What comes first? Game or miniatures?

Via Facebook, I recently stumbled upon this discussion at the Bell of Lost Souls forum and it got me thinking about the game as marketing tool versus the game as an end in its own right.

In my irregular newsletter, I have written recently about the appeal of boardgames, which let you move from purchase to gaming instantly (with a brief pause to learn the rules).  To the busy hobby gamer, this is a big plus.  Yet I still buy, play and write miniatures games which require a substantial investment of time, money, skill and patience to cross the gulf between purchase and dice on the table.  Moreover, these games are still popular.

I don’t often find myself saying this, but: Games Workshop is right.

The appeal of miniatures is something unique unto itself, I think.  The collector’s urge (the “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” effect) is strong in miniatures game hobbyists.  On the aforementioned thread, EpicDan wrote “would any of us buy, build, and paint 180 Ork boys if there wasn’t a game where they could be used?”  The question was rhetorical, intending to suggest that no one would do this.  But I think EpicDan is wrong.  I think not only would people be prepared to buy, build and paint 180 ork boys, but that people actually have done this and similar with little or no intention of playing games with their collections.  Buying, building, painting and collecting our miniatures armies, of whatever scale, historical era, race or nation is an end in itself: it immerses us in the imaginary world (including the historical ones) from which the miniatures emerge and gives us a tangible connection to the lives and wars of our collection.

Playing games with these models is a logical extension of this experience: it is a way of immersing ourselves further in their lives and experiences, of constructing new narratives that expand and deepen our appreciation for the characters our collections represent.

Once you become engaged with that process, the experience of gaming provides feedback to the process of collecting and vice versa: we want to add to our collections to diversify our gaming experiences and participate in more gaming experiences to deepen our appreciation for and understanding of our collections.  It’s a virtuous circle.

This serves to explain, also, why the use of proxy miniatures – models used from one manufacturer to represent game characters created by another – are so rare.  People tend to play Warhammer 40,000 with Games Workshop miniatures.  People tend to play Infinity with Corvus Belli miniatures.  People tend to play Warmachine with Privateer Press miniaures (etc).  The use of proxy miniatures is invariably seen as a temporary affection whilst one learns a game or assembles a “proper” army.  There are plenty of exceptions, of course.  But they are exceptions.  Go to your local wargaming club or store and I’d bet that 90% or more of all miniatures games being played that have an “official” range of miniatures are being played with those miniatures.

After all, if we are emotionally engaged with our Ten Thunders Archers from Wyrd Games, we want to explore their world of Malifaux more deeply.  If we are engaged with the world of Malifaux, we want to explore its range of characters (and miniatures) more widely.  We don’t want to play Malifaux with Warhammer miniatures any more than we want to play Saga with Napoleonics.

What this all brings me around to, of course, is Iron Core.  It is a game set in a world populated by characters represented by miniatures.  And whilst I’m out to write the best, most immersive, intelligent and tactically-challenging game I can (with clear, concise, balanced rules to boot), it’s important for me to remember that the miniatures come first.  Even Rick Priestley discovered this when the Beyond the Gates of Antares Kickstarter failed to meet its funding targets.  Being a famous designer with a record of quality game design (which I’m not and I don’t) isn’t enough on its own to sell a game.  And whilst a really good game can still sell itself on its own merits, like A Song of Blades and Heroes, it only really takes wing when a miniatures line comes along that grabs people’s attention in a way that lends the rules a qualitative lustre.  The Deep Wars game and its close cousins have been a huge success, because they married an exciting and original miniatures line with the established reliability of the SoBH rules.

This doesn’t, I hasten to add, mean that I’m about to plunge into developing a range of miniatures for HorizonWars!  The market for sci-fi 6mm miniatures feels pretty glutted, to be honest, and I’ve toyed briefly with developing my own miniatures range before.  It’s expensive, messy and complicated.

It does mean that, when I’m working on Iron Core, the miniatures and Mark’s vision for the Iron Core universe comes first.  I often come up with rules that are perfectly functional and interesting, but which just don’t gel with Mark’s vision of how fighting works in the alternate future of Iron Core.  But it also means that I’m conscious of what I hope will be a longer-term partnership with Dreamforge Games.  Mark’s ability to design and manufacture brilliant miniatures is already well-established, and his designs are already attracting the investment of dedicated hobbyists and model lovers.  So what’s at stake here is my ability to write a game that meets the same standard: accessible enough to attract the hobby gamer, clear and balanced enough to appeal to the competitive gamer and expansive enough to tell the sorts of narratives that will feed that virtuous circle of gaming and collecting.

No pressure, then.