Monday, May 6, 2019

The First Gamers Collator Reunion

The Old House. 502 S. East Street, Homer. We lived there from 1985 until 1995. 

The Collates and Collators

In the history of The Gamers, there were three collates done at our old house... yes, kneeling on the living room floor (thankfully covered in some 'quality' 1970's carpet) and another 48 done at the combination office and warehouse (affectionately known world-wide as "The Hut") on the other end of town.

[Edit: Original posted that there were four done at the house, it was only three. The 4th game, August Fury, was the first one collated at The Hut.]

As far as I can recall, the only Old Guard Veterans who attended the four "living room" collates were Sara, Dave Powell, Dave "Sticky" Combs (RIP), (possibly) Sam Simon, and myself. It is possible Rick Knaak was there as well, but I am fuzzy on that point. Nobody else knew we existed back then (almost not an exaggeration) and we didn't know them, either. No knees were destroyed in the process (not from lack of trying), but we were 30 years younger and a few pounds lighter then, too.

As a small aside to the aside... it was in the back of that house where the die cutting of the first 100-200 or so copies of ITQF were done. We couldn't afford having them done at a real die cutting company, so we (never underestimate the power of youth to ignore the obvious) invested in a cutting die (a real one, made by a retired tool & die maker in Gifford Illinois, some 20 miles north of we found him, I have no clue... IIRC, the price tag was around $300) and bought a 10 ton hydraulic press plus a stainless steel strike plate (a foot square of 1/4 inch thick from a steel company in Danville, IL who (apparently) never priced steel to sell under 5,000 tons... they were quite bemused by the whole process).

The homemade press worked fairly well, considering the untrained ape running it (me), but it was very slow (hand cranked hydraulics), only semi-accurate, and consumed a king's ransom in spray adhesive... all purchased from the Homer Ace Hardware store (now long gone, though the owner is a good friend).

One day, though, the press committed suicide from the load it was dealing with. The 1.5-2 inch steel bars holding up the impact plate and its shelf literally exploded with a great puff of smoke and bits of welds flying this way and that. You know those submarine movie scenes where the bolts start popping off and shooting around the interior—it was eerily like that. When the dust settled, the bars were bent into a lovely U-shaped curve and the press was out of business permanently.

Aside level 3: The test runs for a press of that type were done in the (then) home garage auto repair business of Don "Donnie" Happ. He still runs the auto repair business in Homer (though no longer out of his personal garage) and is the town's Fire Chief.

Dave Powell and I did several sheets there to see if it could work (anybody keeping score should now realize we had the counters printed BEFORE realizing we had a little issue with having them glued front to back the then cut since we had the real things available for this test run). The sheets turned out fine. Dave, I know, has one. I'm not sure of the whereabouts of the other 2 or so... wanna talk about collectors items? Those sheets are as rare as they get!

The Hut early in its heyday... the 1995 Homercon photo.

By the summer of 1990, while I was laying in a hospital bed in Rochester MN getting my hands rebuilt, we knew we couldn't fit in the old house anymore (kinda a wonder we made it that far... it was (and is) a tiny house with no "warehouse" space at all...and by that point two of three kids).

There was an old Plumbing contractor company on the north side of town that had gone out of business (Able Mechanical, for the sake of completeness). They had a cute wooden quonset hut with a small office in front. The Hut was originally built in the 1940's to shuck corn. In the summer of 1990, it went up for sale via a real estate auction (yes, live auctioneer and everything). Sara guided by the able hand of our neighbor (Jim Wakefield (RIP), then the town's plumber, no association with the defunct company) won the bidding with a bid of $8,500 and the famous (or infamous) Gamers Hut was born.

As I have taken to saying, the Collates were the very top thing about running the company here that I miss. The group was fantastic, cheerful, willing to do everything needed and then some, and developed its own little traditions. We typically collated the entire run (and anything else that was needed) on a Saturday before adjourning to have Burritos as Big as Your Head at the La Bamba Mexican Restaurant in Champaign (collators pulled in the big bucks, for the price of working their butts off, they got a free game _and_ a burrito)...there were a couple of two day collates, stuff of legend, but those were rare).

But, what's that you say? What about the Homercons, don't I miss them more than the collates??

Well, no actually.

By the day of the collate, everything was ready to roll. Everyone knew what they were about, the office staff (the immortal and truly amazing, "Three Headed-S" of Sara, Shirley, and Sandi) had everything primed to get all the pre-orders on their way via the broken back of the poor UPS truck driver in the first few days of the next week. All that was left was the relatively pleasant manual labor of the collate itself and catching up with good friends. It was more celebration than work, but all the work got done and rapidly.

