Thursday, December 11, 2008

The pros and cons of collectible game - a wargaming view

Over the next few weeks I plan to review some of the collectible games I'm familiar with from a wargaming hobby point of view.

By definition these will all be collectible games or have collectible-like features so rather than repeating this discussion for every review I thought it might be better to address the pros and cons of the collectibilty concept as it applies to the whole class.

I think there are several ways that collectibility affects a game system that will be important to the typical wargamer, who will generally have had little exposure to the concept unless he also has general game interests.

Wargames have heavily used the idea of expansions and expandability, of course. One of the very first SPI projects was the Blitzkrieg Expansion Module, which added all sorts of bells and whistles to Avalon Hill's Blitzkrieg and required possession of the original game in order to play.

The idea of a metagame involving army building goes back to at least PanzerBlitz and its optional point-based scenarios and competitive tournament play has always been a part of the board wargaming hobby since it reached a critical mass big enough to support conventions. And, of course, wargaming has always been a wallet-stripping hobby where there's persistent temptation to spend money on gaming stuff that you'll never end up actually playing.

Still, these various elements, which are peripheral to wargaming, all play a significantly enhanced role in the collectible game hobby experience.

For example, the money sink. As long as a collectible game is "alive," serious players are really required to sink a lot of money into that particular gaming line. While individual booster packs are relatively low priced in real terms (usually $10-$15, about the cost of a fast-food meal for two or a DVD) in the aggregate they add up to a significantly more expensive way to game than board wargaming and can even exceed the cost of a typical traditional miniature wargamer's budget. While $100 is a lot by board wargame standards and will usually buy you a big game like Axis & Allies: Anniversary edition, Tide of Iron or War of the Ring or let you buy a base game and at least one expansion like Memoir'44 or Combat Commander, for most collectible games it's just the down payment on a minimally competitive set.

In addition, "living" collectible games almost always have planned obsolescence for components as older sets get "retired" from official sanctioned play.

These aspects of collectible games generally make them unattractive to wargamers. Typically being a serious player of a collectible game will easily take up the entire game budget for most people. Buying just one or two boosters per week will add up to an annual cost of $700-$1,000. Spending much less than that will mean you can't expect to be competitive in sanctioned play.

There are, of course, ways to ease the financial strain, but no way to eliminate it. The simplest is to simply wait until the game "dies." While, in theory, a collectible game that goes out of print should remain just as playable as it was before, in practice going out of print generally means an end to sanctioned official play and a loss of interest among players. On the other hand, however, it usually means game elements are available for less in the secondary market and often mean the game will be in "bargain bins" in stores. It can be also be cheaper to fill out your constructed decks and warbands by purchasing the elements you need from online retailers, although the most desirable elements can be prohibitively expensive.

The whole collectibility concept is built around competitive play and the resulting metagame. This is not necessarily a drawback. The most active competitive playing venues in gaming are built around collectible games, with sanctioned tournaments every week in most areas. By contrast, competitive play for most board wargames is restricted to a couple of national conventions and a handful of regional cons. I don't think competitive play is a large motivation for wargamers, but for that smaller subset that wants it collectible games provide it in spades.

Even of it were not so expensive in money, collectible games are expensive in time. The largest part of the gamer's energy is expended in deck or warband construction. Building a competitive army will take a lot of thinking, studying and experimenting. This is, again, not necessarily a negative thing. If one counts the hours spent plotting, studying and thinking as part of the "playing" time than collectible games are not so expensive after all in entertainment value. This aspect of collectible games may be the most attractive to wargamers, who often enjoy that kind of "offline" game experience anyway. Most wargames are played solitaire, after all, with wargamers often studying their games intensely outside of playing time against an opponent.

To some extent all collectible games share these three characteristics: Cost, competition and consuming of time. For many wargamers any or all of these may make any collectible game a non-starter for them. But if not, then it's worth looking at the specific characteristics of a particular game to see if it's of potential interest for wargamers.

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