Warhammer, Kings of War and competition

Editorial

I have been spending a fair bit of time recently thinking about Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy, Mantic Games’ Kings of War and the nature of competition. Specifically competing with a company the size of Games Workshop and what it takes for a smaller company to develop and prosper under the shadow of a behemoth like GW.

The latest iteration of the Warhammer Fantasy rules is an interesting change for Games Workshop. They appear to have looked at the deterministic, tournament driven gameplay of the 7th edition of the rules and incorporated elements from their War of the Rings game to create a far more random and chaotic game. The changes in the rules have generated a lot of debate and controversy among some competitive, tournament gamers but has also brought in many new (or returning) players to the game.

I am one of them.

I have been skirting around the outside of the Warhammer Fantasy game since the 3rd edition hardcover was released along with the Ravening Hordes army book. And I have had a few armies, Lizardmen, Tomb Kings, Skaven, during that time. I was never especially interested in the 6th and 7th edition of the rules due to what I thought was a game that was driven by exploiting the rules to maximize your combat odds in the game. I also didn’t really see that people were enjoying the game. I know that I didn’t enjoy the few games I played. So when the new rules came out and I saw many of the old players complaining about the changes made I knew that I needed to check the rules out. Many players were complaining about the removal of “tactics” in the game that I had always thought were tedious or lead to boring games (such as the redirection “tactic”). They also complained about things like random charge and other elements that sounded like fun to me.

In a nutshell my decision to check the game out was determined by the fact that if the old-timers didn’t like the new rules then I should be more than happy with them. And so I tested the water with a few games, checked out some new miniatures and then finally decided to take the plunge and build an army for Warhammer. Games Workshop deserves a lot of credit for doing this. They don’t seem to have the nerve to do this sort of change for 40K which has a much larger market of competitive gamers but for whatever reasons, GW has seen fit to make a deliberate turn away from rules aimed at tournament play with Warhammer 8th edition. Its a matter of personal taste but I think that the new rules are far superior to the 7th edition and provide a far more interesting game. A game I was more than interested in spending time and money on.

It is the money aspect of this process that is problematic. GW figures are not cheap. Games Workshop also have odd, differential, pricing for their miniatures that is partially based on the number of figures they plan to sell. So Rare or Special figures tend to be more expensive per miniature than Core troops. GW has also been spending a lot of time and money on developing and using 3D tools to create plastic figures. The recent Island of Blood figures as well as some of the new High Elf and Storm of Magic releases are exceptional miniatures that are generations ahead of anything that their competitors are making. Comparing the new High Elf plastic Dragon Prince cavalry models to the old plastic Silver Helm cavalry is like comparing models from different companies. The Dragon Princes are highly detailed and assemble in such a way that there are almost no gaps. On the other hand the Silver Helms are impossible to assemble without gaps, especially where the horse head connect to the body, and have terrible looking fills making the models look blocky and unappealing.

Games Workshop also still sell a boxed set of plastic Vampire Count Zombies that are not only the worst plastic models in their catalogue but also probably some of the worst plastic models on the market. The quality of GW’s plastics is not consistent but looks to be improving (dramatically) but these figures come at a cost. A box of 5 Dragon Princes is $35.75 Cnd and a box of eight Silver Helms is $45.00 Cnd. $7.25 for a Dragon Prince doesn’t seem that bad a deal once you realize the quality of the figures but $5.65 for a Silver Helm miniature does seem to be an imposition. The plastic Zombies are available for $2.10 Cnd each in a box of twenty and these seem to be overpriced no matter how many you get in a box.

Which is where Mantic Games comes in.

Mantic sells Elf, Orc, Dwarf, “Evil” Dwarf and Undead plastic figures. On average Mantic sell their figures for half the price of what GW sell their figures. Or sometimes even less. A unit of 30 Mantic Zombies with command is available for $39.99 US. 20 Ghouls with command is available for $27.49 US and ten are available from GW (without command figure) for $24.99 US. One can argue that the quality of the Mantic figures isn’t the same as the GW miniatures or that they have lower operating costs but the fact remains that Games Workshop makes a mass combat fantasy game and sells some expensive miniatures for that game. Mantic have seen a clear market demand for cheaper troops and models for this game and have stepped in with their own lower cost figures. You now have a choice when building your Warhammer (and soon 40K) forces. You can pay for GW figures or you can pick up some cheaper miniatures and perhaps not be able to use them in a tournament. I suspect that there are a lot of people that care more about their pocketbook than they do tournament legality of their forces.

