Saturday, May 04, 2013

Will Miniature Wargaming Go the Way of the Model Railroad?...

Not so long ago I posted some pictures of wargaming that I have my students do in the Military History high school elective course that I teach.  A comment offered by a visitor caught my attention and has been rolling around in my head ever since:

"It's great that you are keeping the hobby alive by introducing it to the younger generation. Let's not let it go the way of model railroading!"

Though I appreciated the kind words, it was a real eye opener to me and really hit home.  My father and brother-in-law are both model railroaders(in their 80's and 50's respectively).  My brother who is many years older than I, and my dad, used to build remote control airplanes and "U-control" planes that they flew in well-attended competitions(when I was in diapers).  When I think of those two hobbies, I see pasttimes that once had throngs of followers, especially young people, which are now, by and large, the domain of old men(I say with all due respect).  I know there's a youngster here and there with an HO railroad, or a boy building a remote control airplane somewhere, but these examples are far and few between.

When I think about the miniature wargaming scene I see an aging demographic.  Especially when it comes to historical wargaming, most enthusiasts are, by and large, middle aged(like me).  When I look at fantasy/sci fi wargaming, I do see some younger people involved, but only with a couple of major game systems(cough, GW, cough).  Even most of them, teenagers and 20-somethings, are "passing through", with their hobby careers proving shortlived.  For many years I have advised a miniature gaming club at my high school.  I have seen a couple of generations of students come to enjoy miniature wargames such as WWII skirmishing, Warmachine and Warhammer 40K.  We have a steady involvement of students who are truly interested and engaged in the games.  It has been one of the great joys of my life to share the hobby with them.  That being said, having spoken with most of my ex-club members beyond their time at high school, none of them have engaged the minaiture gaming hobby on their own.  I am glad that they had four years of high school where I gladly supplied the minis and terrain, but none of them have taken it up beyond their time with me. 

Why is this happening?  What are the implications?  Well, first off, I'd love to put my head in the sand and pretend that this is a local phenomenon.  However, I have read enough on the internet to suggest that that is not only a national trend, but a global one.  Of course one of the culprits is videogaming.  When one can have an advanced simulation of battles, historical or fantasy, without touching glue or a paintbrush, convenience can win out.  I know it's not that simple, however.  I love videogames myself.  In the last week I've done a fair amount of Borderlands 2 on my XBOX360 and Bioshock: Infinite on my PC.  It's too easy to say "it's either or" when it comes to videogames vs. miniature games.  I suppose another possibility is that the 30+ crowd will continue to gain new members into the hobby as people enter that age group.  The problem with that theory is thatmany of us(I am 43) started miniature wargaming in their teens or 20's...that's when we got in.  

The implications are a little frightening to us "grognards".  If there aren't legions of new gamers down the line, many producers and retailers of miniature gaming supplies will go the way of the dinosaur.  There may be a couple left standing(please Lord, not Games Workshop), but we'll see a dramatic decline in options as gamers.  Historical gaming will be hit first(I am convinced this will be fairly soon).  We're in a golden age of variety for games of every kind right now, but market demographics will change everything.  We can point to all the new game systems, shiny plastic options and legions of gaming blogs on the web and say "everything is fine".  However, I believe we are at critical mass and there won't be enough new, long term gamers to sustain this.  I still believe a lot of gamers, like my past students, are "just passing through" this hobby.

Is it all doom and gloom? NO!  One thing that gives me solace are two "newer" trends in particular: online retailers and Kickstarter.  Brick and mortar hobby stores are losing their war.  There will always be a few successful shops but by and large, they're fading.  The online retailer of miniature wargaming supplies will have longevity.  They will be able to glean enough business from a wide market to always have enough business to function...making it worth it to them to carry the gaming supplies that we want.  These will likely decline in number as well over time, but there will always be a niche and a they'll be there.  Kickstarter campaigns, I believe, will be the real savior.  Again, if the future is a smaller market of fewer gamers, their collective financing of specialized projects will mean there will likely be "new stuff" for us gamers to get our hands on into the forseeable future.  You already see major game companies using kickstarter to find the capital for expansions of their product line(see Mantic Games), I believe we'll see more and more of this as we go forward.  I also wonder if digital printing will play a big role for the average gamer(but if I believed all future tech, as promised, would be widely available, I'd have my hovercar and household robot by now just like The Jetsons promised me!). 

