Miniatures in wargames

Lots of little characters

gaming meta rpg wargame

Recently, I've purchased some wargames, like Reign in Hell, Space Station Zero, and Mechaforce, and they all require miniatures. I knew they needed miniatures when I made the purchase, but they're all intentionally indifferent to what miniatures you use. My plan was to use RPG miniatures, and I figured I could buy a few new minis to account for anything I lacked.

What I didn't understand then was that in a wargame, there's no character build. I knew you built an army, not a character, but I had no concept of how you generated an army. In my mind, I guess I thought you just reached into a bucket of miniatures and called it an army. In reality, there's almost as much nuance to building an army for a wargame as there is in building a character for an RPG, but the expression of that army is largely through the miniatures you use. And I mean "expression" in both the sense of self-expression (style and emotion) and game mechanics.

In a wargame, you have a lot of little characters in an army. Even in a small-scale skirmish, that's 8 or 10 or a dozen pretend people running around a battlefield. There's no way you're keeping track of all their names, backgrounds, skills, proficiencies, and so on.

And so you classify them. These 2 over here are snipers, these 3 here are foot soldiers, this one's a medic, and these two are officers, and the big fancy one is the squad captain. Classification happens by way of what kind of uniform or garb they're wearing, and maybe what weapon they're holding. Their skills are almost entirely based on what they've got on them. The wargame community calls this WYSIWYG, which expands to exactly the same phrase as it does in the computing industry: What You See Is What You Get. That means when you have three miniature elves way in the back holding longbows, those are your elven archers, and when you have two armoured human fighters rushing out at the front of the line, those are your human fighters. The elves are skilled in ranged attacks using longbows. The humans are skilled in melee, and have a higher armour rating than the elves (because the human miniatures have armour on).

It's obvious when you see it written out, but the concept was new to me because in tabletop RPG that's not the case at all. In an RPG, you choose a miniature that's roughly the right size and shape for your characters. Something short is a halfling or dwarf or gnome, while something tall is anything else. They may as well not be wielding a weapon at all, because you're going to find a new weapon once you get deep enough into the dungeon, and then you'll be swapping back and forth between your sword, a ranged weapon, and a spell or two. Nobody cares what your miniature appears to be doing or what it looks like. The tall red one is your character, the short blue one is somebody else's character, and the not-so-miniature dragon token (or the red glass bead, if your game group can't be bothered to invest in expensive miniatures) is the monster about to kill you both.

Some wargames have really rich game lore, and a business model around selling miniatures, that miniatures are hyper-specific to a certain set of skills. If you want a soldier who can make both a melee and a ranged attack, as needed, then you have to get or build the miniature holding both a melee and a ranged weapon (and you need to have the build points to "afford" a soldier with such diverse skill). The games I'm playing are specifically not bound so tightly to physical tokens, but it's still important for me to be able to differentiate one model from another so I know which list of abilities goes with which mini, and it's useful when what I see on the mini has a logical correlation to the stat block. Ideally, you start to remember abilities based on the classification of the miniature. "I see that that's a foot soldier carrying a melee. Oh yeah, it gets +2 bonus for that weapon, and it has that special dodge ability when being attacked."

Playing during downtime

One of the things I love about tabletop RPG is that I get to "play" the game even when I'm not playing the game. I can spend an afternoon building a character for an RPG even though I'm not actively playing that RPG. I can spend an evening with a few different theoretical upgrade paths, and then choose which path to actually take the next time my character levels up. I can investigate some fun downtime activities between games, and bring them to the Game Master the next time we play. At the very least, I can read a book of lore to "level up" my own understanding of the world in which my character lives.

Depending on your wargame of choice, you may or may not have exactly those same options. Certainly Warhammer has plenty of lore you can keep up with in your downtime. But there aren't character sheets, you can't multi-class or theory-craft your build. Instead, you've got miniatures. They're the physical expression of your army. You can paint them, you can "kit bash" or "convert" models to suit the rules. It's a little surprising how much you can do with miniatures, in fact. You don't have to just paint them. You can tell tiny little never-told stories about past exploits, just with a stroke of paint or with the choice of a utility belt. What happened to this soldier? What's the story with the blood splatters on his knee-pads? Why's he missing his utility pack? How come that soldier there is holding a different gun than the rest of his team?

These tiny stories may not have ramification in the game, but then again how much does it really matter that your RPG character was born in Osirion? I guess it might influence the game master to have an NPC from Osirion act a little differently to your character. And to be honest, those little stories you put into your miniatures can have the same effect on you as the player. I wouldn't admit this to my fake plastic miniature troops, of course, but I've played favourites in the past. I've refrained from sending a miniature to certain death just because I happen to like that particular miniature. And it's irrational and purely emotional.

One or two miniatures happen to stand out for some reason, and when I notice a model's quirk, a backstory surfaces. This T'au model is missing its utility pack because she's not particularly good at her job. She's only here because she has to be. She doesn't want to fight, doesn't want to die, and just plain forgot to put her uniform on correctly this morning. Being the pacifist (in real life, not in the wargame) that I am, I frankly admire that, so I hold her back in battle, letting her play it safe.

War is better as a game

The wargaming hobby has a lot of opportunity for downtime play. I guess it's infamous, in fact, and some "wargamers" end up painting and building dioramas more often than they game. I've been enjoying the miniature painting as a downtime wargame activity, and I've had a great time expanding the rules of the small wargames I've been playing so that different armies feel different in play.

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