Wednesday 25 July 2012

It's just business

A little while back the games shop from which I bought most of my Anima Tactics miniatures decided to stop selling them. This was more than a little irritating for me because it had been this shop that had got me started on the game in the first place and, with only a very small number of exceptions, I had consistently bought every model for the first two then three factions from them. It doesn't help that Anima Tactics is not well stocked in the UK; it is sold in few game shops and is absent from most shows and conventions.

Although I was genuinely irritated, I had no illusions. The shop wasn't doing this to spite me and, by myself, I didn't represent enough sales to justify them keeping the range. Ultimately this was a business decision and that wasn't anything to be gained by taking it personally.

Generally, the wargames community is pretty realistic when it comes to the behaviour of wargames businesses, be it the companies that produce the rules and miniatures or the shops and websites that sell them. For the most part people expect businesses to behave like businesses. We expect price rises, unpopular games to be dropped, more popular ones to be promoted, new editions, etc. There will always be grumbling and a few decrying certain companies lack of ethics, but mostly we accept that decisions aren't personal.

Of course that doesn't mean that business decisions can't be bad or made for the wrong reasons. In fact it can be even more galling when a company appears to be doing something spectacularly stupid for business reasons, because ultimately no-one will win, not even the company.

So we expect businesses to behave like businesses. But there is an idea held within the wargames community that, in someway, we as hobbyists should be held to some kind of mythical higher standard. It's by no means a universal belief, but it seems to have some traction.

Let's take a look at an example. I have already had some fun with Battlefront's amazingly crass announcement that they would no longer allow miniatures from other companies to be used at their tournaments. The justification being that it was necessary to support their business. This was accepted by many as Battlefront blatantly trying it on. They want people to buy their models and they are willing to try anything to get some sales. You would expect this from the company.

But there were some hobbyists who defended this statement. As though it was a reasonable expectation by Battlefront and the players were doing something wrong. The implication being that Battlefront shouldn't have to introduce such a rule because players should really be doing it anyway. As though attending a Battlefront tournament with non-Battlefront models was impolite or even unethical.

Now it should be obvious that Battlefront's tournaments are blatantly marketing. They run to promote the sale of their miniatures. They are hardly unique in this, plenty of other games companies do it. And if for some reason this isn't working as marketing opportunity it makes sense for them to revise the rules in someway or reconsider running them. But the same consideration doesn't apply to the players. If they introduce a rule saying you can't use non-Battlefront models, then you can put up with it or walk away. But there is no reason to view it as an ethical issue.

Similarly, I have seen the argument put forward that because Battlefront produces a wider range of models than most companies producing 15mm scale WW2 figures, players should buy everything from them. The argument being that if you buy the cheaper alternatives from other manufacturers you are somehow cheating Battlefront. Similarly, I have seen it put forward that Battlefront will not survive as a company if players don't pay inflated prices for their more general troops. As though by buying from Forged in Battle, the Plastic Soldier Company or Zvezda you are some how cheating Battlefront of sales.

Logically, if Battlefront is a business, making decisions for Business reasons then we, as consumers, should be able to make purchasing decisions for similar reasons. If a company produces a model I want at a price I am willing to pay I will buy it, if another company produces a better priced or better quality model I will choose them. I don't have an obligation to "support" a company by buying models I don't want or don't need on the basis that they produce others that I do. Quite apart from anything else, it won't help in the long run because no company can survive based solely on customer indulgence. They need to have a competitive product.

I expect Wargames companies to appeal to customer loyalty and support. I don't have much respect for the argument but I can see it for what it is, a marketing ploy. What makes no sense to me is players acting contrary to the best interests, or asking others to do so, because a company asked them to.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

How not to make an announcement

"Sir not to put my head in the Lion's mouth, but by repeating the name of your opponent in public you are essentially giving him free advertising."
"Cal thinks you should start referring to him as my opponent or the other guy, the other side. I don't know maybe there are other suggestions?"
"... You're not afraid it's going to make me look like I can't remember his name?"
- the West Wing, season 2 episode 1, In the Shadow of Two Gunmen part 1
"The final change we are making is that from the new season all the events we run with will be only allowing Battlefront miniatures to be used. This is bound to cause some debate, so let me be clear as to why we have chosen to go down this path. Joe, Gareth and our events cost a great deal of money to run: a little over a quarter of a million American dollars this year alone. And, although it seems childish to draw a line in the sand and say, "If you want to play at our events and support the FOW hobby, you should not be bringing other people's models along," it is absolutely that simple. Our business is a business and we want Flames Of War to grow; we intend to give it the best support we can, but this support has a cost."
With the above statement Battlefront proclaimed that they would no longer allow players to use models made by other companies at their official tournaments. The statement originally came from here, but has since been updated as Battlefront caved, allowing other companies models to be used as before.

