It’s all perspective!
One of the things we do here at Play It Painted! is to review games in the hopes that you, our readers gain just a bit of insight into these games and in return you get to make more informed purchasing decisions.
But if you were hoping for a completely objective, scholastic, or quantitative approach to reveiwing these games, then you might have picked the wrong site for that. I simply do not believe it possible to review games, especially tabletop miniature games, without some subjectivity. With every new game I look at, I walk in with a set of skils and experience that is uniquely mine, as well as a set of expectations that I make prior to really playing the game. Miniature games by their nature tend to grow and change as the product range expands, rules errata and FAQ are commonly accepted, and so playing a learning game with a couple of starter sets is really only a glimpse of what a game is really about.
And then we have preferences. Most of us are drawn to miniature games for several reasons- art and miniatures, game mechanics, fluff and setting, cost and convenience, and community to name some broad categories, and every gamer sets these categories in a priority for themselves, whether consciously or subconsciously. To add a layer on top of that- these priorities may even change depending upon your expectations or desires that are set by the initial parameter of the game. For example- if the game presents itself to you as a “beer and pretzel” game, then your emphasis on balance and rules clarity may drop below the importance of simplicity and an entertaining setting.
So in order to understand what a reviewer expects from a game, and how they review and rate that game, we need to get a baseline and background on them to understand where they are coming from. Because if you find yourself disagreeing with me frequently on games, chances are we had different expectations for that game, and we may have overall differences in our priorities when selecting games to play. So let’s take a look at the broad categories I used to review games, and how I “typically” prioritize these categories when I’m looking at a miniatures game. Please note that because we’re “Playing it Painted!” around here, my reviews aim to be more encompassing of the full experience, which includes collecting, building, and painting of the miniatures.
Art and Miniatures (35%)
The main difference between a miniatures game and other types of games is…wait for it…the miniatures! Sure there are different brands of chess sets out there, but I wager a great deal of us were drawn to mini games in the first place because we saw some beautifully sculpted and painted miniatures, backed by some incredible and evocative art.
These days miniatures come in all shapes in sizes, all genres and themes, and a multitude of material types. Most commonly when we think of miniatures we consider metal, plastic, and resin, and each has its benefits and drawbacks in terms of holding sculpt details, and how manageable it is to model and paint over these materials. I also broadly define art/sculpts in terms of “heroic” versus “historical”, cautioning that these these are broad terms. In my defintion, heroic models may have more exaggerated features- larger muscles, giant, impractical armor or weaponry, and are more commonly multi-part. They tend to be more expensive and their styling is often strongly linked to one particular game system. Heroic models tend to be slightly larger than their indicated scale and are more resin casts tend to be heroic than historical grade miniatures. 3d rendered sculpts are also more likely to be heroic grade models.
When I critique heroic grade models, I’m looking for super sharp detail, and art can have a huge effect on my opinion. I prefer pinup style models in dymanic poses over chunky or bulky sci-fi armored models, and while I find plastic 3d renders easy to paint, I genuinely prefer metal and resin over plastic (just not Finecast!). Some of my favorite heroic grade models are from Anima Tactics and Reaper Chronoscope (metal), Studio McVey (and hopefully soon Red Republic!) (Resin) and Relic Knights/Super Dungeon Explore (SodaPop, plastic).
Historical grade models don’t get nearly the amount of hype that heroics get, but once you get a taste of the charm of these models I find them a joy to work with. Histoical models are typically more static in pose than heroics, many are often one-piece sculpts made of metal, but there are plenty of companies that do multi-part plastic kits for historicals which are surprisingly high quality. With less to build and less ultra fine detail to pick out- historical grade models tend to be much cheaper than their heroic counterparts, and in my experience they paint up very fast without losing too much fine detail. There is also that charm I was speaking about- the fact that a sculptor seems to add just a little bit of their personality into these sculpts that takes a paintbrush to really appreciate. Some of my favorite historical grade models are anything from Northstar (In Her Majesty’s Name, Ronin), Pulp Figures, and Copplestone Castings.
Now a brief note about Art – it is entirely subjective, and preferences in art styling has more impact in heroic grade miniatures. As I said before regarding heroics I prefer delicate pinup or anime’ themes versus chunky sci-fi armor, while for historicals I pretty much like it all!
Next up…. Game Mechanics.
Game Mechanics (25%)
Typically when we see, hear, or read a game review, the meat of the discussion is on the game’s mechanics. For myself and miniatures games, however, the game’s mechanics is often competing against art and miniatures, and even fluff/background as a key determining factor for my purchase. I would admit that there have been many times where a game manufacturer has had my money long before I really knew anything about the rules of the game itself either because I really liked the miniatures for the game or I really enjoyed the theme and artwork of the game. Game mechanics gains more influence with me when I’m looking at board games, but there have even been occasions where I purchased a boardgame just to paint the minis inside.
When I look at a game’s mechanics, my core interest is fun. I know, fun is different for everyobody. So what do I consider fun?
