Armchair Dragoons PAO, 30 December 2019
2019 was a ‘building’ year for us here at the Armchair Dragoons.
With the regiment established the year before, we focused on the core idea we wanted to build around: helping strategy gamers get the most out of their games. We spent the bulk of our time on our live broadcasts, continuing our podcast, and articles that make you want to read & discuss gaming. While the forums are a key piece of our community, they are not the only focal point, and the slow-and-steady-growth of that part of the Dragoons has been fun to watch, even if we haven’t over-emphasized “everyone come register!”
So while 2019 wasn’t quite as momentous as 2018 – the year we founded the regiment – it was still a solid year of getting ourselves grounded for more adventures to come, and we appreciate everyone whose joined us on the march.
2019, though, also gives us an endpoint at which multiple numbers roll over on the calendar. So while the most pedantic among us (you know who you are) will argue the decade doesn’t end until 2021, we’re taking this opportunity to look back on the decade in gaming, and we’ve asked a few friends to chime in, too.
“What’s been the biggest story in the gaming world over the past 10 years?”
And wow, we got responses all over the map. Some were short, and some were paragraphs. Some were unexpected, and others were predictable (especially given who they were from).
Crowdfunding & Game Quality
One reply we got from across the spectrum of participants was the explosion in crowdfunding, and Kickstarter (specifically). Although wargamers have been accustomed to pledging games on P500 pre-order lists for over 20 years, the rest of the world caught up with the crowdfunding model in the teen years of the millennium, and did so in a big way.
Jeff Tidball of Atlas Games chimed in, “There’s no question about that one: The rise of crowdfunding generally, and Kickstarter specifically. I can’t think of anything else that comes close.”
And Uwe Eickert of Academy Games was a little more specific in his reply that “It has changed how companies such as ours can finance games with incredible miniatures and artwork. It also allows us to reach a MUCH broader audience!”
…allowed anyone with an idea to pitch folks for funding. The products that resulted from such funding still had a bell-curve of quality from good to bad to ugly, but it offered a path to game publishing – Russ Lockwood
“More than anything else over the last 10 years, crowd funding, Kickstarter in particular, has significantly lowered the barrier to entry for designers to see their concepts become developed into reality across all media of gaming,” noted DoD wargamer Mike Dunn.
Developer Russ Lockwood, of Against the Odds Magazine, replied “Kickstarter. Or I suppose all the crowd funding sites. Allowed anyone with an idea to pitch folks for funding. The products that resulted from such funding still had a bell-curve of quality from good to bad to ugly, but it offered a path to game publishing,” and that caution of caveat emptor on Kickstarter was also echoed by DoD wargamer Christopher Weuve, who replied “I’ll add that this reminds me of the CCG craze of the 90s. Eventually people realize they can’t buy everything at the same time everyone and their brother joins in, and the market crashes.”
Although not directly tied to crowdfunding, Uwe’s comment about the miniatures and artwork was echoed by Alan Emrich the lord overseer sage of wargaming, who thought that “It would probably be the rise of cheap, overseas printing of boardgames and more inclusion therein of plastic and wooden bits. The ‘glamming’ of gaming is the story of the 2010s” and Kev Sharp of Big Board Gaming, who happily noted that “the rise in quality of the end product from box art (a move away from clip art, to custom art pieces), better quality contents from maps and dice to counters and rule book formats” is a net positive trend in gaming over the past decade.
Jim Owczarski (“Cyrano” to the Dragoons) also comments that “Better and more affordable printing technology has brought the state-of-the-art to a very high level and encouraged development that can only be compared to the fondly-remembered days of Avalon Hill and SPI. As boardgames can now bring very substantial revenues, however, the market, as it is always going to, is pursuing those dollars, in part to the cost of ‘old school’ games and designs. Some companies have left that market behind while others are certainly leaning that way.”
