Years ago I was interested in the role of 'fluff' - background/backstory/aesthetic. I'd say this is an even bigger aspect in wargames now - it's interesting how differently my 2014 self viewed it.
The rise of 3D printing and cheap plastic kits allows more creativity and variety when making and kitbashing units. Self publishing, wargamesvault, pdfs and Kickstarter makes getting your dream game out is easier than ever before. But the competition has also increased. What makes a game stand out? More than ever, it is the background lore, aesthetics, game universe.
A Shared, Engaging Background
Say what you want about 40K, but it has a very recognizable aesthetic and background. Just like a stormtrooper or a jedi, you and your opponent know how your 40K units will look and act. Even terrain (if I say '40K corner pieces' most gamers will know what I am talking about) is understood and has a strong gothic feel.
There should be room for imagination, but shared expectations. Both players should know what is expected in the game world. In fact, having a strong aesthetic can help creativity - I mean, you can't make your own space marine chapter unless you know space marines have chapters and heraldry. I enjoy ME:SBG and how you can watch the movies and predict how minis will perform on the tabletop. Having books, movies and other media helps immensely in building a 'shared background.' Some games, like Gaslands, can draw generically on post-apoc car genres from a range of existing, random movies and games. Others, like Battletech, have their own extensive in-house lore, RPGs and novels.
40K again does this well. Even if you are unfamiliar with the universe of 40K itself, the Necrons (Pharoahs-meet-Terminators), Tyrannids (Alien) are very recognisable - and space elves, orcs etc link pretty closely with fantasy counterparts. Overtly linking to existing, familiar genres and archetyles is a sensible move. For example, I know almost nothing about Conquest:TLAK but looking through the webstore the other day I went "ah - dwarves, undead Romans, mythic Greeks, late medieval/Mordhiem Empire, orcs on dinos, mythic vikings, mutants." Thanks to borrowing from familiar stereotypes, the armies are pretty obvious and even the models themselves exude a certain 'vibe.'
...vs Flavourless 'Universal' Rules
The first mini agnostic games from about a dozen years ago ('use any minis with these rules!') were truly generic and universal, trumpeting "Can be used for any minis from ancients to WW2"! The hook was you could use literally any model in your collection. But there was no background or aesthetic. It was, at best, a set of mechanics you could build your own background onto. Usually they made both weak ancients and weak W2 games - good at neither.
I used to own quite a lot of these universal rules. I play none of them. Some had interesting mechanics, but none 'stuck' beyond a playtest or two. However I would own none of them if offered them today in the crowded marketplace - none of them would even get a second glance without a strong aesthetic/hook.
BYO minis is not the same as 'use any minis at all.' More importantly, the question is:
Are minis which fit this setting easily available?
Does the player likely already own minis for this setting?
I suspect the audience of most indy games is often experienced gamers who have moved on from mainstream games. It's highly likely someone from a gaming group would own a bunch of demons. So a game about these already-available demons (Reign in Hell?) ticks this box very well.
Do games have a strong, easily grasped background? Do they have a strong visual aesthetic? Are suitable minis easily available? Let's look at some games which are not 'AAA big hitters' mostly from Games Workshop - perhaps even Flames of War (as X-Wing/Warmachine once were) but will do well as stars in the "2nd Division".
Gaslands - quite a lot of predecessors and media - Car Wars/Carmageddon, Death Race, Mad Max - a rich vein of background as well as very accessible minis ($2 Hot Wheels/Match Box). The rules themselves are (imo) surprisingly slow and gluggy but the strong aesthetic carries it. We know to what to expect: deserts, leather, spikes, and bolted-on armour and weapons. Kitbashing heaven.
Frostgrave - tapped into Mordhiem nostalgia, hunt for
warpstone magic artifacts in ruined meteorite ruined ice city, lots of wizard archtypes - could use generic minis. Deep campaign and interesting strong background although the rules are merely 'OK.'
Mordhiem - weirdly, this use its own, now-out-of-print 1999 self as 'inspiration' - but fan created and 3D printed using old-skool aesthetics have resurrected this 24-year-old-game. Rules are very dated and it very much carries itself based on its aesthetic and lore. Seems to have new lease of life - I haven't seen so much Mordhiem stuff since the early 2000s. Does have current eponymous videogame as well as "Vermintide."
