How and Why Miniature Wargame Companies Are Choosing To Embrace Diversity

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With the myriad of games available, there is a game out there for everyone. Here at Geek & Sundry, we embrace the diversity of the gaming landscape both within our community and with the content we create.

There is, however, a prevalent stereotype of tabletop gamers being white men.  That notion is even more strongly associated with a particular niche of tabletop gaming: miniature wargaming. Miniature wargaming of today is a spiritual successor of historical wargaming, which has tended to focus on Euro-centric battles with (typically white) men being depicted as combatants, and the players themselves, a sort of reflection of that setting. But this is rapidly changing in the world of sci-fi and fantasy miniature games, both within the universes created for them as well as the player base. The face of wargamers in terms of ethnicity and gender continues to evolve across all levels of play, from first-time gamers to the top levels of competitive play.

For example, the current defending X-Wing Miniatures Game World Champion is Justin Phua of Singapore and exemplifies how gaming internationally is growing and appealing to non-Western gamers.

Additionally, the presence of women wargamers is also growing. Last year, Jordan Raskopoulos, musician, comedian and best known as one-third of Axis of Awesome, attended the Las Vegas Open, a large miniature wargaming convention for the first time after coming out as a trans woman. I myself, a queer, ethnic woman, began my work with Geek & Sundry as the miniature wargaming vlogger, extolling the awesomeness that is tiny toy soldiers and imaginary wars played on a tabletop.

As tabletop gaming as a whole grows more popular and gamers grow in number, more people of all backgrounds are being drawn to these games. Diversity in games and the community at large is not simply an idealistic aspiration – it’s an impending reality for many reasons. On the surface, wargamers look like a demographically homogenous audience, but publishers are currently being faced with either deliberately designing for diversity, or potentially turning off future consumers. As someone who champions the hobby as a great way to invest in oneself, connect with a  community, and an escape into incredible worlds, I’m all for diversity in the games I love, if only to help people who may have previously not been attracted and drawn to these amazing games. It’s hard to immerse yourself in a game and hobby where the universe has made no room for people who look like you.

Let’s explore how publishers are making adjustments within their games to ride the rising tide of tabletop gaming’s popularity, and hopefully capture new audiences with inclusive miniatures and lore.

The Primarch Pivots: Games Workshop

The need for some change has been inevitable and part of that change comes from the relationship Games Workshop has had with its community in recent years. With that change came the launch of the Warhammer Community site, complete with a banner that depicted the diversity of its community.

Their miniature range, until very recently, however, hasn’t had the same reflection of diversity. In the past, female depictions were either segregated as their own faction (The Sisters of Battle) or as token characters. Most human depictions, particularly those of human infantry models, in the Warhammer 40K universe, depict only men. It’s not that there isn’t a consumer demand for female models. In fact, third-party companies like Victoria Miniatures and Raging Heroes create female versions of miniatures in Games Workshop’s universes, from enlisted Astra Militarum soldiers and commissars to tech priests that satisfy this demand.

It also isn’t that the universe’s lore doesn’t support it either.  The Black Library, the publishing arm of Games Workshop, whose bestselling novels are the standard bearer of much of their games’ lore, has previously and continues to tell stories that include female characters and protagonists. Black Library author Aaron Dembski-Bowden posted about diversity in his Black Library books and the depiction of diversity in the setting.  He noted how in Warhammer 40K’s lore itself, white is not the default, nor is male in military positions with the Imperium of Mankind.

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war, the tagline of the game reads, and by extension neither gender nor skin colour will protect you from conscription when the death toll of the Astra Millitarium (the military arm of the Imperium) is in the billions daily, protecting and fighting Xenos invaders and the forces of the Chaos gods.