The actual content of the announcement drew a predictable response as gamers divided, not exactly equally, into those that felt this was a reasonable move given it was Battlefront's tournament to run and others who saw it as decidedly negative move. Some were just angry that they couldn't use other, often cheaper, alternatives, some thought this was a bad business decision if the tournaments were not actually making money to begin with.

What got a lot of people angry wasn't the content of the statement at all, but the telling phrase "the FOW hobby." The responses ranged from anger to derision. Largely, because Battlefront seemed to be trying to draw a distinction between what they do and the rest of the wargaming industry. It also echoes Games Workshop who have been using the phrase "the Games Workshop hobby" for years.

As I have previously stated, Games Workshop's target audience is gamers who are not even aware of the wider hobby. They should see what Games Workshop does as genuinely unique and special, not as part of an industry. By the time they learn about other wargames, if they ever do, it is time to move on to the next batch of recruits. Given that, it makes sense for Games Workshop to promote itself as a hobby in its own right. Given that they run their own chain of stores and maintain a significant high street presence, in the UK at least, it is a plausible goal.

Battlefront was essentially the first company to attempt to turn the Games Workshop approach to historical gaming. They attempt to provide the full package, rules, miniatures, paints, even scenery. But, unlike Games Workshop, their target market is not made up solely of new gamers. They have always needed existing historical players. More than that, they do not have a unique IP of their own. You can call Games Workshop's IP derivative, but it is still copyright-able, the same can't be said of the Panther or the T34. In spite of what Battlefront would themselves claim in response to criticism:
"If Flames Of War is not creating our own IP I dont know what is and I know that Pete, Phil, Wayne, Evan and the guys would disagree as they have spent the last ten years of their lives dedicated to creating a hobby that is the heart of our business and completely unique."
"I don't know what is"? Call me crazy, but I would say Games Workshop, Privateer Press, Wyrd Games, Mantic Games, Cipher Studios, West Wind productions, Corvus Belli, GCT studios, etc etc. All have a greater claim to a unique IP.

It seems that with a Games Workshop approach to business and Games Workshop scale ambition, comes Games Workshop arrogance bordering on hubris. And, unlike Games Workshop, Battlefront has neither the size nor the market dominance to back it up.

Calling it the "FOW hobby" sounds arrogant, but more than that it sounds stupid. It is one thing not to give your opponent free advetising, but quite another to claim that you don't have any opponents because what you do is so unique and special that it is an industry all of its own. That's drifting past marketing speak and into insanity.

Sunday 15 July 2012

White Dwarf 169

Back in the dim and distant past when I wrote my last retrospective on White Dwarf 157, I noted that and Games Workshop was going through a period of transition. By White Dwarf 169 the transition was more or less complete. Warhammer 40,000 second edition had been released and Games Workshop had begun the cycle of five year re-releases of games and army books, little did we know it at the time.

  Bjorn actually features the minimum allowable amount of red for this period

They were also going through what has become known as the "red period" due to the excessive amount of bright red paint used on models, often in the most incongruous places. This amply demonstrated in the claws and horns of the newly released Rat Ogres, Vermin Lord and Bjorn the Fell Handed, all of which are bright red for no discernible reason. To be fair, the period wasn't so much about red as about the use of brighter primary colour generally and a lack of subtlety overall. Partly this may have been about appealing to a younger audience, though another factor may have been that White Dwarf was now in full colour, though in places the magazine struggle to find a way to use it, leading to some oddly coloured illustrations and huge logos at the tops of pages.

"Colour in the illustration, make the title red and bung on a massive logo."

One change in the magazine is the way that the news section at the start of the magazine has shifted from being about general Games Workshop news to being essentially a list of products. A few years earlier this would not have been possible as the company simply didn't have something new to show off every month. For better or worse Games Workshop was going to have to find a way to fill these pages and from then on they would be as regular a feature as the monthly battle report.

