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Will Fresno Survive? : Players Save, Destroy World--for Fun

July 09, 1986|PETER BAKER | Times Staff Writer

Aliens have invaded California, and in what's left of Fresno the Marines are desperately trying to fend off the attack.

The situation appears hopeless; the National Guard and local SWAT teams have already been slaughtered, much of the heavy weaponry is gone and the city is in ruins. The battle has deteriorated into a street-by-street guerrilla war, with the enemy lurking behind every corner as the Marines try to keep them from the crucial grain supply.

Worse, for every alien "bug" the Marines kill, another three seem to take its place.

No, the scene isn't from another summer movie, and the action isn't really taking place in Fresno. It's happening in Los Angeles, in the basement of the Airport Hilton, where seven dedicated war-game players are huddled around an 8-by-4-foot scale model of what Fresno might look like if it really had been invaded by an alien race called Dreenoi. The seven commanders are fighting out an imaginary scenario they've dubbed "The Bugs That Ate Fresno, Part II."

"There are zillions of bugs and they've got far better weaponry than we do," explained Keith Postel, 33, a movie prop maker from Northridge who is commanding the losing Marine company. "The only thing saving us are the air strikes we can call in."

"Fresno is going to be our feeding area," gloats a player representing the dreaded Dreenoi.

This science-fiction game was just one of thousands played over the weekend by more than 4,500 hobbyists who converged on Los Angeles for the annual four-day Origins War-Gaming Convention.

While millions of Americans celebrated Independence Day with fireworks and the television mega-spectacular Liberty Weekend, these gaming enthusiasts re-fought the American Revolution and virtually every war ever waged--as well as many that never were.

The Fresno game, for instance, was the brainchild of Los Angeles gamer Dave Williamson, who took for his scenario an alien invasion close to home.

Using a table model built out of charcoal-darkened cardboard and fiberglass, almost a dozen people over the last several weeks had helped create the demolished ruins of Fresno banks, churches and police stations. Inch-high lead figurines represented the Marines and aliens, plastic models the jet fighters and Matchbox cars the destroyed automobiles.

"The surprising thing is this can get really intense considering" you're playing with toys, said Postel, who has been participating in role-playing and war games for five years. "I mean, you can get really involved with what's happening out there, feel as if you're part of it, you know?"

The thousands of enthusiasts who filled the Hilton's halls last weekend did indeed know. In fact, many came from as far away as Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Japan and the East Coast just to find people who felt the same way.

They came to phaser-blast the Klingons in Star Fleet Battles and hack evil trolls to pieces in Dungeons and Dragons. They came to re-create Waterloo, Gettysburg and D Day. And they came to share a weekend with others involved in their increasingly popular, if somewhat eccentric, hobby.

The convention--which began Thursday and ended Sunday with a collectors' auction of vintage games--included more than 700 game tournaments played around the clock, 50 seminars, five auctions, a dealers' room and an award ceremony. Convention manager Alan Emerich of Long Beach called Origins the "Super Bowl of gaming."

Now held annually, the convention got the "origins" part of its name from the fact that its first host city--Baltimore in 1975--is also the home of the game company Avalon Hill. That company, aficionados say, started the war game craze in 1958 when it came out with a board game called Tactics that involved a no-frills, generic battle between the blue nation and the white nation across a hypothetical continent.

State of the Art

By comparison, games at the Hilton were state of the art. Some involved 100-square-foot table-top areas with miniature soldiers, fake grassy terrain and hills in a precise model of the way things were at, say, Bunker Hill--accurate almost down to the placement of individual bushes. The board games varied from the complex--such as imaginative World War III simulations--to the downright wacky--such as the Awful Green Things From Outer Space and Toon.

(In Toon, players assume the identities of their favorite cartoon characters for a madcap adventure that some said should have stayed on Saturday morning television.)

But most of the games are quite serious.

About half a dozen players set up games of War in Europe for the weekend, and just the setting-up was no easy task. With about 1,000 small cardboard counters representing army units from Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States, the game is a grand campaign-style re-creation of World War II with an average playing time of "two to three years," according to players.

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