Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Rise and Fall of Collectible Miniatures

The announcement by Wizards of the Coast that they are ceasing production of their prepainted Dungeons & Dragons plastic miniatures had prompted a number of people to comment that this is the final nail in the coffin of prepainted plastics. Others are scratching their heads as a development that was once heralded as the future of miniature gaming seems to have all but died out.

The development of prepainted plastic miniatures and specifically collectible miniatures followed a similar path to that of collectible card games some years earlier. In both cases a genuinely new game idea arrived, took off like a storm and had the old guard fearing the end of gaming as we new it. CCGs were going to kill roleplaying, CMGs miniature wargaming. In both cases, the initial success fizzled out somewhat and the gaming industry has carried on, changed but not revolutionised. But CCGs, including the original Magic the Gathering, are still very much around. The market has contracted somewhat since their hey-day, but they remain in place on the shelves of friendly local games shops. In contrast, CMGs seem to be all but dying out. So why the difference?

It's interesting to note the parallels in the development of CCGs and CMGs. In both cases, the concept was kicked off by an independent game that existed in its own universe (Magic the Gathering and Mage Knight) but was followed up by a number of games based on existing properties.

CCGs based on television and films such as Star Wars and Star Trek appeared as well as CCGs based on existing game universes including Vampire: the Masquerade, Lord of the Rings (based on Iron Crown Enterprises Middle Earth Roleplaying) and Dungeons and Dragons. They received a big boost with the arrival of the Pokemon game, based on the video game, and Yu Gi Oh, based on a Manga. Similarly, after the success of Mage Knight, Wizkid games biggest success came with Heroclix. Wizards of the Coast started producing D&D and Star Wars miniatures from existing licences. Video games followed, with CMGs based on World of Warcraft and Halo. Even Horrorclix, Wizkids suposedly independent game licenced Call of Cthulhu, Aliens vs Predator and Freddie vs Jason as well as borrowing concepts from films and TV programs.

Games based on unlicensed concepts were produced, of course, but for the most part failed to have the impact of the licenced products. It's significant that WOTCs only original CMG universe, Dream Blade, was also its most shortlived (a shame as it contained some interesting concepts and very nicely produced figures).

The advantage of all these licences was that it broadened the market for the games. The Star Wars miniatures, for example, were bought by existing Star Wars fans as much as wargamers and roleplayers. As well as the traditional games shops, CCGs and CMGs went on sale in comic shops, book shops and video game shops. It was this crossover appeal that helped these types of games develop ino a craze.

Both markets have declined, possibly because the novelty has worn off, possibly because in a rush to jump on the bandwagon some less successful games were produced. But CCGs have carved out a niche for themselves and now have shelf space in most games shops as well as a number of comic shops and video game shops. CMGs have not proved quite so resilient.

But there is another factor at work. Below is a list of the major CMGs and their manufacturers, I can't claim it's totally comprehensive, but I think I have most of the major ones

Wizards of the Coast - Dungeons & Dragons
- Star Wars
- Dreamblade

Wizkids - Mage Knight
- HeroClix
- HorrorClix
- Halo ActionClix
- Mech Warrior

Sabretooth Games - Lord of the Rings Combat Hex

Upper Deck - World of Warcraft

Privateer Press - Monsterpocalypse

Wizkids were bought up by Topps and then dropped when they stopped making enough money (or so the official story goes). They survived, but one gone for about a year and in that time most of their games died off. HeroClix is back and Halo ActionClix has returned, but without the power of Topps behind them they are seen much less than they were, at least in the UK. HeroClix were once all over the comic shops and Game Shops, now a few boxes can be found at much higher prices.

Wizards of the Coast dropped Star Wars along with the Roleplaying game, officially, because the Licence proved too expensive to be worthwhile. Dungeons & Dragons had never been very successful as a game in it's own right and now WOTC seems focused on cheaper cardboard tokens instead of miniatures for its RPGs.

Sabretooth cut their losses with Lord of the Rings when the films ended. Upper Deck lost the WOW licence in dubious circumstances.

The point is that when one or two companies are responsible for the bulk of all CMGs available it just takes one to go down for the market to collapse. With Wizkids going out of action for so long and returning in a diminished state and WOTC pulling out of the market then the market itself contracts hugely.

Of course the fact that one company sees no future in CMGs and another couldn't support itself with CMGs alone doesn't say much for the future of the concept, but the small number of companies providing products of this type means that circumstances specific to those companies can play a very large role in determining the fate of the market as a whole.

So CMGs as a concept may still have some life left in them, but maybe only if Wizkids recovers or a new company decides to invest the time and effort to push a new game.


  1. Interesting thoughts. CCG's (Decipher Darth Maul starters for $1 on clearance) brought me back into gaming. Then CMGs (MechWarrior and HeroClix) got me into miniature gaming.

    I think the D&D line has run its course. It's been made for several years now. Some nice figs.

    Another company has picked up the SW license. It's a big secret everyone is talking about, with some hints being dropped who it is.

    Other than Monsterpoc, I own some or a lot of every CMG on the list. (There was a LotR one as well. Recall Creepy Freaks? Yep, I got them!) I found that quality of sculpts and painting always decreased over time. I know Wizkids kept switching Chinese manufacturers as the current one would start charging too much. IIRC others had the same issues. Hence, lower quality.

    So I have lost interest in CMG figures. If the quality were to come back, I might jump back in. I'd buy singles, never packs. I am watching the new Star Trek CMG, though I don't like the rebooted movie. We'll see.

  2. I must say I believe your post is timely but not probably somewhat myopic. CCG have far from died out or diminished. In fact the larger ones are still going quite strong (WoW, Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Pokemon) and all have annual championships. Just this year at GenCon Warcraft was doing a tournament where one of the cards was selling for $2,000 on ebay! Furthermore, a lot of card games are now being sold as complete "board games" like Game of Thrones, Warhammer, Chaos in the Old World and quite too many to name. Fantasy Flight even announced at Gencon that it was going to be "expanding" the card games it offered. The two largest miniature gaming stores in my area actually make a good deal of their money selling cards and doing card tournaments.

    As for the CMG you are correct if you are referring to their use specifically in "tabletop wargames". I believe that phenomenon has passed. But like CCG they are also starting to appear in more and more "board games" like The Adventurers, Star TreK Expeditions, Halo, Clue and a lot of the movie tie-ins (i.e. Harry Potter).

    Considering that most of the public think of "board games" when you mention non-gambling type games then I would say both of these will probably still be more familiar to your neighbors kids and mine than "little lead men" will be ten or fifteen years from now.

    I believe these were both product cameos that appeared in the wargaming/tabletop gaming community because of the fewer barriers to entry but have now moved on (and out) and will become more mainstream just like computer gaming in general.

    If recall when computers first started creating "wargames" there was a fear they would do away with actual "miniatures" or at least "actual rules". After a short incursion they too moved on and out but are still very much part of mainstream popular culture.

    Looking over the horizon I can see "app games and accessories" eventually passing through the wargaming community as well but am sure they too will move on and out when the time comes.

    In the end those of us who enjoy this hobby as it is - lead men, paint and paperback rulebooks -will continue to enjoy it in this form for many years to come regardless of how the popular world at large changes and innovates to entertain themselves. Heck I suspect an Egyptian Pharoah could walk up to an Ancients table at any wargaming convention today and immediately recognize it for what it is and what is being represented. Something you certainly coudl say for an Ipad!