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Fightin’ Figures

You may have gathered from the articles I’ve posted up until now that I’m not a huge fan of what are called ‘Euro’ games. Sorry about that. I’ve nothing against spending several hours hunched over a worker placement game, or a bit of area control or resource management, but to be frank, throw a few zombies with chainsaws in there or power-suited alternative-history WWII marines and I’m really a lot happier. It all depends on your personal definition of gaming fun. For me, games are all about immersion into imaginative worlds, and the laughter and groans that come with lucky dice rolls and last-minute reprieves. Many others prefer their careful long-term strategies to not be undermined by the draw of a card, and I can certainly understand that. But if you’re looking for in-depth examination of the many Euro games out there, I’m not the ideal author—even though I’ll be looking at some of these types of games in future articles.

One genre of games that does have a dominant place in my collection is the skirmish game. This kind of game is usually a two-player battle, either over tabletop terrain or on a board, between small bands of warriors. Sure, there’s a bit of strategy involved, but in general these games are about vicious combat, using your imagination, and playing out combats between figures that can sometimes turn into hilarious little stories that you remember for years. Let’s have a look at some of these games!

Again, the genre begins in a big way with Games Workshop. After the success of games like Heroquest and Space Crusade, the combats expanded onto the tabletop, and one of my personal all-time favourite combat games, Necromunda, was born. Set in the worlds of the Warhammer 40,000 sci-fi universe, Necromunda is a skirmish level tabletop combat game. Rival gangs fight it out for domination amongst the ruined buildings of the crowded ‘underhives’, vast cities in the far future. It’s a classic sci-fi bash—great figures, excellent cardboard terrain with the opportunity to scratch-build and buy more terrain setups, and even a campaign system if you want to see your gang grow and prosper over a series of battles.

Not a big sci-fi fan? Well then perhaps you’d prefer Mordheim, a very similar game in the fantasy genre of Warhammer. Gangs of humans, skaven ratmen, undead—you name it— battle in the ruins of the Empire city of Mordheim, destroyed by a warpstone meteor from the heavens.

Of course, setting up tabletop battles can require a big commitment in time and money. But fear not, there are plenty of other options for setting your little men at odds. We’ve already discussed the many combat games in the dungeon crawling genre in a previous article, but for non-dungeon skirmish gaming, some excellent games are Heroscape,  IncursionOkko: Era of the Asagiri, Mutant Chronicles, and Tannhäuser.

No overview of fun skirmish-level combat would be complete without Heroscape, the system that hit gaming in 2004 with HeroScape Master Set: Rise of the Valkyrie and since then has expanded in all directions with innumerable expansion packs, a Dungeons and Dragons variant and even a Marvel Heroes version. The great advantage of Heroscape is that it’s quick and easy to play. The figures are all pre-painted plastic, and the terrain is made of interlocking plastic hexagons—you can get castles and vegetation too—that allow for an infinite variety of scenarios and setups. Of course, all the units have special abilities, but quick reference cards and a simple basic rules system make play fast and furious. Some might call it a ‘toy’; some might think pitting samurai against giant robots is weird—but who cares what they think!

Incursion is a recent release from Grindhouse Games, a small company making a splash. In fact I helped out a bit by designing the reference sheet that comes with the game. It’s set in the currently very popular ‘weird war’ genre; an alternative-history World War II that includes sci-fi and occult elements. Incursion is set in an underground laboratory complex, where power-suited US marines battle it out against Nazi zombies, experiments-gone-wrong, and of course—good ol’ zombies. It uses an action point system similar to the classic Space Hulk, is beautifully produced, and is a lot of fun. The game uses cardboard standups, but for an extra outlay you can buy stunningly-detailed metal miniatures which improve the visual aspect of the game immeasurably.

Okko: Era of the Asagiri is another game that you can buy metal miniatures for separately. This medieval fantasy Japan combat game by Asmodee is played out on square tiles with lovely artwork on them, and the system is quite original. You roll a number of ‘inspiration dice’ each turn which have symbols on them that correspond to your different characteristics. By assigning these dice to your combatants, you can receive bonuses to your movement, attack, defense or willpower rolls; or can activate particular skills that make your characters unique. You can also place dice results in reserve on your characters, so they can activate powers or improve their defense abilities during your opponent’s turn. I highly recommend the figures; they are top-notch quality and very detailed, though probably more suitable for the experienced modellers and painters out there. And it’s good to see a theme that’s a little bit different. There’s already one expansion available and more to come.

