Blow it all up

Hi everyone, I was reading Thuloid’s Adepticon report at the House of Paincakes this morning, and the discussion about Mantic got me thinking about the relationship between miniatures and rules. There was some interesting talk about Mantic’s Kings of War, and their strategy of capitalizing on Warhammer Fantasy Battle’s percieved mishandling. I realized that the current norm – companies that are combination miniatures manufacturers/rules producers – is, like most norms, an accident of history. Like many things in the fantasy (as opposed to historical) wargaming hobby, this norm can be traced to Games Workshop. Back in the 1980s Games Workshop was a tiny, system-agnostic wargames and RPG company, who partnered up with the then-growing Citadel miniatures company. Their mission was to design a game specifically to give people a reason to buy more Citadel miniatures which, at the time, were created and sold mainly for use as D&D characters. (By the way, I learned all this in an interview with Rick Priestley on the D6 Generation podcast.)

Back then, the people at Citadel and GW had astutely noticed that there was lots of money to be made with fantasy miniatures, if people only had a reason to keep buying them. So the process was begun, and over time the two entities became more and more closely enmeshed, until the relationship between Citadel and GW was totally symbiotic. The business model worked. We all know how dominant GW (as the symbiote is now commonly referred to) became in the world of fantasy wargaming. Other companies followed suit, and today we have a prevailing sense that this is just industry best practice. It feels as though not many creators even think twice about it: artists set about designing rules to match their creations, thinking that no-one will buy their models unless there is a game to play with them; and games designers seek out sculptors to create a proprietary, official model range that will illustrate their rules.

But there was a side effect of Games Workshop’s success, and it is one that shows us that perhaps things don’t have to be this way. The background of GW’s fantasy universes grew and became deeper, more complex and seasoned with age. As the company got richer, “real” SF authors were hired to write the inevitable novel tie-ins. Video games were produced. People who have never held a miniature have experienced the setting and loved it. Over time these universes became what, in the last few years, people have started to call “valuable IPs.” Perhaps more valuable now than the miniatures?

I don’t know. But I feel as though things have changed a lot since the 1980s. There is now a proliferation of media types, and in this age information is currency. A few years ago I rankled at the idea of an X-Box with no disc drive, but now I’m happily watching Netflix. This new information consciousness has even changed my attitude to other, older things. I now get books from the library much more often than I used to because why buy them? Information is independant of the physical media in which it manifests.

In terms of wargames, the setting and rules are the message; the unique part of the package. The miniatures are part of the physical medium, and thus could look like anything, or be anything: cardboard, 3D-printed, official or not, it doesn’t really matter. Of course this was always true, but it seems more true now, or at least more obvious. The idea of a line of official miniatures, backed by a game, being the mainstay of a company’s profit-generation made a lot of sense in the 1980s. Now I’m not so sure. A game with a proprietary set of miniatures that “must” be used? Miniatures that are only ever used to play one game? If these ideas seem a warm, comforting throwback to the pre-internet age to me, then how will they seem to my son in a few years? Pretty alien I imagine.

So I’m not sure where I’m going with all this. Just musing. But I look forward to a world where, alongside the proprietary games with their official model ranges, we have professional companies that make only high quality miniatures-agnostic rules, and artists forgetting about trying to write rules and focusing on creating wild and creative rules-agnostic miniatures, and others making alternative rules and models for the proprietary systems, and everything inside, outside, and in-between. Just like historical wargames. Oh, and players willing to take those rules and miniatures, and use them every now and then to throw down their WWII tank company against a squad of their mate’s Space Marines, or a band of some artist’s unique Wood Sprites, just to see who wins. I certainly would – it’s the sort of thing I did all the time as a kid. My brother and I once even sculpted our own gnomes and smurfs to use in Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Let’s not forget, that’s why Warhammer 40,000 was invented: people wanted to use their SF and fantasy models all at once.

We can blow it all up if we want to.

Till next time, James

14 thoughts on “Blow it all up

  1. Thuloid says:

    You’re edging dangerously close to one of my future posts, James. Just wait till I let you in on the secret of Dudes and Stuff(tm), or the even more secret rules that I haven’t named yet.

    • beat ronin says:

      If you’re working on a secret, world-changing generic F&SF wargames system, you better get most of it done before that baby comes buddy. Or you’ll still be tweaking it when you’re an old greybeard.

      • Thuloid says:

        The beauty of it is that all my best insights come when tired and barely coherent. Anyhow, I doubt my rules will ever reach playability–oddly, that was never the point.

  2. Porky says:

    There might be major benefits to doing things that way, most obviously when it comes to developing imagination and willingness to experiment, and possibly many more, even some we might not see coming.

    Of course, it’s also possible that the industry naturally moves towards proliferation under the one roof, and exclusion, or that the industry retains that kind of approach residually even as things move on in general, which could mean that the openness tends to closing.

