Napoleonic Army: The Decision

This is a follow-up to an article originally written for my patrons in March of last year, which I made public here yesterday. The article ran through the decisions you must make before collecting a Napoleonic army for miniatures gaming. I noted that I’d never collected one in all my years of minis play but hoped to finally do so in the future. Well, that time may be near!

My two biggest stumbling blocks were finding a ruleset I could commit to and ensuring I’d have at least one friend who would join me. Recently, Studio Tomahawk released the Shakos & Bayonets supplement for its Muskets & Tomahawks game. The first edition of M&T was strictly French and Indian War and the American War of Independence. The second edition has been reorganized along the lines of the studio’s other major game, Saga. It now has a core rulebook that covers the whole black powder period and then supplements that provide additional rules and army lists for various conflicts. Shakos & Bayonets covers the Napoleonic Wars.

I already liked Muskets & Tomahawks and played many games of its first edition. One thing that makes collecting a force for M&T more attractive is that it concentrates on small engagements. A typical force is 50 minis or so, which is more achievable for me than a big battle game requiring 300+. Obviously, you won’t be recreating Austerlitz or Waterloo with Shakos & Bayonets. Battles here are raids, reconnaissance expeditions, and other small local affairs. The sort of stuff you see in the early Sharpe’s books.

With rules chosen and the scale thus determined (28mm, my favorite), I needed to figure out which army to play. Shakos & Bayonets provided lists for the Austrians, British and their Portuguese allies, French, Prussians, Russians, and Spanish, plus a more generic one for Minor Powers (of which, there were many in the Napoleonic Wars). Since M&T is a small-scale game, I thought would provide a great opportunity to focus on such an army or sub-faction.  Here are the forces I considered.

Grand Duchy of Warsaw

After the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, Austria, Prussia, and Russia gobbled up its territory and Poland as a sovereign nation ceased to exist. After Napoleon defeated the Prussians, however, the lands Prussia had acquired were ceded to France in 1807. Now Napoleon could have granted independence to the Poles, but instead created a client state called the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Still, this was a step up for the Poles and they were a firm ally of the French until Napoleon’s ultimate defeat at Waterloo. Murawski Miniatures even makes a whole range of 28mm Polish troops, which would make collecting them easy. Honestly, I would probably have gone with the Grand Duchy of Warsaw but for one factor. My friend who is most interested in putting together a Shakos & Bayonets force has chosen the French, and the two were not historical opponents.

King’s German Legion

Another force I considered was the King’s German Legion. This was fully part of the British army but has an interesting story. King George III of the UK was also the Elector of Hanover, a small German state in this period. The French occupied Hanover in 1803 and dissolved the Electorate, so many officers and soldiers made their way to England so they could continue the fight. The KGL proved a formidable fighting force, offering excellent service in the Peninsular campaign, and providing a legendary defense of La Haye Saint (a walled farmhouse compound) in the Battle of Waterloo. I was temped by the KGL but they ended up being my second-place choice.

Black Brunswickers

The Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg was another small German state (German unification would not happen until later in the 19th century). The French occupied it as well, and incorporated it into another client state they created called the Kingdom of Westphalia. Napoleon made his brother Jerome king (ah, nepotism). Anyway, the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg did not take this well. In 1809 he formed a small army variously called Schwarze Schar, Schwarze Legion, or most commonly these days the Black Brunswickers. Our dude the duke wanted vengeance so bad he dressed most of his troops in black and they wore the Totenkopf (death’s head) badge on their caps. They fought with the Austrians in Germany, then made a fighting retreat west when things went wrong. The British fleet brough them back to England and they subsequently fought in the Peninsular and Waterloo campaigns. Pretty interesting, eh? And Perry Miniatures makes a whole 28mm line of Brunswicker minis so again they’d be easy to collect.

I decided against them for two reasons. First, the black uniforms were somewhat of a turnoff. Part of the fun of fielding Napoleonic armies is their colorful uniforms. The more important factor was that the black uniforms and Totenkopf badges were later adopted by Hitler’s SS. Obviously, the Black Brunswickers pre-dated Nasim by over 100 years, but still the association was an uncomfortable one.


Finally, we come to the winner: the Bavarians! At the start of the Napoleonic Wars, Bavaria was part of the relic that was the Holy Roman Empire. They ended up siding with Napoleon, and Austria invaded Bavaria in 1805. After Napoleon’s crushing victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, Bavaria and other German states that supported him were rewarded. Bavaria gained kingdom status and joined the Confederacy of the Rhine, a new alliance that basically destroyed the Holy Roman Empire. They fought with the French through the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. As a result of that debacle, the Bavarians flipped to the allies for 1813 and 1814, joining the Sixth Coalition that defeated Napoleon for the first time and sent him into exile.

