Friday, February 21, 2014

Toy Soldiers: An Introduction

Reading The Hobbit for the first time as a child back in 2000 was the first thing that made me interested in toy soldiers. In the late 90s, I'd seen some Warhammer Fantasy introductory material and rule books with their bright, colourful imagery of various imaginary armies. At the time, I was rather nonplussed, finding the Warhammer 40,000 Space Marines, especially their dreadnoughts, to be cooler. When I read The Hobbit and imagined Bilbo's Dwarven companions, however, images returned to my mind of the elaborate artworks and corresponding figurines that went with the Dwarf army in Warhammer Fantasy. These days I don't think of Tolkien's Dwarves that way, of course, but for whatever reason, I realised I wanted some toy soldiers of my own. Much of the limited funds of my teenage years found themselves lining the coffers of Games Workshop in pursuit of that hobby, as I collected many armies, for Fantasy, 40K (as it's known) and the game based on, simultaneously, The Lord of the Rings and its film adaptations. This last one was the most suitable for me, given that reading Tolkien had made me interested in the first place, along with the fact that it was (arguably) the simplest to play and (at the time) the most affordable.
Some call them 'miniatures'. To some it's 'tabletop wargaming'. I've dabbled in both terms in the more defensive days of my youth, but these days both the products themselves and the hobby can be summed up in a single phrase: 'toy soldiers.' Let's not take ourselves too seriously, shall we? At the end of the day, those of us who have this hobby are painting little men and simulating them fighting. They're toy soldiers. You buy them, put them together, paint them, and hopefully have some games with them. Personally my favourite part is the painting. It's just another of the hobbies that makes me a bit old school nerd. I like old genre TV shows, I like old games, I like They Might Be Giants and I like collecting toy soldiers.
What is this impulse which drives some people, myself included, to want to own little plastic and metal representations of people? It's not a masculine thing, because people of both genders do it, although I daresay the majority are male. As may be obvious from some reviews of years gone by, I once went through an action figure collecting phase, so it's not exclusive to toy soldiers really. Some of us just want to own little versions of things that we can fiddle around with. I don't know why. I don't understand people who find watching or participating in competitive sport interesting. I mean I exercise, but that's because it makes sense. I gain no pleasure from physical competition. It's just one of those things. People like different activities. I'd like to get a few more toy soldier related posts happening on my blog, so I thought I'd write this article just as an introduction to my interests and the state of the industry at the moment. Let's start with the big guy.

So you know I'm legit: the old Kurt
Helborg and Burlok Damminson models
I bought as a kid.

