Tuesday 28 August 2018

Guest Post: Brighten up your tabletop

Following on from his post in May about soundtracking your board games, Piete is back with another guest post to help take your gaming experience up a notch. This time he's targeting those ubiquitous grey miniatures we all have so many of these days, and whether it's lack of time, skill or patience that's holding you back from brightening things up a bit, he has some suggestions to help you out. Enjoy!


What I wanted to do was write about how to spruce up your game miniatures in fairly easy steps. A few photos, some nice words around it, and boom. Done.

As I started this piece, however, it struck me that it might not be obvious why you'd want to do this, and more so, why you should probably at least *think* about doing this and getting half good at it for the next 3 - 5 years.

Of Miniatures and Meeples

First, some history about one of my favourite topics: me. As a neat side-effect, some observations about what's going on next.

When I was growing up (child of the 80s and 90s here!), I was fascinated by the MB/Games Workshop crossover series. For Warhammer it was Hero Quest, and for 40k it was Space Crusade. That formative experience means that to this day, I still get excited by seeing and playing a good looking and well thought out 'miniatures board game'.

I still have my Space Crusade box to this day!
So over the years my choices have been various war games (Warhammer, Malifaux, Warmachine/Hordes, etc) which were made up of tape measures, unbounded movement and (unpainted) millions of collectable fancy little figures (that may or may not need assembly), or board games (Risk, Pandemic, Carcassonne) which were... well, a fold out board or some tiles, and meeples. Lots of meeples.

The game could be amazing, but meeples don't excite me in the same way as well painted miniatures.

Sorry Vicky. [There's just no helping some people... V]

Fast forward to 2010 and I'd still never really seen anything else quite like those MB/Games Workshop crossovers. I mean yes, I could play a variety of war games, but it was a lot of commitment both in time and money. And yes, games like StarCraft: The Board Game existed, but they didn't start cheap and certainly felt like the exception. So I looked on enviously at all the wargamers with their pretty miniatures without ever really being able to get stuck in myself.

However, there was another revolution happening in the background that was changing everything: 3D printing. This technology and digital sculpting has reduced the cost of producing interesting sculpts and miniatures, and allowed many more people and companies to get in on the fun. And they have done.

I have rather a lot of SDE, in varying states of paintedness.

In 2012 I got some of that MB/GW crossover buzz in the form of Super Dungeon Explore (Soda Pop). Subsequent games like Cool Mini or Not's Zombicide, Descent and Battle Lore (2nd edition) have proven that I'm not the only person who found this stuff popular and appears to me to have created a whole new range of games with a 'premium' visual appeal with the prior huge price tag.

While early options from CMON were completely miniature-based, technology has moved on rapidly making it easier and easier to digitally sculpt and print miniatures, either for rapid prototyping or for shipping off to China for mass manufacture. This has allowed other companies to upgrade from meeples to printed parts. Some games like Scythe and Gloomhaven use miniatures where it matters, and meeples or standees where it doesn't, but others like Cthulhu Wars and Mice and Mystics just replace the meeples wholesale.

Into the future!

So the premise here is that we're going to see more and more miniatures on our game tables, whether we want them or not, as the price of producing them steadily falls. Additionally, injection moulding is typically only one colour, and the cheapest colour is usually grey.

Therefore, more and more of our tabletop time is going to be spent staring at grey, lifeless, figures that have no easily distinguishable parts beyond maybe their base.

It is entirely possible to injection mould multiple colours (and multiple materials), but that's not going to be cheap or particularly easy to sort out, so since we're going to be stuck with a pile of grey things for the foreseeable future (I guess about 3 - 5 years): how can we make that a bit easier on the eyes?

While this could have turned into a post about how to actually paint miniatures, there are plenty of those already out there, so this is focused more on how to improve the grey-blobs situation for board games where only some suggestions involve getting a paintbrush out.