The Bavarians had all the things I was looking for. They were something different than the “great powers” of that era, they had colorful uniforms that would stand out on the tabletop, Perry Miniatures and other companies had easily available figures, and crucially they fought both for and against the French. That means I could have historical matchups with a wide variety of opponents.

Decision made at last, I now need to make some sample army lists and decide exactly which figures I need and in what quantity.  

Collecting a Napoleonic Army

A battle at Chris Walton’s place with his beautifully painted miniatures.

This is an article I originally wrote for patrons of my Curated Quarantine series last year. Posting it today because I think I’ve finally worked out what I want to do. More on that later.

If you’ve been reading Curated Quarantine for any length of time, you know that Revolutionary/Napoleonic France is a topic of interest for me. I’ve covered many Napoleonic games during this series. I’ve also noted that for several decades the Napoleonic Wars were the most popular period for historical miniatures gaming. I own many more sets of Napoleonic miniatures rules than I’ve featured here, yet I’ve never collected an army for the period. My play experience has been confined to conventions or games at my buddy Chris Walton’s place, because he painted up complete French and Austrian armies and he periodically hosts battles (or did, before quarantine). So, why don’t I own such an army? Let me break down the decisions you face when you consider collecting a Napoleonic army.

Which Army?

As with any miniatures game, the most important decision to make is what army to collect. The heavyweights are France, Austria, England, Prussia, and Russia. Those are the armies that will give you the most flexibility because they fought in many different campaigns. There are many more armies to choose from though. Germany and Italy were a patchwork of states, and France created new client states as well, such as the Batavian Republic and the Duchy of Warsaw. If you want to do something a little different, you’ve got options like the Portuguese, the Bavarians, and even the Mamelukes from Napoleon’s disastrous Egyptian campaign.

The thing to bear in mind though is that the wars of Revolutionary France and Napoleonic France lasted from 1792 to 1815, from the War of the First Coalition to the War of the Seventh Coalition. This is a long period and one with great change in military affairs. That means that organization, uniforms, and equipment of the armies changed quite a bit. It’s thus not enough to say you want to collect a French army. A Revolutionary French army from 1794 is a much different beast than the Grand Armee that invaded Russian in 1812. You need to pick a period and maybe even a campaign, as troops available in one theater might not be available in another.

Which Rules?

Another key decision is what rules you plan to use for your Napoleonic gaming. There have been literally hundreds published since the 1960s, and these range from the very simple to the mind-bendingly complex. The first thing to determine is what scale of game you are looking for. Games run from the skirmish engagement to the grand tactical. You need to know what size force you are putting together and what one mini is meant to represent. Organizing a skirmish force where one mini = one soldier is different than trying to simulate a brigade where one mini = 33 soldiers. Settling on a ruleset helps make those decisions. Most games let you know what a typical unit is meant to represent and how many figures you need to model it on the table. Many also specify base sizes for various types of troops (infantry, cavalry, artillery, etc.). More modern games are looser about this, but older games often had precise rules for base sizes.

Once you know what sort of game you’re looking for, it’s still quite a job to narrow it down. There are just so many to choose from and new contenders appear regularly. This is really a topic for an entire article on its own, but popular current games include Black Powder (Warlord Games), General de Brigade (Partizan Press), LaSalle (Sam Mustafa), and Sharp Practice (Too Fat Lardies).

Which Scale?

Another important consideration is the scale of your miniatures. Some games are designed for a specific scale, so by choosing the game you are choosing your scale as well. Most games can work at several scales though, so it’s usually something you must consider. 15mm and 28mm are the most popular so they’ll provide the most flexibility. You will find Napoleonic minis at all scales though, from the miniscule 2mm to the classic 54mm toy soldier. 2mm, 6mm, and 10mm figures allow you to make more realistic looking units with many soldiers but lose something in the way of detail. 20mm, 25mm, 28mm, and 54mm model the individual soldier better but are also more expensive and take up more room on the table. While I like 15mm for World War 2 minis because it works well with tanks, I generally prefer 28mm myself.

Which Unit Organization?

The game and scale of miniatures you’ve chosen will dictate the types of units you’ll be building. When you get to the stage of buying the minis, you have to keep this in mind. Basic units of companies, regiments, or brigades will require a different mix of figures. Some companies make this easy by selling units packs. Napoleon at War, a game from 2011, has boxed sets with the correct mix of figures to form a brigade and the appropriate bases. Not all miniatures manufacturers are tied to a specific game system, so more often than not you’ll need to figure this out for yourself.

Who Will You Play With?

