To the Pole!

“FATEFUL CHOICE  [Robert Falcon] Scott’s ship, Terra Nova, carried Siberian dogs and Manchurian ponies, which required bulky fodder and close care. Scandinavian snowshoes of twisted cane helped some ponies; those without waded up to their knees in snow. The best means of transportation was much debated: [Roald] Amundsen’s original Arctic plans had included harnessing polar bears.”
—photo caption, “The Man Who Took the Prize” by Caroline Alexander,
National Geographic, September 2011

“‘It is quite true,’ said Capt. Amundsen, ‘that I intend to try polar bears to haul my sleds. Hagenbeck is training four bears and guarantees that they will be perfectly docile.”
—”Bears Will Draw Him to the Pole”, The New York Times, October 16, 1907

*  *  *
September 1, 1907
Karl Hagenbeck, Hamburg

Herr Hagenbeck,

The polar bear show put on by your circus (which I made a point of seeing while on a recent speaking engagement in Belgium) is very intriguing, particularly the act where some of your bears—75 polar bears!—drew carts. What possibility would there be that I could persuade you to train several bears to draw heavy sleds for an attempt to reach the North Pole? I spoke to your brother Wilhelm about the feasibility of such a plan but despite the obvious facility of the many bears in the circus, he seemed rather dubious and referred the matter to you as the proprietor of your animal purveying operation.

I hope to hear from you at your earliest convenience,

Capt. Roald Amundsen

*  *  *


September 15, 1907
Capt. Roald Amundsen, Oslo

Dear Captain Amundsen,

Your letter finally caught up to me; the plan sounds eminently practicable and the scientific nature of the expedition would bolster my proposal for the Hagenbeck Tierpark as more than a mere zoological garden or circus immobile. Wilhelm is the master in the art of training wild beasts but he is sometimes cautious regarding the introduction of new tricks and routines. I shall cable him to move this project forward or—as you Norwegians might say—Fram.


Karl Hagenbeck

*  *  *

15 SEP


*  *  *

16 SEP


*  *  *

September 16, 1907
Karl Hagenbeck, Hamburg

Dear Brother,

I could not in telegram form express the concern I have regarding Amundsen’s plan. He is truly a great explorer but I fear he knows nothing of undomesticated animals save their shooting for safety or ration. His intent is to drift in his ship with the polar ice pack for a period of five to six years then sled for the pole, counting on the Winter hibernation cycle of the bears to reduce the need for provision over the years. As you well know, our circus performs throughout the Winter in Northern climes and the polar bears never hibernate. They do not hibernate if there is a ready food source, such as is available at the Circus Hagenbeck. Presumably, the members of Amundsen’s expedition would also provide a fine Winter food source. At least for a brief time.



*  *  *

September 20, 1907


I apologize for leaving town before your return with the bears, but a shipment of animals is due to Paris this week. I have left instructions regarding the particulars of Amundsen’s needs. Proceed with the bears you have brought; he will want the best half dozen of them.

Karl Hagenbeck


*  *  *

September 22, 1907
Karl Hagenbeck, Hamburg

Herr Hagenbeck,

I see your knowledge of polar expedition is up to date. Yes, we are attempting to secure Nansen’s ship Fram for the venture; it is integral to our plans.

Fantastic news regarding the bears! How long will the training take? I will be leaving for New York via the Oscar II on a lecturing and fund-raising tour early next month. If we can complete negotiations prior to my sailing, our joint venture can be announced in Europe and America before my return, which would no doubt pique the interest of newspapers and expedition underwriters. Please cable any progress reports and let us finalize a contract.



*  *  *

28 SEP



*  *  *

October 23, 1907
Karl Hagenbeck, Hamburg

Dear Brother,

Reuben writes that sled training is going well. He hasn’t mentioned how training not to eat people in the Winter goes.

The vision of Amundsen’s pet bears pulling his team to victory in the race for the pole has certainly fired up the imaginations of the popular press. The papers say he is off to America for a seven-month tour to spread the polar ursine gospel.

The gaps left in the performance schedule by the bears working with Reuben have been bridged. I will be returning to Hamburg myself for the final stages of training.

I am worried, Karl. The training of polar bears poses particular difficulties. They are crafty, suspicious creatures apt to turn on the trainer with the least warning. Only a few of our bears truly enjoy their routines. Constant vigilance is our only safety with them in the confines of the Circus. God only knows what would happen over the course of several years on their home territory in the polar ice fields. Actually, I think I have a pretty good idea of what would happen, as well.



