RIW recently moved into a new storefront (their old shop having been burnt to a crisp by the restaurant next door), which is less claustrophobic and brighter, but sadly lacks pics, so here is their logo.
Before we discovered our Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS), RIW Hobbies in Livonia, we went to The Other Game Store. The Other Game Store was paradise if you were into minis, but rubbish if you were into board games, having a shelf dedicated to Munchkin, and another shelf where they squeezed in everything else, "everything else" being only the most popular of Euro-style games. The Other Game Store also wasn't particularly friendly; there was always this one guy at the desk who always looked at you with withering contempt when you wanted to buy something. We were very glad to discover RIW, which in addition to its much friendlier customer service stocked literally hundreds of games. RIW has Eurogames, it has thematic games, and it even has a small but respectable number of wargames-- there's a lot of GMT, plus a few titles from Worthington, Compass, Victory Point, and DVG. (And, hopefully soon, a few from Hollandspiele.)
We happened to drive past The Other Game Store, recently moved to a new location, and on a lark decided to stop in and see what, if anything, had changed in the four or five years since last we popped in. The store was larger. The staff was much more customer-friendly, though they fell into that "loves to show off his clever opinions and deep knowledge of geekery" trap that can be abrasive. And they had a much wider selection of board games, albeit of the Eurogame and Fantasy Flight-y variety. There was only one GMT title, their venerable Twilight Struggle, but nothing else that smacked of wargaming.
Mary asked the fellow at the counter if they had any wargames. Miniatures still being their bread-and-butter, at first he thought that's what she was asking about. "No, we mean board games that are historical wargames. Hex-and-counter style."
"No. I'm sorry, I've never heard of Hex & Counter. Is that a new game? Who's the publisher?"
"No, what we mean are historical board games, where you have little chits, and you move them on a hex grid."
"I think the closest thing we have to that is the new Risk, but I think it's out of stock. I can try to order it for you."
"No, that's okay."
"Hey, Bob," he said to a coworker, and so actually he didn't say "Bob", we don't remember what his name was, but in retrospect he certainly looked like a Bob, "do we have any board games played on a hexadecimal grid?"
So at this point, it's obvious they don't have them, and that they don't really understand what the heck this weird thing is that we're asking for. Tom had an urge to grab the copy of Twilight Struggle off the shelf and say, "Okay, this company. Almost literally any other game published by this company," but he didn't. The urge didn't come from a place of wanting to find out that they had a stack of wargames in their back somewhere, because they didn't, but from wanting to just be able to communicate to them that these are things that exist. But Tom, like Mary, is actually quite shy, and so after spending some time looking at the polyhedral dice, we slinked out of the store.
And the whole thing kind of reminded us that, yes, wargaming is a niche within a niche, and just as Euro-style games are something foreign and exotic to people who aren't in the hobby, wargames themselves are something foreign and exotic even to people within the wider boardgaming hobby.
Now, I absolutely believe that it is a growing niche. There's been a lot of crossover from the Euro crowd (heck, we ourselves fall into that category), and there's a trend toward shorter games with streamlined rules that makes them easier to get onto the table. I absolutely don't agree with the notion that wargaming is dying, or in terminal decline, or whatever. Because there is new blood coming in, new designers and new players, and there is a wider diversity of publishers both big and small, publishing games on a wider variety of topics. There aren't as many customers as there were in the golden age, nor do even the best-selling games sell as many copies as they did back in the seventies and early eighties, but that doesn't mean our corner of the hobby isn't vibrant and growing.
Admittedly, this is not Erica Henderson's cover, but Mary, being the one who pastes this blog together, has used a cover by her current favorite comic book artist, Skottie Young (Ms Henderson being on Mary's Favorite and Cosmic Comic Book Artists At the Moment List, just not at the tippy top, at the moment.).
It's kinda like comics. During their golden age (usually literally called, "The Golden Age of Comics"), the best-selling magazines sold upwards of a million copies a month. Today's best-sellers circulate something like two hundred thousand units. (And the objectively best superhero book being published today, Marvel's Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, only sells somewhere between fourteen and twenty-five thousand a month, and is still considered a hit.) If you're just comparing those numbers, yeah, it doesn't look so hot. But comics aren't "dying" or in terminal decline: there's a wider variety of titles being published, with a passionate and growing fanbase. Even the worst comics today are much better, in terms of art and storytelling, than almost anything published in the forties.
And I'd say the same is true of wargaming: many games being published today are better and more sophisticated than many of the games of yesteryear. (Though there are some great designs that have aged remarkably well, particularly those of Frank Chadwick.) Yes, we're a niche within a niche, and there are gaming stores and gamers who have no idea what a column shift signifies or how to halve an attack factor when you're out of supply. But just as modern gaming has inched its way into the mainstream, slowly taking over shelf space in the mass market stores, I think wargaming will continue to inch its way into the wider world of gaming, taking over shelf space in the hobby stores. And so maybe the next time we visit The Other Game Store, they'll be able to point us over to the shelf containing the hexadecimal games.