Metal vs. Painted Plastic | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 17 November 2006
Brett takes a good long look at the differences between metal and painted plastics and lets you know what he thinks is the best solution for your specific needs...

Painted Plastics: A Match for Metal?

"To be or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of metal miniatures
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And buy painted plastic ones?"

-Mostly Shakespeare

Metal miniatures vs. painted plastic seems to be a hot topic these days. Prepainted plastic miniatures are fairly new, and many people have not yet ventured into that territory. I only took the plunge about six months ago. Since then, I've learned much about these miniatures in what has definitely developed into a love/hate relationship. Of course, the same can be said about metal miniatures: The winding path I have taken with metal minis has been far longer, but the experience has been similar. Herewith then, a rundown of the factors to consider when choosing between painted plastic or metal.

Cost: The No. 1 factor for miniatures is usually price. Metal minis have always been expensive. Buying a few player character pieces from Reaper Miniatures will run you about $8. That same $8 might get you one piece from Games Workshop--monsters tend to be larger and cost more, anywhere from $8 to $20. But at least you know what you're buying when you buy it.

Now take painted plastics. Think back to the time when you bought baseball cards as a kid (OK, maybe you still buy them). As Forrest Gump would say, "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get." That is both the thrill of opening the painted plastic minis boxes, and the eventual crushing defeat, when you get all doubles of pieces you already own, including the rare one!

Pre-painted plastic miniatures are potluck, so get used to having a lot of doubles. You will have plenty to make up armies for huge battles if you're into Warhammer, but for regular gaming, you will have loads of pieces that are exactly the same. More on this later�

All that said, painted plastics seem like a great deal: You usually get eight miniatures for about $13, an awesome value. Newer ones look much better than the earlier painted plastic versions. If you paint like a dog eats supper, plastics might be for you. But the catch is, if you're a collector and want to get every piece in the set, it will probably cost you double or triple what you'd pay for the same number of metal miniatures, and therein lies the gotcha.

Each overall series contains about 60 pieces--23 rares, 21 uncommons, and 16 common pieces. As an example I'll use the War Drums set by Wizards of the Coast. You're guaranteed to get just one rare per eight-piece box. You will never get two rares in a box. You will usually get two uncommon pieces, and that leaves five common minis. The rares are, predictably, by far the better pieces. They're better sculpted, better painted, and have a definite cool factor (every special non-generic character piece is a rare). Uncommons are less exceptional but are still very good pieces. Commons tend to be the so-so pieces and are always generic. The more boxes you open, the more commons you will be swimming in. Rares are worth their weight in gold, but with one per box, you won't see many of them. You can pretty much forget that one rare piece that would be perfect for your game unless you get very lucky, or buy a lot of boxes. We've found that if you really want a particular piece, you should either buy the metal equivalent or look on E-Bay. Note also that metal miniatures have been around a lot longer than plastic, and certain monsters may be found only in metal.

Bottom line, the cost battle ends in a wash. Both types have major cost factors involved, and they are highly dependent on what the customer wants.

Time: When prepainted plastics entered the scene, time became another huge consideration. Let's face it, metal miniatures are an extremely laborious hobby unto themselves. If miniatures are a tree branch of gaming, those few acorns on that one branch spawn entire forests. But painted plastics take all of that away: You buy the box, you use the pieces. There's no prep work involved. No gluing, cleaning, priming, painting.

When I couldn't paint worth a damn, back in the old days, the few minis I could afford became the black knight, the red knight, the blue knight � you get the picture. Painting was easy! But since then, I've dated an artist, found loads of tricks online � and my paint time has gone from about 5 minutes and one color, to between two and eight hours and 20-plus colors. That's for just one piece.

Painted plastics win the time battle hands down, and this is the main reason to buy them.

Detail & Durability: The first prepainted plastic minis were pretty badly painted. Since then, they've greatly improved. They won't impress the artists, but for most players, they're more than good enough. I do not believe that metal has any more detail than plastics, as both lose a lot of detail when primer and paint are applied.

The exception: A black-washed metal piece will show so much more detail than plastic, it's not funny. So what's black-washing, you ask? Think back to the last time you had to buy someone a birthday card. You ended up in Hallmark, browsing the aisles. Suddenly in front of you was a display case with the coolest pewter miniatures. They looked nothing like your pewter minis at home. Why? Because these had been black-washed. The black-wash gave them definition, and made even the tiniest details pop. So how can I do that with my pieces, you ask? Well, the secret formula consists of one part black paint, one part Future Floor Finish and six parts water. Mix formula, dunk mini, wipe away pooled excess paint, and dry. Tada!

I now black-wash every metal piece I buy. I have too many to paint them in one lifetime, and I was tired of looking at bare metal, or primed pieces. I set up my own black-wash assembly line, and now I enjoy unpainted pieces a great deal more, because what they lack in color, they make up for in detail.

I also found that when I did paint metal miniatures, they chipped fairly easily. I now prime and seal them with a clear coat. This protects them reasonably well, though you have to be careful with the metal pieces--a sword can easily break off, or a leaner (a piece without a good stand) can fall over and chip. You also have to make sure minis do not touch one another when being moved, so storage cases and foam rubber become necessary.

Painted plastics tend to be more durable in that you can store them together and they seldom lose paint. But don't kid yourself: Plastics can have serious, sometimes humorous, flaws. For example, sometimes they come out of the box bent, flattened to their bases, or just painted badly. For flattened ones, I've tried putting them between books for a few days to straighten them, but they still tend to lean in the wrong direction. Sometimes you will have a casualty in a box of painted plastic minis that may never be more useful than the dead guy on the battlefield. Hopefully it was a common piece and not a rare!

This last battle ends in another close tally. Both have their pros and cons.

All in all, gamers should look at both metal and painted plastics to fill their coffers and dungeons. It comes down to how much time you wish to spend on the hobby and how much cash you are willing to shell out. It makes sense to have some of each type, so you can find what best suits you. There's much more to be said on this subject, so look for a part two. As in all things, keep vigilant; look out for bargains, and happy gaming.

-Brett Arroyo

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