Mulling stuff over: Is this the golden age of fantasy wargaming?

I started playing fantasy wargames over twenty years ago. Back then there was only really one readily available and easily accessible game. In a time before the internet Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle (WHFB) ticked all the boxes in terms providing a solid ruleset, some great fluff and a wide range of beautiful looking toys. Equally important was that they were easy to get hold of through dedicated shops in most UK cities.

But times, and more pertinently, technology change. Whilst GW is still the big fish in our relatively small hobby pond it is certainly not the only one. The number of companies offering rules and miniatures seems to have expanded so rapidly, I would certainly take time out to provide a small round of applause to anyone who can name them all. It is, in some ways, something of a golden age for fantasy wargamers as we must surely have the widest choice of rules, and the greatest choice of toys to play them with. But will this golden age go the way of all others?

Paladins by Northumbrian Tin Soldier

How we got here

To my mind there are two main reasons we are where we are. The first, weirdly maybe but hear me out, was the End Times. This was the event that ended GW’s Old World, taking with it WHFB. Although WHFB was waning in popularity I believe the decision to pull the game in one fell swoop, and replace it with a very different system (and I want to be clear here – different is not code for any negativity to Age Of Sigmar I genuinely like the game), resulted in a lot of people taking the decision to try something new at the same time. I suspect for many of those people it would have been an inevitable decision, accelerated by the End Times, had GW let WHFB continue on its trajectory. However, because there were suddenly a lot of people all looking for new games to play the market responded, and new games were forthcoming (albeit some were not new, just not that well known).

The second reason for us being where we are is technology. Social media and content producers have undoubtedly played a massive role in allowing small companies to show off their products (in addition to the more traditional channels such as shows). In addition, 3D printing is providing a whole new avenue to explore in terms of miniature design, distribution and fulfilment. The distance we have travelled, from those heady days of having to go to a shop in the hope they have what you want, to being able to print an entire army in your spare bedroom is just breath taking.

But are we in danger of doing an Icarus? And what would that even look like?

Rat wizards by Games Workshop, Mantic and Oathsworn

What actually are the down sides?

Maybe I’m just being a bit negative. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to remind you that you don’t get everything your own way all the time.

Sure, from a customer point of view the current picture is pretty rosy, but, what about the companies that serve up these glorious steaming platefuls of hobby goodness? I guess the danger to my mind is we reach a point where, as customers, we are spread too thin. It becomes impossible for us to support so many different ventures, regardless of how much cool stuff they create, and companies just can’t make a decent turnover (and I mean this in a purely relative way – the sort of relative that allows everyone involved to earn a decent living without giving that a pounds and pence figure). Consequently, a major challenge companies have is how to make sure we buy their stuff.

The key, ultimately, is like any business, to understand their customer base, understand what they want, and enjoy, and keep serving it up.

Spellcasters by Bad Squiddo, Male Wizard from somewhere on the web.

Intellectual property plays a really important part in this. One of the reasons many people are attracted to fantasy wargaming is because of the weird and wonderful creatures and creations the genre enables, both from a modelling and gaming point of view.

What is interesting to see is that as more and more model options come to market from model companies (I absolutely include companies that create 3D printing files in this), those companies that produce both miniatures and rules are starting to break away from the old tropes that have, for so long, been the mainstay of fantasy wargaming. No longer is fantasy trapped, thematically, in the dark ages with subtle elf mages, dower Dwarfs who keep their feet firmly in the ground and those merry, shoeless, but ultimately largely pointless on the battlefield Halflings. In some worlds Elves now wield hammers and fight alongside cow mountains, Dwarfs cruise the skies and Halflings… they wear shoes (as well as riding trolls into battle).

These evolutions of our favourite factions have undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows, but to date don’t seem to have led to any rage burning of toys episodes (unlike End Times), which I can’t help but consider a success. These changes benefit the companies that make them by allowing them to be first to market with models that reflect these new units and creating differentiation in their ranges. It also addresses a fundamental element of the hobby which has always seemed somewhat paradoxical in nature. Fantasy settings give the opportunity to create literally anything, and yet it seems to have taken quite few years for Halflings to try on shoes, amongst other things (feel free to insert you’re own pet concern here).

Assassins by Northumbrian Tin Soldier and Mantic

So, when does it all come crashing down exactly?

I think this really depends on how you hobby. For those people who happily flit between different games and different model producers I think the world is unlikely to change, although companies will come and go. However, for gamers who favour a particular system or company there is always the chance that it could all come crashing down around your ears. The biggest piece of advice I can give, outside of supporting the companies you like, is whatever you do don’t toast your army, my WHFB Skaven army went on to become my first Kings of War Ratkin army, and I’m certainly not alone.

In reality the future of the hobby will mostly be influenced by the companies that enable it, both current and future. They will play by far and away the biggest part, for many people, in deciding how models are made and how we play with them. I fully expect to see more eyebrows raised as fan favourites continue to evolve and new ones are created, and I’m excited to see how rules writers will breathe life into these creations: and maybe, just maybe, Halflings will finally get to experience the flip flop.

Witch Hunters by Oathsworn

Published by Eddie Bar

Fantasy storyteller, reader and wargamer.

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