A common judgement on wargaming, and especially so on premium brands like Warhammer, is that it is an expensive hobby. Here we will present the case that it is expensive, and the case that it is not.
Expensive is a relative concept. Whether something is expensive or not depends not just on the objective cost of the productive but also on the relative resources of the potential buyer. It also depends on desire. For the investment minded it, also depends on its appreaciation and depreaciation potential.
In the end, whether anything is expensive or not is a subjective judgement.
It so happens that in the Warhammer world of wargaming a little plastic infantry character hardly more than an inch high can cost as much as £25 at retail. By mass that character may weigh only about three grams. This works out as approximately £8 per gram.
At the time of writing the spot price for pure silver bullion is around 63p per gram and even pure gold is around £42 per gram. That puts that little plastic figure in same price bracket as precious metals, or indeed illegal narcotics. Hence why even some stalwarts in the hobby refer to Warhammer models as “plastic crack”.
One can hardly get away with playing Warhammer with only a few such figures. Typically one will want dozens and perhaps even many hundreds of them. Then they should be assembled and painted, requiring further expenses in specialist paints, brushes and other tools. They will be fielded on a special table with model scenery that all have their own costs. The models consume space, requiring storage options at home and for transportation. The games themselves require extensive rules often spread over numerous books.
There is no real upper limit to how much one can spend on wargaming but most wargamers will spend hundreds of pounds before even playing and likely spend multiple thousands over their whole time in the hobby.
It may be argued that Warhammer is not the only way to play wargames and that the less famous brands can be less, and even a lot less, expensive. True, but the expenses are still there because in the end the game pieces are material, numerous, luxurious and require substantive resources in time and money to deploy.
Wargames tend towards being simulations rather than abstractions and so one can not, as with other physically deployed strategy games like chess or Risk, reduce the cost of entity representation through heavy abstraction.
Strategy board games, through heavy abstraction, can present stimulating gameplay using exceedingly cheap materials.
In these modern times there are still more options for playing strategy games, by means of computers. Computers are an expense in themselves as is the software, but if one is having a computer anyway for other purposes then the one-off expense of the computer can be mostly disregarded.
A complete playable wargame, as software, can be obtained for as little as £30 or even less. Such a game can luxuriously indulge in high levels of simulation, even including animations, while costing no more. Examples might be the games from the Total War series, which now even includes games using the Warhammer lore.
Even disregarding premium options, wargaming is expensive because comparable alternatives like board games and computer games are enormously less expensive.
For wargaming in general it is not appropriate to judge its cost by the premium options. To do so is comparable to judging the cost of air travel by the prices of business class seats or chartered private jets.
It is true for almost anything that there is no upper limit to how much one can pay for premium options. Chess would be expensive if one insisted on boards and chess pieces crafted from real ivory and ebony, hand carved by famous artisans.
The real test is the minimum buy-in and for wargaming that is in fact virtually zero. Detailed resin figurines, hand painted by professionals may well be desirable but not necessary. Game pieces and scenery can be crafted from paper photocopies at virtually no cost. Usable rules can be home made or downloaded for free from some companies and gaming communities.
Besides some dice and a tape measure this is all one needs for a minimum spend. This approach is sometimes called “poorhammer” as a super cheap alternative to warhammer but similar things can be done for any wargame.
Although it is not needed to defend the premium prices to prove the point that wargaming is not expensive, demonstrating the minimum buy-in is sufficient for that, it is only fair to point out that even the more extreme model costs in wargaming are not without some justification.
The most notoriously expensive vendor in wargaming is of course Games Workshop and its partner company Forge World. Interestingly their products are also among the most best selling. “Too expensive” hardly seems to stack up alongside “best selling” but somehow it does.
Part of Games Workshop’s business model includes providing substantial free support to their customer’s gaming and hobbying activities through a global network of specialist retail shops. A tangible example of this is that significant valuable shelf space is sacrificed to provide a free-of-cost playing area.
The cost of this community support is bundled into the cost of the product. The premium here then is comparable to the premium that pubs charge for beer over what supermarkets charge. The price includes support for a social space.
No doubt the ultimate aim for this is a “loss leader” for generating sales but nonetheless it is a more or less valued part of the product and it is paid for out of the product price.
Although Warhammer is approaching mainstream awareness it still remains somewhat a niche market. There is a limited market for sales while at the same time a demand from that market for enormous variety of product designs.
This means very small production runs for each design. Consequently the fixed costs of design and tooling represent a relatively large proportion of the retail price compared with variable costs like the plastic material.
As painful as it may be to pay £25 for a little plastic kit to make a single infantry figure, most of us in the hobby somehow still end up with vast stashes of kits like this unpainted, unassembled and often even unopened.
We in the hobby refer to them as “piles of shame”, because of course we tend to feel embarrassed by such unused purchases. Often our piles of shame grow larger faster than our painted collection. One can almost age a hobbyist by the size of his piles…
The reason for these piles of shame is that despite the sticker price the real price of the kits is the time it takes to assemble and paint them. It is in a sense cheaper to pay £25 for an single figure than it is to spend half a dozen hours making it pretty for the tabletop.
That may sound like an argument that wargaming, or the hobby side of it, is actually even more expensive than the simple financial cost. However an expense that is stored rather than consumed is less a cost and more an investment.
Regardless, the existence of piles of shame in almost every hobbyist’s life would seem to be evidence that the sticker price is not such a huge barrier. Too expensive in time to paint perhaps, but not too expensive to buy with money…
Any shrewdly thrifty person could warn you that anything you can buy that is not immediately consumed will tend to lose value over time. The word for this is depreciation. In general everything depreciates, even currency.
Only a rare few items tend to genuinely increase in value over time; fine wines, paintings by the old masters, hand-crafted furniture and … wargaming kits. The combination of special interest, nostalgia and small production runs can combine to create collectibility in certain wargaming products and that can result in them actually appreciating in value over time.
Is it really an expense if the thing purchased is worth more when resold that it cost to buy? Thrifty people do not call that an expense they call that an investment. If it is not an expense then it can not be expensive.
Although miniatures can be lost, damaged and stolen, for the most part they are quite durable. Their value persists through time even if they do not happen to appreciate. There is not much in the hobby that is truly consumable. Even the paint if applied artfully to a model is not so much consumed as transformed.
If one can master the craft of painting and converting miniatures then the way is open to do more than ride the time defying wave of appreciation and actually add to the kit’s value. A well painted model is worth more than a unpainted one.
With the caveat that a bad paint job and assembly will tend to reduce the value of a kit when resold, a really good paint job can multiply its value considerably. Certain persons even make a trade out of the added value from painting miniatures, as I do myself.
These aspects of appreciation and adding value are not really present at all, or to the same extent, in board games and computer game equivalents.
Wargaming, even Warhammer, is not expensive because it is only as expensive as you want to make it. Moreover it is quite possible to make the hobby a profitable one, a rare thing among hobbies.