White Dwarf had now moved firmly from pioneering new rules and systems, to simply previewing or even reprinting the contents of existing books. This can be seen in the articles on Skaven special characters, and Arkhan the Black, all of which come straight from recently released army books, while the, actually useful, guide to painting Eldar Guardians is actually a preview of the new Warhammer 40,000 painting guide.

This issue is slightly atypical in that a considerable proportion of its contents was given up to White Dwarf specific material. Shortly after the release of Warhammer Fantasy Battle 4th edition, White Dwarf had included a "free gift" of a cardboard cottage you could cut out and assemble yourself. With Warhammer 40,000 2nd edition released only three months earlier Games Workshop decided to repeat the freebie, with a free cardboard bunker. However, on this occasion White Dwarf really ran with the concept. As well as the obligatory "how to assemble your bunker" modelling workshop, Jervis Johnson wrote a substantial article with rules for using the bunker in games. At the end of the article was a scenario to use for Space Marines and Orks which was a direct follow on from the booklet of starter scenarios included in the Warhammer 40,000 boxed set. From the perspective of a new player, this would have been excellent value, particularly at a time when Games Workshop produced little scenery and much of it had to be scratch built. Sadly, this sort of useful unique content was a rarity during this period.

 Free scenery in White Dwarf, what strange dream world is this?

This month's battle report is all but unique in White Dwarf history, as it covers a game of Man O' War, Games Workshop's naval game. Although fondly remembered by some now, it was somewhat overshadowed at the time being released almost exactly between Warhammer 4th edition and WH40K 2nd. It was a simple, straight-forward system with a couple of interesting innovations, including a special template that also marked out ranges and a magic system based on cards. The card-based magic system used spells based on the college of magic and had the clever idea that spell doubled up as dispel cards for spells of the opposing college of magic.

The game did, however, have some significant flaws. The first was that every single ship, flyer or monster in your fleet, as well as shore forts had to have its own template for recording damage. Although this made tracking damage simple, these templates were not small and in the games I played with my friends we often used as much space storing templates as playing the game, a significant draw back at a time when only one of us had a dedicated hobby room. Secondly, the boxed game only contained templates for the plastic models included in the box. The rest had to be photocopied from the rulebook. This was compensated for somewhat in the expansion sets Plague Fleet and Sea of Blood, though this would still only give you enough templates for one squadron of each ship. The idea of including the templates in the boxes of ships evidently had not occurred to Games Workshop at the time.

Man O' War featured in only one other White Dwarf battle report and this was more an example of play than a true battle, with no photographs and covering only one turn. In this issue, the game's designer (and now head of the Black Library) Andy Jones lead his Empire fleet (resplendent in bright red!) against Jervis Johnson's Dark Elves. The Dark Elves were actually supported by a squadron of Nurgle ships, which illustrates the extent to which the studio armies of the time were more collections of models painted to display new releases than a coherent force.

 The Bright Red fleet

Andy was normally a Bretonnian commander, whose ships didn't use oars and were dependent on the wind. Consequently, his deployment was all wrong for the Empire and he ended up getting a pasting. It probably didn't help that Jervis' allied Nurgle ships were long ranged specialists which did an excellent job of compensating for the Dark Elves only significant weakness, their lack of range. Andy did manage to sink Jervis Black Ark, but overall the outcome was pretty one-sided.

 The more effective Evil Alliance

All in all, this issue features a couple of distinctive features. The Man O' War battle report is something of a novelty while the Bunker and its rules provide a real selling point for Warhammer 40,000 players. Sadly, this issue is not really illustrative of the period, which saw White Dwarf providing less and less unique and interesting content and more reprints from army books.

Monday 9 July 2012

The Role of Narrative

In my last post I wrote about how Inquisitor is an odd miss-match between a range of models based on specific characters and a game system that emphasised creating characters of your own. It seems odd that this miss-match would have come about when the concept for the model range came first and Inquisitor was one of many game ideas on the table. In fact, that a game of this type was ultimately produced says something about Games Workshop and its history.