Games Workshop
Like, I would suspect, many people, I got my start with Games Workshop's games. Games Workshop is the major player of the industry, and for a long time held a borderline monopoly on the hobby. I don't buy Games Workshop products any more for two reasons. The first is that they're too expensive. The second is that, in this decade, the rise of internet shopping and mail order services has made collecting the alternatives much more viable even if they don't have local stores. One of the things that makes Games Workshop the power in the world of toy soldiers is that they have their own shops around the world where you can go in and buy their stuff, making them the easiest, if not the cheapest, to collect. For a long time this put them ahead of the competition. These days there tend to be more third party local suppliers who sell products from a variety of toy soldier companies, often at a discount, so that's less true. If you don't want Games Workshop, these days it's much easier to buy from their rivals than it used to be, which is what I do.
These guys were
"Daemonhunters" once
and didn't have giant robots.
Let's look at the cost issue. The most common complaint about Games Workshop is how bafflingly expensive it is. Logic would seem to dictate that if you make your products more affordable, more people will buy them, and that in the long run you'll make more money. Of course there could be a number of practical factors that make this infeasible in Games Workshop's case, but the fact is that as I got older and started earning money, and having more to spend, I actually started buying less stuff usually for no more complex reason than the fact that their prices inflated so rapidly. The standard comparison might be a box of Space Marines. When I was a kid you could get ten Space Marines for forty bucks in my local currency. Currently, it's sixty-five for ten. That's only an increase of two bucks fifty per Space Marine, but the difference between forty and sixty-five bucks isn't inconsiderable, which is to say that one of those two figures is the wrong side of fifty. It's arguably worse in Fantasy, where you often need blocks of twenty men, and a paltry ten costs, in some cases, seventy dollars locally.
When there's only one HQ option,
there's only one choice.
Now Games Workshop can charge whatever the hell they want for their products. If you want it and can afford it, good for you. If you can't, tough luck. I'm in the position, however, where I arguably can afford it, but don't consider it good value for money. The straw that broke this camel's back was the prices for the new line based on the film adaptations of The Hobbit. I think this was due to Warner Bros. ripping Games Workshop off in the licensing agreement, but there you go. The problem is this: balancing income and expense it takes too long to collect an army, your friends will never do it so you'll never get to use it anyway, and you just don't get enough product for your investment in comparison to the competition.
Cloak of live bats
Cthulhu fetishist.
Games Workshop's current tagline is "Games Workshop make the best model soldiers in the world." Well, says you. In my opinion, Games Workshop do not make the best model soldiers in the world. They make some very nice, albeit extremely expensive, toy soldiers for use in their specific games, but that doesn't prove anything. Personally I think some of their recent design choices are rather questionable, and the fact remains that they're hardly an all purpose model soldier manufacturer. I've seen it argued that Games Workshop's rationale at the moment is that they're charging premium prices for a premium product. It kind of makes sense, but I feel like they've more developed a habit of built in redundancy to jack up prices. Say you buy the 2014 Dwarfs Hammerers/Longbeards kit. Levels of detail aside, one of the reasons they can charge seven dollars per guy in the box is that there's enough bits to make each guy a 'Hammerer' or a 'Longbeard'. Say you want to make ten Hammerers. Now you've got loads of junk left over that could only be used to make the basic body into a Longbeard. Because of all that extraneous junk, among other reasons, they can justify charging seventy bucks.
Heroes don't feel right
in lightweight plastic.
For a while down here in the Southern Hemisphere it was possible to order from Europe at about half the price including shipping from various third party sellers, but a few years ago Games Workshop decided to slap an embargo on those sales. The touted reason was some rubbish about protecting the interests of local 'brick and mortar' sellers but it was transparently obvious that their motive was pure greed. I'm no economist but as far as I'm aware there's some dodgy method in which all of Games Workshop's seemingly suicidal financial practices end up lining the pockets of a few fat cats. It's not helped by the fact that it's public these days, and therefore chiefly interested in serving shareholders. That's business, but I think the main criticism is that it's regrettable that a product which had a lot of appealing imagery and interesting ideas is just infeasible for many people these days. If I could get those ten Dwarfs for prices which other companies find reasonable for a comparable product, like twenty bucks, we might still having something going. I could always go to eBay, I suppose, but it'd still be expensive, just less so, and I couldn't be arsed.
