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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