Out of Supply: When Table-Top Companies Die13 Sep 2017 2
Recently, Spartan Games of Britain posted on its website that as of 4th September 2017, it had entered into Administration (which this Colonial assumes is a quaint British way of saying bankruptcy). A supporting blog entry noted all accounts had been frozen and those folks who had purchased products, either retail or Kickstarter, would likely never receive their merchandise or a refund if the goods had not already shipped.
Spartan Games, for those unaware, are the creators of science fiction based wargaming rules as well as purveyors of everything necessary to support the fictional universe portrayed, figures and models to boot. I've seen some of their wares at HMGS conventions, and just like their website, the merchandise was really classy, attractively packaged and reasonably priced. I’ve never played their primary systems (Firestorm Armada and Firestorm Planetfall; Dystopian Wars), but they sure looked good.
However, if you are one of those that just lost a chunk of change, you likely don’t care because your wargaming life pretty well sucks right now. Understood, I get it, been there, done that, saw the movie, read the book and even got the T-Shirt. Now, I can’t fix your pain, but if we could chat just a bit, perhaps I can offer some insight on how to avoid this sort of thing in the future.
Who blew up the powder magazine?
Very likely the owners did. One of the things to always remember that tabletop gaming, particularly as it involves miniatures, and especially historical miniatures, is a niche hobby shouldered on a cottage industry. This means that the majority of people and firms that produce the figures, the buildings and terrain, the rules, the flags and everything else are NOT doing this to put food on the table. In most cases they have regular, full-time jobs and do their wargaming business as a sideline. Are there exceptions? Sure, and all you have to do is think Games Workshop or Flames of War for rock solid evidence.
What this often means is these budding entrepreneurs often enter the mercantile fray with impressive concepts and unbridled passion (see the Spartan Games “About” Webpage), but without the necessary resources and business acumen to achieve success. IMHO market research seems to be particularly lacking, and given the principals have other full time jobs, so is time and persistence, as well. And trust me; you would be surprised at how much time running even a small online business takes. I know because I do it myself for my Age of Eagles rules, and sometimes I feel like I’m even part of the hobby that gave me this start.
This is not to say this is Spartan Games' situation at all. Sometimes the economy just dies, there are marital or other life experiences (think Frontier Miniatures) and even natural disasters intervening at the most inopportune time. As an example, my last move for the Army saw the moving van with all my household goods burn to the ground. My wife cried for a month. When I discovered this included all my Avalon Hill, GMT and SPI counter wargames, I was on life support for six. It happens.
Out of Ammo
For the gamer and customer, the Spartan Games situation likely represents the very worst that can happen. First, of course, concerns the loss of your hard earned shekels with nothing to show for it and no chance of a refund. Second, relates the fact that Spartan Games created a proprietary based wargaming universe in its entirety. Thus, if Spartan products weren’t available, you couldn’t go anywhere else to find suitable substitutes. It’s not like, say, Napoleonics, because lots of companies produce Napoleonic miniatures.
But even this is not entirely true. There are some periods of historical conflict so esoteric that few firms produce figures or terrain for them. One of these, for example, is the Spanish-American War now supported by Freikorps Miniatures from the UK. And if not an entire line, perhaps only one figure in particular might be produced by only one firm. If you want to do the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, you will need those odd looking Krupp siege guns, and to the best of my knowledge, only Minifigs UK makes them in 15 mm.
This assumes, of course, it is really 15 mm. Miniature tabletop gaming is a very aesthetic hobby, and most gamers I know like a certain level of consistency when their figures and terrain hit the board. Thus if you use custom terrain from Battlefield Terrain Concepts, you have settled on a particular style. While you can use something else, most would prefer not. And then we consider the figures and a whole host of additional variables. What is called 15 mm today is really close to 18 mm, so older, smaller Heritage Napoleonettes true 15s are often mistaken for 10 mm. Then, do the standard bearers have simple flag poles for use with paper flags, or are the flags molded on? Do the figures have matching command sets? Is the sculpting style smooth or rough, and do the figures come in several poses and equipment configurations, or are all the same? Are they animated, or not? Yes, it matters.
