A little bit of history on Specialist Games
Once upon a time there was a great age. An age where mighty ships powered by sails, steam or magic roamed the seas (Man O’War), where adventurers of all races, size and shape explored a doomed city (Mordheim), or where a king could quietly go to the stadium and have a keg while watching some good old fashioned bashing (Bloodbowl). And on top of it all mighty heroic armies swept the world in search of honor, gold or conquest (Warmaster). In a different plain the strife of war was also present, as lumbering titans and gigantic armies pounded one another eternally (Epic Armageddon) while in the heavens ships the size of small cities fought over control of the star routes or in defense of their home worlds (Battlefleet Gothic).
And that’s but maybe half of the awesomeness that got killed along the way, slowly, as Games Workshop decided those lines were not economically viable anymore. I’m not here to blame them or to bash them, as us as wargamers will surely yell: I played it! There was a community! It was making money! but we are sometimes blind to the truth (that being able to play maybe 3 games a year and buying 2 boxed sets on Christmas and Easter is not making that company that much) but when things got discontinued there were 2 things that happened: our hearts sunk low and ebay prices rose as fast as a Chinese sky scrapper gets built (19 days? sheesh). Quite funny to mention the chinese as they are one of the main forces behind recasting those old Out Of Production (OOP) miniatures. So it was natural that fists where clenched and shaked in the general direction of the G.W. Headquarters and also hunting parties with pitchforks and torches went out to search for people like Gunblzzer74 that sold “Emperor Titan NIB 100 quid buy it now”. And things are pretty much the same since then, with the occasional small/big company that started to trespass the paths closed long ago (Infinity to Inquisitor, Firestorm Armada to BFG, etc).
Rejoice as they are coming back
By now it’s no news or it should not be that the Specialist Games are back in style. Games workshop has announced that it will form a new division to work on the old titles and bring them up to speed.
I feel describing my happiness as that of a squirrel in a barn full of nuts (Ice Age, you know?) would be a gross understatement. I was overwhelmed by positive feelings and i said to myself: They are finally getting it! Well, are they? The below is a collection of logical thoughts and facts that passed my mind after the initial rush faded and Earth said hello to my feet again.
First of all, let us look at what generated such a shift in their mindset. How can such a big company turn 180 degrees and focus on reviving old products that were deemed economically non-viable a while ago? Because let’s be completely honest, money rules the world and unless you’re a small garage enterprise with a dream and money to burn the corporate world does not move itself neither fast nor following a dream (regardless of the “we want to make a better world” bullcrap that we get served by nearly all major players in any domain) unless someone did a successful pitch and drafted a revenue plan that makes sense.
I have to go a bit around things so that i can arrive at the point i make in force. For some years now various companies have published rules systems that have cheap core sets at their forefront. X-Wing and Armada are probably the most notorious and successful of the bunch (in that we measure success at the amount of market share they gathered from – crucially – non-wargaming people) with an entry cost of 25-30 pounds (30-35 euros). Infinity, Deadzone, any Mantic game actually, and others followed suit. And what do all these systems have in common? You can start and play at low level points, with a minimum investment, in quite a short time (X-Wing is nice, sweet, short and quite cinematic to be honest). You could say that epic armies are dead and buried, together with the hundreds of pounds required to even start building them (although let’s not just go there, as that’s a hardcore wargame choice, not a casual one).
That’s not to say that bigger packages are not successfully selling. It’s just that they have a more refined target and demographic. You can’t expect (in this age of speed and easily distracted teens) to wave a “buy this 80 pound starter set then pour a few hundred more plus some serious dozens of hours of painting and you can now play our game as it was intended” and have people flock to your banner. Do that with a 25 pound starter set and advertise a 30 min long battle with prepainted ships and you will have quite a different reaction. Because spare time is at a premium (not to mention money) and short activity bursts fill this quite nicely. I was a young gamer too, and i still remember those 6 to 8 hour long WFB games (filled with smoking breaks, ordering food, eating said food and toilet break periods) and while i have fond feelings towards those memories nowadays i can’t seem to dedicate more then 1 or 2 hours at a time to any hobby related activity. Guess what, that’s what small skirmish games exploit. That “so i can play several games in under 2 hours?” question is what turns most of the peeps towards them.
