June 26, 2022

Designer Interview: David Ensteness of The Wargaming Company

Jim Owczarski, 30 December 2021

It is no secret that David Ensteness and his Et Sans Resultat! are well-regarded hereabouts.  We have certainly played his novel “perspective-based” Napoleonic system and even helped out with a “How to Play” video a while ago.

click images to enlarge

As so much of the Napoleonic gaming we do these days is virtual, though, there has been little opportunity to discuss the line of 10mm metal men that The Wargaming Company — the umbrella under which Mr. Ensteness operates — offers.

And now we are far less likely to.

It is not that they were not nice figures, perfectly suited to the rules.  And it is not for a lack of fondness for the fine tabletop displays the company totes from convention to convention.

No.  It’s this:  The Smallest Thing We’ve Ever Done

In a world of pandemics, supply chain disruptions, and on-going (pointless) debates about whether historical gaming is dying, they have decided to lean the other way.  Hard.

I sent inquiries to his command tent to see whether he had lost his mind or whether this was just the sort of mad-genius move that might improve the chances of Napoleonic wargaming surviving to amuse another generation.  The first half of my questions and his answers follow, the latter edited only for format.

You (The Wargaming Co.) have written and published a novel and well-regarded set of Napoleonic miniatures rules.  You have researched, written, illustrated and published some very well-received campaign books.  Despite an obvious tendency towards 10mm, you have done all this in a way that has largely been figure-manufacturer agnostic.  And now this.  Why?

Our business model is based around expanding the hobby by lowering barriers and by offering existing gamers stuff we wish existed but didn’t or doesn’t.

Right out of the gate we’re starting with the big one, no “How was your flight in?” or “Has your uncle Gerald gotten over that thing, whatever it was?” Just BOOM! answers to all the things appear. That’s cool, I like that, and I promise to make my subsequent answers shorter, ’cause this one’s going long.

Our business model is based around expanding the hobby by lowering barriers and by offering existing gamers stuff we wish existed but didn’t or doesn’t.

When we launched ESR! Original Edition in 2015, we got interest from existing Napoleonic historical gamers looking for a new, alternative system. When we launched ESR! Second Edition and our ESR! Campaign Guides in 2016 we connected with existing historical gamers who were new to Napoleonics. Both of these audiences already knew the historical gaming landscape; they knew the existing manufacturers; they had existing collections or they knew where to buy. But that doesn’t address new-to-historical gamers. Gamers who have gaming experience but not historical gaming experience.

In 2017 we teamed up with an existing miniatures manufacturer to offer ESR Box Sets, because we believed that one of the big barriers to entry for aspiring historical gamers was that they didn’t know the historical marketplace. If we reached them with our game system, they expected we could provide the whole thing. They weren’t looking to build their own game from parts they gathered from three or six or ten different sources, they were looking to buy a complete game and play it. And, that’s exactly what happened. Overnight our customer proportions changed again, from first being mostly existing Napoleonic gamers, to being aspiring Napoleonic gamers, to being aspiring historical gamers. We were reaching an ever broader audience, and in doing so, we were expanding the historical section of the hobby. Great. Now what?

That was our decision point. We had to improve our products to better meet the needs of new-to-historical, new-to-Napoleonic gamers. Existing Napoleonic gamers, were great in a lot of ways, not only can they tell you the year the number of buttons on a hussar’s pelisse changed, but they can talk at you for 20 or 30 minutes about why you should definitely care.  (Author’s Note:  I resemble this remark.1) They’ve got a lot of pre-existing knowledge that makes them tolerant of stuff being missing, stuff a new person would be completely confused by, because our experience fills those gaps. But they are also appreciative of the better product that is achieved when those gaps are filled in, so the thing that improves the experience of the new guy also improves the collective experience. That’s to say: Better product is better for everyone. How do we make ESR! better?

