Monday 28 February 2011

A few musings about Battlefront and Maelstrom

You may have already read the news that Battlefront, makers of Flames of War, have dropped Maelstrom games as a supplier. This news was followed up by statement from Maelstrom confirming what many people had already suspected, that this was a dispute about the level of discount offered by Maelstrom. This has raised some interesting question as to whether Battlefronts actions could be considered price fixing which is illegal in the UK.

I'm not going to comment on the legal question, there are plenty of amateur lawyers on the Internet already. But I did find the dispute interesting both because it has divided gamers and because it's not a clear cut argument at all.

Battleground are seen by many as the company who have "Games Workshopped" World War 2, by being a one stop shop for their customers, supplying rules, miniatures, dice, scenery and paints. This has lead to some treating them as a new 'Evil Empire'. That they are apparently trying to restrict sellers from discounting their products feels like a very Games Workshop move.

Of course plenty of gamers defend Games Workshop and Battlefront as simply being businesses that are justified in trying to maximise their profit margin by what ever means they can.

At the same time, there were plenty of gamers ready to condemn Maelstrom as a ruthless Internet retailer undercutting brick and mortar stores. An argument undermined by the discovery that Maelstrom operate their own brick and mortar store with a substantial gaming venue attached.

So have a dispute between one of the larger miniature manufacturers and a retailer that sits somewhere between brick and mortar store and a discount internet retailer. It has been argued that Maelstrom are being unprofessional by letting this all out in public, while ignoring Battlefronts questionable decision to announce the dropping of Maelstrom without talking to them first. Then we've had others arguing that other manufacturers of World War 2 models are some how exploiting Flames of Wars rule sets. From a purely selfish perspective, it's in the interests of gamers to be able to buy their models at the lowest possible price, but not if that harms the ability of the maufacturer to do business.

So there are no clear cut answers. If you view things from a purely business perspective, then this is simply a legal question with both sides doing what they can to increase their profits. If you take a more romantic view then it's not clear whether it's more appropriate to support the manufacturer or the seller. So, a far from clear cut case.

Saturday 26 February 2011

One Book to Rule them All

The Arrival of a new army book for Warhammer Orcs & Goblins has been met with much excitement and a little cynicism. It's the first new book for Warhammer 8th edition and the first printed in full colour and hard back. I have seen the book up close and it's certainly lushly printed and produced (although the large format, light page count gives in the feel of a Christmas annual). One advantage of hard back is that you can leave the book open on a particular page without having to break the spine. At the same time the price has gone up from £17.50 to £22.50, making it Games Workshop's most expensive army book ever, a price certain to be matched by future books.

While all this has been going on, Mantic Games have released the army list for their new range of Abyssal Dwarves. It's one page long and can be downloaded for free from their website.

If I stopped writing here and left the obvious implication hanging then I would fully expect a raft of comments from people telling me how much they like big shiny rulebooks, how they add to the gaming experience and they love reading through the background drooling over the pictures, not to mention the lovely new book smell that can never be reproduced in a download.*

There is no denying the appeal of a nicely produced rule book. Enough of my treasured wargaming memories are tied up in the thrill of pooring over page after page of charts and tables, evocative world descriptions and endless pictures of battles I can only dream of recreating. I still remember devouring every last page of the 4th edition Warhammer Armies: Orcs & Goblins, right down to the mail order catalogue pages in the back. I acknowledge that, to some extent, my cynicism about the new book stems from the fact that this is the fourth Orc & Goblin army book to be released since I started playing Warhammer and for me, very little of the material is entirely new.

But at same time, I have tried to consider things from the perspective of a new player. In order to start an Orc & Goblin army in Warhammer 8th edition you have to spend £67.50 before you even get a single miniature on the table (£45 for the rulebook £22.50 for the Army book). In contrast, Kings of War, Mantic's game, is available for free and a printed copy is handed out with any reasonably substantial purchase.

