Let’s not beat around the bush here. When it comes to miniature wargames, Games Workshop rule the roost. These are the guys who own both Warhammer Fantasy battle and the (now) ultra-popular Warhammer 40,000 games. So dominant is the company that anyone coming into this style of game could be forgiven for thinking that there are no alternatives. Certainly there’s no one more popular, but that doesn’t meant there’s no variety.
There are plenty of reasons to want something different from the most mainstream tabletop miniature wargames on the market. For one, Warhammer is pretty darn expensive. Games Workshop has an excellent and incredibly popular product. It put a lot of effort into creating a premium product and keeping the top spot. Fans who are hooked on Warhammer are obviously willing to pay the asking price, or GW wouldn’t sell any games.
That doesn’t mean everyone who wants to play miniature wargames can afford the GW asking price. Even if you can afford it, you might not like the setting or the specific rules. There are hundreds of tabletop wargames that have been released over the years, so there’s no reason to limit yourself to Warhammer simply because they have the biggest marketing budget.
Some creative Googling will lead you to forums and product pages that can scratch any itch, but I’ve highlighted five miniature-based wargames here that are either also popular or just interesting to me.
I need to let you in on a little secret – I LOVE giant robots. Giant mechs piloted by humans who whomp on each other – there are few things in sci-fi cooler than mech-based combat. These days most people would probably associate giant robots with Japan. Even popular “American” TV shows like Robotech are actually edited and dubbed versions of Japanese anime programs.
However, around the same time as Robotech was becoming a thing, a company known as the FASA Corporation launched a franchise that would put a unique and lasting impression on the world of fictional mecha. It’s called BattleTech, although you may know it by the spinoff “MechWarrior” products. The game uses a map sheet with hexagonal spaces. Your BattleMech miniatures represent military units. There are info sheets for these mechs that track a surprising amount of detail. This includes what the loadout of the mech is, where it’s been hit, and how much heat it’s building up.
BattleTech is very much about strategic combat, outwitting the other player by using the strengths and weaknesses of given mechs to your own advantage. The game gains randomness from dice rolls that determine things like hit locations. The rules of mech design are complex and satisfying. You can either use a pre-designed mech or make your own. I also love the lore of Battletech with its clans, houses, and high melodrama. The miniatures are also lovely, especially if you’re a fan of stompy robots in general.
It’s been more than forty years since the first Star Wars film was screened in theaters, yet the franchise has never been stronger. There is no product I can think of that has not received the Star Wars treatment. From lunchboxes to underwear to a million action figures, it seems you can’t kill this cash cow.
The quality of Star Wars stuff varies wildly. Many of the video games are brilliant, but just as many suck. Some of the action figures look nothing at all like the actors, while high-end figures can look like creepy little clones. Among all of this Star Wars trash and treasure is one of the most beloved miniature wargames on the market today.
The “X-wing” is, of course, the iconic fighter craft of the Rebel Alliance. The game includes more than just X-wings, of course! Launched in 2012 and now with several waves of expansions, this is a ship-to-ship combat game. The second edition of the core set was announced on 1 May 2018 and contains updates reflecting the latest Star Wars films.
It’s a two-player game that can scale from small skirmishes involving one or two squadrons of fighters to massive battles. Do yourself a favor and watch a few YouTube videos of people playing this game. It’s pretty fast-paced and the rules make sense quickly. A must for fans of both spaceships and tactical tabletop gaming.
Star Trek: Attack Wing
Have you ever heard the idea that Star Wars isn’t actually sci-fi? It’s true, you know – it’s actually a fantasy franchise dressed up in the tropes of science fiction. George Lucas himself referred to his first film as a “science fantasy” piece. That doesn’t take anything away from Star Wars. To the contrary, it’s one of the things that gave it mass appeal. However, that does mean sci-fi fans looking for a good tabletop spaceship game might have to look elsewhere.
So why not that stalwart wagon train to the stars? Yes, Star Trek is true sci-fi and it also has its own tabletop wargame. The game features awesome pre-painted ships. Just like the X-wing game, there are several cards included which help maneuver the ships in your fleet. The ships can be customized in terms of their attributes, including the captain, crew, weapons upgrades, and technology modifications. For the discerning trekker this is really the only choice.
In general there are two sorts of settings for most genre fare. It’s either high-fantasy or sci-fi. Within those two poles, there’s infinite space to play. These days we have cyberpunk, steampunk, urban fantasy, and other rich and interesting worlds. Malifaux is set in a weird sort of world that has magic and steam machines, although steampunk is probably not the perfect label. There’s also a clear horror factor to its design, and it’s all oh so dark.
It’s a skirmish-level game, which means the battles are small and intimate. Each person in the game assembles a team consisting of at least one “master” and 5-6 minions. An interesting aspect of Malifaux is that it does not use dice as the source of randomness, but rather cards that are used to raise the stats of figures. It’s a twisted, interesting, and very cool game.
While Malifaux is not quite steampunk, Warmachine is very much steampunk. You can also get up and going quite quickly by buying a two-player “battle box”, which includes everything to play with a friend, but the miniatures are unpainted. It’s even got a little bit of Battletech in it, since the titular warmachines (known as “Warjacks”) are giant steam-powered robots, albeit unmanned.
The other part of the Warjack puzzle comes in the form of the “Warcaster”. This is basically a steampunk wizard and is the hero character on the battlefield. The Warcaster controls Warjacks, while also being pretty powerful in their own right. On the downside, if a player’s Warcaster is killed, it’s game over. So they’re also a bit like the king in chess.
Warmachine is a fast-paced game that tends to reward aggression over caution. The steampunk world is beautifully realized and the miniatures have a distinct art style you won’t mistake for anything else. Despite having the word “war” in its name, this is a refreshingly-different alternative to the GW games.
The Spice of Life
Unlike board games, card games, and tabletop RPGs, it’s not that easy to be into multiple miniature wargames at once. It’s generally too expensive and takes up too much space. That being said, the starter sets that I’ve linked to with the various example games above don’t represent much of a commitment. You can try each one and if you don’t like a particular game, you haven’t lost a fortune or anything. It’s important to sometimes not go with the flow and support people who are trying something different compared to the big names in the industry. Variety and choice are good things, but if you don’t exercise choice, you’ll lose it!