Stemming the Gray Tide, or getting into Minis on the Cheap

I will say that I am a miserly Scrooge when it comes to my gaming.

Now of course, nowadays, that’s no awful thing. The world is an expensive place. More expensive than usual of late. And lots of us have had to cut corners when it comes to the luxuries, or hobby pastimes. It happens. Things get tight and suddenly you just don’t have the money to drop on the latest Rules Codex or 3rd Party Splatbook. You may be forced to forego that one miniature and the paints you need to do it up right, oh and you’re out of primer too. You need gas and groceries. And a very different kind of war is pushing both of those prices up. Not the fun tabletop kind either.

My dearest Jennifer… The minis are advancing on my position… they’ve taken the other side of the table, and I fear I am lost…

What’s a gamer to do?

Something that kept me from getting into Warhammer to a large degree was the price of entry. It wasn’t really my thing ANYWAY unless we’re dice and paper-ing with characters who had backstories, with no hex-map necessary unless we wanted to tabletop an encounter. Read: An RPG instead of a Wargame was my requirement. But honestly, the way Warhammer is set up, it kind of requires the miniatures and the tabletop accessories to field them on like maps and counters and whatever ginchy cards or accessories those guys have. I had the painting expertise cos I am an artist when I’m not writing or acting. But my paints were inherited from someone else for the most part. And the cost of paint and minis and the like was much more than I was willing to commit. I got a wife, 2 kitties and an ever-changing amount of domesticated rats to feed, as well as a car and rent to maintain.

In short, I decided pretty early on that tabletop wargaming was a rich kid’s game. Or at least someone with more time and disposable income than myself. I got more into videogames on my PC, or digital hobbies with little to no costly overhead in materials or reference books. And I really hadn’t had to think of painting or Warhammer again until the last few months.

“It’s an old meme, but it checks out, Sir.” Seriously, no offense meant. -Mr WinterRose

So I went looking for how one would get the minis to start with. When I inherited the venerable paints I got, I also inherited a bunch of older RPG miniatures. Old blood bowl minis, lots of old Ral Partha stuff, some Reapers Minis. But on the whole, a box that’s really full of interesting bits and bobs. And I did pull out a few to use for character work. However, most of that is still in its box unused. I’ve wondered if I ought to get rid of it at times. And I know I’ve seen Caleb and Hunter here going through boxes just like that. They’ll have a look on e-Bay, Facebook trading groups, or other places for people going through a purge stage.

Maybe it’s someone trying to recoup after giving the hobby a try and not finding it was for them, so they’re selling off what they bought. Maybe it’s something they no longer have time for. Maybe it’s something they lost interest in, or never finished that’s just taking up space. You don’t really move that in a yard sale, but an interested party on an online site? They’ll take it off your hands. And an interested buyer can find some fantastic bargains online, on the order of maybe paying 10% of what the mini or group might have originally cost.

That however doesn’t cover the costs of paint, brushes, transfers, other materials if you want to get really fancy. I myself have an airbrush from art school, but I don’t have a compressor of my own to use it. I will say if you want to do the painting yourself and you have the time, it’s a rewarding hobby and a really relaxing one, I find. You don’t have to enroll in expensive classes or get all manner of how to books. Not if you’ve got an internet connection, anyway.

You may be as astounded as I was to find that there’s twitch streamers (White Metal Games included) as well as video bloggers (us included again) who have scads and loads of livestreams and youtube tutorials about how to paint miniatures like a pro. And these are people like you and me. They’ve got bills too. So while there are some who have dedicated workshops and shows they make their living from, there’s also people with your budget and materials turning out work just as good as those same professionals.

Don’t do this.

When it comes to the materials, it can be a bit more expensive. Just hopping down to your local art supply store and picking up a bunch of tempera paints, or acrylics is going to get you some pretty bad results. Paint itself isn’t something you can really skimp on. In this case, it really is a Garbage In / Garbage Out situation. Any artist will tell you that 9 times out of 10, the end product of your creativity is always going to reflect the creativity, talent, and materials that went into it. Read some reviews of different paints and see what your price range will bear. But there’s thrifty solutions to apply here too.

One example that’ll save you some taco money for example is primer. There’s cans of ‘miniature grade‘ primer sprays out there going for 15 bucks a can and up. Nah, man. Just go get you a can of flat primer good for the material you’re spraying it on from your local Home Despot or hardware store. (Locally owned is always better tho!) Literally the result is no different from those ‘gaming’ sprays. But the pigments and paints, and maybe the brushes too, you don’t want to skimp there. Remember. Garbage In / Garbage Out. There’s even a blog or two out there that shows the results of a Garbage In situation. This said… once you build up a nice color palette of decent quality paints, a little goes a long way. And if you’re just doing individual minis instead of armies, some of these paints might last you years.

Story Problem; How many of your car or house payments do these two racks represent at 4 bucks a bottle?

I know I read one guide that put it this way. If you’re paying 4 dollars a pot for a small bottle of pigment, the idea of buying a crayola box of colors at 4 bucks a crayon may make you short of breath and cash. But you can go about this strategically. Say you’ve got yourself a group of minis who you know are going to be predominantly one color. I know when I was playing Underworlds with Hunter, my research showed that the Orruk group, Ironskull’s Boyz were clad in mostly gold/yellow tones. Well, if you know you’re going to need mostly that, get you just three paint pots. A darker yellow for shade, a mid-tone and a brighter tone for highlights. And once you’ve budgeted the time and effort into primer-ing and painting or spraying that primary color on your dudes, then get the dark, mid, and light greens for the skin tones you need. And eventually you will have built yourself a respectable rack of paints you may only occasionally need to replace a pot of. 12 bucks for 3 shades is a whole lot better than 84 bucks for 21 colors all at once.

