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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Economics of the Hobby

By Mitch Reed

For some time now I have wanted to write about the fiscal side of our hobby. In my article on the Forces of War and Flames of War Digital, I ended up touching on the subject so much I felt it was time to get off my rump and put some thoughts on paper.

Economics is a huge factor in this hobby. Once a player has gotten the bug for Flames of War they face two major limiting factors: money and time.  While time is better left to articles on motivation, the cost of this hobby is something we all face. I recommend that you do not read on if you are just thinking about getting into the hobby and please do not let your spouse read this.

Boys and Their Toys
While I never took an official poll or census, I have come to realize that the demographics of our hobby are easy to figure out.  In my years of playing I would say the average player is a middle aged, white male, gainfully employed, probably college educated, with a lot of disposable income.  I know, same demographics as serial killers.  It’s that last part, the disposable income we will explore further. 

I know you have heard this before: our hobby is not cheap.  I purposely tried to avoid thinking about how much I have spent over the last few years on Flames of War alone because the number is probably staggering.  Add to this other games we play (my new Napoleonic’s in 2015 for instance), and this number just grows.

Decisions Decisions... The world needed a Breaker Morant shirt, so the folks at redheadedtshirts made one for me

So, I wanted to take a whack at breaking down where that money would go for the average player.  Some of these are one-time costs and some are recurring, and like everything else will differ from player to player.

Books:  This covers the initial basic rules and then the campaign books that come out during the year.  With Flames of War Digital this may become cheaper, however this expense is about $100 for the first year you play and maybe $75 afterwards.

Transport: Whether a bag or display board this is a cost that cannot be avoided since we never want to lose our investment.  Let’s go $100 for this, a one-time charge for most.

Paining and Basing: This can be expensive if you send away to have your minis done professionally.  Maybe about $0.75 a figure and up to $5-10 per vehicle, throw in shipping overseas (where a lot of painters reside) and it’s a pretty penny.  Even if you have time to paint the models yourself, you are still looking at it costing quite a bit.  Getting the right color and good quality paint can run about $6 for a small bottle.  Throw in primers, washes, shaders, brushes, what have you and the costs start to add up.  If you decide to air brush, then tack on and extra $200 for a brush and compressor at least.  These hobby materials are an ongoing expense since you will always need more paints or have to replace colors you seem to use a lot.  I must have gone through 4 bottles of Vallejo Dunkelgelb in the past two years.  Let’s call this about a $150 initial investment and about $30-$50 annually after this.

Playing Expenses:  I will combine two expenses here. First, buying everything but the toys: the mat, terrain, buildings, forests, etc if you plan to play games in your house plus tape measures, tokens, dice, and other assorted gaming aids. For the latter, I'll go with about $50, a onetime expense for most.  The former, terrain, on the other hand can get far more expensive; to start your terrain set could cost you up to $400 or less but including a significant time investment if you build it yourself.

Second, travel, which means  for guys like me who own one piece of terrain (trench set, love it) playing at a local store or friend’s house and, for the more competitive minded, travelling to tournaments.  Both have costs associated with them, the play at home guys lay it out up front, and guys like me pay for it annually.  Some folk’s do both, so I am going with about $450 for this category each year, since the cost of driving, hotels, and tournament fees seem to rack up over the year.

So we are at about $1,250 for your first year, and we haven’t even gotten around to talking about miniatures.

Minis:  Here is where things get expensive.  For a new list you will probably shell out around $500, while this seems high I think the number is defensible.  Even when I built an Early War list from Barbarossa cheaply, it still cost me around $215.  This force, made up mostly of tanks, with only one platoon of panzer grenadiers and a small amount of arty and AT guns can, at most, be used to run about 4-5 early war lists from Barbarossa and Blitzkrieg.

If I want to run an infantry or mechanized unit, I would have to invest more into the list, raising the cost $100-$150 more than my initial investment.  I could use some of my late war forces to augment this force, but in the past I have never liked the look of forces with obviously out of place units(my OCD).

Even when collecting a Hermann Goering list from Fortress Italy, I decided to actually buy and paint a whole company of infantry because HG looks different from the Heer and SS units I have in my collection.  This leads into a human factor that drives cost; many gamers do not recycle their forces. In my case I have 4 separate German infantry forces, Heer, SS, HG, and FJ, while I do share the support weapons and vehicles, each grouping of platoon’s costs about $100 each.


Expanding the collection: A big reason a single list may cost so much is how few of us collect forces for just one list.  Such as my initial Canadian Infantry, from that list it was easy to make some swaps and then it became a Commonwealth tank list.  Then a new book comes out, so for my Canucks it would be Market Garden, which caused me to add Kangaroos, Land Mattress Battery, etc.  So that basic list I started with two years ago has changed its composition based on new lists that feature those forces, so the cost keeps rising.

Many of us also “round out our forces” with extra units that we may use with certain point totals, or with the thought they would be nice to have “just in case”.  My Polsten AAA guns for my British Paras are a prime example. They appear on one list (MG: Recce Squadron) that I have never played and probably will never play. Speaking of my paras, this was a list that I have played a few times, and collected it on a whim because I thought it would be a fun list to play, so now I have every para box/blister that Battlefront made (no Tetrarchs), and can run almost any list if I get the desire to play it again.

Now we run into another human driven cost factor, the collection obsession.  We collect forces for the ability to play more and more lists; however do we ever get rid of an old list?  I have seen some folks do this, and it usually to pay for yet another list we plan to play, however how often can we buy a full army at conventions flea market? 

Another factor is jumping from one nationality to another.  Very few of the forces used for one nation can be readily used for another, so each nation you collect considerably adds to you total investment and not just in models, think about the additional paints and storage you'll need to make those toys look pretty and protect them as well.