    Then again, the more fully the more open way of doing things is accepted, the less that could be an optimal way for a firm to go. This could then be the beginning of a long arc in a cycle, or a whole new stage. We’ll know in time. Something does seem to be happening though.

    • beat ronin says:

      I agree, something does seem to be happening. It feels to me like a cycle of, as you said, opening and closing, and things feel like they’re opening right now. The huge proliferation of games on Kickstarter is not what I mean either. They’re all traditional miniatures/rules combo ventures, and when you have too many of those well… that’s when it woke me up I think.

      It’s just madness to have thirty different skirmish games on your shelf, each with it’s own associated little miniatures collection, never touching the others. It’s just not a smart way to play, and people are starting to get an inkling of that I think. I first started thinking about this when I started looking into SAGA actually. It was nice to know that my models weren’t really SAGA models, they were just dark ages Vikings and I could use them in any game. If I buy Ronin and then some sohei I’ll have sohei I can use in any game. If I add some faerie creatures to my dark age Irish or some bakemono and tengu to my sohei, I can play a fantasy game with them like Skulldred.

      It can seem impossible to divorce F & SF models from their associated rules at first, but the more I think about it, the more it seems the next logical step.

      • Porky says:

        If this does go on, I can see someone putting together an online tool that lets you input a collection and get suggestions for games that all or part of it can be used for. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if there was already something like that out there.

        I’d also expect more producers to start suggesting options in more than just names or categories, to open up sales, whether in listings or on packaging. For your dark ages miniatures for example, there might be a line like this:

        ‘Could also be used to represent figures including Hyperborean warriors, pulp fictional barbarians, survivors in a post-apocalyptic winter or ice world inhabitants of low tech-level.’

        • beat ronin says:

          Love it!

          I’m tempted to just keep thinking about this whole thing and presenting ideas, but I am not a business man and fear I might reach the limits of my understanding of what is and is not viable pretty quickly.

  3. The Warlock says:

    While keen for experimentation on a ‘free-for-all/use whatever’ approach, personally I’d much rather collaborative efforts between companies:

    How much better would 40k be if FFG wrote the rules, or (if GW used metal still) The detail on a space marine captain if he was made by Corvus Belli? Hell, GW giving Victoria Lamb a big ol’ 40k Approved stamp wouldn’t be detrimental if a % of profit was sent to the main company. The community does love their guard variants.

    I suppose licensing out the IP would ultimately benefit all parties involved- both companies names would be on the box, there would be pamphlets and advertising for both (are you interested in XX? Well, check out our website. If you’re interested more in YY, check out Company Z”).

    • Porky says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised to see much more of this. The smaller producers could use the approach to compete more fully against the larger, and the larger might find it more profitable to concentrate on what they do well under that kind of pressure. Even a company like GW might want or need to go this route in the medium term, if things carry on as they look to be going now, and the IP really is where the value is.

      • The Warlock says:

        Exactly, only through mutualistic symbiosis can some of the small fry gang up on the likes of mantic, PP and GW.

        GW could benefit by licensing off their specialist games- dipping a toe in the water and all that. Focusing on releasing obscure and minor factions for 40k won’t help GW indefinitely, considering when both games need a freshen up.

    • beat ronin says:

      Wonder if GW had a bad experience in the past teaming up with other games companies? I’m pretty sure my old Heroquest had Milton Bradley as well as GW logos on it, so it has happened before.

      I actually think if there was a complete free-for-all Citadel miniatures would come out looking pretty good. Think of some of the recent plastic kits. In the historical sphere you have little boutique mini companies, cheapo plastic workhorse box sets like those of Warlord Games, and beautiful plastic kits like the Perry’s Napoleonic boxes. Citadel would definitely look like the latter in the world of F&SF minis, if there was a general relaxation of community attitude and an explosion of miniatures-independant rulesets. Looking at them objectively they really are quite nice.

  4. SinSynn says:

    I’m looking forward to whatever the next change is in the industry too. Mantic releasing ‘generic’ rules for the use of standard fantasy-type armies in KoW is an interesting twist.

    I definitely think there’s a market for some sorta all-encompassing sci-fi minigame. If Fantasy Flight were to release such a ruleset people would pay attention. Just a book- that’s all we need. We’ve all got tons of minis, right?
    Ironically ‘power armored genetically engineered super soldiers’ prolly still reign supreme.

    Fun post, James. You anti-establishment rebel you. Down with the status quo!

    • beat ronin says:

      Yep exactly. We’ve all got tons of minis, we lack books. Like I was saying to Porky, I’d rather have exactly the minis I want and a shelf (or digital shelf) of thirty games to use them with, than thirty different miniature collections, one for each game. Like most anti-establishment rebels, the main thing is that I’m too poor (in time and money) to do what the establishment wants me to do 😉

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    able to write about anything with ease. Keep up the good

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