Ultimately we want to do two things:

 1. Improve the aesthetic of the plastic blobs ...
 2. Without reducing the practical usability of the miniature.

This means it should look better, but without losing any colour markings it already has or getting lost on the board or being scary to handle, and so on.

Let's get started.

0. Failing to plan...

All clean and shiny, mounted models ready for undercoating

First things first, I would suggest spending some time with a scalpel or other sharp knife just cleaning up the flash (the plastic that leaked out between the mold halves during casting). In my experience some models are fine, others are terrible, and it's a pretty arbitrary mix. If you don't do this though (I didn't spend long on it at all), no big deal.

Once you've done that, you want to clean your models in some soapy water, probably with a toothbrush to make sure you get right in there, to get the release agent and any sticky finger grease off. Having spent time removing sticky finger grease, it can be helpful to mount your figure on something so you don't have to handle it or paint around your fingers.

When cleaning, be careful of very hot water, which can have the effect of softening the plastic and deforming parts of the model, especially thin sticky-outy-bits. This can be turned to your advantage if you happen to have some guns or spears that are bent - a bit of hot water, soften it up, reshape, and let it cool.

Not all plastic is the same, mind you, so if it doesn't seem to be softening, don't flex it!

Here's some Scythe people I undercoated earlier...

To make the most of sticking paint on a model, it's probably best to undercoat it with something too. That said, if I was going straight for one of the spray can options below (volume painting in section 2 or colour changing in section 3), I'd be happy to skip the undercoat step and go straight to the base colour after cleaning them.

Once you've put some paint on the model, you definitely want to protect your paint job from handling. A nice matt varnish, again spray can shaped, will do wonders (although matt varnish tends to be less robust than gloss). Or you can go straight for the gloss if that seems appropriate for what you're painting.

I once had a situation where the model just became sticky after painting and varnishing. I couldn't figure out what weird interaction had occurred, but the internet to the rescue: if this happens to you, paint your model with some PVA thinned with water.

One thing to note though, is that while varnish (and or PVA!) will protect your models to some extent, they are now covered with a fine amount of paint, and paint can scratch off. Plastic models are less likely to damage each other rattling around in a box than heavy metal models, but even so you may have to consider a more careful or dedicated storage system, especially if you're travelling with them often. Check out companies like BattleFoam and KR Multicase for some some generic and specific options.

1. Wash the grey away

So now we're all ready to go.

As it turns out, human beings are pretty sensitive to brightness as much as colour, so a grey blob that doesn't cast a lot of internal shadows won't really register. Especially at 28mm tall.

We can raise the contrast on the model to improve the aesthetic, and on a grey blob that's going to have a fairly significant impact.

Miniatures companies have a neat way of photographing their metal cast miniatures and capturing all the detail. Maybe it's Photoshop, or maybe they've just done something called "washing" the miniature.

The difference just a simple wash makes on the yellow and white mechs is huge. The red, not so much, but we'll get to those later.

This is where you take some acrylic paint, thin it right down with some water, and cover the entire miniature. The thin paint ends up sitting in all the recesses, and leaving the wide surfaces alone, increasing the perceptual depth of shadows, and thus, making it clearer to your eyes what you're looking at.

One of the nice things about washing is that you can experiment with different shades to get different effects. Washing everything with black will give you a very stark, very deep shadow, which can be perfect over the top of colours like purple or blue. For a softer shadow, try a deeper tone of the base colour - for yellow, use brown, for white, try grey.

All washed and done, assembled they look fantastic!

Some companies produce a product for exactly this use, like Army Painter's Quickshade, but if the internet is correct you can get away with all sorts of things including, but not limited to, wood stain or varnish, oil paint, enamel washes and Indian ink.

2. Turn up the volume

For a more interesting aesthetic you want want to try "volume painting", or at least a cut down version thereof.

Although this is with an airbrush, the same technique will work with a spray can.
In artistic circles this is where you paint in greyscale, making dark things dark, light things light and including the idea of light sources.

Since doing that can get a bit complicated, there is a shortcut option that will get you most of the way there: spray the model black, and then spray white from directly above.