Homercons meanwhile required somewhat extensive preparation, dealing with lots of small things that came up, 4 days straight of trying to remember what I was doing in my game while getting pulled aside every few minutes to answer a random rules question about a game I hadn't thought about in years, doing on-the-spot design work to deal with issues we found in our game (which was usually a test of something)...followed by a week or two of clean up, taking care of issues that had to wait until it was over, and generally figuring out where the heck I was in all the current projects. Not to mention recovering from the near zombie-like state I was in by that point.

So, collate = relaxing with good friends and having a few yucks. Homercon = complete mental exhaustion and an inability to enjoy the friends there because of the tension level.

In the collates we had several standouts who made them run so well.

Owen Fuller stepped directly into the role of Line Boss. Organizing how the thing was done, paying attention to the supplies and time frame, and dealing with manpower arrangements, etc. The crew was willing, so nobody ever needed to spend a "night in the box." Owen also had a small truck which he used at the end of the day to load up all the empty and unneeded boxes to run over for recycling. He also was the company's volunteer warehouse manager, making sure everything was squared away and properly organized in _his_ warehouse.

The only known photo of Dan and Boss Hog.
Dan Cicero, coming from his US Navy experience as the chief engineer of (I kid you not) the USS Barney (since sold to the Turkish Navy and then sunk, IIRC) took it upon himself to keep the unpredictable machinery of the shrink wrap machine (Boss Hog) working. Every once in a while he'd stick his head out where we could see him...usually unloading a string of expletives and sarcasm...looking like the U-Boat engineer in Das Boot. When the machine was packed up to send off to MMP in Baltimore, we found the small space dedicated to holding the plastic punched out in the shrink wrapping process (we were supposed to empty it, but didn't know it existed). The small plastic disks punched out were all there from some 10 years of operation: something like 400,000 of the little guys. Only Dan could have coaxed that machine to hold on that long. What he actually had to do and how he did it is best not said (due to criminal evidence law).

Everyone had their preferences... I recall Jerry Axel taking over the folding of boxes when we had those to do. Whether this had anything to do with the ability to make boxes while sitting was a subject for conjecture. Even my kids got into the act...once tall enough to see over the collate a few games before it got too boring and they'd go find something else to do.

I'll leave the story about the ghost-driven melting of counter trays (which we did, eventually, figure out... ) for another time. And we would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids.

The First Collator's Reunion, 4 May 2019.
L-R: Jerry Axel, Mike Duffy, Dave Demko, Tom DeFranco, Bill Quoss, Dean, Sara, Max Workman,
Tim Gritten, Joe Linder, Dan Cicero, and Dan's son Francesco.

The Reunion

Earlier this spring, I got the urge to call together the collators of yore for a day of old fart reminiscences and a bit of a picnic. The interest was there based on those I could get ahold of and the day of days arrived, damp and chilly, this past Saturday (May 4th)... during the day, the clouds started to part, it warmed up, and was absolutely pleasant. 

The stories and camaraderie was just as it was. In spite of the last collate here being almost 18 years earlier. There were some extra grey hairs (ok, a bunch more). But a grand time was had. We worked up plans to try to add to our distribution list people I had managed to not have on it or at least had no functional email. (PS: That's what happened to Len Ludtke... his was the email that had a system error...every time.) Also included are numerous "friends of The Gamers" who might have never been to a collate, but everyone knew anyway. 

I'd like to thank Bill Quoss who showed up with the Dawn Patrol to help get things for the BBQ and then proceeded to do the cooking far better than your inept yours truly ever could. 

Jerry Axel who also showed up first thing and literally insisted on paying for the meat we ate.

Brian Youse of MMP who picked up the tab for the other food items, ice, and a small burrito run afterwards.

Dave Demko who drove from Atlanta to take part and ended up staying the longest.

Tim Gritten who drove from San Antonio and almost beat out Okmed for staying the longest. 

Max Workman who was able to make it out and be "typical Max" in spite of the stroke(s?) he has suffered. Reminding us, yet again, why that sign coming into Homer suggests you keep your wives close and your farm animals closer...

And so very happy to see her get out to come visit, Shirley Cromwell plus her son and granddaughter (not pictured). Everyone was so happy to see her as she has not been well...and back in the day, she was the surrogate mother for all these hapless guys.

