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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Economics of Wargaming

On one level, game designers seem to have an ideal job; they get to spend every work day effectively doing what for the rest of us is a hobby. Of course, the operative word there is "seem." To be and remain successful in what has become a highly competitive business game companies need to have a steady revenue stream. This revenue stream pays the workers and designers, and if the latest product or version of an established game flops companies can quickly find themselves in very dire straights.

Buy a new car or buy a new army???

The key challenge that any company must overcome is that hobbies are expensive. There, I said it. It's the "uncomfortable truth." It's the elephant in the room. Hobbies require both disposable income and the time to actually pursue them, and therefore as long as there have been miniatures and games, people have been looking for more economical ways to procure and enjoy them. In wargaming various money-saving techniques include patronizing deep discount retailers, using alternate miniature sources, casting one's own miniatures, and even turning to new technologies like 3D printing. 

So how expensive are wargaming and miniatures hobbies in general? The answer is "it depends greatly." On a one for one basis, miniatures in the smaller scales (15mm, 12mm, 10mm and 6mm) are going to be progressively cheaper than larger ones (28mm, 54mm, etc). The number of models and miniatures required to play a typical game is also going to factor heavily into its overall cost with skirmish-style games generally requiring fewer miniatures than platoon or company level games. The media used to actually produce the miniatures is another variable. Miniature wargaming started out with "lead figures" - which has evolved into white metal (a pewter which may or may not be lead free), resin, and even injection molded plastic. Then there is the cost of the rule books themselves, though the miniature cost often outweighs the rules cost, sometimes by a fairly hefty multiplier.

So let's look at a few real world examples. For all of these I will use quoted retail prices in U.S. dollars. In cases where currency conversions must be made, they will be accurate as of the writing of this article (October 2016).

Skirmish-level games can be cheaper, but sometimes the community is smaller

One example of a game on the "inexpensive" side of the spectrum is Frostgrave from Osprey Publishing. A hardback rulebook will set you back $24.95, though you can get it electronically for $16.99 in a couple of formats. At this point there are only a few expansions for the game, and they're fully optional. These amount to two (soon to be three) books which run $12-$18 depending on whether you want a hard copy or an electronic version, and then there are roughly three smaller downloads that run $3.99 each. So if you went out and bought all of the rules, they'd run you less than $75 at this point, and that's full retail.

Miniature-wise, this is a skirmish game using standard 25-28mm fantasy figures, of which you'll need no more than 11 or 12 in most cases to represent your "warband." There is a line designed to go with Frostgrave, and these generally run roughly $5 a piece for the metal characters, though there are some plastic miniatures to fill out your ranks which cost $32 for 20 figures. You are also free to use appropriate miniatures from other lines like the Reaper Bones line which can further bring down your per miniature price. Granted, some scenarios will require "monsters" outside of your individual warband, many games can be played with only your own figures vs. your opponent's figures. So for no more than $50 you can reasonably expect to field a full force on the tabletop giving Frostgrave a very low cost to entry - roughly $75 and the time to paint the miniatures.

In the grim darkness of the far future, beakies rule!

Contrast this to something in the same scale like Warhammer 40K from Games Workshop. 40K has been around since the late 1980's in one form or another and has evolved greatly over the years. Originally many of the miniatures were standard white metal / lead, though even at the outset there were some primitive (by modern standards) plastic miniatures. Citadel Miniatures (which originally made all of the 40K miniatures) went to a "lead free pewter" in the mid-90's which was more expensive and harder than the earlier white metal. Resin eventually placed white metal under the "Finecast" line, but even these have slowly drifted away and now Warhammer 40K is almost completely made up of plastic releases - at least outside of the Forgeworld limited production miniatures.

It's HAND CRAFTED!  That means QUALITY!
Games Workshop products have always been expensive - even in contrast to other miniatures games - and this is largely because Games Workshop owns all of the intellectual property around not only the gaming system, but it's own internal history and the forces used in the game. The basic rulebook will run you $85, and you will still need an army book, in 40K referred to as a "Codex," to assemble your list. Space Marines remain the most popular army, and their Codex runs $58.

