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Posted on Nov 17, 2006 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

The State of Wargaming

By Michael Peck

If Mark Twain had played Panzerblitz instead of poker, he might have concluded that the reports of the death of wargaming have been greatly exaggerated.

For 20 years, the hobby has been beset by apocalyptic predictions of its impending demise. Wargames should have disappeared by now, swallowed up by video games, the Internet, and 14-hour workdays. They should have been another bit of ’70s nostalgia, fated to fade into dusty attic boxes and eBay auctions.

Disco and lava lamps have long since departed to the tackiest ring of hell. But wargaming endured and did more than endure. It seems to be thriving. The bad old days of the ’80s and ’90s are a memory. No more poorly playtested cardboard catastrophes with errata longer than the original rules. No more spreadsheet computer wargames with eye-numbing graphics and carpal-tunnel interfaces. Computer game publishers such as Matrix, Battlefront, and HPS are churning out titles, with at least 20 games expected in the next year or so. Meanwhile, the printing presses are humming with a proliferation of board games from established publishers like GMT, as well as designers selling desktop publishing designs over the Internet. More than 150 paper titles were published in 2005.

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World Boardgaming Championships 2006, Lancaster, PA.

Peruse the game sites and forums, and there seems to be a sense of contentment. Who cares if the glory days of the 1970s are gone, when so many teenagers and college students couldn’t wait for the mailman to deliver that manila envelope with Strategy & Tactics magazine inside? The students went on to become educated and affluent adults. Perhaps the hobby has reached that comfort zone where publishers can deliver quality games and gamers can afford to buy them.

So is wargaming in a new Golden Age? That was the question on my mind when I was asked to speak at a Department of Defense conference on how the U.S. military can use entertainment games. As a journalist and wargamer who writes about simulations used by the military – from converted hobby games to $400 million computer sims by major defense contractors – I was asked to discuss the state of hobby wargaming.

Many wargame designers practice their craft out of love rather than money. But wargaming is not a charity. It’s as much a business as a hobby. So I began with a simple question: How many wargames are sold?

It should have been a simple question. But I discovered that no one really tracks sales, nor is there any way to verify the sales figures given. Obtaining sales figures from wargame publishers is like pulling teeth, especially for paper games. The secrecy borders between the ludicrous and the paranoid. Wargaming is not a competitive field. Three companies will publish three Pacific War games at the same time, gamers will moan about having to choose, and the collectors will end up buying all three. If the hobby has problems, it’s in the size of the pie, rather than how it’s sliced.

I had heard anecdotally that paper game sales were up, and indeed some publishers say they’re doing well. GMT, the most prolific of publishers, reports sales have risen 40 percent over the past two years. Avalanche, another major producer, says sales of backstock games quadrupled in the first quarter of 2006 versus the same period last year.

But other publishers reported no significant change. Kevin Zucker of OSG, a designer since the 1970s, put it best: “Sales always go up and down. The market is miniscule.”

How miniscule? Grenier Games, a small publisher, estimates that it might sell 250 copies of its latest game. Clash of Arms says its typical print run is about 1,500 copies per title. Compare this to Rio Grande Games, publisher of popular Eurogames such as Puerto Rico and Carcassonne, which reports that sales can be as high as 100,000 copies per title. Eagle Games – now defunct – said that its reprint of Conquest of the Empire sold more than 20,000 copies in its first year.

According to one list, there were about 150 paper wargames published in 2005 (of which about 20 percent were either magazine games or Advanced Squad Leader supplements). Even assuming that every game sold 1,000 copies – a generous estimate – that’s only 150,000 copies. In 1980, 2.2 million copies were sold, according to Jim Dunnigan’s history of wargaming.

Hard numbers are hard to find, but the most revealing figure I found was in the pre-publication thresholds. GMT and Columbia want 500 pre-orders before they will publish a game. OSG wants 350. Yet board games aren’t hand-made race cars or high-tech Stealth bombers. They’re printed matter like books. At $20 or $50 or $100 a copy, a wargame isn’t much more expensive than consumer electronics or even a hardcover book. Imagine a DVD player or mystery novel struggling to sell 500 copies. It’s not the sign of a vibrant market.

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Are computer games such as Conquest of the Aegean replacing boardgames?

But was I even looking at the right market? Perhaps the Digital Age has rendered paper games obsolete. Perhaps the heart of wargaming now beats inside a computer. With all the millions and millions of people around the world playing every kind of computer game from America’s Army to World of Warcraft Online, surely the computer wargame market must be thriving?

I was shocked when Panther Games, whose superb Conquest of the Aegean features the most sophisticated AI on the market, says it expects to sell just 3,000 copies (a mass market game like The Sims sells in the millions). At $50 a pop, 3,000 copies would only produce $150,000 in revenue. Panther president Dave O’Connor notes that such paltry sales can’t pay for one full-time designer, let alone the $750,000 needed even for a small six-man design team to design a cutting-edge computer wargame. He’s going to do contract work for the Australian military to make ends meet.

Other designers confirm that there is no pot of gold in computer wargames. Military-themed video games sell; witness the popularity of first-person-shooters like Battlefield 2 or real-time-strategy games like Rome: Total War. But the hard-core computer wargames do well to sell a few thousand copies. Modern wargaming – the classic kriegspiel – began as a 19th Century technique to train Prussian staff officers. Hobby wargaming hasn’t had much to do with the military as of late (something the U.S. military needs to change), but it’s amusing to see how many computer wargame designers, such as Panzer Campaigns designer John Tiller, are gravitating toward Pentagon contracts. A $100,000 Air Force research project is chump change for a defense giant like Northrop Grumman, but it’s payday for most game designers.

