Monday, April 05, 2010

Limited publisher's market for Brit-like games

The publisher's market for Britannia-like games doesn't seem to reflect the purchasing interest. That is, I'm finding it hard to find companies interested in publishing Britannia-like games.

Phalanx (publishers of Italia) has been pulled into its parent company, 999, which tends to a broader market, and Phalanx is winding down.

Clash of Arms published Chariot Lords long ago. But Ed Wimble seems more interested in a game where you could be a Viking Sea King than in Normannia (the Viking Age in the West). And while I have a game that might serve the purpose, it isn't anything like Britannia.

An obvious choice for wargames is GMT, but I've discovered that their taste in games (which may also be their customers' tastes, of course) doesn't run to Britannia-like games.

At PrezCon this February, four people (GMT fans, including the game acquisition person at GMT) played Barbaria. I already knew that I was "up against it" because of his dislike of Britannia. He said the reason was that he didn't like playing a quite long game where, if he screwed up early on, he had no chance of winning. Well, we all know that isn't really true of Brit (though you can screw up bad enough early on to make it really difficult). But I thought Barbaria, which has been played in an hour and 40 minutes, would erase that objection.

I also thought he might not like it because it is "predictable" when compared with many other games, especially the "card driven wargames" (CDW or CDG) that are so popular with GMT. I thought Andy prefers games that require constant reaction to circumstances ("improvisor" games) rather than games where you plan ahead ("planner" games). Britannia has a chess-like aspect that I always appreciated in the early Avalon Hill games, but which is absent from CDG. (Click on the title of this post for an article that explains these terms.)

And while that's true, I missed the other aspect of CDW that is vital to his (and the other players') satisfaction. They want to feel like they're really there, that they're participating in the event. The CDW allow this because each card represents an historical event. On the other hand, I don't feel that need to participate in the least when I play games, I'm playing a game, not leading an army or a nation; the game might represent history, but I'm not IN history. If I want to feel like I'm participating in something not of my current world, I play D&D. And I'd much rather be a hero of fantasy than a general in the Civil War (or whatever). If I want to learn history, I read a book; books are much better vehicles for history than games.

Well, Brit-like games have none of this participatory feeling, which is inevitable at the scale of hundreds of years per game. In many sweep of history games, few if any nations survive throughout the game, let alone individuals.

Barbaria has two versions, one longer and more complex than the other (and there's a third, five player version, using a different board, that I've spun off as a separate game, as it is MUCH more complex). There are 17 nations, only 6 turns, average 40 pieces, to represent 850 years of European (and N African/Near Eastern) history. Hence the game is quite short, simple to play, but not richly detailed (in boardgames you can have only two out of three).

So the upshot was, these folks--none of whom had played Brit more than a few times--found Barbaria to be too simple, too directed, lacking in anything that grabbed them, though one pointed out quite correctly that it would be good for educational purposes. They wanted to know why the Huns, e.g., scored for raiding in Bavaria, and I can compensate for that by using a much larger nation card that includes the history of the people. They wanted more differentiation of units (there are infantry, cavalry, and leaders), which is absolutely pointless historically at this scale. They wanted more freedom of action, and at that scale I cannot give it and still have the game reflect actual history. In other words, they wanted to feel like they were there, I think.

So in that mantra of "short, simple to play, and richly detailed," what might satisfy these folks is a long game that has the detail. I have a much bigger and longer five player version of Barbaria that might serve, though I am still doubtful about providing enough differentiation and color and variability to satisfy.

Yet most of the games I've been designing for the past several years have at their heart the saying "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

I have another game system that might serve the purpose, though it, too, can lack some color at this scale. I am more likely to try new game systems for GMT than to try anything directly related to Britannia. But for wargames I am still primarily interested in the Sweep of History, and that poses a big "you are there" problem.

One hypothesis that came to mind out of this, is that Brit players may also play RPGs, where the CDW players may not. The game acquisition honcho doesn't play RPGs, too "loosey-goosey", he prefers to know exactly what he can do. I ran a little pole at a Brit site and (with too few responses) RPGs seem to be favored by half, not played at all by half. Which blasts my hypothesis. A different form would be, "CDW players don't play RPGs". Though that, too, has its flaws. Sometime I need to try a poll with braoder reach.

Who does this leave to me? In general, for broader-market publishers anything like Britannia is too complex (a Britannia card game might do for educational purposes, I should go back to that). And for narrow-market publishers, each has its own style (e.g., CDW for GMT). And there just aren't many publishers of wargames, period.

FFG, in case you weren't aware, has already said they have no interest in other Brit-like games or in Brit expansions. FFG games these days positively DRIP with atmosphere, lots of colorful, detailed cards, lots of plastic pieces, fairly complex rules, and that works fine for them.

I don't know what will happen when Brit goes out of print again. Reprints are rare, this edition has had one already, so I'm not expecting yet another reprint. Perhaps FFG will want to do "Brit 3", a more radical revision of the game, but I am not counting on it. On the other hand, if they decide not to continue, then the rights will revert to me. But the "out of print" time for Brit is quite a ways in the future, most likely, we're talking about several years before the ultimate determination.

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