Editorial – The Hobbit: An Expected Journey
Despite the movies subtitle, there isn’t too much that surprised me about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Though there were initial difficulties in production and moments in which the film looked like it was in peril, I remained confidant that a Lord of the Rings prequel was all but a sure thing. This had less to do with my possession of any powers of divination or some other predictive ability, and much more to do with a basic understanding that if a project has sufficient profit potential in Hollywood, it will get made.
In that regard, I was ecstatic. Of the four “core” Tolkien works, The Hobbit was by far my favorite, and I felt confidant that with Peter Jackson at the helm, these films wouldn’t go too far wrong. I won’t use my editorial space to talk about what I thought of the film. If you’re interested in my opinions regarding it, then I would suggest you check out episode two of THACO. Instead, I’d like to speak briefly about The Hobbit as it pertains to Games Workshop.
An Unexpected Bubble
Games Workshop created a very profitable relationship with New Line Cinema, and for the years in which the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was running in theaters the game was quite popular and profitable. It also happens to be one that I still love playing today. The combination of beautiful Perry sculpts, game balance, and easy to learn and understand rules make it one of my favorites.
However, in 2005-2006 The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game and the Newline Cinema license both cast a pall over GW when Chairman and Chief Executive Tom Kirby blamed slumping profits on a Lord of the Rings Bubble. Essentially the game had been very profitable during the run of the movies, but once the movies had been out of theaters (at this point about three years) interest in the game also waned. Games Workshop still had the license to make product for the game, but sales were (apparently) not nearly as strong as they were when the game had effectively a over two hour commercial for the product playing in theaters (which makes sense). The Lord of the Rings honeymoon was over.
The following years would see GW take the game in some interesting directions in an attempt to keep the product line vibrant. Ironically this was my favorite time painting and playing with the product because GW was exploring events outside of Peter Jackson’s films. We saw a full line of hobbits for the Scouring of the Shire, a Spider Queen for Dul Guldor, and brutal half-trolls from the east just to name a few. Games Workshop even attempted to expand the game from a skirmish to a full-scale war with the War of the Ring rulebook.
Though I was enjoying what was being released, I could also see a decline in interest from the day-to-day players at my local game store. Admittedly this was a purely anecdotal observation, but fewer people seemed to be painting, playing, or buying LotR’s products. The Tolkien games were always a bit looked down on as being “for kids” by many in the GW player community (at least on the forums I troll), but now I would see posts about how the license was bringing the company down and that GW was being “destroyed” by this game. Hyperbole being alive and well on the web withstanding, the numbers didn’t lie. Was there a future for gaming in Middle Earth?
The Return to Middle Earth
Regardless of an apparent lack of profitability and the rumors that a movie adaptation of The Hobbit wasn’t going to be produced, Games Workshop renewed their license with New Line and continued to produce a smattering of releases for The LotR Game. Then CEO Mark Wells went so far as to state that the game is “now firmly established as one of our core game systems.”
Fast forward to the December 2012 and BAM!… Hobbit mania was in full swing, and Games Workshop was prepared with a snazzy new box-set full of beautiful miniatures. I was delighted to have little plastic versions of Thorin, Balin, and Bilbo, and despite some critic’s harsh reviews of the high frame rate version, the film was a box office success and made big bucks in theaters. Had their waiting game paid off? Not surprisingly that success seemed to rub off on GW once again with the company posting an 11.1 million pre-tax profit (9.5 million the previous year) with growth being partially attributed to the new The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey The Strategy Battle Game.
An Expected Journey
Fans of Play Unplugged have probably already seen the unboxing I did of the Escape from Goblin Town box set. This set is really great and contains a ton of well sculpted miniatures and terrain, and though I like it a great deal (so fun to paint and play with!), I couldn’t help but notice a few things. For one thing the price, $125.00, a big price increase from previous sets, and $26 more than any of their other current core game introductory boxes. I have heard two rumors regarding this: 1. this is because of an increase in the licensing fee, 2. GW found with the previous LotR games that many players just end up buying the box set and nothing else. Neither of these sits well with me, but I can more readily accept the first. I personally would look for other ways to cut costs or accept a lower profit margin and try to make up for it in additional sales. The second possibility doesn’t sit well with me at all. There are plenty of stand alone board games with tons of miniatures, tokens, and other gubbins that manage to be profitable on just the sales of that game. If you can’t make a profit on it, it may be time to take another look at the business model. Of course, both of these are pure speculation and might not be the reasons at all.
What was worse (and in no way speculation) was what I found when I opened the rulebook. Unlike previous editions, the new mini rulebook doesn’t contain any of the statistics or points values for the new pieces, not even the pieces included in the box set. There is a small booklet containing only the statistics of the models included in the box and no point values. Owners of the previous LotR games like myself were used to a different sales model than the one used for 40K or Warhammer (a rulebook supplemented by army books), and this was a bit of a shock. Previous books included in these box sets had the statistics and point values of entire ranges of figures.
I did suspect this was coming as there were many LotR stop-gap splat books, but what I didn’t suspect was that I would have to purchase an $85.00 rulebook to get the points values of the models in the box. You can argue that Warhammer and 40K players have had to do just that for years, but even now at the height of army book pricing you’re spending around $50.00 (vs. $85.00) And honestly, I would like to know what the harm would be in putting the points values of the models in say Dark Vengeance, in the actual box set. You’d still eventually need to get the codex if you ever wanted to add anything to the army. Combine this with some ludicrous price points like The White Council ($75.00 for four 28mm figures!), and it’s all very frustrating, but I can’t say price increases from GW are ever unexpected!
Still, I love this game! They’ve made even more improvements to the rules, including some very characterful rules for weapon types and monsters. I want to recommend it to folks and to a certain extent I do, but I can’t help but feel like I’m only marginally getting my money’s worth here. Once again, I know this is a niche hobby and I’m pretty resilient when it comes to price. I recognize that when it comes to any hobby or luxury from sports to video games you will have to pay, but between the box set and the rulebook you are looking at an over $200 entry point. That could be really difficult for some parents to absorb, and I can’t overstate that we are still talking about a toy, something that exists and thrives in the realm of the young.
So, in the end I can’t help but conclude that it’s a mix bag. On one hand, I’m excited to be traveling with GW on another trip to my beloved Middle Earth. I can’t wait to see the wonderful new ways I can experience Tolkien’s universe, and I feel that from a rules, fluff, and miniature perspective GW has treated this property with the reverence it deserves. On the other hand, I don’t appreciate some of the new (or borrowed) sales tactics, and the pricing structure seems totally out of whack (see The White Council above). Lastly, I’m left with a lingering question pertaining to the previous iterations of this game: What will GW do to keep the game a viable property once the three year theatrical commercial is over?