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"The Perfect Wargame: Design & Commercial Success" Topic


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3,483 hits since 11 Jul 2011
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Wartopia12 Jul 2011 6:23 a.m. PST

A post in a thread about local wargaming activities got me to thinking about game design, the business of wargaming, and wargaming in general. The thread covered the relative popularity of points-based games vs scenario driven games and several members expressed their opinion as to why points based games are so popular and do well commercially.

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Grumper Gamer wrote: "Still, there is no arguing with the success of the game [Flames of War], and others like it. Theres a formula there the designers and manufacturers have locked into which is both popular and no doubt profitable."

The question for this thread is, what's the formula for the perfect wargame from a commercial perspective?

This question is NOT what's the perfect wargame for YOU. That's very subjective and each of us has his own preferences.

But from an objective perspective certain games have captured their market/period and have come to dominate it. There may be two or even three seriously competitive systems in a given period but it most cases it's one. The most obvious dominate players are probably as follows:

- Ancient/Medieval: DBx followed closely by FOG

- Fantasy: Warhammer Fantasy Battle

- Sci-Fi: Warhammer 40K

- WWII: Flames of War

Other periods have very popular games. For example, Ambush Alley is doing well in moderns, Fire & Fury does well for ACW, and Napoleon's Battles is popular too. But none dominate their category anywhere close to how the rules above dominate theirs.

Again, whether or not you personally like the system is NOT the point of the thread. I've played FoW and enjoyed but don't play anymore; I have huge 40K and WHFB collections, my sons play, and I'll play with them but otherwise don't; and I can't get into FOG at all. A good friend runs DBx games and my sons and I play in those but otherwise don't play the rules.

IMO these rules share common features that cause them to dominate their periods. Some features were present from the time the rules were introduced and others are a result of their current dominance. The features include:

A. MULTIPLE, COLORFUL, UNIQUE FACTIONS
blue vs gray just isn't enough to sustain a game and make it widely popular. Gamers have different personalities and want their troops to reflect that. Most horse and musket armies are pretty generic. But in Ancients and Sci-Fi you can have radically different armies with unique "personalities". We like to identify with our troops. I have one son who loves sneaky, complex armies. My other son loves "gun lines". You can find both approaches to the extreme in any of the systems above.

B. POINTS BASED FORCE STRUCTURES I: COLLECTING
getting into Napleonics as a noob is bewildering to say the least even though you're only dealing with a few troop types. You would think it would be far more difficult with periods such as Fantasy or Ancients but these systems' points and army lists make it easy as pie. Combined with the item above the new gamer can find an army that appeals to his personality and using simple addition quickly collect (buy) an army that he likes.


C. POINTS BASED FORCE STRUCTURES II: PICK UP GAMES
A lot of gamers don't have the time or money to buy and paint both armies for a game. They want to be able to play just by quickly collecting a single force. A points based force structure combined with a "mission" system allows them to do just that. They collect their Panzergrenadier Company, head down to the FLGS, find an opponent and pick a mission. Old school scenario based games usually demand one player to collect both sides and then you're lucky if the group will play the game again! :-) Pick up games also eliminate the need to coordinate schedules for multiple gamers.

D. LOW EQUIPMENT REQUIREMENTS
Gamers want to plop their troops on the table and get playing. Requirements for loads of special dice, special measuring devices, or special markers limit a game's appeal. That doesn't mean such things can't be added to a game later. All of the systems above benefit from the use of special markers, templates, etc. But you can also play them pretty much out of the box with six-sided dice from your Risk board game, the tape measure from the tool box, some cotton balls from the medicine cabinet, and maybe some coins or beads as special markers. Every special requirement added by a game raises another barrier to acceptance.

E. CORE RULE SIMPLICITY AND LITTLE MATH
Massive turn sequence flow charts, multiple pages of tables, long lists of modifiers, and complex calculations (anything more than single digits!) just won't cut it. Even though most of the systems above include many special rules they're usually faction specific and the core rules are remarkably math free. FOG is probably the most complex at its core which may explain why it's not as popular as DBx In most cases core actions such as shooting require one to remember just a few troop characteristic and a couple of modifiers. And turn sequences are very simple. Few gamers want to try to remember if they're in Phase 3, sub-phase A, step 1. 8-O

F. LOTS OF CHROME
It may seem counter-intuitive given item E above but gamers enjoy lots of chrome related to their favorite troops and don't mind learning those special rules. Hand in hand with item A and C above they want troops that fit their personality and since they're only building one army the need to learn that force's special rules is no big deal if the core rules are simple enough. The chrome is often what breathes life into a faction making it unique.

