Monday, 4 June 2007

Plastic Nazis

I'm not sure where game manufacturers get most of their plastic from nowadays, but wherever it is Fantasy Flight Games must be keeping them in business. It seems every major new release from that company has to come attached with tons and tons of little plastic pieces. And why not indeed since FFG is the premier publisher of Ameritrash games around and little plastic pieces is what Ameritrash fans seem to demand. So strong is this link between plastic and AT that a number of people seem to have decided that the presence of plastic miniatures is the defining feature of Ameritrash, rejecting commonly held older AT classics like Dune into the bargain. War of the Ring actually has "215 Figures" as a sales tagline on the box.

Now don't get me wrong - I have nothing against plastic. As an ex-miniatures gamer I can well understand what sculpted pieces bring to the table in terms of visual spectacle. AT gamers are supposed to be interested in theme and good miniatures can really add to the thematic appeal of a game - I can't imagine for example that Space Hulk would really be quite such an intense game if you couldn't see those many-armed monstrosities galloping down the corridor toward the marines. The fact that you can easily differentiate the armaments of your marines whilst still having them look like a squad is a big plus, and it's immensely satisfying when one of those big guns goes off on a room full of 'stealers. It's no co-incidence that Space Hulk is one of the few games for which I've actually bothered to paint the miniatures.

However it's important to understand that miniatures are only one part of the thematic appeal of a game. For the production quality to really add to the theme all the components need to be well produced and designed. Take the reprint of Conquest of the Empire for instance - comes with a ton of quality plastic components but I can't help but feel the board art looks cheap and tacky - and thereby reduces the visual impact of having all those little men and horses sweeping across the Mediterranean. In a recent podcast I mentioned that I thought one of the reasons for the long standing popularity of a number of GW titles was the fact that they were an early adopter of high production standards in boardgames and this isn't just down to miniatures, it's good design across the board (excuse the pun). Look at the pieces in the original Fury of Dracula - everything is dripping with late Victorian and/or horror theme and this is undoubtedly part of what makes it one of the most thematic games of all time.

Anyway, to get back to the point, what bugs me about plastic in games is the fact that it's now seen as such an essential part of the appeal of a game that plastic often gets used when cardboard might well have been a much better idea. I've just got me a copy of War of the Ring which, while a great game, is possibly one of the worst offenders in this regard. To find out why, let us compare a few instances of plastic against cardboard (and sometimes wood) and see where the card can come out on top.

The first point is information density. There's a reason why Grognards so love their cardboard counters and it's not because wargame publishers are on such tight margins that they can't afford to risk using plastic pieces. You can record a lot more information about what a piece can do on a cardboard chit than you can on a plastic piece. In fact we'll go further - you can record nothing about what a piece can do if it's moulded in plastic. Look at a player aid card from Twilight Imperium - all that stuff in the bottom right could've been recorded on cardboard pieces. Admittedly this is a pretty minor example but I'm sure that sometimes modern designers limit the amount of differentiation between units in a game because they know that they can't print different statistics onto the plastic pieces they need to include to sell the game. In War of the Ring the information could have included the country to which the piece belongs, information so vital that many WotR players have painted the bases of their miniatures with an appropriate colour. Sure, FFG could have moulded all the pieces in different colour plastic but this would have added massively to the cost of the game.

Which brings us nicely onto point number two. Plastic costs. Alongside War of the Ring I also ordered Twilight Imperium and its expansion which cost me a whopping sum of money. Most of this goes on the plastic miniatures included in the game and what really annoyed me is that I shelled out for the expansion where the bulk of the cost goes on another two sets of plastic player units that I'm never going to use - my gaming group doesn't even consist of eight people, let alone eight people I'm going to convince to spend the whole night playing Twilight Imperium. This made me so cross that I actually considered writing to FFG to ask if they I couldn't just pay to have them send me the non-plastic components from the expansion in a bag, since the cards and such from the expansion are considered pretty much essential to get the most out of the game. What stopped me in the end was the realisation that it'd probably cost them as much to have a staff member do this for me and ship it from the US as it would for me just to buy the bloody expansion in the first place - that and the fact I was behaving like an anally-retentive fool.

Another thing you can't do with plastic is stack a number of pieces in a small area. This is another major problem in WotR which has a number of small board spaces in which very large armies can potentially gather. Although the designers foresaw this and included a number of cardboard counters in the game the trouble is that each nation has three different types of units (regular, elites and leaders) and it's not uncommon for units of different nations to end up in the same space, plus room may have to be found for character figures, so the discs don't really solve the problem. This is probably the biggest problem for plastic in general. I've come across it in so many modern games that it'd be wasteful to finger them all - it's cropped up from time to time in just about everything I've played from FFG, Eagle Games and Days of Wonder.

Plastic is also very bad at recording hidden information. There's an old game called Survive! from the US which is now regarded as a family AT classic. It's become hard to find and fairly expensive. Over here in the UK the game was republished as Escape from Atlantis and a number of things were changed including replacing the wooden pawns from the original with plastic ones. As part of this change a hidden value on the bottom of each pawn was removed, resulting in a significantly less interesting game and one which is now common as muck and cheaply had off Ebay. I can't help but to speculate that this change might have had something to do with the fact that it would have been much harder to get this information onto the plastic pawns in a way that would have been both readable and hard to rub off - no such problem with wood. There are a whole number of games I've played in which the precise strength or nature of a piece is hidden from the other players through the simple expedient of turning a cardboard counter face down or stacking other counters on top if it - Titan for example, or an obscure but brilliant wargame called Air & Armour. This sort of thing just isn't possible with plastic and leads to an important and interesting mechanic being closed off to designers who want to produce AT games for the modern market.

