A Roundabout Path to Wargames: First Impressions of Warmachine

I got into wargaming almost as an accident.

At first, I was just looking for something to paint. I had begun painting miniatures in college, but since I didn’t have a D&D group and my then-burgeoning board games collection didn’t contain any that could use a good painting, I fell out of the hobby. I liked the look of Warmachine, and heard nothing but great things about the game. I might as well pick up a battle box. Worst case scenario, I’d have fun painting them. If I ever got a chance to play, so much the better.

Then I picked up a copy of the rulebook. I have a strange habit of collecting and reading rulebooks for role-playing games just for the hell of it. I have an extensive collection of those books, many of which I have no intention of actually playing. (I’m already in a Dungeon World campaign, about to join a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and toying with the idea of running a Star Wars campaign—I don’t think I’ll be playing Gary Gygax’s Lejendary [sic] Adventure anytime soon, but I’m glad I have it.) RPGs actually stemmed from wargames, so I figured the reading material would be just as enjoyable.

I figured a smaller-scale game with RPG elements might stick. It didn’t, as Malifaux just didn’t strike anyone’s fancy… but it did get one of my friends to ask about that other game I had talked about. He liked the look of the Protectorate of Menoth and withing a week he had a 15 point army. Another friend of mine had already begun toying with a Mercenary faction, but I guess each of us just needed at least two opponents to make thing interesting. So I rounded off my small band of Cygnar models and played my first game this weekend.

So, after years of accidentally falling into Warmachine, this past weekend, I played my first game—and it was one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time.

That’s saying a lot considering how many things were set up to make the whole thing anticlimactic. I remembered the stress of organizing a game of Twilight Imperium, the only other game I sat on for an even longer amount of time before I actually got around to playing it. If that fell flat, it would be a huge disappointment to me and the friends I roped into the game. If that happened with Warmachine, it would also mean I roped a friend into dropping $60.

Miniature wargames are also about simulation. Nice components are a huge selling point for board games; with war games, it’s a huge part of the hobby. You pick the models for your army, assemble them, prime them, paint them, and varnish them. You’re supposed to play them on a field with terrain which might have also been custom painted or built from scratch. When it’s all said and done, you’ve essentially playing a diorama. At any point look at the board and see a frozen moment in a battle.

Us? We played it on a coffee table that was too small in both width and length. Four of my seven models were mostly painted; the others were not. Most of the others were primed black, except for one of mine, because I was waiting on a replacement for the arm that I lost. We had to put a bedsheet on the table so the black tabletop didn’t make the models completely disappear.

I have no pretension that we were doing anything other than playing with toy soldiers, and they weren’t even finished yet.

Even then, taking a couple of hours for what should have been done in half an hour, it was all worth it, and we got the sense that it would only get more rewarding. It was unlike anything I’ve played before. No other kind of game requires you to be creative in quite the same ways—three of them, by my count.

First (and least unique) is the army building. It reminded me of deck building in Magic: the Gathering, with forums full of jargon I can’t quite yet wrap my head around. Of course you can just copy a trounament-winning list you find online, but it’s been a joy just exploring the depth available in the game before ultimately leaning towards the models that also happen to look really, really sweet.

Second is the modelling. I can’t think of any game that, at most, just involves snapping some pieces together, but in a wargame, you need to actually do some painting. I’m not mincing words; we played casually with works-in-progress, but it’s written in the official tournament rules that you have to paint your miniatures to a somewhat decent level. Painting is far, far easier than it seems anyway, and it gives you a sense of ownership. It reminds me of the Rifleman’s Creed. “There are many like it, but this one is mine [because I picked a slightly different shade of blue].”

Finally, playing the game challenged me in some unprecedented ways. It’s as simple as the fact that you play on a field, using a measuring tape to measure distances and a few templates for certain situations. It’s visceral. In other games, the components feel more like reminders; the game is in the rules, and the bits just represent them like some kind of avatar of a spiritual concept of a game. You might even be able to play some of them in your head. Warmachine was inextricably laid out on the table. You move your pieces, make them face a certain direction, and have to make estimations based from your perspective above the battlefield—and this was in a game played on a bedspread on top of coffee table. I can only imagine what it will be like with a proper battlefield, taking cover behind walls, hiding in forests, and using elevation to our advantage.

Anyway, those are my first impressions of Warmachine and, more broadly, wargames in general. I expect there will be more to write about in the future, and hopefully with a more coherent approach. For now, though, I need to get back to painting, as I’m terribly excited to get my toy soldiers back into action.

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