G. READILY AVAILABLE TROOPS
Points and army lists can serve as convenient catalogs for collecting but you need to be able to buy troops easily. Ancient and medieval troops are available from a bizzilion manufacturers. When FoW got off they ground they had their own minis but, like ancients, WWII figures were easy to find. At that time Old Glory was selling lots of 15mm WWII figures in low cost bags. The worst thing a game designer can do is build a game that doesn't provide immediate and convenient access to loads of troops. You may love your cool sci-fi faction but if gamers can't buy the specialized figures easily and at a reasonable price fawgetabowit.

H. WELL DEFINED FIGURE SCALE & BASING
To support pick up games a system needs to stick with one or two figure sizes and basing. Ancients is large enough to support 15mm and 25/28mm. FoW wisely focused on a single scale, 15mm, even though the rules are perfectly usable with other scales (personally I think it looks better in 6mm). Obviously 40K and WHFB use 28mm. If you Balkanize your community with multiple scales or basing systems you just throw up another roadblock for gamers looking to play with other gamers. FoW has become more specific in basing requirements only as it began to dominate the market. But at first FoW gamers pretty much accepted any basing system such as Command Decision refugee collections.

I. MARKET DOMINANCE = CONVENIENCE
This is really a sustaining feature rather than an initial feature. Once a game is popular players can adopt it knowing they can can easily find other players with appropriate collections who understand the same rules. Compare that to Napoleonics where you have basing systems and organizations such as Napoleon's Battles vs Empire. Of course this causes headaches for new games. Good luck selling an Ancient & Medieval game that doesn't conform to the DBX "standard"! On the other hand, if a new game allows a gamer to use his current collection without the need to add tons of new figures, rebase, or collect entirely new figures then it has a huge advantage.

So, what features do you feel are critical for the commercial success of a miniatures wargame? Again, it doesn't matter if you personally like or dislike a given feature such as points, army lists, missions, or associated miniatures product lines. What's your objective analysis of the issue as it pertains to game design, the business of wargaming, and wargaming in general?

50 Dylan CDs and an Icepick12 Jul 2011 6:29 a.m. PST

I think you've hit the most important points. I'd add two more, though:

1) SPACE FLEXIBILITY

The game needs to be playable on a smallish table (4x6'), and to give a satisfying game within those constraints… while still being up-scalable to bigger tables, if players have the resources.

2) TIME

The game needs to play to a decisive conclusion in three hours.

Wartopia12 Jul 2011 6:30 a.m. PST

Excellent points Kann, can't believe I missed those! I would say time limit might be closer to 2 hours but 3 is the absolute maximum. I've always thought it interesting that so many professional sporting events meet that same requirement!

50 Dylan CDs and an Icepick12 Jul 2011 6:35 a.m. PST

And just as a game design criterion, I'd add:

3) GET TO THE ACTION IMMEDIATELY

Certainly within the first 30 minutes, the players need to be shooting, fighting, blowing things up. Too much time spent on things like command, maneuver, etc… Well, you can rationalize it all you want as being "historical," but for most players, it's just that long, tedious part of the game that doesn't feel like a game yet.

It's a game about battle. So get to the action quickly, and players feel rewarded and their interest is retained.

Grunt186112 Jul 2011 7:40 a.m. PST

Cool looking, well sculpted miniatures seem to help:)

bruntonboy12 Jul 2011 8:11 a.m. PST

"The game needs to be playable on a smallish table (4x6'),"

This made me chuckle- 6 X 4 is probably the largest table size many in Europe can aspire to so this would be a consideration if you want to sell outside the U.S.

A small table for me would be 2 x 3, 3 x 5 would be normal and anything bigger a club event or open day.

As as example I love Volley and Bayonet but many of the scenarios provided would be impossible to do at home so around here it never caught on despite my best efforts.

Wartopia12 Jul 2011 8:21 a.m. PST

And in Texas "small" is a ping pong table!

:-)

Knowing we'd be living in an apartment when first married and fresh out of college I made sure our first dining room tale was as large as possible…for gaming! IIRC a lot of tables are about 36" wide and 48" or more long.

meledward2312 Jul 2011 11:53 a.m. PST

Here is what I see.

How easy is it to:
1)understand and play

2) acquire a force and know you have the right figures and won't be driven away for the wrong green on your soldier

3) get pick up games

4) travel and find others playing the same way as you are accustomed to, making finding games easy.

