Wargames are a fantastically popular, but surprisingly expensive, hobby. However, if you’re smart about it, there are ways to get started without breaking the bank.
So, you want to be a warlord. You’ve walked past small, crooked shops on bylanes and back-alleys, and seen the armies on display. Now you’re seized by curiosity. How do they paint those tiny details? What rules decide life and death upon the tabletop? You want to know, more than anything. There’s only one thing stopping you.
Unfortunately, wargaming is a perilously expensive hobby, especially with mainstream brands like Games Workshop. Model miniatures, or ‘minis’, can cost as much as £30 for a box of ten figures, which is barely enough to be considered a squad in some systems. This barrier to entry makes it fearsomely difficult for new players to enjoy the hobby if they’re on a budget. So what’s the best way to remedy this?
Enter the skirmish game.
For those not in the know, skirmish games are the smaller versions of the mighty wargame. They involve small warbands duking it out over single games, or a number of battles linked together to form a campaign. In essence, it’s like Dungeons & Dragons without the roleplaying, and some extra tactical bits added on. Warbands are usually assembled around a theme. In fantasy skirmish games, which will be the example for this article, these warbands are often drawn from different nations such as dwarves, elves, or the undead.
A skirmish game allows you to craft a warband, and to think about who the individuals are who have come together and chosen to fight with one another. Perhaps they are a gathering group of undead, forced to work for a Necromancer who is learning their powers; or maybe a band of mercenaries thrown together during a series of wars.
This article will be broken down into steps, covering potential purchases from the ground up. The goal is to spend less than £70 for an entire skirmish force, paints and equipment. Do not underestimate the power of auction sites like eBay to find what you need! Let’s see how we do.
Step 1: the system
Before we start clipping sprues and thinning paints, we have to choose a skirmish system to play in. We want something that costs as little as possible, is easy to grok, and captures the themes and mechanics of the more popular systems and companies.
Lucky for us, one such system already exists. Age of Fantasy: Skirmish (AoFS) is a part of the beautifully-made One Page Rules family, which take IP-friendly versions of the grimdark future and fantasy realms and boil them down into neat one-page rulesets that are entirely free. You and your opponent just need to download the core rules as well as the army sheets for each of your warbands. Simple as that!
Money spent so far: £0
Step 2: the models
Now we get to the tricky part. How do you obtain enough models for a decent warband without breaking the bank completely? Well, the best option would be some kind of deal where you get 20 or so models with a variety of equipment, poses, and styles for less than £1 per model.
If you’re a bargain hunter, one way of doing that is to start browsing popular auction sites. Car boot sales are another great source of second-hand minis, as are ‘bring and buy’ sections at conventions like UK Games Expo (covered in Issue 1), Warfare in Reading, or Dragonmeet in London, both of which are this month. These days, the hobby of miniature wargaming is so popular that people are always looking to sell on their armies. Several of the team here at Parallel Worlds have developed their hobby collections by rescuing old models, often someone’s neglected Christmas or birthday presents!
Another way of approaching this is to look at buying a board game to start off. Games like Zombicide: Black Plague have excellent character miniatures who might be the starting point for your new project. After all, the characters in these games have to have a backstory, or maybe a few friends they hang out with in between adventures, right? Developing a warband around a board game might even lead you to start thinking up new rules for the game itself so you can include all your new models.
However, if you’re going for a new boxed set range, the Frostgrave miniature kits from Wargames Factory are an excellent choice. While Frostgrave is itself a fantastic skirmish game, it lends itself to one specific setting. That, and the rulebook costs money, which could be better spent elsewhere by first-time players. For instance, if you wanted to build a human warband for AoFS, there are kits such as soldiers and barbarians to choose from. The female soldiers are particularly good, with the emphasis on realism. There are also cultists, Gnolls, undead, and more. Whilst the detail quality is not the highest, each kit contains a wealth of options such as alternate heads, weapon and shield arms, and even decorative bits like pouches and bandoliers! You can interchange these kits quite easily, too.
The 20 models in an £18 box will be enough to build a character to lead the warband, along with their loyal(ish) retinue of fellow warriors.
It’s also worth taking a look at the rest of Wargames Factory’s ranges. Most are produced for quite specific historical periods, like Pike and Shott, but they have the advantage of being compatible in terms of size and shape. If you were going for a particular era or setting for your warband, say Napoleonic fantasy, this could be a place to start.
For a science fiction game, Wargames Factory used to produce a Shock Troops boxed set for the game Alien Suns. This gave you 20 soldiers in trench coats with gun options and all sorts of accessories too. These occasionally appear on eBay and other auction sites. However, for the purposes of our project, we’re going to start with Frostgrave.
Money spent so far: £18
Step 3: tools
Making miniatures from a collection of sprue parts requires a few bits and pieces. To start with, you need to get the parts off of the sprue, which means craft snips and/or a sharp knife. You can do this with scissors, but you’ll blunt them quickly. You can also try this with a little bit of brute force, but you’ll probably break some of the smaller pieces. Trust me, we’ve all done it.
So we need a good craft knife. You can pick one up with interchangeable blades for about £4.99. Be careful with it and keep your blunted blades, as they can be really useful for modelling later on.
