Wargamer 2017: Tabletop Wargaming – The Year In Review26 Dec 2017 1
When the boss gives the order, “Make it so, number one,” I know it’s that time of year again, time to take a look back over 12 months to note trends and non-trends that happened in TGWAG – The Greater World of Adventure Gaming (pronounced “TIGWAG”). Renaissance man that I am, this means tabletop wargaming, specifically historical board wargames (a la Napoleon’s Last Battles) and historical miniature wargaming (a la Art de la Guerre). But first some ground rules.
These are my subjective thoughts, backed by only a modicum of numbers. Don’t think my musings would stand up in wargaming court; its experience talking. That said, I do use three sources for my ruminations, the first being the three HMGS (Historical Miniatures Gaming Society) conventions I attend every year, which has a strong boardgame presence in the Dealers’ Hall. Several vendors carry GMT products, Clash of Arms attends all three cons and Decision Games has a big booth at Historicon. Evidently, there is a lot of crossover. Second is all the hobby contacts made over the years, like Frank Chadwick and Rich Hasenauer. We keep in touch. And finally, I follow a couple of hobby firms as bellwethers, because as these companies go, so goes the hobby. In this case it’s GMT Games for boardgaming and Old Glory/Blue Moon for miniatures.
So grab a frost mug of your favorite holiday libation, and let’s talk a bit.
Historical Board Wargaming – Twilight of the Gods?
These are the types of games that got me into the hobby, specifically Panzerblitz by then Avalon Hill, and Leipzig by SPI. Strategy & Tactics Magazine, a military history tome with a game in every issue was popular with a huge circulation. Those were the days, but they have long passed and despite some innovation in design and marketing, hard times show no signs of abating. Here is what I see.
The Hex is Dead. Well, maybe not dead, but certainly on life support. In days past every game was built around a map with interlocking hexagons that managed things like weapons range and movement. These days, however, there seems to be a trend towards other types of control mechanisms such as area movement or point to point movement. In some cases it seems to be obvious that such a deviation actually works better for the subject being modeled, but there also seems to be a perception that trying something innovative and new, or at least not the same old thing, might be more appealing to both current and future players. Case in point – Clash of Monarchs by GMT.
Euro Game Influence. While there are many types of family oriented games under the Euro Game label, one of the things I have noticed is the use of cards as a gameplay tool. Now that seems to have invaded the space of more military oriented, traditional board wargames. I suspect this might be for the same reasons I noted above about the decline of the hexagon, but when simulating the friction of war, card driven games do pretty well. Case in point – For the People by GMT, and BTW this is one of 49 card driven games listed by GMT in addition to its own formal Euro Game product line.
Game Series. This is not new, if one considers the (very) old SPI PRESTAGS (Pre Seventeenth Century Tactical Game System) like Spartan and Yeoman. However, GMT Games has really expanded the concept to the point where there are multiple series within a series. For example, Richard Berg’s Great Battles of History series which covers ancient warfare has spawned a number of copycat lines such as Men of Iron. The reasoning behind the concept is quite sound. By using a core, common set of rules, and in some cases graphics, price per product can be decreased as you do not have to fund another, completely new design. And quite honestly, current pricing is one of the biggest challenges facing this wing of the hobby. Case in point – Men of Iron series by GMT.
Recovery. Not happening or not gonna happen anytime soon. Yes, there will be exceptions, but the “chicken or egg” situation is this. The modern gamer wants full color, exquisite graphics, and this is expensive. This is niche hobby so this means low print runs, and low print runs mean high prices. Seriously, the recent Decision Games reprint of the old SPI Waterloo classic Wellington’s Victory is selling for $ 160, not including trying to find a good opponent, set up time, and take down time (assuming the cat hasn’t obliterated The French Guard meanwhile) plus physical storage. When compared to similar computer wargames as produced by Matrix and John Tiller Games for a fraction of the cost, guess who wins? This is why GMT has their P500 system by which they will not print (or reprint) a product unless they get 500 preorders. Some don’t make it, some barely and most that do count 600 to 700 orders. About 1200 is the largest I’ve seen, and given that some of those customers may be cross over pewter pushers, this would seem worrisome. Where are all the gamers? They are likely playing the Korea 2013 scenario (one of five Korean campaigns out of 24 modern Asian) from The Operational Art of War IV for $ 39.99 vice GMT’s Next War Korea for $ 85.00. Let that sink in.