More recently, Games Workshop has also responded to questions about diversity in its social media channels to Feminist 40K, a Facebook group advocating for more diversity in the game that they love. In their response to the inquiries from the page, Games Workshop said:

“Speaking to studio managers recently, we are happy to say that increased female representation in the background and miniatures of Games Workshop is a focus right now, and you will start seeing more models, art, and rules for female characters in the future. The Studio usually works about 3 years in advance, so this is an ongoing process (it won’t change overnight!) but the ship is turning. […] Rest assured, we are aware, and we want to help all our customers feel represented in our games and models.”

Those shifts are going to be slow coming: with that long production schedule, decisions made take a lot of time to execute, but we are seeing that shift in depiction. Games Workshop’s most recent core game release, Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespirenot only includes the first miniature of a female  Stormcast Eternal but also depicts ethnic diversity on its box.

That’s a big deal for a company whose priorities weren’t always diversity within its art, lore, and model range. We’ll hopefully continue to see this trend out of the biggest miniature wargaming companies in the world.

While Games Workshop is now prioritizing diversity in their games, other miniature wargame publishers are well ahead in terms of diverse representation. These companies, by way of being smaller and therefore responsive and agile, were able to leverage diversity to differentiate themselves in the past.

Bringing Diversity Heavy & Hard: Privateer Press

When Warmachine hit tables in 2003, it made its splash by unabashedly contrasting itself to Games Workshop’s games. In an era where both Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy Battles both became battles that were fought and won at range (with magic, guns or both), Privateer Press’ game advertised itself as a close-combat, hard-hitting game that played furiously and in your face (and that of your opponent’s). This was clearly articulated on Page Five of the rules in the first and second editions of the game, though it was also entwined with some deeply unfortunate sexist rhetoric.

Just before Games Workshop launched its community site, Privateer Press too decided that within its marketing, they would choose to be inclusive. With the release of its 3rd edition of the game last year, Privateer Press removed the problematic Page Five manifesto from its rulebook and publicly announced it would no longer refer to the sexist rhetoric in marketing materials.

Privateer Press is among the giants of the miniature wargaming industry. Its flagship separate-but-compatible miniature games, Warmachine/Hordes (WarmaHordes) sits up at the top of miniature wargames in terms of sales alongside X-Wing and Warhammer 40K.

That said, when Privateer Press was a plucky upstart in the miniature wargaming universe at its launch, one of the other ways that WarmaHordes differentiated itself from the universes of Games Workshop from the get-go was how ingrained women were in the Iron Kingdoms across all factions. Where Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K lore was about one Emperor creating 20 demigod sons, Privateer Press’ universe included noteworthy women. For example, one of the foundational stories of the universe includes the story of the Cygnar Empire’s Victoria Haley and her twin sister, raised by the Cryx, Deneghra. It’s somehow rightly fitting that the first animated short created by Privateer Press is the story of the twin sisters (with both leading roles played by Geek & Sundry’s Marisha Ray of Critical Role.)

The story of Haley and Deneghra was a part of WarmaHordes from the beginning. Both Haley and Deneghra, along with a multitude of other female characters within the game are playable, and have multiple iterations and sculpts. As their stories within the lore evolved, new incarnations of them hit the tabletop, with differentiating rules to reflect their own development as key figures within the game.

One of the things I’ve talked about in the past when referring to WarmaHordes’ diversity on the tabletop is how consistently present women are through the game – from infantry to warcaster commanders (who play the role of the army’s general and commander). Wilson did, however, admit that “[representation is] not something we track or are trying to balance. It’s just how we have created the setting and we do what seems interesting and hope to tell good stories with our characters.”

I asked Wilson about the creative process of creating both new characters and new miniatures for Warmachine and Hordes and the kinds of deliberate creative decisions made to include women on the tabletop.  He described the process by which a miniature for the game is created, starting from the brief, which informs both the game designers about rules and the concept artists and sculptors about the miniature’s design. Wilson gave the example of a designing the Trencher Mechaniks, and described the process of creating and conceptualizing the miniatures:

“The design brief didn’t specify genders, only that the unit would be comprised of three models. […] When we got into the concept design of these Trencher Mechaniks, we thought we’d like to see a woman in the unit, so we designated the leader as the female character. This wasn’t something that was predetermined, it just came up in the course of development. But we’re just sort of tuned to look for those opportunities as a way to create variety among the many characters that go into the game.”

