By Ian Underwood
There’s a lot to worry about at the moment – the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but for me there’s a more pressing issue, and one that’s been rattling around my head for the last few months…. “where are all of the new Lord Of The Rings/Hobbit SBG players going to come from?”.
Despite all of the awesomeness issuing forth from the Middle Earth team at Forgeworld – both in miniatures and in the teasing of forthcoming projects… the community here in Australia is…to be honest, in a bit of a slump. Decline would be too strong a word, but in terms of tournament attendances and in general traffic and chatter on the local Facebook group… things are a little quiet.
People who’ve been in the hobby for far longer than me will attest that over the game’s sixteen year lifespan, interest has always waxed and waned, and that this is completely natural. I agree.
One only has to look at the boom/bust and rebirth cycles of GW’s other two games systems to see that we’re not alone in that regard….but at least with 40k and Age of Sigmar, Games Workshop is actively seeking to recruit new blood into the hobby. Each store’s demo tables are invitingly positioned towards the front of the store…and the manager will jump at the opportunity to guide a prospective new player through a round or two… and the starter sets are always close at hand. Standard GW operating procedure for sure, no complaints there… but my original question still remains… where are OUR new players going to come from?
OK, lets break it down and start stating the bleeding obvious.
Happy times… a bit of 2002 SBG nostalgia to warm the heart.
Lets face it, in Australia at least, our hobby has virtually no presence in the wider gaming community.
We already know that all Middle Earth products have been removed from Games Workshop/Warhammer stores. When I first took my (then) ten year old son into my local GW store for a test run, there were three demo tables – The Island Of Blood Fantasy set, the Assault on Blackreach 40k set and the good old Mines of Moria set. Halcyon days indeed! By the time we’d both jumped into the hobby the Escape From Goblin Town starter set was out and most stores were rocking not just a demo table with the box set, but also the three trolls and maybe even some of the new plastic eagles as well!
The rulebooks, sourcebooks and both model ranges were stocked…and all was right with the world. Contrast that with now… and imagine a similar young kid going into a GW store for a test run… Age of Sigmar or 40k please!
Its no better from yer friendly local gaming store (FLGS). Long before GW bricks and mortar pulled the plug on Middle Earth, the blue and brown boxes disappeared from virtually all FLGSs as well. Whilst there’s solid financial reasons why indie game stores don’t like stocking GW’s non-core products… the fact remains anybody entering a decent FLGS will be inundated by a huge array of miniature gaming stock… but nothing from our game. I’m going to talk about competition later on… but suffice to say, at retail its an SBG wasteland.
Osgiliath inspired diorama photographed by the author at London’s Oxford St Games Workshop in 2013.
A year ago I would have struggled to tell you what level of presence LOTR/Hobbit SBG enjoyed within the wider tabletop gaming community. The only game I played was this one and the only gamers I spent time with were fellow SBGers. Sure, some of them were also active in other communities – mostly the other two GW systems and X-Wing/Armada – which was what all the hip young things were playing at the time…. but I was gaming in a somewhat closed community.
However, last year that all changed… as I broadened my gaming palette and started playing Warlord‘s excellent WW2 game Bolt Action (its OK SBGers its written by our own Alessio Cavatore & Rick Priestly!). This year I’ve attended a few Bolt Action tournaments and have even taken the step of attending a few nights at what is easily Sydney’s most active gaming club – A Company of Dice.
Even though there are number of gaming clubs in Sydney, I mention Company of Dice by name because (by tabletop gaming standards at least!) they’re a seriously dynamic community. They play everything… No, I mean they play EVERYTHING… from Napoleonics & Ancients to 40k, Kings of War, X-Wing/Armada, Blood & Plunder and of course LOTS of Bolt Action, I’ve even seen battle reports on their Facebook group of some weird pre-historic game with Neanderthals and Woolly Mammoths! In short they’re a serious bunch of gamers… .good guys all… you put a miniature on a table and roll some dice, and they’re in…
BUT… no one there plays the LOTR/Hobbit, and in the clubs two years of existence… never have. In the 12 months or so I’ve been lurking on their Facebook group, I’ve seen literally hundreds of WIP posts and read loads of threads where they’ve all gotten excited by this new release… or that new game…. BUT never once has the Hobbit or LOTR ever even been mentioned…neither positively or negatively. Its an invisible game to most of them…and we as a community are likewise invisible.
