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'Empires Fall' to celebrate Black WWII heroes

Ashley Zlatopolsky
Special to The Detroit News

A Detroit-based, Black-owned gaming company is planning to release a new game that showcases an often-overlooked but crucial unit that helped turn the tide of World War II in favor of an allied win.

Just in time for Veterans Day, Gaddis Gaming on Tuesday launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the creation of “Empires Fall,” a tabletop miniature game that showcases the 761st tank battalion, also known as “The Black Panthers,” in an alt-World War II landscape. The motto listed on their uniforms was “come out fighting.”

It was the first all-Black U.S. tank unit to fight in the war, and the group fought their way further east than nearly every other American unit, says History.com. They received 391 decorations for heroism and fought in key battles that led to Germany’s defeat. 

To honor that history, Lee Gaddis, owner and founder of Gaddis Gaming, hopes to commemorate the battalion’s legacy with a family-friendly game that showcases their skills, strategies and key players in a world where their accomplishments are celebrated. Because of segregation laws during World War II, Black units had to fight separately from white units, a policy that was upheld until after the war. It then took several decades for the unit to begin receiving decorations from the government.

The 761st dismounted tank crew that will be featured in Lee Gaddis' game.

During this year’s 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, Gaddis said Black soldiers needed more recognition. The 52-year-old Detroiter was inspired to create something where those achievements could shine.

“I thought that a lot of the heroism, bravery and valor of those soldiers was being overlooked,” he says. “So we dedicated this game to rectify that.”

Gaddis, who previously developed a game about World War I called “Shattered Crown,” wanted to create a history primer to help acquaint players with the accomplishments of different WWII units and their service records. His company has been making miniatures, tabletop game systems and accessories for gamers for several years.

Lee Gaddis is the owner and founder of Gaddis Gaming, which has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to develop a new game that honors the legacy of a Black World War II unit, The Black Panthers.

“I think a lot of people don’t even know these soldiers existed,” he says. “It’s important that their story doesn’t get forgotten as we rewrite history year after year.”

The 761st tank battalion has roots in Detroit, according to the memories of a Detroit soldier who fought in the unit that was published by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Gaddis, whose grandfather also served in World War II in a different group, felt a personal connection to the story of the original Black Panthers.

“My family has four generations of service in the military,” he says. “It was a passion project for me.”

Empires Fall board game

“Empires Fall” can be played with multiple people and has a build-your-own world type of setting where players can construct their own storylines. They can select and collect their army of choice, paint it and then place it on the battlefield, which is modeled after a chess game. The game takes about an hour to play and comes loaded with custom dice and miniatures. 

Real playable World War II heroes featured in the collection include Sergeant Ruben Rivers, who was honored by President Bill Clinton with a posthumous Medal of Honor in 1997 for his bravery in breaking Nazi lines, and Sergeant Warren Crecy, known as the “baddest man in the 761st” for attacking enemies while only lightly armed. Players can also add Black paratroopers to their team that helped liberate Nazi death camps.

Right now, Gaddis says the “skeleton” of the game is there - the concepts, storyline and marketing and distribution plan - but the Kickstarter will help raise funding to bring the idea to life and take it to the shelves. He aims to raise $7,700, which will allow the company to print the miniatures, instruction books and physical material. If the goal is met, he’s looking at an April 2021 release date.

Well-known Detroit artist Glenn Barr developed the promotional poster for the game’s Kickstarter, and Gaddis is working with different local businesses on making the concept a reality. Miniatures would be created in Grand Haven by 19th Century Miniatures and books would be printed by Jackson-based Cobie Blue Studio.

“Lee and I share a deep passion for World War II history, which is really the foundation of our bond,” says Rick Rangler, founder and director of Cobie Blue Studio. “This new game is going to expose and celebrate a less-known chapter of Black soldiers and their extraordinary contribution to World War II history.”

They’re hoping that by combining their expertise, “Empires Fall” can compete against larger gaming companies and get their message out to the public. Another unique element of the game, Gaddis says, is that it would be entirely locally-made.

“Everything is being manufactured in Michigan or the tri-state area,” Gaddis explains.

Gaddis' hopes families will add this game to their weekly activities, a bonding experience that can be enjoyed by all generations of gamers and history fans, while also supporting local businesses.

“Anybody who wants to plug in their own narrative can plug it into our system and tell that story,” Gaddis says. “All they have to do is do the research, learn the history and play it out on the battlefield.”

To learn more about “Empires Fall” and the Kickstarter campaign, visit gaddisgaming.com.