THE LIFECYCLE OF THE TABLETOP WARGAME

This article was originally written for patrons of the Precinct Omega Patreon campaign.

There is a certain inevitability about the path that independent miniatures wargames follow. Anyone interested in commercial wargames and wargaming should have at least a vague awareness of what that path looks like and what different challenges and spike-traps await the incautious developer along the way.

A Quick Disclaimer

I’m talking in this article about miniatures wargames: freeform, tactical tabletop games played with purpose-built miniatures and custom scenery. These comments may also apply in part to roleplay games, serious wargames (a.k.a. chit-and-counter games) and miniatures board games, but those aren’t the main focus of this article or, indeed, this website.

UNDER THE RADAR

The vast majority of commercial miniatures wargames enter the market at this level and stay here. The reason you’ve not heard of them is because they fly beneath the radar, beloved by a modest handful, briefly encountered by a few more and ignored by everyone else. There are a lot of reasons why a game may remain below the radar but the main one is that the designer and/or publisher (usually the same person) wants them to. They have a career and a life and although they enjoyed writing the game and are happy to share it with other people they really have no desire to manage the hassle of the game “going mainstream” so they are content to dust it off at conventions, maybe curate a dusty Facebook group dedicated to it and otherwise pay it no further attention. You haven’t heard of most of these games. Heck, I haven’t heard of most of these games, and I make it my business to study them. There are simply too many of them out there to stay on top. A few under-the-radar games you have probably heard of include A Song of Blades and Heroes, Gruntz 15mm, Star Breach and In Her Majesty’s Name (for which, a review is coming next week). But there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of others. Where you have heard of them, there’s a good chance that the reason you’ve heard of them is because the author/publisher is making a concerted effort to push them out of this category and into the next one of…

THE NEW HOTNESS

For independent miniatures wargame designers, access to the New Hotness is the Holy Grail of marketing: the place where your game gains a level of name recognition to the extent that it might appear on the shelves of boutique independent wargames shops. Commercial games from established companies like Modiphius Entertainment or Mantic Games can reasonably expect their new releases to enter this category by default, and you can put into this category games like Elder Scrolls: A Call to Arms and Core Space from Battle Systems. The list of games that lie in this category is long, but ever changing. Para Bellum Wargames’s seminal Conquest: Last Argument of Kings is in this category, pushing to gain entry to the next step up. And the licensed game properties of the Batman, Harry Potter and Amazing Beasts miniatures games from Knight Models, and of the competing Marvel games, Marvel Crisis Protocol (Atomic Mass Games) and Marvel United (CMON Inc), are all battling it out in the New Hotness. But no game can last forever in New Hotness territory. And the vast majority of New Hotness games will eventually find themselves descending into…

THE WASTELAND

The Wasteland isn’t, perhaps, as bad as it sounds. Games in the Wasteland have simply been the New Hotness too long without ever pushing through to the next stage. They still have players and customers, but sales have generally plateaued and new releases become a comparative rarity. Games in the Wasteland compete, not against the New Hotness, but against other games in the Wasteland for a chance to get back into New Hotness status. Good examples of games in the Wasteland are Warlord’s Victory at Sea, Mantic’s The Walking Dead and Warcradle’s Wild West Exodus. Publishers of games in the Wasteland have several strategies to get back into the New Hotness, including releasing new editions and revamping miniatures lines, and it’s entirely possible for outside influences to affect a game’s place in the Wasteland. GCT Studios’ Bushido was in the Wasteland until Summer 2020, when Guild Ball suddenly stopped being a thing and Bushido suddenly found itself catapulted back to New Hotness status. Warcradle is currently trying (and largely succeeding) to bootstrap Dystopian Wars out of the Wasteland and back into the New Hotness. Osprey, whose new releases tend to enter the market on the border of New Hotness and Under the Radar, achieved blistering New Hotness status with Frostgrave but didn’t get the same rush from the fantasy skirmish game’s second edition, leaving it in the Wasteland. They are backing sci-fi follow-up, Stargrave, to make a longer sojourn in New Hotness. What’s certain, though, is that a game in the Wasteland must re-enter the New Hotness before it can move on to…

COMPETITION FODDER

When a game reaches a certain critical mass of popularity, it tends to suddenly find that the number of competitive tournaments being organized around it start to grow exponentially. Games in the New Hotness phase will often have competition events, but these will usually be organized by the publishers or people close to them. And Games in the Wilderness will also often have competitions but, if you go to them, you’ll quickly realise that it’s the same people going to all of the competitions. When a game becomes competition fodder, though, everyone wants to get in on the act and run tournaments for the game. The number of people carefully studying the rules, playing the game and, importantly, really starting to care about the rules suddenly sky-rockets and a game’s flaws will be dramatically exposed by the process. This is a dangerous stage in a game’s life cycle. In many ways, it is essential for any game to pass through this phase in order to enter the next one, but the temptation to begin moulding the game to the demands of the competition scene is overwhelming and potentially deadly. A game that focuses too hard on nailing down “Rules As Written” and on fixing the balance of its game will quickly find that people playing the game casually begin to fall away. The only ones playing are increasingly the competitive players whose voices become proportionately louder, and the cost of entry for new players – in terms of time needed to learn the rules and “git gud” – becomes too high. It’s here that we saw games like Guild Ball, Malifaux, Warmachine/Hordes, Flames of War and Dropzone Commander falter on their path to market domination and begin a slide into the Wasteland. Whether or not you think they’ve fallen that far may depend on your local scene, but they are all, inarguably on that path. The only way to move from Competition Fodder back to the New Hotness is via the Wasteland. But if the designers resist the siren call of the competitive players, there is the promising appeal of a step up to…