The history of Games Workshop games does not begin with Warhammer, but to a large extent, the company that it is now began with Warhammer. Prior to the release of Warhammer 1st edition, most fantasy miniatures were used as props for Roleplaying games (which themselves evolved from Wargaming, but that's another story). Warhammer was essentially a slightly different thing to do with your fantasy miniatures. I put "slightly" because 1st edition Warhammer was still substantially a Roleplaying game. It was supposed to use a Games Master, have player created characters and "adventures" rather than scenarios. The concept of competing players each with their own armies, really developed from 2nd edition onwards.

 The 1st edition Warhammer rule books including character generation

However, the roleplaying concepts were not forgotten. 3rd edition Warhammer is particularly interesting. The 3rd edition rulebook was written as if it were a stand-alone system, the dedicated army list book Warhammer Armies, came later and appears to have been written to support tournament play. The basic rule book has no army lists, but it does have an extensive bestiary of fantasy creatures with points values for all of them. In addition, it includes rules and points values for a number of specialist troop types. These included Shock and Missile elites who were simply better at fighting or shooting, but also included more unusual troops like scouts, skirmishers, assassins, flagellants and berserkers. The interesting thing is that these specialist types were included as upgrades to existing troops. So if you wanted to create a goblin assassin or an elf berserker you could, and adjust the points values accordingly.

Characters were also presented as upgrades. They were given levels from 5 to 25 and these represented the number of bonuses applied to troops' profiles. The interesting thing was that these bonuses were variable, with six different options presented allowing more combat orientated or leadership orientated characters (though one was presented as the standard version to use in tournaments).

When Warhammer 40,000 was released a similar system was presented, with tables for randomly generating troops and characters and with an emphasis on scenario-based game play.

In subsequent editions, these ideas have been diluted, but elements remain. Standard Games Workshop characters are still generic types upgraded by players with equipment and/or magic items. Units vary in numbers and can frequently be upgraded with different weapon options as well as extra elements like standard bearers, musicians and champions.

This sort of approach is common for games produced independent of a range of models, such as Hordes of the Things, Armies or Arcana, Song of Blades and Heroes or Warrior Heroes: Armies and Adventurers. This is understandable as the game needs to be adaptable to players miniatures. It is more unusual for games and miniature ranges produced together.

For example in War Machine and Hordes, the number of models in a unit can vary, but not their equipment. Some can be upgraded with additional specialist models, but not all. Warjacks and Warbeasts are defined types with standard equipment. And all characters are named individuals with a defined range of abilities and equipment. The same is true of Malifaux, Helldorado, Bushido and Anima Tactics. All of them emphasise named characters with only limited, if any, upgrade options for individual troops.

Warhammer's origins as a hybrid roleplaying game has bled across into other Games Workshop games. Inquisitor, with its player-created warbands of characters has already been mentioned, but it also present in Mordheim, Necromunda and Blood Bowl. All of which feature a campaign system that emphasises gangs/warbands/teams developing over time as games are played. This system was transferred to the Warhammer Historicals Legends of the Old West and Legends of the High Seas, though the first time something like this was attempted was in Realms of Chaos.

Interestingly, it is not an approach adopted by most other Fantasy and Sci-Fi skirmish games. Bushido, Infinity, Anima Tactics, Malifaux, all of these games are of a scale similar to the Games Workshop games, but none of them have taken this route, instead opting to focus on characters created by the games designers, rather than the players.

Most of these games focus on a strongly defined game world, many with an evolving narrative. This is particularly true of Malifaux, whose narrative has developed with each rule book to the point where it seems that the writers aren't entirely sure if they're writing a rulebook or a novel. It is also true of War Machine and Hordes. In contrast, the narrative of the Warhammer world has hardly moved on in twenty five years. The game world has changed, but this has mostly consisted of retconning the existing background to fit the development of new armies. There is not a defined ongoing story.

And yet this actually fits better with the narrative approach that Games Workshop takes with its games. They present a well defined, but essentially static game world and invite players to create their own characters and develop their own narratives. The campaigns that have been built up around the Games Workshop skirmish games develop a life and a story of their own, rather than following a story defined by the game writers.

In contrast, most of the other games listed above present a strong, developing narrative and use it as a back drop. Players have essentially three choices. The first is to ignore the background and focus on the game. The narrative provides a theme to build a game and miniatures, but little more than that. This is essentially the way that card games, such as Magic the Gathering or board games work. Nobody thinks that Settlers of Catan accurately reflects the settlement of an island or Monopoly running a property empire, but it doesn't matter. The second option is to try and play within the limits of the background, much as some historical gamers prefer only to play games based around known historical events and campaigns. The third option is to develop your own background or play "what if" games that develop the official narrative in a direction of the players choosing.

