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Guide to Buying Wargaming Miniatures

| Things to Consider | Miniature Manufacturers | Pre-Packaged Armies | Pre-Owned/Pre-Painted Armies |

One of the most difficult tasks facing newcomers to DBA and wargaming in general is finding and choosing which miniature figures to use for their armies. It's more than just a question of what types of figures are needed to represent the troop types indicated on your chosen DBA list. It's also the challenge of picking good looking, compatably scaled figures that are available from a host of manufacturers without having the opportunity of viewing them first at a local hobby store or game club.

The simple fact is that the economics of the historical miniatures hobby (i.e., the shear number of figures and historical ranges available, the variable "trendy" nature of consumer interest, the number of small "garage" companies in the market, and the low profit margin) make it difficult for the typical gaming shop to carry a wide range of figures, even if you are lucky to have a good shop somewhere within driving distance. Fortunately, the World Wide Web is making it possible for manufacturers and game shops to serve their customers by creating on-line catalogs with pictures, but only a relatively few have made the leap to the electronic age. Of course, even this presents a catch-22, for as more business is done via mail-order and web commerce, your local game store must compete for a shrinking share of the market and may decide to reduce and eventually eliminate its stock of miniatures.

With that editorial introduction, lets turn to the task at hand. You've purchased your copy of the DBA rules, and maybe even played a game or two with a friend's army or at a club demo. You've picked out your favorate army list. Now you want to field your own army. Where do you find the figures? What do you do next?

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

After you've picked out your favorate DBA army, there are still a number of things you should consider before you buy:

Plastic or Metal: Metal (lead, pewter or other alloy) figures are most prevalent, but plastic figures in the Airfix tradition seem to be reemerging as a popular choice. Metal figures have the advantage of being available in the widest range of scales, and there are dozens of suppliers and manufacturers offering figures for just about every historical period/army. There is also something substantial about holding metal figures in your hands. Lead figures pose some health risks to children and others if they are allowed to ingest the lead and/or are exposed to lead filings created when you deflash your figures. Other medals (including alloys like pewter) minimize or alleviate this risk. The great majority of gamers use metal, although there are an increasing number of plastic enthusiasts.

Plastic's biggest advantage is that it provides a lower cost option, with figures typically available for 20-50% of the cost of metal figures. The downsides to plastics are the limited number of armies/figures available (although this improving) and the limited scale option (typically only 20mm or 1/72 HO scale), although this encourages creative conversions which many gamers enjoy doing. Some would argue that paint on plastic figures is more likely to chip or flake off due to the springiness of the plastic. But there are sealing techniques that minimize this risk. The other problem with plastics specific to DBA is that 20mm figures fall exactly between the 15mm and 25mm scales supported by the DBX game system, so you have to decide whether to try to squeeze your 20mm sized figures on 15mm scale bases (which is often impossible) or use the larger 25mm scaled bases. You can mix metal and plastic figures of the same scale if you wish. See Nick Grant's De Bellis Ludis Cum Homoculus Mollibus website for an excellent entree to the world of 20mm DBA plastics.

Figure Scale: The next and perhaps most important decision you will have to make is what scale figures you want to buy. The best way to answer that question is by considering who you will be playing with and then copying the scale already in use.

DBA rules are written to support figures of 2mm, 6mm, 15mm, and 25mm and can be easily adapted to other scales such as the emerging 10mm option. Anything smaller than 15mm are deloyed on 15mm scale bases. The most popular scales for DBA are 15mm, 25mm, 1/72 (20mm) and 6mm, probably in that order. An army in 15mm scale requires a gaming area of 2 feet by 2 feet. At 25mm scale, the recommended gaming area is 4 feet by 4 feet.

Figures in the 15mm scale represent a nice balance between paintable detail and cost. They cost anywhere from 35 cents to $1.00 (U.S.) per figure depending on whether it is on foot or mounted and the manufacturer's pricing scheme. 25mm figures offer greater detail and hence opportunities for most colorful, visually appealing armies, but take up more room (both gaming area and storage) and are more expensive (typically costing 75 cents to $1.25 per foot figure and $1.00-$2.00 for mounted). While cost and size are important variables, the most important consideration regarding scale, however, is what scale is used by the people you plan to play with.

