Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Crossbows and Catapults

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In 1983, I was 15 years old and living in a heyday of gaming. I already had a few years of Dungeons & Dragons under my belt and I was starting to stretch into some other fantasy role-playing, board and miniatures games. Video games had also become a big part of my social life, both in my friends’ living rooms and in the arcades popping up in the malls and main streets near where I grew up.

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Crossbows and Catapults as featured in a 1983 Sears catalog (only $12.99!)

Out of this early 80s mix of increasingly sophisticated RPG and video gaming came the decidedly low-tech Crossbows and Catapults from Lakeside Games. The basic play set came with a bunch of wonderful plastic toys representing enemy kingdoms of vikings and barbarians. Each side had a simple castle-like tower and loosely fitting bricks to construct a stronghold on a square mat depicting a moated island.

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Crossbows and Catapults “Battle Set” components from basic instruction book

But the name of the game wasn’t Crossbows and Catapults for nothing, and that’s where the real fun of the game came in. The opposing sides were each armed with rubber band powered catapults and crossbows (really more like ballistas, but the alliterative name certainly looked better on the box). In alternating turns, players would fling and fire round carom discs at the opposing player’s stronghold and troops. Knocking over figures were scored as casualties and landing caroms in enemy territory allowed advances in raiding forces. The game was won when a player revealed and seized the treasure buried beneath the other player’s castle.

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Components from the Crossbows and Catapults “Battle Set”

I’m fortunate to have a massive archive of well-kept childhood toys stored at my boyhood home, and I was recently able to dig through my surviving Crossbows and Catapults sets. All the rubber bands needed to be replaced, but everything else survives in near-perfect working order. Pieces from my decades old collection are shown in the pictures throughout this post.

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Game set-up instructions from the Crossbows and Catapults “Battle Set”

I also managed to preserve all the original instruction books from the “Battle Set” base game and the various expansions which were subsequently released (some scans included here). The “Castle Outpost” contains larger towers with a rubber banded platform that pops figures and flags into the air if the door is hit by an incoming carom. In the “Trojan Horse” set, the catapult-tailed horse “explodes” from the sides when hit on the base of its front feet, and the accompanying crossbow-armed “battle shield” pops open when struck at the front. My favorite expansion, the “Battling Giants” set, came with 8-inch tall minotaur and cyclops models which fling caroms at the enemy by pushing a button at their backs.

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Crossbows and Catapults “Castle Outpost” expansion  set

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Crossbows and Catapults “Trojan Horse” expansion set

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Crossbows and Catapults “Battling Giants” expansion set

Every Crossbows and Catapults expansion came with new rules and components for each side, allowing for a lot of additional play options on the floor battlefield. The expanded rules for each set allowed for standalone games or for incorporating the new pieces into the base “Battle Set” game. All the instructions also encouraged players to make up their own rules, something my brothers, friends and I did endlessly in our brief period of Crossbows and Catapults obsession.

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H.G. Wells, author of “Little Wars,” and his friends wargaming on a parlor floor

In revisiting my teen delight over Crossbows and Catapults my mind went straight to the descriptions of early 20th-century gaming laid out in Little Wars by H.G. Wells. The tiny 1913 book is seen today as the formative basis for what would become miniatures wargaming in the coming decades. Building on the more abstract Kriegsspiel tradition of the early 1800s, the genesis moment for using toys in wargaming is described in the book as an idea of one of Wells’s friends:

“I believe that if one set up a few obstacles on the floor, volumes of the British Encyclopedia and so forth, to make a Country, and moved these soldiers and guns about, one could have rather a good game…”

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Early 20th-century die-cast Britains spring-loaded 4.7 naval gun

As you read through the game descriptions and rules set forth by Wells, quite a number of similarities to Crossbows and Catapults arise. Rudimentary buildings or forts are placed on small boards, much like the plastic mats provided in Crossbows and Catapults. Resolving combat in the games played by Wells and his gentlemanly friends was commonly achieved through the firing of wooden pegs with the spring-loaded Britains 4.7 naval gun at opponent’s infantry, calvary, buildings and walls constructed of wooden blocks.

