The Year in War Games 2019 - Board Games & Historical Miniatures

By Bill Gray 24 Dec 2019 0

For my final tome of the year, the Boss asked me to write about the state of the Tabletop Wargaming Community, and like the folks at BoardgameGeek, we define this as both historical boardgaming with paper maps and cardboard counters, as well as historical miniature wargaming (A separate feature on mainstream wargaming, such as Warhammer, will be coming after Christmas-ED).

So, here is what caught my eye over the past 12 months, the Good, the Bad and what’s in store for the future, not only next year but beyond. I’ll start with Counter Critters, then finish up with Pewter Pushers.

HISTORICAL BOARDGAME WARGAMING

The Good

Down with the Hex: Honestly, I love hex based wargames and have never had the same attraction for area based or card-based games that others do. But the fact that others do is important. Area based (and point to point, card driven, etc.) games have become increasingly popular, making up a greater percentage of board wargame production each year, and it's not hard to see why. These games simply offer something different, and as with anything else, variety is the spice of life. Further, these game types are often the best way to replicate certain types of warfare (as in COIN or counterinsurgency) and in doing so provide the player with both a unique perspective of conflict as well as combat challenges not found when constrained by a hex environment. Think I’m kidding? Then think the World War I point to point game Paths of Glory, first published in 1999 and was republished again recently in a deluxe edition. There are others as well, and this is a good thing.

GMT Paths of Glory

Republishing Classics: This is the trend that really has me turning cartwheels, especially since my last active duty move for the Army saw my entire library of hex and counter games go poof in a moving van fire. Sure, you would expect companies like Decision (son of SPI) Games to republish old stock, but here I’m talking about GMT publishing the best of Avalon Hill, or Compass Games publishing some of the greats from Frank Chadwick’s old GDW (Game Designer’s Workshop). For the former we are talking AH’s excellent The Russian Campaign (tho really folks, how much more Eastern Front can you do?) and in the latter case GDW’s Red Star – White Eagle covering the Pole’s 1920 – just barely – spanking of the Bolsheviks. There are many more, but regardless, whoever came up with the idea of republishing games like these has my eternal thanks.

Digital Porting: Here we are not talking Vassal, Tabletop Simulator, or other third-party firms like Hex Wars with their Command & Colors: Ancients adaptation. These options have their place because they allow the player to actually play the associated boardgame on the computer, NOT a computer-centered adaptation of the boardgame. However, in this case I’m looking at Lock N Load Publishing which publishes in house its own line of PC games, but also computer ports of its board games as well. Thus we have the Tank on Tank Eastern Front boardgame for cardboard lovers, and a duplicate Tank on Tank Eastern Front for MAC and PC folks. Computer adaptations for the company’s Nations at War and LNL Tactical Series are close at hand, so this tells me somebody has seen the future and is making preparations. Take note.

The Bad

Death of Kings: Richard Harvey Berg passed away on July 26, 2019. Let’s be honest, I knew Berg personally and his volatile personality made people want to push him out an airlock from the Rocinante on the other side of the Protomolecule Ring. Yet, one cannot dismiss the man’s absolute brilliance in wargame design. Working for both SPI and GMT, who else could have designed Campaign for North Africa, and I’ll admit I have every GBOH and GBACW game with his name on it. And if Legion Wargames ever finally publishes his Vindaloo tactical quad (battles with Wellington and John Company in “Indja”), my shekels are already on the table. His genius will be sorely missed. He wasn't the only notable loss this year either, and there are many fallen comrades to mourn this year.

Lock and Load Nations at War

Astronomical Cost: This likely sounds like a broken record, but unless something unforeseen happens, the ultimate total demise of cardboard wargames is certain. What I saw last year hasn’t changed my perspective, and it all has to do with pricing and the changing nature of the customer base. I was born in the 1950’s (have to make sure I specify) and so I grew up with Avalon Hill and SPI. My first game was Panzerblitz, the best selling product in the genre of all time, counting 320,000 copies. So, I like paper. It's in my blood. Today’s wargamer not so much, because these younglings have grown up with computers as the platform of choice. Now add to this the demand for high-end graphics (and damn, they just keep getting better) and low print runs, then buying all six volumes of Ben Hull’s exquisite Musket & Pike series – and yes, I did –  from GMT will cost you $377 ($342 currently on sale, but all are out of stock) total to play 31 battles. Or you can fork over $39.95 (right now on sale for $10, because electrons are cheap) for Matrix Pike & Shot Campaigns and get 40+ boardgame style battles, 150 armies to make your own scenarios, campaigns, beautiful 3D graphics, all based on an award winning miniature wargame rules system (Field of Glory Renaissance). Want to buy the final, ultimate edition of Australian Design Group’s World in Flames? Compass Games will sell you a copy for $ 229, or Matrix will sell you the exact same product in digital for $99, right now on sale for $20 (that’s twenty, as in two-zero). So, I did. Guess which one.

