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Before we begin, let me quickly define the distinction as I see it. When I say board games I’m referring to games like Catan or Twilight Imperium. They’re a self-contained experience; everything you need is in the box waiting for you when you open it up and unless there are expansions, it’s a single purchase. While they may contain miniatures in them, they aren’t necessarily the focus. When I say miniatures games, I’m referring to games like Guild Ball or Warhammer 40k. The miniatures are the focus and typically require assembly and painting. They’re extremely tactical and require precise positioning and some hobby time spent outside of the game. They may have a board, but can also be played on a table or the floor!
My first exposure to this tabletop world was marveling at the fully painted armies in a Games Workshop store almost a decade ago, and yet I didn’t take the plunge until last year. Instead, I dove headfirst into the deep end of board games playing everything I could get my hands on. However, those miniatures never stopped calling to me. The so-called problem I had is that they seemed complicated, difficult, and the painting and assembling seemed intimidating. There isn’t always a single box you can buy to get you everything need, so even knowing what to pick up requires some research. Last year I committed to giving them a shot; I fell in love. I found a wonderful secondary hobby with some awesome game experiences. My painting is even getting a little better!
I’ve broken this down into 3 steps and chosen 2 of my favorite games for each one.
Part 1: Let’s Play with Toys!
One of the most daunting parts of miniatures games is those darn miniatures themselves. If you’ve never clipped pieces out of a sprue or glued your tongue to your teeth (that’s real, I did that) then picking up a box of plastic at your local store can be intimidating, and a big barrier to enjoying the tactical fun that comes from these games. So let’s start by ignoring that!
Arcadia Quest is a big box full of plastic and cardboard that’s focused on the tactical movement of your team of heroes. You and a group of friends will assemble a Guild of 3 chibi characters and work your way through a campaign game. You’ll fight goblins, orcs, and vampire sisters all while moving your detailed miniatures across the grid. While Arcadia Quest uses grid movement instead of the more common free-form movement of a miniatures game, it’s a great introduction to tactical combat. Additionally, the items and weapons you’ll pick up for your character along the way will give you a taste of the menu of equipment choices that many miniatures games give you. By the time you save Arcadia, you’ll be eyeing that box of gray miniatures and wondering what they’d look like in full color…
If you’re ready to take the plunge into a full on miniature game system, then Guild Ball: Kick Off! is the product for you. When I wrote about it last year I called it a “perfect product” and I stand by that statement today. Guild Ball is a phenomenal fast-paced miniature game of soccer as played by the Gangs of New York, and Kick Off! is their starter set. You’ll get two full teams – Masons and Brewers – in pre-assembled colored plastic so you can get straight to the game part. The instructions walk you through a couple turns so you can get comfortable moving via ruler and dropping status tokens everywhere. Within a few more turns you’ll begin to discover the joy of synergy-fueled combos and the excitement of threading your ace midfielder through a 2” gap your opponent left in front of the goal.
Part 2: Let’s Make Toys!
While some miniatures games are beginning to experiment with pre-assembled options, the standard is still providing you with a “some assembly required” experience. While it does require some elbow – or finger – grease, it opens up a world of customization options and freedoms to make your squad of figures stand out. To some, it’s a hobby unto itself. Before you begin picking up an army made up of 100, let’s start with something a touch easier.
Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire took our tables by storm last year; it was one of our favorite games of 2017. It’s a deeply rich tactical experience set in the Warhammer universe and features fast-paced gameplay and Citadel’s high-quality miniatures. They do require a little bit of assembly, but you shouldn’t let it scare you off. These miniatures are part of Citadel’s “Easy Assembly” line; they’re press fit which means no glue is required. Your teeth are safe. Each miniature is only 3-4 pieces of plastic easily snipped out of a sprue and they fit together like pieces of a 3D puzzle. Assembling both squads should only take you 30 minutes and is a great way to get a taste for this process. And because they’re as detailed as any Citadel miniature, they look stunning once painted up. Games Workshop has made a series of videos available to help with this part as well. Once they’re assembled, the game gives you customization by way of a deck of power cards and the hex-grid movement makes it simple to get up and running.
Moving a little closer to the full miniature game experience is Company of Iron. This is Privateer Press’ squad-level skirmish game and is another great option for the budding warmonger. Teams in the starter set are 10-11 figures that you’ll assemble ahead of time. These figures can be used in Warmachines/Hordes as well, but the rules for Company of Iron have been adjusted to better capture the frantic high-paced action of squad combat. From a gameplay perspective, you’re there: this is a full-on miniatures game rule system. From the hobby side of it, it’s a great way to get a feel for all of the assembly and painting aspect on a small scale before you commit to massive force. And if you love it, you can take those Company of Iron miniatures as a start for your own Warmachines or Hordes army and play in the Iron Kingdoms.
Part 3: Put it together
Ok so you’ve danced the grid-based death of Shadespire and saved Arcadia, and now you’re ready. If you went with Kick Off! or Company of Iron you’re already there, but if not here are two more options.
Osprey Games is a publishing company that has really jumped on to my radar this past year. They’re a prolific publisher of miniatures rule sets which means there’s a book here for anyone. While their biggest series is Frostgrave, they’ve got dozens of books. There’s Gaslands, a post-apocalyptic car combat game designed to be played with re-purposed Hot Wheels or Matchbox Cars. Kobolds & Crossroads is a low-model count game of Fantasy gang warfare. Squads of goblins, dwarfs, and elves battle across the table using a really clever poker hand based combat system. Finally, Dracula’s America imagines the post Civil War era in an America where Dracula became president. The first expansion rules are now out providing additional campaign rules and expanded options for Native American tribes. What makes all these games easy to get into is the fact that most don’t require specific miniatures. You can seek out the official miniatures, but you can also raid your toddler’s toy chest for Wild West-themed playsets or toy cars.
Finally, we come to Warhammer 40k. The miniature game system that looms over every discussion, and for good reason. It’s a great game and the latest 8th Edition rules have streamlined the system and made it easy to get into. Dark Imperium is the latest starter set though there are 2 other options: First Strike and Know No Fear are both smaller and have more in the way or rules tutorials. That said, if you’ve followed this guide then nothing is stopping you from jumping into any of the amazing armies that populate this world. Whether you want to be humanity’s gleaming hope as an Ultramarine or the hive based terror of the Tyranids, there is an army waiting for you to stroll into battle in the grim dark future.
Are you a boardgamer who’s made the transition into miniature games? Tell us about it in the comments! And be sure to tune into Geek & Sundry’s Painters Guild to sharpen those hobby skills on Alpha with a free 30-day trial.
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Featured Image Credits: Teri Litorco
Image Credits: Raf Cordero, Teri Litorco
In addition to Geek & Sundry, Raf Cordero writes for Miniature Market’s The Review Corner and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. Chat with him on Twitter @captainraffi.