I find myself wondering how I would feel if I had just started gaming now. Mantic have nothing as evocative as the Warhammer world background to draw on, their background consists of a few paragraphs on a website and a couple of magazine articles, nor do they have anything that matches the sheer impact of the Arachnarok Spider. But you need a lot of models before you can use the Spider in a game, and with Mantic I get a lot of models for my money and don't have to spend anything on rules.

I think of my little brother, just turned 15. He loves rulebooks, devouring them with enthusiasm I can't match any more. He falls asleep reading through them. But he owns almost none. Of the many games he plays, Anima Tactics, Infinity, Malifaux, Secrets of the Third Reich, the only books he bought himself are his Warhammer Army books and he had to be pushed hard to get those. Otherwise, he borrows my copies. Why? Because if he has the £15, £20, £30 or even £45 required for a rulebook, he'd rather spend it on models.

Of course, not every 15 year old has access to the library of a 31 year wargames addict, but I do wonder how many of them would make the calculation outlined above if given the choice (not to mention how many would just say forget it and buy a new X-Box game). Might their be some logic in a two tear rule distribution system. GW already includes cut down rule book in the Isle of Blood starter set, would their be some sense in making that available separately?

I don't think the era of the nice shiny rulebook is over by any means. But given Games Workshop's explicit focus on the younger end of the Wargaming market, it's method of distributing rules seems to belong to an earlier age.

*Actually I fully expect to get these comments anyway. If I wanted people to read what I had written before commenting I wouldn't be writing on the Internet.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Heroquest - A Retrospective

Today I want to do something a little different and write about a game that was a huge influence on my early years as a gamer - HeroQuest. If this blog post works I might do more a long a similar line.

Heroquest was a co-production between Games Workshop and MB games that first appeared in UK in 1989. A dungeon crawl game that saw a party of adventurers descend into the depths to battle Orcs, Goblins and Skeletons. Games Workshop supplied the miniatures, game world and atmosphere while MB got it onto the shelves of Woolworths, Tescos and Argos.

At the time, the Roleplaying boom wasn long over in UK and Games Workshop was following a policy of not explicitly advertising its products. Games Workshop stores were dark and slightly forbidding places, unfriendly to new comers and youngsters and the only contact with Games Workshop outside of stores was the sporadic availability of White Dwarf in WH Smiths. So HeroQuest appearing in mainstream stores and, more startlingly, in TV ads had a huge impact on a generation of potential gamers. So much so that I know no gamer of my generation who didn't own or play it at one time or another. It was not the first Dungeon Crawl game, but was one of the most successful.

It's easy to see why it had an impact. The box is suitably grim depiction of High Fantasy with a seriously angry Barbarian showing off up front while his compatriots go toe-toe with Orcs and Zombies while a Skull faced sorcerer and Chaos Warrior advance from the right.

Inside its interesting to observe the mix of influences from mainstream board games, wargames and roleplaying. It's dice are red and gold wood and would look more at home in a snakes and ladders set. But it also includes what is essentially a GM's screen, for the Evil Wizard Player who controls the monsters.

Looking back on the rules its surprising how simple they are. Up to four players control the heroes - a classic combo of Barbarian, Wizard, Dwarf and Elf, and another the monsters, this player is also responsible for laying out the dungeon. During their turn players can move, attack and search for treasure or traps and secret passages. Combat is resolved by means of special combat dice. While searching for traps or passages has no random roll, if they're there you find them and treasure is resolved by a random draw from a deck of cards. Interestingly, hero movement is determined by roll of 2 6-sided dice, a possible concession to more conventional boargames, though monster movement is set by a number on the monsters profile card. In the basic set no Monster has more than 1 body point, so there is little record keeping. The only other complication is Magic spells, printed on cards and shared between the Wizard and Elf.

Interesting detail is that the Dwarf is taken from the White Dwarf logo of the time and the miniature follows the illustration quite closely, making it one of the earliest White Dwarf miniatures.

