Friday, 13 July 2012

Tristram Shandy Rides Again

Having been wargaming - on and off - for the over 30 years I have been thinking about an item on the Codex Project podcast a few weeks ago.

The wider discussion was about GW's financials, and I don't want to dwell on the specifics of what was said because I don't agree with much of it. But what interested me was that they highlighted that of all the figure manufacturers at the time Magic hit, only GW came out of it the other side. Some of them are beginning to show signs of revival recently, for instance Battletech, and some continue to trade in all but obscurity, i.e Prince August.


I got to thinking about this question, of why GW should survive the Magic invasion, and so much of the opposition should go to the wall.

Perhaps it is useful to consider it from a slightly different angle. Back in the 1980's there were a couple of model shops within travelling distance and I would pop along and look through the racks of Heroics and Ros, Dixons, Minfigs, Navwar and Naismith designs but more importantly I would look through the rules. Unlike today these were not full colour figure porn hardbacks, but generally they were 30 or 40 pages of softback A4 book with a couple of staples holding them together. Generally they cost between £3.50 and a fiver, and it was perfectly possible to get started on a game with the rules and both sides for around £30.

And then came the imported American rules.

The first set I remember particularly was a set of WWII rules that came in box, it had one book for the rules, and two books of lists, and cost something like £15. I can't remember what they were called, but they certainly had the grognards grumbling about commercialization ,

But then the grognards had been grumbling for sometime because of Battletech et al, and the newly released Warhammer fantasy rules. They were unhappy at the mechanics of the games, they were not best pleased at the notion of 'balance' they introduced, nor did they like the way the rules were generally over simplified. So when these rule sets began increasingly to impinge into historical gaming the complaints grew stronger and louder.

Of course these games had long been banished from the pages of the wargaming press - which in part explains the early development of White Dwarf. It was not specifically the genre of game that was objected to - though there was/is a strong dislike for fantasy and sci-fi in the historical community - but rather these rule systems attempted to do something that the old rules didn't, they tried to be all encompassing.

You can see this today if you go to any forum in which there is a rules discussion occurring, in terms like RAW and RAI. And woe betide anyone who attempts to use real world concepts in a rules argument. Which is not to say that rules debates didn't go on before, but the difference was that instead of a back and forth about the meaning of the word 'the', people would say 'are you really trying to say that infantry could jump off that cliff and fire round that corner,' and the trickster could be shamed into using common sense.

What is odd about the dislike of Warhammer Fantasy is that it came out just as the big hitter in historical gaming, WRG, lost it's way by going down the path of DBA/DBM in serach of 'balance'. In a way it is like when Ford changed from the Cortina to the Sierra, and then wondered why people stopped buying their stream lined jelly mould and increasingly bought the Cortinalike BMW. It is well recorded that the base mechanics of WFB is WRG Ancients - if only Matt Ward had been parachuted in to impose random charge distances instead of Phil Barker's PiP system.

This is an entirely positive thing, as despite the WRG system having a fixed points level from which the lists were built, the one thing it was not was a balanced game. In those pre-internet days it was not uncommon to hear dark mutterings about how the Romans were totally broken. And the same was pretty much true for most WRG games, and indeed it was one of the reasons people started trying to convert people to try the new balanced and glossy imported games. Because supposedly balance is essential in order that the game be a test of 'generalship'.

And then came Magic.

Gamers didn't have any more disposable income, and with the constant need to buy more cards in order to achieve the nirvana of  'balance' the pool of money dried up for other games. Suddenly the Sierra of streamlined game design was last years model. But the Cortinalike WFB, and particularly it's upstart cousin 40k, went from strength to strength, precisely because it was Cortinalike.

Sure the rules were creaky, and in places it made no sense, but the fact was it did what it said on the tin and it held true to a tradition of gaming that stretched back thirty years to the days when if you wanted a Greek Hoplite, you had to convert it out of an Airfix Confederate infantryman.

And it is perhaps a sign of that heritage that the embargo against GW and similar games was lifted in the wider wargaming press. After all it was better to have people at clubs pushing figures around and rolling dice, than hunched in a corner card counting.


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