Not too long ago, some friends of mine were discussing miniatures gaming, and getting new people into the hobby. In particular, we were talking about folks that might not even know whether they’d enjoy those sorts of games. What would we recommend, then, to give those people a taste without asking them to go out and buy 2000 points of orcs?

There are four main factors in choosing a miniatures game:

  1. The toys.
  2. The rules.
  3. The network.
  4. Cost of entry.

The first two things there should be pretty self-evident, because that’s how you choose any kind of product: you pick something that works the way you need it to work, and which appeals to you on an aesthetic level. The initial cost to get all of the stuff you need to play may be quite significant (especially if you’re a new gamer). But the network is just as important if you plan to actually play the game, since you need other people with whom to play.

All of these factors are subjective–a game that’s played by hundreds of people may still not be played by anyone with whom you want to spend time–and there are trade-offs to be made. But I’m going to attempt to give an overview of the stuff that’s out there today, with an eye toward product offerings geared toward someone new to the game, or to the hobby overall.

Warhammer 40,000: The Battle for Macragge

Warhammer 40,000 is the 500-pound gorilla of miniatures gaming. When it comes to network, this game has them all beaten. You probably can’t walk into a decent game store on a weekend and not run into a game of 40K. Since Games Workshop is one of the biggest game companies around (and, incidentally, are marketing mostly at boys 12-15 years of age), they can also afford to produce a starter product like The Battle for Macragge.

This product is probably the cheapest (in absolute terms) and gentlest introduction you’ll find to miniatures gaming. It’s got the rules, dice & templates, plastic snap-together minis, and a bunch of simple scenarios specifically tailored to what’s in the box. Quite a deal for $45.

Why isn’t this a slam dunk, then? As much as I love the “grim darkness of the far future” and the sort of World War I in spaaaace! vibe that much of 40K has, I’m not sure that it’s actually a good game. The rules aren’t very robust, there are lots of fiddly special rules for all the different armies, it’s not always very well-balanced, and I’m not really fond of the “IGOUGO” turn structure.

(Worth mentioning is that GW’s other major lines have similar intro boxes. Warhammer has Battle for Skull Pass, and Lord of the Rings has Mines of Moria.)

Collectible Miniatures

Not one game, but a class of games I’m going to lump together, including products like Star Wars Miniatures and HeroClix. These games occupy a strange middle ground between toys and games: they’re really more like board games with randomized playing pieces. In a lot of ways, they have more in common with card games like Magic: The Gathering than 40K.

I mention them really to say that a) the cost of entry is very low on these products (a starter set may cost you as much as $25 for one person), there’s no hobby stuff like assembling and painting miniatures, and you can be playing in next to no time. But a lot of the things that are central to miniatures gaming in my mind (terrain and maneuvering and such) are entirely missing.

Warmachine & Hordes

Outside of Games Workshop’s offerings, these two games from Privateer Press might be the most widespread miniatures games on the market at the moment. Both are set in the same world, and use compatible rules. Warmachine is a game of magitech mecha (“warjacks”), while Hordes replaces the technological heavy-hitters with monsters.

Both games offer starter boxes for around $35-40 with a basic force for one player, and the “quick start” version of the rules. Typical games don’t get all that much bigger than this, so a starter box can easily form the core of a larger army if you like the game. Privateer is also somewhat unique in that they continue to playtest new units and rules against starter box armies, so the escalation of forces that is often seen in Warhammer isn’t as prevalent in these games.

On the other hand, the models can be somewhat finicky for a new hobbyist, requiring more complicated assembly. And you don’t get much help in terms of pre-built terrain and whatnot.

Urban War

Although 40K is the undisputed leader of 28mm sci-fi infantry games, it’s certainly not the only player in the space. Urban War is clearly a descendant of the 40K rules, and to some extent the aesthetic, though its future is definitely cleaner, and higher-tech. Like Warmachine, the focus here is on smaller games of around 5-10 miniatures per side, though it can scale up.

There’s an intro game box that provides basic stuff for two players, including some terrain ($48 at the TheWarStore). There are “starter” and “booster” boxes for each army to make selection easier. All of the rules and army lists and such are available as free downloads from the Urban Mammoth site.

On the other hand, I’ve never met another gamer that was aware of this game, so the network coverage may be sort of spotty.

AT-43: Operation: DAMOCLES

I include Rackham’s introductory product for their AT-43 line, Operation: DAMOCLES because I think it exemplifies a growing trend in miniatures gaming. This big box isn’t cheap ($80 MSRP, $64 at TheWarStore), but it has everything you need to get going, including pre-painted miniatures–rare outside of the collectible games, and of a much higher quality in this product.

It’s probably too early to say much about the quality of the rules (though what I’ve read is pretty mixed), but what I’ve seen of the miniatures so far is pretty cool. And if you’re averse to the hobby part of these games, you could do worse.

The Battle of Five Armies

Including this product is a marginal choice on my part. It doesn’t have a very big network, it’s not very easy to find, and if you want anything beyond the initial box, it’s not all that cheap ($80 from the GW Online Store). But I think that Games Workshop’s The Battle of Five Armies is worth mentioning for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s based on The Hobbit, which might be an ideal hook for someone new to the hobby.
  2. The rules are based on Warmaster, which I’ve read many, many good things about.
  3. It’s very different from the other games I’m including in this list, and hearkens back to old-school historical wargames.

In Closing

There’s no one right choice for everyone (nor is miniatures gaming even something everyone enjoys). But if you’re considering getting into the hobby, I hope the foregoing helps you find something you might enjoy, without committing too much money and time upfront.

Also, rules these days are becoming a commodity thing. It’s easy to cook up some simple (not to say good) miniatures rules to package with your figures. So most everyone does. More and more companies give away at least the basic version of the game on their web sites, because it’s the miniatures that have the real profit margins. And there are a number of systems out there designed to work with whatever miniatures you have on hand. So if you like the figures, but don’t like the game, don’t despair! You can find new rules that suit you better.