The World of Miniatures - An Overview


In the most general sense, a "miniature" is an imitation in a smaller size of some original. In the field of miniature wargaming, however, a miniature is usually defined as a miniature replica of a soldier or war machine (tanks, planes, spacecraft, and ships).


Traditionally, military miniatures have been made from lead. Lead is a soft metal, and miniatures made from lead are easier to bend and shape.

Due to the hazards (real or imagined) of this metal in wargaming use, several manufacturers (chiefly in the U.S.) now make their miniatures out of pewter. This metal alloy poses none of the hazards of lead. However, most forms of pewter are harder to bend and shape than lead.

Pewter comes in many forms, and some manufacturers have come up with unique names for their particular compositions. For instance, Ral Partha calls its form of pewter, Rallidium.

Plastic is another common material from which miniatures are made. This is particularly true for those who game in the larger scales, at which it becomes expensive to make miniatures from metal. Many gamers use commercial plastic model kits as the source for their miniatures. A few companies also make small-scale plastic miniatures. These are often less expensive than metal miniatures.

Plastic miniatures come in three forms. The first are those which are molded in one piece, and therefore do not need assembly (such as small-scale Napoleonic soldiers). The other two forms of plastic miniatures come as kits, and must be assembled. Injection-molded kits are those typically produced by large commercial companies. The parts are attached to a piece of connecting plastic called a sprue, and must be carefully separated before assembly. The other form of plastic kit, usually produced by smaller businesses and cottage industries, is a vacuum-formed kit. The parts are molded into one or more sheets of plastic, and must be cut from the sheet before assembly.

Resin is another material sometimes used for larger miniatures. It is similar to plastic, but stiffer and more brittle. Terrain items, for instance, are sometimes cast from resin. Larger vehicles sometimes come in resin kit form.

An expensive material used for high-quality miniatures (or for certain detail parts in a multi-media kit) is white metal.

Photo-Etched Metal is another material usually used for detail parts in a multi-media kit. Using the same techniques by which circuit boards are made, the manufacturer etches delicate patterns into a very thin sheet of metal (usually brass). Photo-etched parts are therefore flat, though the kit's design may call for them to be folded or otherwise assembled to create a three-dimensional effect.

On the uncommon side, one manufacturer of paper ship models offers miniatures rules for use with his products. Many kits are available in paper form, though usually in scales considered too large for wargaming. However, many terrain items (i.e., buildings) are commonly made in paper form.

History of Miniatures

Some would argue that the tradition of miniature wargaming goes back to ancient times, beginning with the first chess-like games.

Military wargaming became a training technique for the Prussian military in the Nineteenth Century, and following their victory in the Franco-Prussian War, the technique of wargaming was introduced into armed forces worldwide. The Prussian kriegspiel (wargame) was played on a sand table, sculpted to match the terrain on the hypothetical battlefield. Play required the use of an umpire, who revealed the playing pieces to the opposing side only when they became visible during the course of play.

Wargaming became a pastime for civilians when H.G. Wells -- now known as the father of miniature wargaming -- published his rules, Little Wars. Appearing just as the First World War was about to begin, this game system allowed gamers to use commercially available toy soldiers as their playing pieces.

Between the world wars, Fletcher Pratt -- a noted science fiction author -- published the first popular set of naval miniatures rules.

Two popular hobbies have branched off from miniature wargaming in recent decades. In the 1950's, the first military boardgames were published. The advantage of a boardgame is that it requires a smaller investment in money and time (i.e., it doesn't require the purchasing and painting of an army) in order to game in a given period or setting; the disadvantage is that boardgames lack the pageantry and dimensionality of miniatures.

In the 1970's, a miniatures gamer named Dave Arneson was experimenting by adding a "role playing" element to his Napoleonic campaign. His next experiment was a fantasy-and-horror game in which heroes hunted monsters within underground dungeons -- a game which evolved into Dungeons & Dragons, and created the hobby of role-playing games.

Over the years, miniatures rules have gone through several cycles of complexity. There is a natural tendency for games to become ever more complex, as the gamers become more experienced and more sophisticated. However, as games become more complex, they tend to become more difficult to play, which eventually leads to a rebellion against "overly complicated" games in favor of more "playable" rules.

As the rules have evolved, new features have become standard. In the earliest games, troops happily fought to the last man. Most modern rules systems now include some sort of "morale" system, so that troops have a chance to "break morale" under the strain of combat and retreat, rout, or even surrender. Similar "advanced rules" which have become more common over the years include those dealing with leadership (command and control), supply (lines of supply, ammunition factors), unit integrity (encouraging, for instance, a platoon of tanks to function like a platoon, rather than individual tanks free to scatter where they will), and sighting (what each player knows about the other player's forces).

In recent years, new miniatures products from the role-playing game companies have encouraged a crossover of many role-playing gamers into miniatures. While science fiction and fantasy miniatures are probably the most popular form of miniatures played today, some traditional (conservative? ;-) miniature wargamers prefer to restrict themselves to solely historical miniatures (and consider their form of the hobby the only "true" miniatures gaming).

Over the years, it has become possible to make detailed miniatures at smaller scales. The first miniaturists played their games with "toy soldiers" (pre-painted, 54mm figures). The next generation transitioned to 25mm figures, which they painted themselves. Today, 15mm has become the most popular scale for pre-20th Century games.

A similar transition has occured with naval miniatures, as 1/1200 scale has given way to 1/2400 scale. (More significantly, many naval gamers have transitioned entirely out of miniatures, prefering to game on their home computers. Yet a few die-hards -- this author included -- prefer the spectacle of seeing their ships on the traditional tabletop.)

Microarmor -- the common term for modern ground combat games in 1/285 or 1/300 scale -- has been the defacto standard for 20th Century gaming for decades. In recent years, a growing minority of modern gamers have endorsed a variety of larger scales (15mm, 20mm, 1/200, and 1/72 or 1/76).

Aerial miniatures have long been fought in 1/72 or 1/76 scale, due to the availability of plastic model kits. Aerial gamers have recently been given more options, with the introduction of 1/144 scale plastic kits, and the growing availability of aircraft in 1/285 or 1/300 microarmor scale.

Fantasy wargaming is mostly done in 25mm scale, probably due to the large selection in that scale and because most role-playing games use that scale if/when they use miniatures. The option of going to less expensive 15mm scale is becoming more attractive as more figures become available.

It is difficult to think of science fiction gaming as a single field, since it tends to break up into groups of gamers who play specific games. Warhammer 40,000 is probably the most popular of the games, involving rival armies fighting for control of a galactic empire in a dark, violent, and sometimes tongue-in-cheek universe. Battletech is the other major science fiction miniatures game, a game built around humanoid fighting machines (the kind you've seen in Japanese anime). Another game, a boardgame that can be played with miniatures, is making a comeback in miniatures circles now that the miniatures are available again (after a void of several years) -- Star Fleet Battles, loosely set in the Star Trek universe.

The proponents of each of the major science fiction miniatures games tend to only use those miniatures produced and sanctioned by the publisher of each game. That is, one doesn't bring one's WH40K Space Orks into a game of Battletech, nor do the games typically provide rules for integrating miniatures from other manufacturers into their games.

Lately, there has been a spurt of new science fiction rules which allow gamers to generate playing statistics and point costs for any miniatures they can find. It remains to be seen whether these games will become popular.

Last Updates
31 July 1998added Little Wars link
8 January 1998scale discussion split off
20 January 1997restructured
23 May 1996reformatted
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