Seventy years after Little Wars, Crossbows and Catapults presented a very similar floor game. The rubber-band catapults and ballistas firing caroms at the soldiers, castles and plastic brick walls. In both games, proximity of infantry to artillery — a naval gun of Wells’s day or a catapult in the modern game — determines whether that piece may fire. The measurement of the play area as set forth by Wells and outlined in the Crossbows and Catapults basic rules are uncannily similar.

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“Battleground: Crossbows and Catapults” re-release from 2007

The Crossbows and Catapults license passed through a number of game publishers over the years and was re-released as “Battleground: Crossbows and Catapults” in 2007. The game was modified and updated with orcs versus knights plus some redesigned components and additional expansion sets.

I had a chance to play with my Crossbows and Catapults sets again this past week, some 30 years after I first I bent down on my teenaged knees to do battle between barbarians and vikings. Playing with my nine-year-old son, all the fun of launching plastic discs at opposing armies came back. The game is largely a shoot-out of skill and aim wrapped around some still-nifty game pieces. In the early 1980s I didn’t know about Wells and his Little Wars floor games, but a hundred years on now I can see the connection, tradition and joy in commanding armies on the floor and flinging attacks with Crossbows and Catapults.

Collector’s Note: You can find the 1983 “Crossbows and Catapults Battle Set” in the original box for $50-200 on eBay, and many of the expansions can be picked up for around $20. The re-released “Battleground: Crossbows and Catapults” set from 2007 can also be had for about $50.

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New Game Weekend: I Ain’t Been Shot Mum

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As a World War II gamer, I have a newly-discovered love for a game which doubles my gaming possibilities with all the time and money I’ve  got invested in the 15mm Flames of War game which is the modern standard for the period. The past two weekends at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, I’ve been turned on to I Ain’t Been Shot Mum which is billed as “the other World War II miniatures game. For gamers with a lot of miniatures on hand and a hankering to play WWII at a different and more historical level, IABSM is well worth it.

TFLlogoNow in its third edition, IABSM has been published since 2002 by Too Fat Lardies, UK-based makers of a number of wargaming rules systems for a variety of historical periods. Overall, the game provides WWII wargamers with a simple, sleek set of skirmish rules that focuses far less on fielding shiny models and more on tactical decisions on the tabletop. IABSM is a true “what you see is what you get” system with a 1:1 scale at 15mm but easily adaptable to other model scales. One guy on the table equals one soldier in the field during battle, taking the game down to a level that really “feels” like commanding a group of troops. The smaller, less abstract scale of IABSM games provides a lot less “gaminess” to the systems, and relies a lot more on the decision-making skill of players commanding forces on each side. In many ways, the game is a throwback to original Kriegsspiel invented for use in Prussian army training two hundred years ago.

IABSMcardsSample cards from I Ain’t Been Shot Mum from Too Fat Lardies

The core rules of IABSM retail at under $20, and provide a number of basic underlying mechanics easily usable in any battle or theater of WWII. As an avid FOW player who is often faced with hundreds of pages of more grand-scale rules, army lists and ongoing modifications, the elegance of the skirmish-level IABSM comes down to five main areas:

1. Random Activation: Rather than playing by a simple “I go, you go” turn-based mechanic, IABSM games are powered by a set of cards which randomly activate deployed troops in the field. At the beginning of the game, a deck of cards is shuffled with each card representing a unit in the game. Cards are drawn and units are activated in turn, with units choosing a number of actions based on their quality. Highly-trained US Airborne troops may have four actions when activated, while less elite regulars may only have three. Actions include movement, firing, spotting the enemy and many other activities which makes commanding a unit’s turn one of many possible choices. Cards are added to the deck as new units arrive and removed if a unit is destroyed. Drawing a “tea break” card ends the turn with one final round of shooting for available inactivated units before the cards are shuffled a new turn begins.

