The Dark Side of the table

Every wargamer has a Dark Side.

Mind you, I don’t mean a “this will get you arrested” dark side. Nothing that rises to the Senatorial level of latex suits and ball-gags in the basement.  I’m thinking something more along the lines of “I play Dungeons and Dragons” or “I have every counter nub I’ve ever trimmed collected in a big box in the closet” or “I get all of my history from Osprey books.”

I am a wargaming old fart, so I’ve had lots of time to work on this. I have more than one dark side. In fact, if wargaming dark sides counted for anything I could easily out-dark Darth Vader’s darkest dark-side day.

One of my little dark-side quirks is that I read many, many more sets of rules than I’ll ever get around to playing. I am particularly fond of inexpensive rules sets for miniatures games. I am also fond of not-so-inexpensive rules sets, but that quirk is indulged much less frequently.

You know you want some...

You know you want some...

Most miniatures rules sets (regardless of cost) were once rare objets d’art out here in the swamp – primarily owing to the great difficulty in finding stores that stocked them. But over the past few years some horrible little web sites have sprung into existence that serve as vile little enablers of my dark-siding ways. Digital-download e-commerce sites like Drivthrurpg.com and Wargamevault.com now bring an endless variety of under-$20 PDF rulebooks straight into the (usually) humid comfort of my swamp bunker. Some of the ‘normal’ online game shops have also started to expand their rules offerings beyond the big-market standards.

In a way, experimenting with different rules sets brings out my ‘inner explorer’. Price is an indicator of neither rules quality nor production values, so it’s usually an adventure in discovery when a new set lands on the doorstep. Some of the inexpensive rules are really quite good. Some of the pricier rules have a lot of ‘been there, done that’ to them.

Of course, whether rules are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a very opinion-charged topic amongst miniatures wargamers. Some Napoleonic wargamers, for example, would sooner be staked out on top of a fire ant mound than play with the “Piquet” rules. I LIKE Piquet. Lots of gamers enjoy “Flames of War”. My opinion of them is “meh” – they strike me mostly as “Warhammer 1944″ and I’ve been there, done that. (Besides, Pinnacle’s “Fields of Honor WWII” is more open-source and a LOT cheaper – although not very well supported as of late.)

I am not a big fan of game systems that ‘require’ a certain brand of miniatures. I dipped into that universe with GW’s stuff some years ago, and that was enough of an investment for me. Fortunately, there are many “Future War” systems out there that can be played with almost any style of minis – so all of the GW figures see plenty of additional work in games like StarGrunt, Dirtside, Future War Commander, Starmada X and even the venerable Mercenary.

My tastes are a bit eclectic, although I generally tend towards either naval games, or science-future themed rules. I’ve sampled a few Napoleonic systems, but I’m too lazy and too cheap to seriously tackle that topic. Other one-off experiments are shot-gunned around the genre map; games like “AK47 Republic”, “Cold War Commander”, “Budget Battles”.  And no Dark Side is complete without at least a couple of Zombie-themed games like “All Things Zombie” and “Secrets of the Third Reich 1949″.

Playing with little figures on a big tabletop. Yesssss. Feel the power of the Dark Side.

History of a tabletop

In order to insure domestic tranquility, sometimes we married gents have to make great sacrifices. It’s not always pleasant. In fact, such sacrifices can be downright terrifying. But if the world of wedded bliss is to continue spinning in greased grooves, well, a guy just has to man up and make it happen.

It’s an annual ritual around the swamp bunker, but that doesn’t make it any less traumatic. The approach of Christmas means that it’s time to convert the Big Table into our Gift Wrapping Command Center. Maps, counters, play aids, dice and game boxes all get swept into the closet in order to make room for Santa’s helpers. Few things take precedence over gaming on the Big Table. But around here, the holiday request from the Missus for gift-wrapping table space is like the President telling his Secret Service guys he wants to go out for a burger. No delays, no stuttering or screwing around.  Everything else gets put on hold and the detail loads up the armored cars and motorcades over to Five Guys.

Leyte Gulf, from Avalanche Press, flaked out on the Big Table.

Leyte Gulf, from Avalanche Press, flaked out on the Big Table.

Of course, the Missus doesn’t understand the full depth of the emotional dislocation this causes me. I have had the Big Table longer than I’ve known her. Don’t take the comparison too far, though – it is, after all, just a table. In fact, for some of the more industrious Bob Vila types out there, it may not even ‘officially’ qualify as a real table.

My Dad and I built the Big Table in 1976. The original design was a 4-foot by 6-foot (roughly) slab of nice marine plywood with a raised, bevelled lip running down each long side. Game maps go on the table, three 2-by-4-foot sections of plexiglass cover the top (held in place by the raised lips) and let the games begin. In its initial configuration, the Big Table sat on top of our big dining room table (much to my Mom’s chagrin). It was built specifically to give me a proper venue for hosting play of old SPI’s first edition Terrible Swift Sword and their first edition Wellington’s Victory.