The improved version of this is to spray the model black, spray a little bit of grey at 45ish degrees around the model, and then spray the top white.

Or if you're really going for overkill, use an airbrush and go crazy.

Apologies for the lighting, but they look way better than they started!

3. Colour changing

The previous two options will bring out the detail on each model individually, but you've just traded one type of grey blob for another. The models are all the same paint job, so still low on the gameplay experience improvement scale.

Eventually it might be cheap enough to injection mould in colour for smaller runs, but in the interim you could just do it yourself!

Grab some coloured spray paint or cheap acrylic and a brush and just go to town. Typically board games use bright or primary colours, so by investing in only a few colours of paint you'll have enough to mix up small batches of any colour you need.

4. Edge highlighting

Some wash to deepen the shadows, and some edge paint to pop the highlights!

The other way of handling contrast is looking at the upper end of the scale and raising the highlights, instead of deepening the shadows. Of course, why not both!

The technique is theoretically simple, but requires a small brush, some practice, and a plenty of patience. Take the brush, get some paint and sorta drag the middle of the brush at a 45 degreeish angle over some sharp edges on a model.

I've chosen to simulate a zenithal highlight, by imagining where the primary light source would be coming from (top left in my case), and then highlighting the top of the edges and the left of the edges. I don't think it's always the case, but the golden rule with all of this is simple: looking cool is more important than being accurate.

The technique is mostly practice, but the next step is picking the highlight colour. When it comes to wash, most of the time black will work okay, but the same isn't true in reverse. Solely using white to highlight will often be far too stark, so you're looking for a paler version of the colour you're covering. Black goes to grey, purple goes to pink, red to orange, and so on.

Simple technique but tricky to master, so keep practising!

Even without the wash on the black, they look great to me!

5. Three-colour standard

The bottom of the war gaming painting standard, you might hear referred to as table top or 3 colour standards, and it's exactly what you'd expect: a primary, secondary and tertiary colour for the model.

With human models it's likely to be at minimum a clothing or armour colour, a skin colour and a detail colour.

I didn't do this for Scythe, so you get some gun molls instead!

Of course 3 colours is just a suggestion - maybe the best thing you could do is one or two. Maybe skip the big primary colours and just add some metallic paint to the shiny bits!

I would suggest unless you're already an accomplished figure painter (or willing to use your game miniatures for practice) that sticking to sections of flat colour will yield better results for boardgaming than complex detail work. Keep the lines neat and don't worry about details like eyes or techniques like dry brushing or blending.

In general I believe simple tactics will be better for usability than more advanced ones: pieces are colour coded for a reason, you need to enhance that rather than obscure it's function as a game piece - beautiful painting that gets lost in the background art of the game board would be a terrible shame.


Of course, you could always get someone else to do it for you! There are plenty of people who would be happy to exchange money for painted miniatures, potentially you even know a friend who'd love to try something different from their usual Warhammer 40k fare..

Mix it up

These are just some options on improving the visual and playability of your board game pieces, but they're not mutually exclusive!

For my Scythe figures I took the volume painting idea, expanded it a bit by being selective with my washing and then went in to colourise particular pieces. They're not going to win any prizes, but I love how they look like a cross between statues and Sin City!

They all turned out nice!

Put the lid back on

Personally, I get a huge kick out of the activity of painting, and then get to bask in the compliments when the game is unpacked and on the table. I know a good number of people who don't enjoy it, so the easy wash+varnish option would be more than enough for them.

I'm also getting a kick out of looking at the work I've done when I'm *not* playing the game, and board game pieces are starting to encroach in my own display cabinet, which is way better than hiding away your pretty things in boxes. Granted, my cabinet isn't this guy's, but hey, we can dream right?

Whatever choice you make, keep gaming!

[With thanks to my Editor Vicky, and my Creative Director and Photographer Pam!]