Finally, I must mention that I love playing wargames with my oldest two sons(15 and 9).  I will do my part to continue to share the joy of the miniature gaming hobby with them.    I have a 5 year old who will be joining in pretty soon!  I will do my part to encourage them to take up the hobby for the long term.  I envision a world where they can sit around a wargaming table with children of their own...I believe it will happen. 

I could be way off on some of my assumptions but this is what I see happening.  As a guy that plays both fantasy games(Warmachine/Infinity) and historical games(Battlegroup Kursk/SAGA), I see the trends in both genres.  I believe there are some great tools out there that will keep miniature gaming alive, but, as with all things, it willl be a very different experience in the future.  I do believe that metal/plastic miniatures on styrofoam and MDF terrain can co-exist with cell phones and Gooogle glass.  We'll see what the future holds. 

I truly welcome all insights and thoughts on this issue in the form of comments.  Do you wonder the same things?  Do you see a different future for miniature gaming?  What do YOU think? 


  1. Superb post. I'm hopeful that my experience in miniature gaming might offer a sliver of hope. I started gaming in miniature when I was 16. Post college, I quit tabletop games. I played board games and then PC wargames from the 80s forward. PC wargames like Battlefront Combat Mission and Red Orchestra are very addictive (too addictive for me!)so I took up painting and tabletop gaming once again with my son.

    My point is that even if young gamers drift away for Xbox or MOO PC games, they might always come back once they get, ahem, middle aged. I do think we have hope as long as there are great products out there and people like us to promote them. Fingers crossed!

    1. Well said, Monty. Your experience, and the scenario you describe, may very well be the pattern that we see. All we can do for the younger generation is plant those seeds and see what sprouts...even if germination takes 15-20 years, right?

    2. Bingo! You're doing great work, and don't be surprised if you keep in touch with the HS kids 10, 20 or more years later. I'm still in contact with the guy who introduced me to minis years ago.

      One challenge of our hobby is the high start up cost. You have to find a system, buy the rules, the minis and then paint them. Even worse, tastes change over time and in many rules, you want more than 1 army! For the young, you'll notice at the clubs that many of their GW armies are unpainted. They're moving in so many directions that sitting down and painting is a luxury they don't have. Now that I'm older, I sit down to paint because it is a stress buster, almost like meditation. When I paint, I'm not worrying or fretting about work or workaday problems. Anyway, very thought provoking stuff.

  2. I'll second Monty, great post! I suspect part of the the trend you've identified is to do with the fast pace of life and the "pancake generation", who they see and do a little bit of a lot of different things. Gaming is a hobby that absorbs a lot of time and is unsuited to people who live and die in 140 characters. Each to the own of course and I'm not being critical of that.

    There is definitely hope for the future though - blogging is proof of that if nothing else. I've connected with loads of wonderful people and come across a wealth of great material, yours included, all due to the power of the blog and world we live in now.

  3. It is a good post and I'll just echo that you may see some of those kids come back later in life. My gaming pretty much dried up after highscool. I kept it going fitfully into my mid twenties but then all my friends and I had moved apart and the gaming went with it. Fast forward 20+ years. The bug bit me again, I started dusting off my old games and playing them with my kids. My son is becoming interested in miniatures. Perhaps the circle is complete.

  4. I also took a long break from board & miniature gaming. After high school I had college and bars. After college I had career and family. I turned to online games for several years, but now I'm back. 25 years later. So I too believe the kids that are exposed positively will return (just as I did).

  5. Good thing you got the MH class and kids like us to keep the younger generation into it! Oliver by the way, dropping in to say hi.