After many years of ogling the mountains of plastic created by Cool Mini or Not, I finally got my hands on a copy of Zombicide. In this box, there are enough tiny plastic zombies to make me genuinely worry that if they became sentient I would be done for. Living toys aside, Zombicide’s criticisms have been well documented by other people and there isn’t much to say beyond – it’s a bit middling and indicative of Kickstarter culture. However, a thought did cross my mind – is there such a thing as too many miniatures?
Component quality in board games draws parallels to graphical fidelity in video games. Both are excellent tools, but they can also be a crutch. Just because a video game has amazing graphics, doesn’t mean that it has anything else going for it, and the same is true for board games.
In Zombicide, players are facing a growing horde of zombies. At the start of the game, there are manageable numbers on the board. At this stage, these plastic horrors add something to the game that would be lost if they were anything other than miniatures. You can see at a glance where the threat is coming from and when a space has lots of figures in, it feels scary. They help to sell the theme and draw you into the universe of Zombicide.
Issues start to arise around half-way through the game when there are figures nowhere near the players. At this stage, you are doing zombie admin. You end up moving lots of tiny undead people around with a sigh as they no longer represent a terrifying foe or dangerous encounter but become a movable scenery. It is like the number of miniatures hits critical mass and after that point, it becomes diminishing returns. Each figure feels less and less important to the point of annoyance.
It’s weird, right? How does it get the stage where these fantastic tiny creations become reduced to “and move this here, and that there, and spawn those over there”? Losing any and all flavour? I have a theory that anything becomes less special the more it happens. People might say they want their birthday every day of the year, but if that happened it wouldn’t be a special day anymore (and they’d be really old). If everything you do, place and move is a miniature, does that also become less special?
I remember a time when placing miniatures into a game was an event. It was a rarity and this made each time it happened feel all the more fantastic. Now that every game can have hundreds of exquisitely made miniatures, have they lost their lustre? Will there be something else that comes along to replace the joy of slamming a particularly good miniature onto a board? And are we making bigger, and bigger miniatures to make up for this lack of excitement from regular ones?
Those moments of amazement, shock and weight still exist in certain games. Star Wars: Imperial Assault is one such example. The Rebel players have no idea what will happen in a given mission, so when Darth Vader suddenly appears or an AT-ST stomps onto the battlefield, it defines the game.
However, it isn’t quite that simple. Fantasy Flight don’t include every miniature for Imperial Assault in the base game. Certain characters exist only has cardboard tokens unless you want to buy their specific blister pack. Does this omission imply that the miniatures aren’t necessary? Darth Vader’s stats are no less impressive when he is a flat piece of cardboard rather than a miniature. However, that visual impact is lost. It is hard to dramatically place a token into a game, but a miniature can achieve this with ease. This impact is a good thing to include miniatures in a game, but if every character was meant to be the same tier as Darth Vader, then that gravitas would likely be lost.
Kickstarter is walking down this path with more detailed and lager miniatures and using them to sell games. This is diluting the spectacle of minis and making them run of the mill. In Zombicide, the game is held up by its minis and without them, it would feel like a hollow experience. They are a defining characteristic and other games have followed the same methodology. I’m not saying that quality components are the sign of a bad game, but they do set off warning bells.
Rising Sun is a classic example of this. For example, a giant dragon can easily be taken hostage by the figure 1/8th its size. This can make the figure itself feel pointless as its scale and perceived power is not reflected in the game. This is where it starts to feel like they are minis for the sake of minis rather than to add value. That moment where you finally place your giant dragon onto the battlefield might feel amazing, but when it gets captured so easily feels like a massive let down. If the dragon wasn’t so fearsome and powerful looking, then its loss would not feel half as bad. Instead, the mini adds very little to the game.
So is there such a thing as too many miniatures? It is a hard question because it will differ from game to game and person to person. However, in the case of Zombicide, the figures quickly became a secondary element and more of a nuisance. They end up covering separating lines, require unnecessary downtime to move around and after that initial “Oh wow, look at all of these!”, their presence doesn’t add anything.
Many of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns have ridden that success on the back of large quantities of miniatures as the focus. They might be excellent games in their own right, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is a heavy focus on pushing tiny bits of plastic at consumers. Due to this lots of Kickstarters and mini intense games come with a hefty price tag. I know that in some cases they are a bolt on extra or special version, but they often aren’t. For people with a smaller disposable income, these expensive plastic heavy games are a long way outside of their budget. It is hard because what do they actually add?
Beyond that initial gawking amazement, I would suggest that they add very little. Recently, George and I played Star Wars Legion and the guy demoing it told us that anything beyond the lead figure didn’t really need to exist. Range, cover and abilities all link to that specific figure regardless of any of the others. I often felt they were essentially glorified hit points and firepower tracker. So why do the others exist? I understand that they look nice and as somebody who loves this hobby I can appreciate them. Seeing a group of tiny warriors clash on a table will always be exciting, but if they aren’t adding value beyond an aesthetic one, should they be a compulsory part of a game?
A large part of miniatures gaming is the building and painting of your own pieces. This is different from a board game. Instead, of the minis being a single element they are the entire game. People spend hours putting together tiny armies and squads. This becomes an integral part of the game. Mini-games with large numbers of figures are as much about the spectacle of moving and controlling something you built and put together, as they are about the game’s rule system. There is a good reason why Warhammer is so successful despite it being well documented that the rule system hasn’t always been the best. To the point where people often talk about how they enjoyed building their army more than participating in battles.
With that in mind, does that mean that you can get the experience of playing (if not building and creating) with a miniature army with far fewer models that a lot of games would have us believe? It makes sense that this is where skirmish games come into play. They allow you to build a squad of distinct units and don’t require huge numbers of figures. If I ever get into miniature gaming, I think this is the route I will take. Firstly, it is much cheaper. And secondly, it makes each unit feel more important and have more impact. It is the difference between a zombie horde feeling like a nuisance and the appearance of Darth Vader feeling like an event.
I remember an old Shut Up & Sit Down podcast episode where they discuss the implications of fake copies of games and their impact on the industry. While forgeries and fakes obviously damage the industry as the artists, designers and other teams don’t see a return on their hard work. I can understand wanting to play an exciting game at a cheap price. If the minis aren’t integral to the core gameplay, then it would be nice to see more games offering alternatives.
Right, I know I’ve asked a lot of questions in this article, but that is because I don’t actually have any answers. While that might not be very helpful, I am going to explore this further and see what other people think and feel towards miniatures. I know that I would like to see more affordable games with cardboard tokens rather than plastic people, as this would open the hobby up to more people who look at the price of some games and stare in disbelief.
We are dangerously close to seeing every single game throwing in heaps of miniatures as they are proven to help with sales and Kickstarter campaigns. This means that they are becoming the emphasis of the game rather than some of the other elements. Perhaps the future will suddenly divert as people pour more attention into other areas of their games, but at the moment we are teetering on the edge of a plastic abyss.
When it comes to Zombicide though, the game clearly has problems. The rules of the game don’t feel complete. It is like half a game that had the holes filled with dinky plastic zombies. If you are going to use these zombies for something else, then that’s great but if not, then what are you left with? A meh game and lots of plastic that you don’t really need.
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