Why Use Miniatures?

On my other blog, Unboxed - The Board Game Blog, this week I wrote a piece entitled "Plastic Paradise?" in which I talked about why we use miniatures in board gaming, why they are often substandard when compared to miniature gaming models and what alternatives could be used.

Now readers of this blog will know I like my miniatures, although I'm not a huge fan of plastic, in particular the Lord of the Rings plastics which are some of the worst war gaming miniatures going, especially compared with the metals. So I almost wanted to produce a counterpoint to my own argument here and talk about why we should use miniatures in gaming, board gaming, miniature gaming and role playing.

Firstly, I want to say that miniatures are much like anything else, food, wine, cinema, there will always be different levels on which they will be appreciated. Some players are happy with pieces that are more interesting than a scrap of paper, for example the game Settlers of Catan is made more interesting by the 3D wooden components, they give the flat board a more tactile feel and help bring players into the theme.

For some players this is enough, while others will go to more extreme lengths to make the game more visual, more tactile. Like this:



Now, I'm that guy, I'm the guy who wants it to look awesome and I'm the guy who will criticise low quality gaming pieces. I'm the guy who will place a mini on the board in a game that doesn't even have minis just to make it more realistic. I am a connoisseur when it comes to minis, I can afford to be choosy about what I buy and how I paint it but for the purposes of this article I'm going to talk about miniatures in a very broad sense, as any 3D gaming piece.

Ok, so, firstly lets look at some games that don't use miniatures. Two examples spring to mind, Summoner Wars is essentially a miniatures game played on a board with cards. Now the game has achieved huge success in the board game market because it emulates a lot of what tactical miniature game players enjoy, while coming in at a low starting cost, being easy to transport, simple to set up and with no associated hobby time. Also it has the benefit of all associated unit rules being on the cards themselves. The second game that comes to mind is a game called Battlegrounds Fantasy Warfare. This game is essentially a war game, where units are represented by cards instead of models and it enjoys success for the same reasons as summoner wars, price and convenience of set up and storage.

However what both of these games lack is a sense of spectacle. It's hard to deny that this is more impressive:

than this...

So, visual spectacle is certain an excellent reason to use miniatures over any 2D options, such as cards or tokens. For example Tide of Iron appeals to me far more than Advanced Squad Leader because I can "see" my troops on the table top.

But miniatures are expensive and painting and modelling takes several hundred hours so are there other reasons than "It looks pretty".

In short, yes.

There are many practical reasons to use miniatures. Using miniatures in a Roleplaying Game can give your players a wealth of information. Traditionally a Roleplaying game takes place in the collective imagination of the players, with the GM describing what the players see. Being able to drop a miniature on the table and saying "you see this" ensures that all the players understand the description. It allows them to see what the GM meant when he says the Otyugh is a creature with three legs, a mouth as big as it's head with an eye stalk with 3 eyes on it, wallowing in it's own filth and eyeing you like a hungry mountain lion.


It also allows them to make some assumptions about the creature's size (if the miniatures are to scale) and abilities. Size in particular can be an important factor, especially if the players are using a tactical map for combat.

Miniatures also help when determining tricky rules such as line of sight. Often in a board game or an RPG you can attack an enemy if you draw an uninterrupted line from the centre of your square to the centre of the enemies. However, with miniature games you can just get down to the miniatures eye level and look.

Theme is another great reason to use miniatures in gaming. Sure, you could play D&D with spare dice as Orcs, which I've done and is useful for tracking damage actually, but it just generates a completely different atmosphere when the players can look down and see those orcs.

"I attack the ugly one with the bow and arrow standing at the back" is much more thematic than "I attack him, that number six guy" Now you could argue that good players with a good GM don't need visual aids, but I have often found that players are more likely to join in and get into the theme of the game if the components they are playing with are visually stimulating.

So, for me, miniatures should be used in games when they serve one of these major functions.

  1. They increase the ascetics of the game 
  2. They help inform or enforce the rules of the game
  3. They stimulate the players and help reinforce the theme

However, miniatures also do the following:

  1. Inflate the cost
  2. Create the need for additional storage space
  3. Generate hobby time outside of playing the game
  4. Increase the setup and tear down time for the game
  5. Increase the play time with fiddly and unnecessary components

So, it's a balancing act. If the players are only going to meet that Merchant figure once, is it really worth the time and expense of buying him and painting him and then having to take time out of the game to root through your case to find him?

Alternatively, if the Heroes in your homebrewed Descent adventure need to rescue the merchant figure and escort him to the exit without being killed, a beautifully painted miniature could turn a good adventure into a memorable one. And also, once you have bought and painted a miniature he can easily be used again and again, in different games or even as a recurring character in the same game.

What do you guys think, how much do miniatures add to the games we play? How pivotal a role does a character need to play in the game to deserve a miniature over a die or a token? And are there any other reasons to use miniatures over cards and dice or visa versa that I've missed out?

Until next time... Have fun gaming.

The Duke