Thanks again to Piete for another really interesting post; you can read more from him at his blog or in his last awesome guest post about board game soundtracks. I'm currently looking at all the unpainted games on my shelf and feeling inspired to do something about them. If you are too, why not tweet us a picture of the results?

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Tuesday 7 August 2018

Review: Azul board game

Since trying a demo of Azul at Airecon, I've fallen completely in love with this colourful box of wonderfulness from the abstract wing of Plan B Games, Next Move Games.

By wonderfulness I'm mainly referring to the beautiful little clicky-clacky plastic tiles that look like tasty Opal Fruits. Yes, Opal Fruits; none of this 'Starburst' nonsense, however much it dates me. No, I won't let it go and move on. Yes, I know I'm supposed to be talking about the game and not sweets from history... Okay, fine:

Friday 15 June 2018

UK Games Expo 2018 - Gaming Highlights

It goes without saying that seeing friends is always a huge Expo highlight, even though with more and more people getting into the hobby it's getting harder to see everyone enough over the weekend! We're all there to see the games, too, and below is a selection of games that I played or talked about over the weekend. For an overview of the rest of the show, you can see my first Expo post (yes, I've gone on about it enough to fill up two whole posts!)

Review: UK Games Expo 2018

Not only is the UK Games Expo over for another year, but it's been almost two weeks, and it's flown by! With more lovely people, more fun things to see and more games than you could shake an oversized meeple at, this year's Expo was bigger and better than ever (21,700 attendees, up 30% on last year!).

If you've not been along to UKGE before, you can find my original post here for some background information. It's a fun, friendly convention held every year at the NEC in Birmingham, rambling (in a very organised fashion) across multiple convention halls, function rooms and surrounding hotels. There's something there for every analogue gaming enthusiast, whether you're looking for the latest heavy Euro game, the coolest wargame miniatures, the cutest kids game or the dice-rolliest (yes, we're making up our own superlative adjectives now) pen-and-paper RPG.

Tuesday 29 May 2018

UK Games Expo 2018 - Exciting Things!

With just a few days left until this year's UK Games Expo, I've made a little list below of some of the games I'm looking forward to seeing more of. The draft of this post has been kicking around in my Evernote for a while now, as there's so much to see that I keep adding and removing things each time a new press release arrives. Time to make some choices, though, as it's ALMOST TIME FOR UKGE, WOO! There might be a recurring theme of 'this is on the list because it looks shiny', so prepare for in-depth game coverage at its finest, people...

UK Games Expo

Monday 21 May 2018

Review: Photosynthesis board game

Yew wooden be-leaf how many arboreal puns you could get into one (t)re(e)view, but stick with me, ash I promise I've gotten them all out of my sy-stem in the first line...

Photosynthesis box art | Random Nerdery board game review

Saturday 12 May 2018

Guest Post: Board Game Soundtracks

The best bit about playing board games (apart from punching out the cardboard and organising everything, obviously) is sharing them with lovely people. I was lucky enough to spend a whole weekend with two of the loveliest recently, when I went to stay half way across the country with my friends Piete and Pam.

We got through quite a few games over the weekend, including Azul, Onitama, Fresco and Skull, but the new thing for me was in how we played them. Piete hand-picks a soundtrack for every game they play, and it really changes the experience - so much so that I said 'hey, you should really write a guest post about this!'.

Wednesday 2 May 2018

UK Games Expo: 1-3 June 2018

Time to get (even more) excited about the UK Games Expo, everyone! Only a month to go until thousands of happy board gamers descend upon the Birmingham NEC and its surrounding hotels to paint the town cardboard.

UK Games Expo advert

1-3 June 2018 will be the 12th annual UKGE and the fourth one that I've attended, and each year the event has gone from strength to strength. It's the largest hobby gaming convention in the UK, and with unique attendance topping 16,300 last year it's now one of the largest in the world (fighting it out with Origins for third place). This year they've added an extra hall in the NEC to accommodate everything, so growth doesn't show any signs of slowing down!

