The Ballbusch Experience: Just Give Me Someone to Fight

New games.  New games are the big new thing of the moment.  Everyone (yes, everyone in the whole world) has taken to the internet to talk about, review, and shop for miniature games that, well, aren't 40k.

Games Workshop: in or out?

These days a man cannot consider himself in fashion unless he's posted at least one anti-GW rant on his blog in the past three monthsHow exactly GW managed to get just about everyone's hackles up all at once is a question for the ages.  You can pick your GW bonehead maneuver du jour and say that it was the proverbial straw that broke the equally proverbial camel's back.  Certainly their business practices leave a lot to be desired, but GW has always been a rather cut-throat company.  Retailer restrictions, price hikes, and a certain amount of contempt for its customers isn't anything new.

The thing is, gamers were willing to forgive GW's occasional shenanigans as long as the company delivered awesome products.  However, the last few years GW's big releases (8th Edition, Finecast, Storm of Magic, 6th Edition) haven't gone over well with large segments of the player base.  That dissatisfaction makes everything else GW does seems worse, or more unprecedented, than it actually is.      

The upshot of all this is a great horde of wargamers looking around for an alternative to Warhammer (which I use as a generic term to mean both WHFB and 40k).  Which people should do even if they're perfectly satisfied with Warhammer. After all, I like pizza, but I wouldn't want to eat pizza for every meal.  So, the most games you play the less likely you are to get bored or frustrated with any one game. 

So far so good, people are trying new things, millions of kickstarters get funded, life is good.  However, there is one tiny problem, and like most problems in life it can be summed up in three little words: the other guy.     
Special buddies

Wargaming is a one of those things that just doesn't work without a reasonably enthusiastic companion.  Even if you a large number of wargamers that's no guarantee you can find one to take the leap into the new system you want to try.  Asking someone to put their money and time into trying out a game is asking a lot.  Entry into a new wargame can easily set you back $200 once you include books and do-dads.  Not to mention the 30-50 hours of painting time required.

Maybe you're one of the lucky few who has a wargaming buddy who's perfectly willing to try out any game that interests you.  Or maybe you're the guy who will play any game your friend suggests.  In either case, that's good for you.  However, most of us have no certainty that we can find anyone who'll commit to starting up a new game that we want to play.  So, what do we do?  If we want easy access to opponents we play a game that's popular. 
A large part of the reason Warhammer is so successful and continues to maintain such a tight grip on the hobby is the simple fact that everyone plays it.  So if you want to play with the biggest group in town, you too must play Warhammer, and the cycle continues ad infinitum.  No other wargame has anything like that level of penetration and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.  

Having a ready supply of opponents isn't bad thing, but in the case of Warhammer it's gotten people to think about wargames in terms of pick-up games.  Now, I know not everyone has a FLGS nearby where they can drop in and find a game any night of the week.  But, even those who don't assume that their opponent will have his own army that he'll bring to wherever the game is being played.

A game store on 40k night
This isn't just part of GW culture, most of the big games encourage this approach, and support it with their fluff.  The Infinity, Malifaux, Warhammer, and Warmachine universes are improbable places where everyone is perfectly happy to fight everyone else.

Flames of War players pay lip service to avoiding so called 'blue-on-blue' encounters, and some do genuinely dislike them, but it's mostly to just appease grognards who accuse FoW of not being a 'proper' WW2 game.  This approach works great when you have a community in place playing a specific game.  Everyone's army can fight everyone else's without creating any sort of fluff or scenario issues.

The problem with this setup becomes obvious when you don't have enough local players supporting a specific game.  If no one else is playing a game, you can't play it either.  Yeah, you can say 'that sucks' and just go with the crowd, but that's what keeps everybody stuck in the same old wargaming rut, which slowly sucks the joy from life until you drop out of the hobby altogether and take up BASE jumping.   

Pick-up game culture isn't limited to the big boys either.  'Ancients' (generally 3,000BC to AD1500) wargamers are a lot like speculative fiction gamers in how they arrange their games.  Way back at the beginning of time it was decided that all pre-gunpowder armies were sufficiently similar to be represented on the tabletop by a single set of game mechanics.  And virtually all Ancients rules follow this paradigm.  The result is a free-for-all devoid of any historical context.  Pre-Mongol Samurai vs. New Kingdom Egyptians?  No problem at all.  While this throws historical accuracy out the window, it does mean that you can build any ancient army you want secure in the knowledge that any other ancients player you find is a viable opponent.    

The days when war required three things: horses, muskets, and really tight pants

Once we enter into the so-called 'horse and musket' period (about 1700-1900) the gaming culture really starts to change.  Not only did armies and equipment change frequently during this period, each individual regiment within the same army often had unique uniforms and flags.  So, the hobbyist can't really set out to create generic units, instead he  chooses to paint the 1st Battalion of the 4th Regiment of Foot (King's Own) in their 1815 uniforms.  This attention to detail naturally creates a drive towards historically accurate (or at least plausible) opponents.  That kills pick-up gaming stone dead.  If you've got an 1806 Prussian army the only person you can play is someone with an 1804-1807 French army.  You'll never run into that guy at the FLGS through random chance.

Yet, the period thrives despite its limitations because the Horse and Musket guys build matched pairs of armies.  So, one game its the Battle of Kolin with one guy supplying all the figures, and the next time its the Waterloo campaign with the different fellow's toys.  It's a lot of work, but so long as everyone in the local clique is working on their own thing, it's no different from each man supporting his own 40k army. 

If you're looking to start a new game that has little or no local player base you should try out the same approach.  Most wargamers will play anything so long as someone else is doing the heavy lifting.  You want to get into Infinity, but none of your friends want to paint up anime babes?  Build your two favorite factions (what's collective noun for an Infinity force?) then get a friend over and have some games.  Maybe he'll like the game so much he'll pick up his own figures.  If not perhaps he'll be inspired by your example, then before you know it, you'll be playing Dropzone Commander at his house without having to lift a finger.

Wargaming is at once a very social and very private hobby.  However, more than anything, it's your hobby.  Build the forces you want for the games you want, and support other people doing the same thing.  If you have a strong local community for a specific game you like, enjoy it; but don't think that every game needs the same level of support just for you to be able to play.  Wargaming isn't a religion or a cult.  No one needs to be converted from one gaming system to another.  Invite people to play the games you want to play, if they like them, they'll start their own armies.  If they don't, there are always other people to game with.           

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