TTCombat announced new DZC releases. The PHR starter army looks like an excellent deal. It contains six medium dropships, eight walkers, four tanks, eight infantry squads and the brand new Proteus mobile command post, all in the customary DzC resin, for only £35, which sounds like a bargain. Also new to market is the Valkyries, an elite special jump infantry unit, also for the PHR faction.
Warploque Miniatures has brought us some new releases for the Imperials faction of their ArcWorlde game. ArcWorlde has been a bit of a slow burn, but it holds a place in my heart for its commitment to 40mm scale fantasy miniatures, which are a rarity.
Corvus Belli is showering us with new releases for Infinity the Game and even a few for their Aristeria! board game. But as they’re going to get pretty much the whole episode next week, I’ll not dwell on them.
Steamforged Games has quietly released its Animal Adventures RPG starter set, a delightful set of adventurers that includes six unique sculpts of dogs and cats dressed in the garb of classic fantasy adventurers. These aren’t, mind you, the anthropomorphic animals of some ranges. Oh, no. The dogs carry their swords in their mouths. And I’m yet to work out how the Rogue cat is supposed to use the throwing star on its belt.
Parabellum Wargames has announced “Path of Conquest” starter collections for Conquest: Last Argument of Kings. These combine packs of units from each faction for around €250, and in return you get one or two additional packs for free. Assembled specifically to allow players to follow along with the OnTabletop series looking at this game.
Gripping Beast has released their first miniatures for a faction in their SAGA Age of Magic range. The Order Militant are basically Witch hunters in a fantasy version of the late middle ages. This is a significant departure for Gripping Beast who have, until now, been determinedly historical in nature. I note, with interest, too, that they have added a “science fiction” category to their catalogue - albeit one that remains sadly empty for now.
I’ve picked these news items out of last week’s positive plethora of news, because they all represent different philosophical approaches to miniatures game releases and I’m going to look at that in more detail in the discussion...
So, we’re going to talk, today, about the different journeys modern tabletop miniatures games make from concept to delivery.
A lot of tabletop hobbyists have a dream of bringing out their own game. I was discussing this not long ago with a friend, who was contemplating a Kickstarter to release a post apocalyptic skirmish miniatures game, and I’m paraphrasing here, but he said:
“I don’t care if it only breaks even. I’d just love to create my own game.”
So let me tell you what I told him: do not do this. Unless you are already financially secure, own your own home and have a final salary pension and a fat wad of capital investments covering your life’s needs, don’t Kickstart a game for the fun of it.
I mean, if you’ve written a game and want to share a PDF of your notes with the world, go for it. But we’re not talking about this kind of a game. We’re talking about a GAME - artwork, miniatures, photography, layout, graphics, marketing… We’re talking about a product.
Creating this sort of thing is usually a collaborative effort between creatives of different disciplines. It takes time, effort, passion and energy. And if you’ve got talent as well as all of these, you shouldn’t be focusing them into something that isn’t going to make you a reasonable return on your investment. Otherwise, you might as well pour a bucket of cash into a wood chipper. It’ll be just as expensive but take much less time and energy.
A game of this sort shouldn’t be an end in itself. It should be a step on a journey to something greater.
So if we take a look at this week’s news items, we’ll see what paths each of these companies has chosen to get to market and unpick a little of my impressions as to why they’ve each chosen those paths.
Gripping Beast have taken the easiest path. I suppose you could say the same thing about their partners, Tomahawk Games. Gripping Beast makes miniatures but wanted a game as a marketing hook, and they got Saga. Gripping Beast makes miniatures for Saga and they market and sell the game but the game isn’t written, developed or maintained by them. I don’t think they even handle any of the printing. It’s all done through their partnership with Tomahawk. Between them, Tomahawk and Gripping Beast get to focus on what each of them is good at, and gain the mutual benefit of each other’s force multiplication.
This is an ideal strategy for the company that lacks the in-house expertise to do what they want to do. Rather than stop being an outstanding miniatures caster and start being a mediocre game designer, Gripping Beast found an outstanding game designer that already wrote games suitable for Gripping Beast miniatures and, between them, they created something greater than the sum of their individual companies’ parts.
