Monday 24 August 2015

Game Musings - Boutique Wargames, Privateer Press, Model Pricing and Pay to Win

Boutique Wargames
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.

Stat cards
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.

Special Rules
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....


  1. I agree with your rant.

    Nevertheless, here in Europe, I can understand many young and small companies who try this approach.

    The big advantage is that a company with good modellers (Corvus Belli or Freebooter Miniatures come to mind, or the old Rackham CO2 minis) can fully take advantage of their human capital and motivate people who like their models also buy their rules.

    And even more important, if you like their rules, its definitely easier (in some cases even the only way) to play it with the models the company produces.

    In all three cases I mentioned, you re able to enjoy the game without the models by downloading the data from the net or copying the cards from the rulebooks - fair game IMO. And I also like the distinctive styles and own several of all three companies, which I nowadays like to use for (often much better) Indie-rules (with the exception of Infinity which has great rules, too).

    To put it differently: Is there another good way to make profit in the 28mm Market (except for historicals) than producing a boutique line of models?

    Or is it just a current trend which will pass after a while when customers realise that the best world is to get excellent rules and independent from that excellent models?

    1. "To put it differently: Is there another good way to make profit in the 28mm Market (except for historicals) than producing a boutique line of models?

      Or is it just a current trend which will pass after a while when customers realise that the best world is to get excellent rules and independent from that excellent models?"

      I'm sure there is sound financial reasons for "forcing" you to use their models. However there isn't a good reason to force character models upon us.

      And in some cases (like Bushido) both models and rules are good enough to stand alone - if models cost weren't inflated by the "game card"; and if the rules didn't shoehorn you into using $15+ individual character minis...

      I know in my case, they lost a sale, and I both like their minis AND their rules...

    2. In my case its the same with Bushido, Helldorado and many others. I had invested a lot of monies into Confrontation and was totally disappointed when no one played it anymore (plus the rules suck!).

      BUT: what some companies manage with the boutique model is to publish a decent amount of models every month. I do believe the reason is because people get used (forced) to use their models for this specific game they like.

      While Im fed up with being forced to buy "specific" models to play, especially when they make them a little out of scale so you cannot simply use your collection (Im talking to you EDEN!), I'm also annoyed of the many unfinished lines of non-boutique sellers.

      One example from many: I invested in the awesome 15mm Barbarians from Copplestone. Owen every single thing. But, since about 2 and a half years there is no update. Even worse: essential troop types like Pictish heroes, Dwarf archers and Troll heroes are still missing.

      So to be heretical: Would it help, if Mr. Copplestone, whose miniatures I very much cherish, had from the beginning made them part of a "boutique" game? Would it have helped him financing the rest of the line?
      The same is true for many other lines of models, for instance the nice Space 1889 15mm line from Highlander Miniatures, the 15mm PostApoc from Khurasan etc.

      In fact, I have the impression, that 15mm ranges (historicals again seem to be an exception) have a better chance to be complete when they are connected with a specific ruleset and specific fluff. Demoworld is an older example, the Ion Age a newer one.

      Is it the group of player who like tournament rules and models designed to a specific fluff who ultimately push a miniature series from having a couple of releases per year to having several releases per month?

    3. I also think it's a bit of a catch-22. Companies release a limited selection of models to "test the water" but as buyers regard the line as "incomplete" they hold off, awaiting more releases, thus downplaying the interest. The company then thinks the interest "isn't there" and only sporadically updates the mini line.

      When a company have committed to a rule set (or perhaps more importantly, the buyers sees the mini line an an ongoing project, rather than a one-off, and thus can buy in early, with confidence) they tend to push out more complete lines, leading to more sales, encouraging the companies to more releases.

      The boutique line with its glossy rulebook, fluff, and appearance of an "ongoing project" I think encourages buyers who tend to be concerned they will be left with incomplete armies or stuff no one wants to play - I think this is the big draw, rather than "forcing" them to buy minis with stats cards etc.

