- How cheap is cheap?: My rough guideline is an average cost of under 50 cents (US) a mini for human-sized or smaller figures, and $1-2 for larger figures. Understand that the standard deviation of this average is pretty broad (if my math-vocab is right): A box of 40 fantasy figures from Caesar Miniatures is around $10, or 25 cents a figure, while the occasional Warhammer, Reaper, or DDM miniature might set you back a dollar or more. I'd prefer to stay on the low range whenever possible, of course, but this way I have some room for the occasional dip into more expensive minis should the need arise.
- Cheap minis also means cheap supplies: Now of course a craftsman is only as good as his tools, and I don't mean to suggest that you should settle for dodgy paints and the like. Good tools especially are an investment you hopefully only have to make once, so paying more upfront for things like that not only means better quality, but more money saved over time. What I do mean is that the cheap fantasy mini painter should learn to appreciate the difference between "best quality possible" and "pretty good." If I sprang for GamesWorkshop paints, inks, and primers for $4 a half-ounce bottle, it would probably make a difference in how my figures looked. But I use sprays and craft paints I got a Hobby Lobby for a fraction of that: a 2 oz. bottle of good craft paint can be a dollar or less. I don't claim that my figures are the best-looking they could be, but I do think they are at the threshold of where the dollar-to-quality ratio of better paints is just too high.
- Scale matters: The miniatures I am pursuing are in the neighborhood of 1/72 scale, which is about 1 inch for a human-sized figure. This is about half the size of, say, a typical Dungeons and Dragons miniature. I think it's important to stick with this scale as much as possible (and might make diving into cheap minis a bit painful for the invested DDM collector). If I sat down at the game table and plunked down three dwarf figures—a 1/72 Caesar Miniature, a DnD mini, and a 54mm Tehnolog figure—and told you they were all dwarves, it would be silly. It would break the sense of tactical verisimilitude that is a large part of why we use minis in the first place. For my taste, even a 28mm figure looks out of place next to a 1/72 figure for the same type of creature* (though this is much more subjective). This doesn't mean I won't ever use figures from other scales, but it will be with adaptation in mind. Small figures in larger scales may look human-sized in 1/72, while human-sized figures in smaller scales look halfling-sized. That 54mm dwarf might make a great 1/72 scale giant, and a large monster in 28mm scale looks about as large in 1/72.
- One word, plastic!: I was tempted to inflict a quick lesson in economics vis a vis metal versus plastic miniatures, but I'll try to refrain. In a nutshell, plastic molds are more expensive to make than metal molds, but plastic figures are cheaper to cast once the molds are already made. This means that the startup costs for making metal miniatures is lower than for plastic minis, but that the overall cost per figure is lower for plastic. It also means that metal manufacturers are much more common, despite the higher cost per figure, and that there is a greater variety of metal minis available. When you can't find what you need in plastic, metal may be your best bet, but for the cheap fantasy miniaturist, plastic is preferred.
- If you can't find it, make it: There is no need to sculpt your own miniatures most of the time, but there are lots of ways to change the figure you have into the figure you want. I'll go into how figure modding works in a later post, but you shouldn't be afraid to bend, chop up, and/or reassemble your minis. It's easier than you might think, and since plastic figures especially may not have the variety you want, modding is a great way to get that variety. And since you are a cheap fantasy miniaturist, you don't have to worry too much if your experiment in reposing or head-swapping goes awry.
- The hunt is part of the fun: Any bargain-hunter will tell you that finding a deal is a thrill that exceeds the simple value of the money you save. Finding cheap fantasy minis doesn't have to be a second career, and of course my goal here is to make the hunt easier. But searching through eBay or trading forums, finding neat-if-obscure online shops, or combing through bits bins at your Friendly Local Game Store: it all takes time, but it's time that is as enjoyable a part of the hobby as assembling and painting.
*A note on scale, for people unfamiliar with its peculiarities: 1/72 humans are about 1 inch, or 25mm tall, so you'd think that 28mm shouldn't be that big a difference. But there are a couple weird factors in the non-standard way of how scale is determined complicate things. One is the trend toward "heroic" miniatures, which in practice means sculpts with big heads and hands that are larger than the advertised scale (this feeds into a phenomenon called "scale inflation"). The other is the difference between "foot to eye" and "foot to crown": some miniature makers, instead of measuring the full height of the figure, measure from foot to eye-level and use that as the basis of their scale.
All this means, in practice, that 1/72 is paradoxically synonymous with "20mm scale" most of the time. "True 25mm" is also an acceptable synonym, but be careful around advertised scales of "25mm", which often comes out the same as heroic 28mm.