As Napoleon, Bill Dobson has routed the English at Waterloo. As Patton, he has pushed his troops so hard, from the beaches of Normandy to Paris weeks ahead of schedule, that he was able to shorten the war. As Rommel, he has raced his Panzers across the steamy North African desert and captured the Suez Canal - a feat the real "Desert Fox" was never able to do. As a Soviet general with one finger on the nuclear button, Dobson has brought the capitalist dogs to their knees.
From his command post - the diningroom table of a Suitland apartment - Dobson, a mere yeoman in the Coast Guard's office of ocean policy, has altered history. With his faithful mongrel dog, Bear, curled at his feet, and his wife, Jan, nodding off to Charlie's Angel's on the couch, he has savored the military power his bosses' dreams are made of. At 24, he has changed the course of civilization.
"I prefer ot play the Germans because they're usually outnumbered," he says. "It's more of challenge when you win with a weaker force, more of an ego boost."
Dobson sets his jaw and hunches vulturelike over the war game "Afrika Korps." His next merciless move will drive the British troops and their commander, Kevin Combs, 17, a senior at Beltsville's High Point High, into the sea. The allies have suffered two moves witout supplies and according to the rules, they are doomed.
"What are you going to do with the prisomers?" asks Ronnie Hall, 27, a technician with the phon company. "Why don't you shoor "em?" But Rommel isn't listening. The British have surrendered.There will be no executions. This time. The board is cleared. New war coming up.
Dobson and friends belong to a thriving subculture of hobbyists just emerging from the closet. Wargamers.
Few are kids, as it often takes a professor's appreciation for history, the concentration of a Bobby Fisher and the brainpower of a Ven Braun to grasp the complex rules and regulations to such games as "After the Lohocaoust," "Napoleon's last Battles" and "Gettysburg."
War-game devotees - about a quarter-million, a tiny fragment of the estimated 80 million who play board games - plop down about $8 million a year to attain the instant rank of general, emperor or king and slay thousands on paper.
They tend to be an even-tempered lot. The average war-gamer is a white male in the professions, 18 to 35, a book-buyer, conservative-leaning (though some say they have marched in anti-war demonstrations), analystical and problem-sovlving, according to one industry market survey. He is married, earns $15,000 a year, has attended some college and owns 20 to 30 war games. Recently, though, younger and younger recruits have enlisted, even forming clubs in high schools across the country. It is said that war games surge in peacetime.
What turns many war-gamers on is testing their withs against history, to see if they can win where the famous failed at, say, Stalingrad, or the Sinai (Arabs vs. Israel) or Anzio.
Another sub-cult is addicted to fantasy games - like "Warlocks and Warriors," in which the rules are limited only by the players' imagination.Here you meet curious men like Ed Konstant, 41.
The former Washington bureau chief for the San Juan Star gave up an $18,000 salary, paid health insurance, 16 paid holidays, free parking and tickets to the World Series to open The Little Soldier, a war-game store in Rockville's 1776 Plaza, and pursue his fantasies fulltime.
"Real stupidity," he says, only half-jokingly.
A slight man with a wisp of a goatee that would befit Merlin the magician, Konstant leans back in a beige "Book of Monsters" T-shirt, fires up a French cherrywood pipe and gazes about his arsenal. On the shelves are thousands of teensy toy soldiers and tanks, tomes like "The Book of Terror" (an encyclopedia of dirty tricks designed to strike fear in the hearts of gnomes and hobbits) and "The Book of Demons" ( a social register on nabbs of the netherwolrd with Amy Vanderbilt advice on when to use them), games like "Mademe Guillotine" (Marie Antoinette at the French Revolution), "Flash Gordon and The Warriors of Mongo," "War of Th Star Slaves" and "Bay of Pigs" (the Edsel of war games).
One of Konstant's favorite pastimes is "D and D," trench vernacular for "Dungeions and Dragons," a game extracted from Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" where players indulge their fancies as Oros, Trolls, Balrogs and Hobbits, and trot the little muchkins about inside a make-believe labyrinth. He usually choose the role of wizard or scholar - "in game I like to be a little deviour."
Ed Konstant lets out a cackle. He remembers on encounter he refereed - refereed in D and D make the rules up in their heads as they go along. "I told the wizard to disrupt the game and gave him the magic to dotit. None of the other players knew it; they were deep in the labyrinth, fighting this giant spider, and suddenly this orc gor oblit erated. Everyone thought the spider did it, but the wizard had actually shot him with a magic missile out the end of his finger."
Among the staunchest customers, say shop owners who fuel the arms race, are career military men and intelligence operatives. And, says one well-placed source, if you punched the right buttons on the CIA's giant computer, out would pop magic hobbits, gnomes, wizards with finger lasers, skeletons, vampires ad werewolves.
Three years ago, the first secretary of the Soviet mission to the U.N. could hardly wait to get his hands on "war in the East," a game that pits World War II German invaders against brave Russian defenders, so he trotted over to the New York office of Jim Dunnigan 34, president of Simulations Publications, Inc.