Your gateway drug to 40K

To Games Workshop's credit, they are trying to make the game more accessible with their "Start Collecting!" series of releases, and the "Start Collecting! Space Marine" box will run you $85. In it you get a commander, one marine squad, and a heavy walker called a "dreadnought." Unfortunately this is essentially a "teaser" army giving you just enough to get going, but not enough to play a competitive game. Warhammer 40K uses a point system, and most competitive games range from 1500 to 2000 points, and the "Start Collecting!" box will give you roughly 500 of that point total - and you already have over $225 invested in the game! That being said, given their high points cost per model in the game, Space Marines are one of the cheapest forces to field in Warhammer 40K because you'll need fewer miniatures to complete your force.

Don't hate us because we're so much cooler than Cadians!

Other Warhammer 40K forces have a higher miniature count, which can make them more expensive to field. Point for point, assuming you buy the actual models from Games Workshop's Forgeworld store, one of the most expensive forces to play out there has to be the Death Korps of Krieg. Don't get me wrong, these are literally some of the loveliest miniatures out there for the Astra Militarum (us old timers remember when they were called the Imperial Guard, but I guess you can't copyright that!), and if I ever win the lottery I'll be first in line for the lot. However a single platoon with a command squad, four infantry squads, and six heavy weapons will run you a very hefty £295 retail - even in the post Brexit world, that's almost $400 for one platoon, for a full force you'll need at least one more platoon's worth of infantry - maybe two - plus armored support so it's easily conceivable that you would spend well in excess of $1000, just to get the miniatures for just a small version of this one force!

As the scale of the miniatures decreases, costs on a per miniature basis generally drop. However, the smaller scale also permits the use of more miniatures on a normal-sized tables, so smaller scale games can also require a substantial investment. Flames of War is a popular World War II company-scale game in 15mm (roughly 1/100th scale). Most forces are comprised of a mixture of infantry, tanks, guns, and occasionally aircraft. The investment for a game like Flames of War can run from average to substantial depending on how many books and forces one chooses to field.

Stay tuned for Fourth Edition!

To play any game of Flames of War you'll need the basic rules ($40 - or $10 for the pocket edition) and a book with the Army Lists ($20 to $30 for paper copies, though digital versions are available for both books and individual armies for less). It's also a good idea to have some dice, templates (~$15 for the standard template), and tokens ($17) for a total of roughly $60 to $100 for the rules and basic playing pieces. As with any game, you'll need to pick up paints and modeling supplies.

Generally forces with larger numbers of tanks tend to be more expensive as the tanks have a larger "per miniature" cost than infantry or guns. As an example of a "mid-range" force in Flames of War is my 510. Schwere Panzerabteilung force from a couple of years ago. This particular force included five King Tigers ($24 each), three Panzer IIIs ($13 each), one Panzer IV ($13), a platoon of infantry ($24), four anti-aircraft guns ($22 for every 2), and three nebelwerfer rocket launchers ($24). The total retail for the miniature for this army is roughly $264. Not exactly cheap, but not out of the realm of what most players could afford.

Big Cats on the Prowl - Good $ to point ratio, but are fire magnets on the table!

A more extreme example is a tank army I painted for a Tanksgiving tournament, but the army is also a good example of how much can be saved as Battlefront Miniatures move from Resin and Metal to Plastic. This particular army included a staggering number of vehicles, including nine M4A2 76mm Shermans ($13 each in resin), nine M4A2 75mm Shermans ($13 each in resin), five Valentines ($13 each), four Su-122 ($13 each), five Su-76M ($13 each), four BA-64 ($14.50 for 2), and a Katyusha battery ($67.50). This brings your total up to over $500, which is a fairly hefty investment.

Soviet Shermans in Berlin - cool, but potentially expensive!