Another thing I'm going to complain about in what has become a disproportionately long rant is that plastic can, instead of adding to the visual appeal of a game, end up looking naff. A disturbingly large proportion of modern plastic components seem to be made of a slightly rubbery compound instead of the hard, brittle plastic that we used to see all the time. At first I thought this stuff was being used because it would break less easily, but snaps seem to be just as common and long spindly bits on the figures, such as the gun barrels on all the types of figures in Memoir '44, bend and end up looking extremely cheap and silly instead. It's also easy to have badly moulded figures that not only look horrible but make the process of differentiating between pieces doubly difficult.

There's another point - the final one - differentiating between plastic pieces can be very hard. Again, this is the reason why WotR players feel the need to paint the bases of the figures from different nations. They actually look different from nation to nation but because they're the same colour and there's so many of them on the board at once, telling them apart in practice is a real pain. Anyone tried playing Talisman with unpainted figures? You'll have the same problem. I can remember being quite impressed with the idea that your playing piece in that game was a full-colour card of your character that stood upright in a little plastic stand. That conveyed all the thematic information that I needed for that game.

Anyway this has become far longer that I originally intended, especially considering that I'm not actually saying plastic is bad. This is really a plea to publishers and designers, please, please, please design and produce games with interesting mechanics and practical components first and foremost before you start thinking about the satanic lure of plastic.

56 comments:

the red phantom said...

Brilliant, brilliant analysis that flies in the face of years of AT dogma. I've never quite understood the fetish that ATers had with plastic....those over 21, at least. On BGG you see comment after comment by FFG fans about their games: "Look at all that plastic! Sold!" But I notice that there is not a commesurate response to the rules or the design. If I were a newcomer to the AT world, I would think that plastic in an AT game was absolutely de rigueur, and that any game without it wouldn't be any good.

Your examples of the units in WotR are exactly what exasperated me about that game, though I own it and like it a lot. I really do think there is a middle ground between plastic minis and chits.

Ken B. said...

So much for " F:AT groupthink". I'm a plastic Nazi and LOVIN' IT.

The alternate colored ships in TI are nice because you can match colors with the different races more easily wihtout overlap; try it and you'll see what I mean. Plus, like you said the real meat of that expansion is in the cards and cardboard therein, and note the cost of "Battlefields" for Lord of the Rings--not a single plastic figure in that one--it wouldn't have been THAT much cheaper...plastic bits are quite cheap these days, so don't blame too much of the cost on that.

It's harder to be immersed in a game when all you see is little cardboard chits. I want my soldier to look like a soldier.

Thankfully they don't use the brittle plastic anymore--you can't store that stuff without worrying about it snapping. Good riddance to that stuff.

Nice article, Matt, though I can't agree with the whole of it, I think the heart of what you're saying is that games should be good first with great production second--and no one is going to disagree with that.

the red phantom said...

Woof! Mr. Bradford, you've reminded me about one of my few gripes with TI3: all those little plastic fighters spilling about everywhere. Whenever I buy one of FFG's coffin games, I often wonder how much of my money is feeding Petersen's obvious penchant for plastic.

It's harder to be immersed in a game when all you see is little cardboard chits. I want my soldier to look like a soldier.

You're kidding, right? So you'd have problems being immersed in great games like FoD or Paths of Glory because they lack lots of minis? Really? We're on different planets, then; for me, elegance of design and unit configuration trumps all.

I think the heart of what you're saying is that games should be good first with great production second--and no one is going to disagree with that.

But what I have seen recently, to my AT dismay, is more attention paid by designers and their fans to things like plastic minis, and less on water-tight rulebooks. And I will posit here, though I may be wrong, that if AT designers learn that plastic bits and "kewl minis" are paramount, then they will be the priority. I've seen a good few Eagle and FFG games get hosannahs simply because of over-production when they should have gotten boos, and I don't think that helps the AT "industry."

Michael Barnes said...

Matt Thrower swoops in out of nowhere and writes the exact article I was going to write this week. So tick off another box in the "F:AT Groupthink" column.

The last time I was playing BATTLELORE (which may very well be the last time I ever play it, actually) I was looking at the plastic figures while I was setting up and it struck me that I really ought to just put the banner guy out and stack poker chips underneath him rather than clutter the board with a bunch of sloppy soldiers who can't stay in rank and file- not to mention the fact that it would shave 15 minutes off setup spent digging around for the right figures.

Don't get me wrong- I love plastic figures so don't tar and feather me yet. There's a definite "wow" factor to any game that comes with tons of plastic like DESCENT or TI:3 but like Matt points out, a lot of times the cost for this "wow" factor is having to transfer game information to player aid cards or elsewhere. A good, clear chit (like those in say, COMBAT COMMANDER) can give you a wealth of information and can even indicate damage- as opposed to tipping over those Dreadnaughts and War Suns.

WAR OF THE RING seems to be the poster child for all of the miniatures "issues" Matt notes...similiar figures, same colors, hard to stack, no information. But it does look damn cool...

I just got AGE OF EMPIRES III and it's got tons of plastic...and I saw on the Leading Board Game Site some folks talking about replacing them with wooden cubes or glass beads. Uh...OK...