Left: an escapee from an Extended Edition.
Right: soon to be replaced by
Billy Connolly on a pig.
The reason I couldn't be arsed is the fact that besides being too expensive the two main games are overcomplicated, boring and easily exploited. I'm completely out of touch with the most recent editions of both Fantasy and 40K but having played a fair bit of the earlier editions I can attest to a lot of wearisome, repetitive experiences. At certain scales and under certain conditions some armies are just more powerful than others and the whole business becomes something that not only takes your cash but offers up little pleasure as a reward. Combine that with how often they're updating the rules and churning out new, super-expensive rulebooks and army books and I found myself giving up. There's also the fact that they make unjustified copyright claims (like the Spots the Space Marine debacle), respond to criticism by throwing their toys out of the pram and disabling social media and forms of interaction with customers, and basically have no communication with their consumers. At the end of the day, Games Workshop make some nicely-detailed fantasy and science fiction toys but their prices are so high that they are extremely difficult to justify. Additionally, these days I'm the only person I know who has the time to collect toy soldiers, so if I want to play games I just buy the armies I want and let a friend (who are willing, mind you) to pick one. With the cost of Games Workshop armies that simply isn't practical. I wonder what the rise of the 3D printer is going to do to Games Workshop. As I say, the internet among other things has given rise to some interesting competitors, so now I'll look at the other companies which have replaced Games Workshop in my affection. Incidentally, I'm not interested in Warmachine or Hordes so Privateer Press isn't one of them.
Kings of War Dwarf Ironclads: hard to beat, hard to rank up.
Mantic Games
I discovered Mantic around the time that I'd more or less given up on toy soldiers. Mantic's original premise, I believe, was the production of models that could be used as an alternative to expensive Games Workshop models, providing a viable source of competition. Their "Kings of War" Fantasy line has all the standard Fantasy archetypes of the kind that could easily be substituted into Games Workshop games: Dwarfs, Elves, Orcs, Goblins and Undead. Over time they've diversified, making some of their own, more unique forces as well. I've never actually used Mantic models as an alternative to Games Workshop, preferring instead Mantic's own Fantasy game, Kings of War. Kings of War is a relatively simple game, relying on players performing entire turns on their own while the other player waits and not having any messy elements like individual model removal, instead using a system of markers to keep track of damage. Movement, shooting (including magic) and melee combat are all as streamlined as possible to make for a well-paced experience. My main criticism of Kings of War is that it's so streamlined that the game can, at times, feel a little bland, and the shooting phase is either incredibly weak or absurdly powerful with no middle ground.
Kings of War Undead Revenants: legs of a skeleton, armour of plastic.
Mantic's science fiction game is "Warpath", but its rules are in early stages and it's a little unforgiving to play. Partially eschewing the philosophy of Kings of War in terms of its choices, it has Space Dwarf and Space Rat Men armies that lack modern Games Workshop equivalents, but at the moment the number of models are slim. The big seller in the Warpath universe is Dreadball, a sports game like Blood Bowl, but it doesn't particularly interest me so I haven't played it. Their new skirmish game, Deadzone, is in the midst of being released as of my writing this, and it does look interesting as an alternative to the standard Warpath rules.
Warpath Enforcers Captain, Forge Father Iron Ancestor
and Forge Father Huscarl Hero: guys who will one day have a use.
When it comes to the actual models themselves, Mantic are almost the exact opposite of Games Workshop. Mantic models are simple and cheap. There is very little redundancy and not as much in the way of customisation, although the same is true of Games Workshop's The Lord of the Rings products. The issue is that Mantic armies run the risk of looking a bit repetitious as the same models tend to recur in various units, and the plastic models sometimes are the same sprue of two bodies over and over. The ranges are still growing as well, so there aren't quite as many options to give all the armies a lot of visual diversity yet. That being said, some of the products, like their Undead figures, are very good indeed. Mantic's zombies in particular are much better than the Games Workshop alternatives. I personally also think their Orcs are quite agreeable. It's just not the same kind of very customisable, arguably over-designed and half-redundant product that more modern Games Workshop releases are becoming. That's the point, however. Mantic's slogans are "Building big armies" and "Affordable Fantasy and sci-fi tabletop wargaming miniatures." It's about waging a war against your toy enemies, not against your bank account. If you want to just get a huge amount of Fantasy soldiers to push around a field at a reasonable price I'd heartily recommend Mantic and Kings of War.