It’s computer wargames that the hobby should be worried about. Paper games aren’t doing well, but at least they have the excuse that they’ve always been a niche market. Numbers are vague, but Jim Dunnigan estimates there were less than 100,000 board wargamers by the early 1990s. John Kranz, owner of Consimworld.com – the best site for paper wargames – estimates there are now only about 10,000 to 15,000 gamers who buy at least one paper game each year. Anyone who goes to conventions and hobby shops can see that it’s a hobby of graying baby boomers who increasingly find it difficult to find opponents for face-to-face play.

But computer games don’t face those handicaps. Lots of people play some kind of computer game. The games can be played solitaire or over the Internet, so that a gamer in Chicago can find opponents in Hamburg or Melbourne. Computer wargames aren’t going to sell as many copies as The Sims, but they should be able to sell a lot more than some cardboard title on the Thirty Years’ War. And if they’re not, then this proves that they have had no more success than paper wargames in appealing to the mass market.

Is this because computer wargames are too time-consuming? Too complex? Probably. But there may be another reason. Perhaps the most successful computer wargame is Battlefront’s Combat Mission. A highly detailed World War II tactical combat game that combines the realism of a grognard game with the 3-D graphics of a mainstream video game, the game has sold well over one hundred thousand copies, according to Battlefront. That provides enough revenue to fund a six-person development team and at least $2 million in costs for the modern warfare version of Combat Mission.

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The aging but venerable Combat Mission.

I suspect that it’s the 3-D graphics that gives Combat Mission crossover appeal to a mainstream audience accustomed to the flash and sizzle of first-person-shooters. Combat Mission’s graphics may appear clunky and dull compared to the latest shooter, but they’re more likely to lure a new gamer than a bunch of hexagons. And if graphics are the key to revitalizing the hobby, then it’s the end of wargaming as we know it. Paper games can’t compete, and nor can the traditional 2-D presentation of most computer wargames. It’s tempting to say that replacing all those hoary old NATO unit symbols with glitzy artwork will solve the problem. But most wargames – especially paper games – are operational or strategic. They use 2-D graphics and military-style maps because that’s what a real brigade or army commander would use. Animated tanks make sense for a tactical sim, but they’re as useful as wings on a whale for higher-level games.

Trying to compete with mainstream games is economic suicide. Graphics are why developing a mainstream video game devours tens of millions of dollars. It used to be that amateur designers could produce a wargame on their Commodore or IBM XT. They still can, but any game with mainstream-quality graphics is going to require a design team and a fair chunk of capital. Pat Proctor, designer of the Armored Task Force series and one of several current or former military officers working on computer wargames, believes that the cost of developing a game will only increase as technology advances, especially in graphics. More money spent on graphics means less money to experiment with innovative designs that just might appeal to the mainstream audience.

It’s a harbinger of the end times when the optimists see signs and portents everywhere. With the fervor of bird watchers glimpsing a species thought extinct, wargamers twitter over every report of how a friend of a friend saw a teenager playing Advanced Squad Leader at a hobby shop, or how somebody’s five-year-old son picked up his father’s lead miniatures. Miniatures might indeed offer some hope. Hard-core military minis are probably in the same state of decline as paper wargames, but young gamers have flocked to Warhammer 40K, and perhaps Axis & Allies miniatures will prove a hit. But there’s quite a leap between these simple, visually appealing games and the time and effort required to play hobby wargames. It will also take more than a few precocious or socially challenged teens to revitalize a hobby.

As I surveyed the state of wargaming, one thought struck me above all: the health of the hobby rests upon the most fragile base. Visit the websites of publishers, and you’ll see that most are either one-man shops, or three or four people at most (who tend to share the same last name). Some are lone designers laboring in their basements late at night. Others are like Matrix Games, which publishes designs from a plethora of small shops, or relies on volunteers to update older games. Either way, wargames are made by talented people who devote their lives to designing products that earn meager financial rewards. These are businesses without deep pockets, run by aging baby boomers. It won’t take much in the way of illness or divorce or even eventual mortality for these companies to fold. Will there be anyone to replace them? Will the next generation of designers try their hand at historical simulations, or will they opt for the more lucrative eye-candy games? Ironically, paper wargaming may have a better chance of survival. It doesn’t require much capital to produce a DTP design that a gamer can download and print off his home printer.

If all this sounds depressing, it is. The truth is ugly, but ignoring it will prove uglier still. At a time of decline, there is always a tendency to look for a panacea, and to pin blame on those who allegedly allowed the decline to happen. Wargaming made mistakes. It could have done a better job of appealing to new gamers, and it needs to do a better job of appealing to them. But I do not believe for a moment that there is any game that the hobby could have produced that would have changed the outcome. Societies change. What was popular in 1976 may not be popular now. It’s not logical. It’s not fair. But it’s life.

If there is any consolation, it’s that wargaming will not die. The allure of recreating and understanding military history is strong. Games may change, and many of us will lament those changes. But wargaming will endure.

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Author Information

Michael Peck is a writer and defense journalist who covers military use of entertainment games. His work has appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, Training & Simulation Journal, National Defense Magazine, and The Military Channel.

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