Something else to think about is who you hope to play with, and a little planning here can be a big help. If your friends all collect 10mm armies, you will have a problem if you go ahead with a 28mm army. You need at least one opponent interested in the same rules and scale as you, and you’ll want to make sure your forces are compatible too. It’s not helpful if everyone brings a French army to the table.

Your other option is to collect two opposing armies yourself. That way you know you have everything you need to put a game on. Just invite a friend over and you’re good to go. This is the approach Chris Walton took and he’s put on some great looking games. This is obviously a more expensive option, as you’ll be paying for two armies instead of one. More time consuming too if you plan to paint them yourself.

One Day…

As you can see, there are many considerations that go into collecting a Napoleonic army. It’s not as simple as getting into a Warhammer game, for example. It requires you to do research into history, game rules, miniatures lines, and unit organization. I’ve had this idea that I’d one day find the game that really spoke to me, that I’d have an aha moment and say, “Yes, this is the one!” That hasn’t happened, and only a few of my friends are even interested in Napoleonic minis gaming. Maybe when I’m an old man and have completed my transformation into a true grognard, I’ll finally get that army!

Blitzkrieg Commander IV: Thanks, Pendraken!

A surprise in yesterday’s mail,

Back in 2004 my friend Rick and I started playing Blitzkrieg Commander, a WW2 miniatures game descended from Rick Priestley’s Warmaster rules. We followed it through a second edition, and through follow-ups Cold War Commander and Future War Commander. Then the games were sold to Pendraken, an English miniatures company, and a third edition was promised.

In 2017 I went to my first (and sadly only) Salute in London. This is the biggest miniatures convention in the UK and a bucket list event for lead heads. One cool thing about the show is that some vendors will let you pre-order things on their websites that you can then pick up at their booths. I took advantage of this to pre-order Blitzkrieg Commander III from Pendraken and some minis from Bad Squiddo (female Viking and Soviet sniper minis, yes please).

I stayed on in England for another ten days or so, visiting the amazing Tank Museum at Bovington among other places. I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to the internet while traveling so I missed the rising criticism of the just-released Blitzkrieg Commander III. There were problems with both the rules and the army lists and the fanbase was pretty salty about it. Pendraken decided they had to address the issues and after running a poll made a stunning announcement: they would fix the game and give everyone who bought BKCIII a free copy of the new edition.

I’m a publisher. I know how much it costs make, print, and ship books. This was a promise that would cost Pendraken $10,000 easily but they were committed to Blitzkrieg Commander having a future.

Yesterday I got an unexpected package in the mail. I thought it might be Saga: Age of Magic but found a copy of Blitzkrieg Commander IV, hot off the presses. I was surprised because I wasn’t even sure if Pendraken had my address, as I’d ordered it for pick-up at Salute. The new edition is full color (thus making the printing even more expansive) and nicely laid out.

Really, I can’t say enough good things about how Pendraken has handled this. It is above and beyond what I could have reasonably expected from a game publisher of their size. So thank you, Pendraken! I look forward to trying out Blizkrieg Commander IV. If you’re interested in checking it out, you can order it here.

The War for Svarog Prime

A few months ago Games Workshop put out a campaign system for Warhammer 40,000 called Urban Conquest and I decided to run a campaign for Pike & Shots, the wargaming club some friends and I started a couple of years back. Urban Conquest is designed for a maximum of four players. It uses color-coded physical components so it’s not a simple matter to just add more competing factions. I thus decided to run it for teams of two so I could accommodate eight players. I will be the referee, and I’ll also be playing AdMech and Planetary Defense Forces in special scenarios so I can get some games in too (though obviously, I won’t be scoring and can’t win the campaign!).

One-off games are great and all, but what makes campaigns fun is the narrative. After finding out what armies everyone wanted to play, I sat down to write up a background. This sets up the start of the campaign and will be built on as we start playing games. The challenging aspect of this campaign is that I ended up with six players who wanted to play marines. I tried to take some inspiration from the late (and sorely missed) Alan Bligh’s terrific Badab War books from Forge World, which featured many marines chapters squaring off against each other. The resulting narrative is below. It’s thick with 40K lore. I know you’d expect no less from me! I hope to provide some updates here as the campaign goes on, since I’ve dreadfully neglected my blog the last few years.

Campaign Background

Svarog is a mining planet in Segmentum Tempestus. When the Cicatrix Maledictum tore reality apart and cut off half the galaxy from Terra and the light of the Astronomican, the importance of Svarog to the Imperium increased greatly. A small fleet of Adeptus Mechanicus vessels, on the run since Tyranid Hive Fleet Leviathan destroyed their Forge World of Gryphonne IV, was directed to Svarog to expand its manufacturing output. Soon Svarog was not just mining raw materials but producing weapons of war for the Indomitus Crusade of Roboute Guilliman. It made important contributions to the rebuilding of the Crimson Fists on (relatively) nearby Rynn’s World.

