A Look Back at System 7 Napoleonics & Dragon Magazine

A stroll down memory lane to the days when wargaming and RPGs more comfortably co-existed ~

Jim Owczarski, 13 May 2017

I would have thought that after all these years the editors around this joint would have taken a liking to me.  I mean, come on, I’ve written reviews, previews, interviews, and even a travel journal or two, and have yet to get them sued for libel.  This is no small matter in our litigious day and age.

So why, then, does one of them torment me with this:

(ed note: we do it for sheer entertainment value, like poking a badger with a spoon)

It’s difficult to know where to begin.  How about the date: June 1979.

Top of the charts was “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge followed closely by Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”, and Supertramp’s “The Logical Song”.  Rolling down this chart, I can remember the lyrics to most of the Top 20.

I note in passing that in this time before the proliferation of satellite radio, iTunes, and the internet stations, we hadn’t yet driven into our musical cul-de-sacs and, whether we liked it or not, people of diverse backgrounds were fairly well compelled to listen to each others’ music.  I will not in this context defend “Reunited” but “Boogie Wonderland” remains a guilty pleasure.

Out at the theaters, Roger Moore somnambulated through Moonrakerwhich, though intensely stupid, was the highest-earning Bond movie to that point — but this was also the season of Apocalypse Now, The Tin Drum, and The Muppet Movie.

And here, in The Dragon (note the definite article beloved nerd-kin), volume III, number 12, the editors opted to put System 7 Napoleonics on the front cover.  Let that sink in, yes?  Above teasers offering “Giants in the Earth” and “Chinese Undead”, the flagship journal of our tribe ran an article about a cardboard substitute for Napoleonic miniatures, played using rules that were not, to borrow the modern usage, accessible.

 

I will probably now lose everyone who is not me as I dive briefly into what System 7 was and was not, but, perhaps I can tease some to remain?  I would have you look at the lead article, “System 7: Napoleonics, Miniatures Meet Boards: What It Means for the Hobby”.  This is from p. 5:

All things considered, I think that SYSTEM 7 is the most significant release in recent wargaming history. If it catches on, or if it spawns a host of imitations in other periods, its effects could be far reaching. In some regards, I view the release of SYSTEM 7 by GDW as potentially hobby-shaking and revolutionary as the release of D&D in 1974 was.

I could proffer many responses, but will limit myself to: it didn’t turn out that way.

 

Based on the passable Fire & Steel ruleset from GDW  System 7: Napoleonics stands in a line of attempts to make miniature gaming less painful.  It’s assuredly not the first as Micro Napoleonics gave it a go in 1976, nor is it the last as my recent sit-down with Pratzen Edition’s Didier Rouy made clear.  But, it came with the then-significant weight of GDW behind it.

Reading through the designer’s notes it is clear that they thought carefully about how to make the counters as striking as possible, even going so far as to offer metallic inks for the guard units.

Reading through the designer’s notes it is clear that they thought carefully about how to make the counters as striking as possible, even going so far as to offer metallic inks for the guard units.  With orders of battle initially based on the 1812 campaign, the intention was to provide forces for nearly every combatant.

The smallest maneuver element is the company which is a remarkably granular approach in hindsight given the intended scope of the game.  This is somewhat compensated for by the scale chosen being small enough — the “seven” in the title refers to the rules being intended for 7mm figures — to permit large battles to be played out on smaller tables.  Rather than using figure removal (not an option) or casualty caps, the rules use a roster system to track losses.

It will be observed that these are not straight-forward rules by modern standards.  Games like the admirable Shako, Age of Eagles, and Blucher, not to mention more radical interpretations like Volley and Bayonet, have done much to make playing at Bonaparte cleaner and simpler than was ever the case with Fire and Steel.  Editing has also, it seems to me, progressed as the designer responses preserved between pp. 8-11 reveal a team stretched to the point of either getting key details wrong or omitting them entirely.

None of this is why System 7 did not endure, though.  However awkward the counters might have been in practice — and Lordy were they — they were still quite nice to look at.  For counters.  They were not, however, miniatures, and the gamers who had committed themselves to the little lead men would not be wooed.  I know.  I was one of them.  On the other side, board and role-playing gamers saw themselves playing a miniatures game, with all its imprecise measurements and table-top fuss, without any of the aesthetic benefits.  I’m not saying that System 7, Battleground, and Onus haven’t sold games.  I am, however, saying that they’ve never managed to scratch the itch that the author of the lead article in this issue thought they might.

 

 

Go to the GenCon auction and you’ll still see System 7 unit packs up for sale.  Some of the shorter runs can fetch a fair price.  But, if I may hazard a prediction, it will ultimately be the silicon chip that ends what the cardboard miniature surrogate could not.

I’m not quite done with this issue, though.  Note that on p. 18 there’s a reminiscence on the 35th anniversary of D-Day.  What, in hindsight, is more difficult to comprehend: that this was only the 35th anniversary or that a mere reminiscence, apparently born from the author’s trip to the site, made its way into the pages of The Dragon?

I’ll only mention in passing the article about Starship Troopers that would have been at home in an issue of The General.  And I can only marvel at the intimation on p. 31 that the next issue of The Dragon (I repeat, The Dragon) would have an article about the cavalry fight at the North end of the Austerlitz battlefield.  I almost want to shout at my son, “See!  See! We once walked the earth as gods!”

What I cannot get over is the convention information offered on p. 3, particularly that for GenCon XII.

This was my first GenCon and, much like my grammar school, I am shocked how small it appears when revisited.  Over 20 dealers!  Over 100 events!  All held within the leafy confines of the University of Wisconsin at Parkside in the surroundings of which, according to the convention coordinator, T.S.R. had been able to secure rooms at a favorable rate.

I played Napoleonics here — seek to contain your surprise — and I bought my first copy of The Complete Brigadier as a result.  The game was 25mm and set within the Hundred Days, but I remember little else.  More than anything, though, the trip inspired an enduring love of conventions; places where gamers can gather and share a passion than many others do not understand.  When I travel six nasty hours to Columbus in a few weeks to help out at Grogheads Central Command, it will be a continuation of a relationship with gaming and gamers that has lasted for over three decades.

I owe much to the gentle Summer of 1979 and I’m actually very glad that the keepers of the internet have been kind enough to preserve old issues of The Dragon to help some of us remember.


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