Matt Thrower said...

Matt Thrower swoops in out of nowhere and writes the exact article I was going to write this week.

Ha ha! I've already pulled this stunt on Frank. You were just next in line.

I'll let you into a little secret. I am in fact psychic and I'm planning on trumping columns from each and every one of you when you least expect it, just to keep you on your toes.

Either that or Mike and Frank are just hitting on a convenient excuse for not posting this week. I'll let the readers decide which is the more plausible explanation ;).

Ken B. said...

Don't worry, Barnes, no one will tar and feather you--I'm the only Plastic Nazi on staff, I think.


You're kidding, right? So you'd have problems being immersed in great games like FoD or Paths of Glory because they lack lots of minis?

Fury of Dracula? Mine came with plastic figs for the hunters and Drac himself.

Paths of Glory? ...I gotta admit, I don't play wargames with chits in them. So no, I've never played Paths of Glory. That's not really a plastic thing, though; I just don't have time for a six hour game with just two people. If I have that much time to game, I have a houseful, so two player games don't cut it.


Now, I'm not a stringent plastic nazi; A Game of Thrones has little wooden dudes in it, and I think that game is great. Also, I think the blocks in the Columbia games are beautiful. But..BUT...given the choice, I would rather a game have the higher-quality bits. That's just me, though.

Ken B. said...

And if Matt really is on a psychic tear, I'd better make sure to get my article for this week out sooner rather than later.

Shellhead said...

I wonder if this issue defines a generation gap in AT gamers? I have roughly 80 games in my collection, and at least 90% of them are AmeriTrash, but very little plastic. Zombies and Mall of Horror have plastic figures aplenty, but Fury of Dracula has just five. Blood Feud in New York has an insane amount of plastic figures, and I had to let the game air out for a couple of weeks after I first bought it.

The rest of my AmeriTrash games make effective and thematic use of cardboard chits, cards, and maps. Thrower makes some great point about this, particularly about the advantages of stacking and hidden information. I want to take that one step farther and say that really nice cardboard chits, like the ones used in Arkham Horror and Fury of Dracula, are even better than plastic figues, because they have great artwork and a wonderful linen texture.

Maybe I would feel more charitable towards plastic if I could paint my figures. I suppose that I could, with spray paint, but otherwise, I am so art-impaired that I have trouble drawing a straight line with a ruler. The chances of me ever painting a decent figure is close to zero.

That said, I have seen some nice pre-painted plastic figures in recent years. WizKids has come a long way since their primitive early sculpts for HeroClix. Everybody in our group loves the helicoptors from Blood Feud. And I can't deny that the zombies add real appeal to Mall of Horror.

Maybe the best way to use is plastic is as a supplement to cardboard, using whatever makes the most sense for a given game. Space Hulk does a good job, by using cardboard chits for the Genestealers until they are actually identified as such by the Marines. I would actually play War of the Ring if they replaced the plastic figues with cardboard chits and then doubled the size of the cards so they can fit some legible print. And Blood Feud could really use some army chits, to stand in place of the piles of plastic that overflow some of the map areas.

dgilligan said...

Matt, really good article.

Matt said: "Plastic is also very bad at recording hidden information."

One current exception is Fire & Axe. For those who haven't played they solved the problem with a clever solution.

Each city on the board is worth a variable amount of victory points. The bottom of each city has a circular hollow in it into which you shove a cardboard chit with a VP total printed on it. Hidden information in a plastic mini and very well executed, I might add.

M Barnes said: "I was looking at the plastic figures while I was setting up and it struck me that I really ought to just put the banner guy out and stack poker chips underneath him rather than clutter the board with a bunch of sloppy soldiers"

Agreed, and not a bad solution! I played Battlelore for the first time the other night. We played Agincourt, so no lore, so the game played like C&C:A to me. I actually prefer the wooden blocks with stickers to the plastic minis for ease of use.

M Barnes said: "I just got AGE OF EMPIRES III and it's got tons of plastic...and I saw on the Leading Board Game Site some folks talking about replacing them with wooden cubes or glass beads. Uh...OK... "

Blasphemy! I played AoE III the other night. Loved it. The minis help make the theme and help give this game, which has been referred to Caylus because of the "worker placement" mechanism, something Caylus lacks....a soul.

I hope you like the game and look forward to seeing your take/review on it. While I don't always agree with you I think your writing is superb on any subject you have touched here on F:AT.

Ken B. said...

A generation gap? I don't know...I'm just over 30, so I'm not a young guy by any means.

In the 80s, I didn't get a chance to boardgame much at all--I didn't have a hobbyist enabler, so to speak. Most of the stuff I played was mass-market stuff like Uno, Clue, that sort of thing. I really enjoyed that stuff but I wasn't knee-deep in any AH or GW games during that time, that's for sure.

I bought AH's "Wizards" on clearance at Waldenbooks...I was maybe 13? I'd tried a little D&D and had been hooked on the cartoon, so I thought I'd try that. Never could even work my way through the rules, I ended up using some of the components for D&D.

Roleplaying did eventually wear me down...I got tired of the real formlessness of it, for lack of a better word. We're having the adventure I say we're having, we're bending the rules here and there, some of these rules aren't quite clear, and I don't really want to kill you unless you do something stupid...so it's just...an exercise.

I did find Stratego in like '93, maybe? That was a great game, I had never been aware of it.