Being “tuned to look for those opportunities” is something that is apparent when speaking to those in the studio. When one talks to Privateer’s Painting and Terrain manager, Dallas Kemp, about diversity in the miniature ranges he paints, there’s a sparkle in his eye. At Origins Game Fair, he bragged to me about the new paints and washes the company was launching that he formulated, specifically how the new flesh washes would help painters more easily paint ethnically diverse skin tones.

There’s one more element that might also have influence in Privateer Press’ depiction of women: their female company president and co-owner, Sherry Yeary, who Wilson described as his boss and also his significant other. “We wouldn’t be in business today if it wasn’t for her skill and leadership.”

Diversity as an Element of Narrative Richness and Marketability – Dark Age and Malifaux

There’s a subset of miniature wargames that are further distinguished by the endless hordes of large-scale tabletop gaming. Skirmish miniature wargames, which use ten or so miniatures per side, rely heavily on stories of individuals: leaders and characters with their small band of followers in small firefights on a battlefield.

Cool Mini Or Not (CMON) is a big player in the tabletop industry, having raised millions of dollars on Kickstarter for many of their games (like Zombicide and Rum And Bones). Their boxed miniature games always include gender diversity for both playable characters and enemy antagonists (there are female zombies aplenty in Zombicide.)  CMON has one title you may not have heard of because they never kickstarted it: Dark Age, a skirmish miniature game set in a science-fantasy universe and envisioned in the artistic works of Gerald Brom, whose work contains a strong female presence. The cover of the newest edition of the game features St. Mary of the Forsaken, but this is no token representation. Nearly half the named characters of the game are female.

Bryan Steele, the lead designer for Dark Age (and also one of the designers for the first edition of Warmachine) talked to me about how gender representation has been both a staple element in the game as well as an evolving one in terms of the sculpts and model kits:

“It is this general inclusion of feminine imagery that helped create Dark Age, which is echoed throughout our designs of both narrative arc and miniature design. […] Dark Age has always had a powerful sense of inclusion. The only real changes that we have made in roughly the last year that might help the game feel even more so is some tweaking of existing art and miniature resculpts that get away from the ‘T and A’ choices and – in some cases – open nudity of models. Although the subject matter of our game is rather violent and harsh at times, these image-changes might make the game easier to exist in some game shops while becoming more palatable to those who want strong females that are not just eye candy.”

There are a few things that can be parsed from that statement. First, the presence of women in this miniature wargame (which was originally launched in 2005) was built-in from the start. Perusing the sculpts of the game’s line, there is a real sense that the human combatants of this universe (as well as the non-human ones where gender can be determined) are comprised both of men and women. That said, the representation of females in this universe continues to evolve to be something more inclusive, and therefore also more marketable.

There is also an immersiveness to a universe that has representation on the tabletop that also attracts a diverse player base. As Steele remarked,

“We have a pretty strong female and transgender following in our fanbase (based off of convention event attendance and social media presence), and we do our best to make sure that the game isn’t swung in any particular direction too far. “

While the representation is exemplified in Dark Age from a gender perspective, another games publisher in the same city as the CMON offices is giving a global perspective to its games, as well as a gender-representative one: Wyrd Games. Known best for their shared-universe miniature wargame Malifaux and RPG Through the Breach, the universe of Malifaux is one that is visibly occupied by the spectrum of genders and the world’s ethnicities. As a representative of Wyrd described the universe:

“The game is set on an alternate history Earth, and the world is a very big place. If we somehow opened a portal to another dimension, people from all over the world would flock to it to see what’s on the other side. The design decisions around pulling from all over the world were based on the reality of what we thought would actually happen. This is not to say that we don’t think it’s a good thing — we definitely do. We value getting to bring world traditions, cultures, and legends into the melting pot that is Malifaux.”

