Jon Compton, long time professional wargame practitioner and owner of the small hobby wargame company Canvas Temple Publishing (CTP or “Old Codgers Trying to Retire!”) passed along some interesting comments in an update to his Kickstarter campaign for Imperial Campaigns Series 1: The Boer War:
In the meantime I’ve been working on CTP’s next Kickstarter project, but I admit I’ve been taking my time with it as I’ve been reconsidering printing on future games. It’s still very challenging finding a quality printer who will run the small quantities that CTP does. And while I’ve always been happy with the quality of the current printer (which is the only printer I’ve used I can say that about), these longer and longer time frames are obviously problematic. So although I’ve got two or three games somewhere in the pipeline, any future Kickstarter I run I’m going to have to have a better solution if there is one to be found. I’ve reached out to some friends at other publishers and frankly they report having similar problems for similar reasons. So although I’m not alone with this problem, I’m also not alone in seeking a solution, and am somewhat disheartened that no one seems to have one on offer. Even worse is that no one seems to be getting any benefit from the strong dollar either. The problem with being small and having print runs in the hundreds is that CTP has no market power; a high-quality printer is practically doing me a favor printing only 500 copies of something at the specifications I demand. So as aggravating as these long delays are, it may be something we have to live with if I want to keep doing this.“Word From the Printer (An Actual Update This Time)”, Oct 10, 2022
In a similar way to how many grognards will always debate the question of “What is a wargame” so too will we endlessly debate “Is wargaming a dying hobby?” I have personally participated in this debate as far back as “The Great Magic the Gathering Extinction Event” in the mid-1990s when MtG threatened to shutter most commercial hobby wargame publishers.
I am not a believer that we are on the verge of the “death” of commercial hobby wargaming, but I do think we are at—or nearing—an inflection point. From my perspective as a game consumer, I perceive that inflection is driven by two dynamics; publishing costs and gamer motivation.
The publishing cost part is maybe easier to understand. Quite simply, games are getting more expensive to publish. Part of this cost increase is driven by printing costs, but it is also related to consumer demand. The consumer demand is not only for high-quality components, but also an increasingly “complex” set of components. Our hobby has come a long way in how a game is presented. My copy of Tactics II (1973 edition) or Battle of the Bulge (2nd Edition, 1975) or even Victory in the Pacific (2nd Edition, 1981) are resplendent with horrible colored maps, simple counters, and rule books that look like they were produced on an old-even-for-their-day mimeograph machine. Compare that to the latest GMT Games titles! Not only is it component quality but other factors like colorblind-friendly components add to the “cost” of publication. Various pre-order schemes like the GMT Games P500 or Kickstarter or alternate publishing models such as that used by Hollandspiele or White Dog Games and Blue Panther try to reduce publishing risks and costs, but each has its inherent limitations. None are the optimal answer.
The second dynamic that is driving commercial hobby wargames towards an inflection point is gamer motivation. I fully acknowledge that the classic “grognard” wargamer like myself is both literally and figuratively dying. Rising to replace/displace the classic grognards are a new generation of wargamer that has not only different motivations but a seemingly more open approach to “what’s a wargame.”
Classic wargamers often play to study history. However, I increasingly see more gamers who simply want to “play” rather than “study” wargames. While the results of surveys like the 2021 Great Wargaming Survey from Wargames Soldier & Strategy magazine are imperfect, they offer some supporting evidence. When asked which wargaming activities represented the best part of the hobby, the top answer was “Playing the game.” The motivation to play over study in turn drives component costs (and publishing costs in turn) as players seek to be “entertained” by a game. For instance, I love Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right designed by Cole Wehrle from Leder Games but don’t for a moment believe that the game would be as successful as it is without the incredible artwork of Kyle Ferrin and the cute wood bits.
Another aspect of gamer motivation that is a major driver of change in commercial hobby wargaming is the incredible diversity of game mechanisms. While classic wargames are often associated with “hex & counter” games, the truth is that area or point-to-point maps and tokens or blocks or tiny figures/minis on a map (board?) have long been a part of the hobby. What I see as changing today is the widespread application/adoption of many different game mechanisms far beyond hex movement of cardboard counters and the (very classic? very staid?) Combat Results Table (CRT) in wargame design. I’m not just talking about the emergence of Card-Driven Games (CDGs), but also the use of game mechanisms not usually associated with wargaming. For instance, I recently played a small wargame that explores missile nonproliferation that is built around the roll & write game mechanism. Another one is an asymmetric information game, and a third is a variable pathways game. Not a single one of them uses hexes, all have bits instead of just counters, and each uses a “non-standard” game mechanism to deliver an enjoyable game.
Let me be clear here—an inflection point is not (necessarily) a bad thing. I view inflection points as opportunities. So what is the opportunity at hand? Quite simply, the opportunity we are being presented is to determine the future trajectory of our wargame hobby. Alas, as Jon Compton points out, the smaller wargame publishers—”micro-game publisher” if you will—are being threatened with fading away not because they can’t design a game, but because they are severely challenged to even get that game to print.
This is the point where I will invariably hear mentions of Vassal or Tabletop Simulator or other digital game implementations. While I agree that digital boardgames are a wave of the future (present?), I also believe that the tangible aspect of wargames remains a powerful draw. No digital platform can replicate the feel of a pair of dice in your hands, the blow “for luck” into your fist, and the clatter of the dice as they roll across the table.
While I can’t do much for micro-publishers like Jon Compton and Canvas Temple Publishing beyond buying their games when I can, I can hold hope and express my support that they find a solution to their—and by extension ours—publishing woes. While I hope that Jon Compton’s hinted at worst fears are unfounded, I am concerned about the potential death of wargaming. I have played wargames on the table for over 40 years now and I certainly don’t want to stop!
Feature image courtesy CTP