Magazine Games

Why buy them, which to buy and where to get them.

Wargames have been published on nearly every historical war and several that never happened. The sheer number of games published is in part due to magazines sold in stores and by subscription devoted to releasing a new game every 2 months or so. Wargames reached a sales peak in the 1970s dominated by the American publisher SPI. The number of boxed games published has dropped since then, SPI pushing out 70 games a year and other companies about the same again. Two magazines, Strategy and Tactics (S&T) and The Wargamer released 10 to 12 games each year. Currently less than new 50 games are published boxed but 15 magazine games are released each year. The proportion of new games that are released in magazines compared to boxed has increased from around 10% to 30%.

The military history magazine with a game in every issue is a form of selling wargames that dates back to SPI's re-launch of S&T in 1969. S&T is still going strong, long after the liquidation of SPI, appearing 8 times a year. It has been joined on the shelves by Command, published 6 issues a year by XTR and Counter-Attack (Pacific Rim) that has pushed out 2 issues in the last 2 years and thus can scarcely be called a periodical. Other game magazines have come and gone, Wargamer (3W) managed 62 games before combining with S&T, back issues still crop up at a competitive price. Shorter lived magazines, Conflict, Jagdpanther attract higher prices because of their rarity.

The old hand is forced to consider magazine games when looking for new games on different subjects. Wargames play best in initial plays because the players know little about the game and are forced to work out strategies as they go along much like historical generals. There is also an element of puzzle solving as the rules are first understood and then optimised to improve chances of victory. Games are usually played solo or amongst small groups, repeated playing can familiarise the players with the choices available. Obvious solution put the game aside for a while and buy another one, it's nice to have something new.

Magazine games should also be considered by those looking to try wargaming or return after an absence. The bottom line being that a game released in a magazine will be cheaper than an equivalent sized game in a box. If the system fails to inspire then the overall loss is 4 or 5 smaller not including the value of the magazine itself (perhaps 2 or 3). Both S&T and Command make a conscious effort to adapt games for inexperienced players, printing asides to explain rules and recommendations that certain rules not be used by new players. The small size of the games makes them relatively quick and play is usually over in 2 or 3 hours including set-up. This seeming ideal is offset by the need to push out games to a fixed schedule compromising their overall finish.

European retail copies of Command and S&T are only available with the game, often cunningly shrinkwrapped inside and displayed in the magazine section of shops rather than with the other wargames. The two titles are in strict competition, leading to considerable similarity in appearance and price. Appearance has not changed a lot since the 1970s, except for a greater use of colour in the maps and counters and an increase in game size. Command has a few extra pages (84, not including the game rules, to S&Ts 80 all in), S&T boasts more counters (240 to 200). The map sizes both agree at 34" by 22". A slight difference in content will not affect how good or bad the game is.

The covers of both magazines betray the game title but no details as regards who designed the game (an important buying aid) nor its exact size and make up. If a game strays well below the usual map or counter size it is traditional to make up the difference with variant counters for an older game. This is fine if you have a run of the title but no use if buying one-off. S&T will bundle 2 smaller games into 1 issue to make up space regardless of system or subject, Clontarf/Saipan, Felix/Zama and Vittoria/Friedland (S&Ts 162, 153, 151). Maps will always be the same size but use of a larger size hexagonal grid will decrease the real size playing area. Charts can be placed on the game map, reducing playing area, or in the magazine, maximising it. The vast majority of magazine games use a hexagonal grid to regulate movement. Some players do not like this, the only recent issues to use other systems are Alexandros and Spartacus (Commands 10 and 15) plus Successors (S&T 161) which use area movement. Hannibal (S&T 141) uses a box and line method of counter movement.

Although many boxed games are far from error free, magazine games have built up a reputation for errors and omissions. Command suffers a lot less than S&T in this respect. Mistakes may be fixed in a later issue but there is no telling which. Errata often fixes the obvious problems but leaves the real show stoppers alone. Rather than waiting for the official errata from the States the buyer will have to make do and fix things as they run along. A solitaire playthrough before inflicting the game on an opponent is recommended. Seasoned gamers are able to rely on a subconscious backlog of games playing to fix any gaps. A first timer is up the creek, depending on the company not making any mistakes in the first place, high hopes. Common problems are the rules, charts and examples of play failing to agree. The game has been changed in development but the rules and map have not. Best just pick one version and keep to it, if in doubt use the rules version. Good advice for other holes is to invent some solution, write it down and stick to it. The historical article provided in the magazine will give some insight into what happened historically and provide a basis for changing rules. Unlike chess or backgammon the buyer is free to change the rules as necessary, as long as all players agree to the change nothing is lost. It is possible to sell the changes back to the publisher and make something on the side.

