The year in (tabletop) wargames 2020 – Pandemic Edition

It’s my final article of the year and thus time to talk about the state of the Tabletop Wargaming Community. And like the folks at BoardgameGeek, we at the Wargamer define this as both historical boardgaming with paper maps and cardboard counters, as well as historical miniature wargaming.

So, here is what I noticed through 12 months of quarantine, the Good, the Bad, and a look down the road, not only next year but beyond. I’ll start with Counter Critters, then finish up with Lead Heads.

But heads up, this little tome may sound a lot like last year, because in many instances, nothing has changed, and a steady evolution continues to plod along as predicted. But then again…

HISTORICAL BOARD GAME WARGAMING

THE GOOD

Kicking it Old School: Continuing from last year, there is still a growing effort to republish up 30 + year old hex and counter wargames, albeit with a significant graphics upgrade to meet 2020 customer standards.

Here we are talking about big time firms like GMT and Compass, republishing games from other companies like Victory or GDW, rather than their older in-house designs. In his 22 December 2020 newsletter, GMT honcho Gene Billingsley noted they would be publishing, “An updated GMT version of another “oldie but goodie” wargame.” Likewise, and assuming I can count at an elementary school level, the Compass Games 2020 holiday catalog listed no less than 12 Designer Signature Edition games being prepped for 2021.

Games like Bruce Maxwell’s 1983 classic NATO, which sold over 75,000 copies for Victory Games. My guess is that being less expensive to produce than new original hex and counter designs, this is a cost-effective way to retain older, more traditional wargamers within the hobby. This trend will continue.

Digital Dominance: I kinda look at this electronic trend as doing the same thing, at least partially. Providing a cost-conscious way to take care of the older, hex and counter crowd, while providing a more familiar playing platform for newer folks. Lock’n Load Publishing continued to expand production computer game editions of their hex and counter games, such as its Tactical Series, now gracing the hallowed corridors of Steam.

And because there are just some damn good cardboard wargames out there, established computer gaming firms such as Matrix and others continued to directly port these gems directly into their electron hopper, while the community itself continues to expand production of modules for Vassal and Tabletop Simulator. Think of it this way, these really aren’t computer games, but hex and counter games using an alternative presentation platform, and this is a good thing.

THE BAD

Shekel Shortage: Yes, same broken record, but unless something unforeseen happens, the demise of cardboard hex and counter wargames is certain. No company is producing another Panzerblitz and selling the 320,000 copies it did (pre-orders for GMT’s Salerno 43 now stand at 1292), and lower print runs mean higher costs even with offshore printing. Now add to this the demand for high-end color graphics albatrossed with low print runs, and the superb Death Valley, Battles for the Shenandoah will set you back $89.00 US for eight battles. Conversely, the John Tiller Software version with a current sale price of $29.95 covers 14 battles, 174 scenarios, 4 campaigns and sports both traditional and eye popping 3D graphics. Between customer demands and high price points, I just don’t see it.

My Give it a Rest Award: Yet, if there is one campaign that might defy all expectations, it would have to be World War II’s clash of behemoths, Germany vs Russia on the Easter Front. Those few hex and counter games that do quite well tend to be about this particular subject. But sweet mother of Hades, how many times can you do the battle of Stalingrad? Well, evidently quite a lot, and a bunch more than my calculator can calculate. Not a good thing IMHO because there is just so much more out there.

Decline and Fall: When one spoke of board wargaming in the past, the image that automatically popped up was hexes, counters and games like Avalon Hill’s France 1940. Because of a shifting customer base, one that looks at history more casually and perhaps from a more non-linear perspective, I think such games will at best be marginalized over the next decade or two. This does not mean cardboard wargaming will die, however. It means that more and more games produced for new generations of gamers will be what I call ‘asymmetrical.’ By this I mean that the subject matter will shift away from traditional military conflict into areas like Counter Insurgency, and non-military areas such as politics, economics, social movements and more.

The term also means a presentation format that is more abstract, relying not on maps and formally organized units, but event cards, decision diagrams, resource trees and the like. Think not? The latest GMT newsletter revealed Gene and the lads won three awards at the 2020 Paris OPJH, of which the silver medal was taken by Stalingrad 42 (oh, God not another one), the gold by Nevsky and the bronze by Gandhi. Let that sink in. A wargame company just won an award about the life of one of the greatest pacifists of all time. And the same notice revealed that of the 14 best selling games of 2020, eight were the likes of Versailles 1919 or 1862 Railroad Mania. Good, bad, I dunno, but get ready for different.

THE FUTURE

The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Over the next year and decades beyond, cardboard wargaming will not collapse, but will evolve into something far different, featuring asymmetrical games as the mainstay of the hobby, ably supported by an even larger influx of Euro games to make financial ends meet. The beloved, traditional hex and counter game will – hopefully – continue to be designed and sold, but not necessarily in a paper and cardboard format as we have today. Digital is coming, whether this genre likes it or not, and could be its salvation.

Thus, look for more hex and counter games to find a path to the PC, with companies like GMT and Compass producing and selling their own Vassal or Tabletop Simulator modules, if not complete computer games in the same way as does Lock n Load.

HISTORICAL MINIATURES WARGAMING

THE GOOD

Flames of Warhammer: Battlefront World War II, often maligned because of its WH40K persona and casual approach to realism, will continue to be the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The Flames of War product line has become the Energizer Bunny of the miniature’s realm. It just keeps on going and going and going. And even COVID19 seems to cower in front of the onslaught, with at least one source noting the New Zealand firm was now financially larger than Games Workshop (I don’t believe it, but…).