Battletech - very rich lore including novels, RPGs - second only to 40K in literature about it. Spawned many videogames. The rules are clunky 1980s but are carried by the strong fluff.
Necropolis/Reign in Hell - neither are particularly well known - yet - but certainly tick the boxes - battling undead in a graveyard or demons in hell have both a very strong recognizable aesthetic and very readily available minis.
The next two are more extreme...
Inq28 - it's more a pure aesthetic than a specific set of rules - perhaps using the old RPG, or homebrew Necromunda. It's the gritty, personal aspect of the grimdarkness of the 40K universe. 40K minis have are so plentiful they have spawned a whole market of kitbashing bitz and 3D proxies.
Turnip28 - relies on scratch building and kitbashing and has a very unique aesthetic - postapocalyptic napoleonics and root vegertables. While suitable plastic kits are cheap, this is very much reliant on hobbyist skills and aesthetic and is unlikely to have more than a niche uptake.
The Doomed (Grimlite) is a game about hunting monsters (Monster Hunter) in a post-apocalyptic world using super basic rules (but ironically lots of rules for the monsters). Not sure about the big monsters but the factions lend themselves well to being borrowed from existing model lines.
There is a common theme. All of these games have a strong aesthetic and distinct background. Suitable models to use for the background are usually readily available.
How Simple is too Simple?
I wondered in a recent post if indy rules are now leaning into the 'aesthetics' and 'cool' aspect at the expense of actual meaningful gameplay. I.e. the rules are stripped down to allow you to focus on the setting, but the rules don't actually promote any meaningful tactics or even link with the setting. As someone scarred by Wargames Research Group and Starfleet Battles in my youth I regard simplifying rules as generally good.... ....but are we in the process of tossing the baby (tactics, meaningful decisions) out with the bathwater (needless complexity)?
Do the Rules Match the Fluff?
Historical gamers are big on the game reflecting the tactics of the period. This could apply to fantasy and sci fi as well. Do the rules reflect the flavour and feel of the fluff? Do they match the game world?
Turnip28 does this well. In the muddy, terrifying messy world of trench warfare napoleonics and mutant turnips, units can blunder when trying to take actions. Their black powder weapons cannot be fired easily. They collect panic tokens as they stress out. Terrain is dangerous.
Necropolis - units when they die are converted into wisps of mana which can be absorbed by leaders. There are strong magical warband traits and you can use mana to direct NPC monsters onto your enemies. Using sorcery is dangerous...
Frostgrave keeps to its premise - wizards grabbing loot to win games and winning combats by slinging spells is unsurprisingly the main focus.
Even as we expect a game based on WW2 (a setting, albeit historical) to focus on firing, cover and suppression - rather than melee h2h fighting in ranks. So shouldn't we also expect a fantasy game to match the style of its game setting?
I think a risk is that as focus is increasingly on fluff, and mechanics often tend to be just stripped down, blander versions of traditional wargames (themselves usually pretty McDonalds flavour) the actual gameplay will turn into Yahtzee with pretty minis: where there is almost no meaningful or engaging gameplay choices. Style and no substance.
The lure of lore is strong.
I own Dropfleet Commander. The models are some of the best I own. They fit so well you can click them together and they hold in place (you are supposed to glue them but the fit is that good). The rules are like Battlefleet Gothic but... ....better. So why am I downloading BFG's rules again and eyeing 3D prints which are inferior in quality? The 40K universe is just more compelling than the "humans, advanced humans, rebel humans, not-elves and not-necrons" of the Dropfleet universe. Or why do I hover my mouse over Bloodbowl teams in webstores when I know how gluggy and dated the rules are compared to the slicker and smoother Dreadball?
TL:DR Games with a strong background and lore and distinct aesthetic are far more attractive than generic rules.
Rules don't have to be completely "universal" and use any mini - it's just that minis that suit the setting should be readily available - preferably ones players likely already own.
However there is a risk that a focus on settings and super simple mechanics only will 'dumb down' gameplay - which may not match the 'feel' of the setting.
DISCLAIMER: Remember, I am just 'thinking aloud' with these posts. Basically shower thoughts, but on my way home in the car. These are my current opinions only - which can and do change. The examples I use are not necessarily best practice but to try to explain my thoughts. I'm just trying to make others wonder "why do we do things x way" - I'm not even trying to change anyone's views. Originally (in a world before Discord etc) these posts were to collect ideas in the comments when I couldn't find discussions elsewhere...