Is Sam Mustafa Right That American Historical Wargaming Is Dying Off?

November 27, 2016

After having to delete a large number of really strange comments (not those that made it to the comment section), I’ve decided to rework this post to make it more academic and less personal. Personal posts just seem to bring out the weird in some people.

In a Meeples and Miniatures podcast, number 179, Sam Mustafa commented about the decline of historical miniature wargaming in the United States. You can find out more about that here:  https://meeples.wordpress.com/podcast/ (go to podcast 179, near the end). Meeples and Miniatures is an excellent podcast about wargaming, and I highly recommend it. Some of my favorite podcasts were with Henry Hyde (https://meeples.wordpress.com/view-from-the-veranda/).

I think historical miniature miniature wargaming has declined in the United States for both structural and attritional reasons. By historical miniature wargaming I mean table top wargaming with plastic or metal figures. I do not mean computer wargaming, video games, VR gaming experiences, or board games (by board games declined even historical miniature wargaming). I also am not commenting on fantasy or science fiction miniature wargaming; those seem to be doing fine.

Sam’s question is why does there seem to be fewer historical miniature wargamers in the United States. He based that observation on industry sales (as far as he could determine) and attendance at major wargaming conventions.

First, I think there were several structural reasons for the rise of historical miniature wargaming in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. They are:

  1. You could find a shop near most places in the United States that sold historical miniature wargaming rules and figures. I first encountered them in a general hobby shop in the 1970s. That shop sold every sort of hobby thing including model trains, plastic models, and the early RC planes in addition to historical miniature wargame figures and rules. Later on, I was able to buy rules and figures at the local game store, of which about 50% of their stock was historical miniatures and board games, the rest was fantasy, especially role playing.
  2. I, like many of my peers born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, had made plastic models. I made a number of them from age 10 to 14. I wasn’t a great model maker, but when someone handed me a pack of metal wargame figures and said go home and paint these, I knew how to do that.
  3. Also starting in the 1970s, historical board wargames were everywhere. They were the first wargame I played. My first game was Avalon Hill’s 1776, which I got in 1775. I went on to play and purchase many other historical board games over the years. By about 1990, I quit playing many board wargames, but they had taught me at an early age (I started playing them about age 12), how to read complex wargame rules and what wargames were about.
  4. There were also a lot of players around, but they seemed to be of a certain age. When I started playing historical miniature wargames in 1982, almost everyone I played historical miniature wargames with was between age 19 and 35. We had heard of older people playing historical miniature wargames, and read their articles in magazines like The Courier, but I honestly had never played a game with one and there weren’t many of them where I lived. As 20 and early 30 year olds, we had lots of time to play, and enough disposable income to buy the figures were needed. Additionally, the people I played historical miniature wargames had often come to them through a different hobby such as model making, board wargames, or role-playing games. So they had already been trained in some aspect of the hobby.
  5. There were also only so many figure scales and rules to use. When I started the main figures I could get were 6mm (Heroics and Ros), 15mm and 25mm. There were also nationally dominant rules like Johnny Reb, Fire and Fury, Napoleon’s Battles, and Command Decision. You could always find someone who was interested in what you were: same figure size and same rules. For about a year, I ran a club that just played Command Decision in 6mm-1/285 scale, and we always had 4-8 people show up for a monthly game.
  6. Additionally, there were people at the local level promoting historical miniature wargaming. Lots of game store owners then tended to also play historical miniature wargames, which doesn’t seem to be the case these days. You would walk in their store and see a game set up or maybe one in progress and ask the owner about what sort of game that was. In my experience, the owners would then give you a dissertation length discussion of historical miniature wargaming and be more than happy to sell you the rules, figures, and paint you needed to get started (they were smart about that).
  7. Finally, there wasn’t much else to gaming-wise. There were no game consoles outside of very basic ones like Atari. Home computers were uncommon and the games for them were horrible, especially in the early 1980s. With no cell phones, you could not open up a game and play it anywhere at any time. You could play board games, which were becoming overly complex by the 1980s or role-playing games, which I did play for awhile but found they really depended on who ran the game and who you played with. In the early 1980s, I did lots of other things like hiking, camping, shooting, earned a university degree, and got an Army commission, but playing historical miniature wargames was something that filled my interest in history, my desire to make something like models but be able to do something with them, and I met a lot of great people my age to game and hang out with.