TTCombat - yes, I know I seem to be talking about them a lot, lately; no, it’s not a coincidence - have taken the other quick route to a good game, by finding a struggling company with a good game and miniatures range and buying up the IP lock, stock and barrel. In their case, they did it with three good games: Carnevale, Dropzone Commander and Dropfleet Commander.
An intellectual property, game and miniatures range like this isn’t cheap - although it’s a lot cheaper when the owner is staring down the barrel of receivership. Not only does it come with the game infrastructure in place, but it also comes with an established player base, name recognition and all the other benefits of a mature product. But it also comes with the considerable burden of expectations arising from that maturity. If you aren’t ready to be a game designer or to employ a game designer, plus artists, copywriters and all the other peripheral trades of tabletop game design, you may end up dropping the ball and letting down that existing player base. For an example, take a look at Palladium Books and what people think of them since they monumentally wrecked the Robotech Tactics Kickstarter.
Parabellum Wargames, meanwhile, has taken the… ballsy option.
With no established player base, reputation or market to speak of, they decided to release a high-end fantasy battle game - notorious for being the style of game that demands the highest investment of money - in hard styrene plastic, from scratch.
This is such a ballsy move that I went and did a little digging. Parabellum is a Greek business owned by a trio of artists and sculptors who have been toying with releasing a game for the best part of a decade and Conquest: Last Argument of Kings - which I shall forevermore refer to as CLAK - is the culmination of that work.
Whether the game is any good is almost irrelevant. They are pushing into a market already occupied by Mantic’s Kings of War and CoolMiniOrNot’s A Song Of Ice And Fire, with Games Workshop having announced a return to the genre with Warhammer The Old World. They launched with four factions of arguable distinction. And they only just now seem to have noticed that they’ve not done enough marketing.
I don’t know where their funding is coming from, but this release reminds me a great deal of ventures including Hawk Wargames, Wild West Exodus and Halo Fleet Battles: too much, too quickly.
It can be done, of course. But it requires the relentless expenditure of money to get the product onto people’s radars and keep it there long enough for the initial outlay to finally start showing a return. If you want a recipe for a game that’s going to make a *lot* of money, then this is it. Surprise, surprise: if you want to make a lot of money, you have to start with… a lot of money. If the money runs out before the payback point, well, tough. Like I said: ballsy.
A more considered approach is shown by Steamforged Games - yes, they of the cancelled Guild Ball game. Alongside their big-splash console gaming brand board games, they have quietly released a simple roleplaying game for younger players, called Animal Adventures.
For all that Steamforged has those big name brands, this release has the feel of a passion project: a handful of eye-catching sculpts and a colourful but modest self-contained game, but the potential for growth if sales exceed expectations. This is a release that oozes restraint and careful thought.
But Steamforged does have the advantage of its established income from its current games. So if Animal Adventures doesn’t turn out to be a moneymaker, Steamforged will probably be able to take it on the chin.
Warploque Miniatures, by contrast… is one guy, with help from his parents. I don’t want that to sound dismissive, because Warploque isn’t a new kid on the block. He’s been around for a while and has built up a small but enthusiastic following on the basis of his quirky, imaginative and distinctive 32mm fantasy sculpts that lie at the core of his business. In one of his Kickstarters, for example, he raised over £10k against a target of £1k. And his range on offer has become large enough for him to release an accompanying miniatures game that is now in its second edition: Arceworld.
But, like I say, Warploque has been around for a while and Arceworld hasn’t made much of an impact in that time. It’s got good recognition, but I’m not sure how much actual play it's getting. Going back to where we began, Arceworld is a great example of when someone decided that they wanted to have a game and miniatures range but without having considered what that game is supposed to be a pathway towards, which has left it under-marketed and sporadically supported. The author is primarily a sculptor, which doesn’t mean he can’t write a terrific game too, but does mean that his focus is upon sculpting new minis.
Last of all, Corvus Belli.
