Precinct Omega Podcast - News #34 - Waking up from COVID

I've not been good at posting new episodes on the blog, recently. But I'm going to try to get bit more structured about posting every Monday with the latest episode.

This week, I ponder whether life in wargaming, post-COVID, will or, indeed, should be different to life before lockdown.


SCRIPT FOLLOWS:

We have got a densely-packed schedule of news to report this week, so let’s get to it:


Warmonger Miniatures announced the release of new miniatures in their 10mm historical line - Polish-Lithuanian - and forgive my pronunciation - Zaporozhian Cossacks! White metal castings in bases of two, these are ideal if you love Warmaster Historical and Early Modern wargaming. Operating widely in easter Europe and the Ottoman Empire as mercenaries, you could justify including them in pretty much any army from the 15th to the early 18th Century, almost unchanged in appearance.


And speaking of 10mm historical, Timecast Models has new minis to its Cold War 80s range, with German infantry and a Leopard tank. The infantry has an impressive diversity of weapons, with everything from a MILAN anti-tank system to the Uzi 9mm.


If your preferences are even smaller, though, Microworld Games has released a completely new range of 3mm fantasy, with their brand new Dread Elves faction.


Slave 2 Gaming has released new Dark World War light mechs in their 18mm range. These are handy as steampunk or dieselpunk mechs and, although the 18mm scale isn’t up everyone’s street, because of their spec-fic nature, these would be fine as 15mm light mechs, or as 28mm battlebots. As someone who has just received his copy of the new edition of In Her Majesty’s Name, I’m pretty tempted to see if I can get some 28mm steampunk skirmish going on and these boys would fit in fine.


Void Scar Miniatures is still alive! Not only that, but they teased the release of new vehicles and infantry for their 1/100 scale sci-fi “From Ashes” range, and they published a release schedule for the rest of 2021, bringing more new infantry and vehicles, as well as player aids and updated rules for “From Ashes”. The game is still in beta testing, right now, but one to watch.


Speaking of “still alive”, holy crap, Fenris Games has released new terrain. Fenris was supposed to be one of the first commercial casualties of the cancellation of wargaming events in 2020. But it turned out that their closing down sale was so popular that the owner was able to reverse the decision to close and re-structure the business to stay operating.


Microart Studio has released a set of giant tree terrain using their colour hardfoam. This makes them far cheaper than the equivalent cast in resin, whilst giving them a useful heft to stay steady on the tabletop. Obviously designed with gaming on the Moon of Endor in mind, they would be fine as mighty trees in any fantasy, modern or sci-fi setting.


Deepcut Studio has added another piece of pre-painted terrain to their range - in this case, another desert-themed building. Now, unfortunately it’s definitely a sci-fi piece, and it feels tilted towards Star Wars Legion for Tatooine or Jedda, so it’s not going to be any good for modern or historical warfare in Africa or the Middle East, but for €30, there’s not much else to complain about.


Mantic Games has recently woken up and noticed that they’ve been neglecting their Dreadball range and added some new rules and minis to the game, specifically the Xtreme Giants (with an ‘x’), which are Dreadball’s equivalent of Bloodbowl’s “Big Guys”.


After mentioning them a few times in the last few months, Warploque Miniatures, too, seems to be on a bit of a roll, previewing two more new minis for their Arcworlde fantasy range, including a goblin hydra and what I’m guessing is some sort of Orc brewmaster, wielding an axe in one hand and a foaming pint of beer in the other. I would venture to suggest that this last one will be pretty popular.


And it’s been a good month for fantasy, in general. The Infamous JT has announced a return to business with a preview of forthcoming fantasy dwarf adventurers. Jamie is a friend, so I admit a personal interest in his stuff, but his WW2 Polish resistance fighters are absolute gold, so I’m confident these will also blow me away and it’s great to see him pursuing a fantasy range.


Gripping Beast has previewed new additions to their popular pseudo-fantasy Order Militant range of witch-hunters and exorcists. If you’re a Frostrgrave fan, or just like playing Saga in its fantasy manifestation, these are definitely worth a look, with bags of character.


And speaking of fantasy characters, Khurasan Miniatures has released a 15mm “monster boar” which, frankly, would be pretty monstrous at 28mm too. If you’re on the wrong side of the Atlantic, then Khurasan is definitely a range you should check out as they’ve done some great stuff, recently.


And we can’t have news without mentioning that Para Bellum Wargames is maintaining its momentum of new releases. Having had a public consultation on what their next faction should be, the votes are in for the W’adrhun - who are kinda-sorta orcs, I guess? - and teased the faction as a whole with a special edition Scion of Conquest miniature.