P.S. With Amundsen overseas until the summer, what are we going to do with two dozen bears trained to pull ice sleds? Can I have them back with the Circus?

*  *  *



*  *  *

February 24, 1908
Capt. Roald Amundsen, Minneapolis

My Dear Captain,

I do hope this missive finds you in a timely fashion; your Oslo office gave us your expected itinerary and I have attempted to allow for trans-Atlantic transit time as well as movement through the American mail system.

Lieut. Nilson and his team have embarked with six bears and customized sleds for Hammerfest, per your orders. I am somewhat ashamed to have to admit, however, that neither my brother Wilhelm or our lead bear-keeper Reuben Castang was willing to accompany them to the edge of the Arctic, so your men are on their own as to the care, maintenance, and management of the bears. I did my best to persuade each man to take the reins—as it were—but they were rather adamant in their refusal and I do not have the gift with their wills that they have with those of the bears.

To the Pole!

Karl Hagenbeck

*  *  *

April 1, 1908
Capt. Roald Amundsen, New Orleans

Sir, the polar bear sled plan may be less than optimal.

First, while our team was training with the bears in Hamburg, Wilhelm Hagenbeck informed me that polar bears do not always hibernate in winter. Indeed, it was winter while we were there, cold (if not Arctic cold) and the bears seemed as active as you might ever expect. This will necessarily impact our provisioning plans.

Second, it is currently our experience that a carnivore as heavy as a draft horse is not easily swayed to our purpose and that a half dozen of them compound the problem far more than six-fold.

The closer we came to Hammerfest and the arctic ice, the more restless the bears became. As we took the first out of his enclosure, he stood on his hind legs. A fine trick when done in the circus but rather disconcerting when two of you are holding him with control sticks attached to a collar from either side and the effect is to lift you off your feet, swinging into his flank within range of his massive foreclaws. This unexpected behavior startled us so much that Hans and I both let go our grip and the bear took off at full speed North to the ice, with the sticks essentially airborne.

We were particularly careful after that incident, moving the bear-carts into one of the facilities used to process fish before we tried to move the bears out of the carts and harness them to their sleds. This seemed to work well—although it would be a bit impracticable to replicate in the hold of a vessel or on the ice—and we steered our charges out onto the town’s streets, where mid-afternoon gloaming was brightened by the electric streetlamps and the Northern Lights. Onlookers gathered round at a remove as Lars climbed into one of the sleds and took the reins. Then all five bears leapt forward along the path blazed by their brother. Lars could be seen hauling on the reins with seemingly no effect, as the bears passed quickly out of our view. We put a party together to find him, and recovered three of the sleds—though much damaged. Of Lars and the other sleds we have not yet found a trace.

Lieut. Thorvald Nilson

Just a Box of Games, Box 4

Time to open up another box, I guess.


Avalon Hill, 1980
Diplomacy meets Risk meets lots of cool-sounding names at the height of the ’70s craze for things Japanese. Never got a chance to play it more than once or twice.

Traveller, Deluxe Edition,
High Guard, Traveller Book 5
The Imperium,
The Spinward Marches

Game Designers’ Workshop, 1979 and 1981
Scouts & Assassins
Merchants & Merchandise
Paranoia Press, 1980 and 1981
Just a portion of the extensive Traveller material in my possession. The Deluxe Edition box was a replacement for well-worn copies of my original books. High Guard covered space navy character generation. The two “Approved for use with Traveller” supplements covered a couple of different classes of citizens, the maps were official supplements, and the computer printout in the lower right was one of apparently dozens of space “sectors” that I wrote a computer program to generate (far beyond the needs of my little game-playing circle) with names created using a Japanese syllabalary (would that I had spent as much time actually studying for my Japanese language class).

Avalon Hill, 1975
My grandfather served in North Africa duringWW2, so this had some interest for me early on in my gaming days, it’s one of the earlier real wargames I picked up. The map is completely featureless. It’s a throwback to the days before easy access to photocopiers, when AH made some money selling pads of tally sheets for crew rosters and damage charts.

Alpha Omega
Battleline, 1977
Tobruk…in space! Space tactical simulations had it easy as far as maps went, because there’s literally nothing there. I think this title might have been put out to capitalize on the burgeoning sci-fi gaming market that followed Star Wars in the same year, but it sat on the shelves at our shop for many years before I felt sorry for it. The artwork wasn’t particularly catch. Even I never played it.