Games Workshop actually has a history of delving into lower cash investment and time consuming games with its very successful boardgame Space Hulk. Commanding a dozen or so Space Marine Terminators (the veterans of the Space Marine forces) while exploring a derelict ship filled with booby traps, false enemy signals and actual very killy xenomorphs has proven to be a good recipe in selling this quite fast, as Space Hulk editions have been literally flying off the shelves as soon as they were printed. They hit upon collector’s value also as being limited editions they were sure that people will value them slightly higher as soon as they went back out of print (as evidenced by Ebay all the time). Betrayal at Calth hit this nerve again, with good results. It took a vastly underexploited area which actually got some good feedback from the consumer as soon as it was opened and struck that iron while mildly hot to bring it near incandescent temperature. And somehow, somewhere, someone clicked. Or at least that’s what i think it is…
I’m not saying i’m correct on this one, but everything points to a likely scenario that Games Workshop finally realized (and maybe the joke is on us too as i didn’t see many people asking for this path) not what sells (as they know by now that 40k is their main franchise, followed by Paints and probably Fantasy as 3rd, and by the way, the Paints part is probably a sad but true fact) but in what shape it sells. The Betrayal set features around 40 miniatures for a sum of 95 pounds, but truth be told people have done the math and those miniatures alone (let alone that they were previously only Forge World available) would take you to around double that sum. The boardgame (as it is a boardgame) plays as a stand alone system independent of other Games Workshop releases however something interesting to observe: the miniatures in the box are actually multipart and not single pose as we have been previously accustomed. Releasing them as stand alone seems an obvious move in the near future.
So what does the set achieve? Well, for one, wargamers can buy it for good miniature value and use them in the 30k setting (which will get fleshed out soon enough) and non-wargamers can buy it and enjoy a good boardgame, bonus points for being able to trade the set for good value when they get bored of it (trade value is actually quite important if you’re an avid boardgamer that fuels his desire by constantly exchanging games). Everyone’s a winner!
This makes it all the more possible for us to witness the renaissance of Specialist Games through various core sets and boxed sets that can easily play alone or can be expanded upon regularly (as mentioned in the communique).
We will see Battlefleet Gothic core sets released in the manner of X-Wing with future releases as addons to ships (and how awesome would that be?).
We will see Necromunda and Mordheim go through a DnD like Core set + Monster/Henchmen expansions allowing you to play either small or expanded scenarios.
We will definitely see a stand alone different then anything else Epic 40k core set (i think this one will be the closest to the Betrayal set as approach and overall design and strategy, with re-boxable miniatures in case of success).
And many more will follow.
I won’t expect massive releases and a clear fleshed out direction from the start towards grand strategy games. I think G.W. burned itself already with this one (remember Lord of the Rings Strategy Game?) and they will try to get money by being more tactically aligned rather then strategically driven. Have a nice 40 pounds starter set out with 3 Ork escorts versus 1 Imperial Cruiser and see how that goes. Do a 5 dwarfs vs 5 humans 30 pounds starter set for Mordheim and get value out of those. Go ahead and do a nice 100 pound big box of epic gold and awesomeness for Epic 40k and include a damn plastic titan and you are set! And then release boosters/expansions to whichever system sells more. If done correctly (and this might be the plan all along, see again Betrayal set) the initial sales alone will make up in mould costs and they are free to cast at will after that one, being sure of the profit (let’s be clear, plastic costs pennies and they charge at least 30 to 40 times the value of it).
But this is still good!
Well, of course it is. It’s good for the hobby, it’s good for the company and it’s good for you. But let me shatter your optimism regarding prices, as that’s where a lot of people went: yay, no more Ebay inflated prices!
First of all, there is no guarantee these models will be cheaper then Ebay. Sure, we might turn our heads when we see 10 quid Imperial Cruisers on Ebay but how much do you think G.W. is going to charge you for a brand new one? Less then 5? I’d say we’re lucky if we don’t see a price increase. Given that most of the sets have doubled in price over the years and have had their content reduced, i don’t think it’s far fetched to see a single cruiser cost up to 15 quid NIB. The same treatment could be given to individual miniatures or party/faction boxes. Sure, you won’t see the absurd prices some Mordheim miniatures fetch but add a bit of “latest technology in plastic” and couple that with the fact that this new Specialist Games department is going to be part of Forgeworld and you get my point. Quality will come at a premium, because when was the last time you saw G.W. charge something reasonably? The 70’s? Another factor is if they will actually redo some of the released kits. Prices may remain stable if they release the old casts. If they reboot the setting and do new kits, expect the old kits to actually not go through the roof but reach the stratosphere. OOP and now definitely OOP again as they are planning on new ships or miniatures? That’s like 1000% the value now.
I’m still excited and can’t wait to see what gets out next, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s still one of the most exciting news to date and given that for the past years these side-games haven’t seen much love any love is now sufficient for me. I’m mostly waiting for (as you guessed it) news on the Battlefleet Gothic front, as that’s where i plan to focus my financial reserves but no doubt there are many of you who will be happy with Epc, Mordheim, etc. I guess time will tell and my only desire is to have this Specialist Games department flourish and do great things once again, in the spirit of the good old day of the past. And maybe, just maybe, Games Workshop will be able to become again a great company with a plethora of great games in its portfolio. Amen!