A number of DBA players report that they enjoy fielding armies using 6mm figures on base sizes provided for 15mm figures. See for example, Arnstein Orten's DBx in 6mm webpage. This allows you to pack as many as 12-16 Roman legionaries (for example) on a base, and gives you a real sense of a body of men. Contrast, for example, a German warband comprised of three 15mm figures versus 10-12 6mm figures. Of course, you invariably sacrifice detail with 6mm figures, but for players who are not primed by painting, this may actually be a virtue. The lack of detail also makes it ascethetically easier to use generic elements for armies of different nations/periods. Irregular and Heroics and Ros are two popular manufacturers of 6mm figures, although they are not readily interchangeable in my opinion.

You can take "dense-basing" to an even further extreme by using 2mm ancients/medievals figures available from Irregular. See, for example, Tony Hughes' De Bellis Miniculus or check in with the Yahoo Group for 2mm Wargamers.

Figure Compatability - Another thing to remember about figures is that not all manufacturers sculpt their figures to true scale. Thus 15mm figures can range from 13-14mm up to 18mm in height. It is not uncommon for 28mm figures to be sold as 25mm figures. Similarly, some manufacturers sculpt their figures thin, while others mold stocky figures. The trouble is that these seemingly minor differences of scale and molding can make figures from different lines aesthetically incompatible when mixed on the wargaming table. Some players avoid these problems by purchasing their figures exclusively from one source. But others prefer to purchase figures from various makers to get a variety of poses. The only way you can ensure that figures from different manufacturers are compatible is to compare them, either by browsing local game stores, surveying your friend's collections, and/or asking other gamers.

Figure Quality - The higher quality your figures, the better you will be able to paint them up, the more durable they will be under heavy usage, and the more likely you are to enjoy them. What makes for a high quality figure? Here are some key factors:

Packaging Options -- Traditionally, miniatures figures were sold in plastic "blister packs" or in plastic flats of 4, 6, 8, 10 or 12 figures. To make figures more economical for individuals buying larger numbers (such as for DBM), a number of manufacturers such as Old Glory are moving toward selling bags of 24-50+ figures exclusively. If all you need is four slinger figures for a couple of Psiloi elements, these bags are a false economy. So look closely at what packaging options the manufacturer offers. See if they offer pre-packaged DBA armies or army bags of assorted figures that can be adapted for use in DBA. Of course if you have an army all of one type (e.g. Spartan spearman, Scots-Irish warband, or Hunnic light horse) a 50 figure pack (with command) may fit the bill.

Sources of Ancient/Medieval Miniature Figures

So now you're ready to buy. This reference list of miniature sources compiles the names of manufacturers of miniature figures suitable for ancient and medieval wargaming. It includes links to web sites and catalog information on-line for specific manufacturers where available. Also consult the suppliers listings at The Miniatures Page and the Society of Ancients.

Buying Pre-Packaged DBA Armies

As noted above, a number of manufacturers (e.g. Donnington, Essex, Irregular, Tin Soldier, Museum, Minifigs, Peter Pig, etc.) sell pre-packaged 15mm armies based on DBA lists. They range in price from $13 to $65 dollars (U.S.) or more depending on the army, number of figures, and type of figures, with most 15mm armies averaging $25-35 dollars.

The pre-packaged option is attractive for a number of reasons, the principal of which is that you have everything you need to field a DBA army in one package with little or no wasted figures. Some suppliers (e.g. Minifigs USA) even include element bases and a page of painting tips.

One thing to consider, however, is that pre-packaged armies may not provide all the "options" available for your chosen DBA army or may represent only one sublist of a DBA army with multiple variations. Check carefully to make sure that the manufacturer is offering what you want. An army pack without all options can be repaired by additional purchases, however, this can be annoying if your motive in buying a pre-packaged army is a "one-stop" shop.

Most pre-packaged armies are put together by the manufacturer and your game store or regional distribution will probably not be able to tell you what figures are provided (and what might be missing to complete all your army options). For that information, you can often look to the manufacturer's website or contact them by email.

