Board games have come a long way from their initial iterations. Archeologists have found evidence of games over 5000 years old. These ancient relics are often little more than carved stone pieces, but they fulfill a similar function to the components in modern board games. Think back to the first time you formed an association with a game piece. It might have been a certain houseguest in CLUE, the desire to always be the same colored pawns in Sorry, or something from the myriad other games out there. That connection we have with the pieces on the board is innate.
“Think of how many times as kids we played rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to be the dog in Monopoly... and whether that would be the case if everyone was just a little pawn or chit,” says Bryan Steele, Brand Manager for the Dark Age line from CMON. He also works on development for Wrath of Kings.
Today, the art of creating figures to represent the players in a game has evolved dramatically. Intricate, detailed miniatures made of plastic or resin become players’ avatars in the game. We no longer need to use simple tokens to keep track of our movements. Now we have fully fleshed out characters that will do our bidding for us.
“I started a long time ago as a roleplaying gamer using the occasional miniature on a map, but I didn't actually get into miniatures war gaming until around '91 when I first saw Warhammer 40,000. I found that I loved every aspect of miniatures games: the models, the hobby, the narrative stories, the game itself, etc. I jumped in with both feet and never looked back,” remembers Steele.
Historians have tracked the use of miniatures in games back to around the turn of the 20th century when people started playing war games with tin soldiers. Books, such as the 1913 publication, Little Wars by H.G. Wells, detailed rules on how to play games with miniature figures. Other titles, like Shambattle: How to Play with Toy Soldiers by Harry Dowdall and Joseph Gleason, would follow with their own rule sets.
For a long time, the hobby of miniatures gaming focused largely on war games. Players would duke it out over specific Civil War or World War I battles, taking painstaking efforts to ensure the scenarios were historically accurate.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that an interest in medieval and fantasy war gaming really grew, thanks in a large part to J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings books. A set of rules for medieval combat games was published under the title Chainmail by Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax. Later, Gygax would go on to publish rules for individual characters in a fantasy setting for Chainmail, entitled Dungeons and Dragons. D&D, and other roleplaying games (RPGs) that followed, represented the first major breaks from war gaming in the miniatures hobby. All of a sudden, there was a demand for miniature Dwarves, Elves, and Dragons to be used in game play. It opened up the hobby to a new group of people who loved the idea of scale-based combat and scenarios but, thematically, weren’t drawn to historic wars.
Steele explains, “Minis really add to the immersion of the game. Not all games need that kind of immersion, but miniatures war games and today's board games often are designed to be part of a much larger story.”
In recent years, the hobby of miniatures gaming has grown extensively. No longer consigned to just war and fantasy genres, we now see beautifully sculpted miniatures in all types of games and genres. There’s still a huge market for war gaming and RPG miniatures, but now we’re seeing minis make their way into the mainstream of the hobby.
“As miniatures games become more mainstream and less something that is only done in obscure clubs or in the back of a comic book shop, the rule sets are forced to get easier to understand.” Miniatures are even starting to appear in some of the more classic titles, replacing the pieces of the past.
“Older games that once just had pawns like CLUE, Arkham Horror, and Risk are beginning to move toward miniatures, too. As the science to create good figures gets easier and less expensive, more and more games will include them.”
Collecting and playing with minis are just one aspect of the hobby. Painting miniatures has become a huge pastime for fans. Some people who aren’t even into the gaming aspect at all take great pride in putting their own personal touch on mini figures. Miniatures painting has even become a competitive sport, with painters being judged on their style, technique, and artistic flair. The Crystal Brush Awards are held every year by CMON at AdeptiCon with categories for sci-fi, fantasy, monster, and more. The recognition of the talent involved in turning a miniature figure into a work of art truly celebrates the hobby and how far it’s come.
Steele, who is a miniature painter himself (when he has the time), has seen major growth in that part of the hobby as well.
“Professional miniature painters can do things with airbrushes, blending, and other talents that just weren't applied to miniatures before. The sheer quality of what is considered the high end today would put studio-quality miniatures from even just ten or fifteen years ago to shame.”
It really can be incredible to see the level of skill that top-tier minis painters are capable of, but anyone can get involved. With resources like Sorastro and Gangeek Style, even people new to painting can get tips and techniques that will help them develop their skills.
The innovation of using actual rule sets with tin soldiers over 100 years ago has led to major developments in the way we interact with the games we play. Today, miniatures represent a whole sub-genre of their own, with multiple applications from war games, to RPGs, to modern tabletop games. As the technology to create incredible figures continues to improve, we see big things in the future of minis gaming.