The game has a couple of interesting features. First is the inclusion of model furniture. This mostly doesn't do anything except take up space in dungeon, but adds greatly to texture of the dungeon, giving it the feel of something lived in and not just collection of monsters in rooms. Also, rather than use a series of seperate board sections, the dungeon is one big board. Doors and rock markers used to control access to parts of it so the whole board is rarely used in one quest.

A big advantage of the standardised board is that it allows quests to be printed on a double page of the Quest book with the Map on top and notes on the bottom. Notes are kept simple, so theres is little need to flip back and forth through rule book. Though ocassionally rules were left a touch loose requiring some intepretation from the Evil Wizard player as to how they work.

There is no experience system as such. Players can collect treasure and buy equipment and completing three quests nets them a 500 gold piece bonus, but that's it. No character advancement, no levels just more gear.

Despite this, I know of some copies of HeroQuest that languished in the box because owners couldn't get their head around concept. In days when most board games were variations of scrabble or monopoly easy to see how something like this could be confusing. And it's easy to understand why MB and Games Workshop kept the rules as basic as they did.

It was not my first encounter with Games Workshop. That came from a friend's older brother who had a copy of White Dwarf and a first edition Blood Bowl. So when HeroQuest came along I recognised the miniatures. Nor was it the first set of miniatures I owned. Another friend got the game first and I went looking for other miniatures stumbling across a few random selections before getting round to buying HeroQuest itself. But it was the first set of miniatures I painted and the first game of it's type I really played. And I really did play it, working my way through the whole of the basic quest book and the Return of the Witch Lord expansion over the course of a weekend with friends.

That said, it also started a grand tradition for me and wargaming - buying miniatures and expansions I never got round to using. I owned all the expansions for HeroQuest available in UK, but only played through one. I spent days drawing out new quest maps in squared paper exercise book, but played few of them. Much of the excitement came from reading through the rule books and imagining the possibilities.

My copy is a touch battered, but still in half decent condition. The miniatures fared less well, many being hacked to bits for conversion parts in more short-sighted days, while others suffered from being left on floor of living room and were variously stepped on or kicked.

The appeal of HeroQuest is easy to see. It provided an easy entry point for young gamers who could practice the concepts of the roleplaying and wargaming without being bogged down in complex or inpenetrable rules. It gave players the start of miniature collection and a game they could get into with a minimum of fuss. For me, it was effectively a 'gateway game' prompting me to try more complex games and to investigate the world of Games Workshop and wargaming.

Its impact was huge, for myself and many others. It not only got us into wargaming, but allowed Games Workshop to dip a toe into a more mainstream world. It lead to the appearance of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 in Argos and combat cards and plastic boxed sets in Tesco during the early 1990s. For many gamers it was the start of the wargaming hobby and for that reason alone it deserves to be remembered.

Sunday 13 February 2011

Can miniatures look too good?

This is post is largely about Games Workshop. Sorry, I haven't written about them in a while and I don't want this to turn into a rant, but I do have a point to make that won't sound like mindless griping and is somewhat applicable to Wargaming in general.

Anyway, disclaimer over. When you open up a wargame rule book you usually find it stuffed full of glossy photographs of stunningly painted miniatures and scenery. There are exceptions to this rule, mostly at the 'grungier' end of the market where costs are low and rules are more important than production, but generally nice colour photos predominate. The lush images are partly about justifying the cost of expensive full colour or hardback books and partly because wargaming is a very visual hobby and it's as well to show it at its spectacular best.

When I started out in wargaming, White Dwarf was similarly filled with images to excite the imagination of the new wargamer. Then I tried painting a model myself. It would be an understatement to say I was disappointed in the results.

