Are miniatures improving board games? | Analysis
Are miniatures making board games better? Certainly, a look at our shelves may make us wonder how they could not. Some of the largest and most celebrated titles of the last few years feature them and they are always the centerpoint of the biggest and most luxurious remakes. But this wealth of highly-detailed components isn’t all positive. Artistically, there are four main problems with the way miniatures are used in board games.
Miniatures can be beautiful pieces. However, they are not the best to play with. By nature, miniatures are larger and bulkier than pawns or tokens. They take more space on the board and can easily obscure it or other pieces. Above all, their finer details are brittle and must be handled with care. In combination, this slows down play in a bid to avoid damage.
The use of miniatures also imposes some limitations on game design. Unlike cards or wooden bits, they can’t be stacked, easily hidden or put away in a bag. They are rarely a good surface for text and marking who controls them can become a problem. If a game is tasked to support miniatures, designers may lose some invaluable tools in the process.
Miniatures remind me of cutscenes in video games. Nobody is opposed to them, in principle, but they are often given too much focus. Some video game genres seem to have devolved into “interactive movies”, which try to mix both but end up not succeeding at either. In the same way, miniature-centered titles often sacrifice quality of play in favour of sculpts that are only noteworthy because they are compared to pawns, tokens and cardboard.
After all, the point of games is to play, not just see them in the distance. Miniatures don’t give them depth, improve the tactical card play or create a communal narrative. So while the visual aspect matters, it ought not to overcome the actual mechanics. If we want games to be as great as they can be, putting their own strengths on the backseat isn’t the best way forward.
There’s another elephant in the room, which is their high cost. Board gaming is an increasingly expensive hobby. Kanban, Vinhos and other Lacerda games have doubled in price from one edition to another and spending 200€ on a single Kickstarter no longer raises any eyebrows. Miniatures are largely responsible for these awe-inspiring amounts and I’m glad Dune didn’t have them, or I wouldn’t have been able to play it at all.
Lastly, it’s not even possible to carry many of these games without a car. They are too large and heavy to carry by foot and they are not much better on the metro, either. Kingdom Death Monster weighs about 8 kilograms and even humbler titles, like Ankh and Cthulhu Wars run for about three kilograms per box. What good are miniatures if they are physically tied to our shelves?
Another problem is incongruity. Miniatures are not a natural fit for each and every style of game. Like every other artistic choice, the role they play determines whether they’ll be a net positive or negative. Sadly, their overuse often puts them at odds with the rest of the art direction, if not the actual play mechanics.
Take Rising Sun by Erik M. Lang. Like other CMON products, it features a large number of miniatures, all sculpted in a fairly realistic, highly detailed manner. However, the board is drawn in the opposite manner. It follows a far more less representative style, with pastel coloured lines separating one region from another. And while both approaches could work, mixing them together in one game doesn’t.
The same is true of units. Their abilities are rarely in accordance with their visual design. It has an awesome dragon figurine so large that barely fits in most spaces. It’s hard to see it and not wonder what kind of power it has. But all it does is provide a flat, unimpressive bonus in combat. There are even two different miniatures for the same type of unit, which is very confusing.
Compare this to Battletech. The 1985 classic of robotic warfare is known for its painstaking attention to detail, down to the rounds of ammo, the exact weight and the precise location of each point of damage. It portrays its weapons of war as unique “kings of the battlefield”, fielded in very few numbers and heavily personalized. Their look, setting and background is captured perfectly by miniatures.
It’s all about consistency. It’s not that miniatures can’t add to a game, but that they must work towards the same goals as the rest of the design. If Stefan Feld makes the most frugal, less excitable efficiency puzzles, adding sculpts to The Castles of Burgundy won’t change them for the better. At worst, they take away valuable mindspace from the number-crunching that defines his body of work.
As a general rule, miniatures come unpainted. Sadly, they aren’t at their best in that state, which negates much of their visual appeal. Raw plastic is not a beautiful substance, much less in the grey, yellow or greenish tones it comes in. This lack of colour makes their intricate details harder to appreciate as does their often reflective nature.