But here’s the interesting thing… once I mentioned over the proverbial Bolt Action table (usually as my force was being routed by someone half my age… well nothing new there!), that actually… my main game was the Lord Of The Rings (it sounds better than calling it the Hobbit to non-SBGers)… you start to get some pretty encouraging replies…. “Man, I used to love playing LOTR… but didn’t think anyone still played anymore” or “We used to play LOTR but stopped playing because we couldn’t find anyone to play with”…. and “I’ll be up for a game sometime for sure!”
The outlook for future games in Middle Earth at the club is pretty encouraging, but the point remains, once we step outside the ‘Shire’ and adventure in the wider gaming community – its a bit of a shock as to how small a profile our game actually has.
Now, I’m really going to state the bleeding obvious here… the ol’ tabletop gaming market is a pretty crowded one… actually scratch that. Its an INSANELY crowded market.
I’ve heard it mentioned a number of times that tabletop gaming is in its renaissance, and I agree, Its a great time to be a gamer… but with all this competition, a lot of game systems are bound to lose out.
Think back to what the wargaming competition was when LOTR SBG was launched in 2001. If we discount historicals, it was almost entirely the other Games Workshop systems, 40k, Warhammer Fantasy and Mordheim. Perhaps throw a bit of Battletech in the mix…and that was it!
Think of the competiton for the tabletop gamer’s dollar now… its frightening!
Just for kicks – here’s a list of games & game systems that we are directly fighting for table space at the moment. Some are huge juggernauts, whilst others are more niche and others are just launching or forthcoming… but all crowd the market.
I’m not including anything historical, steampunk or weird war/alt history in this list although those have their following, or even skirmish level historicals like Saga, Test Of Honour, Lion Rampant and Blood & Plunder, which are are growing in popularity and mine a similar market to SBG.
Battle of the Logos… The fantasy market is a very crowded one.
- Age of Sigmar (Obviously)… it has its detractors but still front and centre in GW stores and is clawing back market share,
- Warhammer / Oldhammer – Still loved and played by many, if not purchased much anymore.
- Frostgrave – Osprey’s skirmish level game has been a surprise hit with classy minis and excellent gameplay.
- Oathmark – Frostgrave’s mass battle system has good pedigree and will launch next year but minis are already out and look more than decent..
- Judgement – Australian produced MOBA inspired 54mm battle arena game. Kicking lots of goals with super stunning minis. Launched this year.
- Kings of War – The obvious successor to Warhammer for massed battles. Seems to be on the ascendent. Ruleset by Alessio Cavatore.
- Hordes/Warmchine – Shows no sign of losing its large market share, and still a huge slice of the fantasy/steampunk gaming pie.
- Malifaux – Unique card-driven miniature game is more of a competitor to SBG than you probably think.
- Bushido – Oriental Fantasy/Feudal/Samurai game from GCT Studios. On its 37th wave of release, so somebody’s buying it.
- A Song of Ice & Fire – A huge kickstarter that was backed in a few days and now sits at $1.6 Million pledged. Based on the books rather than the HBO series.
- Joan of Arc – Time Of legends – An even bigger kickstarter that has been backed to the tune of $2.15 Million. Essentially a boardgame with piles of great miniatures.
- Dungeons & Dragons – Officially titled ‘Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures’, these unpainted minis from Whiz Kids are based on classic D&D aesthetics… and were the third highest selling miniature range in the US this year!
- The Ninth Age – Free ‘open source’ ruleset written essentially for disenfranchised Warhammer players. Jury’s out as to whether it will sink or swim.
- ‘Fantares’ – Debuted recently at the Warlord 10th Birthday event – this is Rick Priestly‘s pet project. A fantasy ruleset written for all and any miniatures and based on the D10 dice ‘Gates of Antares’ game mechanic… probably will see the light of day next year as rule set only. First reports are it plays VERY well.
So in fantasy alone, there is a lot of complete games, rulesets and some damn impressive Kickstarters that SBG is directly fighting for oxygen with… but its gets trickier when you consider the other games that, like SBG before it, license third party intellectual property for their setting and characters.
Its fair to say that LOTR in 2001 set the bar extraordinarily high for games in this category, but recently this market has become very crowded, very quickly. As above, some of these games have become juggernauts and some are very niche (and quite a few, for whatever reason fail to gain a foothold, or can’t sustain the royalties of the I.P. holder)… but all appeal to a certain slice of the geek market – one that wants to play in the narrative setting of a much loved film/TV/comic franchise.
