High quality miniatures

You know it when you see it

gaming meta rpg wargame

When I first got into miniature wargaming and painting, I thought all miniatures were created equal. The only difference, to me, was that some miniatures were for fantasy, others for sci fi, and still others for historical settings. But I've come to realise that miniatures vary greatly in not just concept, but also in quality, design, and implementation. In this article, I'm going to describe five things I've noticed about really good miniatures.

First, I want to clarify that most of my experience with good miniatures has been through Games Workshop. There's a Warhammer store an hour away from where I live, so it's easy to buy Warhammer. I know there are really great models I'm missing out on, but getting miniatures shipped by any other company all the way to New Zealand is pretty cost prohibitive. So my frame of reference is limited, but it's limited to the extremes. I've seen bad and I've seen Games Workshop. Some of the cheap miniatures I've gotten from board games and RPG sets have been one step above dollar store (incidentally, dollar stores don't exist in New Zealand) dinosaurs and toy soldiers. Even people who don't care for what Games Workshop produces usually agree that Games Workshop makes the highest of quality miniatures.

1. Mold lines

Some miniatures are often indiscriminately cast with no regard for where mold lines are going to end up. A low-quality model is one that's bifurcated into a front half and a back half, with a mold line acting like a sort of equator around the model's body. You probably won't notice it at first, especially if you're just using the miniature for an RPG or when you're just learning to paint. But eventually you notice that having an unnatural plastic rim around your miniature person or creature is working against your paint job. You're trying to create the miniaturized illusion of realism (or hyper-realism, if you prefer) through your paint, but that mold line reminds everybody looking at it that it's just plastic after all.

You can (and should) scrape off and sand down the mold lines, but on a cheap miniature that can be hard to do. It probably covers the entire perimeter of the miniature, so there's a lot to reduce. It's not always conveniently positioned, either. If the model's head is turned, then a mold line probably goes straight through the face, which is hard to file down without, say, filing off your model's nose.

Conclusion: Quality miniatures take mold lines into account, and work to integrate them into the model when possible. Games Workshop, for instance, casts models at whatever angle is required so that the mold line follows, for instance, the seam of a model's trousers, or the line of a cape, or the crease in bones, and so on.

Because you have to assemble the miniature yourself, Games Workshop models can reduce mold lines by casting just part of a model that you'll glue to another part, and these are always parts that you'd expect there to be a visual break anyway. For instance, when you glue on a shoulder and arm onto a torso, it's OK that there's a seam in the plastic because that's where armour or sleeves would break have a seam or crease anyway.

You "sacrifice" mold lines (which you don't want anyway) for breaks in the model (in places where seams exist in real life anyway).

It's brilliant design, and is one of many ways a high quality model helps you succeed at a miniature build without requiring any extra skill beyond putting the model together.

2. Alignment

Because low-quality miniatures are split down the middle of the model, you sometimes get a model that's been cast as a single miniature that doesn't match up to its own other half. I think the problem must be that the metal molds aren't properly aligned while the plastic is injected or poured in, because presumably the model's design matched up when the prototype was created. But I've got low-quality miniatures where a belt wraps around the front of a character model, but after the mold line the same belt continues around the model half a millimeter higher or lower.

It's not noticeable from an arm's length away, but it's the kind of thing you notice when painting. I think you pick up on these flaws when painting because you're necessarily forced to stop painting and make a choice. Do you paint the sculpt? Or do you try to fake the transition by painting outside the "lines" of the sculpt, to suggest that something does actually match up? I can't count the number of hands I've had to fake with paint on low-quality miniatures, when a model's hand is clearly holding onto a bow or sword, but their fingers don't match up on the other side. Instead of painting the actual sculpted fingers, I just paint where the fingers ought to be, and I pass off the sculpted fingers as grip on the bow or sword hilt.

Conclusion: Mismatched halves just don't happen in a quality model. If anything, you might introduce a mismatch by assembling the model incorrectly. In my experience so far with Games Workshop models, though, they don't really fit together incorrectly, and I feel like you'd have to work pretty hard to smash them together incorrectly (and you'd probably literally break something in the process).

I had tried to build models as a kid, and wasn't any good at it. I was unsure of myself, impatient, and imprecise. It's probably why I settled on Lego. I've been pleasantly surprised at how easy it's been to assemble Games Workshop. They just don't fit together wrong. You have to go out of your way to convert (that's the jargon word for "modifying") a kit if you want to abuse a model, and those that do that have lots of cool tricks for covering up mismatches, all of which are well beyond my capability.

The models, by default, fit together in the way they're meant to fit together. Everything matches up, everything's aligned.

3. Sprue clip lines

I admit, I've yet to experience a low-quality miniature that comes on a sprue, but I have seen models for train sets and historical wargaming on sprues at hobby shops.

Games Workshop models come on plastic brackets (sprues), and you have to clip the model's parts out to assemble it. This usually leaves a little plastic nub just where you clipped, which you have to scrape off or file down. Seems like a real problem for a high-quality miniature, right?

Well, it would be if weren't for the fact that Games Workshop seems to attach models to its sprue at really convenient "low risk" points. For instance, it's rare to see a nice smooth helmet serve as the connection point to a sprue. Instead, I tend to see connections being made on rough or "wrinkled" or otherwise textured surfaces that can withstand a little plastic nub being scraped off. Did you scrape a little too deeply? No problem, it's just part of the texture.

Conclusion: I don't know who prioritizes the process of building a model, but somebody clearly does. I love a miniature that helps you succeed even when you make a mistake.

4. Cool design

I know there are some amazing sculpts out there, and Games Workshop's design isn't by any means for everyone. It leans toward the macabre and horrific on a good day, and I can't imagine anyone looking to Games Workshop for high fantasy elves and faeries and unicorns. Whatever you're looking for, though, you should look for designs you love.

I've said in a previous article that when you paint a miniature, you're collaborating with the sculptor. Somebody designed the model you're painting, and the work you do to it helps accentuate the choices the sculptor has made.

Before you invest in a miniature, take a close look at it, if you can. Buy the miniatures that inspire you, not just the ones that fit a specific game requirement.

Conclusion: I'd rather substitute a really cool looking goblin miniature for an orc than buy a really bland orc miniature. (Of course, I say that now, having already bought 4 bad orc miniatures before discovering that not all sculpts are equal.)

5. Detail

A good concept and beautiful sculpt is, sadly, only as good as the production process. Anybody with a cheap 3d printer knows that. I've seen so many great sculpts laid low by a bad 3d print, or a cheap mold. Warning signs include:

  • The model's hands don't look distinct from the weapon it's holding
  • The model's body "melts" into its clothing
  • The model's hair "melts" into its clothing, neck, and scalp
  • The model's accouterments, like satchels and canteens and badges and straps, aren't clearly defined against the surface they're meant to be lying on
  • The model has no face

Conclusion: A quality miniature was created for you to paint. Objects on the model are distinct from one another, whether it's anatomy or accessory. If you assemble the model, and then look at it the next day and forget what parts you had to glue together and what parts were part of the mold, that's a really good sign (or it's a sign that you have bad memory, but don't take this too literally).

Knowing isn't the same as caring

My goal isn't to sell you on any particular miniature company or even miniatures of a specific quality. The quality of a miniature doesn't make one better than another, necessarily, but it's good to know how to tell the difference.

T'au soldiers photo by Seth Kenlon. Creative Commons cc0.

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