Spartan Games
Prussian Empire Grenadiers
'Cause the 1870s weren't violent enough already.
I only discovered Spartan relatively recently. Their big thing is games on a much larger scale than the kind I've been discussing so far, usually involving huge ships, either in space or on Earth, rather than individual soldiers. Firestorm Armada is a space ship game, evocative if anything of Games Workshop's largely deceased Battlefleet Gothic, Uncharted Seas is a Fantasy naval combat game which makes me think of WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness, and Dystopian Wars is a steampunk alternative history Victorian setting featuring combat on land, sea and air with giant machines. It seems like this last one is the one which has taken off the most, and correlative with that is the game from Spartan that I play, its infantry-scale companion game, Dystopian Legions.
Prussian Empire Teutonic Knights
Anachronism in a can.
As a squad-based game with important shooting and melee components, the closest analogy Dystopian Legions might have in familiar terms is Warhammer 40K, but Dystopian Legions takes arguably one of the periods of history with the most visual flair and jazzes it up into a fast paced, fun and extremely fair tabletop game with a very strong aesthetic. The Steampunk vibe allows them to take all the cool uniforms and gear of nineteenth century armies and give them tanks, lasers, robots and all that kind of stuff. As someone who's often been interested in that historical period it's very appealing. The game uses an "Order of March" system where players alternate between activating each of their units, so you're never out of the action for long, and decks of playable game cards allow you to customise and diversify the actions of your troops. Spartan's dice mechanic relies on scoring different numbers of successes (rolling a 4, 5 or 6) to pass tests, wound enemies and so on, with different coloured dice having greater potential to score more successes, which removes a lot of messy comparison of different stats.
Kingdom of Britannia Line Infantry
Zulu with flamethrowers.
Of the seven major powers of Dystopian Wars, four are currently available for Dystopian Legions: the Kingdom of Britannia, the Prussian Empire, the Federated States of America and the Empire of the Blazing Sun. I have armies of the first two and am starting on the third. Each selects the distinctive individual style of that region from real history, combining late nineteenth century and First World War elements with a healthy dose of steampunk. Britannia opts for a Zulu Wars aesthetic, featuring redcoats in pith helmets backed up by jetpack troops in flying caps and goggles, walking machines and so on. Prussia has the classic imagery of the pickelhaube, their soldiers wearing spiked helmets and piped tunics, with Teutonic Knights in giant armoured suits, conscripts and the like in support. America utilises the distinctive Kepi hat and overcoat look of the civil war infantryman mixed in with lots of stetsons, combined with motorbikes, flying gunslingers and such. As far as I can determine, not owning any of the models, the Japanese Blazing Sun combines the style of the aggressive imperial Japan of the late nineteenth century with the distinctive flair of the samurai. They're very visually appealing models which, to my mind, strike a very good balance between the already unmistakeable grandeur of the time with a number of science fiction enhancements.
Kingdom of Britannia Sky Hussars
All named Clive.
Most Dystopian Legions models are metal, with a few larger components and the vehicles being resin, and I'll admit that they're not especially cheap, but you don't need that many to have a fun game - the starter sets alone provide you with enough for a small encounter - and they are cheaper than Games Workshop, at least locally, despite the fact that the models are all metal and on a larger scale, which means they are also as if not more detailed. The larger scale some people find objectionable because it means they couldn't sub in Dystopian Legions models for, say, their Imperial Guard armies, but frankly I can't imagine how substituting metal Spartan models for the already utterly unaffordable Imperial Guard would work anyway. My local supplier offers a pretty good discount on them, though, which means I can get, in the simplest terms, six metal infantry for twenty-two dollars. That's under four dollars per little man, and for a larger scale, in metal and with a very high level of detail, as well as every model being unique, that's not bad at all. A decent sized Dystopian Legions army might set you back a few hundred bucks, but you'd probably be paying twice that for anywhere near a maxed-out Warhammer 40,000 army at what is considered a playable level, and that's not including dice, rules or army lists. The Dystopian Legions lists and rules are free and the starter sets come with dice, a range measure, counters, cards and a print of the rules, so I would argue that it is better value. I also think the 'enhanced historical' look is more interesting than more guys with huge shoulderpads.

So there we go then! Toy soldiers! What do I recommend? Maybe collect Games Workshop if you're filthy rich, otherwise I say vote with your wallet and go somewhere else. The problem with 'GW' in my opinion is that they're too prohibitively expensive for a potential casual or prospective toy soldier collector, so if you and your chums just want to have a big Fantasy battle go for Mantic. Their Deadzone might be worth a look in too, I may review that if I wind up with a copy. It could give you the sci-fi action you crave. Obviously there are a lot of other toy soldier games, but these are the only ones I've played, so you'll have to do your own research if you want something else. My current favourite is Dystopian Legions, but I like the time period. At some point, hopefully soon, therefore, I'll be doing a few reviews of Dystopian Legions models to better bulk out the discussion of them online. I still don't know what the impulse is to collect toy soldiers, but if you have the desire and the means, it can be pretty rewarding.

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