It’s Friday 28th August 2020. My name is Robey Jenkins. And this is the news.
First up - congratulations to Tabletop Fix and its long-time blogger Falk. TTFix is ten years old this week and Falk has kept it updated pretty much daily, everyday, for ten years. If you don’t subscribe to Tabletop Fix, I cannot recommend it highly enough as a source of tabletop news. The one rule there is that he doesn’t do GW news. It’s not that he has anything against GW, but not having GW news which, let’s face it, doesn’t really need a signal boost, means that news about other companies and manufacturers can be seen more clearly. I really respect that. He doesn’t do commentary, review or judgement - he just shares the minis. And I respect that, too.
CoolMiniOrNot’s Massive Darkness 2 Kickstarter campaign has concluded, raising $3.8m in funding, beating the first game’s funding figure of $3.5m. As a point to note, Massive Darkness 1 launched in April 2016 with an estimated delivery date of April 2017. The campaign was 100% fulfilled by September 2017.
By contrast, Core Clash - a game of giant robot combat that draws heavily on classic and modern Transformers aesthetics - has successfully funded at only £46k, scraping past its funding goal. It’s interesting that it hit full funding within 48 hours and then pretty much stayed there for the rest of its campaign.
On the theme of giant robot board games, New Osaka has met its very modest Kickstarter funding goal of £6k with a couple of weeks left to run. This is a brand new project from a brand new company and truly fulfills the spirit of a Kickstarter, so I wish them the very best.
And in a week that clearly wants me to buy more giant robots, Galaxy Hunters is halfway to its £60k goal with another mech-themed mercenary game with some… problematic aspects in its theme of hunting and killing invasive mutants on behalf of ultra-powerful corporations...
However, what these news items have in common - other than that they’re all on Kickstarter, although we’ll be sure to talk about that, too - is that they are all what’s called a “miniatures board game”.
I’m going to unpack this concept this week in the Discussion.
When did miniatures board games become a thing, exactly?
It seems obvious to point at the traditional charms of Monopoly as a starting point but I struggle to think of a game, when I was growing up, that had anything in it I would call a “miniature”. There were collectible chess sets, I suppose. Otherwise, I remember the diving man in Mousetrap and that’s about it. In Cluedo, the characters were, at best, cardboard standees, and usually just cheap conical pawns. I suppose Risk could put up its hand but I’m not sure that the little figures of infantry and artillery were ever a real draw to that game.
I suppose, if I’m talking about origins, we should define our terms.
It seems unlikely that you’ve not come across one if you’re listening to this, but for the purpose of this episode and, frankly, forever, I consider a miniatures boardgame to be a tabletop game with - surprise, surprise - a board, miniatures and - this is important - digital movement.
Digital movement is as opposed to analogue movement. If I can move seven inches or six and quarter inches or five eighths of an inch, then I’ve got analogue movement. But if I have to move on a grid of some kind, be it square or hex-based, or between defined zones of a board, then I’ve got digital movement. Once you need a tape measure to make the game work, it’s a miniatures wargame. Otherwise, it’s a board game.
It’s also implied that the miniatures are both thematically relevant to the game - which would count out Monopoly - and aesthetically appealing - which would count out Risk.
The first miniatures board game I can really remember noticing was Bloodbowl. Feel free to remind me of others. Battletech was arguably a miniatures board game. And I remember the Troll Games that Games Workshop made, although I never played one. But once they were out there, we had HeroQuest, Space Crusade and Space Hulk. The first two might have technically been Milton Bradley games but, let’s be honest, they were all Games Workshop through and through.
But despite these, for a long time, board games and miniatures games were really seen as separate ventures and for a good reason: cost.
In an entirely unscientific poll, I asked my wife at what point she thought a board game was getting “expensive”. She was a good person to ask, because she’s not a hobbyist but, because of me, she’s familiar with the wider world of board games and occasionally buys them for me as a present, which is nice! And her answer definitely surprised me.
For her, a board game is getting expensive at £40.
