It’s Friday 23rd October. My name is Robey Jenkins.
My name is Bernard.
And here is the news.
The game itself will be available to buy early in 2021, but excitement is already ramping up and I’m going to spend this whole episode talking about it and, as the author of a sci-fi skirmish game, trying really, really hard not to sound super jealous. So let’s look at the facts.
Frostgrave was published in 2015. At the time, the author, Joseph McCullough, was working as the marketing guy for Osprey Games. As I’ve mentioned before, Osprey Games is basically two people inside Osprey Publishing which is, itself, a tiny subsidiary of international publishing monstrosity, Bloomsbury. The story as I’ve heard it is that Joe was lamenting the fact that no one was playing Mordheim any more and how much he enjoyed that game, and Phil Smith, Osprey Games’s Editor, more or less challenged him to write it himself.
Joe followed through and the game was an immediate smash hit.
It turned out that Joe wasn’t alone among tabletop wargamers looking for a skirmish/lite-RPG hybrid they could play with a handful of classic minis. Fans of Mordheim flocked to buy and play the game which subsequently spawned a line of licensed miniatures through North Star Military Figures, several supplements and even - that rarest of things in the Osprey Games range - a second edition.
It was sufficiently successful that Joe gave up the day-job to focus on writing games full-time and went on to self-publish Rangers of Shadowdeep, a solo/co-op fantasy skirmish game which still sits as only two products at Wargame Vault ever to reach the hallowed levels of Adamantine Best Seller. Rangers also subsequently went to a second edition, this time published by Modiphius Entertainment, but Joe is back with Osprey for this follow-up, Stargrave.
Details at the moment are fairly sketchy, but what we know is that the game will revolve around players assembling a crew of explorers in the far future, with a captain and a lieutenant acting as the “player characters” that can gain experience and “level up”, whilst the rest of the crew are, essentially, redshirts that may be thought of as upgrades to the lead duo. The mechanics will most likely be d20 based, as both Frostgrave and Rangers were. And North Star has already announced that they will be releasing plastic minis to support the game.
So far, so factual. So let’s turn to look at a number of questions that arise from this release, in the discussion.
So, let’s tackle the elephant in the room.
Yes, I would love to enjoy Joe’s success in game design. He enjoyed a perfect storm of being in the right place at the right time with the right idea and - it needs to be said - the right talent to create a market-breaking product in Frostgrave. Osprey Games is a modest enterprise inside a modest enterprise. Products like Frostgrave are why Osprey Games exists and why it’s able to publish other, less successful games, like Horizon Wars. This is the whole model of the traditional publishing industry: throw enough mud and the stuff that sticks will pay to clean up the mess from the stuff that doesn’t and leave enough left over for the occasional long lunch.
If I had the time and energy, I might even be jealous of Joe. But, luckily, I’ve met him in real life several times and had a chance to hang out and can say that he’s also an incredibly nice guy as so many people in this business are. Plus, he wrote a really tight, fun game. So it’s hard to begrudge him his success.
And, in fact, I tend to believe that competition in this tiny corner of the market just doesn’t work the way people tend to imagine it works.
Now, what follows is mostly based on a mixture of anecdote and gut instinct, and I’m not sure where I’d find the data to properly appraise my hypothesis, but…
My conviction is that there are really two types of customer in the miniatures wargames market.
There are “single system” customers. We’ll call them “monogamers”. Monogamers play a single game system to the exclusion of all others. They may do this for a number of reasons.
Some are competitive gamers who live for the thrill of the tournament and focus on a single game system so that they can dedicate all of their time to mastering its every nuance and edge case to ensure that they squeeze every last possible advantage out of their tabletop play.
Some monogamers have very limited time for social play and so focus on playing the game they know they can play with little notice. They are a little like the competitive gamer in that they focus on mastering the one game, but because they are time-poor this is largely so they can actually play competently, rather than so they can crush all before them.
Other monogamers are, as it were, accidental monogamers. They only play one game because that’s literally the only game that they know exists. These used to be very common but the Internet is making them very much an endangered species - and that’s probably for the best.
Once rare, but now increasingly common, though, are the multigamers. These are wargamers who play a range of different games. They usually have a single “main” game that they focus on, but this is likely to change often, depending on what their main circle is playing at any one time. And multigamers, too, have their varieties but I’ll focus on the two main ones.
Multigamer leaders are the folks who are early adopters of any interesting new system. They are the ones who will always buy at least two factions of any game that attracts them so they can introduce it to other people in their circle. They are often the ones running demo games, getting tournaments started or teaching others how to play.
Multigamer followers, meanwhile, are the folks who look around to see what their circle is into at any given moment and then buy into that.
Multigamer leaders are great for getting a new game moving. They are often the first to throw money at an emerging new system or range and the first to introduce it to a group. But they are also frequently the first to move on to something new. They are great for a new product, helping to get it off the ground and giving it valuable air time, but they will rarely hang around in a product long enough to contribute to its longer-term viability.
