2018 Tabletop Year in Review

By Bill Gray 26 Dec 2018 2

It's that time of year again, when the Boss asks for our thoughts about various segments of the hobby over the past year. In my case that means tabletop time, both of the cardboard counter and toy soldier variety. So here is my take -- more of a SWAG (Scientific Wild Ass Guess) really -- on trends I saw develop over the last 12 months.

While I do have a few scraps of numerical data, most of what follows are my personal observations based on what I see online and in shops, social media, personal conversations with designers and vendors and the conventions I attend. There will be exceptions, certainly differing opinions, and given my TARDIS is down for parts (I really should have bought two), nobody can ever say for certain.

I will mention for your consideration, however, one over-arching cause for nearly everything I notice – the passing of an older generation of gamers replaced by another, the latter nurtured in a gaming environment much different than what older folks like me went through. Keep that in mind and remember YMMV.

FOG III Miniature

Counter Critter Conundrum

BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front). For traditional board -- counter and hex wargaming -- times are tough and will only get tougher. No, extinction isn’t a 2019 thing, but 10 – 20 years down the road is another question. With the need to provide spectacular graphics coupled with low print runs,* the per unit cost to the consumer is simply egregious in my opinion. For example the GMT Hoplite reprint has a suggested retail price of $ 80.00 US. Then compared to computer games produced by the likes of Matrix or John Tiller Software (really hex and counter games on the PC) the issue becomes even worse. Software can remove a lot of a manual game’s admin burden from the players’ shoulders, and backed by even flashier graphics, board gaming seems long term an unsustainable proposition. For grins compare the total cost of all the Matrix Field of Glory products and match them against the same subject matter with GMT’s Great Battles of History series. The enormous cost difference is something my generation might slough off, but gamers of the digital age? Not hardly.

* On the GMT P500 Webpage, the game with the highest number of preorders is not even a wargame, but Gene Billingsley’s Mr President solitaire game. Assume several reprints and you’d still be hard pressed to match1970’s Panzerblitz by Avalon Hill with over 320,000 units sold.

Lock and Load Digital WWII

Diversification. There are a couple of ways, however, companies are trying to stave off the impending Apocalypse. The idea seems to be similar to what the owner of the Standard Bearer Hobby Shop did down in Charlottesville, VA years ago. This chap was straight, 100 % historical, particularly the American Civil War, but stocked LOTS of fantasy and science fiction stuff. He once told me he did so to make enough money to continue stocking historical wargames. In many respects I see board wargaming companies doing the same thing, of which GMT is a prime example. Yes, they still produce traditional wargames, though even these are moving away from hexes into more area, point to point or abstract presentations. Otherwise a visit to their Website shows non-military science fiction subject matter like John Butterfield’s Space Corp 2025 – 2300 AD, as well as more politically oriented fare like the Making of the President 1960, or pure family fun such as Welcome to Centerville. In fact, the site indicates a full 27 Euro-Family games for purchase. Other companies have taken a different route such as Lock and Load Publishing. These doughty lads not only make traditional hex and counter board games, but also a mirror series of computer games on the same subject matter. Thus on one hand we have the Lock and Load World War II Tactical “Heroes of” counter and hex series, and on the digital side the same games and the Nations at War series. Ironically, such a transition may define the future of this part of the hobby. Board wargaming might flourish, but simply not on a board.

Compass Games Nach Paris

Reboots. Another trend I noticed was reboots, resurrecting old boardgames with new graphics and updated rules. SPI descendent Decision Games has long kept older titles alive, although with original graphics in many cases. However it is with GMT Games and Compass Games that I see the trend not only entrenched but expanding. For example Ted Racier’s 1918/1919 Storm in the West operational World War I game is now on the GMT’s P500 list of possible future games. It was first published back in 1992 as part of XTR’s Command Magazine. However, Compass Games seems to be the undisputed champ in this category, so check my review of their game Red Star – White Eagle covering the post-World War I Russo-Polish War to see how well this concept works. In an interesting sidelight, I also notice that most reboots seem to be games far less sophisticated and complex than those today, but arguably far more fun. Perchance a hint?

The King is Dead, Long Live the King. And speaking of Compass Games and their New Direction in Wargaming, I see this company quickly rising to the top of the heap over the carcasses of GMT and Decision in the near future. The quality of their games has always been top notch, both as regards graphics and innovative rules, and in terms of pure numbers, the rise of this company has been nothing short of meteoric. Right now the firm lists 33 new games scheduled to be published in 2019. Some, admittedly, are reboots, such as the Avalon Hill 1978 stalwart Fortress Europa, but most are new productions. Assuming that I did not miscount, that’s in addition to 54 more games on the books. Altogether that makes a grand total of 87 games, not including those included in their house mag Paper Wars, of which 96 issues have been published.

