Monday, September 20, 2010

Down With The Iron Warriors

Walking in to my local comic (and game) shop last Sunday, I escorted my son back to the wargame tables at the rear. Every Sunday Games Workshop wargames, mostly WH40K, are played in an informal ‘bring and battle’ format. Usually it is pretty well-attended and the previous week my kid had met other players his own age, and that got him all fired up to bring in some of the Tau squads on which he’s been working so hard to paint.

He’s been working so hard on them because I’ve insisted that he do so, and not just show up with a bunch of drab plastic and metal guys.

In common with a lot of players (and the immediate gratification mentality they have) he doesn’t really want to get much painting done before he plays. Truth be told, he’d probably just as soon do NO painting. But having built several Gundam models he at least understands the positive aspects of a modeling hobby and putting something of your own creativity into it. We discussed this at length before the first dollar was spent: ‘Son, your Dad is a beardy old gaming git and you’re going to have to do this right if you want me to throw in with you’…or something to that effect. But he’s only twelve. Eagerness to get to the fun part and ‘aw geez’ the work part is to be expected.

We’ve gone to watch the games played a few times before he even bought his first models, and the example set by the other players is NOT helping my cause. While he does vaguely remember the ‘old days’ when he was around tons of amazing miniatures, intricately designed scenery and enthusiastic GW staff, seeing what goes on at this local shop it’s understandable (even if he wasn’t a kid) why he’d think the non-playing side of things could or should be neglected.

Because The Iron Warriors dominate.

This references an old joke when I was employed at GW. At that time when our staff were going around to game stores trying to promote the hobby, they were constantly confronted with players using armies of unpainted or barely-painted figures. And in those days almost all the models were made out of so-called ‘white metal’, which is a silvery alloy consisting largely of tin. In Warhammer 40,000 there is a chapter of Chaos Space Marines called the Iron Warriors whose predominant color is, as their name suggests, iron or steel. So the preponderance of bare steel-colored models eventually generated a running gag about how all these different players had all these loads of models but at the end of the day they were all using ‘The Iron Warriors’. So everywhere we’d go there they’d be… more Iron Warriors. Progeny of lazy or ignorant players everywhere. They might be shaped like Eldar or Orks or Tyranids but still…

Iron Warriors.

I think the joke is outdated now. Since that educational crusade by GW it has become common opinion that you at least need to get a basic coat of color on ‘em. While the overall effort is still pretty lackluster, in general it seems most players do at least the minimum so that the won’t look totally lazy if they wind up against someone who did a good job. And so many of the models are plastic, the whole ‘iron’ descriptor doesn’t really fit as well.

As Jervis Johnson is always going on about in White Dwarf magazine, immersion is a huge part of this hobby. Like books, films and video games, with any of our diversions we want to be drawn in to a created world, even if that world is largely the same as our own. We want to experience the drama or the humor as closely as possible and the more effective the break from the real world around us the better. Tabletop wargaming is no different. Immersion in the battle is important to the experience. But with gaming of this type, there are so many rules to follow, so many discussions that need to take place, and so much potential distraction (if you’re gaming away from home especially) that it isn’t an unbroken entertainment experience like reading a book in your favorite chair or watching a film in the theater. Wargaming has to generate its atmosphere and color, its ‘hooks’, from the models, the scenery, the narrative behind the battle and the personalities of the players because it is a competitive pastime. It requires a lot of communication that isn’t WITHIN the game’s world.

If you think it’s okay to just throw the unpainted models out there on a flat surface, then why don’t you just play chess? Or one of the tabletop wargames that doesn’t require figures (think Avalon Hill style cardboard chits)? Or in this generation, play a strategy-based video game? They even got ‘em based on the WH40K universe, the Dawn of War series.

Why not pursue other strategy pastimes that don’t have so much manual work involved? Because those pursuits don’t have little toy soldiers you get to push around miniature battlefields. That’s why.

