Thursday, October 15, 2009

What Does Worthless Really Mean?

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link:

There have been many discussions regarding the “First To Fight” modules that started appearing on ebay in 2009. For those unfamiliar with them, they are a series of third party variants for ASL produced by Wild Bill Wilder, whose wargaming credits go back decades now, mostly as an unofficial scenario and variant designer for games such as Squad Leader, Steel Panthers, Combat Mission and others. The First to Fight products gained notoriety for both their quality (or apparent lack thereof) and their method of marketing which resulted in high auction prices.

The following email exchange has been typical of the discourse surrounding these products:
From: Pxxxxxx
Date: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 2:45 pm
Subject: The Tactical Wargamer Site Query/Feedback

Is Glory and grief available on the open market? How does one get them

Sent: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 4:58 PM

Hey there;
It's not on the open market. I would recommend contacting ebay user "firsttofight" through the ebay site. ebay rules say you can't make deals off the site, but I'm not sure how else you would arrange it; you might be able to set up a private auction or something. There is a review of the products at the Desperation Morale website in addition to the info on my site that you might want to read before making a decision on purchasing. Sorry I can't help more.

From: Pxxxxxxx
Sent: Thursday, October 14, 2009 7:17 AM

Thanks Mike, I did a little looking last night and read the reviews, Also saw the latest auction at 259USD What a rip off. Talk about taking advantage of people.

Is There Really Such A Thing As a Worthless Product?

We’ve all heard the same old maxims about “buyer beware” and I don’t think one needs to repeat them here. I do think, however, all the discussion of the value of the products has overlooked one basic premise – the notion that all products make up a part of a greater aggregate. My website and research has been focused on looking at tactical wargaming as an entity to itself, and from that perspective, each game, each scenario, each publisher, can be seen to have brought something unique to the history of the medium. I'm not yet willing to say that is true with Glory & Grief, but it would be unusual for a product to truly have contributed absolutely nothing or be one hundred percent valueless. Not impossible, but unusual. Sometimes, the value comes in unexpected ways.

I come by this belief from my experience in publishing. My first book, Canuck: Clothing and Equipping the Canadian Soldier, was an early attempt to catalogue Second World War uniforms and equipment. There are better and more comprehensive books on the market today and the book is reasonably crude by any standard. Yet I was gratified when meeting a well-known collector one day, whose personal holdings would put average museums to shame, when he admitted to me “I had no idea how the 1908 Pattern Large Pack straps actually attached to the back until I saw this picture in your book.” After hearing his comment, I went home to look through my other references, and by chance, I had been the only one to document this piece of information. I did not set out to document this info specifically, nor would I recommend buying the book just to obtain it, especially when a ten second conversation with another collector would obtain the same result; and yet, in his years of collecting, he had not been able to acquire this knowledge. Perhaps he simply had not tried very hard.

It was a small point, but I liken it to any kinds of wargaming products – games, magazines, variants, rules, scenarios, books – that make some attempt to introduce something new. A new rule, a new piece of research, a new counter, a new kind of mapboard, a new procedure. The worst written rules in the world might have the most innovative layout. This isn’t to encourage copyright theft from one another, but inspiration strikes in the most unlikely of places, and innovation feeds off of other innovation. These are intangibles.

I see other examples in the publishing world. Since the publication of my first book – mine was the first I am aware of to deal exclusively with Canadian Army uniforms and equipment in the Second World War – there have been many other publications to see print on the same subject. Most notably, French collector Jean Bouchery put together a larger, flashier, more comprehensive and without doubt more successful work than mine entitled The Canadian Soldier. At first blush, it was disheartening to see a book with a goldmine of good information tempered with many minor errors of fact. The most glaring was the color corrections, presumably by the publisher, or perhaps an error in the printing process, that shifted the color of the uniforms to an overpowering shade of green in an attempt to emphasize the contrasting quality of uniforms among Commonwealth combatants. Other pages had a variety of more minor miscues; a wrongly identified regiment or a typographical glitch or a mistranslation from the original French. And yet, every page also had much more value for a reader who did not have access to original uniforms, or source references, and in fact, the book could usefully take the place of several volumes already published, including my own. It was hard to know if my own reaction to the book was a legitimate criticism or mere sour grapes. And so I have stopped criticizing it, and look at it as I look at the First to Fight variants – as forming a part of an overall body of “literature” which is best judged as a body rather than on the merits of each constituent part. For in the final analysis, any true aficionado is most likely to acquire as many products within a niche as they can, so comparing one against the other is often wasted effort.

Who Is The Arbiter?

There can be no single arbiter of how useful a product is or what value it has; each person who acquires it or uses it can obviously only do that for themselves. The collector who buys a game and feels his collection is more complete as a result has gained more value than the player who finds a set of scenarios missing the victory conditions entirely due to a printers’ error.

It may be hard to believe, but there have been purchasers of the Vietnam ASL products that have expressed satisfaction with their products. Reaction from some others has been hostile, perhaps understandably so given the amount of money changing hands. The most difficult part of reading the public commentary has been seeing the bidders who do find value in these sets called “morons” or worse by knee-jerk reaction, particularly on public discussion forums where some of the “morons” are known to be active participants.

None of which is to suggest that honest reviews of any product are inappropriate, or unnecessary. One would believe that the main focus of most ASL purchasers would be to actually play the game. The review at Desperation Morale, referenced above, looked at the First to Fight products from that perspective. As long as reviewers make their perspective clear, and prospective purchasers know what their expectations are, there can be little problem. The access tactical wargamers have to sites like boardgamegeek or allow them to fine tune their research to meet their needs, be they players, collectors, designers in search of inspiration, or any other category in between.

My Final Word

More product on the market means a richer collective history to draw on; each scenario, rule, design element or physical component isn't just a plaything for today, but is part of the whole tapestry of the industry. No matter how much we may doubt the value of a handful of poorly photo-copied scenario cards and halfhearted "rules", of unplaytested scenarios and incomplete counters, who knows what inspiration might be wrought from them one day in the future? They now occupy a place in the pantheon for good or ill.

My Question To You

Can you honestly describe a product, in the realm of tactical-level wargaming, that was really so devoid of value as to be completely worthless? My pick would probably be Avalon Hill's Squad Leader, the insipid game for the PC that came and faded quickly, but if pressed, I am sure I could mention one or two positive aspects to it, for example the addition of 'back story' to each character, something not often done in games where it could have been usefully applied (such as M-1 Tank Platoon). I am not saying it was successfully done or even necessary in AHSL, but it did make the game unique in some tiny respect and might serve as inspiration for some future, much better, game.