Following school-boy days, the Big Table spent about six years hoisted up in the rafters of Dad’s workshop while I bounced around college and other places with living quarters only barely bigger than the table itself. But when I finally achieved a place large enough, the Big Table quickly appeared on top of my somewhat rickety dining room table. There, it supported both the play of 80s-era boardgames on one end and early computer gaming on my brand-new Apple IIc on the other end.

In its third iteration, the Big Table became a part of a team. That was during my “single, successful guy” stage when I built a 3-bedroom hilltop bunker over in Citrus County. One room became devoted to an eight-foot table geared for miniatures play (occasionally interrupted by The Gamers original DAK). A second room got a large, built-in desk (with room enough for desk-work AND a single-map game), plus the Big Table. However, the Big Table required some modifications for the situation: It went up on saw horses and I used some hinges and lock-bolts to convert a two-foot section of it into a drop ‘leaf’, basically turning it into a four-by-four-foot configuration.

For its fourth and current incarnation, the Big Table is back to being big again. The leaf is bolted back into place. It’s propped up by saw horses (which mortifies the Missus) and under-pinned with plastic tubs full of gaming debris, which makes it a full 24 square feet of manly-man wargaming glory.

It also makes a simply marvelous gift-wrapping table, by the way.

Gaaaaaaames Woooorrrrrkkshoppp!

(Or the curious case of the zealously-defended intellectual property.)

The other day, the folks who run the website Boardgamegeek.com received a little Cease & Desist letter from the legal department of Games Workshop. In response, all user-generated content related to Games Workshop products has been removed from BGG.

You want to hear lots of howling, hissing and spitting? Next time you visit the People Zoo, poke a long legal stick into the Gamer Cage and give it a twist or two. I mean, man, this time the natives are really banging the bongos. It’s an event that’s stirring up more emotional discussion and vitriol than the Ameritrash Debates or the Banhammer Wars ever came close to.

I’m not a lawyer. I AM a gamer. But I’m also a former Big Corporate wonk who, on more than one occasion, participated in Big Corporate meetings with Big Corporate lawyers engaged in the defense of our Big Corporate intellectual property rights.

For a gamer who either creates or enjoys user-generated content related to a GW product, having their content burned down at the behest of GW is a bit like having their heart ripped out and kicked down the street at the bitter end of an illicit love affair. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s like discovering that they’re only one of countless other “girls in every port”. The Space Marines just told them that the sex was good, but “true luv” was never in the cards.

I understand the anger. Such user-generated content – unofficial FAQs, rules summaries, play aids, charts, forms, whatever – are typically, truly, labors of love. Gamers create them because they enjoy the games and want to help other players enjoy them just as much. For better or for worse, geeky or not, efforts at that level usually involve some degree of emotional attachment to the game in question.

But just because you love a game doesn’t mean it’s going to love you back.

For Games Workshop it’s all just business. Beyond a doubt, plenty of other game companies actively encourage ‘community’ creation of content relating to their games. But here’s the catch: Games Workshop – despite their name – isn’t ‘just’ a game company. They are Games Workshop Group PLC, a publicly-traded company listed on the London Stock Exchange. They are a multi-national group with wholly-owned subsidiaries in the US, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Australia, Japan and Italy. They move plenty of product through independent retailers, but they also own more than 350 hobby centers.

Unlike most other ‘game’ companies, they make a LOT of money from licensing and from the content they themselves generate related to their games. Their core business is still the gaming hobby – but revenues from related content are ever-expanding (as you can read in their investors’ reports). Their revenues aren’t just generated from selling “stuff”. Their business model is deeply rooted in a broad range of well-developed IP.

As a multi-national concern, one of the things they’ve got to deal with is the different ways different national legal jurisdictions treat the defense of intellectual property. A company seeking to protect their IP can never go wrong by demonstrating active, broad defense of all their properties. Even if some of those properties are no longer being developed or supported in production, as long as they are agressively policed by the company, no jurisdiction is likely ever to consider those properties abandoned.

No doubt about it, the GW action has riled a lot of BGG devotees. A number of them will take their hobby dollars elsewhere as a result. But there’s always a new recruiting class of 13-year-olds ready to walk into GW stores, so any noticeable short-term impact will be offset soon enough. It’s a bit of a cold calculation, but obviously – at least at corporate HQ – the long-term numbers argue for a rigorous, no-prisoners approach to the defense of their IP.

A case can be made that some of the BGG content didn’t need to be taken down, but I can’t blame the site owners for addressing the issue with the broadest possible response. Perhaps GW’s C&D was overly broad – but that’s the way IP lawyers work. They make as sweeping a request as possible and await either compliance or a legal challenge.  It usually means that bigger companies with legal departments have their way with smaller outfits who can’t pay to argue.

Welcome to the majors, kid.