The Perils Of Plastic (part 2)

In this the second part of a two part article, we look at plastics and their impact in the historical miniatures market.

The historical market was the starting point of gaming miniatures with companies like Skytrex and Hinchliffe producing mainly 25mm miniatures in metal. This is the way the market has remained as innovation and expansion has been slow. The reason for this has been in my opinion the domination by popular rule systems especially in clubs and competitions. Figure production has remained in the hands of the enthusiast rather than the corporate and reflected the armies that are popular, interesting or perhaps easier to win with! The benefit of this market has been that enthusiasts with a passion have been able to produce and sell in limited quantities just about anything to other equally addicted obsessives. Scales and periods are truly diverse in this market.

There has always been a place in historical gaming for plastics but a somewhat limited one. The association must surely be the cross-over between model and diorama builders and gamers. Airfix and the other produces make such a wealth of 20th century military hardware that many a modeler began gaming with plastics for WW11 because it was what they had and knew. The soldiers, whilst well designed had many limitations though, not least keeping the paint on and the lack of regimentation. For this reason, many gamers gravitated over to other scales and metal miniatures to overcome these issues. If you are interested in the shear breadth of manufacturers I suggest you brows this superb directory at Plastic Soldier Review.

I believe the big step change came from the Games Workshop’s need for diversification and the roots of many of its decision makers who have a heritage in historical gaming. The inception of Warammer Ancients and subsequent period supplements brought high quality production to an industry that was previously the domain of cheap, small print runs. I suppose the idea was to expand their market into an established one and apply the same “hobby growing” model that made GW the giant of the fantasy battle market. It only seems to have had a limited success in that it has persuaded some rules publishers to revisit their presentation, but there does seem to be a trend developing. The rules published have now expanded to cover the Civil War, Piracy, and the Great War to name a few. What is most interesting is the evolving miniature market. Most of these periods are well supported by metal miniatures but in support of the (original) ancient period publication, hard plastic miniatures are beginning to appear.

I can only assume somebody has done their cost analysis and sees a large enough market to get a return on their tooling investments as 28mm miniatures of high quality are just starting to arrive. Two companies are taking the lead, Warlord Games and Wargames Factory focusing on Romans and Celts in the main. The designs are outstanding but you would expect this to be the case because of the sculptors involved and the established principles evolved by GW over the years. My concern is as ever the scope of these products to hurt the metal miniature market. Warlord Games by the very structure of its miniature range illustrates my concern in that they produce one Legionary spru and a number of other metal miniatures to complete the other required Roman soldiers – commanders, personalities, auxiliaries etc. The point is that 90% of your army is Legionaries. If these products dominate the Roman market (which they will need to for the manufacturer to cover his costs) it leaves nothing for the other manufacturers other than the fluff around the edges and the truly obscure armies.

I feel it is a little early to see the impact of these changes and to some extent, the future lies in the hands of the customer. The decision will be whether to embrace or resist these innovations. If you like the quality and price of hard plastics (and they are really good) you may, by voting with your feet, irreparably consign the market to consolidation and ultimately a loss of diversity. You might also create an environment where price becomes determined by a few key manufacturers as GW did with the pricing of high quality metal fantasy miniatures. If you resist and support the traditional metal market you may be stifling the evolution and expansion of the customer base. Whilst I love the old industry, I have to admit historical gamers do nothing to promote their hobby or open it out to a new generation; just go to a convention and look at the punters!

The savior of the old manufacturer remains scale. 15mm prevails in the traditional metal historical miniatures market and to date nobody seems to have cracked it in hard plastic. Perhaps this then will be the future model where the 28mm skirmish game market is shared between hard plastic and metal and the 15mm and below remains the home of metal miniatures. My parting shot is therefore a warning to the traditional 15mm historical miniature games writers and figure manufacturers; innovate and promote or die!