I find that, without paint, miniatures blend together. Humanoids all look the same, at least from the usual playing distance. Their body parts and clothes are often indistinguishable and their faces, if actually represented, become linked to their helmets and other accessories. Above all, it becomes harder to know what team they are supposed to be in. Color is the most powerful tool in an artist’s arsenal to communicate that vital information.
Of course, one could argue we are meant to paint them. But few actually do. I play hundreds of games a year with all sorts of different groups and, yet, the number of miniature games that have been brought painted to the table can be counted with one hand. Miniatures, as they are actually seen by the vast majority of us, look worse than they are meant to.
There’s also the question of how worthwhile it is to paint the average board game. Few of us have the skills, materials or time to make them look decent. Even then, painting the likes of Blood Bowl or Warmachine makes sense. You’ll be spending a lot of time with it, as those games can become their very own hobby. But most board games getting miniatures don’t have the same expectations.
In fact, it’s an open secret that those most interested in buying Kickstarter games full of miniatures aren’t the type to give their games repeated plays. The focus is on the visuals, on the amount of content and the table presence. Eric M. Lang said it himself “Our goal is to make games that look awesome”. Not play awesome or have awesome depth, just look good.
In fact, the most pervasive myth of miniatures is that they look better than other components. This is not necessarily true. Not all miniatures are aesthetically pleasing. The vast majority are as forgettable as all other board game art. They are generic to a fault, content with representing whatever popular cliché was stolen from movies, literature or roleplaying.
Take Blood Rage. Its vision of vikings is the same as every other form of media. It has the same one-dimensional focus on violence, the same trolls and tropes. Its portrayal is identical to the quickest Google search of “viking video games“. Its most notable aspect is that three factions are composed exclusively of men while the last one is composed, in full, by women in bikini armour.
I’m also reminded of Scythe, the reigning champion of board game kitsch. Its hodge-podge mech designs include a knockoff of Battletech‘s Timberwolf and a yellow tractor with only two wheels. Unable to support itself, it also has two legs, neither of which give it any ability to turn. Given how much of it was copied from other sources, though, its poor art direction shouldn’t be a surprise.
Stonemaier also produced Tapestry, which did come with painted miniatures. However, not only were they mere paperweights as far as gameplay is concerned, they were downright garish. Its buildings have doors larger than the floor they are in and always feature little knobs, even if they are the opening to skyscrapers. The production quality is so low that none of their walls are straight. Truly a bargain at 90€ per copy.
Sadly, games are judged on their maximalism and there’s nothing more maximalist than plastic. Hence, miniatures are seen as attractive by default, regardless of their actual merits. And yet, the best looking component of the last decade, the most iconic and artistically important are the wooden animals of Root. They are living proof that miniatures are neither the only nor best way to make games appealing.
In the end, miniatures are just a tool. While there’s room for them in gaming, they currently aren’t used well. Like all aspects of game design, their presence must add to the interactive elements that define our art form. They ought to be use, not as a blind appeal to consumerism, but as a way to bring what we love the most about games forward.
I’m weird in that I like painting miniatures, but I don’t really play any miniature games. Maybe I should look more into Battletech. Hex maps seem much more appealing than messing around with tape measures in Warhammer.
You make good points about the style mismatches. Miniatures on the Rising Sun map seem oddly anti-immersive. I could imagine being a general in Fantasy-Japan pushing wooden chips around on it, and maybe the odd stylized wooden dragon figure.
I was just gifted a copy of Sekigahara so I can confirm wooden pieces feels highly appropiate.
Battletech is quite fun. There’s a set for 20€ that is very nice, though I think it only includes two miniatures.
Great article. I really appreciate your nuanced points about the artistic merits and functionality of miniatures. Too often the debate gets boiled down to a simple “for or against”, where the eurogame-purists lament any use of plastic in “their games”, while the kickstarter-aficionados never question the use of miniatures, as long as they are detailed enough. I normally prefer wooden components, but in a game like Kemet the miniatures actually enhance the experience – plus they look great out of the box.
Glad you enjoyed the article, Lean! For me miniatures are just that, a tool. They can work well, but just throwing them into a game may not produce the best results.