Sunday, January 16, 2011

[Project Ork] In Which I Drink the Kool-Aid

It's about time I wrote a bit about my big project for 2011. But first, some background.

As I've written about recently, this is my year for re-invigorating my atrophied miniatures hobby. Back when I first got into gaming, miniatures wargaming held as strong a pull on me as RPGs. (Strangely, these two interests never really intersected - I've never been a big fan of using miniatures in RPGs.) I picked up Fantasy Warriors within a year of my first-ever gaming purchase (the Mentzer Red Box) and was soon painting armies with great enthusiasm (if not so much the skill to match).

The following year a friend of mine received the boxed set of Warhammer 5th edition and I received Space Marine (the forerunner of Epic 40K) the same Christmas, and we were thrust headlong and screaming into the abyss of Games Workshop fandom. For the next eight years or so, we played a wide variety of GW games: Man O' War, Necromunda, Mighty Empires, as well as lots and lots of Warhammer and Epic. For a variety of strange and obtuse reasons too byzantine to get into here, we never managed to add Warhammer 40,000 proper to our roster of games.

As much as we were enthusiastic players of GW games, we also experienced all of the usual dubious joys that come with that territory: the price gouging, the planned obsolescence, the corporate policy of not supporting  long-time players in favor of bringing in new blood, and so forth. Not to mention we were playing these games during what could be termed the nadir of Games Workshop in terms of both rules and figure quality ("Herohammer," kiddified marketing, atrocious plastics, and so forth). In due time, we hit the point of burnout on our GW hobby. Armies were sold off, plans were made to move on to other, more "indie" genres.

Those plans never really panned out. As a historian by training and interest, I found myself drawn towards the historical miniatures genre. Certainly the fractional price point of 15mm figures compared to Games Workshop was a big draw. Unfortunately, this was still in the dawning days of the Web, and I found myself largely adrift without guidance or any idea of how to get jump-start my new hobby. This was back before games like Flames of War and Warhammer Ancients revolutionized the historical miniatures hobby by introducing concepts to rulebooks such as readability, color photos (or images period), decent page layout and organization, or addressing themselves towards a newbie audience.

Over time, however, even as these things got better, I found myself well along a path towards increasingly idiosyncratic interests, ordering minis from backyard manufacturers around the world, picking up obscure reference works from Ukrainian distributors, and pursuing increasingly arcane projects. This culminated with my long and largely unrequited interest in World War II miniatures (which, if nothing else, has left me very well grounded in the history of that war and of the 1940s in general) ultimately taking the form of a collection of 1/72 scale plastics modeled on an obscure and little-known campaign.

Cut to a couple months ago.

I had finished painting up our fantasy armies and was planning to (yet again) re-base my WWII miniatures in preparation for yet another permutation when I realized I was done. After 15 years of collecting and painting WWII minis, I felt I'd reached my end. Not just for the Second World War, but for 20th Century wargaming in general. I wanted to branch out to something more colorful, and also something less close to our own time.

So I started thinking about a new project. I made a decision: to sell my WWII collection and use the ensuing funds - and only those funds - to start the new project. After due consideration, I settled on returning to an old, unticked box, and drink the Kool-Aid: I would at long last start a Warhammer 40,000 project.

This is a huge step for me. Apart from a brief dalliance with Mordheim about six or seven years ago, I haven't played a Games Workshop game in a regular way since 1996. I've attempted to start a project or two, but even then the last attempt was years ago.

Another significant element of my decision is the fact that I'll only be collecting one army. I've gotten into the habit over the past few years of collecting two armies at once. This is because I've largely been the sole torch-carrier for my hobby, even in its greatly reduced state. That meant I couldn't rely on others to collect their own armies for me to play against, and that I had to make sure I was able to supply an opponent with an army if they were interested in playing a game here and there. By choosing to collect just the one army, I'm basically accepting that I'll be going out to play with strangers, something I've never done in the past.

On the one hand, with a 40K army I'm sure I won't lack for potential opponents. On the other hand, these opponents will be drawn from a pool that is notorious for having among its numbers, well, petulant little bitches. Obviously that's a vocal minority, but they do exist.

My goal going in to this project is to aim for aesthetics over "playing to win." This is kind of my philosophy when it comes to miniatures games to begin with, but I'm really pushing the former category with this project since I have no idea when I'll be sending my troops into combat. Also, there's a definite culture of conversion in the 40K universe, so I'm looking forward to jumping into that and doing some extensive customization of my forces, focusing on painting, modeling, and producing a visually compelling collection.

Speaking of my forces, I've decided to go with Orks. Reasons are twofold. First, my old Epic 40K army was Orks, so I have a definite sentimental attachment. Second, all 40K minis are, shall we say, a bit on the cartoony side. This was actually a turnoff for me when I was taking a fresh look at 40K, but I like that Orks are unapologetically so. I like their sense of fun, their ridiculousness, the fact they don't take themselves too seriously. In terms of setting, they're a refreshing break from the relentless seriousness of the other races. I like that they fight for the love of it, not because they're EEEVIL or because they're grimly determined or inscrutable or what have you.

I've decided to go with the Blood Axes clan. Call it my contrarian nature at work again, I suppose. The Blood Axes are hardly a popular choice of clan, even in the canon (despised as they are by the other Ork clans). But I like them because I saw an opportunity to do a bit of an homage to the World War II origins of this project - the Blood Axes pattern themselves on human military conventions. I found a company in Poland (there I go ordering obscure shit from Eastern Europe!) that does resin Ork heads with German-style helmets. I've decided to evoke a sort of Germanic flavor with my boyz, modeling camouflage patterns on WWI German camo, for example. I'll post more details about individual units as I work on them, but for now the old minis have been sold and new ones are arriving as I type.

Some observations so far: After so many years of toiling in obscure corners of the miniatures hobby, it's a pleasant surprise to find the Internet such an embarrassment of riches in 40K resources. Galleries, how-to guides, tactical overviews, and - most critically - lots and lots of great discounts on the second-hand market. I've been able to put together an (at least) 1,000 point army on $260, not bad for a "horde" army like the Orks.

Despite my mixed feelings about returning to the Games Workshop fold, ultimately I'm excited about this project and enthusiastic about seeing how the minis turn out.
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