So what do I think went wrong? First, there seems to be a lack of new players. There are some, and I think games like Flames of War maybe encouraged them to try it all out, but there are not the numbers that there were when I was in my 20s. I do accept the argument that they have other things to do game-wise. My 16 year old son has played a lot of computer and video games, but he and his friends haven’t show massive interest in historical miniature wargaming. Some of the other factors I’ve noticed are:

  1. Kids don’t make plastic models these days. My son has no interest in that and he says that he has never seen a model in one of his friend’s houses. Teenagers and young adults can do exceptional computer modeling these days, but they don’t have any interest or exposure to making physical models. So when you hand them a pack of miniatures and say go home and paint these, they don’t know where to start.
  2. The younger set does play wargames, but they are all moderated by machines. Some of the computer games come with big rule books, but most of the time players seem to just learn how to play by doing. So they lack the experience to read a 50 pages+ set of wargame rules and then play the game. That means that there is a big hurdle to learning how to play a board or miniature wargame all by yourself like I did when I was 12 years old.
  3. Finding a brick and mortar game store that stocks a lot of historical miniature wargaming rules and figures these days is hard. Where I live there are three small stores, some better than others. Two of them used to stock Flames of War figures, but not anymore (the fad seems to have ended). And I don’t get the impression from talking with the owners and staff that they even play historical miniatures wargames. So there is no one there to sell them on historical miniatures wargames as a hobby. Yes, the internet is full of manufacturers’ webpages, but you don’t find them unless you seek them out.
  4. Then there is a lack of peer gamers. If I somehow found out about historical miniature wargaming today, would there be that many people in my age group to play with if I was a teenager or in my 20s? Probably not. Thinking back, it would be weird for me as a 20 year old to be playing games with guys my father’s age and even worse, my grandfather’s age. It would lack the peer to peer social bonding that I enjoyed playing historical miniatures wargames when I was in my 20s and 30s.
  5. Even if I got over those four hurdles, the chances of finding someone who played the rules I liked in the scale I liked would be slim given the massive variety of figure scales and rules available today. I think that this is one thing that the Flames of War system got right; it offered players a clear set of rules and figures in one scale to play. I have seen (about 10 years ago), younger people playing Flames for War, and I suspect it was because the Battlefront people helped them get through these obstacles. But Flames of War is dead where I lived, and I never really liked the rules anyway.

So it is unlikely given the structural forces and competition from other games which are far easier to get into that many people in their 20s will join the hobby, clearly not in the per capita numbers of the 1980s and 1990s. Plus it would just be too strange for me if I was 20 to hang out with a bunch of boring old guys. I don’t have anything against old guys today, but I like to play games and not listen to their medical issues or political views.

But as Sam mentioned, even those gamers from the 1980s and 1990s, now middle-aged guys seem to be declining in numbers. His evidence is not absolute, but I’ve seen the same thing. So what happened to them? Here are some thoughts on that:

  1. Anything that people do has a natural attrition rate. I would estimate that of the people I introduced to historical miniatures wargaming in the 1980s, about half quit playing after a year or two. I suspect that most hobbies are like that. Of those that kept playing, there would be a slow attrition rate. Maybe you moved to a new area and couldn’t find other historical miniature wargamers so you tried a different form of gaming or just did something else with your free time. Plus, real life can get in the way. Jobs become more demanding and families, especially once you have kids, take up more time. So over time, those who started in the 1980s and 1990s will naturally decline and they are not being replaced by the next generation.
  2. Plus I think that there are some historical miniature wargamers who just opted out. They still had the time and a group or another individual to game with, but they had lost interest. That happens. I once was a big historical board wargamer. I think I had 100 historical board games at one time, and I played 2-4 games a week with various people. Then one day, the board games just didn’t work for me anymore. I sold most of them and kept a few favorites, but mostly sit on my bookshelves. The last time I played a board game it was via Vassal on my computer and that was a solo game. It didn’t matter if the greatest board wargame was produced; I am not interested in playing it, let alone buy it.