Historical Miniature Wargaming – Engage, for now.
This is my primary genre in the hobby, the one I am most familiar with, so let’s get right to it.
Rise of the Esoteric. To put it bluntly, everybody makes a line of Napoleonics, or American Civil War, certainly World War II, miniatures and these periods of history are the eras played most in pewter land. Thus yet another line of Napoleonic miniatures or yet another set of Civil War rules may produce more eye rolling than profits. To counter this, a lot of firms seem to be going into periods of history not often considered, and not in a small way, but with fully complete miniature lines down to the last gaiter button. A combination of Kickstarter, pricing, packaging and just something different has been very successful for the Polish Wargames Company and their Fire & Sword miniatures and rules. Likewise the last several product lines from Old Glory’s 15/18 mm subsidiary Blue Moon Manufacturing covered conflicts such as the Mexican American War and the Boxer Rebellion. And we are not talking about the basics, but full lines to include the Fighting Clergy from the siege of the legations in Peking, to the actual legation buildings and compounds under siege. Really? Who does that? Yet when I saunter by to pick up some Mexican Grenadiers of the Supreme Power or Vickers machinegun on cavalry cart, the damn things are out. I see this trend continuing.
What was Old is New. In terms of rules I often wonder whether we have peaked as regards innovative design, because a lot of firms are bringing back modernized versions of classic games produced many years ago. Author Rich Hasenauer has no released a new version of his 1990 original brigade level Fire & Fury American Civil War rules, with a few updates drawn from his regimental version. Likewise, a new edition of the Field of Glory ancient and medieval wargaming rules has turned up with just a few changes from older editions. The perspective is that new blood coming into the hobby is unlikely to have been exposed to some of the older classics that still have a strong following. Thus a new print run might well be profitable and beneficial to the hobby as well. This will continue.
The Greying of the Hobby. Over the last couple of years, several – too many actually – of my colleagues in the HMGS Legion of Honor have passed due to old age and all the infirmities that come with it. And as I look around tables and merchants at all the HMGS conventions I attend, it seems evident that pewter legions are made of highly experienced veterans. In translation this means this wing of the hobby, which has always attracted older individuals by default, is getting older and I simply do not see younger reinforcements coming in to replace our combat losses. HMGS in particular has tried to reverse this trend with various programs, but from an eyeball only perspective I just don’t see it happening. There are multiple reasons, but regardless, the fact that it is happening remains the biggest challenge this branch of the hobby has to face. Ironically, it is the much maligned Flames of War (hammer) tournaments and their similarity to Warhammer 40K and similar fare, seems the exception to this trend, so hopefully whatever their doing right can be exploited on a larger scale.
Digital Doldrums. Finally, something I expected to happen but did not. I thought there would be a dramatic rise in digital products such as rules within the hobby. While my own experiment with the Age of Valor product line has been quite successful, I don’t see it elsewhere. One reason is that a lot of folks are relying on offshore printing (as in Hong Kong) and this has driven down pricing considerably. For example, a 100 page black and white book, spiral bound with color covers will cost about $ 7.50 per print on command copy in the US. Or you can buy it in full color delivered to your door from China for less than $ 3.00 each. Also, a lot of those old folks I was talking about above simply come from a different generation, one uncomfortable with computers and demand paper in their hands. Kindles make them cringe and I think it will take a generational turnover before any meaningful change happens.
So there you have it. There are of course exceptions, and I could very well be wrong, so please take this as Just my Two Shekels Worth. Your Mileage most certainly Will Vary.
NB – Images by the author, product Websites and the Lonely Gamers Blogspot.