The Future

Decline and Fall: We are not talking about next year, or even the year after, but if something radical does not change, I simply do not see a paper based wargamer industry above some 20 – 30 years from now for all the reasons noted. The reality is the boardgame industry is increasingly competing for the same type of customer – the introvert who likes playing solitaire. This is a generality to be sure, but unlike miniatures gaming, there is no craft aspect to the hobby, nor the festive, near mandatory social function gameplay environment. Hex and counter gaming just doesn’t have equivalent unique selling points to set it off as better than a computer. And when dealing with the new, more data-driven generation of potential wargamers, price point and convenience will win. Offshore publishing anyone?

GMT Musket Pike Map

Euro-Games and Digital Porting: Nevertheless, I do see diversification growing as an answer to mediate if not fix this Apocalypse, at least kinda. Lots of firms have gone into the Euro-Game market to attract families to the fold, and my gut tells me this could generate enough additional revenue to support more traditional wargaming. Otherwise, the demise of board wargaming may actually morph into more of a transition than cataclysm. This means actual boardgames without the carboard, fully digitized inhouse by GMT and others. Again, these won’t be boardgames retooled into same subject computer games, but the actual board game with the same map and counters using the computer screen for the playing surface a la Tabletop Simulator. Dice will roll and there might not be any AI to speak of, because lots of boardgamers simply like playing solitaire.

So it is written, so it shall be done. Maybe.

HISTORICAL MINIATURES WARGAMING

The Good

Flames of Warhammer: The Battlefront World War II rules and supporting miniatures suite called Flames of War will continue to be the driving force in the hobby, and this is good news. Yes, the system is often called Flames of Warhammer due its emphasis on playability vs realism (and I’ve seen hours of online arguments on this issue), but this is what will attract new blood to the hobby, particularly since the tournament system will seem very familiar to younger folks who field Chaos Space Marines for Warhammer 40K. This shift to historicals tends to happen in the early 30’s when folks begin to look at life a bit more seriously, to include their wargaming. Yes, other firms such as Warlord Games and Perry Miniatures will continue as powerhouses as well, but FOW is unique and its 800 lb gorilla status shows no signs of abating, eg, the firm’s new Normandy 1944 D-Day line is doing quite well, particularly the spiffy looking Wehrmacht.

Non-English Designs: Miniature wargaming has always centered itself in the US and the Commonwealth, not unusual given most consider British science fiction author H G Wells the father of the hobby. While contributions from other countries were present, they were small and low key. Over the past year I have noticed a change surfacing out of both actual figure production and rules designs perspectives. My take is two reasons for this are the cottage nature of the industry with its produce on demand distribution scheme, and also desktop publishing, making professional content easily designed by anyone who can learn the software. Thus, from Germany we have Hagen Miniatures which started with its own Honved 15 mm Hungarian Revolution line, but has now expanded into the Italian Risorgimento, the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimea. Likewise, Herve Caille has recently followed up his enormously successful Art de la Guerre Ancients rules with a comparable Napoleonics set, Bataille Empire. This brings a new and different set of historical and design perspectives to the table, always a good thing.

