Twenty Years of Battlegames

On 18thJune, 1998—Waterloo Day—I pressed the launch button on a site that was to dominate my life in one way or another for the next 20 years.

I look back now at that first version of the site, which was designed to fit what was, by today’s standards, the microscopic screen size of 640 x 480 pixels, and reassure myself that, at the time, it was cutting-edge stuff.

The first battlegames site splash page, first launched June 18th 1998.

The first battlegames site splash page, first launched June 18th 1998.

Thanks to the Web Archive at http://web.archive.org, I’ve been able to retrieve the home page from November 1998, just a few months into the site’s life. Wow—I’d forgotten that waving flag gif in the middle of the page! This was, of course, back in the early days when everyone had a so-called ‘splash’ page, a ‘front door’ you had to pass through before you reached the content proper. But this was also before Google trawled every page of your site, and you had to register your website’s existence with listing services like Yahoo!, which acted as a Yellow Pages for the internet.

By August 2000, I had undertaken a major overhaul of the site which took on the familiar three-column format you can see here. Given that I had only started designing websites in 1996, this represented a major shift in approach from graphics-led to content-led—a sign of the times, as custom-crafted websites were giving way to database-driven corporate sites such as Amazon and the BBC. I don’t have the stats to hand, but the late 1990s saw a sudden and rapid uptake of the World Wide Web by commercial interests, coupled with the increasing market share of home computers and early laptop devices. People had colourful, transparent iMacs on their desks and I was working on a 17 inch (yes, a huge seventeen inch!) screen. It weighed a ton! Mobile phones were still relatively crude, but by now it was certainly possible to send text emails by phone, and the first colour screens were appearing on the market.

Battlegames site revamped in 2000 with three-column format.

Battlegames site revamped in 2000 with three-column format.

In 2018, of course, you may well be reading this blog post on your phone, with a screen that has higher resolution than my brand new Mac G4 with 17″ screen did at that time. In fact, you may even use an app that allows your browser to read these words aloud to you.

But, technological progress aside, the fact that I was still keeping the website going after two, heady years was clearly a good sign. I remember being somewhat gobsmacked at the number of hits the site was getting. Remarkably, I have found a set of statistics from 1999, indicating that I was getting around 2,500 visits per month—a figure which, curiously enough, correlates closely with the number of subscribers the printed version of Battlegames had a few years later.

Battlegames web stats from 1999-2000.

Battlegames web stats from early 1999.

And that’s when the focus shifted, because in December 2005, I posted this excited editorial on the site:

The announcement that Battlegames magazine was going to be real, first posted in December 2005.

The announcement that Battlegames magazine was going to be real, first posted in December 2005.

[Below is the text from the original November 2005 home page shown above in full. By all means skip—but actually, the enthusiasm is kind of infectious, and the spirit still applies…]

“I am genuinely finding it hard to sit still. Hardly surprising, when you learn the news that I’ve been sitting on. A dream I’ve been having for a long, long time is finally coming true.

On March 14th 2006, Battlegames is changing forever. it won’t need batteries. it won’t need a wall socket. it won’t require you to fire up your computer, and you won’t need to download any gargantuan files. Because on that day, at long last, you will be able to pick up a real magazine and relax with it wherever you feel most comfortable: in the library, perhaps; on the train; whilst taking a trans-Atlantic flight; or even in that most traditional of reading rooms, your bathroom.

Now, while you pick yourself up off the floor, let me introduce my right-hand man in this venture, the suave and sophisticated Steve Gill, native of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and equipped with the kind of sardonic sense of humour that will have you chuckling whilst being run over by a tank. Like me, he’s an aficionado of Old School Wargaming and, like me, has fond memories of the likes of Charles Grant and Brigadier Peter Young. But also, like me, he dabbles in a bit of GW on the side and is not averse to the possibilities offered by top-end technology (in fact, he’s an Apple Mac nut like me).

