Blade To Blade: Prepainted Fantasy Miniatures | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 15 December 2006
When you just don't have the time to paint.

Generally gamers need to choose between (badly) prepainted rubber/plastic cast miniatures, or detailed metal figures that require a fine touch, and a chunk of time, to paint up decently. Since our skilled painter friends now run in the other direction when they see us coming, we decided to seek an alternative.

We got hold of three sets of pre-painted 25mm/28mm gaming miniatures, one each from Dwarven Forge, EM4/Crystal Caste and Holistic Games. Each manufacturer offers something a little different. When we stacked them up against one another, which came out on top?

EM4 Elfsera

The first set we looked at was a sample from U.K. gaming company EM4's Elfsera line of prepainted minis, suitable for wargaming or role-play. The set that EM4 sent us for review (pictured below) contains some ... familiar looking adventurers all kitted out for adventuring.

This group "Rings" a bell�!

As noted, the scale range is 28mm; ultimately the difference is negligible for fantasy role-play. Even skirmish-scale gamers shouldn't have any issues with the scale of the EM4 miniatures.

It isn't just miniatures that EM4 offers with its Elfsera line: Each figure comes with a single Crystal Caste d20, a handy feature for DMs who at times find themselves with a dearth of dice. The packaging is a blister inside a box, with custom-molded blister trays for each miniature. While this is initially convenient, unfortunately, it leaves something to be desired for long-term storage: Some of the miniatures do not sit stably on their bases, which means gluing them down is a must. Once the bases are on, the miniatures no longer fit in the tray, and it and the box become extraneous, which is a shame as it is a nice package.

The sculpting on the EM4 miniatures is very nicely done. All major details seem proportional, and there isn't a hint of flash. These are very finely finished pieces.

We were a little disappointed to see that the miniatures came without flocked bases, but this was the case with all of the figures reviewed. Furthermore, more creatively minded GMs might wish to flock the bases to match specific terrain--gravel for dungeons, grass for outside.

As to the actual paint jobs, they are definitely serviceable. We were disappointed to note a lack of detail in some areas; specifically, the characters' eyes are unpainted. If you're someone who thrives on minute detail, this could be a letdown.

However, other areas of detail on the painting were fairly well done � or in our parlance, "At least as good as I could manage." You probably wouldn't get first place in a competition with any of them, but shading and detail are picked out. It's obvious that washes were used to bring up details, and it was done well. Highlights are nicely delineated. One distraction was that all of the miniatures seem to have been sealed with a gloss coat, making them very shiny. This isn't necessarily ideal; we've found that a gloss coat can compete with detailed highlights.

Manufacturer: EM4
Product: Elfsera Adventurers Set 1
UK: EM4 Direct
MSRP: � 10.99
US: Crystal Caste
MSRP: $25.00

Holistic Designs - Fantasy Encounters
The next set of products we reviewed were the Fantasy Encounters line from Holistic Designs.

Also 28mm, these miniatures came packaged in boxes similar to their EM4 counterparts: A blister package inside a cardboard container. The miniatures are slot-base style, which means they mount on square plastic bases. As with the EM4 miniatures, permanently attaching the base precludes re-use of the trays.

Unlike the Elfsera miniatures, the Fantasy Encounter miniatures don't include d20s ... they are d20 products! To wit: Each Fantasy Encounter boxed set features a d20 licensed "stat card" for each miniature in the set. There are three variants of each card, representing a stage of advancement for each character, suitable for use as an NPC or for someone who needs a quick character for a "pick-up" game. The stat cards cover Low, Medium and High levels, although each set of miniatures sets its own bar as to what constitutes low, medium or high. For example, the Fantasy Encounters: Heroes cards start at 20th level - and go up. So a third-edition DM would have to be careful when incorporating any of those PCs or NPCs into the game depending on where their own high level for the game lay!

The sculpting for each set was done by various artists, including Bobby Jackson (whose work can also be found in several of Reaper Miniatures' lines). The cast jobs are very well done--no visible mold lines or flash anywhere. Painting for the miniatures was done at the point of manufacture, in China. Chris Wiese of Holistic Design tells us that the painting and paint curing method is a trade secret. Whatever method is used, the paint seems durable: This reviewer couldn't get the paint to casually rub off (as happens on my own � sealed! � miniatures from time to time).