As the Indomitus Crusade wound down, a political rift began to develop on Svarog. The Gryphonne IV contingent, led by Tech-Priest Dominus Zephyrus Omicron, had been crucial to the development of Svarog but the planetary governor, Jasper Tarrant, increasingly felt the Mechanicus was trying to take over the planet and turn it into a new Forge World. When word came to Jasper Tarrant that Mechanicus drilling machines were operating directly beneath Svarog Prime, the planet’s capital city, tensions only increased. When Jasper Tarrant confronted Zephyrus Omicron, the Tech-Priest flatly refused to explain the nature of the operation, only asserting that it was vital to the defense of the Imperium.

Jasper Tarrant was not convinced and began to make continency plans for ejecting the Mechanicus from Svarog. For this he would need a war chest, so he began to play a dangerous game. The governor started interfering in the planet’s trade contracts directly. Essentially, he was selling the same war material to multiple parties, getting paid many times over for goods he simply could not deliver. He thought he could make excuses long enough to enact his plan to get rid of the Mechanicus, and then make things right after the fact. This may have worked if he was dealing with the Imperial Guard. Unfortunately for Svarog, Jasper Tarrant was instead trying to cheat space marines like the Blood Angels, Iron Hands, and Dark Angels.

Meanwhile, the Mechanicus continued to drill beneath Svarog Prime. They had discovered Necron ruins on the planet and believed an ancient Necron weapon might be buried beneath the city. Their hope was to find something that could bring ruin to the Tyranids that had destroyed their home planet but they kept their goals to themselves. What Zephyrus Omicron had told Jasper Tarrant was true, such a weapon could indeed help defend the Imperium. The secrecy of the Mechanicus, however, was to have disastrous consequences.

From Sparks to Flame

The campaign that would turn Svarog Prime into a warzone began both above and below the city. The Crimson Fists and Raptors were about to begin a campaign together and had sent ships to Svarog to pick up supplies. Due to Svarog’s long relationship with the Crimson Fists, the governor had always played straight with the them so what they were promised was indeed ready for them. The trouble began when ships of four other space marine chapters arrived demanding the war materials that they had already paid for. One of the new Primaris chapters and the Iron Hands showed up first, followed quickly by a task force of Blood Angels and Dark Angels. Svarog could supply only one of the three space marine battle groups and the governor began to try to play them off one another. When things became heated, he called upon his longtime allies in the Crimson Fists to protect Svarog from what he described as near piracy form the other chapters. It is unclear if the shooting started by mistake or was intentional, but several of Svarog’s defense satellites did open fire and this began a confused void battle above the planet.

Meanwhile, the Mechanicus had broken into ancient Necron caverns beneath the surface. There they found the substance blackstone in abundance and began to experiment with it. This had two immediate and terrible consequences. First, their initial efforts attuned the blackstone the wrong way, so it became a warp magnifier instead of a warp dampener. A blast of warp power killed or drove insane all the astropaths on and above the planet and created inference that crippled communication. Then daemons from the Siren’s Storm (a nearby warp storm) began to pour into the caverns. Second, a Necron stasis crypt deeper in the ruins—alerted by the Mechanicus incursion—started its revivification cycle.

In between the forces above and the forces below lies the city of Svarog Prime. The marines deploy to the surface to try to seize the war material they are owed, while the daemons and Necrons swarm up to the surface. With communication nearly impossible, chaos reigns in Svarog Prime. Forces are scattered and no one understands the complete picture. Marines fight marines while a few streets away Necrons are reaping all from life hab blocks of terrified workers. The forces that might hold the Imperial factions together—the Adeptus Mechanicus and the Administratum—are suspicious of one another and uncertain who to trust in the sudden maelstrom of war. The campaign for Svarog Prime has begun.

Horus Heresy: Choosing a Legion

Horus Heresy
Like many long time Warhammer 40K players, I’ve been enjoying the Horus Heresy books that Forge World is publishing and I’m glad 30K is now supported as an era of play. I have Salamanders and Word Bearers forces for 40K but I’d like to do something different for the Heresy era. I picked up the Battle of Calth game some months ago primarily for the minis (though the game was actually good too, as it turned out). Now I’m pondering what legion to choose for my 30K army.

