Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Startup Costs

In my last post I mentioned that I had bought some models for Bushido, from GCT games, a fantasy skirmish game set in a version of Medieval Japan.

Although by no means its strongest attraction, one element that drew me to it was its nicely constructed starter sets. As well as containing five or six models, it also included dice, cards and, tucked away at the back, a full set of rules. GCT games had already been handing out these small-sized rule books at the event so I came away with two copies. It was quite gratifying to see a skirmish game with a complete rule book included like this and it made me think of the late Rackham and Confrontation second edition.

Confrontation was Rackham's fantasy skirmish game, which was on to its second edition by the time it really started to make waves in the UK. This was also the time I started playing. At the time, Confrontations distribution method was highly original. Each blister back or box came with cards which contained all the rules for the models. This was a novelty at the time, miniature rules on cards were still a new thing, but Rackham took it to extremes by never printing the rules for the miniatures anywhere but on the cards, there were no Army Books until Rackham made its foray into pre-painted plastic. Also each blister came bundled with a mini-rulebook. Most models included Confrontation, the basic rules for moving and fighting, but Wizards and Clerics came with Divination and Incantation, which provided rules for magic and faith, artillery included Fortification and some characters Incarnation, which gave the rules for ongoing campaigns.

The great advantage of this approach was that you could buy a few blisters of models and be confident of having all the rules you needed to play. The points values of the models were printed on the cards, which were visible through the packaging, so you could even have a good idea of how many points you were getting.

Sadly, this all came to an end when third edition was released. Although, in many respects superior to its predecessor, the rules now came in a lushly produced hard back rulebook costing £15. The rules booklets that came with the figures were relegated to starter rules.

It has always surprised me that more games don't follow the Confrontation 2nd edition approach. Starter sets, like Bushido's, are common enough, but these generally come with 'starter rule' if any at all, with the bulk of the came relegated to a large, usually hardback, book.

As far as I can see, there are two principle motivations for producing a set of game rules. One is a belief in the rules themselves. That is to say, that the writer(s) have an excellent idea for an enjoyable game, or even a particular rules mechanic, or they see an area not well catered for by existing rules and produce a set to meet that need. This seems to be the main motivation behind a lot of historical rules writing, where the rule publishers are often different from the miniature makers, but also appears to be the case for many stand alone fantasy and sci-fi rules sets.

The other motivation, is to support a range of miniatures. In this case the miniature concept comes first, and the rules exist to justify the miniatures. That isn't to say that the rules are not well thought through or simply an after thought, but it is the miniatures that drive the game. Games Workshop have been open about this for years: the purpose of the rules is to sell miniatures. But I also suspect that it is true of a number of high concept fantasy and skirmish games, such as Malifaux, Helldorado and Infinity. In the case of Anima Tactics, I know that it is a spin off of an RPG and that the principle motivation behind the game was to create a miniature game set in that world.

When looking at this second motivation, it seems to me that a rule book simply represents a barrier to entry. If your goal is to get people buying miniatures and playing with them, then you want to minimise any additional start up costs. The great advantage of the Confrontation 2nd edition approach was that you could buy a few blisters packs and get started. If you have to buy a rulebook first, then that's money you can't spend on miniatures. Warhammer now requires a rule book and an army book meaning that the start up cost, before any miniatures are put down, is close to £70. But this is less noticeable in a mass battle game, where the number of miniatures required is large and you would expect to spend some time collecting before you can play a full sized game. With some skirmish games we have ended up in the bizarre situation where you can spend as much, or even more, on the rules than the miniatures. When a significant selling point of your game is that it is quick and easy to pick up and play, why do anything to slow it down?

It's possible that there is serious money to be made in rulebooks. I'm not really sure where to find data on this, but it may be that the cost of rulebooks provides a valuable supplement to the income of miniature companies. Though I do wonder if the profit is offset by the cost of potential players who never get into the game in the first place.

Another potential justification is the need for background material. While there are some games based on existing IP, the majority of Fantasy and Sci-Fi games are set in their own unique world. If you want customers to invest in the miniatures you need them to invest in the game world. If this is your goal, then pages of flavour text and illustrations is obviously likely to be of benefit. In this scenario, if you sell the players on the rulebook, you sell them on the game.

But while players may drawn into a game by its flavour text and imagery, we often want very different things during a game. Hundreds of pages of non-rules material can be a serious pain when you just want to look up the rules. Wyrd games seem to have realised that, hence their decision to release a background free 'rules manual' half the size of their full rulebook.

This is an area where I think GCT games have been very smart with Bushido. They have kept their background material and illustrations to a minimum within the rulebook, but put a considerable amount of material on their website. There are short stories and illustrations for every faction and, so far, they have seen frequent updates. They are not the first company to do this, Mantic has been trying it for one, but they seem to be doing a better job than most.

This was one area where Confrontation 2 fell down. The Rackham website was never as extensive as it might have been and players had to turn to Cry Havoc, their quarterly magazine, for more background information. Releasing a regular magazine is beyond the resources of most game companies, but updating a website is increasingly easy. With all that in mind, I am watching GCT with interest and wondering who else may follow their lead.

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