Of all the types of tabletop games out there, few are as hard a sell as tabletop miniature wargaming. While you might think that something like D&D is a huge commitment, you ain’t seen nothing yet when it come to these types of games.
Before you can even play your first game, you need to spend time and money preparing – buying figures, painting them, prepping terrain, learning the rules, and many smaller challenges in between. Given the seemingly vertical learning curve, it’s a miracle anyone ever gets into these games in the first place.
On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to find a lukewarm fan of tabletop wargaming. It lacks a significant causal audience. People who are into games like Warhammer 40K are REALLY into it.
While I have only dabbled in these games myself, I know plenty of people who have jumped in with both feet. As such I’ve heard and read plenty of advice on how to get in to this game type. Here’s what’s made the most sense to me.
Read the Book First
The way that tabletop games work, everything revolves around the rulebook. Since this is a game expressed in an analog physical space, the rules determine everything about how it is played. If you want to know if a game is going to work for you, it makes sense to get your hands on a copy of the rulebook to learn how it plays. Read the rulebook from cover to cover. Make sure you understand all of it.
Some games are rules heavy and others are rules light. The heaviest, most complex games can have multiple volumes of rules and be incredibly difficult to actually play. This appeals to a certain type of player, but most people are going to enjoy something a little lighter.
Thinking About the Army
Once you understand how game is played and have decided you want to get in on the action, you’ll have to prepare an army. This isn’t a job to be taken lightly. Your army will reflect your strategies and play styles.
Most miniature wargames have asymmetric factions, which means that the various armies have different strengths and weaknesses. Even in historical games you might have Allies and Axis forces, each with their own quirks. It’s important learn the game before you start forking over large amounts of money for miniatures. Most of us don’t have unlimited funds, and miniature wargaming is an expensive pastime.
More importantly, the rules around how models are to be used in the game you want to play make it extra important to get exactly the right model. For example, if your model carries a machine gun then you can’t treat it like a bazooka. Sure, you and a friend can decide on house rules and hobble along that way, but if you want to play in any sort of public game, you’ll have to be compliant with the game’s rules.
Picking an Army
The process that goes into picking an army varies from person to person and game to game. I alluded to this above, but the first step should be to make a high-level, broad assessment of each army.
When wargaming studios design their armies, they generally make them coherent. The way they look and fight are related to their lore. Well-designed games also balance the various factions, which means that in principle no army has an overall disadvantage over the others. What does matter is whether you can play that army in a way that maximizes its strengths and minimizes weaknesses. If your strategic style doesn’t work well with the intended style of that army, you aren’t going to have much fun.
The design of an army is actually a very important factor in your choice. It might seem that you should make your decision based solely on stats and tactics. However, thanks to the nature of the hobby that’s not the whole story. Remember that you have to paint these models, and when you are not playing you’ll want to display them. That has a few implications.
First of all, do you think you can paint that particular army in a way that would satisfy you? Some paint schemes and figure designs are trickier than others. If you hate the aesthetic of a given army, you probably won’t put them out for all to see either.
Finally, the backstory may not matter strictly when it comes to in-game tactics, but wargaming is also about role-playing to a certain extent. It gives context to your battles and lets you put yourself in the shoes of a commander from that race or background.
Tactically there’s a big difference between how an army of orcs and an army of elves would behave. The same goes for Axis and Allied forces in a WWII game. When you like the motivations, goals, and backstory of your army, you’ll feel more connected to them – like they are really your soldiers. Yes, I know it sounds more than a little corny, but this stuff is important!
Whatever you do, don’t make this decision lightly. That is, unless you’re really rich, in which case you can do whatever you like. For those of us with limited means and limited leisure time, this is a decision with weight. You don’t want to realize that you actually dislike your army after you’ve already invested heavily in them.
Thankfully, these days the internet makes it easy to do good research. You can find out practically everything about a given army online. YouTube, in particular, is great for getting a preview of the armies that interest you the most.
To List or Not to List
Army lists are more or less what they sound like. It’s a way of describing your army on paper. The specific game that you want to play will tell you how to describe your army in terms of points and such.
Historical wargamers will often do quite a lot of research on the actual compositions of armies at certain times and places in history. Don’t worry too much about building the perfect theoretical army from the start. Just focus on building a game legal army of some kind that feels right to you; then it’s easier to refine something until it’s perfect.