I’ve sung CB’s praises before and, with a new edition of their core product, Infinity, due out next week you can be sure that we’ll be looking in more detail at them very soon. But for now, I’d like to look back at how their game emerged, because I think there are some key lessons to learn from it.
When Infinity was first devised, Corvus Belli was a tiny Spanish miniatures manufacturer specializing in 15mm historical. I’m honestly not sure who was who, back then, as all this information is decidedly second-hand. But one way or another, a group of friends who were all into games and wargames sat down to play a roleplay game that one of them had invented. It was a science fiction adventure with a well-imagined setting of a near future of human settled worlds fighting amongst each other, even as the whole race comes under attack from an external alien. The players invented their characters, using various of the factions in the setting, and I’m certain that they all had a good time because one of them, whoever was doing the sculpting for Corvus Belli back then, decided to make 28mm sculpts of their player characters.
He cast these up at work and made them as gifts for the player group. And then, because he’d already made the moulds, popped them up for sale on the same site as the rest of Corvus Belli’s historical range.
They immediately sold out.
Figuring that they’d stumbled upon a good thing, they added to the range and they quickly wrote a game to accompany the miniatures.
Let’s take a pause here to review what CB did right - albeit largely by accident at this point.
They already had an established business. It was small, but a reasonable going concern with a good reputation in the historical 15mm market. They used existing resources to develop a new product at minimal cost - the new miniatures - and tested them in the market.
Finding that they were well-received, they then invested the effort in a supporting game.
So far, so good. Home-grown Spanish sci fi skirmish games weren’t exactly ten to a penny, so the rules were well-received and, for the most part, it was friends teaching friends how to play in a very light, narrative-driven system very closely derived from the original roleplay game.
It was popular enough that someone translated into English. And there the game ran up against a brick wall.
First, the translation was pretty awful. But, even had it been good, I suspect it would have encountered a similar problem. The game’s mechanics were too unfamiliar. The miniatures were widely praised but seen as too expensive for the kinds of games most people in the English-speaking world were playing - i.e. Warhammer 40k - and not available in enough variety. Also, the design aesthetic was far removed from the 28mm heroic scale that was standard at the time.
However, it wasn’t all a disaster. The rules were offered for free which, for a miniatures company and a pretty highly-produced rulebook, was comparatively new. And that meant that a lot of people downloaded them. Almost no one could understand them, but it put Corvus Belli on a lot of radars.
But at Corvus Belli, a decision had to be made.
Infinity had been created as a product almost by accident. It had made a strong early showing in the market and feedback from the Spanish community was positive. So now they had to decide: did they want Infinity to be just a niche product on the existing Corvus Belli catalogue, ticking along quietly but not really having more than a passing impact on the company’s bottom line, or did they want it to achieve the potential to be bigger?
Obviously, because we know how this story ends, they wanted it to achieve its potential. Now, a lot of things would need to happen after this to bring Infinity to a wider audience and get a greater degree of awareness and excitement that would make it into the success it is today and we’ll look at some of these next week. But the crucial thing, which is clear from the steps Corvus Belli took and the results they subsequently achieved, is that the decision was taken, not to “make Infinity big”, but to leverage the potential Infinity possessed in order to make Corvus Belli big.
Obviously, “big” is a relative term. But compare Corvus Belli, the historical sci-fi manufacturer of 2010 with Corvus Belli the tabletop games developer of 2020 and there’s no argument that CB has leveraged Infinity into both growth and profit in a remarkably short time.
If I wanted to point at a model for how to do successful business in tabletop miniatures, I would pick Corvus Belli every time. They had some lucky breaks, for sure. But my appraisal is that the lucky breaks may have increased or accelerated the rate of success, rather than guaranteed it. What’s secured their success has been leveraging their intellectual property assets as a strategy for growth, rather than just as an end in itself.
Talking about Precinct Omega in this context becomes quite hard, because while we are talking about a business, we’re also talking about what amounts to being a part of my identity. And it’s interesting that Gaultier, the author of Infinity the Game and inventor of its setting, exercises very, very close control over development of the intellectual property outside his immediate reach. Although that can be a break upon useful progress, I absolutely relate to the sense of ownership that is tied up in an intellectual property like this.