So that is where I think I would add to Sam’s comments. Sam seems to see the decline as an innovation issue. One of his questions is have American historical miniature wargamers just stuck with what they have and are not open to innovations in game design? He bases that on his sales, which have gone from lots of American customers to few American customers. He has noted that European wargame rule sales for him are steady, but not in the United States. He also notes that American historical wargame convention attendance, as far as he can see, has also declined, so it is just not that players in the United States are not buying his rules, they aren’t buying as many rules from any place.

My answer is that the old regulars of American historical miniature wargaming are just slowly attriting away. Not a major collapse, but a noticeable one. And like in other hobbies, like model trains and making models, they are not being replaced by a younger generation. The younger generation has many structural issues which keep them out of the hobby, and no amount of preaching the value of the hobby to them will bring them back in large numbers as there just isn’t critical mass in numbers of younger players to make it a peer social activity like it was for many gamers back in the 1980s and 1990s. So numbers are down and likely to continue to decline. Maybe we will be like the model train guys who now seem on average to be age 65+.

The decline in numbers and the purchasing of products online as has had an impact on the hobby. Yes, I can go online to a manufacture’s web page and make a giant order and get everything I want and have it delivered to my house in a week or less (except for the Battlefront webstore – they are very slow). I like that, but it also means that the local game store isn’t willing to stock much in the way of historical miniatures and rules. Why should they if we are all buying them online? And could they? You would have to have a mega-store to carry even a fraction of the historical wargame figures and rules available today. Store owners and managers don’t want to invest money in a product that one guy might come in and buy every other year or so. The result is that game stores are no longer for the most part historical miniature wargame stores. It doesn’t sell, so they don’t stock it, and they might not even know that much about it. When historically minded Johnny (age 16) walks in, the product isn’t there to excite him, and no one can tell him how to get started. That isn’t true for the other items that game stores sell. You can walk into any decent game store and find all sorts of fantasy and science fiction themed board games and miniatures. That’s what sells and that’s what the staff knows and plays.

So my take is that the American historical wargaming hobby is slowly dying. No amount of proselytizing to the younger masses will bring them in. Sure a few will start playing historical miniatures wargames, but not in any great numbers. They are interested in things that require different skill sets, they like things that are easier to get into, they buy what they see in the local game store, and most importantly, they want to play what their friends are playing. If gaming has a social aspect to it, then players want to do it with people they have a social bond with, it could be a family member, but mostly it will be with same age peers.

Finally, do I care if the American historical wargaming community declines to just a few old guys? No, not really. I’ve got most of the rule sets I will play for the next 40 years (hopefully that long). I’ll try out a few to replace the rules that I’ve played to death and lost interest in, but I’ve given up on just playing what the “cool kids” play as those are often flash in the pan rules, really hot for 4-8 years and then gone, like out of print gone. There are enough wargame manufacturers out there to keep me going (that is if Old Glory, Blue Moon, and GHQ stay in business), plus I’ve got the mountain of unpainted figures to work through. There are enough local gamers if I feel like a group game, but sometimes they need to be reminded of their interest in historical miniature wargaming. I also have rules like Piquet that allow me to have very enjoyable solo games. And I still have my 16 year old son to game with when he is interested, at least until he goes off to college. I’ve got what I need, and I realize that I can’t overcome the structural forces to bring thousands of new players into the hobby, and why should I force them to play my style of games when they seem very happy with what they are playing now.

I can’t answer Sam’s question about why American historical gamers are in decline and why not gamers in other parts of the world. I lived in London in the late 1990s, and I saw how vibrant historical miniatures wargaming was there. Even then, there were good shows every month, and I went to a lot of them and bought a lot of figures (probably too many as I still haven’t painted all of them!). Maybe because the same structural factors are not in play in Britain. Maybe those Game Workshop stores were a good gateway drug to historical miniature wargames. Maybe having the local club instead of playing in someone’s home gave the hobby a wider view to the potential historical miniature wargamer. Maybe having slick historical wargame magazines in the stores helped; I remember buying my wargame magazines in London at bigger bookstores like W. H. Smith, sometimes even in train and subway stations. Maybe the British just have a stronger sense of community than Americans. I don’t know really know the answer to this question.