Scibor Miniatures - another name that’s been quiet lately - has announced a massive return to 28mm fantasy, with two new regiments of fantasy warriors that look like dwarves with either halberds or axes. But it’s not all fantasy for Scibor, as their new releases include space vikings riding bears, a space viking mech suit and - my absolute top pick for this week’s news - a conversion kit to turn any empty drinks can into a dieselpunk-style crab-tank-mech.


Hi-Tech Miniatures are also on the space viking bandwagon, with a new space viking standard bearer joining their range of not-space marines which they describe as 28mm, but which I think looks Primaris-y in height. Hi-tech haven’t had any new releases for a while and, although their style isn’t really to my taste, it’s good to see they’re still alive and kicking.


And there are, of course, also an endless litany of 3D print projects, Kickstarters and fancy dice projects for those who like such things. But I have picked the news items I have to illustrate something and prompt a question, as ever:


Has wargaming woken back up?


DISCUSSION


Last February and March, we were just heading into the first global trauma of the 21st Century as the full threat of COVID-19 was becoming - we thought - clear.


Obviously, on a global and national level there were lockdowns and strategies and economic recovery plans all over the place. But on a community level - amongst the dispersed international community of tabletop wargamers - the first real, tangible sign of what the pandemic would mean was when the various events started postponing their plans.


I went to Hammerhead in mid-March, and there was a distinct feeling of uncertainty as to whether we should really be there and really doing this. There was hand disinfectant all over the place, the event spread itself out more thinly in two venues instead of one, focused venue, and hand-shaking was replaced with elbow bumping; and, even as the dice rolled and money changed hands, the sense of uncertainty was palpable.


I had no plans to attend other Q1 or Q2 events because I was planning to be in Japan within weeks of Hammerhead. Of course, neither those events nor my trip to Japan could take place, so I was there to hear the waily-waily of small business operators in the wargames industry that the loss of the events would shut their doors and cripple their business model.


As it turned out, that didn’t happen.


Now, it’s hard to get an insight into the commercial well-being of most wargames companies, because they don’t have to file detailed accounts. Games Workshop, though, we know had one of their best years ever through lockdown. And I suspect there’s at least a modicum of a trickle-down effect from that. More people locked away at home with time on their hands and the urge to do something new has been great for the hobby in the short term.


Speaking personally, the lockdown was a great time to be launching a game with a solo-play mode, and solo games in general have really benefited from the lockdown.


But you know what companies really stopped doing during the lockdown?


Making new stuff.


Even the big companies in our industry scaled back and scaled down. Big releases that could be postponed were postponed. With no events to use as launch pads to build excitement, and with materials in short supply due to a reduced workforce, manufacturing - also labouring with a greatly reduced workforce and increased restrictions - was largely mothballed wherever it could be. One of the reasons GW did so well was because they could focus on shifting large volumes of surplus inventory without worrying about the space being filled up with new releases. And that seems to have been an almost-universal twist.


But now there is light at the end of our tunnel.


I need to take an inevitable moment here to say, please, people, don’t screw this up. And yes, Texas, I’m looking at you.


We are at a critical juncture, here. Cases worldwide are petering out, but back in September, we thought the same thing was true. The UK was almost all green and yellow on the government’s own tracking map, indicating fewer than 50 cases per 100,000. And we relaxed. Then, by the end of January, we were all dark blue and clocking over 800 cases per 100,000 in many parts of the country. We are now, thank goodness, more or less back to where we were in September and people are starting to relax again.


Please, I beg you, don’t stop social distancing. Don’t stop mask-wearing. Don’t stop hand-washing. Don’t stop getting vaccinated. We are nearly there.


Now, with that said, let me optimistically assume that the vaccination programmes in the UK and US are going to mean that we don’t see a third wave come back yet again. I’m going to quote Churchill and say that it might not be the end, or even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps, the end of the beginning. We’ve had our D-Day. The Battle of the Bulge lies behind us. But we’re not in Berlin yet and Hitler hasn’t shot himself. But we can still start thinking about life after Coronavirus.


In fact, we should and must start thinking about life after the coronavirus - specifically when it comes to the tabletop wargames hobby. What’s coming up? What’s happening? What’s changed? What’s different?


And seeing as I’ve been doing the news this week, let’s start with manufacturers.


We are going to see a lot of companies releasing new stuff. The next six months is going to be a tsunami of awesome. All the stuff that companies commissioned and planned for last year is going to smack us in the face in the next few months, and then we’ll get all the stuff they planned for 2021 as well. This year is going to be a bloody awesome year for new things.