As I said to them at the time: "Thank you all...what you did created a wargaming legend."

In this world full of hyperbole, that statement is simply true, and I am humbled to have been a part of it.

Group pic with Shirley Cromwell (center front),
also including John Best (not in the pic above) right rear, wearing the blue cap.
Bill Quoss is not in this pic as he is cooking like a fiend at this point.


  1. No mention of the infamous "double" Collate? That about killed us.

  2. I had very easy same-day travel for the reunion, only to and from base camp in Paris, IL. My one shift as a collator was during the fold-out box era. I ruined the first one I attempted to assemble, then found the knack.

    1. Sorry: That was from Okmed, posting as "Unknown".

  3. So nice to see Shirley.
    I could not remember Len's last name but he and I are linked by the burrito eating contest. I won but I was accused of cheating even with the room full of witnesses. :)

  4. OMG, never forget those burritos! I think I was there for collate #3, not sure. But I do remember clearing out the hut. Good times.

  5. That may have been the first time I've ever travelled to Homer without throwing a single die.

  6. Enjoyed reading about the early days of The Gamers. I was praising you all to a gaming friend just last Wednesday (about the Christmas mailings). I may be in that Homercon photo, but can't confirm it's me and surely can't remember which I attended. Good to see Sara, too.
    All the best,
    A fan, Mark Shryock

  7. Super stuff! Reading this I just twigged one of the reasons why someone would run a wargames company - shared experiences with like minded people...friends even!

    As far as I can tell from browsing BGG & CSW over many years, it's certainly not because there's money :-0

  8. It was just fantastic to see everyone again. Thanks, Dean, for setting this event up. I think back to those days with nothing but fond memories. Who would have thought sweating our butts off in a warehouse in Homer, IL could do that! The friendships I made and the experiences I had were all due to Dean, Dave and everyone else at The Gamers. For those memories, I will be eternally grateful.

    Dean, at the get-together, didn't do justice to the difference he and The Gamers made in the hobby. Those Christmas mailers were game changers and made loyal customers of a lot of people. His willingness to answer the phone and answer questions when gamers called was unheard of at the time. The idea that you could make games from gamers who weren't new to gaming altogether meant higher quality simulations and higher production values. Who, at the beginning, would have thought you could sell a game like ENEMY AT THE GATES? The Gamers changed everything.

    There are some corrections to Dean's comments above. (Let's call them errata!) There is photographic evidence of me manning Boss Hogg. Check out the cover of OPERATIONS 18 (Fall 1995). I had a lot more hair back then, probably a few less pounds and a lot more fight ... which allowed me to use the powers of profanity to keep that shrinkwrapper going through the Collate From Hell!

    For those who survived that, we all wound up at Dean and Sara's place. I remember someone playing the piano -- can't remember who -- and Sara singing while we sat on the floor -- not enough chairs -- and drank. That collate sealed the deal for me. I maybe missed one or two after that.

    And the Mighty Warship Barney, Greyhound of the Fleet and Cutting Edge of the Sword of Freedom? It was scrapped, not sold off. A sad end to a proud vessel. "The Hate Boat ... Nothing is ever shiny or new..."

    My recollection of the Great Burrito Conflict was that 1) yes, Perry did eat two, beating Len. But 2) the second burrito was vegetarian, which is what put the asterisk next to his victory. Len, on the other hand, ate a vast quantity of burrito that night, piled into the back seat of my 1989 Mustang convertible, and showed every sign of expiring on the way back to the hut. Seriously, I thought I would be cleaning pieces of Len out of that car for weeks if he just detonated back there. "Hang in there, Len, we're almost home!" That was a Clash of Titans, truly.

    There were so many other amazing things that happened back then. Dave Friedrichs up in the attic while somebody ran the forklift. "We're in the pipe, five by five!" Tom DeFranco taking his eye off the ball in a game of EBOLA MONKEY HUNT. "Which one of you sons-of-bitches shot me!?" Taking grief from seemingly everyone for my crappy paintjob on my sailing ship model for Dean's Age of Sail game. "All my friends know the low rider..." (And I'd totally forgotten about the Damage Sucking Guns and Zombie Crews from that game until it was brought up at the picnic.)

    So, thanks Dean, for putting this thing together and if there's another HomerCon in the future -- I'm going to suggest "RETURN TO JURASSIC PARK, as we're all a bunch of dinosaurs now -- count me in!


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