Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Thanks, Battlefront, for Free Flames of War Upgrade

Battlefront is rolling out its latest edition of the popular World War II miniatures game, Flames of War, and started with an interesting premise for making its current customers happy: a free, digest-sized copy of the new rulebook. Theoretically the free giveaway ended this past weekend, March 10, when the full third edition Flames of War pack (three, full-sized books covering the rules, forces, and hobby) officially released. I managed to pick up a copy of the mini-book for free at my Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS), Game Vault in Fredericksburg last month. Battlefront should serve as a model of customer service, fan support, and forward thinking.

“Trading Up” to New Edition

Those who already own the second edition hardcover rulebook of Flames of War (which retailed for $50 when it released six years ago) could bring their copy to their local approved Battlefront hobby store (listed on the website, and familiar to fans as place to purchase and play the game); there they could present their rulebook, put a “Flames of War Veteran” sticker somewhere on it, and receive a free mini-rulebook (while supplies last). The mini-book is a 296-page digest-sized, full-color tome containing the complete set of third edition rules. Battlefront also released a series of free PDF publications at its website with notes on revised third-edition rules and handy reference charts for the new version.

I can’t remember where I picked up my Flames of War 2nd Edition hardcover, full-color rulebook. When the game caught my notice I had access to three “local” game stores: Game Parlor in Woodbridge (1.5 hours away, now closed, though its Chantilly store remains), a hobby store in Fredericksburg, VA, with about a third of the space devoted to geeky game pursuits (roleplaying games, minis, board games -- the store has since closed), and Game Vault in Fredericksburg, VA (about 45 minutes away, alive and healthy still). At the time second edition was new, and I recall debating whether to purchase second edition at full price ($50) or first edition at a solid discount. I chose second edition, surprising for me since I’m not heavily into complex miniature wargames and hesitate spending that much money on any single gaming product. I’ve since bought more minis than I can paint, painted a few, and tried out the game mechanics on my own on the basement wargames table. One of these days I’ll get out to the Game Vault for their Friday night Flames of War skirmishes. But I stopped by Game Vault recently to pick up some board games they’d special ordered for me and picked up my mini-book and sticker.

I’ve read several encouraging accounts on the internet of avid Flames of War players who lamented the absence of a nearby game shop where they might “trade up” to the new rules; and the friendly folks at Battlefront made sure these fans got copies of the mini-book, often by directly mailing them.

The most consistent complaint I’ve seen regarding the mini-book comes from its fragile binding; given its thickness and the quality of binding glue, the spine tends to crack and pages fall out. Avid fans have remedied this by fitting the book into a small three-ring binder or an office-supply-store applied comb binding for a small price. I can’t complain too much; considering the book is free, and saved me $60 to upgrade to the new, full-sized edition, a little work or money on my part to retrofit a new binding medium isn’t a problem.

Battlefront’s made a modest public relations push about the free third edition mini-book rules upgrade, more to inform loyal players than to tout the company’s own generosity. It’s part of an ongoing commitment to good customer service and support. The company website posts weekly updates, from previews and product information to small-unit guides and historical scenarios. It compiles links to convention tournament reports and relevant podcasts to highlight fan efforts across the globe. Third edition upgrade features include free PDF downloads of quick reference sheets and missions, plus various articles exploring the changes from the earlier version.

Can This Work for Others?

I’m still astounded at Battlefront’s generosity at giving away a 296-page, digest-sized, full-color rulebook. It’s something I can’t recall anyone else having done in the adventure gaming hobby in recent memory (and I’m searching the dusty halls of my memory, almost 30 years as a gamer). Give away the new edition of your core ruleset to existing customers for free? Insane. Think of the money Battlefront could have made selling the recently released, full-sized third edition, a slipcased, three-book set including books containing the rules, forces information, and hobby tips, all for $60. (Though I believe the third edition bundle at $60 remains relatively comparable in price to the second edition hardbound rulebook.) Are they nuts? Maybe. Are they good people? Most certainly. Of course, Battlefront probably makes most of its profits from sales of miniatures and other accessories, all of which are high quality and priced accordingly. Like the model of the Games Workshop Warhammer hobby Battlefront emulates, the Flames of War hobby isn’t cheap. It encompasses expensive rules and army books, well-sculpted miniatures, dice and marker packs, paints, and even pre-painted terrain pieces ready for the tabletop. Making a half-sized version of the third edition rulebook available free to existing players who’ve already invested in the full second edition rulebook -- and having the sales and marketing infrastructure of approved retailers to implement it -- just makes good sense.

Can others in the adventure gaming hobby use this “free upgrade” strategy to their advantage? To do so assumes a publisher has a distribution structure and relationship with retailers who loyally carry relevant product, like Battlefront’s approved retailers listed on its website. With sales and marketing to “approved stores” similar to the Games Workshop Warhammer hobby model, Battlefront has an immediate channel to its customers, supplemented by its website and loyal online fan community.

Unfortunately few other publishers of various game types (wargames, roleplaying games, and board games) have the sales and marketing infrastructure to effectively implement this kind of free upgrade; in fact, most publishers seek to profit from their existing players, many of whom don’t give much thought to purchasing the next iteration of their favorite game.

During my time in the mid-1990s at West End Games I cannot imagine management ever consenting to release any rules upgrade for free as a standalone product (the company did include first-edition Star Wars Roleplaying Game rules upgrades packaged with several early products, mostly scenarios, though that was before my time).

About the only system with which I’m somewhat familiar comes from DriveThruRPG and its OneBookShelf affiliates. The online sales nature of the sites provides a system whereby registered users who purchase particular products can receive free upgrades should publishers make those available. I’ve never tried this myself, or been on the receiving end of any free revisions, but it’s a concept worth exploring.

Please correct me if I’m overlooking someone’s similar efforts in the past; it’s a great leap of faith, and a testament to the loyalty of its fans, for Battlefront to try putting even a half-sized new edition of its most popular rules set into the hands of every fans for free.