So does the $500 estimate seem low now to you?  After putting my thoughts on paper I felt like changing my initial estimate, however we can tally up $500 here for the first list in any nationality and maybe $100-$200 each supplemental list.  It is easy to see part of the success Battlefront has had with Flames of War is how they get the community to keep buying miniatures since it’s where we spend the most of our money.


Based on the above estimates, we are looking at a about a $1,750 initial cost and a $300-$400 a year if we just stick to just expanding our one basic national force.  The easiest way to cheaply get an army is to have someone die and leave it to you in their will as I see no other legal options to get one legally and let's face it, stealing is wrong.

Investing in the Hobby
So with about $2,000 spent by the average player, it is easy to see how getting into Flames of War is an investment of both time and money.  I think of all the folks who I look forward in seeing at conventions year after year, and know they too are making a similar investment in our mutual hobby, which shows me that while our community may be small, we do have the cash that can rival the GDP of a small nation. 

Sometimes you see very negative comments on a Flames of War forum, do not dismiss each commentator as a whiner, remember that they have made an investment in a hobby that they feel strongly about, based on what they spend in time and money it is excusable to have some passion for the game.

Supply Side View
This is the part where you can get college credit for economics 101, because I want to talk about the gaming industry.  From developing, writing, and testing games on many different platforms (PC, Tablet) and types (Mini, Board games), I feel I have a good perspective on the industry.

Let me start off with some facts that I hold true:

-The gaming industry is very small: While conventions seem crowded and tournament slots fill up fast, the amount of people playing miniatures games is very small. 

-Few manufacturers make great money:  This is very true for mini and board game companies and is a result of the small market.  Games in general are not cheap to produce, and the production of miniatures makes the manufacturers overhead increase exponentially.  This has lead to gaming companies requiring some level of certainty that their product will actually sell before the game is actually published. This is why Kickstarter has become so popular among both new and old game companies and why some board game companies have a "P-500" release, which means they will not publish the game until they get so many pre-orders.

-Many games and game systems are produced but few catch on: Think of how long Flames of War has been around (since 2002), and it is still wildly popular, this would be considered a gaming miracle.  We have all seen many games come and go over the years, yet only a few survive.

-Electronic games may doom face to face gaming: While this fact is hard to qualify, it is easy to see how popular games on the PC, tablet, console and now the cell phone are attracting the younger crowd and are taking away from miniature and board gaming.

-Without our support companies fail: This is seen at the local as well as the global level.  How many local gaming stores have closed or moved to a smaller location in the last decade?  How many game companies that you know of are still owned by their original owners?  Growing up playing board games the two big companies were Avalon Hill and SPI.  While you can still buy their old titles which are now being produced by other companies.

-The manufacturers’ main goal is to separate you from your disposable income: It is how business works, no way around it.

While some may dispute some of these facts, we've all encountered the basic reality of those points over the years we've all been gaming.  Think about how much pressure a company is under to not only produce a popular game, but keep that momentum going so that it is profitable in the long run.  This is why many of us do not quit our day jobs and go into game production. 

I have met more than one owner of a game company, and the thing I noticed about the successful ones is that they are businessmen first and “master game designers” second.  I do not feel you can be good at both and succeed, since both take a lot of time to master and often these roles are at odds with each other.

So, while the game designer in you may want to focus on Frisian-Hollandic Wars, the businessman would think that the market for that is too small to be profitable.  Finding a period that is not saturated and that is interesting is hard to find.  That is why Flames of War has been successful; I cannot think of to many other WWII 15mm games that were being played in 2002. So this means that to be successful a company has to have a good sense for business and an understanding of the market.

The second characteristic a company must have is the design team to write a set of rules that is intuitive to play, represents the period accurately, is innovative (i.e. not a re-hash of what is available), and is balanced so that it offers its player a challenging environment.  Think about FoW, I feel we can all agree that the game has all of these traits in varying degrees. Not every game produced today has all of these elements and that is why you will never hear about them.

I think this way of marketing may work

The last element I will discuss is if the game has any enduring appeal; can it be expanded, or is this a one shot deal?  FoW certainly understands this concept and many other gaming lines that have endured were able to expand and provide the market what it wants next.  This is the where market research mentioned above really pays off, a company must listen to the market to decide where to move to next, and understand it will not make everyone happy.  Here is also where that business sense must be applied, while many folks want to see FoW expand to the Spanish Civil War or Korea, someone has to be the voice of reason and decide if that is a worthwhile market.  Think of the three spin offs from FoW, Vietnam (no interest), Arab-Israeli (wrong scale/mechanic for me) or the Great War (way to go BF!), so not every decision will be popular, however I am sure enough people love the other two eras for Battlefront to move into those periods.

Gamer-Producer Relationship
With a small niche market such as gaming it is important that the producers have a good relationship with their gamers.  They need to understand why gamers like their products and why they decided to invest in that game system above another.

While capitalizing on what succeeds sounds like common sense, remember that some companies have that “master designer” in charge rather than the businessman.  Another reason companies need to be receptive to the market is that today a good game gone bad can be replaced by a few smart folks and a Kickstarter campaign. While a company should really listen to its consumers, it also cannot be held hostage by them.  Most of the time the loudest voices of dissent on a forum are not a true representation on how the majority of players feel about an issue.  


While this article covered the gaming industry, my general comments are just that and are only to be interpreted that they pertain to Battlefront when mentioned by name.  Overall Battlefront has done what few companies have managed to do; create a successful game with the endurance to last well over a decade and hopefully much longer into the future.

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