Hero Crusade

Having just recently played the thoroughly enjoyable Firefly game, The Chaps caught a bit of board game fever and wanted to organise an evening playing a myriad of our favourite cardboard based entertainment.  A second go on Firefly was welcome and Space Hulk always goes down well, amongst the numerous other potentials.

Now Space Hulk is a game that’s close to my heart and really demonstrates what you can do with a boxed game through the quality of the pieces, variety of the board, and tactical game mechanic. Whenever the game is mentioned I’m reminded of the time I was fortunate enough to get the last copy in London (really) when its release sneaked out so sneakily I almost missed it entirely.

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I was late picking up my copy of White Dwarf that month and was not yet keyed in with social media, so by the time I realised that yes, one of my favourite childhood games had actually been re-released, I was very late to the party.  My local store at the time was the Plaza on Oxford Street and upon walking in the lack of Space Hulk shaped boxes on the shelves worried me – and my fears were confirmed when the staff informed me they had none left and then proceeded to reel through all the other stores they had already called trying to get more.  The only possibility was the Bromley branch (barely even London) which had two left – down to one by the time he managed to get the words ‘reserve it’ out of his mouth.  Lucky me. But even more luckily the store manager was attending a meeting at that store in a few days, so he let me have a box that had already been sold and was awaiting collection in a week and would bring the reserved one back with him.  So I got to walk out of Plaza that day with the last box of Space Hulk to be sold in London grinning like an idiot – super mega lucky me.

All this got me thinking, are Games Workshop missing a vitally important component from their Machine Spirit?  Their special release games have largely been a success (although they over egged it a bit with Dreadfleet), but is there a place for something a bit more permanent?  And focussed?  Board or Boxed games provide a ready-made doorway into their IP’s and their absence seems to be a missed opportunity. There were two (well, three) games that led me up the path of war gaming and I know I won’t be alone when I say their names; Hero Quest and Space Crusade (and to a lesser extent Battle Masters).  These are still two of my most favouritest games to this day, I own them, I play them, I’ll never forget them. For those of you who don’t know, these three games were made in conjunction with MB Games and had a very wide distribution as a result – retailers you would NEVER see Games Workshop products in today.  They even had TV adverts (I know, right?!) such was the benefit of working with a mainstream manufacturer like Milton Bradley.  And it worked, an entire generation of war gamers born out a present they got for their birthday from granddad that he picked up in Argos [I got mine at the tender age of 7 from my parents. -Ed].

We all know the company recently posted far from good financial results and this has been largely attributed to their prices over anything lacking product wise.  From what I’ve heard, they conducted price tests which demonstrated customers (i.e. us) were willing to pay whatever the price (with a pinch of salt) to obtain what they wanted from the company.  You can form your own opinions as to the veracity and ethicality of this information but taking it at face value I would say in principal it’s true – we all know we are paying significant amounts of money for things that don’t have an inherent value to anyone other than ourselves as a community, but we enjoy our hobby and are willing to pay to do so.  Am I not going to buy those Empire State Troops because you only get 10 in a box now?  Of course I am – eventually.  Although the rise of eBay has provided the savvy wargamer with an alternative retailer with which they can obtain their wants cheaper, not to mention the Independents who regularly sell for less than RRP.  Games Workshop has taken steps to limit the impact these have on its sales by cutting the range available to its independents stockists as well reducing their trade discounts, and some would argue that part of the reason for phasing out metal models entirely was to tear the bottom out of the resale market.  I must assume they would have factored in people leaving the hobby as a result of the prices rising, so far above the rate of inflation (at least I would hope so), and is expected anytime prices go up, but one area I think they have seriously underestimated the affect their business strategy is having is at the entry-level – the young ‘uns.

I am personally of the opinion that the hobby has never been harder to get into as a child than now, despite the games having been aligned more to younger gamers than in the past – the myriad of products at very steep prices means the start-up cost has gone way beyond the reach of your average 12-year-old to enjoy fully, even with birthdays and Christmases.  You can learn more complex rules with practice, but you can’t magic money into your pockets.  I don’t have any numbers to back this up but I can’t imagine the new starter uptake could be improving given the current economic climate combined with the premium pricing of products, and their financial results seem to agree. I did notice Games Workshop were cunning in their approach and closed a number of stores in order to open others in the more affluent areas (of London) no doubt as part of their strategy to raise prices whilst maintaining the influx of new starters, but you can’t say that it worked, at least not on a company-wide basis. Maybe because even though kids with little knowledge on the value of money may be willing to pay whatever the cost, perhaps their parents weren’t? Or maybe that new Xbox or Playstation game which is cheaper than a box of centurions is just too tempting – and better value?