Multigamer followers, meanwhile, are slower in the adoption cycle. But great for sustaining longer-term viability as they’ll often stick with a game long after the leaders have moved on to the new hotness.
For the indy publisher - whether you’re a tiny blip like Precinct Omega or a significant weight, like Osprey Games - multigamers are our core market. But what we yearn for is the sweet, sweet shift to the monogamer market.
Monogamers tend to focus around a handful of games. Warhammer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar are the main ones, with the Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game being another from the Games Workshop stable. Some monogames enjoy their status through simple longevity, with De Bellis Antiquitatis being a great example. If you include all of its versions and varieties under the single DBA roof, a lot of historical wargamers are monogamers. And other games that have made the breakthrough include Kings of War, Infinity, Malifaux and Warmachine.
Now, a lot - it might even be fair to say most - of the people playing what I’ve called “monogames” aren’t monogamers. They are multigamers. But these games enjoy enough monogamer enthusiasts, for whatever reason, to be considered to have “broken through”. For all that Warmachine, for example, has lost its momentum, as long as they are still releasing new products they will continue to enjoy the support of a hardcore of monogamers.
But monogamers aren’t mindless zombies. If a game loses enough market share, stops growing or - worse - starts growing in an unconstructive direction, monogamers will shift to something else. But the shift of a monogamer is very different to that of a multigamer.
Multigamers who shift to something new will put away the minis for the old game, safe on a shelf, until that game comes around again or - my preferred approach - will simply switch from playing one game to playing another with exactly the same minis.
Monogamers tend to take more of a slash and burn position. When it’s time to move on, they will sell or bin everything associated with the game they are leaving and will start afresh with the new game of choice. No stone will be left standing.
Consequently, multigamers shifting systems has very little impact on the overall community of players. But when monogamers shift, they tend to do so visibly, which leads to others doing the same, which can roll up to a critical mass that can leave a game suddenly bereft of supporters.
Now, why do I say all of this in the context of Stargrave’s release? Well, Stargrave was the first Osprey Game to attract a community of monogamers. It’s not huge. Most players are definitely multigamers. But its popularity, quality and support was such that it made that break and that was a big deal. And I suspect that, with sci-fi wargaming generally having a wider following than fantasy, Stargrave will quickly gain a monogamer following of its own.
This is great news for Osprey. It will build interest in their products and establish a decent new revenue stream both from sales of the new book but also licensing fees from North Star and from anyone else interested in the IP and, I suspect, the Grave properties are probably just starting to hit that cusp at which they may have a wider appeal. I can see there being a market for both products that directly support the game, such as army-building apps, counters and terrain (which already exist for Frostgrave) and for products that use the IP as a marketing ploy, such as digital games, novels and comics.
But is it great news for independent publishers?
On the one hand, every new game that reaches the monogame level of appeal is a new tool to drag monogamers into multigaming. And independent publishers rely almost exclusively on multigamers to thrive. I think I can count the number of Zero Dark monogamers on the square root of minus one. So any time a monogamer looks up from their rulebook to notice that there are other games that they might enjoy, this is a boon to independent publishers.
But, on the other hand, a new, popular thing in sci-fi skirmish is, at least in the short term, very bad for independent publishers of sci-fi skirmish games. Zero Dark will, unquestionably, lose potential sales to Stargrave, as will games like Star Breach, Planet 28 and Five Parsecs From Home. Oddly, so will Osprey, but they don’t care. Games like Rogue Stars and Scrappers already exist in their games range, but if their sales are anything like Horizon Wars (and I know that they are) then they will be drifting inexorably towards zero by now, which means that Stargrave will be generating new sales, not predating sales from other games in their range.
If anything, bringing new players to the Osprey Games range will actually prompt more sales of their other sci-fi products and will certainly bump sales of Frostgrave for multigamers who like Stargrave and fancy giving the fantasy version a try.
Stargrave, not released for another two months, is already a lead weight on sales for independent publishers. So, what does that mean for Precinct Omega?
In short, that’s life. Generally, I’ve not had to see other indy sci-fi skirmish games as “competition” for Zero Dark. GW games and Infinity are so much bigger that Zero Dark as to be irrelevant, and games like Star Breach, Reality’s Edge and Five Parsecs are, in many ways, actually complementing products. The people who play one of these are more likely to play one or more of the others as well. They attract the natural multigamer. In fact, we have all been pretty happy to promote each other’s products and to support and encourage each other as independent publishers.
Secretly, of course, we all think our game is the best. And even more secretly, we all fear that, maybe, it isn’t. But ultimately it’s easy enough to look at our products on Wargame Vault and see that “People who bought Horizon Wars: Zero Dark also bought…” and realize that it’s not a competition but a collaborative struggle.
Stargrave, though, is different. Zero Dark isn’t competition for Stargrave, but Stargrave is competition for Zero Dark. This is because a sale of Zero Dark isn’t going to stop that customer from buying Stargrave, but a sale of Stargrave might well stop a customer from buying Zero Dark and, believe me, I treasure each and every sale I make like the return of a lost puppy.
