On This Day: Red Simonsen

Back when the stars were young and dinosaurs walked the Earth, your humble correspondent used to play wargames every weekend. Sometimes they were historical boardgames, sometimes fantasy boardgames, other times they were RPGs. The group of friends I played with had a good range of games and we varied in our tastes – one was fond of Avalon Hill products (Third Reich being the favourite, followed closely by Kingmaker and War and Peace); another was busy building various armies of historical miniatures (remember: this was pre-internet, so these things were hard to track down); but me? My heart belonged to SPI.

My shelves were filled with SPI games: the more-sophisticated-than-D&D roleplaying system DragonQuest; John Carter, Warlord of Mars, with its brilliant hand-to-hand duelling system; Sorcerer, and its innovative colour-based combat system; Time Tripper, featuring chronally-displaced US infantrymen pitched against foes ancient and yet-to-be; and, of course, the wonderful Middle Earth wargame War of the Ring.

I gave SPI my unquestioning loyalty in the same way I did DC Comics; there’s no reason there had to be a Manichean choice but that’s the way I remember it. Although Avalon Hill was the dominant force in wargames at the time, fantasy gaming – at least, so it seemed to me – was more or less divided between its own Big Two of Simulations Publication, Inc. (SPI) and Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), and you were either DC or Marvel. SPI or TSR. As publishers of the ubiquitous Dungeons & Dragons, TSR had a major presence, with seemingly endless series of D&D expansion rules as well as genre-variants like Boot Hill (westerns), Gangbusters (prohibition-era gangsters) and Top Secret (spies).

SPI, though, had something that TSR couldn’t match: Ares Magazine. Launched in 1980, Ares was a kind of SF&F variant of SPI’s successful Strategy & Tactics military history and gaming magazine. Each issue of Ares contained games reviews, articles and short fiction – and a complete SF or fantasy wargame. I remember Albion (the game of Britain in a time of elves and trolls), Barbarian Kings (fantasy empires in conflict), Delta Vee (a space combat game that formed the tactical element of their SF RPG Universe) – even a game based on Harry Harrison‘s Stainless Steel Rat stories. Great fun!

But apart from allowing me to wallow in nostalgia, what exactly does any of the above have to do with the topic at hand? Simply this: that almost every one of the SPI games I mentioned above credited Redmond Simonsen as either artist or designer. He was the first name designer of wargames I had come across (apart from Gary Gygax, naturally) and I came to rely upon his name – or that of fellow SPI designer Greg Costikyan – as a guarantee of excellence.

Red Simonsen died in 2005 but, had he been spared, today would have been his 72nd birthday. That seems like a good day to say, on behalf of a much younger proto-me, ‘Happy Birthday, Red – and thanks for the adventures’.