Sunday, 13 February 2011

Can miniatures look too good?

This is post is largely about Games Workshop. Sorry, I haven't written about them in a while and I don't want this to turn into a rant, but I do have a point to make that won't sound like mindless griping and is somewhat applicable to Wargaming in general.

Anyway, disclaimer over. When you open up a wargame rule book you usually find it stuffed full of glossy photographs of stunningly painted miniatures and scenery. There are exceptions to this rule, mostly at the 'grungier' end of the market where costs are low and rules are more important than production, but generally nice colour photos predominate. The lush images are partly about justifying the cost of expensive full colour or hardback books and partly because wargaming is a very visual hobby and it's as well to show it at its spectacular best.

When I started out in wargaming, White Dwarf was similarly filled with images to excite the imagination of the new wargamer. Then I tried painting a model myself. It would be an understatement to say I was disappointed in the results.

It didn't help that back then there were fewer useful guides for new painters and that hobby staff were not as friendly or welcoming as now. But the truth is the majority of people do not take naturally to miniature painting. The techniques are abstract and take some learning, you need a steady hand, a keen eye and lots of patience. Some people have this naturally, but the majority do not. The consequence of this is that early miniature painting can be a dispiriting experience. I honestly felt at the start that I was ruining my figures by painting them and it took me a long time, a good five or six years, before I could produce models I felt happy to put on a gaming table.

In the face of this, the hundreds of photographs of beautifully painted models that festoon the rule books and magazines, not to mention the display cabinets of Games Workshop and local hobby shops, can be positively dispiriting. A reminder that you simply do not measure up. Not to mention the time and effort involved in painting a whole army. The bulk of my teenage friends played games with largely unpainted armies simply because we preferred to spend time gaming rather than paint.

Interestingly, during the early 2000s, Games Workshop went through a phase of publishing pictures, in rule books and White Dwarf, of less than spectacular models. Veterans may remember seeing pictures of rules designer turned novelist Gav Thorpe's dwarfs and Inquisitor models in White Dwarf, which could kindly be described as poor. At the same time, White Dwarf started to show case more unusual, quirky and personal armies, some painted well, some badly, but the emphasis was on the range and variety of gamers and armies out there.

At the same time, Games Workshop started to push concepts like 40K in 40 minutes and battle patrols, rules to allow for smaller games during lunch breaks. The idea was that the size of the game was less important than that you were playing at all.

Years pass and things change. Look at a recent issue of White Dwarf and the quirky armies have gone, the painting is all master standard and battle reports consist of taking the entirety of one studio army and setting it against another. Games Workshop are pushing legendary battles and Warhammer Apocalypse. Take a look at the Warhammer rule book, there are still scenarios for smaller battles, but a huge pull out section is devoted to the kind of legendary scale battle that few if any gamers can even aspire to play.

At the same time, Warhammer 8th edition has increased the power of infantry and introduced the Horde rule, pushing the idea that infantry units should be bigger and more numerous.

All of this sends a message, not explicitly in the rules, but subconsciously in the kind of promotional imagery and material they produce. The message is that Wargames are played with big, extremely well painted armies on lushly made custom gaming tables with expensive plastic scenery.

Games Workshop seem to be the only company pushing big battles, but most companies are using pictures of ever more elaborately painted models and well made scenery, either scratch built of purchased.

At one level this all makes perfect sense. Every company wants to present its miniatures in the best possible light and Games Workshop are keen to encourage big battles to encourage big spending. But I find myself wondering if this could back fire, particularly when marketed at younger gamers without the resources to construct big armies or the ability to paint them to a standard with which they are happy. Not that this will affect everyone, there will still be gamers keen to just put together what they can and get in a game, but I wonder if a certain proportion of potential gamers are being put off before they've got started.

One antidote to this lies in the online gaming community where images of more averagely painted miniatures sit on blogs and message forums and digital photos after action reports are replete with unpainted or simply undercoated miniatures. The Internet is becoming a haven for the average gamer. It's as well to remember that not everyone has the resources of a small company or the painting skills of a Golden Demon champion.

I'm not saying that companies should stop showing pictures of beautiful miniatures and scenery. But it would be nice to see the more average gamer represented. Games Workshop did it before for a while and could do so again. It doesn't hurt to remind people that this is a hobby about taking part, just showing up ready to game, and there is no reason why promotional material shouldn't reflect that.


  1. My take on this is you're right as it can put people off purchasing the figures or just stress them out trying to achieve the perfection, I go on the basis of good enough for wargaming and enjoyment of the game.

  2. Great post Richard! I like it when you look back through some old WDs and see the badly painted figs from players around the country (store armies generally), not only do they make us humble amateurs feel better, they also put the better looking models in perspective.

    Sort of like a 'Readers Wives' section.

  3. GW aren't the only ones pushing for big battle games. Mantic is promoting their game as a mass battle system, and every manufacturer of historical plastics is doing so with the big battle gamer in mind.

    I also think it's a mistake to believe that pushing big games is solely the result of corporate greed. Many gamers feel that filling the table with figures results in better battles and bigger spectacle regardless of actual results. Take a look at the forums for any specifically skirmish scale game and you'll see plenty of people pushing for larger battle formats, rules for mass battles, as well as guys who collect armies far larger than they could ever actually field under the constraints of the rules.

    Heck, look at TMP and see often the phrase "make the table groan under the weight of lead" or similar pops up.

  4. I think what is needed is a bit of balance, and GW has actually done some of that with their painting guides. Admittedly I haven't read a WD in over a year, but I can remember them running "how to paint X" articles where it was essentially shade/basecoat/highlight.
    But for the main corpus of their magazine, it is beholden to them to highlight the quality of their miniatures as much as possible. How often on TMP and elsewhere have people lamented a poor-quality paint job on a news release from a company?