It didn't help that back then there were fewer useful guides for new painters and that hobby staff were not as friendly or welcoming as now. But the truth is the majority of people do not take naturally to miniature painting. The techniques are abstract and take some learning, you need a steady hand, a keen eye and lots of patience. Some people have this naturally, but the majority do not. The consequence of this is that early miniature painting can be a dispiriting experience. I honestly felt at the start that I was ruining my figures by painting them and it took me a long time, a good five or six years, before I could produce models I felt happy to put on a gaming table.

In the face of this, the hundreds of photographs of beautifully painted models that festoon the rule books and magazines, not to mention the display cabinets of Games Workshop and local hobby shops, can be positively dispiriting. A reminder that you simply do not measure up. Not to mention the time and effort involved in painting a whole army. The bulk of my teenage friends played games with largely unpainted armies simply because we preferred to spend time gaming rather than paint.

Interestingly, during the early 2000s, Games Workshop went through a phase of publishing pictures, in rule books and White Dwarf, of less than spectacular models. Veterans may remember seeing pictures of rules designer turned novelist Gav Thorpe's dwarfs and Inquisitor models in White Dwarf, which could kindly be described as poor. At the same time, White Dwarf started to show case more unusual, quirky and personal armies, some painted well, some badly, but the emphasis was on the range and variety of gamers and armies out there.

At the same time, Games Workshop started to push concepts like 40K in 40 minutes and battle patrols, rules to allow for smaller games during lunch breaks. The idea was that the size of the game was less important than that you were playing at all.

Years pass and things change. Look at a recent issue of White Dwarf and the quirky armies have gone, the painting is all master standard and battle reports consist of taking the entirety of one studio army and setting it against another. Games Workshop are pushing legendary battles and Warhammer Apocalypse. Take a look at the Warhammer rule book, there are still scenarios for smaller battles, but a huge pull out section is devoted to the kind of legendary scale battle that few if any gamers can even aspire to play.

At the same time, Warhammer 8th edition has increased the power of infantry and introduced the Horde rule, pushing the idea that infantry units should be bigger and more numerous.

All of this sends a message, not explicitly in the rules, but subconsciously in the kind of promotional imagery and material they produce. The message is that Wargames are played with big, extremely well painted armies on lushly made custom gaming tables with expensive plastic scenery.

Games Workshop seem to be the only company pushing big battles, but most companies are using pictures of ever more elaborately painted models and well made scenery, either scratch built of purchased.

At one level this all makes perfect sense. Every company wants to present its miniatures in the best possible light and Games Workshop are keen to encourage big battles to encourage big spending. But I find myself wondering if this could back fire, particularly when marketed at younger gamers without the resources to construct big armies or the ability to paint them to a standard with which they are happy. Not that this will affect everyone, there will still be gamers keen to just put together what they can and get in a game, but I wonder if a certain proportion of potential gamers are being put off before they've got started.

One antidote to this lies in the online gaming community where images of more averagely painted miniatures sit on blogs and message forums and digital photos after action reports are replete with unpainted or simply undercoated miniatures. The Internet is becoming a haven for the average gamer. It's as well to remember that not everyone has the resources of a small company or the painting skills of a Golden Demon champion.

I'm not saying that companies should stop showing pictures of beautiful miniatures and scenery. But it would be nice to see the more average gamer represented. Games Workshop did it before for a while and could do so again. It doesn't hurt to remind people that this is a hobby about taking part, just showing up ready to game, and there is no reason why promotional material shouldn't reflect that.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

The Goblins are coming

Having completed the first batch of models for my Fantasy Chinese army, I needed some suitable opponents for them to face. The Song dynasty famously faced off against the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan and so I wanted a suitable fantasy analogue for them.

Rather than just get some historical Mongolians and add a few fantasy elements, I decided to take a leaf out of Games Workshop's book. Back in the days of Warhammer 3rd edition and briefly during 5th edition as part of the Dogs of War army, Hobgoblins were presented as Mongolian in character. I didn't have any of those models lying around, but I could convert some Goblin wolf riders. And so the mighty Horde of the Goblin Khan was born.