A quick list of the top licensed tabletop games would have to include the Knight Models Batman & DC Universe Miniature Games & their soon to be released Harry Potter Miniature Game. Mantic‘s Walking Dead and Warlord Games‘ Doctor Who. The sector is also a graveyard of near misses and failures. Recent retirees from this cut throat market include Alessio Cavatore’s Terminator Genisys (excellent game/average film), Judge Dread and Knight Model’s Marvel Universe Miniature Game.
Combining Sci-Fi and one of the biggest intellectual properties of all time, Fantasy Flight‘s Star War’s Legion will be HUGE. I’m about 30 years beyond my Star Wars obsession, but surely I’m not the only SBG gamer to see the hype explode online about this game and not be excited… and in fact have their heart sink a little. It won’t just suck oxygen away from all other systems – its will, for a while at least create a vacuum!
Star Wars Legion will create a vacuum when its launches late 2017. Just what SBG needs… more competition.
Sci-Fi gaming is too massive a market to list all all the games , but its worth noting that X-Wing and 40k are the two biggest games in the miniatures sector globally. Add in Star Wars Armada, Infinity, Gates of Antares and Dropzone & Dropship Commander and its a pretty crowded market…. oh and did I mention Star Wars Legion at all?
So its pretty obvious that its an insanely competitive market out there…. and I haven’t even touched on boardgames and collectible card games….. and where can you buy our LOTR and Hobbit products again?
BUT, its not all doom and gloom, there are some positives.
The Good News…
The fight is not lost. As a community we have still a few strings to our bow. Namely…
We have a GREAT product.
We love our game, and know implicitly that its an excellent, polished & above all very balanced rule set. It possesses a deceptively deep level of tactical sophistication, and for a 16 years old game system, holds up incredibly well when compared to the next gen of games and their more ‘evolved’ game mechanics.
The miniatures are fantastic. The older LOTR figures hold up extremely well, with the Perry Brothers sculpts in particular having stood the test of time. The newer, Hobbit miniatures – especially the plastics are likewise pretty fine. Granted there’s a few odd heads amongst some of the finecast characters – but its still a nice range.
As expected, the Forgeworld era miniatures are spectacular and should impress any gamer.
We have an awesome community.
We don’t need to be told, but we are an awesome gaming community. To be truthful most gaming communities are more than decent – but we pride ourselves on being among the best. We’re friendly, inclusive and encouraging of newcomers to the game.
We host charity events, lodge and ferry around visiting interstate players and our marquee tournaments are friendly, casual affairs – even when players bring their A-game to the table. Win-at-all-costs lists and play styles are shunned, and to be fair are hardly ever encountered in our Middle Earth.
Community matters – we shouldn’t understate this. When I was casting my eye around for another game to pick up 18 months or so ago, I almost jumped into 30k/Horus Heresy on the strength of the three fellow gamers who independently raved about how great the community was. In the end I chose Bolt Action for reasons of cost and familiarity with the historical setting….. and luckily found an equally awesome community to adopt…. about the point remains – gamers talk, and the kind of community that we have is a selling point that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Middle Earth is the BEST.
That’s kind of a rubbish heading… but seriously, do I really need to explain why Tolkien‘s vast legendarium and the cinematic vision of Peter Jackson and the WETA workshop team make for an awesome game setting for toy soldiers?
Visually, WETA’s artists and designers knocked it out of the park with the aesthetics of both trilogies and Tolkien’s work has an emotional depth born of not just a lifetime of study in the stories and mythology of Dark Age Europe but also of the sorrow and pain of serving in, and surviving the Great War.
The breaking news that Amazon has bought the rights to produce a LOTR prequel series for a reported $200-250 million will only add to the existing universe of Middle Earth. Its doubtful we’ll see Games Workshop produce miniatures from this series as the intellectual property for the Amazon series belongs to a different set of rights holders than the Hobbit & LOTR films & books – but there’s no doubt, that like the Shadow Of Mordor game series before it – the Amazon series will inspire armies and army lists built from the existing range.
A strapping game system alone however, does not in itself guarantee a game’s success. Players crave narrative depth, which is why GW has spent so much time and effort creating the dark future for 40K, and why Warlord is commissioning writers for a series of Gates of Antares novels.
We take it for granted, but Middle Earth is arguably the greatest fictional setting for any miniatures game out there. We win this one!