Wher'as boxed games stick around in stores for years, magazine games are by nature transient. A few specialist game retailers keep stocks of back issues, in others the appearance of a new issue will relegate its predecessor from the shelves. If a title appeals buying time is limited before that issue becomes harder to find. Older issues grow in value depending on age and demand, not necessarily on how good the game is. Specialist 2nd hand games dealers can provide almost any magazine at a price, the original publishers (Decision for S&T, XTR for Command) can also provide recent back issues at cover price (postage will bump this up).

There is a lag between buying a game, playing it, writing up a review and having it published. For a boxed game the review will still coincide with the game being on the shelf. No way can this hold for a magazine game, the issue on review will always be a back issue. Any buyer will have to rely on the reputation of the magazine and some knowledge of back issues when buying the current issue. Most important consideration is the subject. A player can put up with and be in a position to tinker with a game that reflects a subject that warms the heart. A game on a historical period that fails to inspire or that has been seen too often before will dissuade even the most hardened gamer from punching out the counters. The prime reason for buying a wargame must be the subject. A hard to understand game on an inspiring era is preferable to an easy to grasp game of a period that the buyer finds dull. The feel for the subject will tempt the buyer to try the game and soften the blow if it proves too hard to unravel.

Some clues can be gained from the magazine game cover which will influence whether it should be bought. Both magazines have built up their own house styles influenced by their editors, Ty Bomba (Command) and Joseph Miranda (S&T), a change of editor in either would also affect the look of the magazine. Only a limited number of people design wargames, the magazines design some in house and buy in other games, competing among the same designers. Franco-Prussian War (S&T 149) was originally a Command game, Chaco and Kadesh (Commands 12 and 7) began as S&T designs.

Tet '68 (Command 18) was designed by Joseph Miranda, an example of the combination of magazine styles. Other games reflect the publisher. Command games tend to be very similar, almost a cookie-cutter approach to design. Special rules vary from issue to issue but most games have the same feel. easy to pick up, easy to play, easy to forget. Command games have a definite gloss to production, the buyer can expect a certain standard but there is no guarantee against a game containing errors or failing on historical grounds. S&T is more of a risk, publishing more very good and more very bad games, in all cases S&Ts are more likely to contain errors. Command will stick to trusted systems but add special rules to reflect the period, S&T is more likely to design a system for each period, the rules of one game having little relation to the next in line.

S&T has produced a number of system games, all of the same historical period. As each new game is produced the rules ther'in relate to all other games in the series, updating them. The Italian Campaign series (Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, Medwar, S&Ts 146, 150, 155 and 160) is now thankfully over. A greater success is the Wars of the Imperial Age series (Franco-Prussian War, Russo-Turkish War, Austro-Prussian War, S&Ts 149, 154 and 167), games well worth looking out for. The system was adapted for The Seven Years War (163) and may re-appear in other games. Finally S&T met the Ancient period with the Trajan system (Trajan, Roman Civil War, Caesar in Gallia, S&Ts 145, 157 and 165), like many S&T games this has many flaws but some good ideas which rate it worth a try. S&T confuse the situation by publishing games on similar periods which do not keep to a system, Balkan Wars (164) and White Eagle Eastward (156) do not use the Imperial Age system.

The cheapest way to buy magazine games is by subscription direct from the publisher using credit cards. S&T is only available by surface, at least 6 weeks behind the USA and often well crushed in the post. Current USA editions are sometimes available from local dealers long before subscription and shop editions hit the streets. Command is available by air or surface. Surface is cheaper but air copies suffer relatively little damage in transit. Magazines are counted as books by customs and are not subject to VAT. Boxed games are counted as toys and can come with VAT to pay if bought direct from the publisher. By agreeing to receive games on subscription all games must be bought in sequence, good or bad, paying before release and in some cases before design. Buying the current issue in a store saves mail order costs, gives a certain pleasure in buying a brand new release but must be based on the title alone. If the store can be persuaded to open the shrink wrap take a peek at the rules length and designer. The best of the S&T games are designed by Miranda himself. Alas, many shops will not open up the goods, boxed games have a panel on the back saying what is inside and tempting the buyer. The back of magazines are reserved for paying adverts. The final but most expensive way to buy is through mail from a specialist stockist, a lucky few may live near one. Postage will add at least 1 to the cost plus these dealers often sell at top whack. This is counter balanced by the buyer being able to choose which issue to buy hopefully based on review or word of mouth.