After suffering repeated beatings, Steve finally succumbed and agreed to step up as a Director of Battlegames Ltd and Commissioning Editor for the new magazine. His charming wife Carol is our Company Secretary, as shrewd a business cookie as you’re ever likely to meet. Both Steve and Carol have considerable expertise in the world of publishing and bookselling. And boy, oh boy, have we got a treat in store for you.

As I’ve mentioned before, this site is scheduled to undergo some major changes over the next couple of months, and now you can understand why! The site will become an extension of the magazine, where we will have the space to add more detail and material to pieces that have appeared in the magazine. In addition, we will be using the site for things that only the Web can offer — multimedia, such as short movies, sound, animations and so on. Our aim is to make Battlegames the sort of magazine you thought had sadly gone forever, so it’s going to need a first-rate website to accompany it.

There will be other things you will be able to do here too. Pay online for your subscription, for a start, using either PayPal or your credit or debit card. In due course, we will also be building a kind of online supermarket, where you will be able to buy not just Battlegames merchandise, but also books, figures, terrain and all the bits and pieces that are essential to our hobby.

But what of the magazine itself? It will initially be bi-monthly, 48pp A4, with lots of colour, beautifully printed on quality paper by professional printers. Cover price will be £3.50. It will have advertising, but the ads will not be allowed to dominate the magazine: our aim is to give you a clear run at the high quality content that we’ll be bringing you. And what might that be, you may well ask?

Okay, so what, if anything, do you feel has been missing? I’ll tell you what I think. A magazine that concentrates on the ‘gaming’ side of wargaming. A magazine with high quality articles by major names in the hobby. A magazine with good, solid opinion pieces from some of the thinkers that drive the hobby forwards. A magazine with old names, new names, but most of all, bags of personality. A magazine that will make you think as well as inform you. A magazine that isn’t afraid to speak out when it’s needed. A magazine that recognises the debt we owe to the old pioneers of the hobby as well as to those breaking new ground right now. A magazine that might make you laugh or might make you cry. A magazine that recognises the different strands in our hobby, but brings them together in harmony. A magazine that is full of passion for our hobby and that will make you feel proud to be part of our wargaming community. A magazine, in other words, that you will want to read from cover to cover, over and over, and that you will want to pick up again and smile at maybe twenty or thirty years from now.

So who have we got lined up to work this kind of magic? Well, there’s me, of course, and as well as plenty of opinions (but you’re used to that by now, right?), I’ll be keeping my promise, and bringing you the full, ongoing and unabridged Wars of the Faltenian Succession, my fictitious 18th century campaign that rumbles ever onward. There will be Steve Gill, bringing you a feast of historical battles re-fought as wargames, with lots of maps and photos, with the focus on the wargames themselves, not regurgitated potted histories. There will be my old mucker, Guy Hancock, with his hand on the tiller of the Fantasy and Sci-Fi section, covering not just Games Workshop stuff, but everything that’s on offer in the bewilderingly diverse F & SF scene.

And then… Are you ready for this?

Mike Siggins (of WI Wargamer’s Notebook fame) and Stuart Asquith (latterly editor of the much-mourned Practical Wargamer) will be doing regular columns on, well, whatever they like!

Yes, you might want to read that bit again. it’s true. You heard it here first. Siggo and Asquith, on the same team, side by side. In print. In Battlegames magazine.

And then there are a host of others, some names you will have heard, some perhaps you won’t have. We’re saying nothing just yet, as negotiations are underway, but they will be from the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, mainland Europe and perhaps even darkest Wales. Some may write regularly, others just from time to time.

And then, of course, there’s you.

If you think you’re up to the job, either as a writer, illustrator or Flash animator, then we’d love to hear from you. We will pay real money for all published material, but please, DO NOT SEND ANY UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPTS OR ILLUSTRATIONS. In the first instance, contact our Commissioning Editor, Steve Gill, for our guidelines and to pitch your idea, together with any examples of previously published work… Similarly, if you are interested in advertising in the magazine, or subscribing to it, contact Steve, who will provide you with our rate card in due course.

