I've noticed, outside the indie Wargame Vault scene, this is a majority of Kickstarters etc.
So what's a boutique war-game?
I define these as having
(a) primarily "named" heroes or characters
(b) lots of special rules
(c) stat cards that come in the model box
(d) expensive models (i.e. $8+ per 28mm model)
(e) a very shiny rulebook, comprehensive fluff
Examples - Malifaux, Bushido.
Too many heroes
I find the proliferation of named characters jarring. First of all, I feel railroaded to use their fluff.
The heroic characters tend to have their own unique profiles and special abilities.
Secondly, whilst it is possible but unlikely to have intra-faction "civil war", it feels odd to have two "Lady Justices" facing each other across the tabletop. Thirdly, it is a little odd to fight the same model you killed off last week. "Oh, Lady Justice again? Didn't she die last week to the Ortegas? And the week before that to the Neverborn?" Even worse, many times even the minions/grunts are unique and have unique names and stats.
Having a space marine captain generic profile allows me to build the character, and create my own hero, with his own backstory. Having "Brother Captain Zerxes" with his own page of fluff and special rules... ..forces me to play him as written.
The models are invariably tied to stat cards i.e. you must buy their models with stat card in box to play the game. Whilst this is a sound business move, in many cases I would have bought the models anyway. I.e Bushido have great models which can stand alone, and I'd happily add them to my samurai collection, but I dislike paying a $5+ premium because a card is included in the pack. If your models are good enough, I'll buy them - not only for your game but for other systems. If they're priced reasonably, and look great, I won't proxy them. Models should stand on their own merits - you shouldn't need to blackmail people into buying them.
In addition, when Bushido was first released the selection of models was very limited, exacerbating the "immortal clone heroes" issue from the first paragraph. If I could have "bulked" out war bands with Perry samurai, I would have bought into their system, but as it was I avoided the game altogether.
These have their place to add flavour, but most boutique games have them in huge quantities. When even minions have 3-4 special abilities "aka rules exceptions" it means most of the time you are acting outside the normal rules in any given moment of a turn. This means memorising special abilities can be a more important skill than good generalship.
Privateer Press vs Games Workshop
I know it's cool to hate on Games Workshop (and it's not like they don't richly merit most of the abuse) but I wonder why PP gets a free pass all the time?
Their rules are "tighter" it's true, though I suspect the vaunted balance between factions is more due to everyone having such OP special feats and powers - i.e. it's so unbalanced it creates a kind of balance. When you have a 10 kiloton nuke and I have a 15 kiloton nuke - the effect on the city is the similar, even though our bombs technically aren't 'balanced.'
WM/Hordes is widely regarded as "cheaper" to get into than 40K/WFB, but that's simply because of the lower model count. Whilst this is true, and a valid point in the favour of WM, this is simply a factor of game design, rather than benevolent business practice by PP. Their price per model is every bit as high (in many cases higher). Lowering the bar to entry is simply a sound business practice (and one GW is mimicking with Age of Sigmar). The price per model is every bit as high (in many cases higher) - and this is in spite the insane markup GW does in Australia (often between a 50%-100% price hike compared to UK/USA, above and beyond currency differences).
The shift from metal to plastic by PP certainly hasn't seen prices go down. Most of the new infantry units are $55-$75 - which is ~$8 for a single "grunt" model. The plastic warjacks which replaced the hefty 2-pound metal ones retail for the same price.
I've also noticed their war casters - which used to be, at $10, a cheap way to completely change your armies tactics and strategy - have increased in price to $15-$30. Sometimes they are bigger than the old ones, but not always. I think this is copying GW's approach that...
When a unit's in-game value dictates $$$ Value
Now, I appreciate limited production minis may cost more (i.e. you may sell lots of generic space marines from a mold, but not as many terminator chaplains.) However this does not warrant a 3x price rise - especially given the relative size of the company. It's not like they're only going to sell 100 war caster units - casters are a mandatory unit for each army of that faction, so you're guaranteed selling "x" amount.
