Saturday, 12 March 2011

Tipping the Scale

A while back I wrote a post in which I commented on the price and perceived value of Games Workshop's miniatures versus other company's. Eventually, I concluded that the price of a model was less important than it's value within a game. I have been trying to come up with a way to quantify this and rate various different games.

Today, I'm going to write about 'scalability.'

This can be defined as how easy it is to start and collect miniatures for a particular game, or how scalable it is. I will subdivide it into three areas:

1. How much does it cost to get enough bits (miniatures, rules, scenery) to play the game?
2. How much does it cost to add a new element to your army/ gang/ crew/ squad?
3. How big can the game get?

When I refer to cost, I don't just mean in purely financial terms, but also the time cost in collecting assembling and painting the necessary miniatures.

A game with good scalability allows you to start from nothing and expand your collection as far and as fast as you like.

The first element is the most straightforward - how much does it cost to start playing? How many models do you need and how much will you have to pay for them? As I have mentioned a few times before, Warhammer has high start up costs. You now have to spend over £60 on rulebooks, never mind the miniatures. Games Workshop has attempted to soften this with a high value starter set containing as many plastic models as can be sensibly squeezed between two sheets of cardboard. But this is of limited value if you don't plan to collect the armies included in the starter set. Mantic's Kings of War does a good job in reducing the cost of the models, but still scores quite low in this area because of the amount of time you have to spend painting them.

In contrast, skirmish games like Malifaux, Helldorado, Anima Tactics or Infinity can be played with as few as two or three models and a decent sized force may be no more than half a dozen. Anima and Infinity have expensive rule books, but both compensate with free downloadable startup rules (which actually cut out very little of the detail in the main books). So, while individual metal miniatures may be a lot pricier than plastics, you need very few to play the game and can devote more time and effort to making each one look that bit better.

Warmachine and Hordes, although based on larger armies than the skirmish games, make good use of starter sets and quick start rules to draw players in. It is at least possible to play a game with the contents of two starter sets, even if these games are a bit limited in tactical options.

My second criteria is slightly harder to explain, but in essence it's about how much it costs to add a new element to your army or force. By an element I mean the basic number of models that has to be added to an army to make it viable. In Anima Tactics or Malifaux that will usually be a single figure, but in Warhammer you need a whole unit. Anima Tactics and Malifaux miniatures cost a lot, but each one operates as a separate individual within the game, in contrast Warhammer and Kings of War use models in groups.

What this means is that although Games Workshop and Mantic's models are comparatively cheap, you need to buy them in large numbers. For Warhammer you now need two or three boxes , costing £30 - £45. For Anima, you can have a miniature for £8 and have it assembled, painted and on the gaming table the next day. So although the cost of a Warhammer miniature is lower, so is its value in the game. This means that Anima scores higher on criteria 2 than Warhammer.

Warmachine and Hordes sit somewhere in between. They sell units in boxes, which means one box usually gets you one unit, but the boxes are often very expensive at £30 or more (though the UK does seem to suffer due to the exchange rate here).

My final criteria is how big a game can get. How well does it support large armies? Or at what point does it become pointless to buy any more models? This is where the Games Workshop games, and Kings of War score highly. Games can get very big, very easily without becoming unweildy and Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 even have rules specifically to support extra big games.

Most skirmish games start to become unweildy when they get beyond twenty or thirty models, creating a natural cap in your collection where models can only be swapped not added to your force.

So skirmish games tend to score well for criteria 1 and 2, while mass battle Warhammer scores better for 3. Warmachine and Hordes score moderately well on 1 and 3, but not so well for 2 and sit as something as a compromise.

Companies have tried several ways to address the scalability problem. One approach is to produce 2 or more games to cover different scales of conflict. Games Workshop have tried it with the Lord of the Rings strategy battle game and War of the Ring and the late Rackham, famously, had Confrontation and Ragnarok. The idea is that you start with the skirmish game and, as your collection grows, you naturally progress to mass battles.

The problem with this approach, is that skirmish games tend to require only 1 or 2 of any individual miniature, while mass battle games require units, usually of at least five, if not ten or twenty. This means that the progression is rarely natural. Looking at Lord of the Rings, 1 or 2 plastic boxes is likely to give you as many of one particular trooper as your likely to need for the strategy battle game, but for War of the Rings 4 - 6 is more realistic. Meaning that you will probably have to double the size of your collection to make it viable for War of the Ring. This is simply not a natural progression.

So, what is my point here? Well essentially, creating wargame rules is a compromise and creating a game that scales well is very difficult. Games Workshop plays to its strengths by pushing bigger and bigger armies, while the skirmish games listed above are newer and benefit from a pool of players who still have plenty of models to get before they exhaust the possibilities of the smaller scale. In the end, perfect scalability may be impossible and it a company has to make the most of the rules they have.


  1. Another good article. I think gamers who complain about the cost of models like Infinity - £5 for a single 28mm figure - forget that it is designed to be a single combat element on the tabletop, much like a 15mm Tiger tank. The company expect to sell fewer of them and you to buy one - perghaps two at the most of any single casting. Therefore it will take longer to turn initial sculpting/casting/promotion and then ongoing production costs into profit.

    In Infinity, 6 figures will cost around £30, but that's your army. You only have 6 figs to paint as well and you are gaming. Whereas traditional tabletop games such as WAB will see you spend £20-£30 on a single 28mm unit and your army comes in at £120-£200+ pounds.


  2. Very interesting point about the "unnatural" progression from a skirmish game up to a full battle game. I think the issue is how much the skirmish game is actually a skirmish game, and how much a small battle game, and whether there is a mid ground in one set of rules or the other.

    Malifaux is a good example of a true skirmish game - every model is an individual, with different rules and ways of breaking the game. There is no real ability to scale this up, and no incentive to buy more than a couple of each model - once you have your Baby Kade, you don't then buy another. You won't as a matter of course own enough that Wyrd could seque into a full battle game.

    I wonder whether there is a mid ground though? A rules set with sufficient detail that individual models are important, but the units themselves generic enough that you would willingly buy 20 or 30 of the same? You could then have a different set which takes the focus a bit higher, encouraging more models on the field...