Origins of Ameritrash: Milton Bradley’s Command Decision Series

Wiktionary defines Ameritrash games as “a genre of board games predominant in the United States, characterized by a high degree of luck, longer playtimes, player conflict, and highly-developed, often dramatic themes, especially involving war or adventure.” We talked about the different board game genres in a previous post. Ameritrash games were defined by theme, narrative, direct player conflict and “chrome” components. In order to be Ameritrash, you really need some player conflict, a strong theme or narrative along with toy components. The origins of this genre can be traced back to the 1960’s. We will cover this subject in several blog posts. This one will cover the saplings that would eventually sprout the Ameritrash genre: Milton Bradley’s Command Decision Series.

 

Board games before the Command Decision Series

Avalon Hill's Tactics II
Avalon Hill’s Tactics II

From the turn of the century until the early 1950’s, board games were nothing more than children’s rainy day activities. Games like Monopoly and checkers were activities that kept kids busy. Avalon Hill revolutionized the game world. Sort of. They took the idea of games and turned them into simulations. Avalon Hill’s games like Tactics II or Midway were deeply complicated affairs compared to Parker Brother’s offerings. The games were difficult to learn and even more difficult to find since they were not carried by department stores. The games coming from this upstart Baltimore publisher were high in strategy, high in complexity and low in general accessibility.

Waddingtons' Monopoly
Waddingtons’ Monopoly

This was the paradigm that existed in board games by 1960: children’s rainy day activities or military simulations. There was no middle ground.

Then something magical happened at American Heritage Magazine.

 

American Heritage Magazine collaborates to make history fun

American Heritage circa 1961
American Heritage circa 1961

American Heritage Magazine has a long and proud history. According to its website,

For 60 years, the magazine has told the American story with verve, humor, compassion and, above all, authority.

The leading historians of the past century have either contributed or edited the articles of American Heritage. The magazine began as a house organ in 1947 and became a quarterly magazine a few years later.

Milton Bradley's logo (1950-1964)
Milton Bradley’s logo (1950-1964)

History is a dense subject. It’s dry to read, it’s difficult to write and it’s unforgiving to teach. American Heritage made a decision to make history more fun and accessible to the younger generation. In the 1960’s, the magazine worked with leading game publisher Milton Bradley to make what would be known as the American Heritage Games or Command Decision Series.

The first game in the series was published in 1961. The series was concluded in 1975. The series, had it been released today, would be called for what it was: Ameritrash. We will look at all the games in this series and discuss how they contributed to the Ameritrash genre.

 

Battle Cry (1961)

Battle Cry from Milton Bradley
Battle Cry from Milton Bradley

The first game in the Command Decision Series was 1961’s Battle Cry, game of the Civil War. Players take on the role of either the Union or the South. Each player has a complement of plastic soldiers, cavalry and artillery.

Battle Cry from Milton Bradley
Battle Cry from Milton Bradley

A player may move his pieces up to the roll of his dice. Cavalry and artillery can move 2 spaces per pip and infantry but one space. Battles take place when you have a column of pieces in line with a column of your opponent’s pieces. The superior force wins, eliminating the weaker force.

The rules for Battle Cry are fairly simple. But the game does require careful planning if one is to successful prosecute the War between the States.

But what interests us here is not a game review so much as a genre review. And this author contends that Battle Cry is the first Ameritrash game. Let’s look at the key tenets of the genre.

  • Narrative and theme
  • “Chrome” components
  • Direct player conflict
Battle Cry player aid
Battle Cry player aid

Battle Cry has a narrative: it’s a game about the American Civil War. Battle Cry has plastic components. The toy factor is quite strong. Anyone who had played with toy soldiers and wished there was a game you could play with them got their wish with Battle Cry. And there is direct player conflict, obviously.

Battle Cry struck a balance between the children’s activity/war game simulation spectrum of its day. It was a game of strategy but not a full fledged simulation. It was a new game genre: one made in America with lots of plastic components. Thus, was Ameritrash born.

 

Broadside (1962)

Broadside from Milton Bradley
Broadside from Milton Bradley

American Heritage and Milton Bradley continued their collaboration with 1962’s Broadside. Set during the War of 1812, players take on the roles of either the US Navy or the British Navy. The game comes with 20 plastic ships, four land batteries and an oversized map of the shore.

