Sunday, June 24, 2012

Whither Axis & Allies miniatures?

Well, based on this thread, it appears that WOTC has unofficially cancelled Axis n& Allies War at Sea and we won't be seeing a Set 7.

This doesn't come as a complete shock, as indications have been mounting that this was going to be the outcome. WOTC seems committed to coming out with a second set of the Axis & Allies Angels 20 air game, but I'd be very surprised of they keep going after that. While Angels 20 is a good game and has been generally well-received, it's hardly the sort of runaway hit that might make WOTC re-evaluate things.

The entire Axis & Allies miniatures experiment was, overall, a positive thing from my point of view as a historically minded wargamer. The fact that the original Axis & Allies land miniatures  appeared at all, given the popular hunger for dragons, orcs, zombies, space cruisers, superheroes and five-story robot battlemechs, was a fantastic development. Let alone getting multiple sets, followed by the even better naval game and an air game as well.

While naturally wargamers are going to look at this through their narrow lens, I don't think the end of the Axis & Allies miniatures lines has much to do with the lines themselves. They were always a niche line and an inherently small market. They were mostly doable at all because of a unique set of macro-economic factors that made pre-painted miniatures affordable. They took advantage of production lines and procedures pioneered by the aforementioned dragons, superheroes and 5-story battlemechs.

But things have changed. The Great Recession has hit Hasbro hard and the macro-economic dynamics have changed as well. It's not quite so cheap to make things in China as it used to be. The increased costliness of the models in recent sets is a symptom of this, although I don't think it directly caused the demise of the lines -- mostly because I see little evidence that increasing the cost of the boosters by a $1 or $2 per box depressed sales. But that increased costliness may very well have affected sales of the various fantastic lines that A&A was free-riding with and the aggregate effect was the same.

The case of lead Axis & Allies designer Rich Baker helps illustrate this reality, I think. While War at Sea was his main claim to fame in my eyes, from the POV of Hasbro, his main job was Dungeons & Dragons and he was let go because Hasbro decided to go in a different direction after the perceived failure of D&D Fourth Edition.  Now, I'm not a D&D player and I don't have an opinion on D&D 4th edition, but it seems clear that the corporate take was the D&D 4 was a failure.

This "failure" came at a bad time because D&D was already under a lot of stress. Hasbro/WOTC was already backing away from the pre-painted miniatures market -- it seems because of reduced demand and increasing costs (not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg).

But the bottom line is that the historical miniatures lines were never viable as a standalone product and when the much larger D&D portion of the business ran into a rough patch then the historical lines were doomed.

I think the eventual fate of the three historical lines will diverge from this point because of the nature of each game, the usefulness of its models and the strength of their fan bases.

The newest game. Angels 20, has the roughest road ahead. In many ways it's the best game of the bunch. It's easy to play, visually stunning because of the large models and requires a relatively small investment to get into despite the high per0unit costs. The Starter provides a viable stand-along game, for example.

But working against it is the fact that, with just 2 Sets, there really won't be enough options available to keep the game alive. There won't be  enough to satisfy collectors and the game won't be able to cover many important aspects of aerial warfare -- basically being limited to dogfighting. It's not compatible with other lines.  It's entering a market with a couple of other viable alternatives, notably the Wings of War/Wings of Glory line of planes and games. Angels 20 planes are not tremendously cheaper than WoW/WoG and being larger makes them more challenging to store. I expect interest in the Angels 20 to wane and it will, at best, be something that people pull out on occasion but won't have a real community around it.

The prognosis for the land game is a little better, mostly because the miniatures are usable with other rules and the line is big enough to be attractive to collectors. As a game, it's the weakest of the trio. While not  a bad game, it's nothing special in the universe of similarly scaled tactical wargames. Like the air game, I expect that interest in playing the game by the Hasbro/WOTC rules will wane significantly, but players will often hold onto their collections because they can use the models elsewhere. The V1 to V2 scale change hurts the game in this regard. While unimportant within the context of the Axis & Allies minis game itself, it does reduce the usefulness of many of the models for other games. I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of people sell off their collections down the road, which will be helpful for those who are using the model s for the Flames of War rules.

The naval game, I think, stands the best chance of hanging around as a significant community. The published rules fill a need unmet by any other set for an easy to play tactical naval wargame. The line got large enough over six sets to cover most of the important ships and, while it inaugurated a new scale that is not compilable with previous scales, the development of Shapeways and 3D printing has created a way around that problem. Already craftsmen and entrepreneurs are filling in the gaps. With the Team Poseidon project of new semi-official cards there's reason to think that the naval game is here to stay.

Unlike a proprietary line like Star Wars, Hreoclix or even D&D, there's really no reason at all why other manufacturers can;t make 1:1800 scale warships. Dozens of manufacturers have coexisted for years in the existing model naval wargame market with 1:900, 1:1200, 1:1250, 1:2400, 1:3000, 1:4800 and 1:6000 models. Most lines cover the basics -- just about everybody has a Bismarck or Fletcher class DD -- but each also specializes. Naval wargaming has always been a niche within the niche market of wargaming anyway, but this hasn't been a problem. Partly, I think, this is because of the nature of naval wargames. You really only need  a small handful of ships to have a game-worthy collection, especially if you specialize. And once you pick a scale there's no reason why you can't expand on it indefinitely. 

So I expect the War at Sea line to retain its fan base and even continue to grow, although probably seeing more use as models for other rules as time goes on. Still, I won't be surprised to see games of War at Sea going om 10 years from now, while I'll be very surprised indeed to see any Angels 20 or AAM.


  1. Seth:

    I agree with your assessment, especially for the land game. The V2 versions of the vehicles fit in perfectly with the Flames of War scale at 15mm, and while they won't look as pretty as a fully decked out Battlefront unit, they will also be much less expensive.

    I had heard that Mongoose publishing was going to use 1/1800 as the scale for their new version of Victory at Sea. If true, the AA Naval line would fit in nicely.

  2. The problem with the Mongoose line is that they apparently are coing to come with bases, so they will not be compatible in look with the War at Sea miniatures, which is too bad.