Tuesday 25 May 2010

The Evil Empire and its wicked pricing policy

The semi-annual Games Workshop price increase comes around again with all the regularity of games day and, as usual, the wargaming community is divided over its implications. The usual crowd of mildly smug Games Workshop refusers, for whom 50% of their message board time is spent reminding everyone that they abandoned Games Workshop years ago and how little they care about it, are joined by a fresh crew of outraged individuals for whom this year, not last year, but this year is the vorpal sword that broke the Jabberwocky's back. For this group Games Workshop prices are an atrocity on a par with war crimes, Enron, MPs expenses and Britain's Got Talent.

Meanwhile, the Games Workshop apologists stalk the blogs, forums and message boards arguing that the costs of running an international chain of stores and of producing so much plastic justifies the GW's prices, as if anyone not working for the company should actually care. They argue that Games Workshop should behave like a business and charge whatever the market can stand, whilst blindly failing to realise that they are working as Games Workshops unpaid marketing department.

The annual price increase slap fight always leaves me a bit cold, partly because I already have enough GW models to melt down and use to build a small car, and partly because GW pricing strikes me as neither particularly reasonable nor outrageously extortionate.

GW are certainly not the cheapest manufacturers of plastic miniatures around. Even a cursory glance at the web-stores of Victrix or Perry miniatures will reveal 50-60 Napoleonic or American Civil war soldiers going for £15 - £20. The comparatively expensive Warlord games offer 30 Roman Legionnaires for £17 (the swine). Of course historical miniatures will always be cheaper than fantasy because of the reduced design work required. Fantasy miniature producers still need someone to make this nonsense up, even if it does largely involve copying the last batch of models, but making them either more or less spiky depending on the way things are going. But historical producers can copy their designs out of an osprey book which is probably even cheaper (at least if you get your Osprey from Amazon or wait for Waterstones to offer 3 for 2).

But, in spite of this, newish boys and girls Mantic games are still making Games Workshop look like robber barons by offering 20 plastic skeletons or elves (and soon dwarves) for £12.50, while Games Workshop expects that much for 10 of its Empire state troops. Evidently, Fantasy isn't that expensive to produce.

So, case settled. Games Workshop are the Microsoft, Sony or Nestle of the wargaming world. Smash their filthy monopolistic practices and stop them exporting their dodgy powdered milk to third world countries. Or maybe not. Because while Games Workshop aren't the cheapest out there their not the most expensive either.

After years of childish swagger in which they attempted to use metal figures as some kind of phallic substitute, Privateer Press have finally dipped their toe in the plastic lake and gotten it all grey and gooey for their trouble. New unit boxes and Warjacks for Warmachine and Hordes already grace the shelves of many a hobby store and demonstrate that it ain't as easy as it looks. For example, a box of 5 Exemplar Cinerators or Bastions will cost you £30. These are big bulky, models in heavy armour with ludicrous shoulder pads, so some of the cost is probably in that. But they aren't four times as bulky as an Empire state trooper (£12 for 10) and certainly not as bulky as a Chaos Knight (half the price at £15 for 5). Meanwhile, the new Warjacks sell at £20, the cost of a Warhammer 40,000 tank. But they do have a variety of arms allowing you to assemble them in several configurations. Great news for manufacturers and totally irrelevant to the rest of us.

If you turn your attention to metal models it gets worse. Malifaux models come in starter boxes of 4 – 6 for £18 - £20. Your 10 man box of Empire Great Swords doesn't look so bad now does it? Ah, but you can't compare plastic to metal. Well, ignoring that I just did, we can look at the Games Workshop metals. Characters are pretty pricey, up to £12 a time, but troop boxes are selling at £15 - £20 for 5. Not cheap, but not any more expensive. Especially when compared to Anima Tactics models, that sell for at least £7 each and as much as £30 for the big guys. But they come with cards so that's alright then.

So Games Workshop are not the most expensive or the cheapest miniature company. And I just spent a lot of word explaining that not particularly interesting truth. But wait, there's more and I'm about to use a lot more words.