There's a lot to cram in to those halls, as the huge map on the UKGE website can illustrate, and you're in no danger of running out of things to see and do.

UKGE trade hall


As you'll see on the map, with over 300 companies in attendance there are plenty of opportunities available to buy shiny new games (or shiny old games, with a fab Bring and Buy section). But UKGE is so much more than a shopping trip, giving you the chance to talk to publishers and designers about their new or upcoming releases, or to try out demos of their latest prototypes. Getting to meet the people behind the games you love or having the chance to influence the design process of a new game in the Playtest Zone really makes the convention fun.

I'm planning on making a bit more use of the Family Zone this year, with my little one getting a bit less little and a bit more into his first games. It's sponsored by HABA who make some of his current favourites - so this year I'll be shopping for two!

Board game bring and buy at UKGE

Seminars and guests

UKGE attracts plenty of well known faces from around the gaming world, this year including Ian Livingstone, author of the Fighting Fantasy series and founder of Games Workshop and game designer Martin Wallace. Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower will be back for another year and will be recording shows at the Expo, as will plenty of other board gaming media types including folks from Gaming Rules!, Shut Up & Sit Down, No Pun Included and Who Dares Rolls.

Gaming Rules! CGE, Shut Up and Sit Down

As well as live podcast and video recordings there are a whole raft of other talks to attend, covering everything from how to GM an RPG to how to run a board game company.


You'll see a big section of the NEC map dedicated to tournaments for people much better at games than me: the Catan, Agricola and Carcassonne UK Championships, the Fantasy Flight European championships including huge X-wing Miniatures and Android Netrunner European Championships and a Legend of the Five Rings Grand Kotei event are all on the slate for this year's UKGE.


As if you hadn't filled your time three times over by now, there is a programme of ticketed entertainment events run across the weekend including:

  • John Robertson's The Dark Room (I love this show... can I go for a third time? This year with additional kid-friendly showing on the Friday)
  • Paul Flannery's Knightmare Live and MMORPG (both of which I saw last year, great fun and very nostalgic)
  • Live Pandemic (always ridiculously funny)
  • Jollyboat (musical comedy pirate brothers, what's not to love?)

I'm so excited, there's just so much to do! I didn't even get time to talk about everything, like:

  • The food festival
  • Viking and Orc encampments (if you're under 10 you can do Orc training, which sounds like the best thing EVER)
  • RPG and LARP events
  • Cosplayers
You can read about all of these things and more on the lovely UK Games Expo website, of course, or read more about my previous adventures in 2016 and 2017 where you'll find lots more pictures.

UKGE Open Gaming

The best bit of any convention is always getting to see your friends and play some fun games. UKGE provides a wonderful environment to do this whilst giving you the opportunity to try new things and meet like-minded people from across the country (and the world!). There's lots of open gaming space available to try out your purchases or play something from the excellent board game library, but demand for the space is high so make sure you stake your claim early to avoid having to play on the grass!

Deep Sea Adventure on a pizza box

Yep, that's a pizza box. From the awesome food fair!

So if you're new to the board game hobby and thinking about your first trip, do it! Or if you're worrying about coming to UKGE on your own, don't panic! You'll find so many lovely people willing to help you find a game, offer advice and recommendations or just point you in the direction when you're lost. It's a really welcoming environment and I can't wait to go.

Give me a wave if you see me wandering around!

UK Games Expo logo

When: 1 to 3 June 2018
Where: NEC and NEC Hilton Hotel
Cost: Ticketing website


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Tuesday 17 April 2018

Review: Eight-Minute Empire board game

I seem to be forming a bit of a Red Raven Games series recently, with reviews of the beautiful Above and Below and its sequel Near and Far. To continue the theme, this week I'm taking a look at an older Ryan Laukat game that has grand ambitions on a tiny scale: Eight-Minute Empire.