2. Morale: Troop morale is nearly as important as firepower on actual battlefields. A well-armed but rattled group of soldiers may prove to be nearly ineffective in the field without some stalwart command leading the way. IABSM offers several levels of morale with pinning, shock and suppression which progressively eats into how effective a particular force can perform on the table. When being shot at, a simple table resolves possible kills as well as whether a unit is progressively shocked into poorer performance in subsequent turns or entirely immobilized due to overwhelming fire.

3. Command: Commanding and junior officers in IABSM are represented as “big men,” with individual cards allowing for their separate officer actions to drive gameplay. Through proximity or attachment to their forces, commanders can greatly affect morale by clearing shock from troops and boosting their strength in subsequent exchanges with the enemy. The presence of command also doubles the chance of troop activation, as a drawn “big man” card can press an attached unit into action without its own card being drawn.

4. Blinds: In real-world combat, knowing the enemy position through intelligence, observation or contact is almost as important as the engagements that result. While many miniatures games present an open table where nearly everything is known from the get-go, IABSM preserves a “fog of war” element with the deployment of “blinds” on the table. Represented by oval-shaped markers, blinds are able to move around the table without revealing their actual make-up. Thus, a player might move a small unit, a large platoon or even a false blind containing no troops around the table without the enemy knowing its true make-up until revealed. This allows players to add an element of diversion to the game, as an enemy way burn up several turns chasing a ghost across the table as real forces jockey into position.

5. The Game Referee: One of the hallmarks of wargames until recent decades was an all-seeing, all-controlling game referee. As a non-player, the referee not only provides clarifications on rules and contested play on the table, but they also are able to maintain a level of secrecy between each player as a scenario unfolds. The game can be played without a referee, but the presence of one adds yet another depth of to the “fog of war” randomness employed already with blinds and random card activation.

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Beyond the base rules, Too Fat Lardies offers a number of IABSM scenario and guide books for Europe, Italy, North Africa and the Pacific. General lists allow for the creation of custom scenarios, but I really like the historically-specific books. The past two weekends, I played the first two games in the D-Day-themed Where The Hell Have You Been Boys? book which contains over twenty scenarios from Omaha and Utah beaches to the inland. Following the United States advance and subsequent German counterattacks, each scenario lays out a simple briefing for the German and US players along with a referee sheet, terrain map and a guide to forces and cards needed for play.

IMG_3554“Protect The Guns” scenario set-up for IABSM

IABSMGameScenes from the German defense above Pointe du Hoc in “Protect The Guns”

My first game — “Protect The Guns” — saw me playing as the defending Germans looking to hold off the Allied advance from Pointe du Hoc with a couple heavy machine guns, snipers and some off-board artillery. One of the remarkable things about IABSM is the vast amount of space represented on the table, making decisions of movement and firing  very important. My artillery was also very unreliable, representing some of the German communication challenges come alive. That said, with only a few men at my disposal, I was able to stave off and force the Americans to redirect through constant harassing fire until their reinforcements entered under a blind at my rear. With one of my machine guns and both snipers finally destroyed, the last of my Germans found themselves pinched on two sides of more-skilled US troops who took the game.

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“Holding The Pointe” scenario set-up from IABSM

In “Holding The Pointe,” my Germans were on the counter-offensive and looking to push the Americans back into the sea. With all my forces deployed at the game’s start and all American units under blinds, my Germans began in overwhelmed confusion. This disadvantage made the game play so much more like the actual action in Normandy as German forces scrambled to head-off the Allied attack inland. Rather than focus my attack, I made the poor gamble of splitting myself to chase two sets of US targets. By the time a large force of German reinforcements arrived in the seventh turn, my initial force had gotten chewed-up in a series of stand-off firefights amidst the thick bocage near my original deployment. My divided force tactics were ultimately my undoing, and I’m certain a more textbook massed attack may very well have giving me a greater shot at victory.

With a couple of games under our belts, we’re going to continue right through the IABSM D-Day scenarios and beyond. We’ve managed our games without a referee so far through some really good fair play, but we’re anxious to try some scenarios with the referee element. Overall, the up-close feel for command and the heightened tactical realism in IABSM has given me a second WWII game to love at the 15mm scale.