How to Collect, Paint & Play Miniature Wargames - WHEN YOU ARE POOR
Don't let this swanky blog post fool you, your author used to be poor. Hailing from the hills of Appalachia, I have been a miniature wargaming enthusiast for over 20 years, and have collected, painted, and played miniature wargames through times of plenty, and times of scarcity. I believe having financial rough patches shouldn't quench your hobby, so I wanted to share some of my "wargaming on less than a budget" ideas with you.
This blog post is mainly aimed at people who want to get into miniature wargaming, but even veteran wargamers who are riding the struggle chariot may find something inspirational here as well.
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This may be common sense, but you're too poor to go off buying a full army. It's difficult to paint miniatures in the dark because you haven't paid the light bill. Start small. Consider collecting miniatures for a skirmish level game, where 5 or 6 miniatures go a long way. If you're new, you probably suck at painting anyway, so you might as well not ruin a bunch of models until you learn some good painting techniques from YouTube.
The Reaper Bones Series is a great place to start when it comes to wargaming on the cheap. Wizkids also offers the D&D Nozurs Marvelous Miniatures pre-primed miniatures line as well. Their minis come pre-primed too, so that saves you some cash right there. These are all amazing quality miniatures that are very well priced, especially the larger monsters. Compare a Reaper Bones Manticore to a Games-Workshop Manticore and see what I mean. The Games-Workshop one looks better, but at 6x the cost.
Cheap/Free Wargaming Rules that are Actually Good
Need some rules? You can try to google some free miniature wargaming rules online, but the quality of the games you'll find will be all over the place. I would suggest searching for "Mordheim PDF". There are websites that offer pdfs for the out-of-print content for this game, and it's generally considered an excellent, classic skirmish game among Warhammer fans and collectors. I believe Mordheim fans have updated and created good homebrew content for this game over the years as well, so join a Mordheim facebook group and connect with folks who can get you in the right direction. Reddit also offers a lot as far as Mordheim goes.
It's very important to point out that out-of-print doesn't mean bad, nor does collecting older editions of wargame rules mean you're missing out on something better. In fact, I've found that older editions of wargames tend to have plenty to offer as far as gameplay goes. The challenge is finding someone to try the older editions with you. Very old editions of games are not going to save you money, but slightly older editions (like the previous edition of a given game) tend to come at a much cheaper price as the sweatlords are thirsty for the most up-to-date meta.
Good Wargaming Homebrews
You could go with some tried-and-true, popular, free wargaming homebrew rules. For rank-and-file games of various scales, you can't go wrong with Warhammer Renaissance, Warhammer Fantasy Battle 5E - Flail of Skulls, Warmaster Revolution, or The 9th Age. The 9th Age in particular is an amazing resource for wargaming on the cheap, as you get access to all sorts of homebrew content that has been thoroughly play-tested. They even offer a skirmish level ruleset called Pirates Peril. I know, these are fantasy themed suggestions. Warhammer 40k dominates the sci-fi scene so much that I am unsure that you'll be able to find a free ruleset of something that anyone would actually try. I don't really have any suggestions for the historical or sci-fi genre, sadly.
Scale It Down
Want to try the rank-and-file games mentioned above? Don't like skirmish level games as much? It's easy to get carried away with the excitement of starting a new wargaming army, but buying a large collection all at once can quickly drain your wallet.
When it comes to collecting an army on a super tight budget, you really only have a few options. You could start small by picking a few units or models to begin with, and then build up your collection over time. This will help you stay within your budget and allow you to add new pieces to your army as you go. Or you could collect smaller scale miniatures, but play those miniatures using a larger scale ruleset.
For example, you could purchase armies of 10mm or 15mm 3D printed miniatures from Etsy, and base them to be compatible with a game like Kings of War, The 9th Age, or any of the other games mentioned above. The only drawback to this would be that your friends would also have to agree to play this scale with you. But, if they are willing, this is a great way to have an awesome wargaming experience while you get your poor on.
After doing a quick search on Etsy for 3D printed 10mm miniatures, I found this cool looking unit of daemons. You can get an entire unit of these guys for $11 from Onmioji Miniatures here (we're not affiliated in any way with them, I just found them on there and they looked legit). There are many 3D miniatures sellers on Etsy to choose from, and despite the scale, these minis look amazing.
Most miniature wargames use specific base sizes and all of that, so you have to put some careful consideration into trying this idea out. For games with rank-and-file model removal, you could use a die to represent casualties, or you could try to base these smaller minis on appropriate sized, individual bases that you can purchase in bulk from Amazon. The easiest way to pull this idea off is to buy the Kings of War rulebook, as the game doesn't feature model removal and allows for multi-basing. The rules also don't use true line-of-sight (where model height is important), and the game is popular/great, so that is an obvious choice for this idea.
Suck Up Your Pride & Buy Used Models
One of the virtues of being poor is you learn how to suck up your pride. It's a humbling experience that, in hindsight, I appreciate (but I am glad I'm not poor anymore). Go to eBay, go to discount online retailers who sell used models, and get those deals. I know, you want to open a nice, shiny new box of Warhammer models, but that's not something you can swing at the moment. Stay focused!