For the last couple of years, I had been planning to do the Alpha Legion. I like their backstory and iconography, and their Rites of War gives them some cool options. I may go ahead with that but I’m doing my due diligence and looking at other options. These are the other legions I’m considering:

Imperial Fists: A surprise to me actually, but there is a big point in their favor. I really like the look and feel of the breacher squads and the Imperial Fists have a special rule called Resolve of Stone that makes breacher squads sing. The yellow armor isn’t my favorite but I think it could be reasonable if muted. Other Imperial Fist rules are also solid and they have a special knight troop type that are proto Black Templars. I’ve never had much interest in the Fists before but they have become a contender.

Iron Warriors: This legions makes a hell of a gun line with their two unique troop types, the Siege Tyrants and Iron Havocs. 30K Iron Warriors are also completely immune to morale tests caused by shooting, which is killer. And of course you can have giant robot bodyguards in the shape of the Iron Circle. So yeah, super appealing to me and I love the idea of a legion of siege masters. There are only a couple of downsides. First, the Iron Circle models are hellaciously expensive. Second, I have never liked the color scheme of the Iron Warriors. At all. The black and yellow stripes do not do it for me. Now I could just make up a chapter of the legion with a different look, so that could be worked around.

Raven Guard: I like the Raven Guard for many of the same reasons I like the Alpha Legion. They are sneaky and great at infiltrating. They have brutal snipers. They also have access to some unique equipment like the Darkwing pattern Storm Eagle Gunship. The Mor Deythan Strike Squad and Dark Fury Assault Squad models are also badass. Their advantage over the Alpha Legion is that I think they’d be easier to paint. And yes, friends, I’m likely to outsource a lot of the painting, but it’d be nice if it was a paint scheme I could handle for some units and the Alpha Legion teal is tricky. The downside of the Raven Guard is primarily cost. That Darkwing Storm Eagle alone is over $200 and I’m but a humble RPG publisher.

So that’s what I’m looking at. I really need to decide what legion is mine before I start assembling the plastic minis. How I build even basic troops will be colored by that choice.

What to choose? Loyalist or traitor? The galaxy hangs in the balance!

Vigil 40K Tournament

We’re making a Warhammer 40,000 MMO at Vigil so it’s no surprise that the company includes players of the original game. In fact, it’s the only minis game anyone at Vigil plays (which initially made me feel that bringing down all those WWI and WWII armies was perhaps futile). The company has a game night every Thursday and 40K is usually on the agenda. To encourage people to play more and to get the competitive juices flowing, we’ve also just started a company wide tournament. It’s going to be four rounds, double elimination, and Vigil is providing minis as prizes for the top finishers.

My original plan was to play Salamander Space Marines. Having seen the way folks play at Vigil (lots of HTH, expensive heroes and monstrous creatures), it seemed like a good choice. When we had a kickoff meeting and I saw on the whiteboard that 75% of the armies were either Space Marine or Chaos Space Marine, I knew I’d have to be true to my roots and play Imperial Guard though. No one else at Vigil plays IG and most of them haven’t been playing long enough to even recognize my Praetorian troops. I brought back a few things with me on my recent trip to Seattle (including my Hydra flak tank, which I assembled like 8 years ago but have never fielded) and made a 1500 point army tonight. The list can’t change once the tourney starts, so I had to put something together that could handle a variety of opponents. Hopefully, I have chosen wisely.

My first game is Thursday vs. (surprise, surprise) Chaos Space Marines. My opponent is using the favorite tricks of Vigil CSM players: demon prince, sorcerer with lash of submission, and a greater demon. The key will be using my superior numbers to concentrate firepower on his assault units before they get into my battle line. This can be challenging in 40K, which is why shooty armies like Imperial Guard and Tau are a lot less popular than the HTH armies.

I’m not worried about losing the tournament. This is all for fun and when you wargame you need to cultivate being a good loser. My only concern is the tourney rules themselves. Right now they state that tied games have to be replayed until there is a winner. I argued that there should be a system for determining who wins in case of a tie but I’m not the organizer. The first round mission is Capture and Control, in which ties are quite common due to the rules for seizing objectives. Sure enough, the first three games played have all been ties. One battle was re-fought and resulted in…another tie. If this continues, I will lobby for a rules change. Otherwise, this tourney will never end. While I do appreciate the idea of motivating people to play more often, if we’re still playing the first round a month from now everyone will lose steam.

Praetorians, prepare for battle!

Originally published on LiveJournal on February 2, 2011.

A Look Back at D&D Minis

It seems that with the exception of special products like the recently released beholder set, D&D minis are dead. A few years ago the line was doing well so this is quite a change of fortune. So what happened?

For a product like D&D minis, you have three basic types of consumers:
1) People who use them as RPG accessories.
2) People who use them to play miniatures games.
3) People who like to collect cool minis/D&D paraphernalia.