To be safe, we’ll add a set of snips too. A pair of good ones cost £3.95. Make sure you get the right sort, though (pictured), as different crafts use different types.
To put the models together you’re going to need some glue. Superglue works best with this kind of model plastic, and any brand will do. Let’s allocate £5.00 for that.
Knife – £4.99
Snips – £3.95
Glue – £5.00
You may also want to pick up some kneadatite, or ‘green stuff’. This is a special type of moulding putty that you can use to fill in gaps on a model. It comes in strips of yellow and blue, which you mix together in tiny amounts. It also comes in liquid form which you just paint on. Once it hardens overnight, it’s as strong as the plastic and will be invisible once you paint it.
Kneadatite – £2.69
Total spent on tools: £16.63
Money spent so far: £34.63
Step 4: the paint
Painting is a major part of the wargaming hobby, and can appear quite intimidating to newcomers — although others take it to it right from the start and become more enthused by that part of things than actually playing the games!
There are many, many online tutorials that aren’t within the scope of this guide, but rest assured — painting your miniatures to a good standard is much easier than you’d think. Starting out, we don’t need any Golden Demon award-winning levels of work; just something to give your little dudes some character and easily identify them on the battlefield.
Most painters of miniatures use acrylic-based paints because they are easy to work with. A bit of water cleans the brush, and you’re ready for the next colour. The style of painting can vary. Warhammer miniatures lend themselves to a sort of cartoonish treatment, but this has gradually become less obvious over the years.
There are a variety of ranges of acrylics you can try. The cheapest option is to go to an art shop or online art store and buy tubes of the stuff. Decanting these into some sealable tubs and mixing in a little water will give you the same consistency of paint as Army Painter, Vallejo, Revell, or any of the other ranges available.
Now, you obviously can’t finger-paint your models to achieve the look you want, so we’ll need to get a couple of brushes. It terms of size, a ‘000’ brush is good for detail and a cheap one should last long enough to work with 20 or so models. A ‘1’ brush is good for bigger sections and undercoating.
A value pack of fine detail brushes is going to cost around £5, but you can certainly pay more for better quality here. Washing your brushes is important: once the hairs on the end start to separate, you’ll be making life difficult for yourself.
Money spent so far: £39.63
However, this method of painting does require some patience. You’ll be undercoating, then base colouring, then applying some washes, then dry-brushing to get a good ‘look’.
There’s a different approach: Games Workshop’s new Contrast line of paints. They’re essentially thicker washes and glazes mixed together, providing a superb level of highlighting and shading with a single application. For this example, we’re going to outfit our human warband with some simple medieval schemes to give them a grounded, gritty look. This also has the advantage of making any first-time errors less visible!
Now, this method admittedly isn’t the absolute cheapest possible, but it does have the advantage of being quick and getting our miniatures to the tabletop in time for the weekend. Given that we’re starting out with a basecoat spray, we can get a production line going very quickly and after a few hours, we should have a good-looking warband.
The paints we’ll use are:
- Wrathbone Spray, for the basecoat.
- Leadbelcher, for any weapons and metallic bits.
- Guilliman Flesh, for the skintones.
- Skeleton Horde, for the off-white cloth.
- Blood Angels Red, for the main cloth pieces.
Total on paints: £24.32
The cheaper alternative means spending a bit more time on paints. Here’s the breakdown, mostly from Battle Forge, but often more easily found on eBay:
- Generic Acrylic Black (on eBay, big tube) – £2.95
- Elf flesh Vallejo Game Colour – £3.00
- Chainmail Vallejo Game Colour – £3.00
- Additional colour — perhaps a brown for the pouches and belts? – £3.00
- Additional colour — something bright for the clothing? – £3.00
We’ll get a small discount on buying a few colours from Battle Forge, so the total comes to £13.75. With the saving you might want to go for some more colours, but that’s up to you. You can get the same kind of detail effects as the Games Workshop washes and shades by diluting your paints right down.
As you can see, paints and tools can be a big price component here. But the cost is mitigated by how much use you’ll get out of them. Whichever method you choose, there should be enough paint left over to manage a second warband or a few reinforcements. Of course, if you have a friend who’s already into wargaming, it might be a good idea to borrow some of their stuff until you’re absolutely sure you’re hooked.
This guide assumes you’ll be able to source dice from board games and such that you already own, because, to be frank, there’s such a dizzying number of dice manufacturers it’d be impossible to weigh them up in one article.
Total money spent: £63.95 or £53.38, depending on which paint option you went with.
So you want to know more? Excellent. From skirmish gaming, branching into wargaming proper is very simple. There are lots of mid-level wargames with larger armies you might want to try. For example, Dragon Rampant is an excellent wargame for mid-sized armies, and damned affordable to boot.
Alternatively, you might start to use your miniatures for a favourite board game or two, like Gloomhaven, whose creator, Isaac Childres, we interviewed in Issue 1. The monsters in Gloomhaven are on cardboard stands, so using your warband for cultists, bandits, city guards or mercenaries can really add something to the game.
You can even use your warband characters for a new roleplaying session, as player characters and non-player characters for an adventure.
The hobby of collecting, modelling, painting, and playing with wargaming miniatures has never been more popular or approachable than it is now.