I would love to be able to point to Precinct Omega and to say “look, I achieved all of this by a careful, strategic use of my resources to a well-defined goal”, but I’m really less than a year into a five-year plan and it’s still entirely possible for the whole deck of cards to collapse. But what I can say is that, for all that I cling tightly to my intellectual property, I’ve never lost sight of the fact that Horizon Wars is a means to an end. I have a strategic plan, and my IP is an important component, but it isn’t the plan in itself.
I was flattered, recently, to be asked by a friend - someone who is well connected in the tabletop industry and, I know, well liked by a huge range of people I personally have only the benefit of being able to respect from afar - for advice on how to get his game to market. And as I think a fair few people who listen to this podcast might share his ambition of having their name on a tabletop game or two, let me tell you all, more or less, what I told him. And in the context of everything I’ve said so far in this episode, none of this should be a surprise to you.
First, if you set your goal as getting your game to market, you’ll succeed.
It’s not hard to publish a game. Thanks to resources like Wargame Vault and other, mass-market self-publishing and print-on-demand services, creating a game product is a piece of cake.
But if your goal is to get to market, you’ll succeed. And then you’ll stop. Bam. Job’s a good’un. Back to the daily grind.
There are literally thousands of games out there, many of them elegant pieces of exemplary design, that almost no one has ever heard of and even fewer have actually played. There are even games that are well known and widely played but which are still essentially dead, making their author little more than pocket money at best.
Now, it’s easy to make this sound like I’m all about the money, money, money. So let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with money, per se. Money is good. It pays the bills. But if your goal is to get rich then, well, tabletop game design isn’t going to be your pathway of choice if you have half a brain. If what you want out of life is riches, there are easier, faster ways to your golden toilet seat.
What tabletop game design is a great pathway to is more tabletop game design. If you start from the idea that your game is going somewhere, then you can leverage one game into more games, or into a larger game, or into more tools to make playing the game more fun, or into new ways to play the same game…
Life is growth and growth is success. But we have a lot of freedom to define what counts as growth.
Now I’ve taken a very gentle shot at a few businesses in this episode, so let me finish by saying that this applies equally to them. Although, as an outsider looking in, with deeply imperfect knowledge, I can make judgements about what I think they’ve done or what they’re trying to achieve, ultimately the question is “are they growing?”
Corvus Belli is obviously growing. A new edition of their game is explicitly pitched towards growth, and we’ll look at that in more detail next week.
TTCombat is growing. With new miniatures releases, new terrain designs and an acquisitive mindset for game development, they are growing.
Warploque Miniatures is also growing. With new sculpts being cast, the range expanding and second edition of Arcworlde, whatever I might think about the business model, the business is growing.
But what about our other examples?
Steamforged is adding new games to their range. And closing Kickstarter projects way above target. But is that growth? I note that pre-releases are open for Epic Encounters, a family of independent Dungeons & Dragons supplements. But do new products count as growth if they fall from the tree and never turn into anything more? But I have hope for Steamforged, thanks to their support for the Dungeon Wheelchair project. Their support for better diversity in the hobby has been, perhaps, the one unflinching constant in their existence and it gives me hope for their future. That, too, is growth.
Gripping Beast is growing on their own terms. New miniatures and concepts emerge slowly, but they are dedicated to getting things right as they see it. Saga put them in a spotlight and raised expectations, but although they’ve responded to that, they’ve done so in a measured and mature way that endears them to their fans.
And as for Para Bellum… Who knows? Technically, I would guess, they are shrinking as they have poured money and time into a hugely expensive production and distribution process. And money may not be the only measure of growth, but it sure is an important one! I hope they get to see their investment pay off in sales so they can expand their factions, add new ones and give Greece a solid foothold in the market. But overall, it’s too early to say.
And Precinct Omega?
Well… you be the judge. Thank you for listening. I’ll speak to you again next week.