Now this may still be too high an entry cost for you. For that matter, you might even be surprised that they don’t come painted in the first place. Here’s where your online services, traiding and auction sites come in. There’s all manner of pre-fabricated and pre-colored collectable miniature games out there. I know that I used to play HeroClix/Mage Knight. Nowadays, when I’m playing Betrayal at House on the Hill, I have a whole shopping bag full of mooks, monsters, mobs and malefactors for when the haunt finally happens and monsters start popping up on the game board. So that’s a solution too. But some games, like Warhammer aren’t going to be all that friendly to proxies meant to represent Space Marines, or all that copyrighted character IP that Games Workshop provides. For games between friends? Sure! If you mean to go to shops or tournaments later on to play with your dudes… Not so much.

So you’re not a painter. Or you don’t want to get into learning to paint. Or you don’t have the bread to REALLY get into amassing a studio table’s worth of paints. You just wanted to get some minis and play. And that’s cool too. I’m not judging. That’s a trap artists can get into. Judging others for their perceived lack of creativity and talent. There’s a word for artists like that. The word is profane, and like the man said, it’s one “which I will not utter here.” In short, there ain’t nothing wrong with not being able to manhandle a paintbrush and wanting to play the game you want to play. (And here’s the pitch. A little bit anyway.)
There’s commission services that will paint what you have in mind for the plastic, or even pewter or tin miniatures you managed to get at the bargain you got. These services tend to have artists on tap who are talented enough to be doing this for a living. Some have a network of artists they farm the work out to. Others have a brick and mortar studio those artists come to and work at with all the materials and parts and expertise you might expect, White Metal Games included. (End of plug.) It’s worth looking into what they do. If you just want them painted and you’re not looking for a crash course in learning to make them look like you want them to look, it’s a place to start.

Or maybe you’re looking into this with pals you want to play with. And hitting up a commission service is still a bit steep. There are services out there looking into offering their services on a subscription model. The idea being you pay a certain amount for this many hours of an artist on tap’s time and effort per month. That way, you could over time, get that army painted for a flat recurring fee, or go in on a membership with your gaming group and spread the cost of that over all of you. Sort of like a time-shared artist you can all take turns with. And eventually you’ve all got professional level paints on minis you scored on the internet at nickels and dimes on the dollar. (Again… end of plug.)

Seriously, mine only cost me 12 bucks. And now I can read my phone!

One little thing by the way. If you are going to paint them yourself. There’s all manner of costly accessories out there for holding the things while you’re painting them, or magnifiers to blow them up in your field of vision enough to be able to paint all those fine details on the cheap. Honestly, you can kit-bash the holders yourself with a cork, a bit of clothes hanger and a 50 cent alligator clip. While you’re at the hardware store getting a clip, you can get some nice ferrous washers to glue on the underside of your mini’s base. That way they’re weighted down, or will even stick to a display board or playing mat if they’re magnetized. And the magnifiers? Just get you a 10 dollar pair of reading glasses from your local drug store. THERE’S your magnifier.

And finally… I will say that I am learning the release schedule from Games Workshop, Reaper Miniatures, and a bunch of other miniature production houses is relentless. It’s easy to get caught up in the mania of procuring more minis than you will ever have the time or resources to paint. That’s probably why you were able to find some unpainted dudes on the cheap. People who had eyes bigger than their worktop. You’ll want to show some self control or restraint. You don’t have to get every new army or mini as they’re released. As much as stores like my boss runs might appreciate that, the idea is to have fun. Not stress yourself out or break your budget on something you’ll never have the time or resources to enjoy. Caleb called this “Stemming the Gray Tide“. (Which I will say sounded to me like a nanotech gray goo apocalyse scenario. It’s actually more like a wave of unpainted plastic coming at you.) I call this having good sense. The minis you want will always be there for the most part. If not on the shelves then on some auction or trading site where someone less sensible or MUCH busier than you is selling what they don’t have the time or space to keep anymore. Ya get me?

Lookit! Himb saveded a quarter! How adorable!

All in all, there’s strategies and resources aplenty for someone who wants to get into miniature painting on the cheap. And this is for wargaming, or just straight up RPG single character paints like I tend to do for my personal games. It can be daunting. But it’s doable with thrifty patience and self-control. And if you’re looking to play a strategy tabletop wargame or mini-enhanced role-playing game, I’m thinking you’ve got the strategic mindset to make that happen already. Any guide to strategy, and I prefer ‘A Book of Five Rings’ by Miyamoto Musashi myself, will tell you to choose your battles and your battleground. The same could be applied here. Wait til they’re discounted or available on the cheap. Strike fast when you find a bargain. Don’t overextend yourself, time or money-wise. … and you will always be victorious.

…or something like that. Cheers!

-Edward WinterRose cannot rightly say he’s just a poor boy and nobody loves him. Half of that would be a filthy lie. But he’s had a lifetime of having to bargain hunt and be creative on the cheap. And his wife told him she loves him very much through a sleep muddled haze before he went to work this morning.