Accelemechs vs. Crashotrons: Segmenting a Market

If you study entrepreneurship, you’ll hear the same mantra over and over: focus on the customer. As part of that focus, you’ll be told to narrow your idea of “the customer” as much as possible. The goal is to find a limited number of customers–a small market–and then design precisely what they want.

Accelemechs vs. Crashotrons was built on that principle.

From the broadest perspective, AvC is a miniatures wargame. In play, miniatures wargames can look like this:

Image from warhammer-community.com

That’s pretty amazing! Narratively, I can pick out heroes (gold armor and wings help us find them even in a small picture) and villains (the people in the lower-right are wearing skulls and spikes, which has to be a clue). From a tactical perspective, there’s infantry and some fantasy cavalry: winged troopers for the heroes, roaring monsters for the villains. Whether I’m looking for a story, a simulation, or both, it’s clearly here.

Of course, miniatures wargames don’t start out looking like that. Instead, they arrive like this:

Image from waylandgames.co.uk

It’s a long way from here to the winged, heroic leader in the first picture.

For some players, this is A-OK. For some it’s even great! Building the toy soldiers, modifying them, combining pieces from different kits to make new characters, painting them–these “hobby” elements are selling points for many.

To those who don’t enjoy the hobby aspect, though, building and painting is a huge barrier to entry. Across the decades, this was dealt with through a never-ending series of advice columns, podcasts, and other resources meant to get players up to speed with minimum effort. The theme of all of these was “we know you hate this, so here’s how to get through it relatively quickly.”

Does it sound like there’s an unsatisfied part of the market to you? If so, you’re thinking like an entrepreneur.

Companies spotted this division among players, and focused in on the segment of the wargaming market that wanted to play toy soldier games but didn’t like the preliminaries. Miniatures wargames started to appear with pre-built, pre-painted toy soldiers that were ready right out of the box. A decade ago we saw early efforts, like AT-43 and Confrontation 3rd ed. The big hit, though, was FFG’s X-Wing, which has become a top-selling line.

That was one hurdle cleared. However, there was another one waiting: the ready-to-play miniatures are quite expensive. Games Workshop will sell you 10 Age of Sigmar skeletons for $30. A single TIE Fighter for X-Wing retails for $20.

Admittedly, one needs fewer TIE Fighters than one needs skeletons, and the X-Wing miniatures can double as nice models for a display shelf. The sales figures demonstrate that the price is acceptable to many. Still, the question had to be asked: what if I could have good, fast, and cheap?

Gaslands is the major attempt I’m aware of to segment the market again. It’s played with Hot Wheels cars, which cost about $1 at grocery stores. What’s more, it’s great! It’s a serious miniatures wargame, played with pieces that are inexpensive, look good on the table, and are intrinsically fun to push around.

Accelemechs vs. Crashotrons tries to segment the market still one more time. Gaslands is cool, but it uses the Hot Wheels cars largely representationally. You, as a player, aren’t expected to zoom them around, and combat is resolved using dice like in most wargames. The Hot Wheels cars are cheap, fast, and good, but they’re not important.

When I play Gaslands, though, I really want the cars to be important. My personal favorite moment in the game is when they don’t sit quite where they’re supposed to because they’re on wheels rather than a static base. I’m playing with toys, and I want that playfulness to come through more strongly.

That’s what AvC is all about. It’s a game for those who want to play a miniatures wargame, are open to using toys as the miniatures because they’re good representations that don’t require preparation, and who–since we’re playing with toys anyway–want the toys themselves to matter.

A painstakingly set up flanking maneuver comes to fruition

I’m in that category. If you are, too, Accelemechs vs. Crashotrons releases on Itch.io this Saturday.

Intentional Draws Revisited

The perennial challenge of intentional draws just reared its head again, this time in FFG’s X-Wing. I can’t say whether FFG was right or wrong to decide to allow intentional draws; in some ways it comes down to the message they want to send about whether X-Wing tournaments are intended as an extension of casual play or as a separate, competitive way of interacting with the game. What I find more interesting is the following passage in the tournament rulebook:

During Swiss rounds, players may intentionally draw a game so long as a leader is present for any discussion between players prior to the agreement. The leader’s presence is required to prevent any breach of the tournament’s integrity. The leader will not intervene as long as players follow the “Unsporting Conduct” on page 3.

This is an interesting approach to the problem of intentional draws, one that solves some problems while creating others.

First, for reference, here’s the relevant portion of the unsporting conduct passage:

Players are expected to behave in a mature and considerate manner, and to play within the rules and not abuse them. This prohibits intentionally stalling a game for time, placing components with excessive force, inappropriate behavior, treating an opponent with a lack of courtesy or respect, cheating, etc. Collusion among players to manipulate scoring is expressly forbidden. Players cannot reference outside material or information during a round. However, players may reference official rule documents at any time or ask a judge for clarification from official rule documents.

What’s potentially good

Having a “leader” (what in some systems would be called a Tournament Organizer or Judge–someone with rules authority) present has the potential to address concerns about bullying or hassling opponents into accepting an intentional draw. Theoretical arguments in favor of permitting draws generally revolve around the idea that players should be free to do what makes sense within the confines of the tournament structure. A leader’s oversight will hopefully keep the discussion on the ground along such tactical lines.

