including a 1963-'66 stationing in Tehran, Iran, where he recalls "only two modes of transportation: Mercedes and camels."
In a way, Harris is the perfect father for Axis & Allies, a World War II-themed strategy and interaction board game that will celebrate its 20th anniversary this Sept. 5. In the world of board-gaming, that doesn't merely qualify as ancient. That's Methuselah.
"Games don't last 20 years," confirms Harris, a freelance designer for the past 18 months after nearly a quarter century in the service of industry giants like Milton Bradley, Hasbro and Atari. "They last six months to two years. Obviously, that's something I'm very proud of."
And now, carefully timed with the marking of the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, Harris has licensed for release by Avalon Hill a fourth version of his original, global war game: Axis & Allies D-Day. Following editions devoted to the war in the Pacific and European theatres, D-Day is the first version of the game confined to a lone engagement.
Given the invasion plan's monumental aim and clarity of purpose, D-Day was a natural candidate for bringing the mechanics of Harris' Axis & Allies brainstorm into the tighter focus of a single battlefield. The Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, of course, ultimately precipitated the end of the war in Europe, albeit at a horrifying cost in human lives.
"What blows me away is my ideal scenario in playing this game," explains Harris, who visited Normandy's beaches many times before and during the design of his original global game prototype in the late 1970s. "I envision a great-grandfather sitting down and playing this game with a grandkid, pointing to the game map and saying, 'Yeah, I was here, sonny, and then I was there.' I've had e-mail to that effect. The Axis & Allies universe is scary huge. I get flooded with messages and chat. Feedback that blows you away."
A French resistance
Harris executed his own strategic designs upon France after taking up residence there. He married and later divorced a French woman and has two sons and a grandson living there now.
He began working in the gaming industry for French children's magazines, designing centerfold diversions like mazes. Harris, now remarried, invented dozens of French-language board games during his decade abroad and quickly produces a box top trumpeting a deductive memory game. "I don't even remember how it plays," he admits.
Nonetheless, his calling was evident.
"I discovered I had some natural ability for this," says Harris, who studied history at the collegiate level as a resident alien, including some classes at Le Sorbonne. "France is where I invented Axis & Allies. In about 1978."
Harris still owns the original prototype he initially submitted to game companies (a game he called "1942"), complete with handmade playing pieces, including bombers equipped with staples for landing gear and adorned with bombs made of rice grains painted black.
So he's a stickler for detail. But that still doesn't offer a motive. What confluence of circumstances drove Harris to commemorate what he calls "a very complicated human drama" by first conceptualizing and then realizing an intricate game simulation?
"I learned about World War II early because it captured my attention," he explains. "I think I just had a natural propensity toward interest in that area. Then, I discovered my father's diary."
Larry Harris, Sr., now 82 and living in Virginia, served as an infantryman in the Pacific Theatre's island-hopping campaign, seeing combat in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and the Philippines. Larry, Jr., the eldest of eight brothers and sisters, remains awestruck by the superhuman efforts of ordinary men like his father during World War II.
"He's got five beachheads he participated in as invasions - essentially five D-Days," says Harris. "He was on the front line and statistically he should have been dead four or five times. He inspired me to be a student of World War II. That appreciation of World War II and interest in World War II along with a strong interest in history and maybe some graphic ability and a certain imagination - that combination of things gave birth to Axis & Allies."
Still, it wasn't until he returned to the U.S. after residing in one of the war's epicenters that Harris got Axis & Allies off the ground.
"Gaming was bigger and easier here and that was part of my motivation for coming back," recalls Harris. "If I could make it in France where everything was against me, culturally and so on, I'd be fine here. Besides, nobody in France wanted to buy a game where France was occupied."
Harris' Essex Street studio is ringed by metal shelving packed with board-game boxes. The room is accented by other assorted artifacts. A stalk of Gettysburg weed-grass. Souvenir ordinance from various eras. Sprawling folding tables support laminated game maps displaying historic World War II troop deployments.
In 1981, Harris licensed Axis & Allies to a small Connecticut game company called Nova Game Designs, which began producing the game that year. When he licensed the game to Milton Bradley for major-market production in 1984, Harris had to bring Nova on as a partner, "which has proven to be very expensive over the years, but then they gave me my first break," he concedes.
