Here's a quick rundown of their heresies:
- Deliver games in ziploc bags, not boxes.
- Keep the component quality low, about what I might be able to do with my own laser printer. (In fact, VPG provides scans of many components for customers to print themselves. Click here for an example of why you might do that.)
- Keep the number of components low. For example, the Napoleonic 20 titles have no more than 20 unit counters per game.
- Don't sell through the normal retail channels. Forget Thoughthammer, Funagain, and all the online retailers, or the dwindling number of brick-and-mortar stores. VPG sells through their own web site, period.
- Emphasize solitaire play. A large percentage of VPG titles are solitaire only, and many of the rest have solitaire variants.
- Keep complexity low. In contrast with the clockwork games that have several interlocking game systems, VPG titles are far leaner.
The result? A lot of very affordable games on cool themes, at a higher than average level of critical success. Even when tough reviewers find flaws within a particular VPG title, they also find a lot to recommend them. (Click here for an example.)
To illustrate, let's set the time machine controls back to 1977, the year that Metagaming published OGRE. The people at Metagaming don't know it yet, but OGRE and its sequel, GEV, will continue to be played for the next 25 years. OGRE is a creative leap that might easily fail, a game in which one player has only a single counter on the map. The game could be an exciting struggle between two very different combatants, or a game in which only one side has interesting choices to make.
Not all of Metagaming's first titles will be successes. Warp War, for example, will get some good early buzz, but it will disappear from gaming tables in a couple of years. Rivets looks like a cute game of battling robots, but it will wind up in the scrap heap rather quickly. However, Melee will turn into an enduring favorite that spawns another game, Wizards, that will evolve into a new RPG system, The Fantasy Trip, which will evolve again into GURPS.
During the same year, Avalon Hill is enjoying a fantastic run of successful innovation. In 1977, Avalon Hill published Squad Leader, Victory In The Pacific, and Rail Baron. Other titles in Avalon Hill's 1977 catalog won't reach the same status as classics, but the company's rigorous playtesting has led to a pretty good success rate. Avalon Hill may be investing more in components (mounted maps, high-quality box art, etc.), but the games that these components bring to life are, on average, pretty solid.
SPI, the other wargame giant of the hobby in 1977, seems to be doing just as well. (Warning: If you are an older grognard with fond memories of SPI, you may be offended by what I'm about to say.) However, that success is somewhat fleeting. The titles that SPI publishes in 1977 are not going to have the same enduring appeal of OGRE or Squad Leader. There will be noble failures, such as War Of The Ring and A Mighty Fortress. With a few more development cycles, these games might have been classics. Unfortunately, most of SPI's 1977 publications -- Canadian Civil War, Raid!, The Conquerors, StarSoldier -- will turn out to be immediately forgettable. In 25 years, very few will remember them, and no one will be playing them.
The year 1977 in the history of boardgaming has an obvious moral: successful innovation doesn't come for free. The average SPI or Avalon Hill game takes more money to publish than a Metagaming microgame, which makes it more expensive for the individual gamer to buy. The customers of Avalon Hill and SPI come to expect a certain quality of presentation in their games, so these companies have to invest more in graphic design, printing, and distribution. With finite resources, each of these companies has to choose priorities: production quality over number of titles? Number of titles over time spent on design review and playtesting?
Avalon Hill managed to juggle these priorities more successfully than SPI, but both companies dropped the ball repeatedly. Metagaming did too, but their flops, such as Ice War, left customers far less angry than expensive failures like Princess Ryan's Star Marines. (And which does less damage as an introduction to the hobby?)
The entire boardgame hobby ecosystem benefits from having these lower-cost, lower-risk laboratories of innovation like Metagaming and Victory Point Games. Unfortunately, not everyone with a loud opinion on BGG, the main forum for discussion about boardgames, recognizes that fact. Many well-produced games that get high praise from BGGers disappear into obscurity as quickly as Canadian Civil War. Some people reflexively sneer at games that lack the rococo aesthetic of FFG titles. And others don't recognize the trade-off that companies have to make among competing priorities, such as quality of the game design and quality of the game components.
Here's a moment when this choice between production quality and game quality matters. Many people are unhappy that Games Workshop didn't publish more copies of Space Hulk third edition. Space Hulk is a great game, and it's a shame that it's now very expensive to get a copy of any edition. Meanwhile, Victory Point games has a Space Hulk-ish title, Forlorn Hope, that by some accounts is a better game. Rather than bemoan the short print run of Space Hulk, or spend close to $200 on a copy, why not take a chance with Forlorn Hope? Unless your only interest in Space Hulk is the miniatures, you may get a lot more enjoyment out of a much smaller outlay of cash. VPG will put that money into publishing other games you might want to play, many with novel mechanics and interesting themes. And you'll be able to buy several of them for the cost of one copy of Space Hulk.