Hi! I’m…umm…Hai! By day, I don Clark Kent glasses as a freelance writer and essayist for the geek niche, leaving puddles of muddy stream o’ consciousness to splash around in on the Interwebs.
But – I was raised around the hobby gaming table. Sugar and Spice and D-20 Dice. The Mechanics. The History. The Psychology. The Philosophy. The Smell of Fresh Cardstock and Cardboard in the Morning.
Your Turn is your chance to discuss what YOU think about a variety of topics related to hobby gaming. I’ll start the conversation, cook up a buffet of food for thought, and then it’s ‘Your Turn…’
So let’s talk gaming! Time to shrink down Willy Wonka style and get out the CGI blue body paint…we’re about to delve into the world of miniatures and avatars…
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Cool Minis…or Not?
Never step barefoot on a rogue zombie…
Words to live by – as it hurts! A ‘one-footed hop’ dance craze courtesy of the plastic plethora that is Zombicide. While cursing an Abomination – as just that – I was also led to contemplate the tiny plastic invasion that has been amassing at the gates of the Cardboard Kingdom in recent years: Avatars.
Notice I didn’t say – Miniatures…
Miniatures in gaming are nothing new under the sun.
A Brief History in Miniature
The Time of ‘Modern Miniatures’ and the birth of Historical Miniature Wargaming can be traced back to the Victorian era when tiny boys and tin soldiers grew up to be armchair warmongers with the publication of Little Wars: A Game for Boys from Twelve Years to One Hundred and Fifty and for that More Intelligent Sort of Girl Who Likes Boy’s Games and Books, authored by none other than H.G. Wells in 1913.
(Thanks for tacking my lot on the end there Wellsy – you were ahead of your time in quasi-gamer-feminism…
…or, at least, wrap around book jackets. :P).
The Golden Age of The RPG in the late 70’s through the 80’s saw metal masterworks en masse by the likes of Ral Partha, Grenadier, and Citadel. From wizard to space rogue to eldritch shambler, 15 pages of stats and 30 feet of rope could be represented in varying scale on grid and hex. Master of all Dungeons, Gary Gygax helped pen Chainmail, a rule set for medieval miniature wargaming, and its High-Fantasy Supplement in 1971 as an early project before repurposing and role-playing the core elements with liberal doses of lizards and labyrinths. The ‘white metal’ of the day was running red hot.
The 80’s saw progressive game developer Games Workshop and their miniature subsidiary, Citadel, merge the tactics and tape measures of Historical Miniature Wargaming with the stat and spell filled source tomes of Roleplaying into the Skirmish Gaming of Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K.
But none of this was considered boardgaming…
Historical Miniature Wargamers and the more fantastical, but no less fanatical, Skirmish Gamers fought for both the title of ‘Tabletop Gamer’ and those spongy trees from model train shops. Roleplaying was about imagination, a game of pencils and paperwork, with miniatures as a nifty placeholder bonus. Even Games Workshop drew a line in the sand. Their ‘board games’ were fairly industry standard. Their ‘miniatures’ were skirmish sprawls. The rare merging of the two factions in endeavors such as Space Hulk, Heroquest (Advanced), and Blood Bowl were few, far between, and in the ‘pricey minority’.
What was deemed ‘board game’ had come a long way since Parcheesi, but seemed to dwell for decades where it was born with Tactics – in the Twilight of the Age of Avalon Hill. A two-dimensional life in Flatland. Boards, cards, and cardboard chits. Tanks, spacecraft, and mythical behemoths – all crammed in a half inch square punch out. A simpler game might dress up the landscape with a few colored versions and variations of the Staunton or Halma pawn, but complexity was measured in poundage of tiny chits of cardboard.
This was Boardgaming’s First Age. Board games and miniatures lived in a house divided.
No one had really taken heed of the most important lesson Monopoly teaches us: a discarded shoe or a schnauzer can be a real estate mogul.
Or an Avatar of sorts…
Then came the Cardboard Ice Age.
Enter the Nex-Gen Video Game explosion and the burying of the Cardboard Kingdom under the frost of a pixelated blizzard. Between the mid 90’s and well into the new century, gaming unplugged entered a strange Dark Age. Many bastions of board games, roleplaying, and miniatures fell and the lucky few limped along. Magic: The Gathering power-chorded through the Disc Wars of Playstation and Xbox to take the stage with a rousing rendition of “Booster Packs Killed the Tabletop Stars”. In a bizarre twist of Reverse Black Death, Eurogames flourished during the Plague of Platformers– being almost literally the only game in town.
OOP became synonymous with RIP.
