Though I've gamed off and on for nearly three decades now (most of it in the past two decades), and I also have had miniature figures suitable for gaming over about that same time, I actually did not use minis much when I initially started playing. We'd use white boards or chalk boards or some other means of figuring out where characters were positioned. Of course, now that I use minis exclusively, I can scarcely remember how we did it back then. The rules were not as precise as they are now in terms of positioning. Though position did matter even then.
Specifically, though, I want to talk about the official line of miniatures put out by Wizards of the Coast (WOC). They come in sets, with one new set every four months or so, for three new sets a year. The figures are randomized, so you buy a pack of 8 and then in that pack are something like 5 common figures, 3 uncommon figures and 1 rare. A typical set has 60 different figures, with 24 rares, and lesser numbers of commons and uncommons, such that, at a minimum, you'd need to purchase 24 packs (and get REALLY lucky) to get every single figure in a set. Either that, or you can buy figures on the secondary market, picking exactly the figure you want, but then, some of those rares can cost many times the cost of a single random pack. The figures range in size from small (in game terms) to medium to large. There have also been three (well, soon to be a third next week) packs that have huge figures, which are a size category larger than large.
There is a miniatures game that you can play, spending points to put together bands based on alignment, with stat cards for each figure telling you how that figure performs. And, of course, you can also use those figures in the RPG, as they are of things in the game. That latter use is what I use them for.
Many people complain about the randomness of the figures. Combined with that is a complaint that some of the figures really suck and so it sucks to buy them sight unseen. On top of that, some creatures common to the RPG (and in multiple numbers) end up as rares, so it makes it really hard (or really expensive) to have many of them for use in the game. Other complaints include the fact that they are plastic and some of the paint jobs aren't all that great. There is truth to those complaints. Ultimately, though, I find them useful and I the things I like about them far exceed the things that trouble me.
First, the randomness. It is true that if you want a specific figure, you can't just buy it direct. But then there is the secondary market and the price there is set by market forces - if it is a rare that lots of people want, the price is higher than if it is one that no one particularly wants (except perhaps to complete one's collection). One could blame WOC for that because those market prices do originate with the fact that you can't buy singles from WOC diretly, but then if you really think about it, you'll realize that the price would probably end up there anyway. Here's why:
The minis themselves do not all cost the same amount to make. Some require more paint or time to paint than others. The more expensive ones are subsidized by the cheaper ones with every single purchase of a booster pack, spread out over all of the boosters because of the randomness. If that subsidy did not exist, if you could buy them singly, then you'd have to pay full price for the expensive ones, and you would probably end up with the same price you have now on the secondary market. Or perhaps it would be even higher as the volume of figures bought went down.
As it is, you can get a full set, along with a copious amount of the commons and uncommons, simply by buying 36 boosters per set. Which for normal-sized sets is three factory boxes of a dozen boosters each. The benefit of the factory boxes is that they are massively discounted - you can get almost half off the cost by buying them that way. And the way they are packed, if you do that, you are basically guaranteed to end up with exactly 12 of each common in the set, either 4 or 5 of each uncommon, and every rare except for one or two (with obviously at least 12 duplicate rares because there are only 24 rares total in a typical set of 60). The total price you end up paying is just over a dollar a figure. Which is a bargain.
For comparison: Before these minis came out, you could (and still can) get figures singly. Those figures are generally metal figures - they used to be lead, now they are pewter. And while they certainly can be very detailed and beautiful figures, unpainted, they don't look as good as even some of the average D&D plastic minis. Paint and color makes a big difference. I know. I have over 100 of the metal figures, almost all of which I've had for 20 years. In all that time I've only managed to paint about 30 or 40 of them. I managed to get halfway decent at painting them, too. It was an enjoyable activity. I'm no great artist. But even my halfway decent paint jobs made the figures look a great deal better. So that's one thing that puts the plastic minis ahead of the metal ones - they are pre-painted, and most of the paint jobs are pretty good. Even those that aren't still make the figures look decent most of the time. Even if I dedicated myself for the rest of my life to painting metal figures, I could never come close to the number of painted plastic minis that I have. And the metal ones are and were expensive. Single figures could cost 8 dollars or more. Add to that the cost of the primer and paint and the time it could take to paint (which could be hours) and suddenly a dollar or so for a pre-painted figure doesn't sound so bad. On top of that, painted or not, a metal figure is heavy and is fragile. You certainly don't want to carry several together where they will scrape against each other. My metal figures are lovingly held in soft foam gun cases, no figure ever touching another. In contrast, the plastic ones you can dump in a bin together, though I use Plano boxes (and zip locks) to keep them sorted.
So the plastic ones are superior in many ways. They are cheaper, pre-painted (and thus prettier on average), more durable, more easily stored, and easier to handle.
The randomness, in the end, isn't all that bad, either. As I pointed out above, if you really want to, you can get a full set without too much trouble. It does cost a fair amount to get three factory boxes - usually about $300, but then for that you get about 300 figures and every one in the set. The randomness evens out to a pretty predictable pattern that way. And since I use the figures for playing the game generally, there really isn't any single figure I'm looking for. Overall, what I'm looking for is having enough figures of each type of monster/NPC/PC that might be found in my game. If you just get the factory boxes, over enough sets, that's what you end up with. Without really trying to, I have a good assortment of various humanoids (Orcs, Kobolds, Goblins, etc.), a good assortment of various other common monsters (I won't list them all), and a good assortment of miscellanous individual figures good for players or npcs.
I did not start out buying sets, so I only have a smattering of the early sets, but starting with like the sixth or seventh set, I've gotten the factory boxes and I have pretty much every figure as outlined above. I have also bought some singles to fill in places that I was missing, mostly because I was missing earlier sets. And I have bought some duplicates just to increase the numbers for certain rare figures that aren't seen singly in the game. Now, this could get expensive if sets keep coming out year after year, but I've probably now got enough to cover just about anything so I probably don't need to buy any more to be covered. (With the exception of any huge sets that come out - but then I like huge...)
In absolute numbers, it was a hefty investment. But then I am probably set now for life, as long as I play the game. And if my kids play, they can use that as well (and I hope they do).
There are some figures that really suck in the sense that I really don't see any use for them at all. But out of hundreds of figures, those represent a tiny handful. And most are commons anyway. So overall, I'm very satisfied with the minis. I've gotten a great deal of use out of them, far more use than I ever got out of my metal figures, which I did use in the past, sometimes resulting in pieces being broken or bent.
They certainly help to bring the game to life, 3D representations, in full color, of old favorites and staples of the game. Orcs and trolls, medusae and dragons. I've gotten so used to having them now that I find it hard to remember what it was like without them. (Mostly it was a lot of dice standing in for monsters and a handful of metal figures, very carefully handled).
My only complaint is that some monsters that aren't that rare would have rare figures, and that would be annoying where you'd commonly need not just that monster, but multiples. But as more sets have come out, that has been partially solved either by further rares of the same type increasing the absolute numbers or even by some being made uncommons.
Overall, I'm very happy with the figures, and I would recommend them.
And thus ends the third of my three "fun" posts for the fourth of july weekend. I'd have done four for the fourth, but I simply ran out of time...
4 years ago