In this episode, I do a round-up of news from 2020, looking at Asmodee Games's handling of Fantasy Flight, new edition releases of flagship games from GW and Corvus Belli, the end of a flagship game at Steamforged Games, big money still struggling to make an impact at Privateer Press and Para Bellum, and more besides.
This episode is dedicated to the memory of Walt Langhan and all our fellow wargamers who didn't make it to the end of 2020.
The news over the last two weeks has basically been 99% Christmas sales, so I’m not going to dwell on it. But, as 2020 draws to a juddering halt, I thought it would be good to dedicate the last episode of the year to a review of the significant events of 2020 and why I think they are important - or possibly less important than they might seem.
The year started badly for FFG, with layoffs resulting in the closure of both Fantasy Flight Interactive and their RPG development team. The former is particularly interesting in the light of my recent look at the future of tabletop and digital hybridization, but my conversation two weeks ago with Tomas Rawlings of Auroch Digital makes me think that this is a field that will grow best in the hands of companies dedicated to it. GW has entirely outsourced the development of digital products, and would expect them to do largely the same with any emerging hybrids. Whether FFG’s parent, Asmodee Games, thinks the same, we’ll see in due course.
The binning of their RPG team is harder to interpret. Almost twelve months later and the future of the FFG RPG properties remains unclear, but with no new material published since March, it feels like the Star Wars RPG, Legend of Five Rings RPG and Gensys system have all been abandoned with no plans to outsource development to freelancers or to sub-licence future development to another company.
And, of course, in November, Asmodee announced the shift of development of the Star Wars miniatures games away from FFG to Atomic Mass Games - the subsidiary set up to develop the Marvel Crisis Protocol miniatures game, resulting in yet more layoffs at FFG.
Speculation that Asmodee were preparing for a sale or looking to consolidate their many developer brands seems to have been premature, but it certainly feels like they are seeking to ensure that each of their brands has a clear and identifiable “style” of product, with FFG being their home for LCGs and the more complex, content-driven style of board game. Whether further rationalisation is on the cards for 2021 remains to be seen.
However, with the impact of COVID-19 on a massive resurgence of interest in roleplay games playable over group video chat, Asmodee may have shot themselves in the foot to ditch roleplay games entirely, as they seem to have done.
And speaking of COVID-19, it’s perhaps unsurprising that significant industry releases were fairly thin on the ground for most of 2020, but there were a couple of important ones:
Warhammer 40,000 9th Edition launched on schedule in July as GW’s major release for the year, and Infinity 4th Edition came from Corvus Belli in October. But it’s hard to know whether either of these constitute significant events for the industry as a whole. GW, of course, is locked into a cycle of perpetual new editions on a schedule that seems more linked to a desire to sustain share prices than it is related to delivering innovative content or fine-tuning an established mechanical system. That’s not to say, of course, that their design team doesn’t use new editions as an opportunity to address historical issues or to respond to player feedback. But it’s hard not to see new editions of Warhammer 40,000 as a classic example of change for change’s sake.
Infinity’s 4th Edition can’t be said to suffer from this to anything like the same extent as 40k, and there’s no question that the latest edition was an attempt by Corvus Belli to streamline a game that was becoming increasingly cumbersome and inaccessible for new players. But one has to ask whether, despite this positive step forward, CB is also being drawn into an inescapable cycle of new editions as a tool to draw in new players and drive new sales.
I can’t overlook the fallen demigod of tabletop wargames, Privateer Press, in this round-up, because Warcaster: Neo-Mechanika, their sci-fi take on their own Warmachine property, went to Kickstarter in February, funding at over $400k. Then they went back to KS in October with the first expansion set for the game, pulling in another $200k. The game and products have gone to retail and are sparingly available in the UK, but prices seem steep and I’ve not seen it make an impact as yet.
However, talking about indeterminate impacts, I should also mention Para Bellum Wargames and the Conquest range - no, I can’t bear to keep calling it CLAK or to say its full name every time. Conquest will do.
Now, I’ve been moderately scathing about their marketing strategy, but it does seem to be paying off. There is some evidence that their aesthetics, setting and design are winning adherents in the European and US markets and they finished the year the the release of a more accessible and affordable gateway to the Conquest range in the skirmish game, First Blood. 2021 is going to be a make or break year for Conquest and Para Bellum. Whether they sink or swim, it will say important things about business strategy for the tabletop wargames market.
August, of course, saw the arguably premature termination of Guild Ball by Steamforged Games. As far the decision goes, you can look back at past episodes to hear my analysis, but one thing that does seem to have been significant is that GCT Studios and Bushido has been the principal beneficiary, winning hundreds of new enthusiasts looking for another competitive skirmish fantasy game with the same commitment to tight, consistent rules and a distinctive aesthetic. Bushido has been bobbing along without ever really breaking through for a number of years, but it could be that 2021 is the year that GCT Studios starts to really make an impact in the Second Division.
