Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Grumpy Tuesday

In a wargaming context, when does “hypothetical” go too far?

That’s a question likely to reveal quite a bit about the person answering it. Me? I’ll have to say I can’t define ‘too far’ through a set of solid guidelines – but I know what it looks like when I see it.

Some gamers draw the line at sci-fi theme games. Others can’t stomach “alternate history” – which might seem strange at first, as a wargame that allows you to create an outcome other than the historical is “alternate history” almost by definition.

But I understand that the line separating the passable from the indefensible is usually pretty fuzzy and very personal.

My personal tastes are a perfect example of the confusion. I’m a big fan of ‘moderns’ – games featuring Cold War-era tactical combat, mostly in Europe. I think I’ve discussed that previously, in fact. I also enjoy a number of sci-fi titles, and was a big fan of almost all of the SPI sci-fi games when they were first released back in the wayback.

Alt-history Hot War games like NATO, The Next War, Central Front Series and World War Three have all graced The Big Table at some point over the last 25 years or so.

Yet there are a number of alt-history games that I have no appreciation for whatsoever. Why? Usually for one of two reasons: either their premise is grounded in a near-history that seems impossible to me or the topic seems gratuitously goofy to me to the point that I feel the publisher is trying to make a quick buck instead of a quality gaming experience.

Truthfully, most publishers are smart enough to avoid impossible near-history. But many of them have published games that display gratuitous goofiness. The key, for me at least, is the orientation of the goofiness (is it humorous?) and, ultimately, the quality of the game play.

The current target for my ‘hypothetical’ grumpiness is “Cone of Fire” from Avalanche Press. As has been noted elsewhere in this blog, I’m a fan of both GWAS and SWWAS – but in general their ‘Plan’ games and, now, Cone of Fire, simply rub me the wrong way. Cone of Fire, I’ll grant, includes some historical scenarios but – frankly – for the price tag it sports it needs to offer more than a couple of ‘real’ battles in combination with a number of South American maritime wet dreams which feature ships that the great naval powers like Chile and Argentina COULD have bought, but didn’t.

Of the ‘Plan’ games, only US Navy Plan Orange seems even remotely plausible as alt-history. A 30s-era Pacific War was improbable, granted. Plan Orange also has the virtue of being very playable, rather interesting and a good introduction to the system’s rules for air warfare.

Plan Red (and its replacement, Sea of Troubles), Plan Black and Plan Gold strike me as games built on weakened keels (as it were). Truthfully, to me it seems that those games, along with Cone of Fire, were intended to cash in on the ‘completist’ gamers out there more than anything else. To an extent, that irritates me.

Grump, grump, grump.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Old games on the brain - still

Last night I sat around and poked at the old SPI game World War I. I also spent some time in the Wayback Machine, flipping through the pages of the magazine it accompanied, S&T 51.

It’s an oddball little ‘time machine’ sensation to page around an S&T published in 1975. Capsule reviews of games I don’t remember from publishers I only vaguely remember (if at all). Advertisements for ‘new’ SPI boxed games (‘Fast Carriers’ was the flavor of the month). Feedback proposals for more games – some that were published, others that weren’t, and others still that were published later in a different form.

The ‘Outgoing Mail’ written by Dunnigan is interesting only in hindsight. Most of his commentary for the issue centers on SPI’s pricing, and how that had been impacted by both the ‘oil shortage’ and the recession. He vows to hold the line on subscription pricing and to keep price increases on their flatpacks to one dollar. One dollar. So that put single-map flatpacks in the $7 to $9 range, depending on the number of counters. They hadn’t started doing ‘monsters’ (or had they? I know Terrible Swift Sword was just around the corner), but I think I saw a bigger game – don’t remember the title – priced at $12.

Normally a discussion of pricing would be pretty dull, and this is too, sort of. But part of the historical context is that there was apparently quite a bit of disagreement about pricing at SPI. A number of the gaming ‘names’ that scattered when SPI exploded place considerable blame for the collapse on the company’s ‘underpricing’. It would have been a tough call, I admit, given the state of the economy at the time.

It occurs to me that maybe – just maybe – SPI might have been able to survive (to a degree) if the Internet had been available to them as a marketing tool. They made a great effort to promote what these days are called ‘direct sales’, but the only tools they had for that were their magazines and other mailed materials.

Plenty of grognards remember (and many probably still have one or two) the old SPI brochure-style ‘catalogs’ that they used to promote mail and phone orders. It generated a good chunk of business for them, but there just wasn’t the communication system in place that they needed to enable direct sales to completely replace sales through the retail distribution channel.

Of course, I’m under no illusion that they would still be producing games today. The industry went through so much of a shake-out in the late 80s and early 90s that none of the ‘starter companies’ survived in anything approaching their original form. Think about that for a minute, too, in the context of SPI exploding. Where have their contemporaries gone? GDW, Avalon Hill, Victory Games, West End Games, TSR. GDW just kind of flamed out. Avalon Hill and TSR got swallowed by the Hasborg/Wizards of the Coast collective. Victory and West End proved not much more than fast-burning debris thrown off from the SPI explosion – a pity because both produced some very good games.

In a strange bit of irony, I think computers – once identified as the destroyers of board wargaming – are really the main force in keeping the hobby alive. Computer gaming certainly chopped the market for cardboard-and-paper games, but in a strange twist it’s the development of the Internet that has allowed the industry to survive and prosper.

One of the primary reasons companies like Victory Games and West End Games couldn’t make headway is simply this: Not enough wargamers knew about their games. I was as geeky a gamer as they get, but I was distant from major urban areas and large game stores. I didn’t discover many of their published titles until I started tooling around on Ebay some 15 or 20 years after their demise. Truthfully, ditto for some of the games from ‘mainstream’ publishers like GDW and TSR. None of those publishers had a communications method as fast, complete and inexpensive as the Internet.

Many modern game publishers, for instance, absolutely depend upon pre-orders (pioneered by GMT’s P-500) to cover production costs. I think GMT is financially beyond P-500 as an absolute requirement, but many publishers are not. Most publishers depend on Internet direct sales to the point that they keep a very low profile in the distribution channels. Remember when The Gamers pulled completely out of retail distribution in the mid-90s? A lot of gamers thought Dean Essig was crazy. (Well, he is, but not for that reason.) Cutting the costs of the retail channel and selling direct to gamers kept his business alive. While few companies have completely abandoned retail, many of them indeed have minimal retail presence. DTP and low-volume publishers typically sell only through their own web site or via limited presence on discounter web sites.

Hmm. All of that from flipping through one old copy of S&T. Somebody stop me.