The relative antiquity of the dates mentioned produce hushed tones inside the board-gaming industry. By all rights, Axis & Allies and its associated offspring should be long dead. Nothing more than dusty additions to Harris' shelving units.
But the game enjoys unprecedented longevity. It received an Academy of Gaming Arts & Designs Origins Award for Best Historical Game as recently as 2002 and has been inducted into multiple industry and gaming magazine halls of fame.
"I think the subject matter has helped it get over some dry spells," says Harris. "World War II has got a continuous fan base and interest level that's helped keep the game alive. But it's the rules of Axis & Allies that have enabled the game to cross between two elements of gaming. The game caters to two categories: Mass market and the niche category of historical and battlefields. And that's because of its simplicity. But in spite of its simplicity, it's managed to keep its flavor."
The generation whose epic struggle the game simulates is surely part of that flavor. It's a generation Harris speaks about with reverence.
"I think maybe what made them so special - and this isn't in any way derogatory - is that they were just naïve," he says. "They believed things. There was a reason, for example, to believe in the president. I think we've become very skeptical and not-trusting. For us, the idea of government has lost some awe, whereas our parents had Roosevelt. Plus, things were pretty black and white back then. The fascists were pretty nasty guys."
Another remarkable nuance of all four versions of the game, three of which have been licensed for computer gaming, is the attention to authenticity. Initial battle formations mimic genuine battle maps of the conflict. Munitions and machines of war are precision-molded. Countries' manufacturing and manpower potential are based in fact.
"Part of the magic is all these little playing pieces and the historical accuracy of the design," says Harris, his intonation more excited schoolboy than prosperous inventor. "It's so historically based. It's a great lesson. I get mail from teachers from all over the world who use the game as a teaching tool."
Harris becomes most animated when illustrating the games' attention to detail, pointing out the subtle distinctions between the game board's plastic tank molds of the American Sherman, the German Tiger, the Russian T-34 and the Japanese Chi-Ha. The telltale coning tower of the German super-battleship, The Bismarck, is unmistakable as it patrols the laminated map's North Sea.
Adapting a conflict of such scale to a workable simulation seems implausible. Designing a game that could play out in a fashion timelier than, say, a Haley's Comet passing seems almost impossible.
"The challenge was making it simple to play," says Harris, noting a game can be played in as little as two hours and rarely longer than four. "I don't want you as a player to have to work; I should have done that. If the game is well-designed, I should relieve you of all the tedium and you should just have a good time.
"I broke the game up into manageable chunks - what we call phases," he continues. "You buy your stuff. You move your stuff. You resolve combat in a very simple way. You redeploy, then it's someone else's turn. I wanted the rules to be very short and they are compared to other games of this type."
Even so, conjuring enough realism - while imposing enough controls to manage what was unpredictable then and remains unpredictable on a game board - presented considerable challenges.
"As a game-designer, I have to make sure it's a good experience for both sides," explains Harris. "With Axis & Allies Pacific, I had trouble making it a fair fight where Japan has a possibility of winning. We had such an advantage. Japan knew they were outgunned; they were hoping to slow us down enough for us to lose our stomach for the fight. In designing that version of the game, I had to change the victory conditions. America had to gain victory points within a certain amount of time or lose."
Adapting the game for D-Day wasn't easy either.
"For all intents and purposes, I've managed to keep the game mechanics the same," says Harris. "If you know how to play one, you know how to play the other, with some variation. In the original game, you have natural resources and manufacturing and a production rate to consider. In D-Day, we deal with reinforcements. That translation was made successfully. There were some hiccups, but D-Day was such a big engagement, there was enough there. If this (battle version) continues to do well, I might do more. But it has to be a better-known, big battle."
Aficionados thirsting for the inside scoop on Harris' next oeuvre should know he mentioned the Battle of Bulge, wherein German forces almost reversed the course of the war in Europe, and Midway, the turning point of the war against Japan, as specific possibilities. And while those versions will also likely be licensed for computer gaming, Harris firmly believes the appeal of a kitchen table and a board game will never disappear from the modern American cultural milieu.
"There's nothing like sitting down face to face - this game is very social," he says. "I think the mystique of computer games may be leveling off or at least it's losing its magic. People are saying, 'OK, that's one kind of emotional experience and board games are another.' If you really want to sit down and have a verbal slap fight with somebody, a board game is a good way to do it."