This is also going to set up a serious competition with the STL world of wargaming.


The market has been flooded with digital miniatures of varying quality and the 3D printer manufacturers have sold units hand over fist during lockdown to people in our hobby looking for a new way to access minis. The 3D genie is out of the printed bottle and there’s no putting it back in. But the traditional manufacturers are going to be competing hard to re-establish their place with the aforementioned flood of postponed products. And the joy of near-instant gratification and reliability of traditionally cast miniatures is going to be a strong motivator to people to stick with the old ways.


For now, my money is with the old ways. I’m financially motivated to think that, of course, because I sell and am developing traditionally cast miniatures. But I don’t believe in backing a losing horse. The problem with a lot of 3D designs is that what looks great on the screen doesn’t always translate as well to the miniature or, from there, to the tabletop. And the proliferation of 3D miniatures, in my opinion, could well work against the industry in general to remind people what was great about traditional casting.


This, though, will feed back to the 3D designers, who will get their acts together and the best designers will soon be competing toe-to-toe with the traditional casting operations.


Now let’s talk about tabletop gaming itself.


We’ve seen the face of tabletop gaming change substantially over the last 12 months, and not all for the worse. Clubs and stores shut down as venues, but this has forced more people to make space at home to set up games using smaller spaces, smaller armies or smaller scales. As already mentioned, it’s opened up the world of solo and cooperative wargaming in a way it’s never been before. And I think it’s not unreasonable to conclude that a good proportion of that is going to stick around. More people are going to enjoy playing solo wargames at home, or playing more space-efficient tabletop games. I’m not going to pretend that 15mm Warhammer 40,000 is going to be Games Workshop’s new release for 2022, but the fact is that a lot more people have been printing out tiny space marines on their new 3D printers than ever would have before COVID. Discovering that you can play your favourite games on a space half the size you used to is a win in a lot of ways: you can play at home on a normally-sized dining table; you can fit twice as many tables in a club as before; you can buy the same number of minis for half the price or less. And we shouldn’t overlook that smaller-scale games are simply less resource intensive, making them better for our environment.


That said, I’m certain that people will be very pleased to get back to their local clubs and store venues as soon as they can. Wargames are, at their heart, a social experience and even I - the arch-introvert - have missed the social interaction of my local wargames clubs. But will clubs go back to being what they always were, or are there lessons to be learned from our COVID experience.


Well, to some extent I think it will largely be business as usual. But there are three areas in which I hope we’ll see some change.


First, I would like to see clubs and store venues embrace the social aspect of their nature more explicitly and work harder at making themselves into communities. I think a local club or store should be a hub of a network of interactions from people at a club planning to meet at each other’s home on another occasion, to organized trips to national events, to miniatures-free social evenings like barbecues, quiz nights or poker tournaments to raise money for local charities. Communities are stronger when they are built on diverse foundations.


Second, it’s my sincere hope that more people will get involved in managing and organizing their local clubs. Clubs need committees, and committees need to change regularly to keep a club evolving and responding to its community. I’d like to think that people will return to clubs more aware of their value and more ready to make a commitment to sustaining them in the future.


Third, I hope we’re going to go back to clubs more aware of the vulnerable in our communities who have been revealed by COVID, and with a plan to make them feel more welcome. The thing is, I think too many of us - and I include myself in this - came to see our local clubs and venues as nothing more than a place to roll some dice. But hopefully COVID has shown us that they were always more than that, and if we just treat them as a place to roll dice we risk losing what we really value about them.


Maybe you think I’m being hopelessly and naively optimistic, but I’ve already seen businesses and other organizations around the country finally realizing how much of their workforce can do their jobs mostly from home and be measurably more productive they can be as a result. And if businesses can get a new perspective on what “normal” looks like, well, why shouldn’t clubs as well?


The other thing I wanted to talk about was events.


People are really looking forward to seeing the UK Games Expo, Salute and other games and wargames events getting back up and running again. But this is another area where we need to take stock.


Coronavirus might be in retreat, but it’s going to be with us for the long run. And if we think that our massively inter-connected, international world has seen its last global pandemic we are fooling ourselves. Which leads me to ask a question some may find difficult to hear:


Do we really need all of these mass events?


Salute and the UK Games Expo are huge, drawing crowds from all over the UK and abroad. In the US, Adepticon and GenCon are the big two names and they’re even bigger and even more international. To put it simply, is it going to be socially responsible to keep holding mega events where we push thousands of people into a small space over multiple days to sell them stuff they could buy equally easily online?


