5 steps for building an army for wargames

Wargame workflow

gaming wargame

I've collected five or six small armies for wargaming, but I'm still new to the hobby. I've (maybe slower than I should have) noticed some patterns about the process of preparing an army. These are the 5 steps I'm trying to take while planning to assemble an army.

1. Research lore

When I'm thinking of an army I want to play, I find myself defaulting to studying up on it first. It makes no difference whether the army is historical or fictional. Before I build an army, I have a need to learn about its history. I read about the army, I read about famous campaigns, I try to understand when and where the army came from and why and how it was used.

I learned the hard way from my Roman and Egyptian armies that "nation" plus "army" doesn't accurately describe a group of people preparing for war. Seems obvious to me now, but if somebody asked me to collect a "US army", I'd have to ask for more detail. Am I collecting a US army from the 1770s? from 1812? from 1860? 1910? and so on.

I never quite understood the obsession with generals common among many wargamers. Now that I play, I get it. The <general> plus "army" is a pretty accurate way to describe exactly the assemblage of people that got together one time to go get themselves killed while trying to kill other people doing the same thing. If you tell me to build a "Napoleonic army", then I understand not to buy books about the Gallic wars of the 50s BCE. Even in Warhammer, you can't really just say you're going to build a "Space Marine army" because there are, after all, different chapters and even different legions back in the Horus Heresy.

Before you can look for army miniatures, you need to understand the life and times of the army you want to play.

2. Find miniatures

I debated whether to put this one first or second, because to be fair you do need to know that miniatures exist before you invest time and effort into researching the army. However, I think technically this step ought to be second in an ideal scenario, because you probably actually want to play an army that's interesting to you rather than just one that looks cool.

There are exceptions, of course, not the least of which is that it's all imaginary. You can buy miniatures, and then make up lore for the army to "justify" its existence. You can play Warhammer 40,000 using Ramses II and Aurelius. You can play Space Station Zero using D&D miniatures.

Flexibility is a virtue, but I have to admit that I lose sleep when I've gotten miniatures I need to justify on my gaming table. It's silly, but I still feel guilty for using Ramses II in battles against Imperial Rome, and consider it a proxy army. (I take comfort in the knowledge that miniatures for Ptolemaic Egypt just don't seem to exist.)

For myself, I research first and then hunt for the miniatures. Worst case scenario, I've learned some [real or fictional] history. Wargaming is still doing a better job than my USA secondary education ever did.

3. Research tactics and wargear

OK, so you have your miniatures. Now you need a rulebook, and maybe also an army book.

The rulebook is the book that tells you how to play the game. Sometimes this is all-inclusive, like most of the blue books from Osprey Games or the products by Snarling Badger, or the first edition of Kill Team from Games Workshop. Other games provide a rulebook for the game, and a separate book (or line of books) to provide details about the miniatures you can use in the game.

Whether they're a single book or two or more books, you need a book that gives you the rules for the game, and also the "profiles" of each potential miniature, or at least the profile of possible weapons. You need to know how fast a specific miniature can move, what kind of weapons it can wield, how much damage each weapon does, and so on.

Some games have generic descriptions of weaponry, and you just assign stats to miniatures based on the closest match. Companies that provide both miniatures and books, like Games Workshop or Mantic Games or Frostgrave, know exactly what weapon each miniature can be built to carry, so they can provide pictures or labels so you know exactly what stat to use.

Wargear has a lot of specialized terminology, and most wargames seem to assume you're familiar with it. Going into wargaming, I mostly knew general terms from D&D or Shadowrun, like "short sword" and "long sword", or "pistol" and "rifle". Well, there's a big difference between a gladius and a pugio, or a galvanic rifle and an arc rifle. I have yet to encounter a box of miniatures that spells out what each weapon is called, so you probably have to either buy the game's army book or do some research. You can search the Internet for pictures of the weapons you see in the army stats, and then correlate those with your miniatures. I didn't know what a "gladius" or "pugio" when I first received my Roman army, but after some research I learned to identify them and was able to assign each soldier correct stats.

You don't need to know what the real-world version of those weapons actually do, but you do need to know what they're called so you can map them back to stats.

In a game that uses a point-buy system, your choice of weapons can also affect which miniatures you can include in a given army. For instance, if you give all your soldiers a rocket laucher each, you might find that you can only "afford" (in points, I mean) 5 soldiers, but you can afford 9 soldiers with machine guns and machetes plus 1 with a rocket launcher. These kinds of choices can affect how the army performs, so give it a thought early on.

4. Build and base

Now that you know all about your army, you have the boxes of miniatures, and you understand what you have in those boxes, it's time to build them. This step is pretty much just following instructions (or figuring out the instructions yourself, in some cases). Get some plastic glue from Citadel or Tamiya and start sticking body parts together.

One subtlety I learned about after several games is that different games tend to prefer different kinds of bases. Some miniatures come with bases attached, other miniatures come with separate bases that you glue miniatures onto, and still others assume you'll figure out basing on your own. If you have to figure out the bases yourself, then you need to look at what your game system requires or encourages, and if you're not targeting a specific game system then you need to get a general feel for the kinds of games you want to play. It's probably easier for you to use a big unified square base for games with strict rules about how squads move. It's probably better to use individual bases for skirmish games, or for modern warfare in which each miniature counts as exactly one soldier.

5. Paint

Similar to the building phase, painting is mostly just sitting down and, well, painting. I was lucky, and learned on my first armies that colour coding soldiers could be useful. This was an accidental discovery, for me. I'd initially painted the tunics of my Imperial Roman army different colours because the concept of a "uniform" just didn't exist back in 40 CE. From that, I learned the value of assigning a specific colour or colour scheme to soldiers who logically belonged together within their army. For my Goblins of Moria army, I added even more variety, partly because they'd certainly have no uniform but also because pointing across the table and saying "the red one with a spear" makes it easy to identify one miniature out of tens and twenties of miniatures.

Another potential trick is the paint you use on the base of your soldiers. I go for really simple and neutral bases, but I do have a few different texture paints I use for different armies as a way to make them a little more distinct from one another. I admit that the red robes of the Adeptus Mechanicus are pretty distinctive anyway, but having their bases red instead of the cold gray of my Blackstone Fortress miniatures does help set them all apart from the enemy, while unifying them as an army.

A third trick are the rims of the bases. I often feel this is under-utilized space on miniatures, and for my Space Station Zero game I've painted the rims of my soldier's bases a unique colour depending on their role in the team. Red is my medical officer, green are my soldiers, yellow is my veteran, blue is my warmaster, and so on. I've been tempted to add even more data onto bases, but I haven't taken it quite that far yet. But I can imagine 4 stripes, for instance, on my Hobbit bases to remind me of their movement speed, and 5 on Gimli, and 6 on everybody else.


That's my current process for gathering an army of plastic toy soldiers to go to battle. It amuses me, constantly, to think of just how much work wargaming actually is. What amazes me is that I fell into it without giving a second thought, and it's only after a year of gaming that I truly understand why wargaming is a hobby all its own. I guess the total and constant immersion is what appeals to a lot of gamers. I guess that when you have to develop a workflow for the part of a game that happens before the game starts, it's probably a good sign that you're a lifestyle gamer.

Header photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

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