THe game wast's ready, so Dunnigan gave the admirer a tour of theof the plant, copies of the company magazines ("Stragegy and Tactics" and "Moves") and asked him if he might like a game called "NATO," based on a hypothetical Soviet attack. "Already got it," said the Russian.
Some colleges and high schools use war games to bring history alive. At the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., Col. Ray Macedonia, 45, director of war gaming, uses the "NATO" game to prime future generals. "Of course, we modify 'NATO' with up-to-date intelligence reports and use real maps to add detail," he says. "But the basic rules behind the game we use pretty much as is." He calls Dunnigan "a genius."
So uncannily accurate are Dunnigan's projections of ultra-secret weapons (like the MIG-29) and U.S. force levels that he has been told of a recent hush-hush National Security Agency investigation into his firm. "It disturbs these people no end," gloats Dunninan, who first became enthralled with war as an army private and went on to parlay the fascination into a fast-growing $2 million-a-year business. "But we're clean. If they made too much of a stink, they'd be admitting we were close."
Jeff Record, 33, national security adviser to Sen. Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate's Armed Services Subcommittee on Manpower and Personnel, prefers Avalon Hill's war game, "Stalingrad," and dabbles at beefing up NATO forces to offset what he sees as the Warsaw Pact's flexed muscle in Eastern Europe. And Record, a former Brookings Institute defense analyst, says playing the NATO game "reconfirms how difficult it would be to stop the Russians wast fo the Rhine."
Walter Cronkite is said to unwind from the nightly news with "The Battle of the Bulge," and Henry Kissinger reportedly itches to conquer the world in a popular $10 board game called "Diplomacy." It is a favorite among embassy staffs and, say sources who have played, moves are shuttled around town inside diplomatic pounches.
Most war-gamers are not, as it might appears af first impression, warmongers. And they take umbrage at comparisons to Dr. Strangelove.
"War-gamers are paranold they will be seen as militarists, though military things may fascinate them." says Phil Edgren, 29, a designer and player of war games who owns a science-fiction bookstore next to Konstant's shop. "It's got a bad reputation. War games are where sci-fi was 20 yerars ago .
"But let's face it, a good number of whackos do play war games."
Take the guy who was so fond of D and D that he legally changed his first name to Frodo, a hobbit. Or the guy who couldn't BELIEVE he'd actully sent his Panzers sooting all the way to moscos before the snows of '42 socked the city in. As Hitler the madman, he'd actially whomped the Russion heh-heh, leaving Europe - and the world - as easy pickings. He repainted his Volkswaren Panzer gray, dolloped the doors with iron crossee, donned a German helmet, drove right up to Bill Dobsson's front foor and leaned on the horn.
Dobson's roommate back then, who was suffering mightily from the loss of so vast and beautiful a country, staggered sleepily to the door to see what was up. It was 5 a.m. "HEY, STALIN! shouted Hitler. "IS THIS MOSCOW?"
"It's an escape for me," sayd Mark McLaughlun, 24, a dictationist for the Associated Press who has written a book on the Civil War. "I don't drink or take drugs for recreation, I game. On Sunday, I sit down for four hours with some friends, shutout everything else, forget the aAP and became Nalopeon or robert E. Less or genetra Grant or George Washington."
Some wars go on for a few hours, others for weeks, months, even years. Wars are declared at home, in library basements and in hotel rooms in weekends, where gamers stockpile cases of beer and munchies and barricade themselves against the world. Some wars are fought, like chess, by mail. And, for many war-gamers, chess is where it all began.
Chess was the original war game. Like the Pentagon's use of computerized war gmes today that simulate battlefield conditions and let officers think the unthinkable, chess was used in the middle ages to train officers in maneuvers. The white and black pieces represented armies in the field.
"By checkmating the king," says Dobson, "you set up a move to capture the head of state and take control of his country. In modern war games, instead of moving one piece every turn, you get to move them all at once. If you play Hitler, say, in 'War in Europe,' you not only control the battlefield, you decide whether you want guns or butter. You run the factories and order how many planes you want built, what kind of submarines you want and where and when you want then deployed."
Bill Dobson is the Bobby Fischer of war games. Sort of. "The General," the house organ of Avalon Hills games publishers, ranks players of its games much in hte same way the U.S. Chess Federation ranks chess players. And, according to "The General," Dobson, the son of a Florida insurance salesan, is No. 1. Over the years, ever since he was 8 and signed up for his first war in a toy store in Jacksonville, Dobson has mastered so many armies, captured so many prisoners, that he simply cannot remember them all. But, like the patriotic veteran of a real war, he is always not to rekindle the past.
Since January alone, Dobson will tell you, he has smashed 90 enemies, losing to only two rated players. He fights seven days a week, 365 days a year. and there is not a moment when he is not consumed by somebattle, even at work. "I know I souldn't," he confesses, getting that far-off look, "but I daydream."
At his las t duty station, Kodiak, Alaska, he was at war from Friday afternoon to sundown Sunday. His wife tried to bribe him off the front with the aroma of spaghetti, even hinting at afternoon delights. But for Dobson. loyalty to the troops come first. He was unmovable.
"It gets to a woman's ego." he says.
I'm a war-game widow," confesses JanDobson. "But I don't mind too much. It keeps him off the streets."