This little rant requires some heavy backstory. I couldn’t hold my peace on this, and if I’m going to write about it then I’ll do it properly.
Last month I participated in a convention tournament for Warhammer Fantasy Battle, the longstanding mass combat game published by Games Workshop, the market leader in toy soldier games for many years. It’s a storied game with 30+ years of history behind it which has evolved and changed through 8 editions. (The tournament I played in used the most recent, 8th edition rule set.) If you are any kind of wargamer and haven’t been under a rock for the last six months, you will have heard that 8th edition is also the last edition of the game, which GW have officially ceased supporting in favor of a new fantasy battle system called “Age of Sigmar”. This announcement has been met with some concern by the player base.
I started playing Warhammer back in the early 90’s, during 5th edition. GW had just opened one of their retail stores three blocks from my apartment. I walked in, had a demo game, and was instantly hooked.
The models were undeniably cool. The store staff was friendly and encouraging. They had “veterans night” every Tuesday evening where anyone could show up with a small army of painted figures and have game. Within a month, I was a regular and I had a pool of generally cool people to play with. I started collecting and painting two armies (Bretonnian Knights and Orcs) and was generally having fun. I read online about people hacking up their models to make cool conversions, developing enormous scenario-driven campaigns, and participating competitively in the Grand Tournaments, and it felt exciting and fresh.
The game wasn’t perfect. The magic system was wildly unpredictable, the list of upgrades for troops and heroes was byzantine, and the various playable factions in the game were not well balanced. The focus tended to be on mighty heroes and big monsters who could take on hordes of troops by themselves, which made for weird games sometimes. However, I had never played historical wargames at that point. My experience was with D&D and similar games, so even though I felt the system was a little “off” somehow, I accepted it as normal and kept playing. I did keep hearing rumors that the game was about to change in a big way, though.
When the game’s 6th edition hit, those rumors proved true. Sixth edition Warhammer was a real wargame: the focus was on regular troops, with the fantastical elements of heroes, monsters, and magic lending support and flavor. All of the armies were “rebooted” at a more manageable power level. The fictional background and the graphic design of the game got an overhaul as well, and the prevailing tone of the game was more grounded and less loopy. Even the models began transitioning to a more understated, gritty sword & sorcery style and leaving behind the older, more cartoonish elements. This was the point where I went from being an enthusiast to being a fanatic.
I loved this new iteration of the game. It allowed for a much grander scope, with hundreds of model troops on the table instead of dozens. Every battle was a Cecil B. DeMille epic in miniature. I began collecting two more armies, buying and painting models as fast as I could manage. I attempted unique conversions on my command models, and built ambitious terrain pieces for my tabletop battlefields. I had just moved to the east coast as well, meaning that I could attend GW’s International Grand Tournament in Baltimore. Warhammer became a big part of my life for a decade.
When the 8th edition of the game rolled around, I was still quite happy and willing to buy in. The rules changed quite a bit in that edition, but I still thought that the basic game was very solid and a lot of fun, although it did reintroduce more randomness and a little bit of the old crazyness from 5th edition. As the new army factions were updated, however, I began to have doubts. Both the design of the rules and the artwork were cycling back around to that earlier era: more heroes, more monsters, more High Fantasy coming back into the mix, and the games began to get weird again. The armies full of troops I had built in 6th and 7th edition were less competitive and didn’t fit in the new paradigm. I played less often, bought less, started exploring historical wargames (Napoleonics, Colonial British, WWII) and got my fantasy fix from playing Pathfinder and other RPGs. Warhammer wasn’t really my game anymore.
I wasn’t the only one drifting away. The recession wasn’t kind to expensive hobbies like wargaming, and fewer people were willing to buy into a game that required you to purchase and paint huge numbers of models. GW also began a series of changes to their business which have been much debated in the hobby community: They closed many of their stores, and those that remained had almost no staff. They discontinued verteran’s nights. They shut down the official Grand Tournaments. They discontinued their ranges of metal models in favor of a disastrously bad experiment in resin casting. They also began raising the prices on all of their models at an alarming rate. While their other flagship game (Warhammer 40K, a wildly successful dark sci-fi wargame for the few of you who may be unfamiliar) still sold well, no one was surprised to hear of declining sales for Warhammer Fantasy.
So GW ultimately decided it was time to shut the game down, re-tool, and release a new game in it’s place. Sad for me, but business is business. There was just one problem:
They didn’t tell anyone what they were planning.
Instead, with very little preamble they released a series of hugely expensive (and enormous) books and models under the moniker “Warhammer: End Times”. The new books contained even crazier rules and more powerful heroes and monsters for the game, along with new background material heralding the end of the fantasy world they had spent 30 years creating. It was all very epic, but many players were nonplussed. Was this a temporary battle campaign, as had happened occasionally in the past? Was this the end of 8th edition, getting ready to pave the way for 9th? There were many questions, but no answers were forthcoming, other than “There will be a release in July”. The internet rumor mill kicked into high gear. Disturbing whispers began to surface that the game was going away – but nobody could believe it.
I’m going to cut in here with a little aside about another gaming company: Paizo Publishing.
When Wizards of the Coast announced that they were “rebooting” Dungeons & Dragons (another game I had been plying for most of my life) as part of it’s 4th edition, Paizo was just a publisher of support material for the previous edition of the game. After the reboot was complete, they would no longer have a game to support. The new edition was wildly different than what had gone before, both in terms of rules as well as the changes to the background material. To me, it hardly felt like the old game at all. Again, I was not alone.
Paizo made the bold move of deciding to publish and support a more traditional version of the game based on the previous edition, courting the people who were dissatisfied with the new system. They did a redesign on the rules, released it under the name Pathfinder, and brought it to market with as much publicity as they could muster. They were a small underdog company getting ready to compete with a huge corporation (WOTC had been bought out by Hasbro at this point) but they had a few things going for them:
First, they were staffed by people who loved the game itself, who played it, and who had been working in the industry supporting it for some time. They weren’t just designers, writers, artist, publishers, etc: they were people inside the hobby who were still wildly passionate about it – right up to and including the company CEO Lisa Stevens.
Second, they made sure that they were connected to the gaming community. They were (and are) incredibly transparent in terms of what projects they are developing. Their release schedule for the upcoming year continues to be more or less a matter of public record. They did (and do) open playtesting of most of their major products. Finally, they have maintained a public online forum for their player base, which every employee is mandated to participate in so that they know what their customers are thinking.
On top of all of this, today they even sponsor a yearly convention for their most devoted players at which almost the entire organization (again, from the CEO right down to the warehousing staff) plays, mingles, and talks to the people who use their products.
Eight years later, their product now outsells original Dungeons and Dragons, and they are the market leader for fantasy RPGs.
I bring this up because today, as GW prepares to abandon one of their flagship products so they can release something new, there is another small underdog company out there which seems to have studied the Paizo playbook. I am speaking of Mantic Games.
Since the release of 8th edition, Mantic has slowly but steadily been building their own game with their own miniatures in a mold familiar to anyone who played 6th edition Warhammer. The 2nd edition of their Kings of War ruleset drops this month.
They have an active online community, and the company officers have made sure that Mantic as a company is communicative and open. They announce their releases well in advance, and have made ample use of crowdfunding to support their enterprise. On top of that, their company officers are wargamers themselves. Though Mantic has been flying under the radar for a while, ever since the demise of Warhammer was announced, word has been getting around. I made it a point to pick up their new book at Gen Con.
Like the man says: history may not always repeat itself, but it does occasionally rhyme. I’m seeing alot of familiar signposts on the road these two companies are walking. Time will tell if it’s all going where I think it is.