You see hardly anyone complains about the price of Malifaux or Anima Tactics models, even though they are demonstrate-ably more expensive that the Great Satan of Gaming itself. Yet every year we have the same tedious wailing about Games Workshop pricing. There has to be a reason for this. Games Workshops prominence in the industry is a factor, but I don't think that's the whole story.

Malifaux and Anima Tactic are pricey. But they are easy to start. Malifaux requires a starter box and a rulebook for a total of about £50 that's enough for a comfortable game. You'll probably want to spend out a bit more on this, you're a wargamer and, therefore, probably borderline autistic, but still a decent sized crew (as they call them) is likely to set you back under £100. Anima Tactics is the same, another £30 rule book, although you can forgo it and use the free downloadable starter book and still have most of the rules, and a dozen or so figures. Both games are determinately skirmish-based and that keeps the overall cost down even if the per figure cost is way up.

Warmachine is a bit larger scale, but still emphasises that a game can be played with a single Warcaster and a handful or Warjacks. Add a couple of units to bulk things up and, thanks to the low cost of the rule book, you are still looking at around £100 for a decent sized force.

But you decide to add yet more figures. No problem for Malifaux or Anima. Each figure is essentially autonomous. Buy the figure, the rules come bundled with it or their in the main rulebook. Assemble, paint and get it on the table that afternoon, only to watch it be destroyed as you have no clue how to use it properly. But the point is that adding to your party/crew/army is easy. Warmachine, again, is more expensive, but the unit boxes are still pretty complete. You may be spending £20 - £30, but you have a block you can insert straight into your force.

Now look at Games Workshop. Well you'll need a rulebook (£35) and an army book (£15-20). So you 50 quids gone and you have nothing but rules. Plenty of good bedtime reading, but nothing to game with. Things improve if you buy a starter box at £40 with a slimmed down rulebook and a bunch of models, but this is sod all good if you don't want either of the armies in the box.

Meanwhile, at the next table someone has the Malifaux models out, while over there three people are painting Anima Tactics. Well they're not actually, because your in Games Workshop and while you're in there the rest of the industry just winked out of existence, but still.

Once you have your rulebooks your going to need an army. The £55 battalion boxes are a start, but they will only furnish you with around 500 points of models for the most part. Enough to get you going, but a pretty weak version of the full game. So you turn you grab a few more units. You going to need around half a dozen or so, and some characters, and your still only at 1,000 points, the minimum level that the Warhammer rulebook is prepared to mention.

Plus, each new box, generally offers only half a unit. 10 Empire State troops aren't going to get you very far, you need 20. And this is the key problem. Games Workshop armies are expected to be huge and are actually growing. Take a look at the website or any White Dwarf and look at the vast horde of assembled and painted models stretching so wide that they creep outside your peripheral vision. Not only does this make armies expensive to collect, it makes each unit a much less important part of each army. When you have only a small number of figures, each one is special and each addition makes a big difference to how your army plays. In Warhammer, who's going to notice one missing skeleton or elf?

So, if you're still bothering to read, this, the problem isn't that Games Workshop models are particularly expensive, its that you need so many of them to play and you can't add them to your army one at a time. Everything comes in bulk and, as great as each individual model may be, it feels unimportant. And yet Games Workshop seem determined to push massive battles even further, first Warhammer 40,000 Apocalypse, then War of the Rings. White Dwarf battle reports have moved from a standard size of 2,000 points for Warhammer or 1,500 for Warhammer 40,000 to 2,000 or more for Warhammer 40,000 and around 4,000 for Warhammer. The message sent to new player is that all Games Workshop armies are massive hordes and you individual model doesn't matter a bit compared to the vast size of your whole army.

When you think about, that was Sauron's approach to warfare, rolling over the enemy with his hordes of nameless orcs and trolls. The good guys relied on smaller numbers and emphasised that each individual had an important role to play. Inevitably we're back here and Games Workshop is the dark lord. The problem isn't the price of your models, it's all about how they're sold.