Now, no game matches all that perfectly. And yes, those criteria don't really pply to scenario games.

But I think you will find all the popular games, have tournaments, events, fairly standardized forces.

Most people I intro into games go away if #2 is not readily apparent. That one is the biggest deterrent and I think the most important in getting new people into the hobby. But getting established hobbyists to play your game, it ranks far lower.

6sided12 Jul 2011 12:04 p.m. PST

Most people in Europe can't get a 6x4 table but the Americans can? Are wargames roads like freeways?

Jaz
6sided.net

adub7412 Jul 2011 12:09 p.m. PST

"I've always thought it interesting that so many professional sporting events meet that same requirement!"

:) Truth brother, truth. 3 hour games aren't for the simple minded, 8+ hour games are for the insane.

Griefbringer12 Jul 2011 2:08 p.m. PST

I would like to add to the list:

* LIMITED BOOK-KEEPING: keeping with the simplicity and fast flow of the game, unnecessary book-keeping should be avoided. For example tracking damage status of individual bases can produce quite a lot of book-keeping, and would be better avoided in mass combat games (though might be more applicable in skirmish or naval games with small amounts of models). Things like written orders, hidden movement with maps or fatigue statuses are likely to be considered as unnecessary book-keeping by a lot of player.

* KEEP IT CONCRETE: while certain amount of abstraction is always necessary to make a game work, for mass appeal excessive abstraction can be unappealing. The more concrete the rules work, the more intuitive they will be for many people.

* PLAYER IN CONTROL: while real world generals can be rather badly restricted by their command and control possibilities, in a game lots of people want to be able to excercise control over most of their units. Thus command mechanisms that seriously limit player's control are not likely to enjoy maximum popularity (though they can gather a smaller enthusiastic following amongst those who enjoy the challenge that can be found in the problems of command).

* MAKE IT BLOODY: if it is a game about battles, then players are likely to also expect casualties to happen. So when a unit opens fire on another unit at effective range, there should be a decent chance that at least some models are removed as casualties. Having two lines salvoing each other for turn after turn with either side hardly suffering casualties will start feeling a bit boring (even if it might be historically accurate for the given circumstances).

Austin Rob12 Jul 2011 6:34 p.m. PST

There are certainly a lot of good ideas here. I spend a lot of time thinking about these things, since my livelihood depends on it.

To me there are really three things that attract most of us to the hobby. I call these the "Three Pillars of Miniatures Gaming": Painting and Modelling, Collecting Armies, and Playing the Game.

1. Painting and Modelling
this one is pretty self explanatory and includes not only the modelling the figures and vehicles (if any) themselves, but also basing and terrain. Lots of opportunity for pursuing your hobby in private for many hours and then sharing with others over the gaming table. Some players have no interest in this and are just as happy to buy painted armies.

2. Collecting Armies
this differs from painting and modelling in that it is not about physically creating the force, but more deciding what to build. Here is where you sit at home or over lunch at work and fiddle with points and options to build your armies. Then, you go on the web and look of the figures you need, and look for some history, just to know a little more about what you are doing. Plan your deployments and tactics and (after implementing your nefarious plans in step three) return here and repeat to tweak your forces a bit more: downgrade the heavy cavalry and add a few more light foot; maybe I should add an allied force? Again, this is something that you usually do alone and then share with friends on the tabletop.

3. Playing Games
Finally, having gotten painted minis and collected them into an army, its time to put them to the test. Others have mentioned key components of successful games, so no real need to repeat them here. But it is over the gaming table that hobbyists get to share with other people all your hard work and creativity.

The most successful game systems will offer a good balance of all three of these. Some hobbyists will enjoy all three aspects equally, while others might concentrate on two or even only one. But the thing is, there is something for everyone.

I think too many game systems really fail on pillar 2. Many may have a point system, but lack any guide of how to really use it, so unless the player is willing to do a lot of additional research on organization, the point system is not enough. The players just don't know what to do with it. That is why I referred to "detailed army lists" in the previous post, not just points system.

Another failing in this area is having army lists that are too restrictive. Many players have a lot of fun just playing around with the different options. Armati is an example of a good system with army lists that were so restrictive it took all the fun out of building your armies. No thought was allowed to the gamer. (True, you don't have to follow the lists, but many gamers don't want to do master's level research to play a game and expect the rules to do that for them.)