These cautions are not intended to turn you away from pre-packaged armies, which give you a playable army from the start. However, if you are in a hurry and adament about fielding all your army's options and/or want to field a wide variety of figures from different manufacturers, then pre-packaged armies may not be for you.

Purchasing Used or Prepainted Figures

Not everyone derives satisfaction from painting miniature figures, has the time to paint, or feels particularly adept at painting. Or as a new gamer, you may be in a hurry to put your new DBA army on the table and try it out. If any of these circumstances describe you, you might consider buying a pre-owned DBA army.

Gamers in your local gaming club may be looking to sell or trade an army to help finance their next acquisition. Your local game shop may have notices of armies for sale or even armies on display. Flea markets at gaming conventions are a good place to look.

There are several ways to find pre-painted DBA armies through the Internet:

Unless you are a brave soul, when buying an army offered for sale through the Internet, make sure that the pictures allow you to really inspect the figures and the quality of the paint job, and/or be sure to ask for an electronic photograph of the army before buying.

There are a number of figure painting services that are willing to paint your purchases and/or advertise that they have prepainted armies in stock. These have the advantage of using new figures, but are typically more costly than "used" armies. In many cases you can determine the price by specifying the type of painting techniques to be used...such as washes, inks, and dry-brushing. Depending on backlog and size of the job, a professional painter may take 3-4 weeks to as long as six months to paint your army from scratch.

One thing to look out for with pre-owned armies is the quality of their paint job (particularly since you may be purchasing sight-unseen). Most jobs are rated on a 1-10 scale, with most figures suitable for the wargaming table being rated at 6 or 7s. Anything higher and you can expect to pay a premium. Anything lower and you might as well paint it yourself unless you are in a hurry or adverse to painting. Remember, however, that ratings can be subjective, especially when sellers are evaluating their own work.

Another thing to consider in buying pre-owned armies is that the standards of figure sculpting have greatly improved in recent years and figure manufacturers are providing new lines of figures with amazing detail in a variety of animated poses. Gamers attracted to these new figures often will sell off older, and sometimes less attractive figures to finance their new purchases. An army comprised of older figures is just as playable as an army of new figures, but at some point you may notice the difference in detail and/or the gradual fading of paint pigments and the wear and tear on the elements. Therefore, if possible, look before buying to make sure the paint job and figure quality is up to your expectations. If the army is being shipped to you, ask for a full satisfaction guarantee or purchase it "on approval" so that payment is not due until after receipt and you have the option of returning it if you are not satisfied with the merchandise. Of course, if you are satisfied, pay your bill promptly.

The price of a pre-owned DBA army will vary according to the number and nature of figures, and how well they are painted and based. Check out the per-figure fees charged by professional painters to estimate what a typical army might cost. In my recent experience, a moderately sized, second-hand15mm DBA army with a "wargames" standard paint job seems to sell anywhere in the $80-120 (US) range depending on number of figures and their condition/quality. Some individuals looking to get rid of older, well-worn figures, often sell for less. Others who have invested considerable time and energy in their "museum quality" paint jobs will ask $120-150 (US) and more. For some armies, with lots of options involved, and perhaps even extra elements to make it suitable for use as a DBM ally army, the price can run as high as $200-300 (US).

Most sellers require payment in advance or will ship COD only to avoid having a buyer run off with the figures without paying. The only advice I can give you in this case is "buyer beware." Most traders/sellers are honorable and prompt. A few aren't. To help protect yourself, check for "Bad Trader" alerts at your on-line trading site. If prior payment is required, make sure you know how to reach the seller in case something goes wrong. You can send your check or money order by registered or certified mail, so that receipt is confirmed. Most sellers are "good traders", but if someone takes your money and then doesn't deliver, first give them a chance to set things right and if they don't come through, then file a report with the U.S. Postal Service for mail fraud and/or with your state/community consumer affairs department if you feel you've been ripped off.

Conclusion

I hope this brief guide helps you find figures for a DBA army that pleases both your eye and your pocket-book. I welcome any comments or suggestions for additions.


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Last Updated: August 15, 2002

Comments, suggested additions, and/or critiques welcome. Direct them to Chris Brantley at IamFanaticus@gmail.com.