Over a span of three years, the X-Wing Miniatures Game has rapidly grown in popularity, now even ranking by some measures as the most popular miniatures game. According to the latest sales surveys posted in the industry analysis trade Internal Correspondence issue #89, X-Wing has eclipsed Privateer Press’s Warmachine and even Games Workshop’s venerable Warhammer franchise. Outside of those established systems, the miniatures gaming market has long been defined by niche products and flashes in the pan, making X-Wing’s immense success worthy of a closer look.
Before diving into some of the more nuanced reasons for X-Wing’s success, it’s must be said that the growth in popularity underpinned by X-Wing’s strength as a game. Furthermore, it actually plays best in its competitive setting, where players field small squads, set up a generous number of obstacles (asteroids and debris), and time-limit their matches (60-75 minutes). These ground rules let players experience all of X-Wing’s facets, the occasional intensely-difficult tactical decision included, without matches overstaying their welcome.
Yet solid game design alone is not enough to create a breakout success. In the case of a living game system, there is some secret sauce involved in the delicate crafting of expansions and game elements, as well as the fostering of strong player communities. With X-Wing, publisher Fantasy Flight Games has mastered this recipe.
As an X-Wing player since day one, I’ve witnessed first-hand how the player base has grown. Long gone are the days of single-digit player attendance at tournaments. Now, the 2016 Store Championship season is consistently producing tournaments with 40+ player counts. While making the rounds during this season, I made a point to ask local tournament organizers and shop owners what they felt explained the game’s strength. Of the discussions, one common theme emerged: X-Wing excelled in its appeal to an older, more mature player base, which allowed the game to quickly form a loyal community.
The appeal to older players manifests in several ways, but time and money surely both act as major motivators when also juggling the responsibilities of adult life. Any number of competitive X-Wing lists can be assembled from an investment of under $100, appealing to those veteran gamers who moved on from more expensive miniatures lines, or converted over from the collectible card game communities. Beautiful pre-painted ships are playable right out of the box, furthering the appeal for gamers who may not have the time or money to dedicated to modeling and painting.
FFG’s management of organized play has also been on point, focused around quarterly prize kits that offer a solid reward for both participation and victory in X-Wing events. Alternate-art cards and acrylic tokens appeal to collectors while also improving the quality of the component’s players use. Being able to get in on the prizes at quarterly events, rather than having to dedicate a weekly night to X-Wing also helps widen the regular player base.
Of late, however, X-Wing has become a permanent fixture in many game stores, and these same factors are now being re-tooled to appeal to a new younger crop of X-Wing pilot. As the slate of X-Wing expansions continues to grow, the cost of many competitive lists has grown as well. Now, players began purchasing a mixture of ships to fly, and ships to own simply for access to useful upgrade cards contained within the same package. As this barrier to buying into X-Wing formed, FFG made a change to organized play kits, replacing some alternate art pilot cards with versions of the most popular upgrades.
I’ve also seen stores change up the way they distribute organized play prizes to bring in a younger crowd. In the case of a new store in my neighborhood seeking to build an X-Wing community, promo items were handed out not as tournament prize support, but as attendance rewards for weekly casual play nights. This tactic worked in converting several CCG players, and resulted in strong repeat attendance for this particular store.
Regardless of age, there is one final factor that gave X-Wing a major leg up in building such a strong community so quickly. That community already existed in the form of Star Wars fans. The use of the Star Wars license brought in a self-identifying crop of players, and the scope of Star Wars properties has continued to widen. In earlier expansion waves, older players were excited to command ships recognizable made famous by classic Expanded Universe pilots such as Corran Horn and Kyle Katarn. Meanwhile, younger players have responded to a major The Force Awakens marketing push (including a re-branded Core Set), and will soon see new ships taken from Disney’s Star Wars Rebels cartoon series appear on store shelves.
After thinking through my own rationale for X-Wing’s success, I also approached FFG to see if anyone from inside the company would provide their own perspective. Brendan Weiskotten has been an Organized Play Coordinator working on X-Wing for the past two years, and had some thoughts to share:
“I feel X-Wing has risen to such heights thanks to a number of factors. For starters, it’s based in the ever-popular Star Wars universe. I think the popularity of the old X-Wing video games from the 90’s, and the Rogue Squadron series after that, shows just how much the Star Wars community wants to play with starfighters. Having Disney announce—and then follow through with—new films have also been a huge boon to all of our Star Wars games.
Second, the hobby game industry has been growing by leaps and bounds since before X-Wing was sold. While growth means new fans and players for all games, I think X-Wing has benefitted more than most industry games thanks to its Star Wars roots. If you’re just starting to get into the gaming world, would you rather take a risk with a game that you have no attachment to, or try your hand at a game set in one of your favorite universes with beautifully painted ships? I would not be surprised if X-Wing had a larger percentage of newer players to hobby games than many of the other “competitive” games in our industry.
Finally, I believe the game of X-Wing is perfectly designed for growth and acquiring newer players. I think this is the single biggest reason for the game’s success. It is a great blend of simplicity that attracts new fans and variety that keeps entrenched players coming back for more. X-Wing offers a very simple rules set, easy-to-use movement templates, and pre-painted miniatures, making it more accessible than almost any other miniatures game on the market. All of this attracts new players, while the ever-increasing number of pilots, ships, and upgrades presents established players with a wide variety of choices and never-ending experiences without increasing the complexity of the basic rules.”