A Guaranteed Future for SBG
It wasn’t that long ago when a recurring question on SBG forums and FB groups was “What will happen if GW drops the game”… now a year later we have a dedicated 5 man Middle Earth team attached to Forgeworld producing amazing miniatures and on a 5 year mission finish the Hobbit range and reinvigorate the LOTR range. New miniatures, new rules, new supplements and a Middle Earth team that actively engages with the global community and even occasionally competes in the British tournament scene. What could be sweeter.
In short, the game has a future with presumably options to extend beyond the five contracted years if desired. This is actually a huge selling point.
A Legion of Former-Players exists out there.
SBG in its glory days was a hugely successful game that helped put Games Workshop where it is now financially. The story goes, that when the range was launched back in 2001, they sold what they had projected to sell in the first year… in the first month!
The game also enjoyed a serious second bounce when the Battle Games In Middle Earth fortnightly series kicked off in 2005 by publisher De Agostini. Due to popularity, this series of magazines and models sold in newsagents was extended several times and ran for 91 issues (that’s over three and a half years!).
SO, there are a LOT of former players out there, and I’m guessing many of them will have sepia-toned memories of teenage battles in Middle Earth with poorly painted minis. And I’m guessing there’s still armies of early LOTR minis sitting in figure cases across the country under beds or in garages waiting to do battle again.
Battle Games In Middle Earth ran for 91 issues – over three and a half years and gave the hobby a serious second bounce.
So Where To From Here.
Recruit and be visible.
Quite simply, we need to recruit. Its obvious that our community needs players to replace those who naturally fall away or lose interest in the game. In the past, the heavy lifting in this regard was left to Games Workshop, but there are no more demo tables in the stores and no product on the walls. That just leaves us….
We need to be more visible in the general gaming community. Play games at home by all means, but be mindful… that every time you take a game to either a gaming store or wargaming club you’re helping dispel the myth that the game is dead. Two enthusiastic players with lovely miniatures and terrain battling it across the table top in a public gaming space will do more to spread awareness in the game than just about anything!
It was good to see both Brisbane and Perth recently host SBG tournaments at larger gaming conventions. I’m sure I’m not the only one to check out the other games systems (“De Bellis Antiquitatis – what an earth is that!”) – being run at these large events when I register online and later when I wander around the tables. Its awesome having an SBG presence at these events.
Unfortunately, the last two attempts to re-establish SBG at MOAB (Mother Of All Battles) in Sydney have been underwhelmingly attended affairs and it was decided to give it a miss this year and put our collective efforts in HobbitCon. Sometimes, there is just too much entrenched competition for tournament spots… but in general, its great to show our colours at these events.
We need to be our own P.R. company.
At MOAB recently in Sydney, my other Grey Company correspondent, Andrew Colman and I attended the Bolt Action tournament. On the first day we both wore Tolkien themed tops and Andrew used his Rohan dice. His first game was, (by pure chance) against a former LOTR player and one of the main organisers of the Company Of Dice club. By the end of the second day of MOAB a couple of the club members had vowed to pick up, or return to the game and were surprisingly enthused about giving it a try… and I can confirm that an Easterling army has recently been purchased.
Next January at CanCon in Canberra, Andrew, Adam and I (the three of us who ran HobbitCon this year) will be attending the Bolt Action event in some kind of LOTR inspired, eBay-purchased, team t-shirt. We’ll hopefully raise some eyebrows and start a few conversations as we plummet down the Bolt Action rankings… but its in these conversations we may find someone willing to share in OUR adventure…
As tokenistic as the team shirt will be – we’ll at least have metaphorically removed our ring of power and become more visible amongst our gaming peers.
In summary, we need to be less passive about our hobby. We have a great game and are a great community… and have some pretty exciting new releases coming before Christmas.
The best thing to happen to the hobby was the creation of the Australian Facebook group a number of years ago. It brought us together as a community. We need now to make the next step….
Get out and play some games and rub shoulders with other gamers. Join a club or start frequenting a gaming space… be loud and proud. A little SBG evangelism won’t go astray.
For my part, next year I’ll be helping to run an SBG ‘boot camp’ at the Company Of Dice and will have a new shiny Battle Companies book to show off. I’m actually pretty confident of the Sydney community experiencing a bounce in members next year.
HobbitCon 2018 is looking good, and I’ll see a bunch of you at Clash Of The Titans before that. Get out there and get your freak flag!
“The world is not in your books and maps, it’s out there” – Gandalf