In 1969, a notice was posted in the Daily Illini seeking to form a group to play wargames. A meeting was held shortly thereafter in Altgeld Hall with about a dozen men in attendance. That day, the Conflict Simulation Society was chartered.
Alan Conrad’s memory of the circumstances behind that first meeting are a bit fuzzy. He recalls that all in attendance were students at the University of Illinois with an interest in board games, specifically wargames created in the mid-1960s like Battle of the Bulge, Stalingrad and Midway, all strategy-based “hex” games rooted in World War II. In short, they were a precursor to Axis and Allies, which debuted in 1981.
“There were rather few games actually played at meetings,” recalls Conrad. “Most of the games at that time took at least four hours to play, and there was not usually that much time available.”
Still, the Conflict Simulation Society brought together like-minded gamers who might have otherwise never received a formal introduction. As the years ticked by, new members joined the collective, including some who introduced miniatures, collections of tiny painted figures that could be arranged on any surface, whether outdoors or more commonly atop a table. Miniatures provided the group with a greater ability to tailor the competition for a larger group of players and a shorter time frame.
By early 1974, certain members of the society began thinking big, and Winter War, one of the country’s longest-running gaming conventions, was born. This weekend, Winter War 36 takes place at Hawthorn Suites in Champaign.
“The guy that started [the Conflict Simulation Society] just decided we should run a convention,” says Conrad. “Most of us certainly did not see any need, and I along with many others never thought we could actually run a game convention. But it worked, and everything just sort of gathered momentum from there.”
The debut of Winter War was held at the Foreign Languages Building on campus. Many of the building’s rooms featured large tables, perfect for gaming. The 50 or so attendees of Winter War 1 were all local residents.
“Over time as students graduated and most of them moved out of town, for at least a while they would come back for the convention,” Conrad says. “Eventually we got a following from Peoria, Springfield and Chicago that became regular attendees.”
Conrad was chairman of the Winter War convention from 1976 through 1993. In 1994, Don McKinney took over the show, helping to promote a wider reach for one of the Midwest’s proudest gaming traditions. With the aid of the Internet, the convention continues to mature into a larger scale affair. Pre-registration is up this year, according to McKinney.
“There are more vendors, more people, and more activities [than in year’s past],” he says. “I have a program from Winter War 18, and it is a single 11×17 sheet folded to make four pages. It lists 74 events. This year’s program is 20 pages, with more than double the number of events.”
THE GAMERS AND THE GAMES THEY PLAY
The Conflict Simulation Society is no more. But gaming enthusiasts still have multiple local options for congregating and purchasing games. Other Realm, located on the 500 block of Green St. on campus, opened in 1987 and focuses its inventory on role-playing games (RPGs), in addition to selling comic books and toys. The Dragon’s Table, which is in the process of moving to a new location at 205 N. Market St. in downtown Champaign, opened in 2001 and sells miniatures, RPGs and board games. Armored Gopher Games, which opened in 2007 and just moved its storefront to 1502 N. Cunningham Ave. (Suite E) in Urbana, also sells RPGs and board games, plus miniatures. Both The Dragon’s Table and Armored Gopher offer tabletops for gamers, with scheduled events for particular games throughout the week.
“We’re really focused on the community,” says Heather Hoover, who owns Armored Gopher with her husband, Dave. “It’s really important to us that we offer a place where anyone can walk in, sit down to play and feel welcome. My husband and I both game. Our son games. My dad games. My brother and sister-in-law game. Building a community is a huge part of what we’re about.”
For some attendees of Winter War, the allure of the convention is rooted in such competition; others, though, just want to watch. This will be the first Winter War for Marisa Zapata, a Ph.D. student in the university’s urban planning department.
“I’m psyched to be around lots of people who love Settlers of Catan,” she says. “I’d also like to learn and watch Power Grid. I’m excited to discover new board games that I’ve never heard of and meet other game players in Champaign.”
Jake Ivey and Nick Wantanabe, who game at Armored Gopher, are both excited about the Living Forgotten Realms RPG events. A subset of Dungeons and Dragons, Living Forgotten Realms is a relatively new national campaign that is making its debut at Winter War.
“We are giving more space to our Warmachine and Warhammer miniatures tournaments this year,” says McKinney. “We have a lot of individual game events which have not been run before, and we have a number of people who will be running their first event at a convention ever this year.”
Old standbys still reign supreme, however. Winter War 36 will feature the 11th annual Advanced Squad Leader tournament, the 11th annual Magic: the Gathering Legacy tournament, and the 30th annual Blind Sniper tournament.
“Blind Sniper is a great game for people who are new, as they don’t really need to know the rules,” says McKinney. “They turn in their moves to the judge, and he’s the only one who knows where everything is. The goal is to eliminate the other competitors or get to various spots on the board and then escape. It starts Saturday Afternoon and runs until there is a winner.”
Also featured will be a variety of board games like Axis and Allies and Settlers of Catan, miniatures and role-playing events, as well as open gaming, vendors (Armored Gopher is the lone local store represented) and a live auction run by Conrad.
McKinney stresses that the convention’s variety of games also translates to the diversity of its attendees.
“Gaming is one of those hobbies where you can have multiple generations playing in the same game; you will find kids and seniors enjoying the same game together at Winter War,” he says. “In the past, gaming was a male-dominated hobby. But over the last several years, we have seen increasingly more females and more families attending Winter War.”
As for Conrad, who admits that the games have changed significantly since the inaugural Winter War, he will once again be in attendance at the convention, but not as a gamer.
“I rarely play games at any of the conventions I attend,” he says. “A small convention always needs people to run events, as I found out when I had to rustle them up. … [At this year’s Winter War] I am running adaptations of commercial games — History of the World and a fun, fast game called Robo Rally.”
Hoover will be busy as a vendor, but is still looking forward to catching up with old friends.
“As a long time attendee of Winter War,” she says, “it is almost like a reunion for me. I always like to see how people are doing since I last saw them.”
Winter War 36 is this Friday, Feb. 6, through Sunday, Feb. 8, at the Hawthorn Suites in Champaign.