I recently started building a Vampire Counts army after trading and bartering to build a High Elf force. I need some bad guys to play and I have always been fascinated by the Warhammer Vampire Counts. What I am not enamoured with are the prices for the Core troops and how abysmal some of the models like the Zombies look. Mantic makes a wider range of troops that can easily be used for the Vampire Counts (Zombies, Ghouls, Skeletons, Cavalry, Heavy Skeleton infantry) at a better price which leaves you with more money to buy figures from GW that Mantic doesn’t provide. And they make much better looking Zombies.

I don’t think that Mantic is just in the business of providing cheaper alternatives for GW gamers though. I suspect that Ronnie and the team at Mantic are looking at this market opportunity as a way to build their own company, miniatures range and games by providing an alternative series of miniatures. Cheap Warhammer minis is a means to an end for them and simply the vehicle they are using to build funds and also a way to expand in a market dominated by Games Workshop.

It is effectively impossible to compete directly with GW. They are too large, too established and they can, and do, create much better miniatures (at least in plastic) than most of the industry. If you want to release a mass combat fantasy or sci-fi game with an accompanying miniature range you typically have to either be satisfied with a niche market or… well or nothing. There are many mass combat games on the market but not a single one has the reach or market awareness that Warhammer does.

So if you are a game developer how do you survive and build your own properties all the while having to deal with Games Workshop? One answer is, as Mantic is doing, is to compete by not competing. Their market plan is almost Taoist in its action through inaction plan of expanding their game and miniatures. Mantic offer models but they can be used with Warhammer Fantasy. They then release their own rules that contain new units that are specific to their Kings of War game but can easily be played with Warhammer miniatures that gamers already have. Kings of War is a game that is free in the sense that Mantic gives the rules away but also “free” in the sense that gamers do not have to choose between their existing fantasy mass combat system in order to play or explore the rules. If you have a High Elf, Dwarf, Orc or Vampire Counts army you can play Kings of War and if you build an army for Kings of War you can create a Warhammer army with very little additional investment.

It is this removal of the element of choice that is what is going to, in my mind, make Mantic successful and allow them to prosper. Games such as Void, Chronopia and many others have attempted to enter the game market to compete against GW for gamer’s dollars and all failed. Not because these games or figure ranges were not as good but because they have asked gamers to choose between their game and GW’s. Mantic doesn’t ask you to make that decision. Kings of War, and the upcoming Warpath, are games that co-exist with Games Workshop and even compliment GW games by offering gamers a cheaper alternative to GW miniatures.

This is clearly a business model that works. Some gamers may complain about the fact that Mantic isn’t creating a full roster of original miniatures and games but I suspect that their goals are much larger than the inevitable niche market that an original game is typically doomed to in this hobby. Mantic has been able to create four ranges of plastic figures, a mass combat rule system, two board games and is now expanding into sci-fi mass combat with a new rules set and two more ranges of plastic figures. They are already probably the biggest “competitor” with GW in terms of size and, more importantly, market presence and they have done so not by direct competition with Games Workshop but by using market opportunities presented by GW.

Sometimes you don’t have to take on someone directly in order to build a competing game.

And it has clearly worked for me. My new Vampire Counts army is going to be filled with Core and Special choices that are built from Mantic Games figures. It will still have Games Workshop miniatures in it but only for character models (which I think GW does a better job on) and some models that are unique to GW such as the Corpse Cart and the new Zombie Dragon. This army would not be economically feasible for me if I was to build it with only GW minis. So both companies really win. I will be playing Warhammer and Kings of War with two armies built with figures from both companies.

Everyone wins in the end and Mantic continues to expand.