Just as my interest in RPGs had waned, I fell headlong into CCGs.

I think I tried Axis and Allies for the first time in 1997? Wow...freakin' plastic overload! I mean, I'd dabbled with Risk several years prior, but I had no idea they made games like A&A. No more "Roll 3, Roll 2" stuff? Awesome! My few plays of it then were "cool" but frustrating, and the time that my friend got "Super Bombers" for Britain I had seen enough of A&A for awhile.


Another friend of mine found "Siege of the Citadel" on clearance at KB. I was agog--again, they make games like this? This was late 1997, BTW. Look at all those great bits! And the game was hella fun, too!


I read Scrye and Inquest a lot then and they mentioned a great game "Settlers of Catan". I bought it, and when I played it with my pals they were like, "Hey, where's the killing?" It didn't take, so we went back to Siege and I kept with CCGs for several more years.


I was getting burned out on CCGs. We started playing stuff we'd find, looking for a new "hook". I'd bought Epic Duels and Clash of the Lightsabers on clearance, and those were a blast. I thought, "Man, with the internet out there surely I can find other games like these." Referring of course to the depressing prospect of wandering into Wal-Mart and seeing the wall of crap posing for a boardgame section.


Found out about Queen's Gambit and not long after that War of the Ring, and I fell hardcore in early 2005, leaving CCGs behind for good. 150+ purchases later, and here I am.

Ken B. said...

So...to summarize...my boardgaming career is propped up by big, huge, plastic-filled pillars.

Pat H said...

I moved from playing with plastic army men to SJG's Battle of the Bulge. This led me to Panzer Leader and Squad Leader.

A good game had to have good components - by this I mean clean looking counters with an artistic flair. I was not a fan of Nato symbols as much as soldiers silhouettes. This may have more to do with a tactical over strategic bent by me.

When I first saw Axis and Allies and it's cousin Conquest of the Empire I bought them right away.

The first thing I noticed is that these games were meant for a totally different experience. Playing mini games ( I play 1:72 scale WW2) you have a wealth of knowledge that is attached to each unit but none of it is on the board. In a hex and counter game you have all of the info tacked onto the counter for ease of setup over mini games.

Then you have the beer & Pretzel lite games like all of the plastic filled boxes on the market. This is where these game sit - in the middle of the mini and the counter experience. The reason why there is little info stored on the unit is because these games are designed with little info attached to the unit in the first place. Now there are more games coming out I am seeing now that are trying to change this and the result is more complex player aids however mini gamers have had to use lots of paper to back up their units for a long time so it can be done right. It just depends on how long the designers want to keep that game "lite" versus adding more complexity.

A plastic soldier in a mini game versus one in Axis and Allies are very different in there details but not in their appearance. It all depends on who the target market is and what you are trying to accomplish - don't blame the plastic soldier.

Ken B. said...

This just in--Rosie O'Donnell has declared the plastic soldiers to be "terrorists".

Jan Lucas said...

I think the problems with WoTR that Matt T. points to (minis being indistinguishable, the same colour) fall away after you've played the game five or six times. When I was first bought WoTR I was pretty angry the pieces were so similar and was worried I'd never play the game. I am in no way inclined to paint miniatures, not now, not ever. Luckily, after a few plays you get used to the differences. The Shadow differences are pretty easy to spot, but you even get a hang of the FP. It helps if you set out the armies separately, along with the ranks of regular, elite, leader, which you kinda half to do anyway because you have to track of the FP guys dying off that can't be replaced. As for armies fitting in some locations it's true there's not always enough space. But there is a ten piece limit per army + leaders. We kind of just crowd the Nazgul round the perimetre when there's big battle going on. You aren't going to forget why they're there and where they are at this point in the action. generally, armies get depleted quite quickly in major battles, so places that are chock full of guys usually don't stay so for long.

Michael Barnes said...

Thinking about some of these issues brought me back to games like TITAN and MAGIC REALM...100% cardboard chit games where, yeah, you could do figures...but the chits actually add a lot of atmosphere with simple, evocative, and iconic illustrations.

I do think that it often gets forgotten that there's a lot more AT games with cardboard than plastic...no AH game (prior to the Hasbro purchase) had plastic and they got by just fine.

Even though Ken are about the same age and even though I am still a young guy by every means...he mentions playing A&A for the first time in 1997 and I played it _over a decade_ before he did. That makes me feel old! Get off my lawn youngster!

Ryan Walberg said...

The Memoir '44 figures as well as the Russians were made of the soft, bendable plastic, but the Japanese figures were made of the nice hard plastic. I like the feel of the softer plastic but not how all my German infantry have severe scoliosis.

Shit, did I just say "I like the feel of"?

Ken B. said...

I left out Samurai Swords, which I tried for the first time in 1997 too.

I guess "gaming-wise" I am a youngster.


PUNK RAWK~! GOD SHAVE THE ROHANS, THEY'RE MY MINIATURES!

Pat H said...

My Axis & Allies game that I bought in early 1986 had pictures on the back of vastly different molds then the figs that were in the box. I was greatly disappointed by that and actually thought for a moment that cardboard counters and a better system would have been better.

I mean there were pictures of Sherman tanks with a level of detail that rivaled my ESCI models - only to open the box and discover all of the tanks were the same mold of..... I still don't know if that was supposed to be an M1 or a Leopard but the models were clearly mis-represented on the back of the box.

Oh Ken - It's Shogun dammit.

Matt Thrower said...

