Tangent: Collectibility and Ready-to-play Miniatures

This was sparked by seeing the latest news from WizKids, announcing 44 new D&D miniatures in collectible form. I wanted to touch on where I’ve seen this form of selling miniatures before, and where I think it succeeds and fails.

A Note on Nomenclature

Just wanted to clarify that what I mean by Collectible format is that a consumer can’t see what they’re getting, and oftentimes there’s some version of rarity involved with models too. A card game example of this would be Magic the Gathering, a Collectible Card Game (CCG), which features booster packs that contain 15 cards; 1 or more of these are Lands, 1 is a Rare or Mythic, 2 (or 3, I forget) are Uncommon, and the remainder are Common. However, besides this rough outline, you don’t know if you are about to open $3 worth of cards, $1 of cards, or $200 of cards given the demand due to their rarity. In contrast, the Game of Thrones card game is a Living Card game (LCG), and when you buy a booster box, there is a list on the box or available online detailing freely exactly what every single card that is going to be included contains. When I refer to Collectible models, I’m referring to the Magic style of selling the product.

Also, this post is temporarily ignoring the wonderful Pirates of the Spanish Main and Rocketmen series of games. Those were wildly popular (At least Pirates was), and died due to entirely different reasons from what I can tell than collectible miniatures games. The Star Wars Constructible Card Game is also not included, but failed because apparently nobody noticed that people like to play with models a bit more strategically than their game provided.

Finally, these models were almost always ready to play: prepainted and assembled. I have no clue if there are more traditional tabletop wargames featuring random packs of units (I have an idea for one, which I’ll touch on in a later post), but for now we’re focusing on just the prepainted, preassembled stuff.

Age of the Clix

So first, addressing the first and foremost example of successful collectible-format miniatures; Heroclix, and the Clix line in general: Star Trek Tactics, the Crimson Skies clix game, Mechwarrior Dark Age, Horrorclix, and of course Mageknight*. These have had varying degrees of success or failure, but in general the line was faltering until bought by NECA in 2009. This was approximately when the Marvel Cinematic Universe series of movies was starting to emerge and gather steam, and I don’t think it’d be much of a leap of logic to suppose the surge of comic book movies has helped the Clix line. Indeed, they regularly feature current big scifi/fantasy movies and video games as limited-run gravity feed sets of models.

I think what has also helped the game is the low pricepoint and difficulty hurdle to get into the game. While you do need to spend $30 or so for a full tournament-minimum army and get at least one starter set so you can learn the rules and have access to the lists of general abilities, it’s honestly quite straightforward and intuitive. given that the rules are available online, a friend and you can start playing with a single model each, paying $3-4 from a gravity feed for a currently-featured-in-pop-culture character like Gypsy Danger from Pacific Rim or Loki from Thor 2.

It’s important to notice that the Clix line had all faltered and failed, even Heroclix, until the line was bought and rejuvenated. I personally loved the games, particularly Dark Age, Horrorclix, and the original Mageknight, but none of them had gained the critical mass of players needed to be sustainable as a collectible game (Apparently the v1.0 of Mageknight might have, but the v2.0 rules change had, from what I’ve heard/read, alienated a lot of players)

*Sidenote for an awesome game, that’s not an actual Clix game, but looked like it: Shadowrun Duels. The idea of a game using a based action figure was goddamn brilliant, and I think it was only lack of more figures and pushing the game competitively that let this one die, to my everlasting sorrow.

The Contenders

The Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures game and Dreamblade have both passed on, and these are the the only two other collectible miniatures games I could remember off the top of my head**. The field is surprisingly thin for collectible minis games (Compared to, say CCGs that replicated like bunnies in the 90s), but both of these, while they had and still have a core group of players and fans, died out as well. Dreamblade models still crop up in my FLGS, at which point I snap them up because they make for fantastic weird monsters and NPCs in RPGs. Both had solid game rulesets (I’ve never played either, but reading through them they’re both interesting and seemingly fairly clear and balanced), but I think that they failed because they followed the CCG method of concealing what you were getting until you cracked open the box.

