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Warhammer at War: How Home 3D Printers Are Disrupting Miniature Gaming

By Alex Castle

The ever-changing materials and appeal of miniature gaming, and what the makers of Warhammer 40k have to fear from the rise of home 3d printers.

You might think that in the age of video games and iPads, miniature gaming would be on the way out. The hobby (or, loosely-connected web of hobbies, I should say) is about as analog as it gets—with thick rulebooks, brick and mortar stores, and real, physical miniatures. And yet, you probably have a hobby shop somewhere in your town where people are pushing around tiny, pewter armies at this very second. They could be at home playing Starcraft right now—what gives?

I think miniature gaming survives specifically because it’s so analog. It’s a hobby that celebrates the physicality of things, where a practitioner might spend $50 on a single, intricately detailed model, and a dozen hours of his life painting it with painstaking precision. They like the social scene and the physical space of the game shop. They might not be earning new converts like they did 30 years ago, but their games and the industries they support have been insulated from the disruption that’s wiped out other hobbies.

However, with the rising accessibility of 3D printing--especially for the home--the line between the digital and the physical is getting blurred. Is the delicate economy that keeps the hobby alive ready to collapse? I don’t think so, but I do think the hobby is on the brink of enormous change. I’ll explain how things got to this point, and where I think they’re going in the future.

From Pb to Polymers: A Brief History of Miniature Gaming

Wargaming as we know it now began in 1904—the year that well-known science fiction author H.G. Wells published a book called Small Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books. The book described a formal set of rules for simulating a battle using hollow-cast lead toy soldiers and artillery. The book was the first of its type, but didn’t create the modern hobby of miniature gaming whole-cloth—it wasn’t until 1955 that Jack Scruby would start casting the first wargaming-specific miniatures out of type metal, creating the wargaming hobby industry.

Early on, miniature casting switched over to a white metal alloy of equal parts tin and lead, which remained the industry standard until the nineties, along with hard plastic and resin for larger or cheaper miniatures. New avenues for wargaming opened up in the 1970s, when Gary Gygax created Chainmail, a medieval war game which included a fantasy supplement with rules governing magic spells and fantastical creatures. In 1974, Gygax expanded his work on Chainmail into a game called Dungeons & Dragons, with which you might be familiar.

D&D was incredibly popular, of course, and the rise of roleplaying games created another market for miniatures, as did the concurrent rise of fantasy wargaming. Though wargaming as a hobby hit its peak popularity during the 70s, it was the 80s that saw the birth of the franchises that are currently most associated with miniature wargaming, such as Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40,000, and Battletech.

The 90s further fractured the gaming industry, with the rising popularity of video games and the introduction of trading card games with Magic: The Gathering, which competed for the attention and money of the traditional roleplaying and wargaming audiences. In 1993, concerns over the health and environmental effects of lead sparked a wave of legislation that caused US-based miniature manufacturers to switch to a lead-free pewter alloy that’s still used today.

Since 2011, Games Workshop (the company behind Warhammer, the most visible face of miniature gaming today) has begun switching all of its pewter production to “Finecast” a urethane-based resin that’s cheaper to produce and can capture a higher level of detail than plastic or white metal. Simultaneously, the astronomical success of the Reaper Bones Kickstarter shows that high-quality plastic miniatures have become an appealing alternative to metal.

Miniatures, modding and Magmatrax

In a way, miniature gamers are a perfect fit for the maker scene. Most miniatures are supplied unpainted, and figure painting is a whole hobby unto itself. Even a basic paint job requires diligence and technique, and a top-level painted miniature is nothing less than a work of art. Games Workshop holds an annual contest called Golden Demon, which highlights some of the incredible work that people put into painting miniatures.

Beyond just painting miniatures, many in the community modify them to create entirely unique units. Most miniatures come in several parts and must be glued together, so a simple modification might involve gluing one unit’s helmet or weapon onto another. Beyond that, the soft nature of plastic and pewter makes them easy to cut apart and reassemble, so you can combine kits even if they don’t fit together out of the box.

The most extreme modifications are accomplished using essentially the same tools that are used to create new miniatures in the first place—fine sculpting tools and a two-part epoxy or other hard-setting medium. By combining pieces from multiple kits and sculpted parts, modders create entirely new, professional looking miniatures. For an example of the sort of work that goes into a top-level mod and paint job, check out this extensive tutorial detailing the creation of ‘Magmatrax.”

So if miniature wargamers don’t mind plastic figures, and are inclined to be makers, the question is: what threat does 3D printing pose to Games Workshop and other miniature makers? They are certainly concerned about the issue, as demonstrated by the saga of Thomas Valenty.

Cease and Desist

Thomas Valenty was the first Thingiverse user to upload printable figures designed to be played as a Warhammer 40K miniature—a tank and a two-legged mech. Unsurprisingly, he promptly became the first Thingiverse user to receive a cease & desist order from Games Workshop and both models were removed from the service.

It’s not completely clear whether Games Workshop even had the legal footing necessary to get the models removed from the site—as Clive Thompson over at Wired explains, physical objects aren’t protected by copyright, but rather patents, which are more permissive and expire sooner. Valenty’s situation wasn’t helped by his uploads, which were rather slavish reproductions of two Games Workshop models, the Leman Russ tank and the Imperial Sentinel walker. By copying specific artistic elements of Games Workshop’s creations, Valenty invites copyright back into the issue.

But even if Games Workshop can keep getting copies of Warhammer units removed from Thingiverse (and that’s a big if—you can currently find at least one reproduction Warhammer miniature on the site), it can’t keep miniatures off altogether. Even a cursory search of the service shows tons of original miniatures already uploaded, though their photographs reveal that 3D printing is still several years off from the resolution needed to match the detail on Finecast models. Larger, more geometric or more abstract figures currently look best (see for instance Irrational Designs’ Shapeways store), but those technical hurdles will only protect Games Workshop’s business model for so long.

Indeed, the biggest danger presented to Games Workshop by 3D printing may not be some sort of real-stuff Napster scenario, but rather the extent to which it lowers the barrier to entry for creating your own miniature game. With 3D printing, you can create a new game with nothing more than a good idea and some 3D modeling software. Already, Ill Gotten Games is making small, tile-based games available Thingiverse, including Desktop Tactics, Pocket Dungeon and Breach. Though none of the games created so far are quite on the same level as traditional miniatures wargames, it’s only a matter of time.

So I don’t think Games Workshop and other miniatures manufacturers have as much to fear from piracy as they do from democracy. Miniature gamers know that they’re a very niche audience, and that widespread miniature copying would almost immediately put the local game stores (where they likely play) out of business. However, when one of those same gamers has an idea for the best strategy game of all time, there’s not going to be anything to stop them from getting it out to everyone who wants to play. Once 3D printing becomes more ubiquitous, it’s only going to take one ambitious project—maybe backed by Kickstarter, maybe an open source communal effort—to turn everything upside down.