Joining a good online community that includes players of your chosen game is a good idea. Players tend to publish their army lists and you can compare what they’ve done with your own ideas. If you feel up to it you can put up your own list and ask for some advice. There are always one or two idiots who have nothing nice to say, but most people will just give you friendly advice, which you can take or leave.
Pulling the Trigger
Once you are totally happy with your army list, it’s time to show some commitment to this new relationship in your life. Put your money where you mouth is and buy some figures!
In general, wargaming figures are sold in sets. Depending on your exact army list, this may mean that you end up buying boxes that include models you don’t want. That’s just an unfortunate reality of this hobby. All is not lost, however, since there are plenty of uses for unwanted models. You can practice your painting skills on these, since you aren’t going to use them in battle. Alternatively, you can let your wargaming buddies know that you have some models that you don’t want and are willing to trade them.
Have a good look at the various boxed sets sold by the game studio and which combinations will get you the models you need to fulfill your list. Once you know what combination of boxes to buy, you should shop around for the best prices. Don’t feel obligated to buy everything from the same retailer. Do, however, factor in additional costs, such as delivery fees, in the final tallies.
Your Army Arrives, Now What?
Once your army actually arrives, there’s a lot of work to do. I say work, but of course this is all meant to be fun. You need to build the models and then paint them. Traditional miniatures have to be glued together, but snap-together models are becoming more popular with some games. Just follow the manufacturer’s recommendation on how to assemble the models.
There are models in both metal and plastic in this hobby, and each has its own idiosyncrasies. Ask your local hobby shop which cutters and other tools are best for each. Depending on manufacturing quality (and luck) you may have to clean up molding imperfections on your model. Once you are happy with the shape the figure is in, you need to paint it. I’m not going to say much here, since there is a separate article detailing the paint process. Take your time when it comes to painting. Use some of the models you aren’t actually going to play with for practice. Watch plenty of painting guides and tutorials on YouTube.
Your individual skill is the determining factor in how your models will turn out. Unless you’re already an experienced artist, don’t feel bummed out if your first army doesn’t look like those painting competition winners. Those guys take years to reach that level. Instead, you should aim to paint your models well enough that they look good while viewed at the distance you’d see them during gameplay. Obviously, for regular play no one is going to be close enough to your models to appreciate small details, so you don’t have to bother putting those in if you don’t want to. However, make sure to look at top-end competition winning models that have custom modeling and incredibly detailed paint jobs. It’s good to know what the best of the best looks like, and it gives you something to aspire to.
Storage, Transport, and Preservation
If you are going out to play, then you need some way to move your army to the venue. Just throwing your models together in a box is a pretty bad idea. First of all, their paint jobs can be ruined as they rub together. Models can also come apart or suffer other physical damage if they get knocked around.
After putting so much time into building and painting them, it would be a pity to damage the goods. You should seriously consider getting a proper carry case for your army. You can buy some pretty nice pre-made ones that use foam to hold and protect your investment. If you go to any sort of wargaming get together, you’ll see a few amazing custom cases. Plenty of players like to paint and customize their cases to match the army and lore behind it.
You should also look into methods of sealing and finishing your figures so that they won’t lose their luster from being handled.
The Big Day Arrives
Now we get down to how these tabletop wargames are played. You already know that these games are played on a table. It’s in the name, after all!
Of course, you need to know the rulebook for your chosen game well enough to play, but as a general rule these games are played with dice and rulers or measuring tape. Special terrain, which is either bought or crafted, provides your army with a place to do bloody battle. Some games also use special tools called templates. These are used for things like weapon firing arcs or explosion sizes.
The amount of space you need will depend on factors such as the size and complexity of game. Games at a friend’s house can happen on a dining table. At official competitions, provided terrain can be huge. The first time you play it’s best to do it with someone who has a good home setup and is willing to walk you through the play session. If you are up to setting up your own home play space, that’s also fine. But finding the right people to play with is the key to becoming proficient quickly.
Be a Good Sport Always
Miniature wargames are not governed by a computer or strictly judged by a neutral third party unless its a competition. This means it relies on the goodwill and fair sportsmanship of the two opponents. Remember that the point of these games is not to win at all costs, but to enjoy the ups and downs of an epic battle. You’ve put all this time and effort into your army, so don’t sour it by being unpleasant. If you have questions, ask people. Be a part of a community. Then you’ll never look back.