I want to take that one step farther and say that really nice cardboard chits, like the ones used in Arkham Horror and Fury of Dracula, are even better than plastic figues, because they have great artwork and a wonderful linen texture.

Yeah I wanted to mention this too but I forgot - cardboard, designed and produced properly - can actually look fantastic.

I have a particular fondness for the round-edged results of the counter clipping some Grognards engage in. There's something terribly pleasing about the symmetry of a stack of curvy-edged counters. I've thought of doing the same thing with the few counter games that I own but frankly I've got better things to do :)

alan polak said...

I wonder if the feeling towards miniatures in a game changes depending on whether you want to/can paint the models. I don't have a huge amount of free time but consider myself a decent painter. I'm about a third of the way through the War of the Ring models and painting them makes a _huge_ difference. First time I played it was a nightmare trying to figure out what was where. But I am not in the least put off by a game beacause of loads of plastic maybe because I will. eventually, get round to painting the models. But chits are cool too. I love the old GW Battle for Armageddon, you cant do that with minis.

Ken B. said...

I have no painting skills. At all.

I bought a WH 40K Space Marine Assault starter set with paints and everything. It was on clearance at a store that was going out of business. I still haven't painted them for fear of ruining them (and that's why I bought them...to practice painting).

hughthehand said...

Nice article Matt!

Anyone care to hear from a euro-gamer's point of view?

First, while I HATE Axis and Allies, I think their use of the little chips to show more guys was a brilliant idea. Could this not be used in War of the Ring (granted I've never played, but you mentioned too many units in too little space)? Michael mentioned this above for use in Battlelore. I think that is a good solution.

You also mention Twilight Imperium, with no information about a unit when they use plastic (like how that can be printed on a cardboard chit). But what are your thoughts of Battlelore's Unit cards? Yes you have to look elsewhere for the units abilities, but after a while, you have these memorized. Would that be a good solution for that? Or maybe using Battlelore type banner minis with the info on the banners?

I generally do not like plastic, but I do think it is a good part of Ameritrash games. I can't imagine what some of them would look like if they used blocks or chits instead.

I am probably not going to buy Tide of Iron, but I have read reviews and basic rules for the game. I think they made a great plastic mini solution with that game, by combing the units WITH cardboard chits attachable to the back of the stand.

It is in my humble opinion, and take that with a grain of salt, since I don't care for most AT games, but I think the days of just plain plastic minis are gone. I think FFG has found a good way to show a lot of info using plastic in ToI. Take that a step further, and you might have your cardboard chit in plastic form in the future.

Muzza said...

Downunder, here, where god grew up, we have a a saying. When one is at, say a BBQ, as the sun languishes above the the Pacific, the steaks are served perfectly, the beers are frosty and with just the right amount of head, and then some bugger says something like "We shouldn't drink tonight, we must work tomorrow..."

We say such folk are 'wowsers'.

I would say much the same of Matt in his article.

OK, yes a cardboard chit would be more efficient, you could store more info in less space. But WotRing would be a dull old thing if presented as a traditional wargame I think. I love the plastic hordes in WotR, I've played it several times and sure, chits would be more efficient but the toy soldiers add character. Character makes it, character works.

I love this game and it has a lot to do with the miniatures. Would it be a crap game without the miniatures? No I don't think so, it would still be a good game, but it would only be 'good', 'samey'. Not 'great'.

I played recently, it was a good game, a close game. I lost but was inspired to go away and paint my minis and make the game even better.

Yeah, OK, it's horses for courses, not everybody can paint, or wants to paint minis. Personally I'd love my Arkham Horror set to have had an individual plastic mini for each character, but no it is not to be.

Some people say they are unimpressed by the graphic design put into a game, but a lot of graphic design is not conciously registered. A large part of the Euro push is due to the graphic design, i think. there are some very dull games that have made it purely from a graphics point of view.

I've played 'Amun Re' online, I must assume that the bastard must be freakin gorgeous when viewed face to face to rate the attention it has received at the Geek.

Michael Barnes said...

Good point Jeremy on ToI- I was actually thinking about that a few minutes ago as I was savoring the fact that my copies of the game are arriving from the distributor today.

I like the "Penny Racer"-style clip on the back of the stands, I like that the figures physically denote different types of units (sure as hell beats those damn badges in M44), and I like that they have the bases to begin with rather than having to scoot around controlled piles of figures to each hex.

Before release, BATTLELORE was touted as featuring this "innovative" banner system where you could know everything about a unit just by looking at the banner. Well, needless to say when I saw the two sets of unit cards in the box I was pretty disappointed to see that it wasn't anything new. Nope, shuffling through cards. I like C&C:A's concise sheet with all unit stats in one place.

BATTLELORE probably could have knocked $5+ off the retail price if they didn't insist on including 2 of every reference card in the game...let alone an 80 page rulebook that explains 8 pages worth of game.

What this thread needs is for Robert Martin to pop up and start talking about the "beautiful" sculpts in QUEST FOR THE DRAGONLORDS.

Michael Barnes said...

Oh, the painting issue...my buddy Richard paints EVERYTHING. He REPAINTED his MARVEL HEROES figures. So he comes up one night with a completely painted DESCENT set. Totally sick.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was running DESCENT with my shabby, unpainted cream-and-wine figures and Richard walks over from his game of QUEEN'S GAMBIT with 100% painted figures.