Gamergate, and the social battle-lines
There’s no denying that the reverberations of Gamergate and the attendant follow-up aftershocks still ripple through every facet of the hobby gaming world, both digital and tabletop. The social battle lines have even hardened for some as the decade has gone on. While we’re not staking out any sides here at the Armchair Dragoons, we would be remiss in not acknowledging this as a wide-ranging issue that’s affected everything from guest of honor invitations at Origins to accusations of falsely reporting harassment to the authorities. It colors every discussion of “how do we expand the participant base of wargamers” and is guaranteed to ignite a flame war on social media any time it’s mentioned.
Within our replies from the industry around Gamergate and other social issues, we got replies across the social spectrum from folks as wide-ranging as Jon Compton of Canvas Temple Publishing to Kev Sharp to Mike Dunn, and others. Some simply mentioned “Gamergate” with no elaboration, and other comments ranged from “Gamergate because a bunch of people came out of their parents’ basement, and it was not a good thing” to “I could be snarky and say the rise of the Social Justice Warrior as a fighting class in wargames… The Angst is palpable.”
…the Golden Age is not just the deluge of new titles, it’s the diversity of the wargaming scene – Matthew Kirschenbaum
“The biggest story of the last decade is the ever-so-slow, sometimes painful, sometimes inexplicably grudging but nonetheless inexorable rise of social consciousness in wargaming” noted Matthew Kirschenbaum, who is as openly ‘left’ as you’ll find on the social spectrum and discussed it on the Scramble for Africa podcast with us last summer. Kirschenbaum was a little more elaborative in his reply on why this was a big story over the past ten years, “The backlash against GMT’s Scramble for Africa title (and subsequent fallout that landed the hobby in the pages of the New York Times, among other outlets) is the most dramatic demonstration, but the kind of boorish insularity afforded by an exclusively white, male, and largely Anglo-American community is dissolving amid the global reach of social media, as well as new platforms (like Kickstarter) for new publishers, and players’ appetites for variety in terms of subject matter and different styles of gaming. The Golden Age is not just the deluge of new titles, it’s the diversity of the wargaming scene and the message that clubhouse cluelessness doesn’t get a pass any more.”
Certainly there are members of the hobby that’ll take issue with his characterization of the issue, but no one can deny it’s importance.
Mike Dunn summed up a cross-section of replies on how the gaming work, and the geekiness that goes with it, quite well: “I consider Kickstarter, as well as Gamergate, as symptomatic of an even more profound event; the broadened cultural acceptance of gaming in general. In almost every city we now find well attended gaming events in ever increasing number of gaming spaces. Every year sees the release literally thousands of new digital titles across every imaginable genre. As gaming (finally) breaks through the gender barrier, we see a renaissance of innovative game designs made possible by increased demand by the broadened appeal and increased supply enabled by crowd funding. We see this reflected in our culture by game references finding their way into movies (Ender’s Game, Ready Player One) and television shows (Big Bang Theory, South Park) as well as in professional circles (DoD re-emphasis on wargaming)”
Board games are back! – Glenn Drover
He was hardly the only one to note the popularity of gaming among the broader spectrum of pop culture as more than negative stereotypes to populate one-dimensional background characters.
“Board games (and all analogue gaming) are back!” replied Glenn Drover of Forbidden Games, “Growth rates and projected growth rates are explosive; con attendance is at record levels and growing.”
Carolina Game Tables’ Jodi Black said “I think the Age of the Geek has truly arrived. Board games are becoming more and more like tabletop RPGs, and vice versa…could we see a day when there is such a one-size-fits-all tabletop game that hits all the categories at once? Card/Board/RPG/Solo play/Legacy/Kitchen Sink? I think that’s a lovely thought, but there will always be category games so long as there are people to play them.”
Overlapping with the earlier crowdfunding thoughts, DoD wargamer James Sterrett pointed out “the rise of the financial and printing tools to make the explosion of games happen over the last 10-20 years rose in parallel with the move of gaming into the mainstream. The tools came from other endeavours and would have been there regardless; the explosion made it feasible to use them for games. I suspect the explosion would have happened even without the design/publishing explosion – because much of that explosion is driven by electronic gaming – but the two together have been highly synergistic put together.”
