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  • Keith

Wargame Release Strategies

I cannot remember a time when more high quality wargames were released with the frequency that we’re seeing today. It hardly seems possible to keep up with game releases. Selecting what games to buy is already challenging, so today we’re asking the question: What are the relative merits of the various wargame release strategies?

First, we will narrow down the release strategies covered by this article. There are, after all, as many ways to fund and release a game as there are game designers. Consequently, we’re going to focus on just a handful of the most prominent methods employed by publishers.

Immediate Release

I couldn’t come up with a better term here. Perhaps a publisher can help? The immediate release strategy implies no prior commitment or funding strategy that requires consumer intervention. The other two strategies we’ll explore today require a buyer to indicate their intention to purchase ahead of release.

Immediate releases, instead, come to market based on the interest, timing, and readiness of the publisher. This is a strategy most commonly employed by Hollandspiele, Revolution Games, Clash of Arms Games, and many other small publishers.

The Benefits

The marketing hype, previews, and release happen on the publisher’s terms. As a result, they can directly influence the initial release and popularity. Games do not languish in development and any games that must be “cut free” are done so quietly behind the scenes without any public embarrassment or question about the game’s quality.

Further, the development of a game can take as long as a publisher would like. Development outside the eyes of the public can be a hugely beneficial thing. Compass Games’ Brezhnev’s War got slammed ahead of release for poor Order of Battle research. Unfortunately, Ty Bomba was unable to help convince folks of the reasons behind the decisions (which had merit). The resulting fallout likely affected sales.

The publisher can pace releases to fit their schedule. That may allow for a steady stream of games over the course of a year (a few a quarter for example) or allow them to strategically time releases to coincide with times that consumer spending is at its highest. The lack of release date expectation from the hobby can be liberating in that there’s no clock against which a “successful” release is timed.

The Drawbacks

Simply put: The release’s success is only as good as the publisher’s estimation of the market for the game.

For many companies, pre-orders and crowd-sourced funding options provide both a way to raise capital and to project sales. Functionally, this helps ensure that games people want are made and in quantities that don’t create issues for warehousing. Publishers, after all, want games in the hands of fans without overproducing or miscalculating interest.

The other drawback is related to the first. Funding is a complicated issue. The commercial wargame industry is largely populated by companies who do this for the love of the hobby. There’s no Elon Musk of wargaming and the days of a game like Panzerblitz which sold 200,000 copies are over. Even incredibly popular titles like Twilight Struggle might…pun coming…struggle to get to those sales levels.

My Take

I love a company that knows their audience and games. I’ll take a game now that scratches a gaming itch over a game that publicly languishes in development for years any day. More importantly, I want to see games when they’re ready with a controlled push of information. Sometimes, games are in development and they never make it publicly known which can also negatively affect sales numbers.

Immediate Release, when paired with print on demand, is possibly my favorite methodology. There’s no risk (aside from component supply) that the game will be out of print by the time I’m ready for it. I don’t have to commit to an over-hyped marketing cycle before seeing the game or its reviews!

Crowd-Funding (Kickstarter)

Kickstarter can be a polarizing method for promoting and funding a wargame. I was a victim of the whole Valley Games Up Front! debacle back in 2012 to the tune of $100. Since then, however, I think my run has been pretty good with every product delivering even if it was WAY beyond the timeline.

Kickstarters have been synonymous with miniature “Ameritrash” style games, but in 2016 Worthington Publishing announced they were switching to a Kickstarter-based publishing model. After some initial concerns from gamers, they successfully released their first trio of games about the American Civil War (Grant’s Gamble, Lee’s Invincibles, and Jackson & Sheridan).

The Benefits

Publishers who have a great game, but need to raise the capital for printing, distribution, and final artwork are rewarded by this system since buyers pay well before product delivery. Quality artwork is expensive. Manufacturing and distribution are also expensive. Kickstarter helps publishers get over these hurdles.

The second, and perhaps equally useful aspect of Kickstarter is the ability to gauge buyer interest in a short period of time. Most Kickstarter campaigns run for 30-45 days. During that time, there are regular marketing pushes through both game media (BGG Ad Buys), social media, and even playtester testimonials on blogs. Consequently, the ability to take a temperature check for the game is rushed to the forefront.

Success breeds success on Kickstarter.

