Miniatures: Games Without Analogues

I really, really like minis games. I’ve talked about them a bit elsewhere, but I want to talk a little bit about why I like them so much.

There is, effectively, no other type of game that’s like a minis game. It combines math, tactical analysis, creative expression, collection, storytelling, and both theoretical and applied strategy in a single package. It’s tactile in a way that you don’t get in other games, every piece has a personality and I’m not bound by the designer’s visual choices or even the physical construction of a given model.

I get to find a sculpt that I really love and tweak it, turning it into a sculpt I love even more, then paint it in a way that works for me. I’ve commissioned quite a few minis from artist friends, and I get a handful of little works of art that I can then play a game with.

In a lot of ways, minis games are about interactive art. The minis themselves, the board you play on, the sculpts and background all work together with the game rules themselves to create situations from which stories emerge. The best minis games are ones that generate dramatic moments and nailbiting conclusions, stunning upsets and decisive victories. I choose my team of minis based on some combination of the theme and story I find appealing and the game mechanics and tactics that spark my interest. It’s rare that I get to blend both storytelling and mechanics in play– the closest I get are playing characters in tabletop RPGs, which I also love.

Unlike tabletop RPGs, though, I can change up my story every time I play, and it can be a fully-realized snapshot. I’m not playing a character that’s aspiring to a particular cool tactic and may take weeks or months of the same experience to reach it, with little change– I’m generating a force with a theme and a strategy that’s wholly realized before I sit down to play, and I can change it up next time I’m at a table, with a completely different set of minis if I so desire.

In a lot of ways, I get the same enjoyment out of DMing tabletop games; I can generate interesting characters repeatedly and pit them with or against my players, but there’s always a line. If I optimize a character too well and s/he overshadows or outright defeats the party, that’s not fun; I have to build in weaknesses to exploit and restrain my love for optimization. With a minis game, I can indulge, optimizing a list and refining it, and genuinely testing my strategic and tactical skills.

My favorite game right now is Infinity, which I got into because all of its rules were available for free online and the minis were gorgeous. I love the neo-anime style that a lot of southwestern Europe has been exploring in the last several years, and playing a minis game where all the sculpts have that theme is exciting. It’s also a sci-fi world that isn’t USA-centric, and in fact has a really fascinating history-of-the-future that I find both reasonably plausible and compelling.

The game is also one of the most tactically deep games I’ve ever played. Unlike games where you determine your strategy before you put minis on the table, then execute your plan and try to ensure your opponent doesn’t get in your way, Infinity requires that you look at the board state at every part of every turn to decide what to do next, and sometimes you just have to make a choice and commit to it, hoping the dice go your way.

I’ve also got minis that remind me of friends that I don’t get to see that often anymore, who have put their own artistic twists on my forces. It’s great, because I have the minis I’ve painted myself and am proud of, and I’ve got minis that make me think of a good friend when I put them on the table.

There is also nothing like seeing a set of painted minis on a table of actual, physical terrain, knowing that all of it was assembled and painted by hand. Kodra loves his board games, but for me I’ll never find little cardboard or wooden shapes to be as visually or tangibly satisfying as a painted mini that might have years of stories, victories, and defeats.

I have a mini, my favorite version of my favorite character in the Warmachine line, that a friend painted for me in 2008, back during the Mk1 rules. She could only be played in really large games, and my group never played games that large, so as much as I liked her, she never saw the table. She was a display piece for four or five years, looking pretty and collecting dust on the shelf while I didn’t play the game for a while and the rules changed to Mk2. A couple years ago I decided I would go to a friendly tournament, using a new model I’d just picked up that needed a controller. I wanted to bring a fully painted force, so out came my long-painted display mini, ready to see the table and some dice for the second time ever, and the first time in years. She had a brand new, shiny, powerful friend to command and I put her at the head of my force– a group of minis that had either been collecting dust for years or were brand new. She led my troops to a solid 3-0-1 victory in the tournament, and a second place finish overall. Now she stands tall on display, next to her big companion who helped her come off the shelf and get some table time.

You can’t get that with a bit of cardboard or wood that looks like 30 others in the box. She’s more than a glorified counter, she’s got a story all her own.

Now I’ve got to go paint a mini that I used in a recent game. He got swapped in at the last moment from the shelf, an awkward bare-metal addition to an otherwise fully-painted force, and defied probability to become my most valuable piece for the entire set of games I played. That deserves a bit of honor, and he’s earned a paintjob to fit in with his fellows.

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