What these games pointedly do not do, which most Games Workshop games do, is provide a narrative with sufficient space for players to develop their own characters and stories that still fit into the overarching story of the game world.

For some players this does not matter. Many players view wargaming as imply gaming and the narrative is of minor or no importance. But for others, developing a narrative around your characters and armies is part of the enjoyment of wargaming. And, for all the legitimate criticism aimed at it, this is one thing that Games Workshop has done well in the past and that other Sci-Fi and Fantasy games, for all their positive qualities, often neglect.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Mismatching models and concept

I've been dabbling with Inquisitor for a couple of months now and have had a few thoughts about the games..

As I understand it, Inquisitor began life as a plan to produce a range of 54mm scale miniatures. I maybe wrong about this, but I believe the impetus came from the Games Workshop sculptors rather than the rule designers. Inquisitor was one of a number of proposals on the table for how to support this new range.

In other words the plan was to produce a 54mm skirmish game, not a strongly narrative, RPG-esque wargame. The latter part came later and developed out of the scale, not the other way around.

One feature of the initial release of Inquisitor models, the ones that appear in the rulebook and that actually went on sale in Games Workshop shops, is that they are all specific characters. True, they are representative of archetypes - Inquisitors, Mutants, Tech-Priests, Rogue Traders, etc - but they are all given names and quite specific looks. Some of them actually depart quite substantially from the archetype that Games Workshop had established. We have a highly unusual Imperial Guard Veteran in Sergeant Stone and the Archo-Flaggelant Damien 1427 is quite different from the established Servitors that had existed in Warhammer 40,000 previously.

So, as a starting point for the game we have a small-scale skirmish game (a necessity given the scale and retail price of the models) based around specific, named characters. Given this, an obvious route to take would have been that taken by the "boutique" skirmish games that have become so common, for example Malifaux, Anima Tactics, Freebooters Fate, Helldorado, Carnevale and even Warmachine and Hordes to some extent. Each of these games are based largely on named characters. Characters rules are essentially complete, which is to say there s little opportunity to customise or upgrade them. And, although the games each feature a strong narrative background, this is only lightly portrayed in the games themselves, which are focused on competition.

Inquisitor does not do this. In fact, it pays very little attention to it's named characters at all. Most of them get little more than a paragraph of background information in the rule book, and their rules are presented as examples of the archetype they represent.

Instead, Inquisitor does something very Games Workshop, it emphasises creating and building your own warband. The hobby section in the back of the rule book is packed with images of models that players have converted and painted themselves, with varying degrees of success. In fact, the message seems to be that it is more important to create your own warband than to demonstrate any particular painting and modelling skill. For those players who don't want to convert, the same models are presented over and over, with different paint jobs representing different characters (Inquisitor Eisenhorn clearly inspired a number of imitators).

This was followed up in White Dwarf and the short-lived Fanatic magazine, in which articles invariably focused on players custom warbands and battle reports only showed one warband made up of models assembled and painted as they were originally designed.

The problem is that the Inquisitor models, as striking and well-sculpted as most of them are, are not well suited for this sort of thing. Most of them are in specific, often quite dramatic poses, with highly distinctive clothes. Even arm and head swaps are not simple and often require substantial pinning or green stuff. Making an original model can often be an expensive business as it requires pieces from multiple existing models.

So what you have is a game where the model range is out of step with the intent of the rules, which is very odd when you consider that rules existed to support the models. The strange thing is that if Games Workshop were inclined to take a second look at Inquisitor, they are now in a much better position to do justice to the concept.

Inquisitor models were (and are) entirely metal. That meant that providing alternative parts was expensive. But since Inquisitor's release, Games Workshops plastic technology has come on in leaps and bounds. If Inquisitor were re-released today, then the models could be plastic kits with multiple interchangeable options and with parts that could be mixed and matched between kits. The quality of recent GW plastics demonstrates that it is possible.

Unfortunately, it won't happen because Games Workshop will no longer go near anything that might take the focus away from their core games. So Inquisitor remains, fundamentally, a game out of step with the times.