For both these and the early Clix games, I think the biggest thing that turned people away was that you oftentimes were getting only 1 to 5 models, usually on the lower end of that range, and each model ended up costing $1-$3 after sussing out the price. For a CCG like Magic, sure a bad pack might mean you got cards you didn’t like, but each card you disliked was a waste of around a quarter rather than a couple bucks. Add into that neither of them, again from what I understand, had very established tournament scenes (Which help drive the evolution of game metas, which also helps drive new sales) which further spelled doom for their respective games.

**We’re ignoring the terrible Hex Combat game, which only lasted long enough to be an embarrassment in my opinion.

Heroscape: Gone Before it’s Time

Heroscape is the big counterpoint I’d like to indicate. This game was (From what I can find) fairly popular during it’s day, but was even more popular after it died off and started to become unavailable. While Mechwarrior and old-school wargamers like it for the hex terrain, myself and others mainly loved the miniatures it had to offer. The miniatures were decently priced (I think any of the above boxes were in the $10-15 range), and looked nice, but the biggest bonus I see (And also what I think led to Heroscape’s decline) is visual cohesion.

The Roman and Goblin boxes, and the later D&D tie-in sets, all shared visual themes and looked cohesive. This was great because it allowed for a lot of visually similar units, such as for town guards and enemy groups. Some of the other boxes and larger sets included other fantasy models, but they tended to be a 50-50 split of fantasy with scifi, and there’s where I think Heroscape faltered. Players couldn’t get just the models they wanted, but had to get larger sets of models they might not want and/or use.

It also didn’t help that Heroscape felt random and disoriented in terms of theme, and I think that if it had focused each box solely on fantasy, scifi, or another theme and had each box be separate, but compatible with each other if you chose to mix genres, it would have sold much better. As it ended up, the D&D tie-in was just the lat hurrah instead of the first of many big pushes and expansion lines.

Almost…Almost…

So while they were still promoting and running 4e for D&D, WotC also had several sets of heroes and monsters available. These never really took off, and in my opinion this is twofold. The first is due to the same problem as Heroscape had, in that you tended to have models that you might not want/use . However, the D&D minis tended to have fairly good cohesive themes, so this was a rare occurrence.

The second point still remained, though: Price. The D&D minis were a good 50-100% higher in price than the Heroscape models, and while part of this cost increase was ostensibly due to the higher quality paint jobs, I know of no-one who ever bought the models for their paintjob. As a result, they were on par for price only when on significant sale, and far higher than other models in all other cases.

There you go!

The best option I’ve seen so far is Reaper’s Bones. These ones are $2-4 apiece for most models, and while the more savvy of you out there probably noticed that this is about the same price as average or a bit higher for models, especially unpainted, this is offset by their absurdly huge range of choices. Now, instead of spending $10 and getting 4 models, 1 or 2 of which you might not want, you’re spending $3 and getting exactly the model you wanted.

Not being prepainted is a fairly large sticking point (And, if we’re being technical, violates the ground rules of this discussion’s guidelines), but the models are fantastic quality and well worth the money even if you never paint them. Plus, I think their sustained popularity after the Kickstarter (Besides being derived from the already-established Reaper line of products) is due to the low pricepoint and as-good-as-it-gets selection choices, especially in not being forced to get multiple models you may or may not want.

Final Thoughts

While I’m glad WizKids is carrying a torch for non-clix prepainted minis, I think they dropped the ball in making Tyranny a collectible game, rather than a buy-exactly-what-you-want game. Star Wars X-Wing is immensely popular, and I suspect that’s more than a little bit due to the fact that you know exactly what you;re getting every time you buy your models for it. Legacy card games are cropping up all the time while CCGs still belong primarily to the big three: Magic, Pokemon, and YuGiOh. I don’t believe this is a coincidence, and I really hope that WizKids eventually realizes that it might be wiser to start moving their games away from the collectible aspect and towards more open and know-what-you-get setups.

So what are your thoughts on prepainted models? Do you think they’re a dying business, or just haven’t been “figured out” yet in terms of business models and marketing?

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