I’d like to preface this by saying that my views on this subject have changed over time, likely in proportion to the percentage of my army that I have painted. Also, as a single guy with no children, I recognize that I have a little bit more hobby time than some other people. Finally, I’m not writing this article to judge anyone or shame them for playing with unpainted armies… okay, maybe a little bit.
Warmachine has a bit of a reputation as a game focused solely on the tournament scene, with painting being an afterthought at best. Most tournaments don’t have any painting requirements, and there aren’t any soft scores like in Warhammer games. While the Steamroller packet strongly encourages the use of painted models and best-painted awards, this doesn’t always happen. Finally, between the complexity of the game and the focus on the competitive aspect, the sheer time requirement for someone to get to the level of “internet microcelebrity” can preclude someone from developing their painting skills because they’re spending their free time studying War Room rather than painting techniques.
Personally, while I recognize that when they started out they had to do a lot to distinguish themselves from their main competitor, and while I see Privateer Press putting more of a focus on the hobby aspect in recent years, I feel that it is sad that Warmachine has that reputation. It’s not fair because there are a lot of great painters who play and paint Warmachine and a lot of really nice armies out there, but it’s also not totally undeserved given the number of grey armies out there and the fact that most Warmachine media focuses more on competitive tactics rather than hobby content.
Anyways, it’s a reputation that I think we need to shake off, and we need to do that by getting our stuff painted.
Why should you play it painted
First, painting is fun. It’s a great hobby, and I honestly don’t see it as a chore to paint my figures for a tournament. In fact, lately, I’ve been enjoying it so much that I’ve been having a hard time pulling myself away from the painting table to squeeze a game in. There isn’t much in this hobby that is more rewarding than admiring a fully painted army, and that sense of pride and accomplishment when you bring it onto the battlefield only to get mulched by some Cryx-playing jerkwad.
Second, aesthetics are a vital component of any sort of wargaming. While I’m not the sort of guy who is such a stickler for immersion that I will accuse someone of ruining a D&D game for cracking a Monty Python joke, it is a hobby which more fun and immersive for both parties when you both have fully painted armies. That fun and immersion is why we spend hundreds of dollars on models instead of playing with cardboard chits or just playing on Vassal. As such, striving to play fully painted will make the experience that much better for you and your opponent. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement; even the Steamroller document, bible of the hardcore competitive scene, agrees with me on this.
Playing it painted also makes the game more attractive to bystanders. The visual aspect is the first thing that a newbie to tabletop wargaming in general or Warmachine in particular sees. It’s why companies like Privateer Press and Games Workshop put so many resources into art and sculpting; nothing sells models like cool models and pictures thereof on the box. We all want to grow our communities, and playing with painted models can help add some visual interest to our tables and catch the eye of potential marks to be suckered into this money pit of a hobby.
Finally, in a game like Warmachine, fully painted armies can make it easier for your opponent to distinguish models from each other. Our miniatures aren’t very big, and when they are just a big blob of black-primed infantry, it can be difficult to make them out at a glance from across the table. Especially for newer players who may not know the subtle differences between models enough to spot them on a black-primed miniature from a couple feet away. Further, sometimes you can paint your army to make it easier for both you and your opponent to distinguish the models. Personally, I have a system that clearly identifies my leader and attachment models with the most cursory of glances, which is of benefit to both me and my opponent.
As one bad example of this, I had a game a long time ago where I was playing against a Circle opponent who had both an Argus and a Winter Argus in his list. These are both two-headed dogs with a little bit of barding each, and the main way to distinguish them is by the fact that in the art, Winter Arguses have white fur like a husky. As you can imagine, “this one has brown fur, this one has white fur, and neither of them are painted” made it a little more confusing for me than necessary and resulted in the untimely death of some poor Winter Guards who made a tactical error as a result.
Are there excuses?
All that said, there are some legitimate excuses for not playing painted models. First, new players can’t be expected to have a fully painted army. It took me several months to manage to have a decent fully painted list in Warmachine. For a lot of new players, playing and painting motivate each other, and being told to pick up an army and then go away until they can come back fully painted means that they will never come back. So, it makes sense that a lot of new players are going to be rolling with unpainted miniatures for months while they feel out what kind of army they want to play and get up to speed on painting it.
Also, none of us are perfect, and sometimes life happens. Occasionally, we will have a unit that we really really want to play but is still on the painting table, or perhaps we want to try something out to see if it “earns its paint” before going all in on committing to buying and painting that list. Or we may forget a model at home and have to borrow or buy one on short notice. I don’t think committing to playing it painted necessarily means that 100% of your figures will be completely painted 100% of the time. While that may be a worthwhile goal to strive for, other factors get in the way sometimes, and that is completely understandable.
Further, not everyone paints to the same level of quality or at the same rate. I like to think my army is painted to a pretty high standard, so it does take me a little longer than someone whose idea of painting involves dipping a miniature in a can of wood stain. As a result, it may take me a little bit longer to get my army painted because I’m putting a lot of care into every highlight rather than just banging out something that meets the bare requirements. Being too strict on painting requirements can actually have an adverse effect, where players half-ass their paint jobs just to get them done and end up with something that they are unsatisfied with instead of taking the time to do it right.
Finally, there are formats such as journeyman leagues or other escalation type campaigns where collecting and painting new models are part of the game. I’m thinking of starting up a Minions army next time there is a Journeyman league locally, and quite frankly, I doubt that I will be able to stay completely caught up on my painting while participating in this league. That’s also completely understandable, because the whole point of the Journeyman League, aside from welcoming new players, is to collect, paint, and build more and more plasticrack.
When should you commit to playing it painted?
Between those very good reasons to play it painted and those few caveats, I feel like we can lay down some rules as to when you should play it painted. Again, these are more personal things than anything hard and fast in the ruleset, but I’m throwing these out to start the conversation.
- You are playing on a stream on the internet. Seriously, if you’re trying to show off the game online, at least do it fully painted. The internet lasts forever, as will the shame of video evidence of your unpainted miniatures.
- You have been at this for a while. It’s totally okay for new players to not be fully painted, but if you’re coming in week after week with the same unpainted army for years, it might be time to pick up the brush and at least give it a go.
- You are playing in a very public place where you are showing off the game. If you’re at a big convention with a lot of people walking by, one of the goals of being there is to try to attract bystanders to check it out and maybe hook them into buying a battlebox and coming out on game night. However, if you have a bunch of grey plastic armies duking it out on flat terrain, you’re not going to have the same level of visual interest that is going to encourage new players to check it out.
- You are a community leader. With the destruction of the Press Gang program, who exactly is a “community leader” is not so well defined anymore. But this can include people who do all sorts of different things, whether it is organize tournaments, run painting sessions, volunteer to show new players the ropes, or talk about stuff a lot on the internet. However, these people tend to be ambassadors for the game, and as such, they should be leading by example and promoting the game. And part of that involves holding one’s self to a higher level of painting and sportsmanship than the average player.
Wargaming is better for everyone when we can all #playitpainted. It may not be a goal that we will ever reach, but it is good to aspire towards fielding only painted models. After all, the most important battle on the tabletop is not the fight between Khador and those filthy Cygnaran pig-dogs, but the ongoing war against the forces of black primer and bare plastic.