These are my first two elements, they count as Riders in HOTT. All the Goblins in the army will be mounted, in keeping with the Mongolian theme and the majority will be riders. I also plan to include a few elements of Heavy cavalry, who will be counted as Knights and a few other surprises.

I wanted the Goblins to have quite a gritty, earthy look, rather than the bright day-glo colours favoured by Games Workshop, so I painted their clothes in brown and gave them a dark green skin tone. The moustaches were added using green stuff to try and give them a more Mongolian look. In retrospect I think they've become a little too dark and I will try to add a splash of colour on later elements, but overall I'm quite pleased with the results.

With the Goblins started, I also have my last element done for my Fantasy Chinese - Monks, who count as clerics in HOTT. These are from Black Hat miniatures.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Two Models of doing business with Models

There seems to be a rise in the number of games companies offering generic sci-fi and fantasy miniatures. That is to say, miniatures not tied to a particular game world or with no particular rules set in mind. Some are offering alternatives miniatures for an existing IP, usually Games Workshop. Mantic Games started off like this, before developing Kings of War, but there are others such as Gribbly miniatures or Avatars of War that offer good alternatives to the miniatures GW produce.

Also on the increase are companies offering unofficial lookalikes of characters from TV, films and comics. Examples include, the 'not' Doctor Who miniatures produced by Heresy and Crooked Dice or Harby from Haslefree miniatures who in no way resembles Hellboy or Marv from Sin City. The newly arrived Elodie Mae offer miniatures for fans of anime, manga and Japanese video games. There are also a number of 'not' Buffys, 'not' Lara Crofts and 'not' Jack Sparrows for the gamer who wants to game with an unlicensed IP.

Then there are the companies that produce miniatures with no particular IP in mind and without wishing to produce an entire range, simply supplying miniatures that can be used in a number of different games. Heresy have a large range here, as do Haslefree, with Pig Iron productions supplying Sci-Fi. This isn't even close to an exhaustive list.

Part of this rise can in part be put down to the Internet which has enabled small 'garage' companies to become even more prevalent in the industry than before. Thanks to the ease of marketing and selling to customers through websites there is no longer a need to sell an entire range of models to a Games Store. The rise of generic rule systems has also been helped by the Internet, thanks to the possibility of PDF sales. This in turn increases the appeal of generic miniatures no tied to a specific game as they can always be Incorporated into a generic rule set. Word of Mouth has become more powerful as a marketing tool thanks to the growth of message forums, social networking, blogs and sites like coolminiornot.

But at the same time a very different trend has developed for highly specialised games with a very specific appeal. I have mentioned Anima Tactics before. This is a fantasy game with an aesthetic inspired by Manga and Anime in which most miniatures are specific individuals. The game is skirmish based, requires very few miniatures to play and it is unlikely that most players will buy more than one of most models. Then there is Malifaux, Wyrd Games fantasy/ si-fi/ horror/ wild west/ steam punk/ Victoriana skirmish game with a distinctive card based rule set intended to reflect it's bizarre hybrid setting. And this is just the tip of the Ice burg.

So how is that the industry appears to be trending in two directions simultaneously? Both more generic and more specific? Oddly, I think this is all linked. The same interconnectedness between customers and producers that allows companies to survive with a small range of miniatures also allows games with very niche to find their audience.

There may only be a handful of potential Malifaux or Anima Tactics fans compared with a more traditional fantasy game like Warhammer, but in the Internet world it is possible for Wyrd Games and Cipher Studios to reach all, or at very least most of them. A smaller market can still support a game if that market is reached more efficiently. And this is more practical in a world where the Internet is so prevalent. It's not by accident that Cipher Studios has worked so hard to release Anima and Helldorado in so many languages at once, they know that there audience is diverse and wide spread and they want to reach all of them.

So the Internet allows and indeed encourages companies to both specialise and generalise. Both ways of doing business can work well.