When I started playing games, it was an exciting time. I started with the old Basic Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) set that had the blue dragon on the cover and graduated to Advanced D&D but quickly resold the books because I didn’t like the ruleset. After that I tried a lot of different role playing games (RPGs) like Top Secret, Tunnels and Trolls, etc. though the one I usually played was a space role-playing game called Traveller.
Anyway, back to the excitement factor. D&D was well established in a hurry, after all, it had kicked off the whole genre. But it wasn’t completely unstoppable back then. New RPGs seemed to be rolling out on a weekly basis, microgames like those from Metagaming and Steve Jackson games were giving you fun boardgame and wargame experiences without being very expensive and they were easy to take to school or a friend’s house. Then there were cool magazines (Space Gamer, Dragon, The Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society, etc.), miniatures, dice, and other products. If you took a whole month off from going to the store, by the time you went back it almost seemed like everything had changed. By contrast computer games were pretty much pathetic, lacking the massively multiplayer, gorgeous graphics, and huge elaborate environments that characterize the whole genre today.
Today computer games are cool and, at least to me, it seems the years have not been kind to boardgames, RPGs, and card games. After all, Hasbro has managed to purchase Avalon Hill and Wizards of the Coast (which had in turn purchased TSR to get Dungeons and Dragons). That means that when they aren’t tending to the new version of Mr. Potato Head or G.I. Joe, they’re thinking about Diplomacy, Dungeons and Dragons, and Magic: The Gathering. To me, that doesn’t seem like a good thing.
But lately I’ve started to realize that I don’t see the whole picture. Because one thing you never saw in the early 1980’s was the word “free”. Even if you did take the time to create a RPG or a game yourself, how would you distribute such a thing? Who would you give it to outside of your direct circle of friends and how would anyone else ever hear of it? A few simple RPGs and games made their way into the previously mentioned game magazines as supplements but then, buying a magazine isn’t exactly “free” is it?
But today… Today is different. Now there’s a whole category of games known as “print and play”. In fact, the fabrication machine for many parts of a game has managed to sneak into our homes without many of us being aware of it at all. It disguises itself in the form of the color ink jet printer you likely have sitting no more than a few feet from you right this minute. If I send you a PDF file, that inkjet printer sitting beside you is practically a game manufacturing site. It will make boards, chits and other pieces, rules, reference cards, etc. and the whole thing will look better than the game materials we got with small games in the 80’s or even the last few years. Here are some examples to make my point:
Typical “microgames” of the early 80’s. The Car Wars is a premium example of the genre because it features a plastic box with enough room for dice and full color counters.
A typical inexpensive game of the late 90’s early 2000’s. No dice, no tokens, just cards and map pieces printed on the same cardstock you can buy cheaply for your own printed games.
If you’re the kind of person who isn’t inclined to print out a lot of stuff and assemble it, then at least rulebooks can be sent to a print-on-demand publisher like Lulu.com and they’ll print out a bound copy that is indistinguishable from a commercially produced book. Thus, for an RPG rules set you’re already on par with what commercial game companies can produce in terms of quality. The only advantage they have anymore is the cost of goods (e.g. a book comparable to the full-color 224 page Dungeons and Dragons 4th ed Dungeon Masters Guide that sells for $24 at Amazon would be about $50 through Lulu, or $9 for a black and white only edition).
So both microgames and RPGs should see an influx of new games and new ideas from individuals who create and distribute everything online. For board games though, there’s more to it. There are the pieces, dice, and often unique parts just for a given game. Until I can give you a file of information and have you manufacture a file of plastic pieces from a replicator on your desk or send you to a commercial site that fabricate them on demand, the amount of competitive pressure individuals can exert on Milton Bradley, Wizards of the Coast, and WizKids is limited.
Still, that’s not to say that there aren’t people trying to do more sophisticated game materials. Hour of Glory can be purchased as a boxed game or you can buy it as a PDF for about a 1/3rd of the price. It has good reviews and looks to be a fun game. You’re just expected to do more printing and more mounting, cutting, etc. than you would have to do normally for a little microgame. And if you’re a miniatures fan, you can buy paper miniatures and complete environments like towns or dungeons in PDF form. You supply the paper, the printer, and the time to assemble it.