There's no place on the world wide web that I have found to be more beneficial in this area than eBay. You can often find old miniature lots, or miniatures half assembled and painted like crap at deep discounts. It's important that before you buy painted or half-painted models, you look closely at the photos of the listing to make sure the model wasn't painted with some thick paints or enamel paint. Stripping the paint off the models can become a nightmare if these types of paints were used. YouTube is your friend when it comes to how-to videos on restoring miniatures, so I'll leave it to them folks to show you the way on this.
Paint With Cheap Paints
It pains me to suggest this, but you really don't have too many options for quality paints when it comes to wargaming on the cheap-cheap. You could invest in The Army Painter, but even at their great prices, you have to really sink some cash into the paints you need. An obvious suggestion would be to keep your color scheme simple, with as few colors as you can manage, and to buy matte primers at your local department or hardware store. Test these primers out on something before you apply them to your models, or you will be in a world of hurt. Some primers and sprays can go on way too thick.
Craft paints like Apple Barrel and FolkArt can be found at most craft stores and are much cheaper than hobby paints. They may require some additional thinning, but with some practice, you can achieve great results with them. The reason I don't use them anymore (but used them a lot in my poorer days) is the amount of work you have to put into getting the models done with them. The coverage isn't quite as good, so you have to do more passes with the brush, which means more time painting. The pigments don't seem to mix into the medium well with these paints, so you'll be spending a lot of time prepping the paint for any sort of decent coverage. But on the cheap, this may be the best option.
If you're a stickler and want your minis to look great, you may have to save up and purchase a miniatures paint starter kit. If you go this route, I would suggest scouring the interwebs and local brick-and-mortar stores for discounts and deals on these. Typically paint starter kits come with all of the basic colors that you need, and maybe even some brushes, but you'll have to develop your color-mixing skills to get all of the other colors you need. As of this blog post's creation, Amazon is offering a deep discount on Vallejo Game Color paints, which are top-of-the-line paints for miniature painters.
Paint brushes are a little easier to find on the cheap, as department stores often offer a brush multi-pack for $5 or so. These brushes do fine, and paint almost as well as the professional brushes. In fact, I think buying professional, high quality brushes is silly unless you are painting miniatures to a super high level (and even then, I'm just taking professional miniature painters at their word on this).
A favorite option of mine is to go to Amazon, and purchase a lot of fine detail brushes. I have a sneaking suspicion that these sellers are going to Alibaba and buying these brushes by the truck load and selling them on Amazon at a small markup, but the brushes I have bought from these lots are fantastic. Miniature painting destroys brush tips, so it's better not to buy expensive brushes until you know what you're doing, and have the cheddar to blow.
A brave warrior battles a hydra atop an ivory tower. Yeah... we'll go with that.
Use Household Items as Terrain
Terrain is an important part of wargaming, but it can also be expensive. Instead of buying expensive terrain pieces, consider using household items like cardboard boxes, plastic containers, or even rocks and twigs from your backyard. With a little creativity, you can create realistic-looking terrain that won't cost you a dime. This is perhaps the easiest thing to do on a budget, and after a while of making terrain like this (out of necessity), you may find yourself getting rather skilled at making terrain look cool. I personally hate making my own terrain and prefer buying the awesome terrain kits that Games-Workshop and Mantic Games offer, but I had my fair share of days of using rocks, toilet paper tubes, board game lids and so on. The games were still fun.
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Feel free to use this meme on social media. Go ahead, steal it, you desperate goon you! Just kidding.
Use Practical Hobby/Gaming Accessories
Games-Workshop, The Army Painter, Mantic Games and so on all offer a variety of cool gaming and hobby accessories for suckers like me to purchase. Each of these companies makes very high quality accessories, but they're not required to enjoy the wargaming hobby.
For example, you could buy a Citadel Water Pot, which comes with ridges and grooves that help keep your brushes in good shape, or you could just use a disposable cup of water while painting. You don't need cool looking dice from Chessex when you can go to the Dollar Tree and purchase oodlins of regular 6-sided dice. Cheap tape measurers are commonly found in most discount stores.
You could purchase Citadel's Super Fine Detail Cutters for $50 to clip your sprues, or you could buy a small wire cutter that jewelers and technicians use to cut wires at a fraction of the price. Instead of buying premium hobby Super Glue, do yourself a favor and search Amazon for multi-packs of gel super glue. Loctite Super Glue Ultra Gel Control is my personal favorite, as you don't get it all over your fingers, and the hold is legit. Buy thin/runny super glue if you hate your models or are trying to get away with breaking and entering and you need to obscure your finger tips to avoid leaving prints. That's a joke folks.
"Now I don't have vision either, jerk."
Instead of a laser pointer, you could just point at what you are trying to point at, or not be a stickler about vision arcs and line-of-sight. You're poor, you need friends, and arguing such things to the point of needing a laser pointer isn't going to help your situation.
I don't think these suggestions are groundbreaking, but many times I have seen poor wargaming newbies buy these sorts of things, limiting their funds for the stuff that matters, like cool miniatures.
In conclusion, playing miniature wargames on a budget is not only possible but can be a lot of fun. Who am I kidding? We all want all of the cool stuff, but until your financial circumstances improve, these tips will hopefully carry you through. Remember to start small, use discount retailers, and get creative with your painting and terrain. And most importantly, enjoy yourself!
Tastes like victory.
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- Jay C. Shepherd
- Content Creator
- Jay is a graphic designer, board game enthusiast, and professional wrestling fan who loves all things 80's, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and of course, video games. He is one of the rare few that believes that one can be a Trekkie and Star Wars fan at the same time.