We also have a very special deal for our ‘charter subscribers’, which is to say those of you who will sign up and pay your subscription pre-release. Your name will be commemorated in print in the first edition, and you will also receive a special Battlegames gift, to be announced soon.

Now, that’s enough excitement for one evening, isn’t it?

Watch this space for more news, coming soon.

Until then, happy gaming, and Merry Christmas.”

[Note: sadly, Steve and Carole’s involvement ended before the first magazine went to press, but I shall always be grateful for their contribution at the start of the project and it’s right to commemorate that here.]

But it’s fair to say that that post changed my life, spawning a huge response in my email Inbox, and so in March 2006, the new-look Battlegames site looked like this:

The Battlegames site in March 2006 when issue 1 or the magazine was launched.

The Battlegames site in March 2006 when issue 1 or the magazine was launched.

Incidentally, the colour scheme of the site was partly the result of the early visuals of the front cover, which nearly ended up with a khaki coloured border. Covert trials, sneaking into the local WH Smith and putting it alongside other magazines on the shelf, put a stop to that!

This, then, is how Battlegames magazine came into being. Little did I know what a stormy decade was ahead of me. The magazine had a good run of five years and 26 issues, but hit the financial buffers in the autumn of 2011, only to be rescued by Atlantic Publishers and become a stable-mate of Miniature Wargames. It came as a surprise to everyone, not least me, when in 2013, the two magazines merged in what was, in effect, the little frigate boarding and capturing the first-rate, and Miniature Wargames with Battlegames was born.

Miniature Wargames with Battlegames issue 361 front cover 600 pixels tall

The first of the merged Miniature Wargames with Battlegames magazines in 2013.

But the magazine market rarely stays still for long. It was in the July 2015 editorial of MWBG387 that I announced that the magazine had changed hands again and was now controlled by Warners Publications. Although it just looked like a change of logo on the front cover, this development represented a major cultural change in the management of the magazine. As you know, by September 2016, I had decided that it was not a culture I wanted to be a part of, so issue 402 was my last.

The first issue of Miniature Wargames with Battlegames published by Warners.

The first issue of Miniature Wargames with Battlegames published by Warners.

Now, I’m not taking you on this journey as an ego trip, though I’m certainly proud of the part that I’ve played in giving the wargames magazine industry a jolt. No, the thing that interests me is that, after two decades, I’ve returned to my roots on the Web with this Patreon venture—and that suits me fine.

You see, the printed magazine industry is more than just a hard taskmaster: it’s often downright tyrannical. Print deadlines are no joke, and when you’re relying on content being supplied by enthusiastic amateurs, it can lead to sleepless nights. Moreover, print and distribution are expensive, especially when you’re a niche magazine with a relatively small following. And for me, getting onto the shelves of major chains like WH Smith here in the UK, let alone places such as Barnes & Noble in the USA, was a financial impossibility.

Such tight margins also limit what you can pay your contributors. I ALWAYS believe in paying contributors—unless they’re kind enough to point-blank refuse, and even then, I prefer to donate at least a nominal sum to charity on their behalf—because it shows you take your business seriously, and so should they. (I’ve been around long enough to know that only in very exceptional circumstances do I give away my words for free. Writing is hard work, and it’s a major part of my job. Try getting an accountant or lawyer to take on your work for nothing!) But this means that you’re competing with other magazines who can pay slightly—or, in some cases, considerably—more.

And then there’s the natural stress of wondering whether your print run will sell out, or leave you with with dozens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of copies left in storage. Initially, you fondly imagine that this will provide you with some kind of pension, as back issues gradually keep selling over the coming years. Boy, did I learn the hard way! When Atlantic Publishers bought Battlegames from me, they told me to send them five copies of each of the back issues and to pulp the rest. It nearly broke my heart.