The broadening of the industry has had many effects, as Tom Russell pointed out in reflecting on how is specifically affected Hollandspiele, “for us, that in and of itself is a big story: gaming as an industry has grown enough, and games as an art form has evolved enough, that there is room for unusual games and unusual business models, especially in the wargame space. I think even just ten years ago, there was less room and support for experimentation. New types of games, new blends of genres, some pushing against the “definition” of what a wargame is (but let’s not start on that again) and what it means to engage with history in a game form, have created a much more diverse and robust market.” He continues with some thoughts on how a more expansive game industry can have wide-ranging effects on game design in pointing out that “Volko Ruhnke, Mark Hermann, and Cole Wehrle have managed to innovate while producing broadly popular and accessible history-based games – and that has made it much, much easier for Mary and me to happily doodle in our own little corner, and somehow make a living at it! Other small and unusual publishers are doing very well for themselves existing in the margins, and I think as time goes on and growth continues, there will be more room for idiosyncratic games and unique perspectives.”
Similarly populating that space are the publishers grabbing the attention of Sharp, who pointed out that “the continuing expansion of micro, small, and on-demand publishers that are clearly being successful with wargame titles, despite the ever-impending doom and gloom and predicting the demise of the wargamers. The share of wallet seems to indicate a growing pie not a shrinking pie.” We can only hope so!
The Golden Age of Tabletop Gaming, and What Are We Playing In It?
For many of the Dragoons, and our readers, our coming-of-age in the world of hobby games was fixture of old-school D&D and similar tabletop RPGs (Traveller, Runequest, etc), and a heavy dose of the then-current-event-wargaming of the Cold-War-goes-hot in Central Europe.
…the real creativity and strength seems to be in the analog universe – Jim Owczarski
And yet here were are, 30-40 years later, with game writer/reviewer/friend-of-the-Dragoons Ardwulf replying that “the D&D renaissance” is the biggest story of the last ten years, and Cyrano stating that the past ten years “will be remembered as a golden era for boardgames. I would argue this has come even at the expense of the PC as a preferred strategy-gaming platform. This is not to say that there have not been quality strategy releases on digital platforms, but their number has diminished and the real creativity and strength seems to be in the analog universe. The array of new offerings at events like GenCon and Spiel is dizzying.” (ed note – Cyrano was also that guy™ to point out the decade wasn’t yet over).
Sharp also notes that in addition to production quality, “an extra effort by designers and publishers to (A) test better and produce a less error-prone product and (B) the rapid evolution of the Solo AI as an almost or de-facto element in many games” has contributed the past decade of gaming success.
“Back in the seventies, starting with SPI’s original Red Star/White Star, these were staples of the wargaming hobby. It wasn’t just SPI either; GDW had its Third World War and Assault series. Even Avalon Hill, arguably the most cautious of the big publishers when it came time for product selection, opted in with the MBT tactical game, and its Victory Games imprint published NATO,” designer & writer Jim Werbaneth elaborated on the resurgence of Cold War wargames. “In more recent years, the genre has seen a rebirth. GMT published a new and refined edition of MBT, with three expansions, portraying not just the US Army, then the Bundeswehr in its own package, but additional ones with the British and the Canadians. Maybe it’s all due to a kind of nostalgia for aging gamers, looking back to their formative years in decades gone past. Maybe it’s a renewed interest in what might have been; after all, World War III is our greatest contrafactual conflict. It could be too that people are realizing that this was just a damned interesting set of strategic and tactical situations, gameworthy today, just as it was getting on thirty years ago. Regardless, it is good to see this venerable and important topic returning to popularity.” It was certainly worthy of our discussion for multiple episodes of our podcast.
Overall, of course, it’s impossible to sum up such a tumultuous ten years of gaming with a few quips from some of our industry favorites, except to note, as Sharp does, that we “hope the trend continues and that the scope, breadth AND depth of titles continues to expand.”
So perhaps the geeks have conquered the world, for now, and the gaming renaissance might last for a while.
What will we be talking about in ten more years? Hmmmmm…