Finally there is a question of money. Some firm’s products are simply less expensive than others. I invariable use Viking Forge American Civil War limbers for all of my later 19th Century European armies. They were not only all based off the same French limber of an earlier period, but they are less expensive than any other range. If Viking Forge goes under, my shekel expenditure goes up, especially given the huge amount of guns these later 19th Century armies lugged around.
Bottom line is though you can mix and match to make do, it just doesn’t look right at a minimum and likely costly to boot. This not only includes new figures, but also the prescription to mind altering drugs as you wrestle with a fix. While Spartan’s situation may be worst case, it’s painful regardless, so what to do?
As with tobacco, the best fix is not to get yourself in this situation. Because once the doors are locked, your choices are generally eBay, the Miniatures Page or firms like Noble Knight Games that specialize in second hand wargaming supplies. Or maybe you will just find someone. Obviously, you will most likely pay a premium if a sale is even possible. For example, I was contacted recently to give up some of my Frontier Boxer Rebellion figures to someone needing 100 more to complete his collection. Uhhh, no.
I feel his pain as I have been burned as well, so here is what I mull before I pick up that brand new line of Sino-Japanese War figures or whatever:
- Kickstarter: To me this is a warning flag as it implies the startup does not have to do it alone, and this implies a lack of business experience.
- Esoteric Period of Play: Yes, there really was a Sino-Japanese War, but if you’ve never heard of it, that’s exactly my point. There might be an absolute passion for this conflict and the creative talent to back it up. However, if it’s so oddball that no one will play it, I could invest a lot of money and time into figures, yet all of a sudden wind up needing just “100 more.”
- Proprietary Products: If the game system is proprietary, created by the company and supported with figures, rules and so on ONLY by the firm, I generally avoid it for reasons noted above.
- Diversification: If the firm has an unusual product I might want, does it have other lines as a buffer should I find myself the only person on earth who wants to play the Carlist Wars? Rank and File Miniatures are known for its late 19th Century European army lines, such as those from the Franco-Prussian War. I love the period, but I’m part of a very small minority that does. No worries, as the firm also has an extensive line of various Medieval armies for revenue generation, as that period of history is pretty popular.
- Packaging: I bet I’m the only one who considers this, but my attitude is that if the packaging looks cheap, the product is as well and people won’t buy it. If they don’t buy it, we have another Spartan Games on our hands. For the record however, the Spartan Games stuff is really first class.
- Cost: If I can’t afford it, you can’t either, and low sales mean a possible going out business advert.
- Proactive Purchasing: Bottom line, I buy a lot in advance, believing if I don’t, it will not be there next convention. If we are talking about a small conflict with small battles, I’ll somehow find enough coin to buy the biggest armies the antagonists fielded as a one-time purchase. I will also buy a little bit of the same product line each convention whether I need it or not so as to eventually build towards having the entire product range (think the terrain and limbers I noted above). I also buy in duplicate, and Cotton Jim’s Flags are a great case study. I bought at least three packs of each set for the simple expedient of having at least one unopened set I could scan and print just in case. I’ve even downloaded every flag image on www.warflag.com even though I know I will never use many of them. Yes, in this case they are free, but that gets you nowhere if the Website disappears.
I can’t tell you whether any or all of the discussion points above are the reasons why Spartan Games failed. It certainly looks like these guys produced a very high quality product, and indeed exceptions always abound. Case in point are the By Fire and Sword firm out of Poland, covering a very unique part of military history, but one exceptionally important in the saga of their country. They can afford to break a few rules, but far too many other small firms cannot.
Regardless, hopefully I’ve provided some food for thought, not just for pewter pushers, but also for counter and computer gamers as well. Just think “Abandon Ware” and you will understand.