In the last 10 years, John Prados has designed a dozen war games, including The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, one of the bestselling board games produced by the premier distributor of strategy games, Avalon Hill. Prados' most recent hit is Spies (designed with Newsweek writer Lenny Glynn), and his list of credits includes games that re-create battles of Napoleon, the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Cassino, the Ukraine and Vietnam.
War, however, is more than a game to Prados.
While desiging board games, he collected degrees. He holds a PhD in political science from Columbia University and is the author of a new book from The Dial Press that examines how accurately Washington determines the strength of Soviet strategic forces. The Washington Monthly praised The Soviet Estimate as "the first comprehensive record of American performance" in the field of strategic intelligence.
But 31-year-old Prados is no Washington foreign policy insider jockeying for a think tank slot or State Department title. And despite his background --he is the son of an Army officer--and despite his fascination with battles through history, Prados is a dove.
"The left in America makes a mistake if it thinks it can supply a solid critique of American policy without understanding the military and strategic issues," says Prados. "Without a solid foundation, your critique is derailed by the charge that it lacks realism. I think the left needs a real foundation in those issues, and that's how I see my role."
But it isn't exactly what Prados once thought he'd be when he grew up. As a teen-ager in Puerto Rico, he considered attending West Point.
"War games and my whole interest in the subject is a sublimation of that," he says now. At Columbia University in the late 1960s, Prados was active in the movement against the Vietnam war. In 1972, Strategy and Tactics magazine published his first game, Vietnam: Year of the Rat. The game that put him on the map in the world of professonal gamesmen, The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, was put on sale by Avalon Hill in 1974. It has sold 190,000 sets, has brought Prados many awards and still sells well.
In a Capitol Hill townhouse, Prados works on a second book for Dial about "a major foreign policy crisis" from America's Vietnam era. And he's working on a new war game, a task he often performs with a rock or jazz album blaring from his stereo, surounded by meticulous research of military campaigns that allows him to translate historical events into realistic board games.
"Even games can be about war without breeding militarism," says Prados. "You can design games that illustrate the difficulty of conducting war and the horrendous costs of war."