Theory: Making Barriers into Benefits

When someone purchases FFG’s X-Wing, this is what comes in the box.

Image from Boardgamegeek
Image from Boardgamegeek

When someone purchases a box of Warmachine, he or she gets this:

12-31-14 - Warmachine BoxLooking at those pictures, one would expect Warmachine to be the province of the hardest of the hardcore, true grognards–but it is instead, as of last time I saw sales figures, the second most popular miniatures game on the market. Part of that is simply because Warmachine is a superbly designed game. Part, however, is that Warmachine turns its barrier to entry into a strength, using it to generate engagement with the game.

Every game has barriers to entry. Usually they must be purchased, sometimes at great expense. Rules must be read. The game must be set up on the table, which is easy enough in the case of something like Tsuro but which can be quite laborious in the case of wargames and RPGs.

In general, these barriers to entry are undesirable. They prevent people from buying, playing, and enjoying a game. Minimizing them is thus usually viewed as strictly beneficial. Designers try to make rules easier to learn and publishers look for simpler, less expensive components, all in the name of lowering these barriers.

X-Wing is a superb and successful example of that process in action. The minatures are ready-to-play right out of the box, fully assembled and painted to a standard much higher than most players could achieve on their own. While the game is not exactly cheap, lots of starships are available at the $10 impulse-buy price point online. FFG has done as much as possible to make getting into the game painless.

Warmachine, on the other hand, makes few concessions. Its miniatures come unpainted and in pieces. Most boxes of Warmachine minis don’t even have an instruction manual; one is expected to figure out that this piece goes here and that these arms are bent just so such as to fit those torsos. It’s not uncommon for miniatures to have flaws straight out of the box requiring non-trivial modeling skill to fix; from the beginning of the game to today, people have been fixing the “Khador gap.”

One might expect that all of this would render Warmachine the nichest of niche games. Instead, however, it’s enormously successful, begging the question of how an expensive game that requires tremendous amounts of setup could ever overcome its barriers to entry. Warmachine is a superb game, yes–but many superb games fail for lack of players willing to invest in them. That alone did not propel the game to the heights it has now achieved. How did Warmachine manage its barriers to become a key player in the miniatures space?

The answer is that Warmachine’s greatest barrier–the tabula rasa nature of its pieces–is a strength in the eyes of a substantial proportion of the player base. They become an artistic outlet; one is not just going to field pikemen, one is going to field one’s very own pikemen, with paint schemes and poses chosen in accordance with one’s taste. Many players end up involved the game just for the painting, playing only rarely as a way to show off their work.

Personalizing the miniatures in that way invites other forms of creativity, such as biographies and backstories chronicling the achievements of one’s troopers. Ultimately all of this can even feed back to the tabletop, with players devising campaigns in which rivalries between their armies are settled and new ones created. Again, these opportunities to craft something unique are the result of what would otherwise be a barrier to entry, and are an important draw for many players.

Not every game can do what Warmachine does, but it’s a possibility for more games than one might think. What if Agricola required players to build little parts of houses, instead of just using tiles? Would that lead to a greater sense of ownership over the homes, and more incentive to play? Would players be less likely to shake their heads at the depth of chess and give the game up if they painted the black squares on the board themselves?

Barriers to entry are always going to be a problem. However, it’s possible to approach them imaginatively, and ask how they can be used to encourage player investment.

Now you’ll have to excuse me–I have some pikemen to paint.

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