  • ESR Campaign Guides: Bring the plot, the story, tell people what they just dropped into, look at a sci-fi or fantasy system, there’s tons of material dedicated to the lore, the backstory, the plot. We need to provide that. Also, don’t expect the player to know all the things, people are buying your product because they don’t all know things and are looking for new things they don’t know yet. If they knew all the things, they wouldn’t need your product. That means don’t sample uniforms, provide them all, them all.
  • ESR! Player’s Guide: Wouldn’t it be great if it introduced the period, if it sketched out the key players of the era, if it included a slew of starter scenarios, an encyclopedia-like glossary of period terminology?
  • ESR! Box Sets: Miniatures that match the uniform guides, in the correct configurations and proportions for typical historical elements, all the parts included… Both on the miniatures side, all the miniatures you need, not some of the miniatures you need, and on the accessories side: bases, flags, etc…

So, we’re working on this list. Though not exactly in that order.

Those of our tribe, at least those beyond a certain age, suffer almost necessarily from some degree of lead or pewter poisoning.  Why the decision to do plastics? 

We didn’t initially plan to do plastics. Three years back we assumed we’d offer metal, but times change, opportunities change, and technology changes. Today the overwhelming majority of gaming miniatures are plastic, but historical wargaming figures still have a lot in metal. As we go forward, that’s going to change because of economies of scale. Historicals have stayed in metal because of the balance between high product diversity and low startup costs. That isn’t completely changing but there are changes going on and when we saw an opportunity to get ahead of it, we jumped.

TWC-Russian-Grenadier
Pre-production sculpt detail

There’s also a market appeal for plastic. Long time historical gamers know metal, are familiar with metal, and are therefore are comfortable with metal. That’s how new historical gamers are with plastics, because outside historicals, most gaming miniatures are plastic.

Most existing historical gamers don’t dislike plastic, but they demand plastic offers them the same quality they know in metal. Meanwhile, new historical gamers are partial to plastic from past experience and aren’t inclined to move towards metal. So plastic, in high quality production, is the common denominator for both audiences.

I have always wondered and now I get to ask:  What is easier to manufacture, lead or plastic?

There is a question of startup costs and scalability and then a question of difficulty. I can answer the former better than the latter, I think the latter comes down to they each have their own unique requirements but a manufacturer can get good at doing either.

When it comes to cost and scale metal is comparatively inexpensive to get into, however, there is effectively no scaling. Producing ten spins of a thing is basically the cost of producing one spin ten times. There’s no economy of scale there. The tenth one isn’t significantly cheaper than the first one. Added on this is that the pandemic has radically increased metal costs which means that while the startup costs remain competitive with plastic, the production costs – which were comparatively bad before – are getting worse.

Plastics have traditionally been incredibly cost prohibitive to get into, sorta like pharmaceuticals (Author’s Note: NOT a parallel I expected).  The first one costs a zillion dollars, but the second one costs 0.01¢ (not really but you get it). Thus the question with plastics is: How do I mitigate the startup costs? A combination of some new tech and methods with emerging US-based miniature manufacturing companies is making plastic more possible for more companies.

I guess that all is to say, to-date plastics have been harder to fund while metal has been easier to fund, and plastics are easier to profit from while metal is more difficult. But some of those dynamics are changing, not reversing, but shifting.

Related to the above, has the global supply chain thing I keep reading about not made a venture like this impossible?

Impossible no, highly stressful, yep.

Historical miniature gaming is an immature industry – I’m not talking about the behavior of the participants at parties, I’m talking about market and industry development. There’s still a lot of cottage industry going on. A lot of commercial efforts are going it on their own at small scale – in large part because there’s not an existing network of business-to-business that is fleshed out. But that is happening, the industry is maturing and its offerings are getting more advanced.

Before the pandemic, before Brexit, before the trade war – and I’m trying to emphasize that background because the trade war, Brexit, the pandemic, mostly they didn’t create new problems here, they blew up things that were broken but kinda sorta working well enough to be mostly ignored – before all that there were some US-based companies starting to work on developing plastic miniatures manufacturing here in the US, because the need for it already existed because the hurdles already existed.