However, Battlefront has been moving many of their more popular miniatures to plastic, rather than resin and white metal. Granted, not all of the miniatures in the army above are available in plastic, but using the army as representative, the cost savings are substantial. Even if all of the tanks were moved to plastic ones, which generally run $9/miniature as opposed to $13/miniature, and the armored cars and Kayusha remained resin and metal the army would cost around $385 - for a savings of over $125.

However, other companies have been releasing plastic miniatures in scales compatible with Flames of War, including Zvezda and Plastic Soldier Company.  In general, Zvezda tanks run about $5 retail, while PSC tanks run £19.50 ($25) for a set of five (also roughly $5 each). Not all miniatures are available from either of these companies, but going with a 3rd party miniature manufacturer could bring the cost down to between $250 and $300 for a similar army - as you'd have to pick up some key items like crews, spotters, etc. from Battlefront via special order.

Cheaper to buy, but there are downsides

One thing to consider, however, is that plastic miniatures often require more assembly - and in some cases a LOT more assembly than their resin and metal counterparts. The Battlefront Katyusha box is expensive, but it pretty much falls together with little assembly required and includes all of the crew needed for the unit, so you have to decide where and how you want to spend your valuable hobby time. Also, not all plastic kits are created equally. Battlefront designs its plastic kits to be true miniatures suitable for heavy gaming use, and by and large their construction is straightforward. Other kits can be, but aren't always, more complex and therefore can be more fragile. Early PSC kits had fit problems, especially in the tracks, but these have been largely resolved at this point.

Another game which has gained popularity recently is Team Yankee. Basically Team Yankee is a version of the Flames of War rules modified to suit a Cold War Gone Hot scenario set in 1985. At this point the cost structure to play Team Yankee is very similar to Flames of War, but being a completely new range, there is a higher percentage of plastic kits available - especially for many of the more commonly utilized tanks.

Jonathan Peace's Excellent British Armoured Squadron

As with other 15mm miniatures, there are some alternatives games can turn to for Team Yankee miniatures, but one interesting fact is at least a small portion of the community plays the game not in the standard 15mm scale but in 6mm (roughly 1/285th) scale instead.  GHQ is one of the manufacturers in this scale and a pack of five tanks typically retails for $11.95, or $2.39 per vehicle vs. roughly $9 for a 15mm miniature. However, most players of Team Yankee in 6mm appear to do so for aesthetic reasons rather than economic ones, expressing the belief that the game is more visually appealing with smaller vehicles on the standard-sized table.

The Pirate's Code is really more of a guideline... and doesn't apply to miniatures...

One final elephant in the room that needs addressing is the fact that there are true knock-offs out there in the industry. Individuals, groups or rogue companies pirating other companies' intellectual property to create bootleg versions of popular miniatures. Some of these are sold directly online, and some are sold on popular internet auction sites. I'm not going to point out any examples, but if you search - they're out there. What they're doing is in violation of IP laws and highly unethical, so they should under no circumstances be considered a viable outlet for gaming miniatures or supplies.

Self-cast miniatures open new options, but aren't necessarily cheaper...

There are some other creative ways people try and save money. 3D printed miniatures is one alternative, though based on what I've seen at this point you're either sacrificing quality (i.e. lower resolution printers) or you are paying as much or more for the miniatures if you bought them outright. Resin casting your own miniatures from a scratch-built or converted master (if you're making a direct copy of someone else's miniature without permission, that's piracy) is also an option, but based on personal experience that tends to be an expensive route as well applicable only when there is NO miniature available in your chosen scale.

No matter what game you're playing it is vitally important to consider where your money ends up going. Game companies generally spend a lot of money to make a slightly larger amount of money, and game company employees and owners aren't pulling in lavish salaries from their work. While games like Flames of War and Warhammer 40K have very large communities, that large player base is contingent on the game publishers continued revenue stream and continued ability to release new products. If you're playing a particular company's game, but not purchasing their miniatures, it may hurt the game and hobby in the long run. That being said, gaming companies must find creative ways to offer maximum value for their customers' dollars or else risk being entirely undercut by the competition.

