Should Wargames Ever Be Finished?

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Ever since George Lucas tinkered with the iconic original Star Wars trilogy, fans have asked one complex question. Should Lucas, or 20th Century Fox, have altered the movies? This question can be applied more broadly to other topics. Today, we’re asking: Should wargames ever be finished?

Ownership

The first question that you have to consider is one of ownership. Who actually owns a wargame once it has been published. Now, the legal answer is a little more straightforward than the concept of ownership as fans might see it. After all, fans invest significant time in playing, modifying, talking about, supporting, and enjoying the game.

The Sharks

As David Dockter once said on his excellent podcast Guns, Dice & Butter designers greatly benefit from the “sharks” as Dockter calls them. These are the players who take the mantle of providing peer-to-peer support, hosting tournaments, talking about the game, and ensuring the longevity of the title well past the normal cycle of any game’s active interest. Couple with this, the relatively quick engagement cycle for board wargamers today and these “sharks” in many ways are taking on a great deal of ownership for a game.

The Jets?

I wanted to make this whole West Side Story thing work…but let’s be honest there’s no Jets vs. Sharks in this equation. The relationship between designers and their fans is far more symbiotic. Ideally, a healthy relationship between publisher, designer, and fans will create a meaningful feedback loop in which the designer remains engaged as an active advocate for their game.

I have no idea how designers with lots of games under their belt stay sane. Fans can be needy, obtuse, and unfair. Those are just a few of my traits…there are others of course that distract and critique. Fans do offer solid suggestions and insights that the best designers take to heart and try to incorporate into future games or co-opt for their design toolkit.

Designers are, however, only human and the creative process is a deeply personal undertaking. The creative projects of my career or any multi-year project that I’ve “given birth to” over the years have been insanely personal. All of those projects are for the benefit of others. Consequently, I have some insight into a designer’s interest to tinker.

“MY” Game

The result is a game where fans and designers feel ownership. The problem, of course, is that fans see different things they like about the game from the designers at times. This means changes are either going to be wholly embraced or viewed with skepticism. Rarely will the fans outright reject a “2nd Edition” as they did in the case of the Star Wars original trilogy changes.

The stakes are high, but they aren’t so high that fans should feel alienated. There are cases, however, where that is the case. I’ll be walking you through my own game tinkering alienation case study below. A good place to look at why “my” game is so varied just take a look at a game with lots of reviews like Combat Commander. There are 44 reviews of the game between 2006 and January 17, 2019 of Combat Commander: Europe.

While the reviews follow a central conclusion (well liked) and a few common likes (tense scenario design) and dislikes (variations on concerns about randomness), they are all slightly different. In the re-appropriated words of Mark Herman “It takes a village.” People approach different games and why they like them for all kinds of reasons. Consequently, it stands to reason that even seemingly minor changes or evolution to rules or game components can cause people to feel uncomfortable with the change.

Case Study: Conflict of Heroes

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear came out in 2008. I was thrilled and quickly bought a copy, as well as Storms of Steel when it was released. I was a fan of the artwork, complexity, and approach to tactical WW2 games. I printed every scenario I could find, laminated player aid cards, organized and built every imaginable fan addon you can think of for the game.

I was a huge fan!

Then, I found out that a 2nd Edition was coming. I was willing to give it a shot, but held off. What did me in was that the game components had altered from the original. While I could still thoroughly enjoy the game I loved, I would need to re-purchase everything in order to keep up with the series and move along with it as new expansions were released. At the time, First Men In and Guadalcanal felt like they were right around the corner rather than nearly a decade away.

I was dejected and sold my copy. I swore never to go back…I caved recently and I’m all in once again because I do enjoy the series.

Lessons Learned

I think I learned a few lessons from these 5 or so years:

  1. Designers who have a signature series to their name ARE going to tweak it and continue to evolve it.
  2. Don’t believe the hype for new editions until its released and you have a chance to fully explore.
  3. Don’t believe Academy Games release dates. lol! (Tongue in cheek of course…but not really)
  4. Customers need an upgrade pathway.

Upgrade pathways

You may disagree with me here if you’re a publisher or a designer. I understand your business premise. I don’t understand your customer service stance…

Edition changes that alter components NEED an upgrade pathway for existing customers. If you don’t do this…you are both lazy and greedy. That’s a bold claim, but there’s really no excuse for it. I certainly respect the need to make money and think upgrades CAN make money! Further, I understand the need to minimize warehousing and overprinting products.

Here are a few ways to fix that problem:

  • Promote the upgrade kit alongside the announcement of the new edition.
  • Offer the upgrade kit on a pre-order only basis. Only “overprint” maybe an additional 10% of your ACTUAL sales during the pre-order period.
  • Upgrade your distribution chain’s old edition copies with the upgrade kit and sell those copies as a new product with a pricepoint that seems to make the most sense for the now combined products.

In effect, service your existing customers with an opportunity. You’re already printing the new components after all! Make it clear that this is a limited time opportunity and that once the stock is gone, that’s it. While this is unlikely to sell more than about 20% of your prior edition copies that should convince you that a) you want to preach to the choir or lose them and b) that you’re not talking about a massive run of these upgrade kits which will already (for the most part) be paid for when they get shipped.

Back to Ownership

Customers want the “best” version of a game. Designers, even veteran ones, continue to hone their craft and see design problems in new ways. This means that subsequent versions that a designer convinces a publisher to sell will be better on the whole. While some exceptions are likely to occur…nobody is burning those copies Fahrenheit 451 style!

Designers should be the ultimate say in what their game says, how it plays, and how fans interact with it over the course of its lifetime. Gamers have the final say in how the game is played at their table of course. If they want to disregard the changes, make their own house rules, or disregard the rules and just chuck counters at their cat…they can certainly feel free to do so…psychopaths that they are!

Say it!

Designs are never finished. They’re just left in a state where designers feel they’re ready at the time.

I’m good with that and support it. Long live the 2nd…3rd…4th? edition of some of the hobby’s best games!

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