Holistic was kind enough to send us its entire pre-painted miniature line, and some of the painting jobs (specifically on #704 "Heroes") are extraordinary. Shading and highlighting are extremely well done. Reflective metallic surfaces are done with a combination of NMM and metallics. Judicious but careful use of washes brings out shadows and details well on each miniature, and fine details such as eyes are done very well. The "Heroes" set features a deck of cards, three for each adventurer, starting at 20th level. A second card provides details for a 25th or 26th level "version" of the character, and finally a 31st or 32nd level card.

At the other end of the spectrum, #700, "Orcs," feel very rushed. Basic shading and detail work is done, but highlights are poorly blended, and the paint seems very "thick," for lack of a better word. Stat cards start in a much lower range (although multi-classing is more prevalent here) and vary from character to character in terms of levels shown on each card.

Thick paints and a glossy finish mar otherwise excellent miniatures.

Item #701, "Dwarves," are fairly well detailed and follow the fine painting jobs as on the "Heroes," although like the Orcs, the Dwarves too are gloss coated. The Dwarves' stats cards all begin at lower levels and top out around 17th level for the highest advanced characters included.

This group of adventuring dwarves is well painted, but they also sport glossy overcoats.

Set #702, "Elves," is a bit of a conundrum for us. On average, the set is fairly well painted, but some items are very well done, others less so. Overall, the Elves set seems a bit hit-and-miss.

Finally, the Undead set (stock #703) features a gaggle of high-level undead to put the fear of the afterlife in to adventurers or wargamers. This set is much like the Dwarves and Elves (#701 & #702, respectively) in that the paint jobs vary from miniature to miniature in terms of quality. Overall, a serviceable job has been done in terms of shading and overall detail. Again, the gloss coat is present (unfortunately). This last set features wildly varying stat cards, but then, the monster types given vary greatly as well: a Zombie just won't have that many level-advancement opportunities compared with, say, a Vampire or Lich!

The oversaturation in this image is due to a photographic error; the miniatures are less "bright" than shown.

As noted, many of the miniatures sent to us by Holistic feature a gloss coat, which has its own disadvantages, noted above. Others use a dull-coat sealant, and this improves the overall look of those miniatures, in our opinion.

All in all, the Holistic Designs minis tries to fill more than one role--rather than just miniatures or just pre-painted miniatures, each box features a set of d20 stat cards which, even if you don't use them with the miniatures, offers a nice resource to the third-edition D&D gamer (or just about any other d20-based game). Of course, a wargamer or someone who plays different fantasy role-playing games might find these cards less useful, but even at that a short write-up of the character's history on each card can prove useful to any fantasy gamer, regardless of the system.

Chris Wiese of Holistic also told us a bit about the balancing done with the character cards. The Heroes set is obviously an Epic Level group of adventurers (for non-aficionados of d20, this means ultra-high-level characters) who could easily take on the other boxed groups in the product line.

The rest are meant to balance each other somewhat, so that two players could take the Orcs versus the Dwarves, for example, or the Elves versus the Undead and have what would be essentially a balanced battle.

The paint jobs on the miniatures vary from merely "okay" (with, for example, the Orcs) to very praiseworthy (Heroes), so caveat emptor.

Finally, it should be noted that Holistic told us it is planning on expanding the Fantasy Encounters line, but it has no firm dates set yet.

Manufacturer: Holistic Designs
Product: Fantasy Encounters Line
#700 Orcs
#701 Dwarves
#702 Undead
#703 Elves
#704 Heroes
Holistic Designs Direct
Heroes - $27.95
Others - $24.95

Dwarven Forge (OOP)
The last pre-painted miniatures we sampled came to us from those venerable sculptors of dungeons deep and deadly, the folks at Dwarven Forge. While most fantasy gamers know Dwarven Forge for its exquisite 28mm "dungeon terrain" pieces, and more recently its 28mm sci-fi pieces, Dwarven Forge for a time produced its own line of resin-cast 28mm monster miniatures as well. Weighing in at a tad more pricey (initially) than a set of plastic miniatures from, say, Games Workshop or unpainted metal from Reaper or Ral Partha (now Iron Wind Metals), the Dwarven Forge minis nonetheless offered the same fine detail that the dungeon sculptures offered.