Hagen Honved Mini 01

Digital Crossover: Richard Bodley Scott wrote the uber popular Ancients wargames rules Field of Glory, then promptly followed it up by designing a direct port of the system for the computer. Scott is both lead designer and owner of Byzantine Games software, and his Field of Glory II digital ancients system (plus Pike & Shot using FOG Renaissance and Sengoku Jidai for the Samurai era) can count 900 + hours of play by yours truly. Yes, its that good, and it's that good because it plays very similar to the tabletop version and it looks exactly like an HMGS tournament game, to include some of the most accurately detailed 3D warrior models ever. I think this trend might continue with other rules, and I’m happy to see it. For people like me, who have at least six full Ancients armies sitting on the shelf waiting never for paint, I can play real, live Ancients miniatures without having to do squat. Some might think this digital environment could rob the hobby of gamers, but I think it might do the opposite plus more. Not only will it satisfy the twitch of those like me whose eyes were bigger than my closet when I purchased all these figures, it could thus prevent people from leaving our ranks altogether. Further, both veterans and new recruits now have a platform to try out different eras of toy soldier gaming before shelling out a lot of cash and time, only to discover the era or game play was not their flask of Jägermeister. My bet is more than a few will say, “Hey, I gotta paint some of these guys myself and hit the tournaments next convention”. Embrace the Dark Side, don’t fight it!

The Bad

Greying of the Hobby: This has been an ongoing issue, the fact that most miniature gamers are getting old, if not actually dying off and moving on to that big tabletop in the sky. As a member of the Legion of Honor for HMGS, I have seen this happen way too often in the last few years. There’s been Don Featherstone, Pat Condray, John Hill, and Bob Coggins just to name a few. There also seems to be a dearth of new blood in the hobby to act as a backfill. While there are exceptions, one of the things I have noticed is that miniature wargaming has never been a young person’s hobby. Now admittedly, because of some graduate level research I did for DIA sometime ago, this may not be a problem – yet. Miniature gaming attracts a specific type of demographic and it seems that the most common entry age is around 30. Thus, the next generation of pewter pushers may not be ready to make their appearance, but the concern remains.

Perry Brothers High Medieval

Storefront Decline: The Internet IMHO has absolutely exacerbated the decline of legitimate hobby establishments with store fronts. It's just too easy to order what you want online, particularly in the US, which is a large country, with a much smaller overall population density than, say, the UK. It was tough finding a good hobby store within driving distance when times were good for retailers, and if participation in conventions is any indicator, the situation is not getting any better. Due to cost, the age of proprietors or the fact that it's no longer necessary to attend a big convention to make a profit, you have people like Karl Krueger and the gang at The Last Square absent for years. While low population density is one reason why gamers come to conventions (to game until you drop), shopping is another so this could potentially be a problem. This is because Internet or not, many customers still like to look and feel before a purchase, and impulse buying is far from dead.

3D Printing: Honestly, I thought this was going to take off big time, but it hasn’t. With the advent of Minuteman Miniatures and their extensive tank and armor line I had hope, but they have dropped that concept altogether to manufacture wargamer selfie models under the MiniatureYou brand. The first issue allegedly concerns cost, second is the painfully slow production process and third is quality, particularly as regards layered scaling. It’s kinda like when flat screen televisions first came out. They were buggy and expensive, but after a few years, quality improved and mass production drove pricing way down. This may be the case here and I certainly hope so.

Flames of War Panzer Klaus

The Future

Stability: Steady as she goes. Despite the above, miniature wargaming is somewhat insulated from computer competition and other external travesties. These are due to unique features or selling points such as being a cottage industry serving a specific, extroverted customer base, reinforced with craft and social aspects not found elsewhere. Thus, while I do not see a massive explosion of growth in the near future, nor do I anticipate either a long- or short-term disaster. Nevertheless, stay tuned.

Digital Distribution: One thing I do see an increase in is the reliance on the digital world for product distribution. Especially in the US, color laser printers are becoming almost as common as a toaster, so the cost, convenience and efficiency of pdf files is fast becoming an attractive option. There is always the possibility of copying the files and sending them to friends via the Inter or Sneaker net, but this seems a rarity so far. Osprey Publishing and Warlord Games have already taken the plunge as regards to pdf (or Kindle) versions of their publications, rules and research especially, and I expect more companies will follow suit. And given that 3D printing is also file driven, if a few quibbles are cleared up and the cost of the necessary hardware continues to drop, gamers may find their next Napoleonic army exists via purchasing executable files they run themselves.

So it is written, so it shall be done. Maybe.

Finis

This, of course, is my prognostication only, and given my TARDIS has been down for months due to parts (told the wife we should’ve gotten two), I could be off. So, dear reader, if you think we missed something, or countenance counter points of view, please do not be a stranger on our forums. We would love to hear from you.

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