To my players, he says "Folks, we're playing a fully painted game over here if you want to come see."

alan polak said...

Painted models make it way easier to demo a game for sure. I spent hours demo'ing Two Towers for GW at local book stores and schools. Painted Balrog= money in the bank. Painted models are the shit. But do people paint their own 'personal' minis? We played Descent last week with painted characters. Trying to get my 'Doom' minis done now.

Mike said...

and I saw on the Leading Board Game Site some folks talking about replacing them with wooden cubes or glass beads.

There's a good reason why people want to replace the minis in Age of Empires III with cubes or beads. Some of the minis, while cool looking and detailed close up, look very similar from a few feet away. Mistaking a 2-influence unit for a 1-influence unit because they look so similar a little annoying.

Malloc said...

Matt,

I have to agree 100%. Plastic can be good but well made cardboard can be better.

I have often though TI3 would have been cooler with cardboard ships with stats right on them and different art for each race. Something that doing in plastic would drive the cost over the top.

I too have been a bit let down by Battlelore. The units are very hard to tell apart and the truth is the banner is all that matters. We wont even go into having to boil units to get them to not look stepped on.

So plastic certainly has its place, and It can really make a game look great, but as with anything it has its drawbacks and Matt does a good job at pointing out exactly what they are.

Ken B. said...

Painting Queen's Gambit is REE-DICULOUS. Those minis are fine as is!

Who has that much freakin' time?!

Michael Barnes said...

You should see that painted QUEEN'S GAMBIT...it's _beautiful_.

We wont even go into having to boil units to get them to not look stepped on.

I actually did that. It worked for about 20 minutes. Then it looked like the cavalry was banking into the corner again.

I really like miniatures when they just put a simple game completely over the top...like SCHLACT DER DINOSAURIER. Have you guys seen this thing? Gigantic plastic dinosaurs with these cavemen guys riding them. Unbelievable.

Matt Thrower said...

I have no painting skills. At all.

You don't need any. I have all the artistic skills if (to paraphrase a famous sitcom) a bunch of colour-blind hedgehogs in a bag. Painting minis to a reasonable standard is an issue of technical know-how, not skill.

But what are your thoughts of Battlelore's Unit cards? Yes you have to look elsewhere for the units abilities, but after a while, you have these memorized

I've never played BL. You might be able to memorise all the stats eventually but really there's more interesting things I could store in my head. And consider this - how much more interesting could BL have potentially have been if the designers thought they could get away with more unit differentiation because all the stats would be printed right there on a chit?

We say such folk are 'wowsers'.

Yep, that's me. Although the weather is always too fucking horrible here to BBQ I'm the guy who, seven hours into a game of Titan with maybe another hour left to play will go "shit, is that the time? Man I have to go home and feed the goldfish."

Back to the point, frankly that attitude of "the game looks great with all the cool figures - let's play it because of that!" Is exactly why I got out of the miniatures scene in the first place. I wanted game substance and a gaming mindset that was more interested in thinking around strategic problems than gawping at pretty bits. I once suggested that miniatures game tournaments should have the painting score (which is a huge component of the overall score) dropped so results were determined on gaming skill alone and my fellow gamers just stood and stared at me like I was mad.

Pat H said...

Back in the old days I used to mini game with painted and unpainted mini's along with whatever else we could usefully substitute wherever we were missing units - including home made counters and toys.

GW has tried to kill this and any sort of improvisation to the point that it has ruined a big part of mini gaming. GW are a bunch of losers.

There is something to be said about having "everything in one box" but at times there is a cost to this and usually it is the rules and complexity that suffer.

In my opinion if a game has "everything in one box" (minus expansions) then I don't want to paint the figs as it goes against the whole point.

My Russians had better be red and my Germans blue or grey or whatever works to differentiate. If it really becomes a challenge to pick them out from one another then just sharpie the shields or something.

Otherwise there are so many more robust mini systems out there.

Ken B. said...

Matt, I refer you back to one of my earliest posts on this blog...though I really dig plastic it is not the end-all of everything AND bad games are not salvaged by good plastic. That was the "Bit Myth" I was trying to dispel.

I am more likely to try a game with great bits, but that doesn't mean I am going to automatically like it.

So I guess I'm not even a "Nazi" in that sense. I play lots of games that feature no plastic at all. I do have to admit that there is where my heart lies...good games with great bits.

Nonamnon said...

I would just like to sign up for Ken B's Plastic Nazi Party.
While it isn't really possible to argue on a purely practical basis with Matt, I have to say that plastic bits bring a special kind of joy to my game table that cannot be imitated by more functional cardboard and/or wood chits.
If we begin to strip away chrome from our hobby, soon we will be left with nothing but spreadsheets and a soul-crushing office career.

Grim said...

Don't forget Heroscape. POUNDS of plastic, the BOARD is plastic, everything in the box is plastic except the unit's cards.

Not contradicting the original article at all, just pointing out, for better or worse, until the oil runs out, the future is...

PLASTIC

Michael Barnes said...

I think one thing we can all agree on is this order of battle:

1) Plastic (when appropriate)
2) Cardboard (when appropriate)
3) Wood (almost never)

Apotheos said...

Hell no Barnes. Wood has it's place as well. Don't be a wood bigot just because some crazy Germans are obsessed with cutting trees into tiny, thematically neutered, colored cubes. Wood is a GREAT material.

