I love gaming in all its forms, but at the core of my being I am a miniatures gamer. Sure I lovingly gaze at the shiny new boardgames in my local games store, push chits every now and then, squeeze in a game of Twilight Imperium or Last Night on Earth whenever I can, and yes, I still have a semi-regular D&D group that I belong to. But man alive, there is nothing that gets me as excited as a small child quite like collecting miniatures.
You’ll notice I said ‘collecting’ rather than ‘playing.’ This is a common issue for most fans of little plastic and metal men, but I am not referring to the usual miniature gamer meta-madness of army building, assembly, and painting. I myself swore off painting miniatures years ago when time became a premium. No, I am instead talking about the unspoken problem of the miniatures gamer – the quest for the perfect game system.
The business of miniature gaming is all about selling miniatures. Most companies make little to no money selling rules systems. The rules are nothing more than the means to sell chunks of cast metal or plastic. In addition, most companies try to add their own unique twist or gimmick to their rules system to better attract players. Another common tactic is to create singular game worlds, thus forcing players to purchase miniatures from one particular company, and preventing them from incorporating competing product lines. The Eldar are unique to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and the Wolfen of Yllia are unique to Confrontation. An even newer trend is unique model scales. There used to be standards in gaming – figures were usually either the smaller 10/15mm or they were the mid-range 25/28mm. Now we have companies like Fantasy Flight Games making product lines that cannot possibly be used with other games nor do they allow for other models to be imported. All of these strategies may seem solid initially, but does this way of doing business work?
Miniature game systems essentially all do the same thing. Rules are required for movement, hand to hand combat, firing ranged weapons, morale, and for the more fantastical games, rules are needed for magic, psychic powers, or whatever else. There are certain other factors which will influence a given system; futuristic or modern game worlds tend to focus on shooting over melee and favor loosely grouped units mimicking guerilla-style warfare, and the opposite holds true for fantasy or ancient-themed systems with their compact units of ranked troops. Yet, at the end of the day, the many various systems still essentially do the same thing.
I find that when talking to other veteran miniature gamers (those who have been in the hobby for ten or more years) they all have “that game” they refer to lovingly. You know, the one they used to play all the time, sunk of lots of money into, but no longer play anymore. Why did they abandon it? Reasons vary, but ultimately these players are still playing miniatures games, just not “that one.” For me the game is Warhammer 40,000. I started playing it in the late 80s and continued to do so right up until the end of third edition. I left because I tired of the constant updates to the game that forced older models out of use and required the purchase of brand new models. Painting became a chore I seldom had time for. I recall one day looking across a room and seeing a pile of unpainted Iron Warriors that were lurking there, almost accusing me of neglect. I realized then that I needed out. Do I still play miniatures games? Yes.
I believe that miniatures games companies, in an attempt to create a product that traps players into product lines that only they, the gaming company create, are ultimately hurting the industry. The old way of doing business may have worked for Games Workshop once upon a time, but Mage Knight destroyed their once rock-solid monopoly, and now there are countless games of varying styles and complexity all competing for the same customers. Keep in mind though that WizKids did not break the monopoly by creating a radically new business model – their success came from simplifying the assembly/painting process. They still created their own gaming universes like Games Workshop, along with a multitude of spin-offs all aimed at keeping players solely in the Mage Knight line of games. Take a look at all of the big miniatures companies who create rules systems – most of them are trying to do the same thing. But why should gamers desire to limit themselves to one system, when there are so many kick-ass miniatures to choose from? And how can they afford to invest in multiple systems and still purchase enough figures to get the most out of each game? The end result is a new trend of “sampling” where gamers make initial investments into product lines, but fail to make the push needed to enjoy or financially support a game. All of this leads to game companies struggling to stay alive. Games Workshop isn’t the monolith it once was. Mage Knight died and WizKids has been floundering lately. Rackham recently filed for bankruptcy. These are big companies, but I have seen countless more small ones spring up and fold within a matter of months.
So what is the real problem here? I think the real issue lies with the game systems themselves. Simply put, they are unnecessary. Gamers do not want to have to limit themselves to just one gaming universe, but neither do they wish to have to memorize multiple systems that all essentially accomplish the same thing. When systems do stand out from one another, they often do it at the expense of being overly gimmicky. So here is my proposal, and yes I know it’s a little crazy: the miniatures gaming industry would greatly benefit from a universal rules system similar to the how the D20 system works for roleplaying.
Yeah, I said it. But put down the tar and feathers and give me a moment to explain.
At the end of the day miniatures gamers love their miniatures (and perhaps the fluff that accompanies them) more than the games they come from. Most veterans have old armies or figures from games they used to play. In many ways having that old Squat Trike lying around is cool just for the geek cred it earns you. It also proves that the miniatures you purchased years ago (because they looked so freaking cool), still have the same appeal now even if you no longer play the games they were made for. I also know many people who frequently buy miniatures from various competing product lines, though they do not play the games those models are intended for. I myself have a large number of D&D minis though I use them for a different game. Gamers want to be able to use the miniatures they like, when and how they like. A universal game system would allow people to buy what they want, from who they want, and freely play with the models in their collection. Companies could publish accompanying sourcebooks detailing their own unique worlds, so players could still get that fluff they love so much, yet at the same time there would nothing preventing them from having their Night Goblin army fight someone else’s Mongol Horde.
Doing this would allow miniatures companies to do what they have wanted to do to begin with: make models that people want to purchase. Isn’t this what the industry’s focus should have been all along? Many players might prefer to collect Games Workshop’s vision of Goblins (just a random example), though they may not wish to necessarily be Warhammer players. And no longer would gamers have to worry about investing in a particular game system. They could spend money freely without worrying about sinking cash into a product line they might not be able to afford to enjoy fully.
I believe there is also evidence to support the notion of the universal system. Purchases of downloadable generic miniatures rules are on the rise. I have recently become engrossed with Song of Blades and Heroes, a $4 rules set that gives me everything I want in a miniatures game, and lets me incorporate any fantasy figures I have or could ever want. There are many other generic rules systems out there as well. And there are big name games with similar appeal. One of Heroscape’s big draws is that people can easily convert figures from competing lines into that game. So we see the demand is there from players. But there is additional evidence that miniatures companies would benefit as well. I have already pointed out the financial pitfalls many companies are currently discovering by utilizing the old Games Workshop model, yet there is something else to notice. Companies who produce miniatures that are not tied to any product line can do quite well. Look at Reaper. Here is a company, that while they produce their own lines of games also produce tremendous amounts of miniatures that can be incorporated into just about any other game. They have avoided wholesale adoption of the old Games Workshop model, and have been able to stick around for a long time because of it.
Let me reiterate. A universal miniature games system would still allow the game universes people love to exist in the form of sourcebooks and online content. In fact everything a player might like about an existing game could be preserved. So if you are a newer player and think Warmachine is the best thing ever, you could still play it and collect models for it to your heart’s content, but should you finally tire and want a new experience, your models aren’t worthless, nor do you have to learn another system all over again. The freedom such a system would give to players and companies alike could give the industry a much needed breath of fresh air. Miniature games are not dying. They will certainly be around as long as there are people who marvel at tiny sculpts on little modeled battlefields. But a healthy industry allows for more companies to exist and it promotes greater variety. And frankly, I’m really not interested in your cool new way to move models on a battlefield, when it’s just a variation of what I’ve already been doing for decades.
Okay. You can pick the tar and feathers back up.