Digital Distribution - The Great Tabletop Experiment

By Bill Gray 04 Jan 2017 0

While there are many words to describe historical tabletop gaming with miniatures, one of the best would have to be “esoteric.” Tabletop gaming is home to a vast variety of military campaigns and military history other gaming venues won’t touch with a 13 foot Sarissa, and some people don’t even know exist. Seriously, how many PC or board games can you name on the 1848 Hungarian Revolution or the 1912 – 1913 Balkan Wars? Yet not only were these conflicts important, many of the battles were huge. We’re talking 150 thousand at Temesvar, Hungary and 238 thousand at Lule Burgas in 1912. And with Hungarian artillery carriages painted in red, white and green stripes, pageantry still abounds.

Yes, people play these periods of history, and there are both miniatures and terrain to support them. This is due to the primarily cottage nature of the hobby, because although there are permanent businesses who put food on the table of their employees by doing this, many things like figures and buildings are designed and produced part time and on-demand by talented folks who simply enjoy it. Here the on-demand part seems to be the significant aspect as it’s not really necessary to maintain large stock on hand. Lead or pewter figures can simply be produced as orders come in. Many of my friends might remember sojourns from FT Hood to Dallas, TX to visit the store front for Heritage USA, the producers of 15 mm Napoleonette figures. If the package you needed wasn’t on the shelf, you could simply wait while they made the figures for you. I still remember buying a dozen packs of brand new Bavarian infantry, which were still quite warm to the touch because they had just been made.

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Works for figures and terrain, right, so what about rules? Not so much.

The Problem.

While figures may be designed and produced the same old way, not so for rules books because customer expectations have changed big time. In the past rules were black and white on cheap paper, using the same type and size of font, with illustrations that were hand drawn. If you were lucky, you might have the covers with a heavier grade and alternative color of paper, but that’s about it. Even distinguished firms such as WRG (Wargames Research Group, which ruled ancients gaming for decades) saw no reason to do better.

Since the advent and expansion of computers supported by cheap, but powerful and easy to use publishing programs, tabletop customers expect the same quality rules product as they see in mainstream publishing. The want rules that have snazzy design and professional looking graphics, and they demand full color glossy pages all the way, 100 %. Print on demand, which was quite doable so long as the interior of the publication remained black and white, doesn’t work when you go color because of the per page cost, at least it doesn’t right now. Another option is off-shore printing such as Hong Kong, which is extremely high quality and dirt cheap. I’ve done this with great success on the Lace Wars expansion module for my own Napoleonic rules. The bottom line here was that a 100 page, spiral bound, full color glossy pub, delivered to my door, was less than 1/3 the cost of the same document printed black and white only here in the colonies via print on demand.

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However, there was a proverbial fly in the buttermilk. I had to buy 2000 copies up front and store all the stock in my basement, which in the northern US everyone has, but not down south. I made a killing because the subject matter was reasonably popular and the cost was so minimal, but I am still selling them with half the cartons left to go. And 2000 copies on the 1848 Hungarian Revolution? I think not.

The Ospreys of the world may have those resources to risk, but not me.

The Solution

That was pretty much the challenge I faced when writing my last expansion set to my base Napoleonic rules. Called Age of Valor, it was not a complete set of rules but an add-on covering European warfare from the 1848 Hungarian Revolution thru the Guns of August 1914. One thing that came to mind was to lump all these Imperial Age wars into a single tome to attract a wider audience. Remember, these conflicts are esoteric and a good indicator of what I mean is that while the Yahoo Group that supports my Napoleonic rules only has 3483 members (He doesn't like to brag, but... -ED), the one for all Crimean War rules has but 580. Yet here you are in effect asking a customer to fork over a lot of shekels to pay for a potential 300+ page document when he is only interested in 36. I could be wrong, but this is probably not a good business model.

My solution, believe it or not, came by way of Amazon Kindle, though computer software has done this for years as well. I decided to go paperless, digital publication only (or almost). Yes, there is print version, but only because of the insistence of one vendor who does all the work and pays me a royalty. Otherwise the idea is to produce each individual conflict based chapter as its own digital expansion module, about a 36 page +/-, full color document in PDF format for download or email distribution, selling for $ 4.00 US each. The more modules you buy, some perks appear to be sure, but the main idea is to let the player grab only the military history he is interested in. Given the proliferation of personal color laser printers, he could then simply print out the charts for game play, planning maps (such as the one supporting this article without place names or unit graphics, to be published in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War module) or whatever.

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There were some other distinct advantages as well. The cost is very inexpensive, deliberately so as not only am I not doing this for a living, but to deter copyright infringement. Also a customer will never have to worry about paper being destroyed by fire or something, and a digital copy simply does not take up any space on overburdened bookshelves like hard-copy. A free online demo can be created for those interested to take a test drive, and here I used the Balkan Wars as not only was it a fascinating subject, but I doubt many sales were lost. Shipping costs and handling time were obviously zero, tracking is automatic and obviously delivery time was much faster.

But perhaps the biggest advantage to the customer comes in the form of updates. If an error is found, a new rule is added or a current one modified or rewritten, if an interpretation critical to play is formulated, there is no longer a need to buy a new edition or to search aimlessly for the appropriate section of an errata sheet. Instead, the original data file is corrected, saved as a PDF and emailed to all customers. Oddly enough, this actually happened in the first four days of sales. Someone found a couple of minor errors, which were immediately corrected and a new file sent post haste. Add to this the ability to search a PDF, and it just gets better.

15th Matyas 1

The Results

Check with me next year, seriously, and trust me, I have the date down for a followup article. However, here is what I know today. We launched the Monday after Thanksgiving with two modules, both on the Franco-Prussian War, one for the Imperial Campaign, the other for the French Republican Government of National Defense. After Christmas we dropped the Crimean War for sale as well, and the 1866 Seven Weeks War will be released by the end of January. All other modules will be released one a month until all are completed, and I retire to paint my own figures.

As of today, 3 January 2017, my hard-copy vendor has sold 13 Franco-Prussian Imperial and 10 Franco Prussian Republican, each at three times the cost of digital. For the PDF version the numbers are 66 Franco-Prussian Imperial, 65 Franco-Prussian and 30 Crimean War, many of the latter from Britain not-so-oddly enough. I published the Napoleonic base set 10 years ago and have sold over 5000 copies. The sales of the digital modules so far have been much better than for the same time-frame previously, so I am cautiously optimistic.

A revolution? Perhaps, but until we know for sure, let’s all keep our fingers crossed, shall we?

NB - 1848 Hungarian Revolution figures from 28 mm Honved line, Hagen Miniatures, Germany.

Disclaimer: Many of the products and rule-sets mentioned in this article were written by, or otherwise saw the involvement of, the author. Wargamer Ltd. does not officially endorse any of these, however we asked Bill to use his own publishing experience to form a factual basis for this week's topic.

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