There is some overlap between the groups (I am a classic roleplayer/minis player hybrid) but the crossover is smaller than many people think. Ten years ago when I was working on the game that was ultimately called D&D Chainmail, my team was trying to build a game to appeal to minis players. Since these were going to be minis of D&D monsters and heroes, we also hoped to appeal to the roleplayers but they were the secondary target. (I wanted to maintain a separate line of RPG accessory minis but that idea of kiboshed and Chainmail was increasingly expected to do double duty.)

The plan was to do a skirmish game (something you can play with 8-12 minis per side) and then scale it up to a full mass battles game (in which you’d commonly see over 100 figures per side). Miniatures players are willing to make that sort of investment. Many will buy multiple armies. With a compelling setting and halfway decent rules, you can keep minis gamers buying lots of figs for a long, long time. See Games Workshop. Roleplayers, as we’ll see, have a different psychology.

D&D Chainmail had a troubled existence from the get go, but two events drove the nails into its coffin. First, the decision was made to make it a skirmish game only. Something that was meant to be a six month phase turned into the entire game. Not at all what we planned. Second, Mage Knight came out and proved collectible minis could sell. My team had been trying to set up a more traditional pewter, non-collectible minis business. We faced tough internal pressure to figure out some way to apply the Magic business model to minis, but we really didn’t think that was a good idea. When Mage Knight was selling like crazy, it was hard to argue against it though. This was the Pokemon era when expectations were ridiculous. We were asked by a VP once if Chainmail would make over $10 million in its first year. We said it was unlikely, and that the business would need time to grow to that level. No one wanted to hear that at WotC in 2001.

When Chainmail launched, it was already a compromised product. It got crap support from the company and a key decision from an idiot brand manager made the production costs much higher than the needed to be while creating packaging that did a poor job of showcasing the minis. A year later the game rules won an Origins Award…one week after WotC cancelled it. By this point all the members of that original team had quit or been laid off. Interestingly, two of them (Matt Wilson and Mike McVey) went off and formed Privateer Press, which went to to publish the Warmachine and Hordes miniatures games.

When D&D Minis came back, it was in a pre-painted, collectible format like Mage Knight. There was an attached game (ironically enough, a revised version of the Chainmail rules) but the main target was roleplayers. IIRC, the first starters didn’t even say miniatures game on them. The setting, factions, characters, and stories we tried to create with Chainmail were jettisoned. If you wanted to play the game, you had your choice of bland, alignment-based factions with no background, no cohesion, and no particular reason to fight.

For roleplayers though, the new approach worked initially. Most of the sculpts and paint jobs were mediocre but the roleplayers didn’t care as much about those things as the minis players. They liked popping something ready to use out of the package and if it looked halfway decent on the table, that was good enough. No glue, painting, or assembly required. A secondary market sprang up where common (but useful in a RPG) minis were available pretty cheaply (I bought ten giant frogs once because they were ten cents each). The rare figures were more expensive, of course, and many desirable monsters were only available as rares.

For several years new sets of D&D minis came out regularly and seemed to sell well. WotC was making money, the roleplayers were generally satisfied, and D&D itself became increasingly minis-centric, which should only have reinforced demand. And yet, it eventually became apparent that things weren’t going so well. WotC stopped supporting the minis game. Sets become less frequent. Some gamers complained the quality of the minis was dropping. So what was going on?

My suspicion (and remember I was long gone from WotC when this stuff went down) is the the nature of the roleplaying consumer eventually bit Wotc in the ass. A roleplayer wants enough minis to support his or her RPG sessions and the minis are in many ways incidental to the game experience. A minis gamer wants to build armies and the minis are a key element of the game experience. I believe many of the roleplayers who bought cases of minis for the first few sets began to slow down as their collections grew. At a certain point they had most of their bases covered. So instead of buying a case, they bought a few boosters or cherry picked a few figs from the secondary market.

At the same time, the cost of making the minis was going up. Pre-painted collectible figures are all done in Asia but you may have noticed the weakening American dollar and the recession we’ve been in the last few years. So as sales on each set eroded, the cost to make the minis was going up. Declining sales + increasing costs = the almost inevitable death of D&D minis as we knew them.

It seems that the era of the collectible mini is nearing an end after only a decade. Mage Knight, the pioneer in the field, was ironically one of the first to die. The ups, downs, and acquisitions of its publisher, Wizkids, is a whole other story. They are now part of Neca and seem to be doing OK with a revived Heroclix. Few other games are left standing. The more traditional minis companies survive and in many cases thrive. Games Workshop still dominates the field. Privateer has experimented with a pre-painted plastic game but their bread and butter seems to still be Warmachine and Hordes. Reaper looks solid as a rock and they still do great business selling pewter minis to D&D players.