But cardboard and cardstock are more resilient than one might think and the latter half of Decade One began a slow return to the basement. Large coffin box games began to surface, slyly showing the hobby still lived. Board games were back and more importantly, gamers stood united. Board gamers, card gamers, roleplayers, and the miniature minded all gathered under one banner – Tabletop Gamer – to define the fact that they got their kicks at kitchen tables and not entertainment centers. And while there were still easily labeled niches and factions, lines between had begun to blur. There were dungeon crawl board games with light RPG elements. There were RPG’s with light board game elements. There were skirmish miniature games with…well…they pretty much stayed skirmish miniature games, but Clix made them a little more accessible. 😉
The past few years of the new decade have taken gaming out of the basement and into Barnes and Nobles. Tabletopping has entered a Cardboard Renaissance and Boardgaming has begun its Second Age and even entered a new dimension: The Third One.
It started out slowly. Almost as a running gag, Twilight Creations Inc dropped ‘hordes’ of cheap and thematic undead into their Zombies!!! line. The Double F’s, Flying Frog and Fantasy Flight, slipped figurines into more ‘character’ driven board games to give them exactly that – more character.
Miniatures seem to be everywhere!
But not as in days of yore.
Gaming is entering the Age of the Avatar.
The Dawn of the New Pawn
More and more boxes proudly herald “Highly Detailed Miniatures Inside!!!!!!” like a throwback to the siren’s call of sugared cereals. Hit up a dark alley or two of Kickstarter and you are bound to see them as a campaign selling point. If you don’t, you are certain to see rallying cries of “Minis!” or “Custom Meeples!” as an almost necessity.
Even the proudly minimalistic Eurogame isn’t immune to avatarism. A quick trip to Meeple Source is a peek at The Industry of Avatar and detailed meeples in all sizes, shapes, and flavors of wood.
Avatarism is creating a niche for the ‘New Miniature’. The ‘New Miniature’ isn’t about position, facing, and line of sight. The ‘New Miniature’ is about prettifying place holding.
Plastic surgery for the nondescript pawn.
For the moment, it seems definitely in demand.
25 years ago, something akin to Zombicide would have been cardboard by the poundage. Sprinkle with plastic and add a dash of ‘gotta catch them all’ psychology and you have an ‘overnight’ Cool Mini Million dollar franchise.
Look over there! It’s Krosmaster: Arena – the game of collectible playing pieces.
Even the popular ‘card shower’ that is the Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game line is getting in on the act with the recent announcement of Iconic Heroes Miniatures for those that feel simple card avatars of the adventuring roster just aren’t enough.
In a way the Tabletop is Nex-Gen-ing itself with this Miniature Revolution. Internet Days are opening the niche wider. Hobbyists are no longer confining themselves to Basements & Bedrooms, but walking into the daylight with the new avatar roleplayer: Twitter & Tablets. Social Media, Message Boards, Digital and On-Line Gaming, even here at dear old BGdot – we don different faces like cyber Lon Chaneys. Pictures and pixels become ‘us’ to ‘others’. Avatars are almost afterthoughts. We exist through representation. It stands to reason that this would bleed into the escapism psychology of games, creating a need for something more. Something representative, something tangible and tactile – the non-descript pawn and dimensionless cardboard just won’t do anymore.
Upfront company branding even begs the question: “Cool Mini or Not“? The answer is – there’s a definite coolness about it. There’s something fun about a miniature. There’s something accessible. And there’s something definitely marketable. I’m almost certain that Mansions of Madness and Descent wouldn’t be rubbing elbows with the Munchkins, Unos, and Insert-Something-Here-Opolies at Barnes and Nobles, if a quick flip to the back of the box didn’t give one a glimpse of all the bite-sized plastic goodness inside.
Unfortunately, most of this ‘plastic surgery’ isn’t elective. The Little War of the Miniature Revolution increases manufacturing costs, drives up game prices, and takes a toll on the other plastic necessary for a gaming hobby/addiction: Le Credit Card.
All this ‘coolness’ in the air can leave a things a bit chilly too. Less might not always be more, but it certainly can be meaningful. Miniatures used to be a rarity. They were quested for as one delved deep into niches within niches. The magic of what miniatures stood for is beginning to wane. What was once toted about in a dice bag as near sacrosanct, could be setting forth from the tavern on a slow quest to blase’.
What was once a totem is now becoming merely a token.
The Miniature Invasion is at the Gates of the Cardboard Kingdom.
There seems to be quite a bit of plastic underfoot these days – should we be treading carefully? To tweak the vernacular of the ‘Cult of the Entertainment Center‘: Are we just setting ourselves up to be ‘pawn’d’?
Should we be wary that the ‘New Miniature’ is less founded in tactics and more grounded in cosmetics?
Beauty, after all, is in the Eye of the Beholder.
But on the other hand, those highly detailed resin Beholders do look so, so beautiful. 😉
Avatar Miniatures are definitely big now, but is this a game changer for the better or worse?
Is this ‘Dawn of the New Pawn’ creating a beneficial aesthetic accessibility to boardgaming? Or just pointless price point pushing?
What games are in need of ‘plastic’ surgery? What games are just a pretty face with little else to show for it?