Consequently, I need a strategy to respond to a release like this and, fortunately, I have one.
First, that strategy can’t be about trying to extract sales from Stargrave. In our market, if GW is the superheavyweight World Champion, Osprey is a lightweight professional, but Precinct Omega is an amateur flyweight limbering up for their first professional bout. Plus, I still have a lot of affection for Osprey Games. I think, overall, they are a positive force in the market. And, like I said, Joe’s a top guy. So the last thing I want is to diminish Stargrave’s success. Rather, what I need to be doing is using Stargrave as a vehicle to raise awareness of Zero Dark and hope to draw in more multigamers who might like Stargrave, but who also add Zero Dark to their basket in the process.
If I were starting from now, I would want to do two main things.
First, I would want to make sure that, to an extent, I beat Stargrave to the punch by making sure I had a playable product available to buy before Stargrave drops. This would give me a couple of months of marketing I can do ahead of that release before getting drowned out by Stargrave.
Second, I would want to be releasing, as Stargrave’s release ramps up, a new product that is compatible with Stargrave but which also sign-posts customers to Zero Dark.
By happy chance, I have already got both of these in place.
As you listen to this, I am putting the final touches to the Operation Nemesis digital release. And, one month later, we should be putting the print edition into the market. This is the playable product that I can get behind, riding on the coat-tails of a swell of Stargrave-inspired interest in sci-fi skirmish wargames. As rumours leak of what Stargrave will look like and how it will play, some people are going to decide that it’s not for them, but their interest will have been piqued enough that a different game in the same vein might be what they want. Stargrave is very much a science fantasy setting, from what I’ve heard of it. It’s much closer to Core Space than Zero Dark, which remains a hard SF, military setting. So I could easily draw in people who were hoping Stargrave might be less fantastical.
Plus, as Stargrave releases, I will be busy overseeing the casting of my first Zero Dark miniatures. And as Stargrave will be a 28mm miniatures-agnostic system, they will be perfect for Stargrave fans, so I can hope to pick up a bunch of Kickstarter backers off Stargrave whilst at the same time being able to sign-post backers, hard, at Zero Dark.
This is, I hasten to add, pure happenstance. But it’s doubly fortunate because I nearly decided to run a different Kickstarter campaign for a deck of Zero Dark-themed playing cards, as Zero Dark makes heavy use of a “Control Deck”. Stargrave has no use for a deck of playing cards, so I have definitely lucked out on that decision. The playing cards, by the way, will still come. But probably not for another year or so.
And that is, of course, the nature of business, sometimes. Strategy and planning are great. I talk about them a lot because they’re important to the success of any business, but of small businesses especially. But sometimes it’s just down to luck.
However, what makes the difference is whether, when something unexpected comes along that looks like bad luck, you can pivot to find within it those things that are going to be good for your business and build on those to pull strength out of a potential threat.
Now, this has been a shorter episode than usual, so I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about where I’m planning on going with this in the future.
This is the twenty-fifth episode and, because I missed one week to go on holiday earlier in the year, that means I’ve now been doing this for half a year. And if there’s one thing that does frustrate me it’s that there isn’t always enough new stuff happening in our niche industry to make for decent news that prompts an interesting discussion every week.
So I’m going to start doing news only every other week which, hopefully, will mean that there will always be something substantial to report on. But, worry not, because there will still be a podcast every week. But, rather than doing news, I’m going to alternate with discussion about game design on a more academic level.
As I’ve been getting more and more into game design, so I’ve begun to read about the topic more. I’ve been supporting Jake Thornton’s Game Design Mastery Patreon, which I heartily recommend. I’ve also been listening to podcasts about game design and reading some related books. Now, these generally focus on digital games, but there’s a huge amount within them that directly points back to tabletop and wargames design. Now you may reasonably ask “but Robey, haven’t you been designing games for several years, now? Why are you only just doing this?”
But Robey, haven’t you been designing games for several years, now? Why are you only just doing this?
Well, Bernard, that’s the nature of things, sometimes. You dive into something on the strength of passion and faith in your own natural talent, making things up from scratch only to discover that you don’t need to do that: there are already smart people out there who’ve studied these things far more closely than you’ll ever have the time to do. And it’s been a great exercise in self-examination as I’ve found some things that I’ve absolutely nailed without needing to be told and other things that… I certainly would have done differently if I’d been better informed.
So I’m going to take inspiration -
Don’t you mean “shamelessly rip off”?
- take inspiration from these sources to look at some subjects that I’m dealing with or have dealt with, both as a designer and as a publisher. Thank you, Bernard.
So we’ll be starting this series next week, taking a look at Zero Dark: Operation Nemesis in some detail, to celebrate the fact that - God willing - it will have been released by then! And, as a result, I’ll be changing the name of the podcast. I’ve not decided what it’ll change to, but if you’ve got suggestions, feel free to throw them my way.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got to say so Bernard and I will speak to you again next week.