Eight-Minute Empire - box art | Random Nerdery

Wednesday 28 March 2018

Review: Near and Far board game review

It's been a while now since we escaped barbarian hordes, fled across the country and founded our shiny new village in Above and Below. We've clearly gotten tired of exploring the cavernous world of Below, because it's time to set out into the big wide world on a brand new adventure. Legends tell of the Last Ruin, a hidden city far away across the wastes of Arzium where we'll apparently find an artifact that will grant our hearts' desires. Let the quest for the Voucher of Infinite Jaffa Cake Supply begin!

Near and Far box art

Saturday 17 March 2018

AireCon 2018 - Convention Diary

I can't believe it's already been a week since I made the epic drive north to AireCon, an 'analog gaming festival' held in the Harrogate Convention Centre on Friday 9 - Sunday 11 March 2018. Having taken an age to decide whether or not it would be worth braving the 500 mile round trip, I'm so pleased I decided to go. I spent an amazing weekend meeting up with tons of lovely people and playing loads of great games, and wanted to share some of it here in case you've been in a similar dilemma.

AireCon 2018 - Sign | Random Nerdery

Wednesday 7 March 2018

Review: When I Dream card game

In a hugely competitive market place, publishers are finding all kinds of ways to make their game stand out from the crowd, from splashy cover art to fancy components to the occasional animal costume (I'm looking at you, Paul Grogan!)

But Repos Production definitely went the extra marketing-mile last summer, when they launched When I Dream into the board gaming stratosphere by literally tying it to a balloon and floating it into the upper atmosphere...

You know you need to work on your life goals when a board game makes it 20 miles closer to your dream of space travel than you ever will!

When I Dream - box art | Random Nerdery

Sunday 25 February 2018

Review: Bärenpark board game

Bear-tetris, koala disputes, and for some reason, cause to use the phrase 'one toilet short of a draw' in a public place. I'm taking a look at Bärenpark, the latest offering from Phil Walker-Harding of Sushi Go! and Imhotep fame, that had me googling for Gobi bears and the umlaut keyboard shortcut!

Barenpark board game - Phil Walker-Harding - box art

I'm no expert, but I'm fairly certain that box doesn't depict safe bear-care procedure...

Sunday 18 February 2018

AireCon Incoming!

Since I went to the UK Games Expo back in June I've been arguing a lot with myself over whether or not to go to AireCon, an analog gaming festival due to be held at the Harrogate Convention Centre on 9 - 11 March 2018. This month, after much deliberation, I finally caved; looks like I'm heading north next month!

AireCon logo

It's a 500+ mile round trip for me, so the cost and the drive are big factors, but the huge list of events going on over the weekend helped to tip me over the edge. I'm definitely heading for the seminars on game design and teaching games, plus I need to try out giant Tsuro and NMBR9! The whole con also sounds super-friendly and relaxed, so I can be a bit braver about joining in with everything.

This year the con is sponsored by publisher Czech Games Edition, comic and games shop Travelling Man and the UK Games Expo, with a guest list featuring the lovely folks from:
With less than three weeks to go, I'm super excited to try out a new convention. Wish me luck, and let me know if you're going too!


Friday 9 to Sunday 11 March 2018
Harrogate Convention Centre

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Wednesday 14 February 2018

Cardboard - Above and Below board game review

I spend a lot more time than I really should on being jealous of the talents of others, and one of my recent targets of envy is artist and designer Ryan Laukat. Being imaginative enough to design games, artistic enough to illustrate them and organised enough to get them published would be a stretch for most people, but Ryan Laukat somehow manages to do all of them at once. But is it possible to juggle so many elements without dropping something along the way? Time to pick up a lantern, head out for adventure and find out!

Above and Below - box art

Saturday 27 January 2018

Gloomhaven Diary: Session 1 (In which our intrepid heroes learn the rules)

It's been three months since the reprinted version of Gloomhaven hit my doorstep. The doorstep is still recovering from the blow. In all that time, we'd only gotten as far as unpacking, punching and sorting it all out - but now we finally get to play!

Gloomhaven box art