Convention Report: Cyber Wars Redux 2020

Well, the Pandemic has struck again, and once again HMGS (the US Historical Miniatures Gaming Society) has responded with all the flair and panache as before. Back in August this year, HMGS delivered its first online, virtual miniatures gaming convention, the well-received Cyber Wars 2020.

The event was billed as a stopgap substitute for the Society’s flagship convention, Historicon and it worked, pestilence repelled. But then COVID19 said “hold my beer” and unleashed an expected (by doctors and scientists at least) second wave. This caused the cancellation of Fall In, a smaller HMGS con held in November, but Cyber Wars Redux 2020 stolidly accepted the challenge.

At this point neither of these dueling giants is willing to back down, so with that in mind, here are my musings about this latest HMGS digital event, held 12 – 15 November 2020. Everywhere.

The Second Time Around

In many respects, Cyber Wars Redux (or CWR so my fingers don’t get tired) was a lot like the previous edition. There were, however, a couple of noticeable differences. The first is that CWR was a bit smaller, both in offerings and ‘attendance’. This does make sense.

Historicon has always been the big daddy of the convention program, at one time attracting 3700 plus participants. The two smaller cons, Fall In and Cold Wars, look to 1200 – 1500 gamers on site for success. I think mentally this means not as many people are geared to participate in a con they normally don’t attend anyway. Also, if there is one flaw in a virtual convention, it is the fact that it is a virtual convention. In other words, if you are away from home at Cold Wars in Ocean City, MD, it’s tough to get distracted. On the other hand, tuning in from home is great until right in the middle of a lecture, the spouse walks in and needs help unloading the groceries. For me, it was the cat I live with, but you get it.

I don’t have exact numbers, and I am not even sure I can define what attendance exactly is, given a lot of events were recorded so that people could go afterwards to YouTube or wherever to watch them. However, the convention director indicated preliminary stats as 80 game participants, painting classes/streams 348 unique views while Round Table events totaled 1230 unique views. Overall, my impression was that while actual event attendance seemed a skosh down, post-convention sightings on YouTube or Twitch went up.

The second big change was more technical in nature, the organizers learning from the first iteration to make some well thought out customer interface improvements. Most noticeable was turning the CWR Webpage on the HMGS site (member sign in required) into a portal for pretty much ‘one stop shopping’. By this I mean that with very few exceptions – such as the painting competition on Facebook – everything was accessible from a single location. This portal included direct links to the two Eventbrite pages where one could sign up for No Dice-No Glory sponsored Round Table lectures, or virtual gaming. The same portal page included the complete listings for all Round Table sessions, all Gaming Sessions and all Virtual Hobby Room events where HMGS artists demonstrate and educate convention guests on a variety of topics.” In other words, they teach you how to paint, and paint really, really well. 

The final listing in the portal, as well as some rotating advertisements, covered all the HMGS vendors who normally attend conventions. Each was listed with a direct link to the dealer’s Website, many of which ran sales specifically targeted to CWR. This meant discounts as well as other sundry bonuses such as free shipping and the like. For example, Things From the Basement, purveyor of fine laser cut buildings and scenery, offered a 15% discount for those who dropped by with a special CWR discount code.

Finally, CWR was also noticeable for its use of a dedicated HMGS CWR Discord server. From there one could not only leap on over to watch some painting classes, but most gaming events allowed Discord access when the GM streamed the game board in play. This meant that one did not have to sign up for the game in order to simply drop by and have a look, otherwise knocking out an actual gamer from participation. This was my first-time using Discord, and I was pleasantly surprised as to how intuitive and easy to learn it was.

Something for Everyone

If my manual math is correct, there were 98 different vendors with a Website listing on the CWR portal, and over at the Painting Competition some 31 entries, all of which can be seen on its associated Facebook page. My favorite was the set of five Viking Shield Maidens, but in the end Best of Show went to Joe McGrath and his British Vickers Light Tank, while the Fan Favorite award was won by Kreighton Long and his Modern US Army Fire Team.

Once again videos, many from the HMGS War College lecture series, were made available to the masses, some to everyone and some exclusively for HMGS members only. In the latter category were at least 15 videos with such titles as “The Importance of Precedence at the Battle of Jena 1806” given by Dr. Alexander Stavropoulos back in 2019. This is heady stuff and I like the idea of videos even if and when Cyber Wars goes away. There are a lot of things to do at an HMGS convention and like most folks, I simply cannot make them all.

Otherwise the meat of the convention can be summarized into two three categories, all mentioned before. The first of these was the Virtual Hobby Room on Twitch though accessible from Discord. There were 10 sessions hosted by master artists Wikidelfneolus, supreme tank detailer Wappellious and the inimitable BirdwithaBrush (dear God that lady can paint). Most of these sessions were several hours long because we are talking real time start to finish painting, so again, having recordings thereof is a really smart idea.

For actual events there were 15 Round Table events which ranged from discussions on future products from hobby giants such as Matrix Games (yeah, pewter pushers are multi-platform and can multi-task) and Warlord Games. There were also more theoretical presentations such as a discussion on using Tabletop Simulator to bridge the social distancing gap in miniature gaming. And thirdly, for actual gaming I counted 17 sessions, ranging from smaller fare such as Great War aerial combat using Dawn Patrol, to a bit larger recreation covering the 1813 Napoleonic battle of Dresden, second day. Overall, I saw less Zoom sessions and greater use of Tabletop Simulator, not only for lead, but also cardboard and counter games, particularly from GMT.

And rounding up the entire shebang was official CWR tees and travel mugs on Redbubble for those who want to remember the convention where they weren’t. 

The Future

Work has already begun on the next Cyber Wars, presumably because the Pandemic might tank HMGS Cold Wars come March 2021 (though the first call for events has just gone out, so keep your fingers crossed). It’s easy to pray the next Cyber Wars does not come to pass because that means the virus is dead, but that may be a short-sighted perspective to take. Despite predictions of demise from no less than hobby icons such as Richard Bodley-Scott, miniature wargaming has weathered the storm and thrived for two reasons.

First, unlike cardboard and electrons, minis are an artform, like quilting or railroading, where people enjoy the research, scenario design and the painting of all the playing pieces. Second, and most importantly, miniature wargaming is far more a social function, again like model railroading or even a BBQ, thus attracting the most extroverted of hobby participants. Indeed, in a very recent post on the issue, one HMGS Grognard noted, “I can manage without the games, without the vendors, Hobby U and the flea market. But I do miss the regaling of the tales.” 

This is what Bodley-Scott missed IMHO, but what a small, niche company in New Zealand figured out in 2002. It’s all about people, and Cyber Wars helps bridge the social distancing gap during lockdown to keep that aspect of the hobby functional. Yes, with new vaccines on the way, COVID19 may soon be gone, but there will always be people even in the best of times unable to attend in-person events due to work, family or whatever.

The need for a bridge is still there, so perhaps it’s time to start thinking of Cyber Wars as not something separate from Historicon, Fall In and Cold Wars, and instead permanently integrate the concept as a major, formal part of all three’s convention programs.

After all, there are many tales left to regale.