Thousands of copies of Battlegames in storage. each box held 50 copies. Almost all of these were pulped.

On the shelves to left and right, thousands of copies of Battlegames in storage. Each box held 50 copies. All but a tiny number of these were pulped after the Atlantic Publishers takeover.

These are some of the challenges facing the magazine publisher—and it’s not just the printed magazine, either. We all remember with fondness Battle for WargamersPractical Wargamer, the much too short-lived Wargames Journal and others. And the latest news is that even dear old Military Modelling has hit the buffers too, after a long and distinguished heritage going back to the early 1970s.

But PDF ventures run foul of the business model too—in recent years, Wargames Journal in its digital format, Wargame Bloggers Quarterly and now, sadly, Wargamer’s Notes Quarterly, run by Greg Horne and Stokes Schwartz. These were worthy efforts, but fall foul of the facts that (a) they can’t afford to pay their contributors; and (b) they don’t attract regular contributions from a reliable stable of writers. Could it also be that, ultimately, the contributor also doesn’t possess anything tangible, such as a complimentary hard copy of the magazine, to put on their shelf?

And in the end, is this the problem with digital files like PDFs or ebooks, as opposed to online venues like this website? I know that I’ve got hundreds—Lord help me, possibly more—of PDFs on my Mac or books on my Kindle that I downloaded on impulse and then have completely forgotten about. Whereas I will happily re-visit certain websites that I frequent because when I get there, I can browse the content, see what’s new and occasionally unearth something that I missed.

Moreover, there’s also the community aspect, in that I can interact with the author/blogger by way of leaving comments and even have those comments receive a reply. The site gives me the sense that I belong, whereas however worthy an effort, a PDF is simply something to read when I get round to it.

But this is also true as the creator of content. The point of being a blogger, or a Patreon creative, is not merely to crank out work into the world, though that certainly can be a fulfilling aspect of it. No, for me at least, it’s being at the centre of a community of like-minded people with common interests, and knowing that serving those people matters in some way, far more than just selling product. Even when the printed magazines I created were at the height of their success, it was always via the medium of the internet that I had the sense of being most closely connected to the readership, other than on those relatively rare occasions where I attended shows and could meet them in person.

The Battlegames patreon website, sustained and driven by the sense of community.

The Battlegames patreon website, sustained and driven by the sense of a creative at the hub of a community.

As an online creator, you also have considerably more freedom, in terms of what you write about, how often you write, and the length to which you write. You can also establish your own ‘house style’, and don’t need to follow any diktat laid down by a magazine’s editor, let alone its publishers who may have their own agenda. Furthermore, as I’m discovering, there’s a whole world of other media to explore at one’s fingertips, such as audio, video, animation and so on.

Lastly, even though my activities in the hobby are primarily online, with the advent of new print-on-demand and short-run technology, there’s nothing to stop me venturing into print whenever I want via my own self-publishing imprint Gladius—which I fully intend to do, and soon! And I haven’t even mentioned the book contracts with a couple of well-known military history and wargaming publishers…

And so perhaps you can understand why, whilst I look back on my time at the helm of Battlegames and Miniature Wargames with Battlegames magazines with pride and affection, they are firmly a part of my past, not my future. I don’t see the demise of the printed magazine anytime soon—in fact, the magazine market is as healthy and as ruthlessly cut-throat as ever—but I don’t envy the publishers and editors running them. Been there, seen it, done it, lived it, and it nearly ruined me.

So, whilst I have gained some happy memories along the way, and I hope my efforts have given you some too, the future is an ever-changing landscape. I, for one, am happy to stride towards it with open arms and a healthy mixture of curiosity and caution, learned from experience. But I am also willing to embrace new opportunities when they present themselves. This is one such opportunity and, thanks to your support, I’m loving it.

Happy anniversary.

 

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