Flames of War

Pewter Pusher Prognostications

BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front). Stable. Perhaps with modest to moderate growth. Miniature wargaming has several advantages over their cardboard cousins when it comes to repelling the digital, barbarian hordes at the gates. First, the hobby is primarily a cottage industry with very few firms participating full time (think Flames of War for the latter). This allows part time, on demand production and distribution and thus reduces the chance of finances going south. Connie, at Old Glory Miniatures, for example, told me they keep very little stock on hand but simply produce the miniatures as orders come in. Miniatures is also part craft, as people enjoy researching, assembling and painting the various armies needed for play, not unlike (ironically) community created armies and scenarios in the digital wargaming world. Finally, and very unlike board and video wargaming, miniatures is very much an extrovert’s hobby with half the fun of any game being the banter and interaction of the eight chaps pushing lead on the table. Here, miniatures seems to have more in common with model railroading than with other wargaming genres, and this provides a solid bulwark against digital assault.

Eternal Trifecta. So far as I can tell, the three most popular conflicts in historical miniatures wargaming remains first to third, World War II, Napoleonic and American Civil War. Here an honorable mention must be made to the Ancients category, but its near exclusive tournament style of play and the huge number of centuries covdred – we’re talking about 3000 BC forward, folks – means an apples to oranges comparison at best, so I did not include it. Nevertheless, when you count up all the World War II games played at conventions, and then add to that the ubiquitous Flames of War system, I doubt we will ever see much movement in this ranking. And before someone even asks, no, Warhammer 40K is not included under my definition of historical, no matter how much evidence you have for the ballistic characteristics of a Stormbolter.

Paths of Glory Delux Moounted Mapboard

KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). More and more of the games I see are being played with less and less complex rules systems. While there are several reasons, many face to face discussions indicate a dynamic shift in the typical miniaturist’s personality. In the past most aficionados played a single, or at most two, periods of military history. Part of the reason was that miniature wargaming is a very resource intensive hobby, both in terms of shekels and time. Another big reason was that rules tended towards the complex and mastering something like WRG 6th Edition Ancients or EMPIRE XXXVI was about all even a genius brain could handle. Now, however, I meet people entering the hobby who want to play in multiple, widely disparate periods of conflict, and there seems a growing rules proliferation supporting this desire. In the Ancients world, the uber complex Field of Glory miniature rules have now been supplanted by simpler tomes such as Art de la Guerre, while Great Escapes 1914 World War I rules set is only around 20 pages rule of 39 total, boasting a complete Quick Reference Sheet on two sides of one page in BIG print. Perhaps the best example is the second edition of the Twilight of the Sun King rules covering the War of Spanish Succession and originating from a set only 12 pages long.

Big Things in Small Packages. For much the same reason I see figures getting smaller. More periods of interest means more armies to build and this can be expensive. Reducing the size means reducing cost. By this I do not mean more people are moving into the already popular 15mm scale, but actually into smaller 10mm and the relatively new compromise scale of 12mm. Old Glory has long has success with their 10mm Grand Scale line and firms like Great Escape are publishing rules specifically for 12mm and producing the related miniatures as well. Along the same lines of economy, 3D printing continues to improve, offering detailed models at lower prices, though finish in the form of scoring can be a problem. Doing actual small-scale soldiers vice tanks has yet to be perfected, but if and when it does . . . Obviously the smaller size does mean less detail to paint, but 10 and 12mm are perfect for large battles with thousands of figures. Here is where the mass of troops per formation is what determines the eye candy of the event, not each individual model.

Greying of the Hobby. Yes, its there, but perhaps not so pronounced as once thought. By “greying of the hobby” one means that many miniature wargamers are getting older, unable to participate and eventually make a final forced march from this world to the next. It’s a fact of life, its real and the concern is the lack of young players moving in to fill depleted ranks. However, my own research into a related master’s thesis noted that historical miniature wargamers are older by definition because one has to be a little further along in a career to afford such a hobby. Here we are talking what used to be middle age, not so oddly the same age where the interests of many turn away from fantasy gaming into more serious historical fare. With a platform such as Flames of War (Hammer) being so similar in function to many fantasy or science fiction gaming systems, transition can be easy if exploited. Greying exists, but salvation may very well lie with middle aged hobbyists, and not the young. This suggests concern may exist because many are looking for the wrong solution.
As noted before, just my two shekels worth, but it does look like 2019 could be the start of a bumpy ride.

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