STALWART

Stalwart games are the ones that you’ll find played pretty much wherever you go. Obviously, Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar dominate*, but Warlord’s Bolt Action is a pretty solid occupant of this level of play. In the US, Battletech certainly counts as a Stalwart, although its market penetration in the UK and continental Europe has always been patchy. For a long time, it looked like Warmachine/Hordes was going to make a permanent camp in the Stalwart level before it descended to the Wasteland to struggle its way back to New Hotness. And an argument could be made that some Too Fat Lardies games are firmly on their way to Stalwart status in some fields – Sharp Practice and Chain of Command being the most obvious candidates. Although it’s not a miniatures wargame, and therefore falls outside the strict parameters of this article, I also feel moved to highlight Advanced Squad Leader as an example of a Stalwart within the community of “serious” wargamers of the Second World War.

Amongst pre-modern historical wargaming circles, De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) is the principle occupant of Stalwart level because, although it’s not played much within ear-shot of a space marine, if you go to any dedicated historical gaming club, you will certainly find people who know the rules, even if they might be prepared to bayonet you for suggesting that you play a game (DBA does seem to be the Marmite of pre-modern historical wargames).

Fantasy Flight Games has had several games teeter on the brink of Stalwart status. The X-Wing Miniatures Game was nearly there before being competition fodder proved too much for it, bumping it back to the Wasteland (unusually, because of its second edition, rather than the second edition being an attempt to get out). Now Star Wars Legion is making a fine attempt to seize a place at the Stalwart table and it’s interesting to see how they are trying to do it almost without passing through Competition Fodder. Corvus Belli’s Infinity the Game teetered on the brink of plunging from Competition Fodder back into the Wasteland but their 4th edition seems to have re-captured something and, although it’s probably too early to say, it looks like, once the dust from the Coronavirus settles, it may have made a place for itself at this level.

*It’s arguable that 40k and AOS dominate so much that they deserve a category all of their own, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that Games Workshop is an infallible money-making machine, so I still put them here. An article for another day, perhaps.

VALHALLA & HEL

Almost all of the games I’ve mentioned in this article so far are properties that are currently being developed and exploited by their owners/publishers/designers. In other words, as intellectual properties go, they are living things. Guild Ball might be officially dead but it’s really too early to say and Steamforged might still sell it on to a new developer or resurrect it once the lure of nostalgia becomes too great for their investment fund shadow masters to ignore. But there are many games whose development and promotion has stalled indefinitely or officially ceased. And these games find their way, at least, to either Valhalla or Hel. Games in Hel are never played. They lie, forgotten, on the outer fringes of memory and affection. They may never have made it out from being Under the Radar. Or they may even have once been the New Hotness. But in either case, they are all abandoned now.

But there are also a lot of games that find their way to Valhalla. Games in Valhalla are played rarely, but consistently. The lack of development interest from their owners isn’t enough to entirely wipe them from the tabletop and somewhere, someone is still rolling dice. Rulebooks often change hands in informal trades and sales, becoming more yellowed and dog-eared and, yet, more treasured over the years.

SO WHAT?

If you’ve made it this far, you may wonder what the point of knowing this is, so I’m going to break it down for you. This is mostly directed at people who design or who aspire to design their own miniatures wargames, but it’s also good for players to know, too:

  1. An Under the Radar game can still be a commercial success if the ambitions of its designer(s) are modest.
  2. No amount of marketing money can make a game start at any level higher than New Hotness. But any game can be New Hotness if you throw enough money at it. Being New Hotness is no guarantee of quality of play.
  3. The Wasteland is the most savage battleground in miniatures wargames and games in this level are directly competing with each other. Hardly anyone plays more than two Wasteland games at the same time and most people don’t play any.
  4. Games that are Competition Fodder can only stay at this level for a maximum of three years or one edition cycle, whichever is shorter; after which they will either become Stalwart or enter the Wasteland.
  5. Being Stalwart is about regularity of play, not sales. Being New Hotness is about frequency of sales, not play. Therefore a New Hotness game can be more commercially successful in a short period than a Stalwart; but a Stalwart is a long-term bet.
  6. Where a game lies on the life-cycle is about business strategy, investment and marketing, not quality. Some of the best gaming experiences ever designed are in Hel or Valhalla.

CONCLUSION

I guess what I’d like people to take away from this is a better understanding of where they think their game sits in its lifecycle. You may disagree with me on the status of your game – especially if you’re its designer or publisher. And that’s fine. You probably have a better perspective on it than I do, if you’re actively engaged with the game on a regular basis, so your insight may be more valid. Or, perhaps, your perspective is skewed precisely because you’re too close. You’ll notice that I’ve not mentioned where I think any of my own games are in their life cycle for exactly this reason.

But understanding a game’s life cycle and thinking about where your favourite games are can help to inform your decisions about it. Are you constantly buying the New Hotness? Or are you addicted to playing Competition Fodder? Perhaps you only ever buy into a safe Stalwart, or you love seeking out Under-the-Radar games. Maybe you’re frustrated that your favourite game is languishing in the Wilderness and you don’t know if it’ll ever get out.

Whatever the case may be, understanding the life cycle will help you spend your money on the things that matter most, and spend your time on the things that will help your favourite games to thrive.

Robey Jenkins is the author of several tabletop games, including Horizon Wars and Horizon Wars: Zero Dark. His latest game, Horizon Wars: Infinite Dark, a spaceship combat game, is released on Wargame Vault on 28th May 2021.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.