Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

On publishing wargames

I suppose that every wargamer at some time or another has mentioned writing his own rules and publishing them. Rules writing has been my primary enjoyment in wargaming. I was never too hooked on the modeling aspects, painting, or terrain building. Generally speaking, I let others do that-while I worked on creating rules. I have rarely played any commercial sets that are available, though I do read most of the just to keep in touch with what other designers are doing.

Historical wargame rules are more like literature than technical writing for many reasons. Though based on history and factual parameters, they are subjective interpretations and not either scientific analysis, or strict simulations. The tastes in rules vary widely and so does the appreciation of certain authors, and the criticism of others. The interest in many rules usually starts with a burst of chatter about the “latest” set and then after a few months quiets down to a murmur, often accompanied by the required and VERY predictable counterforce of criticism, which leaves you wondering how the rules were so widely touted in the first place. In short, wargame rules behave identically to the fiction entertainment business whether it’s a book, a movie, or the latest catchy tune. To be sure, some rules survive to be come classics and played over many years. The Sword and The Flame, Napoleon’s Battles, Piquet come to mind, but they are the exceptions not the rule. Most wargame rules are made of the same ephemeral material as the latest mystery novel, The DaVinci Code, and whatever is the latest 3D money with explosions playing at the local cineplex.

Wargames are entertainments. They are intended to amuse and provide a bit of fun for each of us and our friends.

But that does not make them easy to write and publish. The Two happiest days for a rules writer are the day he begins a new set and the day he finishes it! The writing task is a very lonely one and one that demands a wide range of skills. There is no way to write a set of rules other than to closet yourself with a computer and spend many long hours writing, editing, and re-writing. The playtesting may be a group activity, and the most fun part of rules creation, but the writing is NOT a group activity. If you are not a reasonably competent writer, you will never complete the task. But even more necessary is a wide range of computer skills. The margins in rule publishing are so narrow that unless you can do layout yourself, have some passing acquaintance with Word, InDesign, Photoshop, and basic drawing programs-you will lose money if you need to hire those skills.

Even more necessary is the ability to create and build a website. It is the modern broadside, newsletter, and advertising tool. Hobby publications are less of a force today in wargaming than ever before. A majority of people below the age of 30 in the US have not read a book in the last year! Only one in 10 reads a newspaper! All of the hobby publications are having a hard time of it, especially in “fringe” interests such as wargaming. In the historical wargaming segment this is even more pronounced, there are no MWAN’s, Table Top Talks, or Wargamer’s Digests-they are tools of the past. A few glossies continue overseas where publishing costs are lower-England’s Miniatures Wargames, or France’s Vae Victus are good examples, but they more driven by the visual content than ideas. The web is the best advertising and marketing tool available for our niche hobby. It is a necessary tool for a wargame designer/publisher. Again, Wargame publishers should not farm it out!

The wargame designer/publisher’s work only truly begins with the writing. One has to explore printing options, learn the language and needs of the various forms of printing ranging from POD to Short Run Presses. You have to research exactly who can give you the best product at the lowest dollar. That takes time and effort. Maintaining website and a forum-such as the one Repique has established on Yahoo! takes a lot of effort and time, especially as a start-up where you are building a location where you want to encourage people to visit by having fresh material and ideas constantly appearing. Writing a blog successfully isn’t a case of sporadically making an entry every 3-4 weeks; It requires constant new materials.

Finally, there is customer relations. This comes in two forms. First, is fulfillment-getting product to the customer quickly. As I learned from past experience, do that yourself too! One of the worst aspects of the initial Piquet release was the terrible fulfillment and response. I learned a good lesson there and will always make sure that aspect is also under my direct control in all future publications.

And then there is the issue of meeting the customer at shows and conventions. I am very divided in mind about that. I think if you’re a figure seller, a book seller, a figure painting service, a terrain maker, etc. It makes a lot of sense to meet and greet at the shows-it is the best opportunity to show off a tangible, touchable, product. Rules, I think are quite different. Very few wargamer designers attend the conventions as dealers. Arty Conliffe seldom makes an appearance, Bowden, Getz, Mustafa, etc. all keep a relatively low profile. After 10 years of going to every show in the 90s, I think I know why. Wargame designers deal in ideas, the intangible, and the subjective-they are often introspective and, by nature, analytics. Wargamers at a convention are quite different, and often more interested in proving their own expertise and offering critiques than any meaningful conversation. To be sure there are some genuinely brilliant and insightful people at conventions-but most rule writers will see the peopel they really find interesting at a pre-arranged dinner.

My idea of hell is a wargamer in front of me demanding to know why there are no emergency squares in the rules, or accosting you when you are exhausted after a day doing game demos or talking at the booth, and being upset that you don’t seem to want to jabber on for another hour about the use of light infantry. I think I might return to Historicon to meet with friends, but I am not eager to jump back into the convention scene, which was one of the reasons I burned out on the hobby ten years ago. Most rule writers seem to agree with me that less is better when it comes to the convention scene. This is doubly true when the largest such convention has very clumsily moved from a bad hotel in a rural backwater to an aging convention complex in an urban backwater. Better to spend your money of advertising and publishing costs than the cost of travel and lodging. Maybe go once every 3-5 years just to see friends-unless, of course, it’s in Philadelphia!

I am hoping that internet services such as Skype, podcasting, and other forms of electronic conferencing, along with fast e-mail responses on the forum and personal e-mails, might prove as effective in the long run in interacting with customers as spending four days in Valley Forge. (Remember, even Washington only went there when there was no other alternative!) Winking

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