With regard to the 3rd Pillar, I think there needs to be a happy medium of complexity. Rules that are too complex just won't be adopted. On the other hand, rules that are too simplistic will not have the longevity one desires. Each time you play, you want to learn something (about how to play the game, that is). If it is too simple, you figure out the optimal tactics too quickly. If I wanted to play a game like that, I'd play chess. (I think chess players and DBA players have a lot in common.)

Wartopia12 Jul 2011 6:41 p.m. PST

Rob,

I loveyour second item! The way you explain it describes the army building meta game perfectly. I kmow I've spent enjoyable hours configuring armies for various systems.

Playing the game and the army design meta game then play off one another. It's a tinkerer's dream! Design, test, design, test. Many top video games do the same thing…for example Call of Duty.

raylev312 Jul 2011 7:14 p.m. PST

This is a great list and thread. Wish I could contribute, but this is pretty darn complete!

Austin Rob12 Jul 2011 9:07 p.m. PST

Thanks, Tim. As I mentioned, I think about this a lot.

The funny thing is, of the three parts of the hobby that I identify, we really spend the least amount of time actually playing the games. We usually spend a lot more time painting and fiddling with our armies and tactics than we do playing. So the rules without points and lists are under serving their customers.

I am often so frustrated when new rules arrive without the components that I see as successful in my store. Ambush Alley's new release of Force on Force is a good example, with great rules and campaign/scenario/army books, but no point system. So there is really no reason for any but the group leaders to buy the rules and army books and miniatures. And what is the single most frequent topic on their forum? "How do I a balance a scenario?" So, because the authors don't like points systems, they are leaving a lot of money on the table.

(Phil Dutre)13 Jul 2011 2:49 a.m. PST

Different products for different crowds, I guess. The definition of the "perfect wargame from a commercial perspective" is at least ambiguous. Is it expressed in amount of product sold? Profits? Long-term player base?

Compare it to restaurants: a McDonalds franchise sells food, so does a 3-star Michelin restaurant. Yet, they aim at a very different public, have different price settings, aim at different volumes sold etc. Both can be a commercial success.

Wargames are the same: there are mass-market products, and there are connoisseur products. Both can co-exist, both can sell, but when comparing them to each other, it doesn't always make sense.

Wartopia13 Jul 2011 3:11 a.m. PST

Phil,

To your point it's about popularity first for this question. So number of gamers who play the system on an ongoing, routine basis and then buying associated books, expansion books, and miniatures over the long haul. Something that can drive lots of churn in a retail shop because folks are buying stuff, designing and testing armies in battle, discussing ideas, and then tweaking.

The best examples I can think of are 40k and FoW. Walk into many shops on Saturday afternoon with your troops and the odds are very good you can get into a pick up game pretty easily.

For that to happen most of the items in this thread need to be features of the rules. A set of connoisseur rules simply won't generate much revenue since gaming can't be compared to the food industry. I can charge huge dollars for fine dining or a few dollars for a burger and make many either way.

Gaming doesn't have the same multiples for mass market and connoiseur products. A rule book will be $20 USD to $60 USD regardless of popularity. In fact, it's the reverse of the food business. Boutique rules are either free or very cheap PDFs now. Guys like GW can sell huge hardcover special editions fo $100. USD

So the idea isn't to compare wildly popular vs obscure small press/ free rules. It's strictly to list the features of games that can achieve mass popularity and then great commercial success.

Wartopia13 Jul 2011 3:19 a.m. PST

Grief,

All excellent points!

I have a friend who hates complex command and control rules. He's a horse and musket gamer and says he wants to kmow how he'll perform in battle, not a simulated General Grant! :-)

I'm with you on book keeping too. Rosters are the worst since they pull you out of the game experience which goes to your point about things being "concrete". Things need to move fast and feel visceral. My wife takes this concept to the extreme…she insists that troops be laid down when killed and remain on the battlefield, toy soldier style. I gotta admit, it does provide a more intense visual record of the battle. When you have hordes of dead space bug figures strewn across the table as the colonial marines conduct their fighting retreat it tella the story far better than checked boxes on a roster!

50 Dylan CDs and an Icepick13 Jul 2011 5:13 a.m. PST

"The definition of the "perfect wargame from a commercial perspective" is at least ambiguous. Is it expressed in amount of product sold? Profits? Long-term player base?"

I don't think we can measure that last point about "player base." Everybody loves to talk about it, but there's no way really to measure it, because wargames aren't like toothpaste or gasoline. You don't just use one brand until you change and move to a different brand.

