Monday, May 7, 2012

Norman Bel Geddes, Wargamer

This story popped up on the internets today about Norman Bel Geddes, an obsessive modeler (among other things) who created miniature games and dioramas, including the 1939 World's Fair "Futurama" exhibit. You can read the entire article (which was sounded so preposterous I was sure it was fake), but what really caught my eye was the gigantic wargames he ran, with dozens of participants over a 24 x 4 foot table playing out a fictional WWI game. 

"The board was twenty-four feet long and four feet wide, its surface a varnished relief map of the coastline of two imaginary countries. It represented twenty thousand square kilometers, approximately the size of the Western Front. There were a dozen layers of land above sea level, each measuring an eighth of an inch vertically; the water had three measured depths. One journalist reported that nine thousand cities and towns, along with every mountain, valley, tunnel, bridge, and river, were delineated with fictitious names. Pins of various colors, sizes, and shapes (twelve thousand to twenty-five thousand of them, depending on whom one talked to) stood in for forty-plus types of military units. Each pin had a different kind of move, and each occupied the approximate amount of space on the map that its equivalent force would occupy in the field or at sea. There were at least four thousand on the board at all times."

It sounds like the participants would play a few turns each night, with campaigns lasting years! I thought that might be the end of the story, with the records, rules and material from those games lost to the ages, but it sounds like some of the records and rules made into the collection of the University of Texas at Austin. I'm not too knowledgable of the "old school" wargames scene, but I've certainly heard of the contributions of H.G. Wells, the Kriegspiel days, and Donald Featherstone, but this permutation of wargaming was completely foreign to me.  I'm hoping more details from these games comes to light... I'd love to read over the rules from what sounds like an impossibly complex and detailed game.

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