WotC, I suspect, plans to migrate the minis aspect of D&D play to the virtual tabletop online with the rest of the game. There may even be a business model there, selling packs of virtual creatures and characters. For my part, I wish D&D had gotten a real mass battles miniatures game supported by a full line of pewter and multi-part plastic miniatures. Something that played great on its own but could also tie into your RPG campaign. Something that made the most of D&D’s rich worlds and added new lore and stories to that tradition. I’m a crazy dreamer like that.

Originally published on LiveJournal on January 13, 2011. 

Little Men, Big Games: Running Minis Games at Conventions

A convention game of the Battle of Borodino I played in 2010.

I started playing miniatures wargames in the early 80s. I got into them as an outgrowth of my roleplaying hobby via the AD&D Battlesystem rules. I had started collecting miniatures for use in my AD&D game and was transfixed by the idea of fighting big battles on the tabletop with armies of toy soldiers. Over the years I have played many different games, from fantasy and scifi to ancients and World War 2. For many years I only played games with my friends but in 1989 I went to my first GenCon and that changed. There I experienced my first big convention games and I have played many more since.

At first I was impressed by the sheer spectacle of the big con game. When you see thousands of painted miniatures on a huge table covered with lovingly detailed terrain, it is a thing of beauty. Too many times, however, the spell created by the big battle was broken once the game actually started. While many game masters succeeded in putting on a great spectacle, too many failed to deliver a fun game. After seeing some of the same problems in convention miniatures games for over 20 years, I decided to write this article and offer some advice to prospective GMs. I hope my fellow miniatures game enthusiasts find it of use.

Design and Playtest

When I was about 12 years old, I “designed” my first wargame scenario. I tried to recreate the Battle of Kursk using Avalon Hill’s classic Squad Leader boardgame (I know, I know; I was 12). In practice this meant setting up four boards and filling them with as many German and Russian tanks as I could. My brother and I tried to play it and of course it was too big and unwieldy to finish. My attempt was a failure but it taught me an important lesson. Designing a good scenario takes more thought that just using everything you have and yet this is a trap many big games fall into.

You want your game to be playable in the allotted time and ideally there should be a decisive result at the end of the game. Before you put every painted unit you can muster onto the table, ask yourself what you really need to make the scenario work. Are you adding more units because the game demands it or because you think it’ll look impressive? Remember that you are not building a diorama here. This is a game that’s your players will be dedicating 4-8 hours of their valuable con time to, so you want to show them a good time.

Now it may not be apparent to you when a game is too big and when it’s just right. That’s what playtesting is for. I have played many con games that clearly were never playtested at all. You should try to find time to run at least one and ideally several playtests of your scenario. It’s also helpful if you test with a similar number of players as you’ll have in the final game. The more players there are in a game the longer each turn will take due to kibitzing, rules questions, and so on, so you’ll get a more realistic result with the correct number of participants. I have seen several GMs shocked when their games did not come close to finishing. They had playtested, but with two players who knew the rules quite well. A con game is a different beast than a home game.

When you run a playtest, there are four key questions you are trying to answer. First, and most importantly, was the game fun for everyone? Second, were all the players engaged in the game from start to finish? Third, did all sides have a reasonable chance of victory? Fourth, was a decisive result achieved in the scenario in the allotted time? If the answer to any of these questions is no, modify the scenario and try another test game if you can.

Prep Work

I will assume for the sake of this article that you have sufficient miniatures and terrain to put on the scenario you’ve designed. So other than playtesting, what else do you need to prepare before the convention?

One oft overlooked detail is writing up an event description for the convention. This is your chance to sell the game to prospective players. You want to describe your scenario and note its interesting or unique features. You should clearly indicate the game’s genre or historical period, the rules set you are using (including edition, if there are several), the length of the session, and the number of players you can accommodate. If you welcome players new to the game, you should note that as well.

Next you should prepare handouts for the players. Most games have some kind of quick reference sheet with key rules and tables. You should have one of these for each player. If you are using house or special rules, prepare copies of those as well. You also want to have a sheet for each player that details his command. This will allow the player to see his forces at a glance and have needed stats at hand. Laminating this reference material is a nice touch but not required.

You should also pack up whatever other accessories the players will need, and bring enough so they don’t have to fight over them. Don’t assume they are going to have anything, even a pencil. Depending on the game, you may need various polyhedral dice, templates (turning, blast, etc.), wound markers, cotton balls, activation tokens, measuring sticks, or playing cards. Packing a spare copy of the rules is also a good idea. Industrious players may want to look at the rules during downtime and you want to keep yours at hand.