It's never been a matter of technique or talent with my plastic figures, I have absolutely no time to look at painting them. I get 10 hours a week of gaming tops. I'm not going to sacrifice any of that for (extremely sexy) vanity.

dgilligan said...

Mike said: "There's a good reason why people want to replace the minis in Age of Empires III with cubes or beads. Some of the minis, while cool looking and detailed close up, look very similar from a few feet away. Mistaking a 2-influence unit for a 1-influence unit because they look so similar a little annoying."

This occurred in our game of AoE III the other night. Kris and Ted were battling over the Merchant box. Ted simply wasn't paying attention and after he put a second unit in the Merchant box I said, "Ted, you can't beat him."

Ted: "Yes I can."

Me: "No, you can't..."

Ted: "I wouldn't have gone there if I couldn't."

Me: "Ted, that's a merchant in the box, not a worker. See, he's holding a bag, not a bundle of wood. You can't beat him."

Ted: "Well, had a known that I would have played diffently."

Moral of the story is pay attention! There are times when we allow a person to take a blatantly dumb play back but after play has gone around the table some you can't do that because one person's choice influences others.

I could have been a real prick and not said anything to Ted but couldn't bring myself to allow it. BTW, everyone else at the table but Ted realized he couldn't win (in the event of a tie, Kris would have one due to the turn order tiebreaker.) I still wouldn't replace the minis in any case!

Michael Barnes said...

I'd almost always eschew wood in favor of plastic...I can't think of any time _I wouldn't_. The new German editions of SETTLERS with the molded plastic pieces are really cool. CARCASSONNE would do well to get rid of the Meeples and do like AOEIII and have different figures that visually indicate whether they're a Knight, Farmer, Robber, or Monk. It'd add a little more flavor to the game.

I've always attributed the love for wooden pieces to this ill-concieved notion that European-made games have this "olde worlde charme" that wood brings out...as if folks believe that there's something "classic" about wooden bits or whatever.

What I HATE more than anything is wooden silhouttes of things like...orcs. Or men-at-arms. Or catapults. Or men with hats. SURVIVE has silhouttes but they're freakin' awesome- and plastic.

ubarose said...

There is only one flaw in the idea that cardboard chits can facilitate game play because they can hold more information - opponents over the age of 45. When your posture gives the impression that you are doing lines on the game board, it's time to make an eye appointment.

Mr Skeletor said...

What the fuck is this shit?!?!?!

If I was in England right now, I'd cram those shitty titan chits up your arse Matt, you fucking heretic!

GO PLASTIC FOR THE WIN!!!

Mr Skeletor said...

What the fuck is this shit?!?!?!

If I was in England right now, I'd cram those shitty titan chits up your arse Matt, you fucking heretic!

GO PLASTIC FOR THE WIN!!!

Anonymous said...

The nice thing about chits is they're flat and readable from all directions, even upside down after some practice.

Some of the new (plastic) figures have the problem that they can lookalike too much, and don't have their info visible from all sides. (It's a man, but from behind I can't tell it he's a tailor or a spy)

Warrior Knights solves this problem by having very distinctly different shaped bases for the figurines to tell them appart. You can't tell if that guy on horseback has a sword or an axe in his hand from some angles, but you sure can tell which base it has. From all sides.

I also wish more game info was embossed into the base/on the units. Doesn't anyone else remember rubbing crayons over early polyhedral dice to fill in the numbers with wax and make the numbers more visible? Just stamp in the numbers into the base. We can fill it in.

Or maybe I should just photoshop up a sticker sheet. At least that's one point in Battlelore's favor: Double-sided banners visible from pretty much all directions.

Next up: Why do board design artists only make the writing readable from one side of the board. What about the poor bloke on the other side of the board that has to read everything upside down?

Michael Barnes said...

It's a man, but from behind I can't tell it he's a tailor or a spy

By that point you should have already figured that out from the conversation beforehand.

Mr. Skeletor's comments

Ahh, Frank...you're so orthodox...but you know, Thrower did just pick up SHOGUN (the Queen Games one), so he could ver well be suffering Cube Confusion.

Polyhedral Dice Comment

Wow, that's actually a really smart idea...embossed stats on a base. Best of both worlds. So long as the white crayon comes with it.

Ahh...brings back memories...those baby blue or red d20s you had to slather with wax to see the numbers...I love those dice because they had mold flashing and were sharp enough to slit your wrists with when your 15th level Paladin bit it.

Dan Casey said...

One game where plastic works well comes to mind for me.... Monsters Menace America.

Those big colorful, vinyl monsters stompin' around the country. Those tiny little plastic tanks and fighter planes (with no bent weapons, because they are made with a real plastic).

The chits are used to remove information from the board, rather than prodive information, as the monsters leave nothing but a footprint in their wake.

Steel_Wind said...

Hey. Wood's fucking cool, ok?

Least ways, it WAS cool until the Germans hijacked it.

My original Risk game had wooden blocks - and we loved it. Player elimination, dice and all.

I have not picked up a Risk game recently - I expect they have replaced those HORRIBLE plastic bits they used in the 80s with better plastic bits. But when the original plastic armies came out - everyone *knew* Wooden Risk was cooler. Wooden Risk sells for SIGNIFICANTLY more at auction as well.

Old skool Diplomacy? Big ass wooden blocks and long flat blocks too. That was *cool*. (It was cooler still to raid ‘em for new army units for homebrewed Risk mods!)

So yeah, wood has its place.

