28mm gaming on the cheap

Since 28mm is the scale of choice for large, expensive games like Warhammer 40,000 and WarMachine — as well as smaller boutique games that are still rather expensive on a per-figure basis, such as Malifaux and Mercs — some gamers naturally gravitate toward scales that purport to offer more bang for the buck. That's why 15mm seems to be all the rage; fantasy, sci-fi and historical gamers want to stretch their dollar and still end up with a nice tabletop army for their game of choice.

Well, here at Chicago Skirmish Wargames we play almost exclusively 28mm at our club nights — and we do it on the cheap. I'm not talking about saving 20% by shopping at the right online retailers. I'm talking about scouring flea markets, making your own terrain and generally getting your per-figure cost down to $1 or less.

What follows is a broad roundup of tips gleaned from our club members about exactly how to maximize your enjoyment of 28mm figures — which, as we all know, are an absolute joy to paint up. Nothing says "hey, come over here and check out this game" quite like a couple of well-painted 28mm armies slugging it out on a pretty battlefield.

We'll try to expand on these topics with individual posts where possible. (Curious about the above photo? There's a description of everything in it at the bottom of this post.)

  • Play skirmish games that don't require specific miniatures — This topic is listed first, as it may prove to be insurmountable for some game groups. For us, it was an easy sell. Why enjoy games from companies that base their business model on ever-escalating new releases, each having some new, potent impact on the game? Rather, we seek out clever rulesets that encourage the use of different miniatures — even if the publisher happens to sell an "official" line of figures for the game! Our favorites are Song of Blades & Heroes, Tomorrow's War, WarEngine and Full Thrust.
  • Plastic is your friend — Plastic figures, often sold in boxes of a dozen soldiers or more, can often supply everything you need to play a typical skirmish-level game. Moreover, the secondary market for plastic figures is often very affordable, even for Games Workshop models.
  • Buy as a group to save money — This is pretty self-explanatory. Split a couple boxes of Mantic's new Warpath game (someone gets the space dwarves, someone gets the orx), for example, and you'll find that the price becomes pretty reasonable even with shipping to the U.S. factored in.
  • Check out flea markets and discount bins — Once you've decided that you can play a game without using any sort of "official" models, a whole new world opens up to you: the discount shelf. Our club routinely acquires and paints up miniatures from older, defunct game lines like Hundred Kingdoms, Void, Celtos, Warzone, Legions of Steel, Grenadier and Crucible. Oftentimes we can buy these items for just a couple bucks per figure, or less! Many regional gaming conventions have dealer halls with big boxes of dusty blister packs, just ready for you to paw through.
  • Collectible miniatures games can provide warbeasts, vehicles and more — We keep an eye on cool-looking figures and vehicles from Heroclix, Star Wars CMG, Mechwarrior, MageKnight and D&D Minis. Sometimes they need a repaint, but other times we use 'em as-is for our skirmish games.
  • Look at cheap model kits from mainstream manufacturers - Revell or Tamiya kits in 1/35 or 1/48 scale make great starting points for vehicle conversions, and they're frequently on sale. HO-scale railroad stuff is a bit more expensive, but some shops sell broken or opened items for a discount.
  • Make your own terrain — Not everyone has the tools or skills for this, but you'd be surprised what you can whip together using a few small plastic desk organizers, a can of spray paint and a drybrush. 28mm has an advantage because everyday items like cardboard boxes and kids toys can be pressed into use as terrain. More on this to come.
  • Make your own miniatures — Again, a niche hobby, but if you have the skills to make vehicles or spaceships, go for it!
  • Keep an eye on closing sales or going-out-of-business announcements — Liquidation sales are a good opportunity to stock up, often at very good prices. We've done a bit of this here and there, with fantastic results. The business owners involved are always quite grateful for the help.

Check back regularly, because we're hoping to expand on this topic with a series of articles. If you're curious about what's in photo at the top of this post, here's the breakdown: that buggy is a converted GI Joe vehicle, with Necromunda plastic figures on board, along with a Star Wars CMG droid walker thing in the background. The quonset hut on the right is from a plastic army men toy set, and the rocky desert terrain and waterfall in the background are Playmobil items covered in textured paint and then drybrushed.

— PatrickWR, Chicago Skirmish Wargames club member

5 responses to “28mm gaming on the cheap

  1. Excellent advice.
    15mm is sooo visually boring.

  2. One minor correction. The quonset hut on the right is a piece from a toy army men set. Hobby Lobby has them right now!

  3. I’ve always been a follower of these rules, a good portion of my figures and vehicles are purchased on the cheap. I am always on the lookout for things that I can kit-bash and convert for my Gaming needs.

  4. Frankly, the 15mm "craze" is being generated by a minority, if vocal minority. Outside of FOW and other historical ends, I've not seen 15mm at a con, much less at any game shops I stopped at though Texas and Illinois.

  5. Good post!!

    In response to the last post there I think you are verging on "bashing" 15mm and I don't know if that is your intention or not, if so is unproductive (if not sorry for my misinterpretation). I think that smaller scale has a great place in mini gaming depending on what kind of gaming one wants to do. If people want big battles with tons of large terrain pieces (like tall buildings and huge factories) with lots of tanks, fliers, etc. then 15mm is a great choice. Conversely I think 28mm is the best scale to do skirmish gaming in.

    In our gaming group we have long felt that Warhammer 40K for example should have been 15mm. In our group we do prefer to game in 28mm by far, but some of us do like the occasional big game with 15mm stuff, or even smaller scales (for say mech battles). We've been doing bolt action in 20mm and we like that scale for that system as it allows us to game on a slightly smaller space and toss out more armor, etc. if we feel like it.

    Anyway I love many scales for many different types of mini gaming. I choose to look at the positives of various scales and try to use them for what they are best at. For us a big part of what mini gaming is about is the spectacle of the table, not some min-max tabletop board game where people pound their chests and "win" … that is for the store trolls. We like to do fun gaming and sometimes that fun depends on what people want to achieve. So limiting ones choice to just a certain scale, at least in our group, we find that constrains our potential for fun. So we game in various scales, genres, etc. etc. and at least for our gaming group we have quite a bit of fun.

    To each their own. Happy gaming.

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