Story of Rackham and Confrontation

Story of Rackham (company) and Confrontation (game). I found this on the net when I started digging for an answer. The question: what happened to all those gorgeous models? This was of intense interest to me. Apparently, you can't even reliably get the pre-paint plastics anymore. (This was not written by me). Enjoy.

There is a success formula in business: if you don’t have several million dollars to start with and make a pretty big company from the get-go, then you start small and do something you have a real interest in; you do it well, better than anyone else; better still – you do something no one has done yet. This in no way guarantees success. In fact, most businesses that start like this shut down after a couple of years of struggling. But, if there is a chance to become big, quickly and from nothing, this is it. That’s what Rackham attempted to do with Confrontation. Jean Bey, the founder of the company, is not a businessman. As some of his colleagues indicate, he is not even a gamer. But he is crazy about design. And he is damn good at designing beautiful, gorgeous things. So, it seems to me, the original idea behind Confrontation back in late 1990s was simple: create a top-quality miniature game with absolutely gorgeous miniatures. Make them so beautiful, that people will want to buy them even if they’re not sure about playing the game. Make them look like sculptures, not comic book characters. On top of that, create a ruleset that will be notably different and actually innovative – thus, differentiating the system from the land of stagnation that is GW. In terms of business, this means creating a premium product for a very small but potentially loyal market of visual perfectionists and painting junkies; this being the case, you create a product with a high value added, thus, hopefully, ensuring the viability of the business with small sales volumes.

This line of reasoning makes sense and, it seems, it was working out for a while; but Rackham was not really about business. It was about pretty, pretty things. Have you held a Cadwallon rulebook in your hands? If design means anything to you, this book makes you salivate just looking at it. You don’t even have to read it. It’s the design that makes you want to have it. Hold it. Smell it… And that’s a fifty euro book, by the way. Same thing with Cry Havoc. Ok, those weren’t just about design, but also the writing. But the two were closely intertwined: Cry Havoc was a magazine produced for those who wanted to savour their gaming universe. (And those, too, were twenty euro per issue; that’s no print-it-yourself PDF for you; but for the passionate audience, that was perfectly fine; furthermore, I really doubt, even with these prices, Rackham was making much, if any, profit, on publications – it was fan service more than anything else.) I’ll bet you anything that a large portion of the people who bought Confrontation, and Cry Havocs, and Hybrid, and Cadwallon with its supplements, and every other piece of anything visual produced by Rackham did not even play the game – much or at all. The universe was fascinating. And I’m not just talking about the universe of Aarklash. It was the universe of Rackham: the universe of beautiful fantasy design and captivating stories told through books, and magazines, and miniatures, and cards, and maps… It was loyal market built on passion, indeed. Apparently, it didn’t work out all that well financially in the long run. So, things started to change.

By mid-2000s Rackham was already under considerable financial pressure. Early in 2007 Rackham was under bankruptcy proceedings, and soon afterwards – became public. Looks like the latter was the direct implication of the former and was probably one of the things that was planned to get the company back on its feet. Another big move in 2007 relating to bankruptcy was scrapping Confrontation and launching Age o Ragnarok.

Rackham is a small company, so of course, even when public, it is not actually traded in the open market. Going public in such cases means finding an investor who is ready to give some money in exchange for a share in the company’s profits and, more importantly, a degree of control over the company’s business model. The launch of Age o Ragnarok was the result of the influence of the new management. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the shareholder that decided to invest in Rackham in 2007 was the same company that later bought the whole studio in 2008 and now develops AoR. But, whoever it was, Jean Bey was demoted from CEO to Art Director, meaning that the new shareholder put someone they were more comfortable with in charge of Rackham. The launch of AoR, of course, had to be discussed well before the deal was closed: realizing that they can’t survive on their own, Rackham had to come up with a new business plan that the new investor would like. What this means is that, in terms of business and marketing philosophy, the 2007 Rackham was no longer the Rackham that Jean Bey had founded. It was no longer about making pretty miniatures. It was solely about money now. The immediate problem with that change was that pretty much all of the old Confrontation players renounced Rackham right then and there. It was more than just switching to plastic. It was the collapse of the universe that was Rackham (however small it was): no more mind-blowing design, no more books so pretty you want to cry, no more Cry Havoc, no more Legendary range, no more Hybrids, no more Cadwallons… (not all of these things happened right away, but the trend has been clear ever since 2007).