The problem is, I freely admit the Germans have now hijacked it. They've gone a good distance to making what was once cool utterly soulless and not nearly as fun as they once were, I'll grant you that.

Now, as for all this cardboard stuff...

I started with counters back in the day - and even then - we all knew historical minis were where it was at. Sand tables, hundreds of Napoleonic figs? The truth is, we wanted those in our basements sooo bad. But we couldn't afford it at the time. We SETTLED for counters.

No way Matt. Are you telling me that Tide of Iron would be near as fun - or have NEAR the buzz it has - if it used counters as opposed to plastic armies?

Well it isn't as fun with coutners. I PLAYED Tide of Iron last Gencon when it was being tested at FFG's booth with counters. The game is just not nearly as engaging without minis.

I still am involved in RPGs and DM D&D once every three weeks. We had hundreds of lead and pewter minis - (a few hundred painted) and we loved ‘em.

But we far prefer plastic pre-painted minis. We've gone psycho over them and have turned into plastic snobs, eschewing metal figs. My group's collection of pre-painted plastic s about 7,000 and rising.

Could a counter with useful information serve for that too? Or a wooden block or a freaking glass stone? Sure.

But it's just not as much fun. It just isn't. You either get that or you don't.

Last point: Wooden Ships and Iron Men. I love this game. It's a classic. Do the counters work? Yes they do.

Now - try the same game using a 1" transparent hex grid over an ocean chart using Pirates of the Spanish Main ship minis.

More fun? Damned right it is. It absolutely rocks!

It even works for grog games like Star Fleet Battles:

1- SFB with counters? Oiy. RUN!!

VS.

2- SFB with Minis over a transparent hex map on a star field...

"Uhm... Wow man - that's pretty cool. What's all this about talk about impulses?"

Bling matters. **Always**.

Michael Barnes said...

But it's just not as much fun. It just isn't.

That's a _great_ point.

The first time I played THUNDER ROAD was at a convention and I (foolishly) rounded up some fun-hating Eurogamers to play it with. I was thrilled to pieces with the little gyrocopter pieces, the tiny Interceptor/Falcon models, the junkyard dune buggies, and the big fuckin' semi trucks. I had a blast flying my little gyrocopter around the board and making machine gun sounds while these rod-up-ass types tsked about rolling dice and even daring to criticize the ingenious "Switch and Link" system that provides the game with a neverending stretch of wasteland road. The game is fun, and it's largely because the plastic makes it fun.

GAMES ARE TOYS, PEOPLE!

Matt Thrower said...

GO PLASTIC FOR THE WIN!!!

Says the man whose favourite game consists entirely of wooden and cardboard pieces.

Ryan Walberg said...

(hughthehand): First, while I HATE Axis and Allies, I think their use of the little chips to show more guys was a brilliant idea. Could this not be used in War of the Ring (granted I've never played, but you mentioned too many units in too little space)?

WotR does have those chips, and we use them extensively, but there are often cases where you'll have enough unit types in one region that they won't fit, and chips won't help you there.

Rliyen said...

Blood Feud in New York has an insane amount of plastic figures, and I had to let the game air out for a couple of weeks after I first bought it.

I just opened all the baggies to dump out the pieces this morning in my garage and man, you were right. The funk that issued out of those pieces would knock a rhino on its ass.

I'm lucky to be doing basic math after the fume inhalation. I hope my wife doesn't have to go into the garage to do laundry, because I'm afraid that I'll come home a widow and single father.

Pat H said...

The pieces have a pretty strong stink attached to them. Not only that but it takes a few weeks in open air to settle down a bit.

Still nice bits though.

ubarose said...

I had to think about this overnight. Matt makes a good, intelligent argument for chits being better than minis in some instances. But, damn, I can not think of one game that I would honestly want to replace the cool plastic bits with flat, boring, ugly chits. It's just stupid to make tank noises when you move a square of cardboard.

Mr Skeletor said...

Chits also are far from perfect - it's easy to miss chits when sweeping the board with your eyes for example, something that rarely happens with miniatures.

"Oh fuck, that was a dragon? Shit I didn't see it!"

Clarissimus said...

My original Risk game had wooden blocks - and we loved it. Player elimination, dice and all. . . . .
Old skool Diplomacy? Big ass wooden blocks and long flat blocks too. That was *cool*.


This is true. Wood blocks are good for abstract games like the two mentioned above. I'd hate to get that new version of Diplomacy that has colored monopoly pieces -- st00pid!

Shellhead said...

Plastic miniatures just wouldn't work for Arkham Horror. Not only would the random monster draws become a lot less random, but the massive scale of some of the creatures would be problematic, and I'm not just talking about the Great Old Ones.

Anonymous said...

"Plastic is also very bad at recording hidden information. There's an old game called Survive! from the US which is now regarded as a family AT classic. It's become hard to find and fairly expensive. Over here in the UK the game was republished as Escape from Atlantis and a number of things were changed including replacing the wooden pawns from the original with plastic ones. As part of this change a hidden value on the bottom of each pawn was removed, resulting in a significantly less interesting game and one which is now common as muck and cheaply had off Ebay. I can't help but to speculate that this change might have had something to do with the fact that it would have been much harder to get this information onto the plastic pawns in a way that would have been both readable and hard to rub off - no such problem with wood."


My brother's old game of Survive!, which we played to death as kids (in the 80s), had plastic pawns with the value of the pieces carved underneath. No such problem with plastic, contrary to what you let on.

C.B.