I could lie and tell you that I love events, but I don’t. I have loved specific events. Beachhead 2019 was bloody awesome. Chillcon Sheffield is always a win. But events, in general, are nightmare fuel for me. UKGE 2019 nearly gave me a full-on panic attack. However, I will admit that I understand the appealing psychology of pulling people together in a way that makes you feel tribally connected, and grows excitement for people and companies and products, but…


Are we really doing it the right way? The responsible way? Companies that couldn’t attend conventions thought they would lose out on thousands of pounds of sales in 2020 but… they didn’t. They did OK. Not great - unless you’re GW - but OK. And if there had been an actual plan and framework in place for them to do the same kind of business, for less money and less travel, they might even have done better than OK and saved costs hand over fist.


I think there is room to start thinking, now, about whether a return to business as usual is the right decision and, if it isn’t, what the alternatives might actually be.


Finally, we need to talk about the Lost.


No one close to me has died during this pandemic, so far. And I have every reason to believe that will continue to be the case. But our community is not short of members with fairly significant risk factors and, even those aside, it is impossible that we haven’t lost wargamers to this pandemic. Whether you knew them personally or not, they shared a passion and a hobby with you and, if you had had the chance to meet them, they probably would have been your friend. They would have been someone you might have rolled dice with, whose hobby skill you might have admired, or who might have asked you for some tips on how you did those bases. You might have shared a commiseratory beer over a few war stories.


But now they are gone.


So I’m going to take a moment for them. If there is someone known to you, think of them. If not, think instead of dice unrolled and beers undrunk. Let us take a moment for those whose journeys were ended by COVID-19.


+++


PRECINCT OMEGA


So what about Precinct Omega? How am I going to do things differently in the post-COVID world?


Well, the big one for me is the question of event attendance.


I genuinely can’t wait to get out there to start promoting Precinct Omega games and products to people face to face. But I do wonder whether events are the right way to go about it.


Those who’ve listened to the podcast or followed me for a while might know that I’ve long planned to do a national tour in which I spent two or three weeks visiting friendly local gaming stores, clubs and any events that fell in the window to meet wargamers face to face. I’m now looking very carefully at that plan to try to work out whether cutting events out is, commercially, a net positive or a net negative. And, if I just did stores and clubs, whether that would be meaningfully more socially responsible.


So far, I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but… If we just think in terms of potentially spreading infections of any sort, it seems more sensible for my customers to stay, more or less, in place and for me to be the one who moves around, rather than me going to one place with lots of people and waiting for customers to come to me. This is because, in a large space full of people, any one person could be a risk factor who conveys that risk to everyone else in the venue.


But if the number of people is spread over multiple venues and one figure moves between them then it would require that one figure to be the risk factor for the same risk to pertain. And if that one figure is me, and I can control my own behaviour, the odds of me becoming a super-spreader if I continue to observe good hygiene practice, are pretty small.


So purely in terms of reducing the odds of a resurgence of a vaccine-resistant form of COVID-19 or of spreading some other infection, it makes more sense to do a club and store-focused road trip than to hit up the events.


Commercially-speaking, I would see about the same people in a two-week period visiting clubs and stores as I would at a single venue, so it’s a much larger investment of my time and money - assuming I have to stay in some hotels along the way - but, on the other hand, I get more face time with those people. The Precinct Omega name will be better communicated and my products will be more visible. I will get more chances to directly engage with store managers and owners, and more opportunities to engage socially with local groups, building a more productive rapport - whether you think that’s a good idea or not will depend on how much of a dick you think I am. I flatter myself that I’m, at least, not a complete dick.


If you bear in mind that I drive an electric car - so actual travel is much cheaper, not to mention that I charge from solar panels when I’m at home - that I have a very high tolerance for cheap hotels and that I could probably sofa surf at least part of my time, the pay-off begins to look favourable.


Now, the next question is whether such a model could be sustainable for traders besides just me. Could other businesses, large and small, do better in terms of sales and exposure from organizing two-week national roadtrips than they would from an endless cycle of big venue events? Particularly if they leveraged digital assets to run Q&As, livestreams and travel diaries to create a cross-platform experience that could be re-used again and again?


And would this approach be cheaper, less environmentally impactful, more accessible and less likely to spread a new infection in the future?


My educated guess is yes, yes, yes and yes to all of those. So…


Anyway, I’ll leave you with that thought for now. We’ll be back to a design discussion in the next episode, when I’ll be talking about Army Building, Points Systems and Balance. So I’ll speak to you again next week.


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