I know times change, businesses progress, tastes differ, the world moves on.  GW no doubt had its reasons for not continuing with this particular approach but is it time to re-evaluate this view?  I don’t see their prices coming down any time, like ever, maybe freezing for a while at best, so a moderately priced all in one game could eventually (we’re talking long-term) provide the sorely needed influx of new blood the company needs to brighten its future.  Cast your net far and wide, as the saying goes, and you will catch many…er… children?

There’s rumours abound as to what the next special release will be, if there still is one, Bloodbowl perhaps?  Regardless, I will most likely buy it as these are the games I grew up with and still enjoy. The seed was planted long ago and has taken route so deep it can never be fully torn out.  But I fear I’m in a dwindling group with the fewer young gamers coming through having no experience of these games and sharing a lesser bond with the hobby for it. Older gamers will understand even more than I having seen the birth of the company and the changes it’s gone through.  Specialist Games have gone the way of the Dodo that’s yet another way uptake has been eroded by the company’s need for profit.  But all is not lost, things break and can be fixed (anyone who’s bought Games Workshop’s glue can attest to that), it’s just whether those who make the decisions can make the right ones this time.

Board!

So a thought occurred to me last night as Neil (of The Chaps) and I played quite possibly the most nail-biting game of Dreadball, or any game, that I’ve ever played. The thought was this: board games are awesome.

I don’t know why this comes as a surprise to me seeing as I cut my wargaming teeth at the age of 7 on Hero Quest and Space Crusade. Even now I still remember the thrill of excitement when I opened the box and read the rules and set up my first dungeon. Even now, almost 24 years later I look at the artwork and still feel that spark of wonderment.

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Of course, by today’s standards; the models are shit. I mean spectacularly. But you know what? Back there and back then they were the most incredible things I’d ever seen and it took me on a life long journey of boards, armies and dice that I’ll never trade and never forget.

But back to the present. Ish. As I say, it was the monthly games night and Neil and I were playing the Dreadball game to end all Dreadball games that went down to the last rush and the last dice throw that won me the game. Next to us Ian and Jeremy were playing Memoir ’44 another, by pure chance, hex based game.

What made it so good was that we all got to sit around a single table – a barrier of munch separating the boards – the games were hugely fun, were over in under two hours and didn’t require an hour either side to set up and tidy away. Now, I’m not opposed to a tabletop game. Of course I’m not, I have two full companies of Ultramarines for crying out loud. I’m all for boards, crammed with scenery, hundreds of models and dozens of dice. But board games have their place too. Even over a skirmish game which still requires faff and time to set up.

I suppose my thought is this – a board game, if well written, can have a tremendous amount of variety and diverse outcomes all wrapped up in a relatively restrictive setting. Let’s go back to Hero Quest. The outcome of a quest was determined as much by the people playing and the routes their heroes took as it did the dice being rolled, the objective or the beasties they had to face.

This thought has run in parallel with a couple of others I’ve been having recently. The first is that time for me is about to come in extremely short supply. At least for the next few months. The second is that I have so much shit, I don’t know what to do with it when I do find myself with a rare window of free time. And the third is that for some of it I just don’t care enough. No matter how awesome a range of models is or how good a game can be potentially, if it’s hours of debate over badly written rules or page flicking because the book was compiled by a room full of retarded monkeys then what’s the point? It’s meant to be fun, after all.

As wargamers we invest a huge amount of time and effort into our hobby so the return absolutely has to be there and I’ve begun to wonder if there is a strong enough one for certain games that I collect and play. This isn’t to say that’ll jack them in. At least not yet. But it does mean that I’m going to start looking at games that give me a better return on the investment I make both financially and my time.

My recent forays in to boardgames like Last Night on Earth, Guards Guards, Dreadball and observing Memoir ’44 has presented me with a new and relatively inexpensive avenue to enjoy a game with my mates that doesn’t require a huge outlay for any of us. Granted there is a sliding scale. Level 7 by Privateer Press and Super Dungeon Explore are around the £40 and £65 respectively but both are still relatively inexpensive games that still retain their roots in wargaming. But with the likes of Halo Risk out and Mass Effect Risk on the way it’s hard not to have one’s heard turned by the more conventional wargame.

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This isn’t to say that I’m hanging up my tape measure or anything like that but it’s an avenue of wargaming that needs far greater exploration and far greater attention paid because, when time is short, a board game allows you the opportunity to play a game and often allows the entire group to game together especially with the likes of Level 7, Zombicide, the soon to be released Warhammer 40,000: Relic by Fantasy Flight and the recently announced Firefly the Game from Gale Force 9 .

RE01 copy

I’m still madly in love with Mordheim. 40k is still my jam and Godslayer has me and The Chaps so hot and hard we can barely look each other in the eye, but you know what? I have room in my heart and in my cupboard for a couple of boardgames. And when it’s a school night and everyone needs to be in bed by eleven, I think something like Level 7 or Dreadball fits the bill nicely.