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Four gangers from the Necromunda: Underhive boxed set.
Some miniatures from Necromunda: Underhive painted to a very high level, including some freehand work, by Michael Szymanski.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

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How I got into tabletop wargaming and how you can, too

Want to get away from the screen and paint some minis? Here’s how.

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Since I spend most of my work hours attached to a computer, I deeply appreciate that tabletop games get me away from a glowing screen. The more tactile, the further from a browser, the better. Naturally, I have pined for the forbidden fruit that is miniatures wargaming, a cross between a hardcore tactical board game and an elaborate train set. The hardest part has been determining which system I want to invest my time and money in.

After hemming and hawing, I’ve finally settled on the Warhammer 40,000 universe. The franchise, known for its many pricey parts, feels more financially accessible than it has in a decade. Best of all, there’s an entire ecosystem of products and tutorials available from the manufacturer, Games Workshop, to get me started.

Over the last year I’ve had a few false starts, but using a little bit of my own money and a lot of free time, I’ve managed to plan a way forward. Here’s what I’ve learned about the hobby of miniatures wargaming in the last year, including my picks for some of the best online instruction around.

photo of Star Wars: Legion speeder bike miniature
A speeder bike from Star Wars: Legion. Developer and publisher Fantasy Flight Games has an excellent, free tutorial for painting the starter set.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Start small

The biggest mistake you could possibly make in miniatures wargaming is buying too many minis straight off the bat. As you learn about a given game, your tactics and your interests are likely to change. Your best bet therefore is to start small with just a handful of units. Take your time, learn as you go, and eventually you’ll be able to field the force you want.

For my first purchase I went with Know No Fear: A Warhammer 40,000 Starter Set, which runs $80 direct from Games Workshop or your friendly local game store. I got mine for a little less on Amazon.

Games Workshop

This boxed set comes with everything you need to field two small forces. On the one side are the latest and greatest Primaris Space Marines, each one tall and lithe like their brothers in the eighth edition of the 40K ruleset. On the other side is the Death Guard, a hodgepodge of traitor Space Marines and reanimated corpses fighting on the side of Chaos. Together, these rivals are the peanut butter and chocolate of the 41st millenium.

Also inside this set are all the things you need to play a quick game, including dice and a ruler. Trouble is, the terrain that comes inside that box ... is the box. You literally take it out of its decorative sleeve, flip it over and pretend it’s a building. While there are more than enough miniatures here to keep you busy painting for months, by the time you get around to playing, you might be bored to tears. But I have a solution for that below.

If you have a little bit of extra money to spend, you should look into Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team. Currently out of stock and going for wildly inflated prices on Amazon, it normally sells for $130 direct from Games Workshop or your friendly local game shop. It includes some excellent modular terrain that you can mix and match, as well as a ruleset for a smaller skirmish version of the traditional 40K rules.

If the Kill Team gameplay is not to your liking, or you run out of runway with the slim pamphlet included in Know No Fear, eventually you’ll also need the 40K core rulebook. Titled Warhammer 40,000 for maximum confusion when searching online, it’s available in both a digital format and as a physical book. Like everything else mentioned here, you can get that direct from Games Workshop, your friendly local game store or Amazon.

Charlie Hall/Polygon and Charlie Hall/Polygon

The right tools

Putting miniatures together generally involves cutting them free from their sprues and slathering some glue in the right places. But the right tools will make your life so much easier when the painting begins.

First off, if you’re building plastic miniatures, like the ones from Games Workshop linked above, you’ll want to get a good set of sprue nippers. They look like wire cutters, but one side of the business end is flat so that you can cut close to the model without leaving any extra plastic behind.

Nippers are commonly used in other hobbies, such as beading. I picked up my pair at Michael’s. They’re made by Beadalon, and they’re also available on Amazon for about $8, or about half what you’d pay for something comparable that’s specifically marketed for use on miniatures.

Be gentle with your nippers. Don’t press the blades together without anything in between, for instance, or you could bend the edge and cause them to misalign. Also, don’t use them for cutting anything other than plastic.

If you’re working with resin or pewter miniatures, what you’ll want to get instead is a set of delicate files. They’re only a few inches long, but make quick work of rough spots and leavings from the molding process. The set I use is available on Amazon for less than $10.

Gen Con wargames hall feature photo essay gallery
Academy Games’ 1775 Rebellion The American Revolution, adapted by Pat Louis for play at Gen Con in 2015.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

After you’ve cut your plastic minis off the sprue, they still won’t be ready to assemble. The final step before gluing is to remove the mold lines. These are tiny blemishes where the hot plastic oozed out between the two halves of the mold used in the manufacturing process.

For a long time, I just used the back of a hobby knife to remove mold lines, but the detail on miniatures these days is such that you need something smaller and stiffer than your average hobby blade to get into the nooks and crannies. Games Workshop makes something called a Mouldline Remover. At $17.50 direct and from local game stores, slightly less on Amazon, it’s a bit much for a stiff bit of metal with a brown handle. But it’s made all the difference in my assembly, reducing damaged miniatures and cut fingers by roughly 100 percent.