Games not to be seen with

Port Arthur (Command 19). Any resemblance between this game and the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 is purely coincidental.

The Italian War Series (S&Ts 146, 150, 155, 160). Complex but not worth the effort to sort out. Errata for this was still appearing in S&T 164. Decision have apologised for ever releasing these games but they still kept pushing them out.

Zeppelin (S&T 159). A pleasant solitaire simulation of Zeppelin attacks on Britain. The subject leads to a game with little to do and little worth doing. If Zeppelins had been a big success the Germans would have kept using them as bombers.

Good games in recent magazines

When Eagles Fight (Command 25). World War I in the East. About as good as regular Command games get, the Russians and Austro-Hungarians are rather more ready to obey orders than their historical counterparts.

Spartacus (Command 15). The popular but flawed Alexandros (Command 10) system smartened up. Reports of Roman wins are sparse, players should play the game twice, swopping sides and compare levels of victory.

Clontarf/Saipan (S&T 162). Saipan is not worth the effort. Anyone looking for a simple tactical game employing tried and trusted games systems will find it in Clontarf.

Franco-Prussian War (S&T 149). A real ground breaker worth paying a bit extra to get. Russo-Turkish War (S&T 154) improves the system integrating the errata but the subject is not so much fun.

Seven Years War (S&T 163). Related to Franco-Prussian War although more ordered with new and different mistakes.

Chris Cummins on 1993 S&T UK subscription

Chris Cummins on 1993 S&T UK subscription

"I have to correct Joseph on his estimates about readership in the UK. Currently we have 215 subscribers in the UK plus 600 copies sold through the UK distributor/retail network so over 800 readers are present and accounted for in the UK. I am sure that some more copies are making their way through various mail order companies, other distributor/retail routes, and various subscriber addresses in Scotland, Wales and Ireland so I would estimate roughly 850-900 copies reaching the area. Considering that store buyers buy on average about half of the issues, there are probably about 1500 people in the UK who are picking up S&T regularly. I know our UK sales increased about 10% last year and I hope to see the trend continue. I am aware that the price increase will be stiff due to the recent cover price increase (which largely was to pay for the increase in pages, counters and colour starting in #157) and the 20% change in the exchange rate. Our UK distributor requested that we increase the cover price to 14.95 (ouch!) to account for these 2 factors. If the currency rate should change substantially, there would be a corresponding change in the cover price. Since the subscription price is just over 8 an issue, perhaps more readers will choose the subscription over the store this year.

Fortunately, as you correctly interpret, there is no price increase for the foreseeable future (which means at least 1995 before another increase). What we are planning is about a 10% increase this year in readership which would be sufficient for us to add another 16 pages to Strategy and tactics in 1994 with no increase in cover price!" As in the case of the letter from Joe Miranda, I have made no changes apart from possible cock ups in re-typing and changing the spelling from USA to UK. Chris Cummins knowledge of European geography is certainly no better than mine of the USA. Obviously the total given in this and issue 4 for S&Ts coming over do not agree by a factor of 10.

Note that Chris' figures are for all copies coming over (850+) and total readers (1500) not readers per copy, some issues clearly sell better than others. Also no consideration is made of the unsold copies lying around stores and dealer's store rooms. Still in the light of this new information, last issues' state of the hobby figures are wrong. Estimating 500-700 buyers of each S&T within a few months of release and comparing with known numbers of gamers, 40 (MBW auction), 100 (Private readers), 140 (members of the 2nd Chance club) we see a big shortfall. That is assuming that these groups all consist of different people (no chance) and not allowing for a number of European gamers in the last 2 groups.

Whatever the size of this shortfall, what chance is there of opening up this group of gamers? Pretty thin unless these people want to get back into mainstream gaming. Having bought a game, a punter has every right to do what he wants with it, to play it or not. UK zines have had a few plugs in S&T and Command so any gamer wanting to get into contact has only to write (not usually a strong point amongst wargamers). Even I have a feeling that our discussions of game styles and tactics is verging very close to Arnold Rimmer reciting notes from games of Risk in the TV series Red Dwarf.