Sign included in your "Hobby Store Starter Kit"

A similar comparison can be made when choosing where you purchase the miniatures themselves. You can save some money if you purchase your miniatures from deep discount internet retailers, though even those discounts are smaller than they were in previous years. Online retailers typically lack some of the structural costs of local stores, and rely on volume to keep their revenue healthy. However these sales generally come directly at the expense of local game store sales, putting additional pressure on what are generally very small businesses, and when local gaming stores disappear, venues to actually play disappear with them.

... you know you want to!!!

Miniatures wargames remain a fun, but potentially very expensive hobby. The proliferation of skirmish games and changing production methods have brought down the total investment required for some systems, but there are always boutique forces out there ready to drain the player's piggy bank. For every successful game in the market, there are frequently multiple options the player has to try and save a buck or two. Competition in this industry remains fierce, which in the long run should benefit consumers both with better games and better value in miniatures... which likely means we'll just buy more of them!!!!

Dr. Michael McSwiney has been playing wargames since the early 1980's and Flames of War since 2008. He is an author, contributor, and former playtester for Battlefront and maintains his own wargaming blog Miniature Ordnance Review.




7 comments:

Dick Bryant said...

Thewre is a lot of money to be save in Miniature wargaming if you develop the skills to build your own terrain, buildings, etc. and paint your own models. There is a dizzying array of How-to articles on U-tube and on the hobby blogs to help this along. I see many gamers who complain about the cost of the hobby who insist on buying painted armies, manufactured terrain and hard bound rule sets.
Dick Bryant
Historical Miniature Gamer since 1968 and still gaming at 82

Comintern said...

Its an unforgiving reality.

Porkchop said...

"However these sales generally come directly at the expense of local game store sales, putting additional pressure on what are generally very small businesses, and when local gaming stores disappear, venues to actually play disappear with them." These 'FLGS' sometimes also disappear when you DO support them exclusively , leaving you with an army that you paid too much for and no place to play. Just like a miniatures company has its business plan, the player should take care not to overextend himself either emotionally or financially into just one venue. A well-thought out article.

Doug said...

There seems to be an undue focus on 'gaming'companies with allied rules and miniatures. Sorry. That is not 'the hobby'.

Fingolfen said...

Doug - not sure what you mean by "undue focus." If you look at the total miniatures wargaming market - even if you confine that market to miniatures that the player has to paint themselves - that market is going to be overwhelmingly dominated by gaming companies with associated rules and miniatures. I just focused on a couple of the big ones and one small one as examples, but the same general trends and considerations hold true moving to other systems like Warmachine, Malifaux, Guild Ball, Bolt Action, Dystopian Wars, and so on and so on. Niche players and cottage industries may be able to limit their exposure, but they can also come and go like the seasons and don't play a major economic role in the total market...

Steven Whitesell said...

There are a lot of things you can do to offset the exorbitant cost of historical miniatures gaming, especially if you're willing to compromise on some things.

If you love 40k or WFB, there's always 15mm or even 10mm to play these games, and if you're willing to play older printed versions, you can pick up used rule books and codexes really cheap on Amazon. (same with Flames of War for that matter - granted you'll have to compromise not playing the latest version but if you like gaming that much, there are plenty of options out there for gaming "on the cheap.")

I'm also a huge advocate of "mixing and matching" Plastic Soldier Company, Battlefront, and even Game Models resin castings for unique or odd vehicles that I only need a handful of for FOW (like the Ferdinand TD).

Anyways what I'm saying is "to each his own" and many gamers will continue to vote with their wallet when it comes to what they play and what they can afford. I totally get that "it's a business" and I totally appreciate the fact that the designers and manufacturers want/need to make money, but I also
recognize the fact that there are alternatives out there where you can still retain the excitement the authors originally intended, you just might not be able to play in any professional tournaments.

TheColonel said...

AS a former shop owner, I can tell you that shops barely get by with their markup. We had a fairly cheap rent and still needed $6,000/month in sales to BREAK EVEN. If you play at a local shop, you need to support that shop regardless of your financial state.

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