The other company fighting to sustain its place in the cut-throat tier of companies that aren't Games Workshop but want to be is Warcradle Studios, the wholly-owned development subsidiary of tabletop retail ogre, Wayland Games. I say “ogre”, by the way, not as a value judgement but on the basis that they aren’t large enough to be worth calling a “giant”, but they’re still pretty big.
Warcradle announced the new starter set for Dystopian Wars just before Christmas and there’s no question that people are pretty excited about a return to the tabletop for the steampunk naval warfare game - especially given that the new kits include plastic sprues.
Between their acquisition of Wild West Exodus and the development of their own Mythos skirmish game, Warcradle is seeking to out-compete Wyrd Games for the creation of high-end plastic miniatures kits and Dystopian Wars was a strong performer before financial over-commitment and… strange approach to marketing by its original owner, Spartan Games, led to that company’s demise. Warcradle has been struggling to make a significant impact with either WWX or Mythos, but they are banking on Dystopian Wars working to drag their other ranges up to a more prominent spot in the market.
Finally, I should mention that 2020 has been the year for solo miniatures games, with every company and its dog seeking to rush out a solo rules-set for their games… except Games Workshop, obviously. Independent designers with pre-existing solo games, like Planet28, Hardwired, Five Parsecs and, of course, Zero Dark, have reaped the benefit and, with many countries still enforcing various levels of social distancing, we can expect this trend to continue for the near future at least. Whether solo miniatures gaming will, post-COVID become a more respectable passtime remains to be seen.
As mentioned, this has been a good year for games with a solo play mode. But as I look across the year’s events and releases and try to identify the ones that are truly significant to the industry, I’m very conscious that there are almost certainly things that have happened this year that, whilst I’ve probably noticed them, are going to turn out to have had a significance no one could have anticipated.
There have been, as ever, umpteen new companies started, new products released, new games teased, and even new technologies unleashed. I’d like to believe that the release of Horizon Wars: Zero Dark in March 2020 was significant. It was Precinct Omega’s first independently-published game - or, at least, the first one my company released on its own whilst having a sensible strategy and plan to drive sales - and I hope it will continue to grow in popularity over the next twelve months as I grow the product line in new directions.
But it would be unspeakably arrogant of me to pretend that Zero Dark’s significance, if it exists, can already be determined. So, likewise, I have to be aware that Precinct Omega is operating right down at the 4th Division level - barely even playing in what might be considered a professional league when it comes to tabletop game designers. And the next break-through hit might already be out there ready to kick my sales to kingdom come.
A review of the last twelve months is a stark reminder to a small business owner that they are operating in a volatile and complicated market with relatively little professional analysis. That lack is one of the reasons, after all, that I took this podcast in the direction that it gradually found - to have a voice that, rather than gushing over the latest cool thing, tries to take a measured and objective look at the wider significance of the new hotness.
And so, to the two big releases of the year - 40k 9th and Infinity 4th. I spoke before about how 40k is basically locked by GW’s business model into a perpetual cycle of cosmetic reinvention and that Infinity, whilst not there yet, was definitely showing signs of being on the way.
So inevitably, as a designer and publisher, I have to ask myself whether I see a similar fate awaiting the Horizon Wars games and the only answer I can give is “I hope not”.
That’s not to say that I won’t publish new editions of my games. I definitely will do that, in due course. As the games mature and the community grows, so the designs will need to respond to the feedback of players. Also, as my company’s wherewithal - and my skills as a layout editor - increase, I’ll want to revisit old designs and give them an aesthetic update. But I feel like a set of tabletop rules should reach a point at which they’re basically… fine. So much as an author of a more conventional book might see it reprinted in a new edition with a new cover, a foreword from some academic or historical notations, but the book itself is unchanged, I’d hope that, within two or three editions, the rules for any Precinct Omega game become, as it were, fixed in place so that two players can share a game, whether one has the third edition or the sixth, with the only differences being new photos and new art and, maybe, some new fiction between editions.
The other question is whether I see Precinct Omega ever seeking to “break through” into that second tier and the answer to that is “yes, absolutely”. My long-term business plans aren’t something I plan to broadcast to the world, but I don’t plan for Precinct Omega to only ever be me, beavering away on my own. So stick around and see what comes next.
Finally, this episode of the Precinct Omega Podcast is dedicated to the memory of Walt Langhans. I never met Walt in person, but he was the founder, owner and operator of Impudent Mortal Designs. And whilst Impudent Mortal was only one of dozens of small laser-cut scenery makers around the world, Walt stood out from the crowd for his visionary talent, his commitment to the community and an endless stream of hilarious wargaming memes that brightened many a social media stream.
Walt died suddenly in January last year, with no illness or warning. He was only five years older than me, in good shape and ambitious for the future of his business.
His passing is a reminder to us to treasure every moment, every roll of the dice, every opponent across the table.
Normally, when I finish an episode, I roll straight into the music. This week, there will be a moment to remember Walt and everyone who didn’t make it to the end of 2020 with us.
I’ll speak to you again next week.