The next step was only reasonable and should have been expected: in 2008 Jean Bey sold the rest of his shares in Rackham to Entrepreneur Ventures, a French venture fund, which, it seems now, is Rackham’s sole owner. Jean Bey himself was fired soon afterwards, and has nothing to do with Rackham any longer. According to some employees of new Rackham Entertainment (renamed by the new owner; re-branding and repositioning is, of course, the name of the game now) who realized that making money is much better than making pretty miniatures, having Jean Bey leave was not such a bad thing: his vision had never been very good for business; the new owners, on the other hand, really “get it” and want to make Rackham profitable while leaving the staff enough creative freedom to make plastic armies and downloadable PDF books.

And now let us imagine for a second the world through the eyes of Entrepreneur Ventures. They acquire an asset, Rackham Entertainment, and they need it to be profitable. Not tomorrow, not next week, but soon. Being a venture fund, they realize, of course, that risky assets sometimes fail to become profitable – that’s why they are risky. In which case they are just liquidated. Nothing personal, just business. But it hasn’t come to that just yet. Yes, AT-43 seems to be selling worse than expected, AoR is somewhat struggling, but nothing is lost yet. Since the model catering to a premium small niche had failed, the attempt is now being made to make AoR more mass-market. In fact, some things indicate that they may now be thinking “Battlelore-mass-market” or even, god forbid, “Catan-mass-market”. Have you seen the new website? You know what AoR is, according to this just-launched website? It’s “a medieval fantasy strategy game with miniatures. It plays like chess, but involves some randomness and bluff as in poker. It is easy to learn and ready to play”. Now, that’s some powerful stuff right here. Apparently, the only table-top gaming references that the new Rackham can reasonably rely on its intended customer to know are chess and poker. That’s some truly awe-inspiring target audience. It’s hard to say how serious the new Rackham is about all this. But it’s definitely something to think about.

What else do we see through the eyes of the new investor? Miniature gaming business is based on intellectual properties. As far as each individual miniature is concerned, the bulk of your investment goes into designing it. So, to maximize your returns, you’ll obviously want to sell the same design as many times as possible. And that’s where the new approach to Confrontation comes in very handy. We gamers consider the lack of diversity in the now-in-PPP-form miniatures a temporary inconvenience. Not necessarily so for the publisher. AoR is not really marketed towards collectors. It is made for gamers who want somewhat pretty soldiers to go with their rulesets. As such, what matters is how your miniatures affect game mechanics. Sure, you’ll still want diversity for that, but in this case it can wait. What you do as a gamer is buy an army box, play it, get into it, decide that you like it. You go out and buy some more minis choosing from those that are available. There aren’t many, but, lucky you, the new rules force you to field swarms of regular infantry before you can deploy any non-standard units. And it’s not like the game became much cheaper having gone to plastic. Boxes, some of them containing as many as one miniature, are officially priced at thirty-odd euro. So, as a semi-casual gamer, you’ll run out of money set out for your next AoR purchase well before you’ve bought every mini available for your faction. And when you decide to buy more, there will be new ones available. And, from the business point of view, you’ve bought many, many copies of the same minis, helping the new Rackham to be profitable by maximizing their returns per mini.

If you are a not-so-casual gamer, then what will keep you coming back to the store is the rules themselves. One of Rackham’s employees confessed that the system is really designed for 5000-point armies. So, diversity or not, you kinda need to have lots of minis just to get everything out of your already made investment. You have 3000 points? Well, how much more is it really going to cost you to bump it up to 4000-5000 to get a really impressive army? Everyone wins. Sort of…

If this looks like your kind of approach, I don’t see any real red flags at this point on the technical side of things. Just some minor alarm bells. For example, have you ever wondered why the Griffin Army Book is called “Temple” and not “Griffin”? That’s because there will be three of them: Temple, Inquisition and The Lodge of Hod. In itself – not a crime, especially if they remain freely downloadable. But, if the three end up being different, even if allied, factions, which you can’t freely deploy in any combination, that would be a very different story. Another potentially worrying thing – overall marketing strategy. I mean, what if they’re really serious about selling the game to chess and poker lovers? Do you really want to be in that crowd? As it stands now, it shouldn’t influence your purchase decisions. But as things develop, the kind of support the game gets from the publisher will largely depend on who primarily buys it. Furthermore, it may be innovative and potentially groundbreaking to try to create a real mass-market miniature game, but if that strategy fails, the new Rackham will end up like the old Rackham. Only this time there won’t be anyone willing to buy it – it will be too screwed up a trademark.