Cool Mini or Not was already a big player in the miniature world. I remember going to their site back when I played Warmachine and checking out their mini paintjob ratings. It was inspiring to see insanely talented people who honed their craft. Flash forward and Cool Mini or Not is putting out Zombicide Season 1. I was into it, but didn’t go in whole hog. Once everyone saw what a massive success it was, they were drooling for Season 2. The same is true of the Jamey Stegmeier of Stegmeier games. Each game was great, and each subsequent game built on the success and quality of the last.

The Drawbacks

Expectation management in every sense of the word.

Players often don’t have rulebooks or solid previews (sometimes only paid previews or flashy videos) to evaluate whether they’ll like the game. Couple that with misleading (or meaningless) marketing language and it’s a recipe for disappointment.

Publishers, particularly new and untested ones, oversell and under-deliver with frequency on the platform. Up Front! from Valley Games was a notorious example. They didn’t own the rights, had internal issues, and were guilty of fraud among other issues. That’s an extreme example. More frequently, the ability to secure a manufacturer in China, get shipping and logistics details hammered out, and over-promising on “stretch goals” get publishers in trouble.

The stakes are high for the publisher, especially if they’ve invested personal money, time, and relationships in the development of a game that goes unfunded. A failed campaign has the potential to drive away other publishers from buying the design and developing it further. That’s a risky proposition!

My Take

I haven’t been burned by a Kickstarter in a LONG time. I’m careful about what I back and don’t get lured in by spiffy stretch goals. That said, I’m dubious of most wargame releases unless they can satisfy at least one of the following criteria:

  1. I am familiar with the game’s designer and trust their prior work.

  2. The publisher is not new and I trust their prior work.

  3. The game’s deliverables, topic, and components seem achievable.

Wargames aren’t cheap and Kickstarters often run a little more than a traditionally released wargame. As a result, there should be a healthy dose of skepticism prior to a purchase. I have, however, purchased some awesome wargames through Kickstarter like Band of Brothers Texas Arrows and Thunder in the East.

Publisher Pre-order System

You can call it the P500 system after the signature pre-order system introduced by GMT Games. Pre-order systems have been in place for a decade (considerably longer if you consider the old SPI surveys to be a non-committal form of P500 in the 70’s). Another publisher that’s adapted this system with some success and modification is Multi-Man Publishing who sets pre-order goals based on their projected revenue targets for each game. Another company that uses this under a totally different name is Legion Wargames who have their CPO or Customer Pre Order system.

The Benefits

There are very few drawbacks to this system and it shares many of the advantages of the other two systems already mentioned.

  1. The publisher controls the timing and message.

  2. Rules and quality previews can be shared along the way.

  3. Longstanding and financially stable publishers engage in this practice.

  4. The publisher can gauge interest in the game and collect money as the game requires payment with the manufacturer.

  5. Previews and marketing can be launched prior to and then sustained throughout the initial announcement of the game.

There are others, of course, but these are the ones that come to mind.

The Drawbacks

The main one that I can think of off hand is that games can languish in the pre-order system for years. This comes in two varieties. Games get an initial spike in interest post-announcement from eager fans and then pre-orders trail off. Eventually, the pre-order number doesn’t move and the publisher has to decide whether it’s “close enough” to justify or whether to cancel the project.

This is exactly what happened with Mike Nagel’s Captain’s Sea. GMT Games had it up for P500. The game spiked up to about 225’ish pre-orders. It sat sub-300 for quite a while. I am a huge fan of Nagel’s Age of Sail fleet combat games Flying Colors. Thankfully, Captain’s Sea is available over at Legion Wargames where it has … sadly… met the same fate. I am quite certain that this game is going to be awesome sight unseen. That’s blind optimism, but it’s mine alone.

The second way a game languishes is when it meets its pre-order number but the game development isn’t ready or some other administrative issue continues to push it back. I make no pretenses about my love of Fields of Fire from Ben Hull. The 2nd Volume With the Old Breed currently has 1,333 pre-orders. It has had well over the requisite 750 for quicker publication for coming on 2+ years.

This game has been slated for release in the 3rd or 4th quarter of 2017, 2018 and as of the most recent update from GMT Games 2019. Tom Petty reminds us that “the waiting in the hardest part” but this is getting painfully long.

My Take

I love the pre-order system. No bones about it. It’s familiar like old slippers. They’re easy to find, use, and do the trick for keeping my feet warm. I typically pre-order anything immediately upon announcement from GMT Games and Multi-Man Publishing games. I’m getting that way with Compass Games, but their process works a little different.

Tell me in the comments which release strategy you prefer!

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