I think you’ll agree that this is a low bar. But she explained that, below £20, she expects a pretty cheap, simple product she could play with children. Between £20 and £40, she expects a more sophisticated game, like Catan, Ticket to Ride or Pandemic. But beyond £40, she expects a complexity of components that means that the game is getting into hobbyist territory.
In other words, I would enjoy it, but she probably wouldn’t.
Suffice to say, miniatures board games are all above this bar. In most cases, way above this bar. Miniatures board games tend to start at about £70 and rise to as high as £400, with Kingdom Death: Monster.
I think this tells us something important about the markets at which miniatures board games are being pitched.
They aren’t trying to attract the purchases of high street retail board games. They aren’t even competing with the likes of Monopoly or Cluedo or Hungry Hungry Hippos. Despite being “board games”, they aren’t operating in anything remotely like this market.
Miniatures board games are aimed squarely at the likes of you and me. We are already on board with miniatures, as we use them in wargames or roleplay games. We are used to rulebooks with a spine, and possibly a hard cover. We are highly attracted to narrative-led tabletop experiences. And, most of all, we demonstrably have disposable income to spend.
Plus, we are all occupying a world in which the fastest-diminishing resource seems to be not oil but leisure time. A good miniatures board game fulfils our conscious needs for cool minis and reduces the time between unboxing and play starting to less than an hour. Well designed, they also offer replayability of a substantial level.
These are all good things. So why do you get the sense that maybe I’m not 100% on board with the exponential growth in miniatures board games?
Well, yes, I have a few issues.
First, let’s talk about price. The argument is pretty solid that you can spend, say £100 on a big box miniatures board game and get everything you need, ready to play right out of the box. You can paint the minis if you want to, but you don’t have to. They are pre-assembled more often than not and the game is right there, ready to go. No scenery to build. No enormous table required. No days and days of assembly and painting to get your army together.
It sounds like a no-brainer. And yet, how often do these games actually get table time from the average player? It’s not an easy question to answer, but based on my own experience of both buying and observing the buyers of these games, I think up to half a dozen plays is a pretty good run for most of these games. After that, they go back on the shelf or onto eBay to pass on. And if your outlay for these is £80-100, the return on your investment isn’t looking great. Although, admittedly, if you sell it and re-coup 50-60% of the original outlay, it looks a lot better.
So let’s talk about the miniatures. These are often lovely. There are a lot of example of games I want to own just for the miniatures. Human Interface: Nakamura Tower, Kingdom Death: Monster and Horizon Zero Dawn are all games I have little interest in, but the minis for which I’d love to have in my collection.
But you can’t just buy the miniatures in the majority of cases. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. And this speaks to the nature of why miniatures are included in these games: as a marketing device. If they were to sell the miniatures without the game, fewer people would buy the game. If they developed a game without miniatures, fewer people would buy the game. If they just developed the miniatures and didn’t bother with the game, fewer people would buy the miniatures.
I’ve spoken before about how miniatures companies use games to sell minis. But the miniatures board game is the purest manifestation of this in action. The miniatures are there to justify the inflated price and the game is there to justify the miniatures.
I’m not saying the games aren’t good! Some of them are among the finest and most imaginative games ever devised. But there is a metagame taking place in which buyers are being manipulated.
And on that note, let’s talk about FOMO.
The Fear Of Missing Out has become one of this generation’s catchphrases. And this is what drives sales of miniatures board games and is why companies like CMON still use Kickstarter, despite the 10% fee and despite the fact that they are easily big enough to launch games independently. Games that appear on Kickstarter are ephemeral experiences. The game is only at this price for Kickstarter. Or might only be available on Kickstarter - Infinity Defiance, I’m looking at you! The campaign may include exclusive miniatures, or early access to expansions. Bizarrely, even the experience of backing the Kickstarter and then being one of the many excited, anxious backers waiting to receive your copy and being frustrated when it misses the shipping target again, or retailers seem to be putting “your” game on their shelves before you’ve received your Kickstarter edition box… this all becomes part of the experience that others fear to miss out on.
I’m not at all sorry to have missed out on the Robotech Tactics Kickstarter, but there’s no denying that those who did back it have formed a community built upon the foundations of their shared hate for Palladium Games.