Since making money is now the official motto, there’s a danger that we will get a new GW with a French twist. That’s bad enough on its own, but especially sad when you think what Rackham used to be. There may be a sad lesson taught by the old Rackham to industry newcomers – that you can’t create a really buyer-oriented miniature game, with no army books, no artificial deployment limitations, no miniatures going out of date with rule updates, with tons of diversity in terms of game experience for your investment (there were at least five games – five! – you could play with Confrontation metal miniatures). I hope that’s not really the case. I hope it’s a false lesson, and Rackham shut down because it made a few specific mistakes, not because the market doesn’t allow what it attempted to do at all. Whatever the case, the new Rackham is very different. A buyer is now just that – a buyer; not a fellow artist; not a fellow gamer; not a fellow enthusiast. You bring us money – we bring you entertainment. Then you bring us more money.

At the end of the day, it is, of course, a matter of taste. But there is some profoundly rotten feeling I get when looking at the new product line of AoR. It feels like the buyer is being taken advantage of. Look at the army books. You won’t find almost a single picture of the new plastic figures (in case of the factions I know well, I could count two or three pictures of plastic – out of sixty four goddamn pages!), it’s all metal on new round bases. Is Rackham ashamed to show what you’re actually buying? Or is it simply trying to take you for a ride by showing you pictures of what you could have been buying, but actually can’t because the new management insisted on shutting down the production of the last minis in the metal range? Rackham has never been good at communicating with the public and never really bothered to explain why it does what it does; but now, without such an explanation (and I’m not sure there can even be one that would be good enough), it looks like the new Rackham is downright exploiting what isn’t really theirs. This is where – for me – the “business point of view” goes out the window and “ethics” becomes an issue: Aarklash, the background, the designs, the aesthetics, the approach – were all developed by the old Rackham. They made some mistakes, screwed up and almost went out of business. Granted, being purchased by someone else is better than disappearing altogether. But what do the new owners do? They strip mine the franchise: instead of giving you something to be passionate about, they put you on the money conveyor belt, constrict you by rules, release schedules, packaging, army books and then try to present the few buying choices that you have as a perfectly natural and good thing. I mean, army boxes really seem like a good value. And, once you’ve invested in them, you don’t really want to stop there, right? So go out and buy some more. Sure, the miniature aren’t as pretty as they used to be, sure you can’t build and deploy any army you want, sure you don’t have a lot of units to choose from, but, hey, you’ve already jumped on the bandwagon – so just go with the flow. And, in the meantime, why don’t you appreciate the depth of the gaming universe and its background? Sure, all of it was created by the old Rackham and the new one doesn’t bother investing in it because books and magazines don’t bring any profit and are of little importance to chess lovers anyway, but since what is already there is already there – go ahead and enjoy it.

Then again, I guess if the game is fun, none of this matters anyway. Money for entertainment. That’s all there is to it. That’s all there should be. Right?

Disclaimer: Facts on which this article is based were all found in the public domain and primarily come from statements, official and private, made by Rackham employees on public internet forums and in interviews. The interpretation of these facts and the narrative arranging them are my own. The purpose of this article is to gather as many facts about Rackham that are scattered out there in one place as possible. My hope is that a good deal of these facts will come from contributions by those who are interested in Rackham as a company and are willing to discuss it. The practical purpose – to give those who are planning to invest into Rackham’s products a sense of where the company is coming from and where it is going. I bet, many people who bought GW products back in the day would have had real second thoughts about it if they had known more about GW’s marketing philosophy. But some wouldn’t. Forewarned is forearmed.



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