Starting the Game

At last the big day arrives and game time approaches. You should find out from the convention organizers when your table will be open for you to begin set up. Some conventions have limited table space, so don’t assume you’re going to have hours to get the game ready. You do want to give yourself as much time as possible to get everything set up, so arrive at your location as early as you can. You don’t want to waste valuable play time finishing something you could have done beforehand.

Once the players arrive, you should identify yourself and the game to make sure everyone is in the right spot. When you are ready to begin, introduce the scenario, tell the players the basics of the set up, and hand out the reference material. If you have inexperienced players, you should give them a brief overview of the rules and run through the turn sequence. You should also let everyone know up front any house or special rules. That’s not the sort of thing you want to spring on people mid-game. Lastly, you need to divide the players amongst the various sides. You should try to accommodate the players if you can. Let friends play together (or against each other!) if that’s what they want.

Commands and Deployment

At this point you need to give each player a command. You should have put these together while designing the scenario. The last thing you want to do is let the players divide up the forces themselves. That’s just asking for chaos right at the start of the game and you don’t have time to waste. The commands should be fairly balanced. Don’t give one player all the elite troops and another the peasant conscripts. I also strongly encourage you to make sure that each command includes at least one unit on the board and near the enemy at the start of the game. In a similar vein, you should think carefully before leaving any troops off the board in reserve. I say these things because one truism about big convention games is that turns can take a long time. If you give a player a command that starts off the board and his troops won’t begin to show up until turn 2 at earliest, for example, that player may be doing nothing for an hour or more. This is not fun. You want all the players engaged in the battle and interested in the results from start to finish.

Some GMs like to hand out commands and then let the players deploy their own forces. Again, I urge caution. If you deploy the various commands in their starting positions, play can start quickly and this greatly increases the odds of the game finishing. If you let the players do it, they’ll have to confab and then all the minis you set out will get picked up and re-deployed. I’ve been in games in which we didn’t start actually playing until an hour and half into the session. I think it’s better to maximize the play time by having the game ready to go when the players show up.

Running the Game

Now at last the game can get underway. Your job during the session is part referee and part traffic director. You need to keep the came going, which means clearly announcing turns and phases so players know what they are supposed to be doing. In the early turns you should make sure that players are handling the basics like movement and formations correctly. I suggest that you oversee all of the actual combat if you can, so it’s done properly and you know how the battle is proceeding.

During a game, you will have to answer many rules questions. You want to be fair but you should also be decisive. Many rules lawyers will try to argue with you and this just bogs things down. Remember that it’s your game and you are perfectly within your rights to make a ruling and end the discussion. You don’t want to waste 10 minutes pulling out rulebooks and referencing minutiae while the other players stare into space. Make a ruling and go, go, go.

As I’m sure is clear, running a convention game can be a bit overwhelming. That’s why I suggest recruiting one or more assistant game masters if you’re going to have more than six players. I’ve been at games with 16 players and one GM and it’s just too much for one person to handle. An assistant game master can answer common rules questions, help resolve combats on one side of the board when you’re doing something else on the other, and so on. Sometimes a group of friends will put on a game together. This is great, but I do suggest that one person take on the roll of lead GM. It’s good to have a final arbiter in such situations. I have been in games in which all the players watched the GMs argue amongst themselves and it isn’t pretty.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully, when play time is running out, a clear victor will have emerged. As a player it’s a drag to put four or six hours into a game and have a total stalemate as the result. Better a hard fought loss than feeling like the entire battle was pointless. One of your jobs as the GM is to decide when the battle is over. The clock will eventually do this for you, but it is often obvious before time that one side has lost. Don’t feel that people have to be rolling dice up to the very last second. Sometimes the best thing to do is call the game. That way you aren’t making players who have clearly lost fight it out to the bitter end. Most players don’t mind an extra half an hour at the trade stands anyway.

When the battle is done, thank everyone for playing. If there’s time, ask them for feedback on the game. You may want to run the same scenario at a different con and feedback from the players is useful for fine tuning. Even if you never run that particularly scenario again, you will certainly learn lessons that will help you put on even better games in the future.

Let’s Have a War

I hope I haven’t scared anyone away from playing or running convention miniatures games. I have played many enjoyable games over the years and look forward to many more in the future. Putting on a big con game is a lot of work, but it can also be quite rewarding. With a little forethought and a dose of common sense, your battle can be both a great spectacle and a great game. So get planning and muster your forces. Let’s have a war…on the tabletop.

Copyright 2010 Chris Pramas

Originally published on LiveJournal on June 7, 2010. Later published in Wargames Illustrated, Issue #279.