British ships from Broadside
British ships from Broadside

Players move one of their ships during their turns. If they can move a ship so it’s broadside is adjacent to an enemy ship, the enemy loses a plastic mast. Once a ship has lost all of its masts, it’s removed from the game. The game continues until the British have destroyed four merchant ships or until the US has destroyed all the British ships.

American land battery fires on a British ship
American land battery fires on a British ship

Broadside’s importance to the Ameritrash genre should not be ignored. Broadside has all the key tenets of the genre and it was completely unlike Battle Cry. Had Milton Bradley simply rethemed Battle Cry, Ameritrash games would not have blossomed like they did. Milton Bradley took a different theme, several new but simple mechanics and applied them to a game with awesome toy ships.

 

Dogfight (1962)

Milton Bradley's Dogfight (1962)
Milton Bradley’s Dogfight (1962)

The next Command Decision game came right on the heels of Broadside. 1962’s Dogfight pits two teams in desperate World War I aerial combat. Each team has two squadrons of biplanes that fly above the color game board set in France or Germany. The game ends when one team has destroyed all their opponent’s airplanes.

Dogfight in action
Dogfight in action

The neat thing about Dogfight: it’s a card driven combat game. You have a hand of cards for each squadron. To attack, you must maneuver next to an enemy biplane and play a “Burst” card. Your opponent may then play a defense card. If he does, he survives, else his plane is eliminated. The trick is: you have to land your airplane to refresh your deck. So when you first launch an airplane, you can do all sorts of things but as you spend more time in the air, you get fewer and fewer options. This really helps sell the idea of a dogfight where pilots have to manage their fuel consumption.

Like its two predecessors, Dogfight is definitely Ameritrash: direct player conflict, toy airplanes, war/adventure theme. The game is thematically and mechanically very different from both Battle Cry and Broadside. The combat system was way ahead of its time.

 

Hit the Beach 1965

Hit the Beach from Milton Bradley
Hit the Beach from Milton Bradley

The next Milton Bradley/American Heritage collaboration took place in 1965. This time the game would deal with US Marines storming the Japanese held islands in the Pacific. Each player has a squad marines, an airplane a ship. Players are racing against one another to clear the Japanese obstacles and thus reach the final objective.

US Marines clearing Japanese held gun embankments
US Marines clearing Japanese held gun embankments

After clearing an objective, the player who cleared it may put it back on the board in a way to slow down an opponent. This is the primary skill in the game. The rest is a roll-and-move variant of Parcheesi.

If there was one dud in the group, it would be Hit the Beach–rated a weak 5.1 on BGG, Despite this, the game is still Ameritrash. Cool plastic pieces, direct player conflict (more or less) and a war/adventure theme. And with its one simple mechanic of moving obstacles, Milton Bradley again made a completely different game instead of simply rehashing of the previous efforts.

 

Skirmish (1975)

Skirmish from Milton Bradley
Skirmish from Milton Bradley

The final game in the Command Decision Series was 1975’s Skirmish. Set in the Revolutionary War, the British player has several armies, warships and a troop carrier while the American player has several small land units to fend them off.

British Navy and Army moving along the coast
British Navy and Army moving along the coast

The game is completely asymmetrical. The British have less maneuverability than the Americans. But they have greater firepower and get reinforcements quicker. The British win by defeating the Continental Army. The Americans win by defeating the four British armies.

This game sports both plastic armies and ships. The combat is done by a random card draw–not my favorite mechanic but a new twist on simply rolling a die. Milton Bradly, again, was able to come up with a fresh design in this game series.

 

Intermission

What sort of man plays Ameritrash?
What sort of man plays Ameritrash?

This subject is too long for a single post. The next post will deal with the Ameritrash games of the 70’s like Carrier Strike. We will conclude our column with the Gamemaster Series of the 1980’s in the third blog. Stay tuned! In the meantime, if you were wondering what type of man plays Ameritrash, check out this ad from the 70’s.

 

 

-Chris, on behalf of the Muskegon Area Gamers

 

 

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