I’m not saying I don’t like miniatures board games. But I am saying that gamers should be honest with themselves about what they are going to do with their investment. How often will they really get it onto the table? How many times will you be able to gather five friends together over the course of several weeks to make it through that immersive campaign you were so excited about?
Pure miniatures wargames, as I may have mentioned last week, aren’t just about the game. The collecting, assembly and painting of the miniatures is a hobby in itself - and one you can indulge without pressure to play, because you can’t until you’re finished, anyway. The research, the background, the history, the fiction, the art… they all fill out and round off the hobby beyond the tabletop. You can enjoy miniatures wargaming, with hours of well-filled time, without ever rolling a die or even meeting eye-to-eye with another human being.
I guess I worry a little that the growth of the miniatures board game is causing wargamers to forget that their hobby isn’t a pursuit of instant gratification. Ours is a slower, more considered hobby. So, by all means, back a miniatures board game on Kickstarter, or pick one up from your local games store. But you should try to make sure that you see the game itself as an adjunct to the whole experience. Paint your minis. Make some custom terrain or objective markers. Re-discover the wargame in your miniatures board game. You’ll get a much better return on your investment.
The reason I found myself thinking about miniatures board game is balls.
Specifically, it’s Ballmonsters.
Back in 2018, I bought the intellectual property rights to the Ballmonsters from Macrocosm Miniatures and it was very much my starting point for Precinct Omega. And yet, despite that, I’ve still not finished writing a game for the miniatures that I really enjoy. Every version of the game has come out too restrictive, too serious, too… wargame-y.
I wanted to make it a game that young gamers could find accessible and fun and that would make people laugh. But every version I’ve written has come to make people frown - not because it’s not fun, but because you still have to think just a bit too hard about your moves.
If you’ve not seen the Ballmonsters, do get along to precinctomega.co.uk and check out the miniatures. They really are a joyful lot of ugly rotters. And, right now and until my current stock is gone, you can get 15% off with the code GETBALLS.
My previous iterations of Ballmonsters, as a game, has been quite wargame-y because I wanted it to feel accessible and I thought that an A2 poster as a playing surface was a quick, cheap and easy way to get into wargaming. But I wanted there to be room for error, so I skipped over the grid option and went straight to tape measures.
I’ve now concluded that this was a mistake. And I’ve come up with some new ideas, and one of these does away with the tape measures and makes the game more board game-y.
The problem with this, though, is that the current bar for miniatures board games is being set unachievably high by the likes of CMON and Steamforged Games. There’s no way I have the resources to deliver an out-of-the-box board game experience. Money, as they say, follows money, and to tap into the kind of markets that raise $1m+ on Kickstarter, you need a seed fund for marketing, art and more marketing that’s simply out of the reach of one-person start-ups like Precinct Omega.
Miniatures wargames, on the other hand, will rarely, if ever, enjoy that kind of revenue, but they are a lot easier to get off the ground - especially if you already have the miniatures, which I do.
So I’m going to put my ideas to board game the Ballmonsters firmly to one side. Maybe, one day, I can come back to it. But for now I think it’s important to grow my IP within the resources of my business.
CMON’s sales may look impressive, and their revenue is climbing steadily. But they are also one of the few games companies to be publicly listed, and their share price has been falling equally steadily, while their debt to cash ratio has been going steadily upwards at the same rate. I’m not saying they’re in trouble, but they certainly aren’t as financially secure as you might expect from a company that just raised $3.8m in pre-sales.
I’m not saying I’ll never take out a loan for Precinct Omega to do something big and exciting. But it’s definitely not time for me to do that, just yet.
So if you want to get more on what I’m going to be doing with Ballmonsters, as well as follow the other development projects and plans at Precinct Omega, do consider backing the Patreon campaign from only $2/month. As well as behind-the-scenes previews, discussion and general randomness, it really is a way to follow and contribute to Precinct Omega’s gradual journey to, hopefully, growing success.
But enough about me. Thank you for listening. I’ll speak to you again next week.