More to the point, PP quite happily sells old war casters for $10 (and I'm sure they're making a profit) alongside identically sized newer ones for $15-18. Other companies (like Infinity) sell single minis for $11-$12 and I'm sure they have specific minis that sell a lot less than mandatory Warmachine war casters. Heck, the beautiful Empress moderns retail for about $3.50 each. I bet they operate on an even smaller scale/return. So I don't think the "limited production costs" argument holds water.
Basically, this seems to copy the GW approach that the more powerful the unit, the more it costs in in real life $$$ - regardless of actual size/materials used/production cost. Like the unit of 5 elite ninja assassin cyborgs selling for $70, compared to 10 line grunts selling for $30... despite the latter requiring more materials etc.
Pay to Win
I'm thinking more PC games, but this kinda flows from the topic above - i.e small elite/specialist units which are disproportionately priced.
Let's call it "Pay to gain Advantage" instead because deliberately? obtuse people often say "I use overpowered units and I lose all the time" I'm not joking, by the way - this is very common in online game forums: see: logical fallacy, anecdotal
So how can we pay to gain advantage? Basically, anytime something that impacts gameplay is behind a "pay wall" - where you have to pay extra money to access it - it is pay to win.
For example, in Mechwarrior Online, new mechs are released for $$$ for up to six months before people can "unlock" them ingame. Proponents of this call it "pay to not wait." No, they are paying for an advantage. (In this specific example, often mechs are released quite powerful, then are nerfed around the time the general populace gets them, but it's not always this blatant.)
The "pay to gain advantage" item does not even need to be more powerful. For example, the Locust mech in MW:O is one of the weakest mechs in the game. A "coffin on legs" is a common descriptor. However, it is one of my top-scoring mechs as it gels with my playstyle. Locking it behind a paywall would disadvantage me, and simultaneously advantage people who, like me, also "gel" with the mech but paid for "early access." Or paid for an advantage. Furthermore, they then have 6 months to practice with the mech (and unlock any special bonuses/abilities)
However, in a wargame, you are often paying for the abilities that unit has. I.e. the 5 ninja cyborg unit for $70. Now if that has a "points cost" you may claim this balances out in gameplay against the 10 grunts which cost only $30. However, as I pointed out in the "points systems are impossible to balance" article, sneaky ninjas might suit your playstyle and give you an advantage out of proportion to their cost.
The flexibility is also an advantage. Having a bigger toolbox of tools to choose from is an advantage when working on a car. I mean, would you rather work on an engine in a fully equipped mechanics garage or with an emergency glove compartment toolkit. It's the same if you have a wider selection of troops. You have specific 'tools' for the job.
Premium Time. I'm talking videogame/PC games only as there isn't any (yet) parallel in tabletop. Basically, in most videogames you earn XP by winning/killing enemies. You then use this XP to unlock equipment, special abilities etc. Just like Bloodbowl, or Mordheim. However, some games sell you "premium time" for a monthly fee (~$10+) which increases your XP earnings by 50% or more. People claim it's not pay-to-win, as their argument is that (usually) all unlocks/equipment are available to everyone. Non-premium players just need to play longer to earn them. However this thought is built on the false presumption the "non-premium" players somehow have extra gaming time to "catch up" premium players. Imagine a Mordhiem or Bloodbowl campaign where someone could play the store owner $5 and get double XP and gold for a result. In some games, the extra XP/bonuses allows players to freely buy one-shot consumables like airstrikes and drones, (which are uneconomical for the non-premium player) and thus make premium players directly more effective in game. Other times they equip higher level gear sooner, or have longer to practice at a higher tier of gameplay before the others 'catch up.' Either way, it gives a game play advantage. So premium time is indeed pay to win.
Anyway, this was a rather long-winded way of saying, more costly small specialist or "elite" units advantage players with deeper pockets, even if the total "point value" of the unit is the same.
I was going to explore the economy of CCGs but I think this wall of text is high enough....