These days when I settle in to play a game, my main desire is to see something fantastic or amusing occur, with a decreased emphasis on the game’s actual outcome, or the discovery of an exploit, loophole, imbalance, or other potential thesis topic arising. Although I like to know the rules, to play well and relatively mistake-free, I don’t care if I won or not. I care if my opponent and I were able to laugh at some of the stuff that happened to our little men. I hate rules lawyering or arguing. I’d rather be looking up a rule in the context of “Wouldn’t it be cool if that guy explodes if your bullet hits the gas tank?” versus “According to RAW (Rules as Written) it specifically does NOT prohibit me from tearing up your cards, therefore I can do it!” You get my point.
I also like to “pace” my discovery of a game according to who I’m gaming with. Some of my friends can pick up a rulebook and immediately start playing competitively, while others need to see the core mechanics and team-building in action afew times before they can get into the finer aspects of strategy and tactics. Being flexible about your opponent’s expectations and skill level is important to me, as much of my enjoyment of a game relies on their satisfaction playing against me. With regards to demo/learning games, some opponents prefer to explore freely while others feel that a proper beating is in order to get people to learn. As a non-competitive player, I heavily prefer the former over the latter.
Some people do enjoy arguing, lawyering, or otherwise doing whatever it takes to gain the edge, and while I make fun of them above, I do try not to judge. (In fact I was once a competitive-minded player). It’s just a different set of priorities, and I’m sure my desires for a fun game are nowhere near what some people define as fun.
That said- I still have mechanics requirements for games I like to play. For example- I prefer alternating or modified alternating activations as opposed to turn-based play (making me unsurprisingly more interested in skirmish games). I highly enjoy the marriage of theme and mechanics to the point where I’m willing to let balance suffer just a little if it means my western games carry a poker/gambling feel instead of a flat, predictable numeric system for example. I prefer attacking and defending as an interactive process between all players inolved versus watching someone try to roll and beat the stat as indicated on my stat line.
I prefer to have rich, individual playstyles, tied into the theme of how a model is portrayed in the fluff, and I prefer playstyles that are permissive rather than prohibitive. In other words, each player can actively contribute to the success or failure of an outcome, versus each player trying to deny or override the other player’s ability to play. You work to hit me, I work to dodge, as opposed to “I optimized my list so that I only do attacks which prohibit dodges.”
I prefer game mechanics that reward flexibility and improvisation over simple memorization of upgrades or well-researched netlists that play themselves. Building a netlist or looking up/memorizing a particular interaction/loophole doesn’t make one a skilled player in my book, it just makes them a more dedicated researcher. So in my book, it’s better to have/master different types of tactical manuevers available to all characters than it is to just memorize all the individual abilities and upgrades.
Next up – Fluff and Game Setting
Fluff and Background (25%)
If my interest in miniature gaming was the miniatures only, then I would most likely be a collector of different miniatures, busts, and model kits. I would collect anything that looked great or fun to build and paint.
Likewise, if my sole interest was in the mechanics of a game, then I wouldn’t care at all what my pieces looked like, nor would I care how or why there was this contest between more than one player. In other words, if all I cared about was game mechanics, then we could be sitting here playing with rocks, or pennies, and have nothing on the table other than physical representations (proxies! LOL) of game pieces and the characters they depict.
To me, the setting and background of the game is directly paired with my first impressions of the miniatures, and consequently a huge determining factor in whether or not I am interested in learning more. This is because at first glance of a game’s packaging, rulebook, kickstarter, etc. I’m going to see the art and know just a little bit about the game’s setting as well. I am also likely to read the first little blurb on the package of the game, the one that starts with “Game X is a fast-skirmish game, set in the blah blah of blah blah things and stuff!”
Well the “blah blah things and stuff” is one of the sentences that either makes me want to know more, or simply walk away. The fact is there are certain genres or setting that have my interest immediately, such as Steampunk/Victorian Science Fiction, anything with Samurai or Anime’ themes, or themes based on historical settings that interest me.
Historical settings for me are an easy sell. Sci-Fi causes me to proceed with caution, and some fantasy settings I find to be either too over the top, or in some cases, already done better by someone else.
For me personally, changes in art direction, fluff, and theme can be deal-breakers for games I once enjoyed. An example of this is Warhammer 40,000’s infamous move from 2nd to 3rd edition way back when, the removal of squats, and the more stylish, tongue-in cheek setting of the 41st millenium as opposed to now where things are even more serious, everyone in the 41st millenium is trying to be Batman, and surprisingly things even make less sense than when GW didn’t take itself too seriously.
And of late, there has been another company that decided to do the same thing, a “Me 2” kind of move. It was bad enough they separated so many abilities and mechanics from the theme of the game, they also dropped the smart, stylish writing in the game and tried to pass off some retconned garbage that ruins many of the things that their die-hard fans once loved about. This was the nail in the coffin for me personally- even if the now inferior version of the game still stands up to the market, it’s the critical failure of the new fluff and art direction which has prevented me from ever going back to one particular character-based game.
You might have noticed that I mention character-driven games specifically. It’s true that my preference is for individual characters to gain my attention and then draw me into the setting. It’s a big draw for me. I’m not as interested in broad, sweeping stories athat you see for some wargames, I want to know a character, and if they switch writers and ruin that character, then they most likely lost me as a customer.
