Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Snow Elves


Laertes sent me this op-ed in response to an article he read.

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It all began (perhaps as such things do) with Rick Priestley’s column in issue 65 of Wargames, Soldiers, and Strategy magazine.  They graciously pulled the article out of the magazine and posted it in PDF form on their website.

At first it would not necessarily seem that controversial, although it did spark a fair bit of comment, such as on blogs like this.

And what might be the big deal?  Rick is merely chronicling the rising standard, and how armies went from paint jobs that were “good enough” (note that this does not read “bad”) to the more modern standards found in glossy magazines, catalogs, and websites throughout the world.  He gives the genesis of perhaps how this came about and how even his own standards really don’t measure up against what they are putting out now.  At that point I had a moment of clarity:

Perhaps this is how the snow elves came to be.

Let me back up a moment and say that I do understand that this is a hobby and, as such is always about allocating resources (time and money).  The average gamer only has so much time to devote to both painting and gaming, and how they choose to split that time might largely determine where along the game spectrum their interests may lay.  At one end of the spectrum are those gamers who likely are more akin to static modelers, in that for them the enjoyment of the hobby is in painting and converting miniatures, with the gaming as a distant second (or lower) priority.  At the other end are those who are primarily interested in gaming, and view the miniatures employed therein as simply gaming pieces – they might be as happy simply using cardboard mock-ups or small chits to represent figures or units.  But I would say most gamers fall somewhere between the two extremes, somewhere along the bell curve:  the enjoy gaming but also enjoy the modeling aspect inherent in playing a miniatures-based wargame.

So then, do we play with painted miniatures or not?

Something that had been pointed out in a number of articles, sometimes mentioned on podcasts, and something you will see in battle reports scattered about the Internet, in particular.  Historical games, by and large, seemed to be played with painted miniatures, while fantasy games (including WH40K) featured a large variety of armies that were simply only assembled, and perhaps only wearing a primer coat.  That is why we originally called them the “snow elves” – they were High Elf units in the white basecoat that was popular at the time.  But why does this seem to be the case?

It did not seem logical to think that historical gamers had more time (or necessarily more money) than those WH40K players, for example.  While they tend to be older, it could mean that they have invested more time in painting their armies over the years so the net effect is that they simply have more figures laying about that simply are painted.  But after reading the article and having that little moment of clarity I think perhaps there might be a different explanation.

As Rick mentioned, the standards for painting have gone up and up and up over the years.  The high color images and professional art departments now dominate.  But I think the side effect of raising the bar higher and higher has a profound effect upon the newer gamer:  the new game does not have a definition of “tabletop quality” that the historical gamer likely does.

Think about it:  if all you’ve seen are the professionally painted miniatures in White Dwarf, or on the box art, or in other magazines, that becomes your idea of the standard, does it not?  You know you may not with the Golden Daemon award, but your goal is to shoot for something like that, isn’t it?  And that’s where the new game runs smack up against that issue of limited resources:  if the standard of the day is that each figure requires 20 man hours to paint, and you need to paint 200 figures, that is a fairly daunting task.  And let us not kid ourselves:  painting to a higher standard *is* time consuming.  There is no way around that.  Yes with practice in your technique and a certain amount of natural ability you can accomplish things faster and faster, but paint only dries so quickly and those 6 layers of blended highlights per cloak do not take 30 seconds.  So what do you do?

Well you put them in primer until such time as you do have the 20 hours to devote per figure.  One at a time, figure by figure, unit by unit.

Seems fairly daunting, does it not?  The new games do not have the idea of a “tabletop standard” unless they’re playing in a group that somehow recommends it.  Unless they’ve seen it done, or lived through the times where it was the norm, how are they to know it is even necessarily an option?

Part of the complication is the scale.  Nearly all of the Warhammer games are in 28mm, as are those by other popular publishers (like Privateer Press).  Historical gamers often started in 10mm or 15mm scale, and no one was aspiring to works of art on figures that small.  In a similar vein, the historical gamers were using 15mm (for example) because someone wanting to game the battle of Borodino using 28mm figures was unlikely to be successful.  Skirmish games lended themselves to the larger 28mm scale, and that is indeed where WH40K began, but the unit and battle sizes have crept up over the years.  A high quality 28mm figure lends itself well to a high quality paint job much more so than does a lower quality or a figure in a smaller scale, so what’s perfectly acceptable at 10mm from 3 feet away looks rather plain in 28mm scale from the same distance.

We have raised the standard over the years, but it is also a barrier to entry and forestalls progress.  We want more gamers, not less, and playing with painted miniatures is what this can be all about.  But by constantly promoting the modeling standard we push gamers out of that middle “zone” and force them to make a hard decision:  they need to take the time to paint up the figures “correctly” (leaving little time for gaming) or they need to abandon the idea of really painting their figures and spend more time gaming.

And thus the snow elves move onward.

It is kind of natural – I find myself doing it too.  I see the beautifully painted miniatures, I know how long they take to look that good . . . and I want them for my own armies any way.  Then the resource issue simply becomes not one of time, but of money – and note all of the painting services that spring up just so that you too can have your miniatures painted to that (ever higher) new standard.  Pretty expensive to do an entire army that way but hey, who has the time?

So Rick’s article was inspiring for me in a way too.  I recognized what I was doing and identified with what he was saying.  No I cannot paint that well .  . . but I can paint it so that it is “good enough” on the table top.  I have seen, and read, articles that promote just such abilities and techniques.  The snow elves don’t have to remain in the snow forever.  Let us dispense with the notions that everything needs to be that quality, and field the armies painted, ready for winning battles and not winning awards.