In some game groups, perhaps they get together only six or seven times a year. So if, in that year, they play "Black Powder" twice, does that mean that the game is successful among their group? On one hand, you could say that playing a game only twice per year is hardly a success. On the other hand, though, that one game constitutes a third of their annual playing time, so that's probably pretty successful.

There's no way to measure "popularity." We don't even have any idea how many gamers there are, much less how often they play, where, and with what games. All that chatter about whether games are still "popular" is just hot air.

So we have to go with the sort of thing that CAN be measured, and yes, that's really just sales figures.

A toothpaste manufacturer doesn't care whether you're actually brushing your teeth with his product, as long as you keep buying. Strange as that may sound in the "real" economy, that's actually how the wargame economy works, because such a large percentage of what we buy, doesn't get used, or doesn't get used very often. We buy tons of figures that we don't paint or game with. We buy reams of rules that just sit on the shelves.

The popularity of a game can drive further purchases, obviously, but the goal is the purchase – not the popularity.

Wartopia13 Jul 2011 6:40 a.m. PST

I agree the purchases are key and I've done my share to boost the industry!

:-)

While sales figures would be nice outside of GW which is publicly traded I can't imagine they're readily available. On the other hand, I'm willing to bet Flames of War's popularity and sales far outstrip those of any other WWII miniatures game including Command Decision.

I can find multiple FoW sessions at multiple stores here in Atlanta and easily buy the rules and expansions from at least three different shops that I know of (there are others but I don't frequent them). The only CD games I know of are run by a friend and his is a heavily modded version of CD…so modified it's not really CD anymore.

Also, don't forget that part of the discussion IS playing the game and period dominance. One can write a best selling rule set but if nobody plays it then it's not relevant to period dominance from the gamer's perspective when looking for a game.

On the other hand if a game so dominates a period it will also naturally generate decent sales.

In other words, popularity drives sales but sales are extraordinarily difficult without popularity. For practical purposes popularity driven sales are the rule while sales of unpopular games would be the extreme exception.

Perhaps the subject of another thread could be "rules that lots of people purchase but nobody plays", but I'm really curious about what makes rules popular and played frequently, especially over the long haul.

Griefbringer13 Jul 2011 12:40 p.m. PST

For determining popularity, perhaps tracking annual sales wouldn't be too bad measurement? A game that can keep on selling well year after year most probably has something going for it (or at least those sales cannot be just attributed to the "initial hype" that some game releases out there tend to enjoy in their first half a year or so).

Austin Rob13 Jul 2011 7:03 p.m. PST

I call FOW and FOG and GW game systems that have legs. They keep on selling year after year. As a retailer, these are the games I depend on for consistent sales and as such I spend the most time promoting in the store. (I keep saying "as a retailer" so there will be no confusion that I have an economic interest in these positions.)

My primary (in a huge way) criteria for a successful game from a retailer perspective is moving product. And moving product for an extended time is especially important. Sure, I can make some money on a flash in the pan, but that is not something I can depend on. Games with legs allow me to bring in miniatures, terrain, reference materials and all the other stuff that goes along with miniatures gaming a particular period or genre. I can also then run events (usually tournaments) that help promote the games.

You might ask, "Why use mostly tournaments to promote the games?" Well, as much as many people hate them, tournaments achieve the following:

1. Promote sales of miniatures, rules, and supporting material to the widest possible customer base. Because each player has to build an army and bring it to the table (and often provide terrain) this is a good thing for the retailer.

2. Allows players to use the armies that they've been spending many hours (days, weeks, months) painting and modelling. Seems to be that when we set up scenarios, but then many people will not get to use their toys. (Maybe 1. and 2. are the same.)

3. Play lots of games in a single day against many opponents. When out of towners come, it also allows you to play against people you normally would not face off against.

4. Tournaments are easy. I or my employees usually run the tournaments. We don't have a lot of time to set up scenarios, coordinate the provision of troops, etc. With tournaments, you set up the tables, they will come!

5. Generate more sales on the tournament day. Having played several games, players are in a mood to tweak or add to their army and having minis hanging on the wall to meet that urge is critical.

6. Promote the games to other customers. We require that all minis are painted in our tournaments, so when we have a tournament, it is really a way to show off the cool minis and the fun people can have playing minis.

7. Gives feeling of vibrancy and fun in the store (not limited to tournaments, but seems more pronounced). Sales of all games go up when we have tournaments. I think people see others having fun playing games, so they want to take home some fun too. It may not be miniatures, but that doesn't matter, they just want to play a game, and so they pick up a new board game or card game.

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