The tactile aspect is a huge part of the attraction. At GW, as much as it was believed that the painting is important, it was also understood that the actual doing of it is a lot of labor—daunting in fact. But no one expected every soldier to be a masterpiece and no one expected the whole thing to be done before you start playing or even to have been done quickly. At the actual GW stores, staff insisted that you get started on painting your models before playing with them in the shop, and that every time you brought them in they showed a bit more progress.

My town, as removed as it is from civilization, appears to have a population of wargamers who have no idea what paints and brushes are for. At least not why they are sold in that very shop right next to the figures. Watching them play presents a laundry list modeling yuck I thought had been driven out back in the 90s. They’ve got unpainted or primer-only model. Models not glued to bases or vehicles (constantly falling over or off). Wrong weapons on models. No weapons on models, including vehicles. Substitutions galore, that is ‘my marine seargeant model here is actually a chaplain’.

That doesn’t even touch on all the wackiness play-wise like not having a list prepared (flipping constantly through the books) or not using counters so the players can’t remember wounds taken on big models or weapons lost on vehicles.

The players spend so much time backtracking, looking shit up, and reminding each other just what the hell they are using on the table… I couldn’t see how it was fun. These games are complicated enough as it is. Further crap that takes you out of the spirit of the game is something to be avoided. Having a painted, correctly assembled and modeled army doesn’t just help with the atmosphere and coolness… it helps the game move along more smoothly. There’s no question what the guns are on the tank. No argument about which model was the hero or heavy weapons trooper in the squad. No struggle to remember that this group of shuriken catapult armed guys are actually carrying shuriken pistols and power swords…. THIS time around. For all that these players (and others like them) seem to think the PLAY is the thing, they sure don’t do a lot of the shit necessary to keep the focus on the play and not on all the exceptions and goofiness spread around their rag-tag ‘army’.

And assuming someone DOES show up with an army with a decent paint job, the Iron Warriors player is doing that guy a disservice by being pathetic about the hobby end of things. THAT guy made an effort and he wants a cool, immersive, atmospheric game. He wants to fight a ‘believable’ force. And you bring the equivalent of an expanded Civil War Chess Set.


What happened to making it look cool? People think the art looks cool. The sculpting of the models is cool. This is entertainment in which the consumer gets to participate. What happened to their contribution?

I know a lot of these players like the background. They discuss the troop types and name their forces (I’ve heard ‘em). They must be buying the novels and art books because I frequently need the next one in some series and it is sold out. So why shouldn’t a player do their best to capture this color?

Trying to convey this to my kid is difficult but seems to be working. He showed up with two fully painted squads and third halfway done. And everything was as depicted on his models (and he had some little unit cards with him so he didn’t have to flip through rulebooks!). He knew the game less well than his opponent but his own turns went much smoother and faster.

I don’t actually want to be a snob about it…. But I am. And I want him to be a snob about it too within reason. We can’t make our local shop do what GW does with their must-be-painted policy. But we can try to encourage and be an example. My son should still play against unpainted armies and be a gracious player, but I really hope his work rubs off vis a vis the painting aspect.

I have seen some regular Warhammer (fantasy) players in there too. And they seem more resolved to do the work correctly. While I saw a lot of unpainted or primer-only models, the ranked up nature of Warhammer units kind of forces the players to be more organized, and get those weapons correct and get everything glued down.

I find it staggering that it takes ‘convincing’ to get players on board with this. I see them over in the miniatures racks picking up boxes or flipping through books with ‘wicked’ or ‘those look badass’ spouted all the time. So don’t you want your shit to look badass? I mean you spent all that money (things are NOT cheap) and you’re just going to leave it an Iron Warrior instead of trying to make it look like what attracted you in the first place? And these players have the internet. There are kajillions of online examples at all skill levels that this shit is done and, in fact, MUST be done. You don’t get a fucking bye just because you live in the sticks.

I need to take the word to the heathen.

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