The typically well-packaged Dwarven Forge product.

Stefan & Co., the masterminds behind Dwarven Forge, were kind enough to send us a troupe of Skeletons to review. These are, as noted, 28mm in scale and feature a wide range of poses. Cast from the same "plaster" as the rest of Dwarven Forge's product line, they are very light � almost too light. Each "war-band" comes in its own reusable blister pack with a custom slot for each miniature. The miniatures are cast on a base, which is colored in a neutral fashion (although they could easily be flocked if a gamer wished to exclusively use them in any one setting).

The skeletons are positively Harryhausen-esque in their sculpting. Unlike the previous two mini types, no tchotckes were included--what you see (a band of menacing undead) is what you get.

The level of detail on the miniatures is exquisite. Dark washes bring up details of harness and weapon and skeletal features very nicely. As with their metal counterparts, no flash or casting lines are visible. A dull sealer was used.

As noted, the minis are cast of resin, not metal, and this has some disadvantages in our opinion. For example, resin minis tend to get knocked over easier (although mounting on metal bases or washers would ameliorate this). Furthermore, resin breaks, not bends, and requires gluing to repair. Finally, the resin tends to flex and warp somewhat in the curing process, leading to irreparably bent spears or other weapons in a couple of cases.

Still, if you're looking for hordes of pre-painted monsters and you don't want to track them down one at a time, buying a pack of Dwarven Forge's pre-painted resin miniatures may be the way to go. However, be aware that Dwarven Forge has discontinued its miniatures line. Whenever you find them, if you want them, buy them then. With all of that said, we still liked the Dwarven Forge minis quite a bit.

That brings up something worth mentioning about all of the pre-painted miniatures we reviewed: If you're looking to build an army, or hordes of monsters to throw at adventurers, Dwarven Forge is the only manufacturers we reviewed that offered anything beyond a five-pack of any homogenous creature. While the well-to-do gamer might not have a problem stocking out a large band of Orcs at a rate of $25.00 for five, the thriftier GM might balk at those prices. Furthermore, with Dwarven Forge's exit from the pre-painted miniatures game (no pun intended), stocking those dungeons with armies of one- and two-hit-die pre-painted critters (without having to buy Wizard of the Coast's D&D minis, a hit-and-miss prospect given the "random booster pack" nature of the product) becomes a difficult exercise at best.

Manufacturer: Dwarven Forge
Product: Prepainted Skeleton War Band
MSRP: $42.00
UK Sourcing: Esdevium Games is the UK Distributor for DF, but to the best of our knowledge, this discontinued line is no longer generally available in the UK, and we were unable to find a stockist with current supplies.



So as this head-to-head review concludes, the question then is, "Who wins"?

EM4's offerings are reasonably well painted (and priced), and its catalog of fantasy miniatures is fairly diverse. The lack of fine detail on the sample we reviewed puts the painting jobs firmly in the "good" range. The sculpting is well done, and the "extras" with the package are nice additions.

Holistic Design's Fantasy Encounters range varies widely in paint quality. As noted before, the sculpting of the minis is equal to EM4's. Given the variation on paint jobs, it is hard to give one overall "grade" to the product line. The addition of the d20 stat cards is very nice, but they are limited to but one segment of gamers (although the basic "back stories" on the cards are universally applicable).

Holistic Design and EM4 both offer a good selection of fantasy miniatures. Dwarven Forge's minis, while equally well sculpted, suffer from a light build and decreasing availability, coupled with a lack of "iconic" or "player character" type minis (although each full "war band" contains a designated "leader" miniature, different in pose and sculpt from its fellows). Neither EM4 nor Holistic Designs offers "army" size packs of prepainted miniatures at the time of this writing.

So ultimately, the answer lies in what you, the consumer, are looking for. Holistic's "adventurers" are slightly better painted than EM4's, and the addition of the stat cards are a nice touch. However, EM4 offers a slightly larger range of miniatures, and many have the noted d20 dice included with them.

Don't miss our giant-sized next Fantasy review, when a group of gamers tackles Reaper Miniatures WarLord skirmish-scale fantasy wargame!
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