      I think an appearance of a healthy system with ongoing support is more important for success than blackmail-to-buy-via-stat-cards/unique models.

    4. Interesting you mentioned Bushido and Helldorado - two games I really wanted to get into but the above factors deterred me.

      Bushido had (at the time) a very limited selection of units. Fighting battles with 5 named heroes vs 5 named heroes... meh. If I could have supplemented them with Perry Samurai or had generic profiles I would have "bought in." Likewise, on a few occasions I have considered their lovely models for other games like Ronin, but due to the "boutique price" (set artificially high) I haven't bothered with them.

      I love the world of Helldorado. Again, limited model range, of mostly named heroes/characters. I would have bought ALL the models in the faction if I could have supplemented them/not been locked in to use particular heroes etc.

      In this example, the "boutique" approach cost the companies many hundreds of dollars - but perhaps it's just me....

    5. Possibly.

      What's bothering me, and if I understand you correctly, also you, is that there is a nasty shift from "selling cool models with a cool background and complete rules" (early WHx, Demonworld, Chronopia), where basically everything needed to play is in the rulebook and nobody forces you to buy the specific models of the company to exactly such a situation.

      By excorporating the unit profiles from the rule book or forcing you to use the cards in the blisters, companies make you dependent on their specific miniatures.

      Some companies use this CCG feature but allow you to have the cards in the rulebook (Freebooters; Infinity..even though here its classical profiles, Rackham Confrontation), while others deny you that option.

      Another nasty thing is, that rules lack generic profiles (Bushido, Eden) or the models are just a few mm larger than anything else in your collection (Eden, in many cases the great Rackham Confrontation).

      So when I look at the cash I spent: Freebooters Fate (nice unique pirates, funny well written rules, I can use the pirates for many other systems and they are compatible with my other pirates); Rackham (even though they were larger, they were awesome and with many models its easily possible to put them into existing ranges).

      No cash spent, though I love the setting: Malifaux, Bushido, Eden, Helldorado.

      So for a boutique system to get me it needs the same scale as the majority of models, no crazy 35mm stuff please, models which Im able to use for other systems and rules which allow the rest of my collection to be somehow utilized.
      I must admit, the more awesome the models are, the weaker gets my resolve.

    6. Yes, I think we're on the same wavelength.

      - Excluding profiles from rules, and putting them in cards with the models, making other minis unviable for their rules system

      - Charging you $5 extra per mini for the "card" compared to similar models, making their model uneconomical for use with other systems

      - Lack of generic profiles, forcing you to use their fluff/having "clone" heroes

      - Having a different scale is a related topic, but not one confined to boutique miniatures - it's definitely a factor in my purchases but it depends on the range and coolness of the models, as you say

      Btw, I too have Confrontation minis (several hundred) in boxes - I picked them up after the game went OOP. Now why doesn't someone Kickstarter THAT rather than games like AE:WWII that should have been let die a natural death, or use it to fund stuff they could do anyway (Reaper). A more streamlined ruleset would be nice, though.

    7. "Btw, I too have Confrontation minis (several hundred) in boxes - I picked them up after the game went OOP. Now why doesn't someone Kickstarter THAT rather than games like AE:WWII that should have been let die a natural death, or use it to fund stuff they could do anyway (Reaper). A more streamlined ruleset would be nice, though."

      Both thumbs up. Confrontation is a good example how world class models can push a tabletop game and how miserably a boutique line fails when you try to turn it into a pre-painted mass combat game.

      What I would be rather afraid of with a new Kickstarter (which would definitely be successful given that the sculpts are still top notch even when compared to GW and Infinity), were the rules. These are the main flaw, at least in my memory: time-consuming, unbalanced and not very clearly written (though they did have some nice ideas).

      I feel the amazing models deserve kinda detailed rules, and I recently picked up Rogue Planet after your review annd hope to use it for my Confrontation collection.

    8. "These are the main flaw, at least in my memory: time-consuming, unbalanced and not very clearly written (though they did have some nice ideas)."