An official presence also serves to avoid misunderstandings. I remember being presented with a weird hypothetical situation years ago: two players reach differing conclusions about the board state in a game, each concluding that they are sure to win. One silently offers a hand, thinking she is offering a draw. The other shakes in the belief that she was conceding. While that is obviously an extreme situation, there is a lot to be said for a leader clarifying all agreements before results are reported and it becomes difficult to handle a problem.

What’s potentially bad

Understanding how the new rules work demands some analysis. Most intentional draws, after all, are efforts to “manipulate”–or at least change–the tournament scoring. On the face of it, then, the intentional draw and unsportsmanlike conduct paragraphs seem to conflict.

I would argue that the problem is resolved easily enough. Merriam-Webster defines “collusion” as “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.” FFG doesn’t define collusion in the rules document, so we can justifiably fall back on the dictionary definition; in the absence of an explicit statement, we can assume that words carry their normal meanings. With the dictionary definition in mind, it’s clear that the unsportsmanlike conduct passage prohibits secret agreements–e.g., intentional draws worked out away from a leader. The passage is reinforcing the requirements for intentional draws.

Even given that the apparent conflict is resolvable, though, it’s unfortunate that the rules are written in such a way as to allow this question to arise. It would be good to clarify exactly where the boundary between valid intentional draws and improper collusion lies.

Another question is what constitutes a “breach of the tournament’s integrity.” Including that phrase separate and apart from the reference to the unsportsmanlike conduct policy implies that it means something other than what the policy contains. What, though? If the unsportsmanlike conduct policy is not a complete statement of what the leader is there to deal with, the additional requirements would benefit from being laid out clearly; if it is, there’s no need for the possibly-confusing extra verbiage.

An unusual solution

FFG’s approach to intentional draws is, to my knowledge, unique. It’ll be interesting to see what comes of it; I’ll be keeping an eye out for further developments. In the interim, I would encourage FFG to address the issues noted above; with just a little tweaking the policy could be a lot more clear, and thus enjoy the best possible odds of success.

PSA: X-Wing Storage

If you’re a player of Fantasy Flight’s X-Wing minis game, and you’re trying to figure out how to store the pieces, look no further than this:

Stanley Organizer

This unprepossessing device is intended for organizing nails and screws, but it’s ideally sized for X-Wing miniatures. Each of the smaller bins is the perfect width, height, and depth for two normal-sized fighters in their plastic packing, along with cards and stands. The larger bins in the middle row hold mid-size vessels with just a little trimming of their packaging.

1-15-15 - X-Wing Storage

At less than $20, and offering protection easily comparable to much more expensive storage/transport solutions, I can’t recommend these organizers highly enough.

Something Completely Different: Star Trek Games Done Right

Grousing about the old Star Trek CCGs got me thinking about Trek games. Years ago I saw a forum post on Boardgamegeek that superbly captured the issue most of them suffer from. I can’t find the post now, but paraphrased it went something like:

“Star Trek is focused on moral issues. No Trek game ever has been.”

To my mind that’s exactly the problem. All of the Star Trek games I’ve played—and I’ve played quite a lot of them—focus either on completing scientific tasks or on combat. Both of those things feature in Trek, of course, but (at least in the good episodes) they’re window-dressing for some other, more universal dilemma.

There’s been one brief exception, and it’s all the more powerful because it demonstrates how remarkable a Trek game that feels like Trek could be. Back in the SNES days there was a game called Star Trek: Starfleet Academy Starship Bridge Simulator. (That’s a mouthful! Let’s call it ST:SA.) ST:SA was, for the most part, about combat. It played like Wing Commander, X-Wing, or the Freespace games: a flight sim set amongst the stars, where the goal is to shoot down opposing vessels.

However, there was one mission that was absolutely brilliant. I can no longer recall the details, but the player had to deal with a Gorn vessel. The Gorn are not the friendliest of species, and after going through a conversation tree I was dropped into the usual fight. Destroying the Gorn vessel earned me a passing grade on the mission (this was the Starfleet Academy game, the missions were graded)—but not full points.

That was striking. Overwhelmingly the game rewarded fighting prowess. Most gameplay time was spent in battles. What had gone wrong?

I had. I had settled into a routine of “Star Trek-themed space sim,” but the designers still had in mind what Star Trek was all about. With this mission they set out to see whether you were playing according to Trek’s ideals.

After several replays, I realized that it was possible to avoid the fight entirely—but to do so, the player had to communicate with the Gorn in a way that a Gorn would respect. Offering help and being polite made them feel talked down to. Be bombastic, on the other hand, and the Gorn knew they were being taken seriously. If the player took the time to read up on the Gorn and then leveraged that knowledge to find a productive way to communicate, they would go peacefully on their way and the player got a 100% for the mission.

That single mission was the most Star Trek thing in any Star Trek game I’ve ever played. It was about diplomacy. It was about empathy. It was about building a bridge between the player and someone who seemed to be nothing like the player.

Unfortunately, it’s a moment that’s never really been repeated. Even ST:SA went back to dogfighting.

I want to play a Star Trek game that maintains the spirit and sensibility of that mission throughout. A game where creating earns better rewards than breaking, where both competition and cooperation are valued.

That game doesn’t yet exist. I guess I’d better get to work.

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.