Indeed, the size of Battlefront is one reason it is often compared to GW, but there is no doubt that many younger gamers are joining pewter pusher ranks through this recruiting office. This is not a bad thing, and Corona be damned, other large mini firms such as Warlord Games and Perry Brothers Miniatures also seem to be doing fine, lamenting only shipping problems for fast distribution of their wares.

Embracing the Dark Side:  For hobby that at its essence uses toy soldiers you wouldn’t think it, but we seem to have a digital revolution about to explode in the historical miniatures wargaming world. In one fell swoop the pandemic exposed both the strength of the hobby and its resilience as its primary selling point was seeming dashed. In the first case, quarantining at home was pretty much a ‘so what’ situation because a lot of home so called work goes on before a game is played, things such as researching, painting and basing a lead army. Secondly, although COVID hammered the social aspect of the hobby, people and clubs adjusted. They did it by embracing the digital world as its salvation, not an enemy.

To start Digital Publishing is fast becoming the way to get rules, scenario books and research material to the masses. It’s cheaper, quicker and has no material costs, to include those Gawd-awful postage rates between the US and places like Australia. Here, even with USPS flat rate Priority Mail International, three rule books will still cost over $34.00 to ship. Given most gamers are honest anyway (lower price points don’t hurt), nearly every publisher worth his Dullcoat has a digital option, normally PDF files. And moving forward I would not be surprised to see Kindle versions popping up on Amazon as well.

Similarly, someone in the 3D Printing world heard my concern from last year, and this segment of the hobby is also taking off. The issue of scaling seems to have been solved, the printers and their printing material are getting much less expensive and STL files now exist to produce fine quality miniature armies at smaller scales such as 15 mm (6 mm for buildings). Kickstarters abound as regards the getting the critical STL files designed, so along with digital publishing, all of this points to the possibility of draftees having to shell out less money to get started in what is a pretty expensive hobby.

Another noteworthy trend was the continuing Digital Crossover of historical miniature wargaming into computer land. More and more rules sets are being pushed into the Tabletop Simulator catalog and if games like Field of Glory II Medieval are any indication, proper PC games as well. Again, rather than competition for pewter gaming, this could well be inexpensive entry points for newbies looking to enter the hobby, and give old hands the means to game something different without a huge outlay of cash.

Finally, let’s talk about Virtual Gaming. In many respects, conventions are different and far more important to the gamer in the Colonies than in the UK. The US is a big country and even in densely populated regions it’s not unusual to drive 90 minutes to push lead on the tabletop. Given clubs are more informal to begin with, this explains why people come to miniature wargaming cons and game until they pass out from fatigue (and trust me, if there is anything American gamers are noted for, it’s competitive stamina).

Thus, to comply with COVID medical restrictions, the US based Historical Miniatures Gaming Society (HMGS) did not cancel two conventions, but instead replaced them with two virtual events called Cyber Wars. They had pretty much everything the face-to-face events had but provided via platforms such as Zoom and Discord. The weakest part of the both virtual cons was – no surprise here – the gaming and its lack of associated social interaction, but at least gamers were able to keep in touch with each other, regaling audiences with tales of gaming daring-do, at least until the real thing returns in the future.

THE BAD

Greying of the Hobby: Not much to say here that hasn’t been said last year or the year before. The average age of miniature wargamers of the historical variety (translation – no WH40K included) are getting older. This means less participation with friends and denizens of the hobby passing on year after year. 2020 was no exception, though it looks like none succumbed to Corona. Nevertheless, the situation does have some members of the hobby worried. Will all the things noted above be able to backfill the hobby? The big hobby firms sure think so, given they are designing and producing like gangbusters, and I likewise sure hope they are right.

Storefront Decline: Despite the good news on the digital front, there is one area of continuing disappointment. This is the near extinction of hobby shops that support historical minis. Quite frankly, the number of us gamers devoted to the cause simply isn’t large enough to carry a retail store front, so those still out there tend to emphasize fantasy, science fiction and Euro games. Thus, all the vendors a person sees at conventions like Historicon are about as close to a store front as you can get.

Otherwise, these vendors ply their trade from their home or office via digital commerce like miniature (see what I did there?) Amazons. Mail order has become the big-time default, I do not see that changing and if one is honest about the whole thing, this should startle no one. If anything the pandemic may have hastened an already solidified evolution, but little more.

THE FUTURE

Black Alert, Engage Spore Drive! Overall historical miniature wargaming seems in good shape and actually expanding. In a perverse sort of reality check, the COVID19 pandemic seems to have spurred this segment of the hobby into areas of game play and commerce that will only secure and improve its viability. Mostly we are talking about embracing the digital environment, so in the future, 20 years max, I see almost total electronic distribution of the written word, while firms that normally produce actual figures, terrain and buildings will convert to providing STL files for 3D printing instead.

And while the virtual environment may have started as a stop gap response to a pandemic, I see many of its aspects permanently embedding themselves into regular, people attending conventions. Not everyone can physically go to a con, but attending lectures, receiving instruction on painting figures, vendor sales and even virtual bar rooms for the inevitable BS sessions that make such gatherings so enjoyable, yes this could become a permanent part of Historicon and other conventions. As a result, the social aspect of the hobby will not only become even more important, but more accessible as well.

FINIS

This, of course, is my best guess, and given my TARDIS is still down because of parts (lack of qualified technicians for install actually; something about a Mirror Universe and Terran Empire), I could be flat wrong. Bottom line, if you suspect we missed something or just have a counter perspective, join our forums and let’s talk.