Finally, read the directions for your miniatures carefully to determine what kind of adhesive, either plastic cement or super glue, is recommended for assembly. Using the wrong one can spell disaster.

For plastic cement, Games Workshop’s own Citadel brand works well. I especially like the symmetrical metal applicator, which can be removed and reinserted into the bottle upside down to remove fouling. There may also be situations where a brush applicator is useful, so consider picking up Tamiya’s plastic cement as well.

Finally, for super glue I recommend Loctite. For a long time I went with the stuff you can find at the convenience store that comes inside a metal tube. Loctite’s gel stays where you put it, meaning it’s less likely to run down the sides of your model and onto your hands.

Gen Con wargames hall feature photo essay gallery
Part of a BattleTech diorama by CamoSpecs from Gen Con 2015.
Charlie Hall/Polygon


When it comes to painting, you’re going to want a decent set of brushes ... eventually. In the beginning, what you want is some cheap ones that you can learn with.

Whatever you can find at your local craft store will probably get the job done early on. Just avoid the thick-bristled, disposable brushes that come with children’s paint sets, and you should be good to go.

When you’re ready for something a bit more sophisticated, there are plenty of options. Games Workshop makes its own line of brushes, but I’ve had issues with their durability in the last year. For a time I used Games & Gears synthetic brushes, but in their case I had a few that showed up defective and required some modification to make them work right. Their technical brushes are still worth your time, but if you’re just starting out, they’re not at all necessary.

Recently, I visited a local Dick Blick store and picked up a few of Princeton’s new line of Velvetouch multimedia brushes. Also available on Amazon, they hold a decent amount of paint and clean up nicely. I recommend picking up a mini round 20/0 for detail work, along with three additional round brushes sized one, two and three for general work.

Once you’ve painted up a miniature, one option is to apply weathering. On these samples I’ve used one of Games Workshop’s technical paints for the patina on copper parts, and Vallejo’s powdered pigment for the spots of bright orange rust.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

Whatever brush you’re using, you’ll also want to some get brush soap to clean and condition your brushes between painting sessions. Games & Gears makes an excellent set, one that comes complete with a lint-free cloth, that I’ve gotten loads of use out of so far. You can get that set direct from Games & Gears or on Amazon.

Since acrylic paints tend to dry out while you’re using them, a wet palette is necessary to keep them pliable while you work. Making your own is cheap and easy, but you may as well pick up a Sta-Wet Palette for less than $10. The airtight lid will keep your palette damp for weeks, and not having to fiddle with a makeshift solution every time you want to paint will make you more productive in the long run.

Finally, you’ll need to purchase the right acrylic paints. There are a number of different brands available, including Citadel from Games Workshop and Vallejo. A conversion chart can help you find the colors you need in the brands you want.

Find a good teacher

Aside from their excellent models, what makes Games Workshop products such a joy to work on is the company’s YouTube channel, Warhammer TV. Whatever set or individual model you purchase to start out with, there is likely a video custom-made for teaching you how to do the work.

For my first batch of models, I used a short video on painting a specific Space Marine faction called the Dark Angels to get started. In under two minutes, the presenter was able to show me a shopping list of paints I’d need in order to get the job done, and all the techniques needed to do it right.

To supplement that video, I used the Games Workshop app (available free for both iOS and Android) for the detail work such as weapons and holsters. Not only does the app include instructions for painting individual models, but it also has basic and advanced instructions for painting specific colors so that you can improvise on the fly.

Perhaps the most important video that I found on YouTube isn’t about gaming at all. It’s about caring for your brushes. Scott “Miniac” Walter has an excellent rundown on what it takes to protect your investment, how to use brush soap, and basic painting techniques that will keep your tips sharp.

Take time for terrain

Even the most beautiful miniatures in the world won’t be any fun to play with if you don’t have any scenery to play on. But scenery can also be one of the most expensive parts of the wargame hobby, especially if you elect to purchase plastic or resin scenery kits.

One option is to buy flat-packed laser-cut wood terrain. Companies like 4Ground, TTCombat and Wargames Tournaments are all excellent options. Another is to invest in papercraft terrain. I have a lot of experience with Dave Graffam’s print-at-home line and highly recommend it.

While I was looking around YouTube for painting tutorials, I stumbled upon Mel “The Terrain Tutor” Bose. His videos are phenomenal, but I especially like his series exploring the different ways to use foam board.

Yes, he’s making top-notch terrain from the stuff you use for science fair presentations.

Bose is doing a lot more than just using white glue and pins here. He goes into extraordinary detail on how to hide joints and how to score, fold and sculpt the material to create all sorts of different effects.

The best part of these tutorials, however, is that they emphasize spending time on the hobby of wargaming rather than spending money. The Terrain Tutor’s methods jibe well with my own goals of spending as little cash as possible to get up and running. Now that I’ve got a decent number of miniatures painted up, I’m looking forward to spending the next year building out my collection of terrain to go with them.

This is far from an exhaustive list of tips. Please feel free to drop more in the comments below. I’m especially curious if you have recommendations for how to get started in other franchises such as Bolt Action, Flames of War, Infinity and Warmachine.

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