By Chris Bowler
Every year, dozens of new board games release that are choc full of plastic. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, I can hardly claim to avoid the stuff as an avid mini gamer and dungeon crawl fan I own more plastic than some toy manufacturers but today I’m going ask the question, why?
Why is that board game publishers choose to produce plastic miniatures?
At first plastic may appear to be a cheap alternative to other available products. The price point per miniature drops to an extremely low figure when they are produced in volume. However, the initial outlay costs are not small, the cost of the moulds for plastics can be extremely high. Happily, plastic moulds last much longer than metal and plastic is lighter to ship than metal or wood.
However to make this manufacturing process viable the publisher either needs to raise the price of the game or to produce, and more importantly, sell, a vast quantity of the games. This is why companies like Hasbro can produce plastic heavy games at a very low price point, while a company like Fantasy Flight or Days of Wonder has to charge significantly more.
However, many games that use plastic do not use high quality sculpts. This seems like an odd business decision. The sculpting fee is considerably smaller than the moulding process, it would seem that if you plan on producing a quality product you should invest at little more on the sculpts to ensure a quality end product. The truth of this can be seen in the success of Super Dungeon Explore.
However, it’s not just the sculpts that tend to be low quality, but the material itself. There are two kinds of plastics, the hard brittle kind, such as you may find in Risk and the soft rubbery kind such as that found in Descent.
Both such materials present problems. The hard plastic can easily break during shipping, which for companies like FFG, who will replace broken parts, could mean a large second outlay on replacement pieces and shipping costs. However hard plastic holds it’s shape and details better, which is why companies like Games Workshop have used it for years. The soft rubbery plastic neatly combats the shipping issue and the fact that the pieces will be handled by players who may not necessarily know how you should handle delicate miniatures!!! However, this method often results in warped miniatures with a substantial lack of detail.
When you consider that plastic in games increases the price point, not only through manufacturing costs but also through the additional weight and increased size of the box for shipping, it begs the question, why bother? What are the alternatives?
I’m glad you asked. The alternatives are many.
Metal – Metal components would combat the issue of quality, however not of weight or the manufacturing costs.
Resin – Resin production is still a developing process. Resin allows for much higher quality miniatures than plastic, with even less weight and a cheaper overall production process. However, they are also less durable and are susceptible to casting issues with air bubbles. Eventually however I believe resin will become the material of choice, although a more durable kind than is currently on the market.
Wood – Wood is often used in games. It creates a different atmosphere to plastic, giving a feeling of abstraction. With laser cutting complex shapes are not difficult to produce relatively cheaply. Although wood is not as cheap as plastic the initial outlay is lower making it a viable alternative for smaller print runs. However wood is heavier still than plastic.
Cardboard – Cardboard is an alternative that is very affordable. It offers a similar function to plastic miniatures without the associated risks. It also removes the end users need to build and/or paint anything.
But, none of this really answers the question, why do we use plastic?
We know that plastic makes our games more expensive, we know it’s never going to be as detailed as wargames miniatures, we know it will need assembling and painting, we know it breaks and bends and yet we still continue to use it… But why?
Because it looks impressive. Because it feels tactile.
Short of miniature gaming there is nothing quite as imposing as a table covered with 3D cardboard layouts with plastic miniatures fighting it out for control. While cardboard or wood may allow you to see what is going on the table, it’s just not the same as a fully 3D gaming piece, painted lovingly to look like your favourite in game character.
For me, there is a line between board gaming and miniature gaming. I feel like I’ve reached a stage in my gaming career that I like my games to be complete, in the box, that I can open them and start playing, never having to pick up a paint brush (and paint substandard miniatures) For me, I’d really enjoy the option of purchasing my mini-heavy games “plastic free”, an option where you instead receive the game without miniatures for a moderate reduction. This way I can could substitute in minis from my own collection, which I currently do anyway, without having to pay for mini’s I wont use.
But what about you guys? What do you think of plastic heavy games? What is it that makes you like or dislike them? And what do you think the future of plastic is in gaming?
Until next week, have fun gaming
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- board game plastic replacement pieces