By Alan Burke
HAMILTON -- You may never have heard the name Larry Harris, but in the world of board games he's as famous as Tom Clancy. In fact, he's so well known that an Internet search for his classic game, "Axis & Allies," generates an astonishing 350,000 hits.
The game -- and its newest edition "Axis & Allies D-Day" -- puts World War II strategies into your living room. Harris, 56, invented his original game in 1978 while living in France. Its success brought him home, got him hired as a game designer for Milton Bradley and, later, Hasbro. In the years since, he's been involved in the development of dozens of games, from "Trivial Pursuit" to "Risk" to his own take on ancient Rome, "Conquest of the Empire."
But "Axis & Allies" is Harris' masterpiece, selling to nearly two million people, inspiring legions of fans who endlessly hash over strategies for a game that merges the real and the "play" World War II.
They take it so seriously, says Harris, that "at one club they have their own (online) war college, where they learn the rules." He smiles. "It's done all right."
Now, on the 60th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, Harris has produced "Axis & Allies D-Day." Because it concerns a single battle it is less complex than the early version. Compared with many similar games, he says, "my game is easier to play."
That's one of the secrets to Harris' success. Some war games, he explains, are at such pains to recreate real battles that the rules alone run more than 100 pages. The original "Axis & Allies," reissued earlier this year in a new and improved form, has a mere 38 pages.
Feedback over the Internet helped him tweak the new version, says Harris. But one thing he won't do is include the role of ideology in fighting World War II. The battle to reconquer France, for example, is fought against the Germans, not the Nazis.
"There are no Nazi symbols in this game," he says. "No Nazi swastikas. No references to Hitler."
An early version of the original "Axis & Allies," kept in his basement workshop, displays a swastika on the box cover. "That was a mistake," Harris says. It was later removed. For one thing, he notes, it couldn't be sold in Germany with a swastika on it.
More to the point, he says, "it's not a political game. It's strategic." Winning the war on behalf of the Germans shouldn't upset anybody, he explains, because duty-bound soldiers fighting for their homeland can be separated from their criminal leadership.
Harris creates his games in a basement workshop with homemade boards and homemade game pieces. Meanwhile, he surrounds himself with hundreds of games, many of them his own creations, everything from "Monopoly" to a game he invented called "Thin Ice" -- in which marbles are piled atop a thin membrane until it breaks. Interspersed are mementos from the real war: an oversized scale model of a German Tiger Tank, a shell, a battered French infantryman's helmet, which he dug out of an old battlefield himself.
Eventually, Harris tests his games on friends, looking for a formula that imparts a little magic, that perhaps lets the players believe for a moment that they are directing vast armies and making decisions that will reshape the world.
If Harris' games are so successful, it's probably not a coincidence that World War II figured prominently in his own life.
His father helped fight the war, slogging from the Solomon Islands to New Guinea to the Philippines in the battle against Imperial Japan. "He is my inspiration," Harris says.
His respect for his father in particular and history in general helped form both Harris and his games. A Vietnam-era veteran, Harris served in the 82nd Airborne, stationed mostly in Europe.
"I love the 82nd," he says. "It's my alma mater." At the end of his service he moved to France, living there for 10 years and marrying a French woman; they have since divorced. Remarried, he has lived on the North Shore for the past 17 years.
Harris was well-prepared for creating his latest game. "I went to Normandy all the time. ... It is beautiful." Once, he flew a rented plane over still-existing German bunkers. "I could see Utah Beach, Omaha Beach. I could see Ste. Mere Eglise beyond. From one spot I could see the entire battlefield."
Complaints about French ingratitude to America wound him. "There are things going on in France that you don't know about," he says. Schoolchildren buy flowers and place them at American graves.
"France fought the Germans, too," he says. And if some French youths have forgotten the sacrifices made in the war, so, too, have many young Americans.
The games, he believes, are a way to remember. Significantly, on the box for the computer version of "Axis & Allies," his father is pictured, smiling, sitting in a foxhole in New Guinea. "He was a fighting infantryman for four years," says his son.
It might not be perfect, it might not say everything, but for Harris the game is a gentle reminder of all the infantrymen who fought. "I want to use history in an exciting way. So people don't forget history."
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