Up next…cost and convenience.
Cost and Convenience (10%)
It’s all well and good to talk about how awesome games sound in theory, but stepping back and verifying that this game will fit your lifestyle, or become your lifestyle is in order.
Because everything comes at a price, and we’re not just talking money here. For example, if I told you that my new game X would have this rule, and this interactions, and we liked this, and we even thought about this then you might think, Hey! this sounds like they thought of everything! So intricate! So deep!”
But what if I told you the game takes 7-8 hours to play?
What if I said you need a giant 12′ x 12′ table to play it?
Or what if I said you need to spend about $900 and paint the same troop model 375 times to have a nice looking army?
Would it be worth all of that to get your game depth and complexity?
It would be up to each individual to make that call for themselves. For me personally, games need to meet certain cost and convenience factors in order for me to play them.
The ideal game for me:
- Takes an hour or less to play
- Uses between 4-10 models per side
- Can create a roster of models for use (army list) within 5 minutes or less
- Allows me to paint a few models at a time, no giant 20+ man units of the same model.
- Allows me to paint multiple themes/genres
- Is played on a gaming area no larger than 4′ x 4′
For me personally, time constraints and space requirements are more challenging than the cost of the game. If I love the art and miniatures for a game well enough- I’ll likely be okay forking out a little extra to get something really great looking and fun to paint, but whether or not I will have the time or portability to play it- that’s another matter altogether. My friends and I are all adults with busy schedules, kids, spouses, jobs, etc. and our gaming time is at a premium. Not only is a one hour or less per game important, but being able to pack everything up, throw it in your trunk, and set it up is critical. You may not think packing and setup are part of your game time, but to your family, it counts!
Same with your painting. You may not think building and painting is part of the hobby time you can reasonably enjoy each week, but it is. And it might as well be fun. For me- painting the same tired space suit guy in the same 2 colors over and over isn’t fun, but if I can paint 3 western looking mini’s one week, 2 ninjas the following week, and 4 steampunk robots the third week- then I can consider my build and paint time to be well spent.
Because I volunteer at cons and local gaming stores, ideally I’d like my miniatures game to fulfill the “backpack” rule. That is- all of the game’s materials (perhaps excluding any roll up gaming mats or boards/risers) should be able to fit in my backpack (typically a KR Pack 2).
Cost and convenience ways heavily on me when I am browsing for a tabletop game. And one of the biggest costs and convenience issues is: Community.
Up next: Community.
Community is perhaps the toughest aspect to define for a game or the people who play it. The term itself can be split or lumped however you like it to be. I tend to regard community in terms of micro and the macro community, and hopefully this will explain my low score here, that seems to contradict this statement of mine:
“The real truth in gaming is that it hardly matters at all what you play, compared to who you play it with.”
That’s right- at the end of the day, no matter how passionate I am about how cool a set of mini’s are, how fun the rules are, or how awesome the art and fluff is, none of it will ever be as strong a factor as who you are playing these games with. A person you have fun gaming with can make just about any game seem like a good game, while someone whose idea of fun is on the opposite side of the spectrum versus your definition may spoil your experience with a game you’d otherwise enjoy. So on the micro scale of community- meaning your playgroup, or your local gaming scene, community IS the key. Surrounding yourself with folks who have a healthy attitude towards gaming and the same goals as you is the foundation of your gaming experience- selecting which games to play will never be as important.
Which means on the macro side of things- the larger gaming community (forums, facebook, youtube, anyone you game with less than 3 times per year), community can be as important as you want it to be, or you can decide it’s not important at all. In my own experience in the gaming community, leading both small, private gaming groups and very large, organized public groups, I find it important to be aware of the larger gaming communities- but it’s not ultimately a large factor for me in deciding whether I like a game or not. In other words, I’ll play the most obscure games out there, so long as my friends are playing it, and I’ll happily avoid what the majority of gamers are playing if it’s a scene I don’t find to be particularly fun. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have friends much more open to trying out new games and less prone to saying things like ” I play this because everyone else out there plays it.” My friends tend lead people to finding new games, rather than settling for what the crowd chooses.
Although I only have it listed as 5% of my factors, however, I do look at the macro gaming community and the micro, local level to see the players’ attitudes towards their own game, because sometimes this is a reflection upon the game’s design. Some games place a priority on mechanics and balance over art, hobby, and fluff, so I may observe nothing but tournaments filled with the unpainted, net-listed armies of the rules layers and newb-stompers who play them, and decide it’s not for me. Other games might be so entrenched in making sales and appealing to the deepest pockets that all I see are folks with a large, expendable income buying bigger and better, or asking their parents for more money to play and that can be a major turnoff too.
A game that attracts a discerning few, more interested in painting and building for theme, and looking to appreciate great moments in a game is something that reflects quite well with me. I’m just more likely to walk over to a table full of people laughing and smiling than people who are angry and studying.
I hope that this article gives you some understanding of where I am coming from when I look at games, and more importantly I hope that it has somehow helped you evaluate your own preferences when reviewing games for yourself. Thanks for reading!