Dark Nebula

Game Designers’ Workshop, 1978 and 1980
Maybe Alpha Omega was just too early. Maybe the box was too big. Because Mayday came out just a year later (although from an established company with a developer distribution channel) and won awards for what is essentially the same type of tactical space battle game, also with completely-featureless maps. Dark Nebula, on the other hand, is a strategic game with a map that changes from game to game, and it loosely tied into GDW’s official Traveller universe.

Game Designers’ Workshop, 1980
Designed to be used with GHQ 1:285 models to simulate tactical operations in a Soviet/US battle in Europe (weren’t those the days?) this was the serious stuff from GDW. No unit markers or maps included, just indicators for smoke, hits, and other tally elements. Big thick deck of cards with combat statistics for armor and aircraft.

Up Front
Desert War

Avalon Hill, 1983, 1984, 1989
Relative Range, Issue Number Two
Michael P. Nagel, 1994
Up Front was perhaps one of my favorite games ever. Straddling the line between wargame and role-playing game, it had an enormous amount of complexity and flexibility, but was fast-paced and fun (once you got things set up). If you didn’t want to get sued, you might say a number of elements were ripped off by Magic: The Gathering a decade later. Players set up according to a scenario, placing cards representing individual soldiers, crewed weapons, and vehicles in groups facing each other, then draw from a thick deck for cards representing terrain, obstacles, attacks, and fortifications. They take turns moving and playing cards on their groups (and their opponent’s groups), so you never know exactly what you’re moving into. No dice, the cards are used for random number generation, as well. You could get two sets of cards and set up a multiplayer wide front game, which was a gas. The original set covered the European front’s primary combatants: Germans, English, Russians, and Americans, with Banzai expanding to the Pacific theater, and Desert War adding in French and Italian army units. Ron Shigeta, one of my Reed College gaming buddies sent me a copy of Relative Range, an Up Front newsletter from Princeton long after the last game I played. Atoll was a package of scenarios I wrote for use with Banzai. I see that at least one time we played this, my friends and I were having so much fun (and probably drinking so much beer) that we had to label which side of the cardholder was for discards.

Lord of Hosts, 31 Jan 1990
Robert E. Sack, 1990
Perelandra #76
Pete Gaughan, 1990
World DipCon II / DipCon XXIII / DixieCon IV Newsletter #3
DipCon, 1990
Diplomacy Today, Blue Edition Winter 1903
Darrel Plant, 1989
I was mostly unaware of the wider world of Diplomacy zines when I started up Diplomacy Today. I knew the game was frequently played by mail (and I had my own experience developing a PBM game) but the fact that there were collations of multiple zines was something unfamiliar. When I started it up, desktop color printing was not at all available, and the colophon to this issue mentioned I printed from the Apple Macintosh II (2MB RAM!) to an Apple LaserWriter IINT ($10,000!) that I had access to. When the service bureau I used for work got a QMS thermal-transfer color printer I sent a copy of the first color issue off to Avalon Hill’s magazine, The General. Managing Editor Rex Martin sent me back a proposal that we might run selections from one of the games (to be the Red Edition) in his magazine and he would be one of the players. Regrettably, the whole thing fell apart, as so many diplomacy-related things do. The other material was sent to me by Pete Gaughan, after Rex sent him copies of my newsletter. Neither the Red or Blue games got very far.


Flying Buffalo Inc., 1976 and 1981
Lords of Valetia
Gamemasters Publishers Association, 1976
Starweb is pretty much Patient Zero in computer-moderated play-by-mail gaming. It was there before the dawn of the personal computer and, apparently, it’s still there. It’s a game of 15 stellar empires competing for 255 worlds (a handy number for old computer systems). You picked one of 6 different players types, who got points for different activities, then you race to see who makes the goal. Send your turns in by mail and get a computer printout. Starlord was a similar game in some ways, but the printouts were in color! Lords of Valetia, I never actually played, and I have no idea what the turns looked like or even how you were supposed to encode what you wanted to do. The rulebook is thick but vague. It does, however have a pronunciation guide, if that was to be of any help.

Oil War
Simulations Publications, Inc., 1975
Good ideas never die. Almost forty years ago, this game caught my adolescent eye, and I brought it home to play with my brother. Another of the earliest “real” wargames in the collection, it was one of SPI’s Folio series that brought the price into the reach of kids like myself, essentially repackaging the type of games published in Strategy & Tactics magazine into a folder and shrink-wrapping it; a paperback to the hardcover maps and boxes of Avalon Hill’s products. Lots of familiar names here.

