Monday 28 March 2011

Conspicuous Consumption

My Salute tickets have arrived. For those who don't know, Salute is the South London Warlords gaming club's annual show and one of the biggest Wargaming events on the UK calendar. It might not have quite the size and attendance figures of Games Workshop's Games Day, but it more than compensates by the sheer number and range of traders. There are companies that do Salute and nothing else and miniatures that can only be bought at Salute or on the web.

I tend to schedule my miniature buying around shows. Despite my advocacy of the Internet as a means for wargaming companies to communicate and sell directly to their customers, I actually rarely buy any miniatures online. I'm not entirely sure why this is, but it may be that when confronted with a limitless range of miniatures and a credit card it is all too easy to go a bit crazy and spend far more than I can afford.

The shows are useful because they set a natural limit on what you can buy. Most traders don't accept credit cards, so it is easy to set a budget for yourself simply buy taking a limited amount of funds. Plus, you can only buy what the traders bring with them.

Consequently, I make most of my wargaming purchases at certain key points in the year and plan my collecting and gaming around them. There are four of five major events in the year when I accumulate a large volume of models.

In spite of these limits, I still seem to end up with more models than I can do anything with. Last year's Salute was all about Malifaux and the English Civil War. My Malifaux models (or at least the ones I bought last year) have been painted and used, but my ECW figures remain unpainted and unassembled. Not that I regret the purchase, I still fully intend to paint up my Royalists and get in a game. I simply have more models than I can paint of use.

This hobby supplies few opportunities for instant gratification. Unlike most Sport, our hobby requires considerable preperation and unlike other collections (such as stamps or action figures) the act of purchase is not the end of the endeavour. Once we have our miniatures we still have a great deal to do before we are ready to display or use them.

I didn't use to like painting. This was a combination of the amount of time it took and my lack of satisfaction with the results I achieved. This has changed a great deal, I now find it quite relaxing and satisfying, but it is still very time consuming and requires a good deal of effort.

This is also somewhat true of gaming. Although I enjoy the gaming experience, it takes a great deal of time to set up and put away and requires a good deal of concentration over a period of time. Sometimes the energy required to do it just isn't there.

Buying new miniatures is the closest to instant gratification we can get in this hobby. A new miniature of box of miniatures is full of possibility, detached from the requirements of time and effort needed to extract value from them. We can look a box and fool ourselves into thinking that beautifully painted display images are exactly what will come tumbling out of the box. Consequently we can easily accumulate more than we can use. I don't really need Salute, I still have plenty of projects to be getting on with and yet the acquisition is good part of the fun.

Is there a solution to this? Probably not. As much as I can tell myself that I need no new miniatures, but I still want them, I am still excited by them. There will still be a pile of unpainted and unassembled miniatures for some time to come.

Sunday 20 March 2011

The Decline of the FLGS?

A thread started by GHQonline on the Miniature Page started me thinking about local games shops.

The "Friendly Local Games Shop" (FLGS) has long been seen as the hub of the gaming community. It is seen as a place where gamers can get together to talk about their hobby, share interests, promote new games and even play in the shops that provide gaming space. For that reason, they are looked on with much greater fondness than conventional shops.

The decline and even death of the FLGS has been a common discussion point in wargaming for some years now. In recent years, a good deal of the blame has been piled on heavy discounting online retailers. The argument being that these operations can afford to undercut FLGS because they don't have to cover the cost of running a "brick and mortar" shop. But such online operations are unable to provide the auxiliary services, game rooms and such, that a traditional FLGS does. The decline of the FLGS in favour of the online retailer is regarded as bad for the hobby as a whole.

It is fFor that reason that some companies provide incentives and support specifically for FLGS at the expense of online retailers. The recent spat between Battlefront and Maelstrom games was sparked by Battlefronts insistence that Malestrom could not offer the level of discount it did (a situation complicated by the fact that Malestrom runs a substantial brick and mortar operation).

However, the FLGS decline has been a theme in Wargaming since at least the 1990s (and possibly longer, my memory stretches back only so far), long before online retailing was any kind of issue. In UK this had a lot to do with Games Workshop who converted their general games stores into Games Workshop specific ones selling only Games Workshop products, before rapidly colonising the rest of the UK. As a consequence, almost every moderate sized town in the UK has a games shop, but the vast majority of these are Games Workshop, a sad development for those of us whose interests stretch a little wider.

The difficulty faced by the FLGS may have less to do with the challenge of online retailing and more to do with the difficulty making a profit of a niche industry in a competitive environment. A problem made all the more acute by the limited space most FLGS have to work with. It's all very well expecting gamers to support their FLGS, but that can be difficult if they don't offer the product you want. I buy almost all my Anima Tactics figures from one shop, but, for various reasons, they don't stock Malifaux, which means for those figures I have to go elsewhere. I can understand why they choose to prioritise those lines that sell best, but that doesn't help the customer wanting something else.

The thing is that there was a time when that would have been it. Either I find a FLGS that stocks the figures I want or I'm done and have to buy what's available. At least in the world of online retail, I can go elsewhere. Yes there are the shows and conventions which broaden out range of companies available, but strongly suspect these have grown in popularity since Internet made them so much easier to publicise.