In Malifaux, the diversity represented in the game offers a significant amount of texture to the narrative of the universe. Looking at the game’s playable masters, you’ll find a range of ethnicities and genders. Nationality and heritage are elements that are used as part of the narrative within the world. Malifaux’s upcoming large-scale companion game, The Other Side extends the global touchpoints of the universe to represent armies of African ethnicity and nationality as they jump into the fray since the stakes are high when it comes to trans-dimensional breaches. In recognizing that humanity doesn’t have a single ethnicity or gender, the world feels all the bigger and the scale of the conflict is given weight.

That recognition of diversity adds a believability and cosmopolitan texture to the game and the universe. It makes it all the more compelling.

The Economics of Diversity

It may sound cynical, but there’s a certain economics to diverse representation within the niche of miniature wargames.  Shifts to diversity come with a concrete cost, and resculpting and retooling replacement kits for products that already exist is a hard expense to justify. So why embark on these changes? Simply put, they will sell more miniatures and sell more games. Growing the consumer base ensures the longevity of the game and a viable business. It’s a smart business decision to deliberately design for diversity. When game designers and creative leaders give thought to inclusion within the game, it allows more gamers to connect with the game on a personal level. The game you play becomes a part of your own identity.

Miniature wargames rely very heavily on rich, lore-driven universes. Games Workshop’s most valuable asset is the 40K intellectual property. The same is true for every other miniature wargame’s IP. Without highly textured and thoughtfully created lore and universes, the marketability of the game is lost. It is the distinctiveness of the worlds that draws players in, immerses them, and keeps them involved.  Miniature wargames ask of its players a significant investment, both personal and monetary (going deep into these games isn’t cheap.) In order to do that, the immersiveness of the game and the inclusivity of its community matters as much as the rules by which the games are played.

Emerging markets outside North America and Europe find themselves with a growing middle class and leisure-minded consumers. Ethnic gamers are already very much a part of the miniature wargaming community in the West. Furthermore, female gamers are growing more and more commonplace across the board. These are all factors and potential consumer bases that publishers are considering when growing their games. To overlook inclusion and diversity is to overlook the potential to access and appeal to new gamers.

For those of us who have struggled to see ourselves in these games, diversity means for us deeper investment and immersion into these games.

If you’ve always been able to see yourself in the miniature wargames you love, diversity in your game means that the publisher of your game wants to grow the game for its longevity, and that’s a boon to anyone who loves these games. Moreover, most people discover miniature wargaming because of the support and enthusiasm of white, male gamers, whether it’s a friend, a staff member at their local gaming store, or any other touchpoints into the mini wargaming community (I certainly did). While these decisions are made by publishers to help make their games viable businesses, for us gamers, diversity means more opponents, more hobbyists, a bigger community and ultimately more fun. Diversity in your games ultimately benefits everyone.

Geek and Sundry is guided by our values, one of which is inclusiveness. We believe gaming is for all. We’re proud of our slate of shows that represent the diversity of the tabletop gaming community: from the diverse casts of shows like Shield of Tomorrow (a Star Trek Adventures RPG show), Sagas of Sundry (a Dread-based horror RPG show), and Critical Role (our D&D RPG show) to female-hosted shows like  Game the Game, a tabletop show hosted by Becca Scott that showcases the best of the tabletop gaming industry. Join us on Twitch and Alpha and know we will always welcome diversity in our community.

Featured Image Credit: Games Workshop

Image Credits: Games Workshop, Victoria Miniatures, Teri Litorco, Privateer Press, CMON, Wyrd Games

Teri Litorco has spent the last 15 years collecting, painting, and playing miniature wargames. She also found some time to write a book:  The Civilized Guide to Tabletop GamingShe can be found posting and uploading to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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