The General
Volume 24 Number 4
Volume 24 Number 6
Volume 26 Number 1

Avalon Hill, 1988-1990
Featuring Raid on St. Nazaire, Thunder at Cassino, and Merchant of Venus, respectively (none of which I have).

Security Station

Metagaming, 1978-1981
Raid on Iran
Steve Jackson Games, 1980
A slice of game evolution, these four games are all from Austin. The trend toward inexpensive, fast-to-play titles continued with Metagaming’s early releases, packaged in paperboard boxes with small maps and counters. Wizard built on the huge fantasy market created by Dungeons & Dragons, with the magic component of a combat system initiated by the earlier Melee. They dispensed with the storyline aspect of D&D and got right down to the fighting. Recognizing the fact that a lot of fantasy game players were isolated nerds, releases like Security Station provided scenarios that could be played solitaire (or as part of a group). Helltank appealed to a different aesthetic, particularly those drawn in by Metagaming’s first release: Ogre. The designer of Ogre, Steve Jackson, started his own game company, stayed in Austin, and released Raid on Iran, a speculative piece on what might have happened if the raid to free the hostages at the American Embassy in Tehran hadn’t been aborted) which came out within months of the attempt.

Lost Worlds: Skeleton with Scimitar and Shield
Lost Worlds: Dwarf in Chainmail with Two-handed Ax
Lost Worlds: Giant Goblin with Mace and Shield
Lost Worlds: Woman in Scale with Sword and Shield
Lost Worlds: Hill Troll with Club
Lost Worlds: Barbarian with Two-handed Sword
Lost Worlds: Fighter Mage with Magic Sword
Lost Worlds: Wraith with Sickle
Lost Worlds: Cold Drake
Lost Worlds: Halfling with Sword and Shield
Lost Worlds: Lizard Man with Scimitar and Buckler

Nova Game Designs, 1983-1984
The success of Nova’s Ace of Aces WWI air combat game led to this expansion into fantasy one-on-one combat, using a similar system of pictorial booklets paired with charts of actions. The series won a Charles Roberts award in 1983, but like many of the other games in my boxes, it was soon to meet the deadly interface of the computer. In some nice cross-marketing, each of the characters was modeled after a figure from Ral Partha’s fantasy miniature collection, and a coupon for 10% off the miniature’s purchase was included in the box.

Victory Games, 1983
An attempt to make a Squad Leader-style game playable by a single person, Ambush! used a bunch of 8.5″x11″scenario cards slipped into a “Mission Cartridge Viewer Sleeve”, charts, dozens of pieces, maps, and another deck of cards to make playing a game by yourself feel like storming a beach in Normandy.

Ace of Aces Powerhouse Series
Nova Games, 1981
Autoduel Quarterly, Vol. 3 No. 4
Steve Jackson Games, 1985
Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, No. 10
Game Designers’ Workshop, 1981
Top Secret
TSR Games, 1980
A couple of stragglers, I covered Ace of Aces in Box 2, along with ADQ and the Journal. Top Secret was one of TSR’s first non-fantasy excursions, none of which were ever near as popular as the D&D franchise. It was an espionage-based RPG that just seemed kind of lame compared to the fantasy and sci-fi RPGs.

The Strategic Review
Vol. 1 No. 1
Vol. 1 No. 2
Vol. 1 No. 3
Vol. 1 No. 4
Vol. 1 No. 5

The Dragon, Vol 2 No. 8
Dragon, Vol 6. No. 10
Tactical Studies Rules/TSR Hobbies, Inc., 1975, 1978, 1982
The first five (possibly the only five?) issues of The Strategic Review came out in 1975, I picked them up as back issues a year or so after publication, completist that I was at the time. There was no useful information in them for a budding D&D player, things were moving much too fast at that point. The first issue listed for sale (besides the original D&D boxed set): Cavaliers and Roundheads (miniatures rules for the English Civil War), Tricolor (Napoleonic War miniatures rules), Warriors of Mars (Barsoomian miniatures), Star Probe (map-based space exploration), Chainmail (medieval miniatures rules that spawned D&D), Tractics (WW2 miniatures), Panzer Warfare (large-scale armor miniatures), miniatures themselves, and polyhedral dice. By issue 5, multiple D&D expansion books were on the list, along with Empire of the Petal Throne, Boot Hill, and games based on football, auto racing, Civil War naval battles, and Lord of the Rings.

That was a big box.