It is now possible for small company, that can't sell to a FLGS, to go straight to the customer via the Internet. This is better for gamers who have a wider range of games and miniatures to choose from. Strangely, while the rise of the Internet has been bad for the small business when the small business is an FLGS, it has been a boon for small businesses that produce games and miniatures.

The FLGS still has a great deal to offer, and it would be a terrible shame to see them die out. But they have always struggled. I'm not convinced the Internet has been as harmful to them as is some times said, and if it has I still prefer the current state of the wargaming industry to the times before the Internet.

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.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Taste and Decency

This blog post will be something of an unfocused ramble. I have had a number of thoughts on a particular subject, but not really a coherent line of argument. This post will be more about raising questions than answering them and I will have to apologise in advance for not reaching any definite conclusions.

Some readers may be aware that I have been building a fantasy Chinese army for Hordes of the Things. My goal is to build several armies all capable of battling one another in a Fantasy world loosely based on Medieval East Asia, much in the same way that the Warhammer world is based on late Medieval Europe.

With that in mind I toyed with several different ideas for armies. In particular, I wanted a fantasy analogue for the Mongolian hordes of Genghis Khan that swept through Asia and Europe during the 13th centuary. Games Workshop had done two ranges of Hobgoblins in the past that had a very Mongolian look, with similar armour, weapons and facial hair, but they are long since out of production and not easy to find. Instead, I decided to use Games Workshops current range of Fantasy Goblin Wolf Riders, as they were easier to obtain, relatively inexpensive and still had a number of design details that echoed the Mongolians, such as their hats and shields. The fact that I could do an entire army of wolf riders was also pretty appealing.

Having gotten hold of my first wolf riders, I decided to try and make them look a bit more like the classical image of the Mongolian army by adding some moustaches and beards with green stuff. It was only when sticking bits of green stuff to their faces that the thought occurred to me that this could be taken in a different way than I was intending. I was always planning to post pictures of these on my blog and it has left me wondering what people might think. Could my sticking green stuff on goblins to make them look 'Mongolian' be taken to mean that I thought Mongolians look like Goblins? Or that all it takes to make a Mongolian is a droopy moustache? Worse, what if this really did say something about my subconscious attitude to Mongolian culture?

This was probably a huge over-reaction and I doubt anyone would be sensitive enough to take offence. My army was inspired by Mongolian culture, but not meant to say anything about it. Readers would understand that.

However, this whole line of thought was disconcerting to me, because I was bringing ideas and attitudes to my wargaming that I usually leave outside. As a self-consciously 'woolly liberal' I spend a fair bit of time on blogs and messages boards getting unnecessarily irritated by people's casually prejudice and racism, and self examine my own beliefs, opinions and attitudes for signs of prejudice. If anything, wargaming is an antidote to this, an area that is just for fun, where I can leave political debates behind.

But once I had started thinking in this way I couldn't easily stop and it made me think some more about other 'odd' aspects of wargaming.

Take the example of the Nazis, largely regarded as one of most evil regimes in history.* Yet, plenty of us have no qualms about collecting armies of World War 2 Germans. What does this say about us? Does it say anything? Somehow the regime has developed a kind of pop culture split personality, where the are regarded as some of the worst criminals in history and simultaneously pulp fiction baddies. This is not unique to wargaming, but is also present in film and video games.

I have a German army for Secrets of the Third Reich in which World War 2 Germans rub shoulders with Vampires and Werewolves. This does not mean I sympathise with their ideology even the smallest amount. I only collect that army because my little brother wanted to collect Brits. But I wonder how I would feel if, say, a Jewish person who had relatives who died in Holocaust saw them. Would I defend them? Would I feel the need to?

My Grandfather fought in World War 2 and was heavily involved in operation Market Garden. My Dad still has photos to prove it. I have seen battles in which he was involved made into wargaming scenarios. I'm not really into World War 2 historical games, but if I were, how would I feel about recreating those battles? Would I include a model of my grandfather? Would that be disrespectful? Or would it be more disrespectful to leave him out?

That's a conflict still in living memory. But what about conflicts still going on? Osprey is publishing 'Force on Force', a set rules for modern warfare from Ambush Alley. The Assault Group and Black Scorpion make US and British troops and Insurgents. Isn't it a bit odd to be turning conflict in which people still dying into game? What would you say to relatives of soldiers? I don't think these companies mean to offend, or are doing anything morally wrong, again, when I think about it in this way, it just feels odd.

Our hobby involves simulating conflicts in which thousands or millions died. Is that weird? True, the history of the world would have been a lot less bloody if conflicts had been resolved with wargaming instead of war. But they weren't. Does our hobby trivialise this? Or is it just a bit of fun? Is treating it as a bit of fun distasteful?

It would be too strong to talk about bringing questions of morality into wargaming. I don't think any of these questions are serious enough to warrant the term. But maybe taste and decency? Would that be appropriate? I raise all this stuff only because my slightly silly wobble over my 'Mongolian' Goblins made me think about wargaming from a different perspective.

As I said at the start, I don't have any conclusions to draw, just a bunch of questions. Including the question 'Does any of this even matter?' I can't pretend to have an answer to that. All I can say, is that it has made me think.

*I would say the most evil but that would probably start an argument with someone siting Stalin's precise casualty count and begin a debate begins over numbers versus intent, so suffice it to say if we listed worst regimes in history they would be near the top.