My 70-something year old father-in-law really likes model trains, all Lionel O gauge. He doesn’t have a grand layout, more of an old school layout in his family room.  I have even repainted some of the old figures he found for his train. When I visit him, I always check out his train. He always asks me why I don’t get into model trains. I reply, I just don’t have the time, which is partially true, but despite building a model train layout around age 13, I just don’t have the interest. To me, trains are really a very old guy hobby. I suspect that many of the 15-30 year-olds look at historical miniature wargaming like that.

 

 

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Really Old School Miniature Wargames

April 7, 2014

I do have an interest in vintage wargaming. I don’t always find the games super exciting, but as a historian I like to study the history of my silly little hobby. One of the oldest miniature wargames was Polemos, which you can find out more about here: http://wargamingmiscellany.blogspot.com/search/label/Polemos.

I find the cover art very interesting:

Image

I think this is from the 1888 edition of the game. Polemos was sort of a cross between a board game and a miniatures game in that it featured a table cover with squares, which functioned like modern hexes in board games, and it used miniatures, which look like painted flats in the link to the blog that discusses Polemos. What I note the most in the picture is that playing wargames hasn’t changed that much since 1888. You have the slow player (in the civilian attire) who must be taking too long to move. On the far left you can see his opponent is just tired of waiting for the first player to just move and get the game going. Finally, in the middle is the guy who seems to not be playing but is probably full of endless “useful” advise.

The picture also reminds me of how reasonable old school wargaming was. The table is a reasonable size, not some giant 6′ x 24′ nightmare. Also the number of figures was manageable. I have noted that by the 1990s (if note earlier), wargames started to require thousands of figures (ever play Fire and Fury or Empire III?). That made wargaming more of a figure painting hobby and less of a playing a game hobby. Of course Polemos came with painted figures as no Victorian gentleman probably painted his own figures; he had better things to do like be a lawyer, doctor, captain of industry or command a real regiment! That probably made wargaming a rich man’s hobby back in the 1880s (sorry, unemployed guys who live in their mother’s basement need not apply to play back in 1888). However, the reasonable number of units and reasonable table size made Polemos a reasonable game to play as the players were not burdened with running 50 units (after about 30 units I really start to lose my interest). So thinking about wargaming as a reasonable hobby for gentlemen is good food for thought for me.

A fun bit of history to share and you can learn more via the above link about Polemos.


I’ll be back soon!

April 7, 2014

I am not dead yet! (to quote a line from Monty Python). My new puppy is still taking up a lot of time with her dog schools and training. I wish dogs potty trained as quickly as cats! I’ve been rebasing my 15mm American Revolution figures of Piquet; yes the original version, not Field of Battle, which is good for multi-player games, but I like the more detailed original Piquet for 1 or 2 player games. I like Volley and Bayonet, but Piquet won out for tactical American Revolution games. One thing I need to do is get a camera or something that will take pictures as it seems that you really need pictures for a blog these days.

Otherwise I’ve devoted most of my hobby time to painting new figures as I think I have got a lifetime of unpainted figures to work through. My other projects include rebasing my 6mm (really 8mm Adlers) to try out Fast Play Grande Armee and give my American Civil War version of Fast Play Grande Armee a few more gos as I’ve had some new ideas about how to make that work. I’ve been also thinking about World War Two as I have a lot of 1/285th scale figures (I’m still interested in Nuts! by Two Hour Wargames for 15mm skirmish games). After spending too much time reading about rules, my World War Two choices have come down to either original Piquet (with heavily revised rules) or Command Decision. Piquet will take some work to create my own version of a World War Two supplement, but it is easier and more fun to play. Command Decision is more complete, but I don’t really like the Test of Battle version and the version I do like (3rd edition) makes my head swim when I look at all those little support and command stand. I’ll post more about my adventures with World War Two rules later.

I am also thinking about renaming my blog to go along with my new interests, but that will come later.