      My thoughts exactly. I only came across Confrontation AFTER it was OOP, coming across some eBay models, realising they were cheaper and more awesome than anything available at the time, and obsessively collecting them for a few months.

      But the rules... confusing, messy, overcomplicated - and I think, poorly translated. As you say, a few nice ideas that are only now seeping into other games...

  2. I always get the feeling that they are trying to hit specifically the tournament/club competitive game lightning in a bottle.

    Most of them presumably won't ever do so.

    1. Is that an American thing? It's a generalisation/stereotype I know, but I always seem to think American rules seem to have more grandiose ambitions.

      Just like British rules seem to be more chaotic and ill organised with 101 different mechanics....

  3. Personally I don't pay to win. What I pay for, especially when I'm bulking out one of my several Warhammer armies, is variety. I want to be able to field different versions of the game army, and not merely on the basis of swapping out one Captain for another, but being able to field either a Captain or a Chaplain or a Librarian, and then the attendant units that will make that army play differently, according to a different strategy, than the last version of that army I played last week.

    1. I'm not saying you are. But I am suggesting the players who can afford "variety" (in the form of extra pricey small specialist units) have an advantage over those who don't.

    2. I think it's more a corporate strategy to appeal to those who want to 'pay to win' rather than building 'pay to win' into a broad commercial strategy. If everyone who pays extra wins more, then you're going to shrink the market. I think it's more a matter of perception. In games like 40k where you have to buy-in basic stuff as well as buy fancy stuff it's kind of easy to confuse pay-to-play with pay-to-win. If you're going to have meaningful variety then some stuff is going to suck.

    3. "If everyone who pays extra wins more, then you're going to shrink the market."

      Sadly research in videogames suggests what actually happens is the market remains the same, but more people pay.

      It just needs to be done in a subtle manner. Enough for people to covet the item, but not enough so they can be called out on its use.

      I.e. rather than a gun with +1 bullets and x2 range (cheat! OP OP!), simply adding +5 rounds into the clip of a normal assault rifle.

      Or in the wargames case, indirect advantages such as to allow access to strategies that others cannot use - such as "deepstriking" or airborne deployment.

  4. "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"

    I would definitly add Infinity to the collection of "Boutique" games.
    There are not many named characters compared to other games, but the ones I know are really powerful and get played a lot.
    With 250 pages of complicated und sometimes useless Special rules, Infinity wins!
    The models are quite expensive. Even a starterbox costs 35-45€ (for 6 Miniatures).
    And the newest rulebook costs 60€!.

    In my opinion one major factor for "pay to win" are online forums. When a new player asks for advice most of the time some Forum "experts" will tell him what the overpowered models and broken combos are. Then that guy will buy this "pay to win" models and start an arms race in his local player group/club. I have seen this several times.

    1. Infinity is my poster child for special rules bloat hurting an excellent game.

      That said, I used to proxy Empress/Eureka moderns for Ariadna, and the freely available unit profiles meant I originally tried/learnt the game using Imperial Guard and Tau. Proxying stuff was never a big deal (at least it wasn't 2-3 years back) So not so much "point (C)" as the rest.

      Agree with your point regarding forums. However, it simply spreads info faster. It exacerbates the problem (i.e. the rules balance themselves, and powergamers who want an advantage) rather than BEING the problem.

    2. The Infinity rulebook (which admittedly is the nicest I own, period) costs $90(!) here in Australia. But since all rules, stats, army lists, etc is freely available online, it is a choice - a "luxury" - not a necessity to play the game.

      In my admittedly limited playing circle, named heroes weren't particularly prevalent. But I suspect it has changed a bit since v.1.

      Given how strongly it ticks all the other boxes, you could say "boutique" game, but I don't find it railroads me into using the fluff, models or the rules to the extent of Malifaux, Helldorado, Bushido etc.

      In fact, I use the quickstart rules for modern combat games as well.