There have been metal manufacturing options and companies that are really good at that, but there aren’t 30 well-known options, there are like five. And metal has scaling issues, so from a business plan perspective how do you break out? You can afford to startup in metal, but if your 12,000th  miniature costs the same as your 1st miniature, you can’t ever reach a tipping point where your cost/profit curve reverses. If you can’t do that, then how do you compete with Warlord, with Battlefront, etc. Your product will always cost more to produce than theirs because they are operating at scale and you aren’t. There’s a reason Battlefront moved to plastic ~5 years ago, they could. There’s a reason Firelock is moving to plastic now: They can. They’ve reached that scale. So the important thing about US plastic manufacturers is the potential for US-based game companies to be able to compete at scale but there’s also the question of where the entry level scale is.

Compounding this is geography: Where minimum scale and logistics meet. Again, pre-pandemic this was a problem already. If you want to make high quality, inexpensive widgets, you want to contract in China. Awesome. What’s the minimum order? Is it 10,000 units? 100,000 units? How much capital can you tie up in inventory of your initial release? This is why Kickstarter is useful – companies can get that frontend loaded capital and know where their initial runs are going. But if you’re not going the Kickstarter route, then the minimums likely kill you, and the quality and logistical control are scary because you can fly to Virginia or Colorado or Rhode Island to inspect, negotiate, or argue with a manufacturing partner, but a smaller company may not be able to just hop on a plane to China tomorrow if it is necessary.

We’ve got a release goal date of AdeptiCon 2022. We’ve had that goal for a year. Will we make it? I’m honestly not sure. We’ve got a path, it can happen, we’re working very hard to make it so. But even if we miss that goal, we’re not canceling this project, the release could be delayed, but doing this is our next step.

I’ll keep this brief:  10mm, right?  Not 12mm?2

Correct, ESR Napoleonic miniatures are going to be 1:160 scale, aka 10mm.

When it comes to choosing a scale, there are different business considerations and strategies that drive these choices. We’re all about lowering barriers to entry and making historicals accessible to new people. We can do that through what products we offer and what features we build into those products. Compatibility is a feature for us.

TWC-Russian-General
Pre-production sculpt detail

We could have announced a unique scale – that isn’t always a negative thing. What scale is BattleTech? I play it, but I don’t know the scale, it has one, but I don’t care. I don’t need to because the system is self-contained, there’s one IP owner. As far as the gamer is concerned, BattleTech is “BattleTech Scale”. That’s the same way boardgames work. I’m not worried about interoperability because the game pieces I need are part of the game I bought and I’m unlikely to source third-party ones, and any third-party ones are going to be coordinating themselves to match the “official” offering because: There’s one IP owner.

But historicals are different. There are a ton of existing Napoleonics on the market. In established scales. From respectable manufacturers. There’s no single authority. We think that we can do well by providing a very high quality product in a way that makes it both appealing and accessible to new players – but we don’t want to exclude existing gamers who have existing collections because all that does is reduce the pool of gamers that our new-to-Napoleonics customers can game with, and ultimately our goal is to enlarge the hobby not create a different, isolated market segment. (Author’s Note:  I say nothing…nothing…)

I do not know how much of this you can divulge, but who is doing your sculpts?

Like the manufacturing world is changing, the sculpting world is changing, but really, really fast. Not long ago all sculpting was done by hand, and many sculptors continue to work this way. It is an artisan trade and it is really pretty amazing, but it is also time-limited. How many Napoleonic miniatures do you want in your line? How many decades is it going to take a single sculptor to produce those? How difficult is it to coordinate the efforts of two or more on the project? What are the logistics of sharing physical items between them to replicate repeating parts?

Meanwhile, there is a huge talent pool of sculptors doing digital work. If you go look at the 3D printing world, all that stuff is being created by digital sculptors, and those sculptors do a lot of contract work for game companies – though perhaps few of us know it. This gets back to industry maturity, more business-to-business relationships offering solutions to each other to achieve scale.

That’s a long answer to say, we’re not working with one sculptor but several and with the scope of our project, that number is likely to keep growing if we’re successful.

Tune in next time when we ask David about which nations will be released first, how broad the offering will really be, and, most notably, whether there will be Opolchenie?

 


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Footnotes

  1. Editor’s Note: hell yes he does
  2. Editor Note: One suspects a sore spot on the part of the interviewer

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