Unfortunately it was short-lived and has since been discontinued, but FFG’s Mutant Chronicles Collectible Miniatures Game is a surprisingly good skirmish game. Set in the strange sci-fi/apocalyptic/gothic universe of the Mutant Chronicles, the game system itself works smoothly, using the core mechanic of specially marked dice. Gang recruitment is easy with a bronze-silver-gold scale of combatant power. Many people weren’t happy about the large 54mm scale of the figures and the quality of the pre-paints, but it’s still definitely worth picking up a copy of the core set and some of the figures if you’re a fan of the skirmish combat genre—and if you can find them.

Finally, Tannhäuser has recently been given a whole new lease of life since its purchase by FFG and the recent release of a brand new rulesbook. This game is also set in a ‘weird war’ universe, and one of its distinguishing features is the Pathfinder system. This a series of coloured circles printed on the large format boards that regulate combat and line of sight, speeding up play greatly. The game (and its expansion Operation Novgorod) comes with very nice pre-painted miniatures and top-quality components, and now that the new rules, which are available as a book or as a PDF download, have ironed out a few earlier issues and added an ‘overwatch’ system so players can fire in an opponent’s turn, look forward to this game getting more and more popular. Of course, there are more expansions in the works.

So if you’re like me and your game collection tends to lean on the site of colourful, thematic and imaginative games—to the possible detriment of worker placement, economics, area control and auctions—then be sure to check out some of the skirmish combat games mentioned in this article.

For more information about the games mentioned in this article, visit BoardgameGeek ( Necromunda and Mordheim are still available as Games Workshop ‘specialist’ games. You can also find rules summaries and reference sheets for all of these games at Headless Hollow (

by Universal Head

Universal Head (, has been designing graphics from the most corporate to the most creative for more than twenty years. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, most notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent a year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for the computer game ‘The Omega Stone’. In between he’s designed everything from large corporate identities and websites, to packaging, to interactive educational modules. His personal site is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.

A Beginners Guide To Figure Painting

More and more these days, boardgames come with plastic figures to enhance the game experience. Whether they’re an essential part of the game, like the armies in BattleLore, or a nice atmospheric substitute for cardboard tokens, like the characters in Middle-Earth Quest, plastic playing pieces can bring life to a game. But there really is nothing more satisfying than playing a great game with fully painted figures, and though it can seem a daunting prospect if you have no experience, this article aims to give you a few tips to get you painting those little men and making your game look as good as it possibly can.

Preparing Your Workspace
There are a few essentials you’ll need to paint figures—paint, of course, is one! I’ve used Games Workshop paints for many years and find them perfectly adequate for my needs, but there are other alternatives on the market such as Vallejo paints and the P3 range from Privateer Press. Plenty of painters will swear by their favourites, and some will use a mix of different ranges, but to start with get yourself a good selection of basic paints. Remember you don’t necessarily need a wide range of paints as you can mix colours—a little bit of colour theory will help you here, which you can easily research on the internet.

We’re not finger-painting here, so you’ll need some brushes! This is not the place to try to save money—good quality brushes will make your job immeasurably easier and more enjoyable, so get yourself a couple of good sable brushes from an art shop. The Games Workshop ones are pretty good too. You’ll be doing most of your painting with about a ‘1’ size brush, but a ‘00’ is good for details as well, and you’ll need something larger for drybrushing (you can buy a cheaper synthetic brush for this as drybrushing is hard on the bristles).

You can buy a palette to mix your colours on, but I’ve been using the same white, smooth ceramic tile I bought from a hardware store for years. Also you’ll need a little pot to keep your water in, some way to store your brushes—with the tips upright!—and I also find a few layers of paper towel useful for wiping your brushes after washing them, and wiping off excess paint. Find a table space with good lighting—you’ll need it, these figures are small—and be sure to cover your workspace with newspaper or other protection, especially if it’s the dining room table!

Preparing Your Figures
The first step when preparing your figures for painting is to have a look at them and see if they need any improvement. Sometimes a figure will have obvious mould-lines or ‘flash’, which is where the mould joined together on the figure. Whether you want to go to the trouble of removing these imperfections is up to you, but keep in mind they will become even more obvious to the eye when your figure is painted. And it’s the work of a moment, so why not make your figure worthy of all the attention you’re about to bestow upon it? Get yourself a sharp blade and/or needle file and carefully scrape or file away the offending bits. Be careful! You don’t want to get blood all over your nice new figure!

Plastic figures tend to come with a little bit of greasy residue from the mould they were popped out of—you wouldn’t notice this normally, but it can make it hard for paint to adhere to the surface. The trick is to give your figures a little scrub with a toothbrush in water and a bit of detergent. Then let the figures dry and your ready to undercoat.

Undercoating is the ‘primer’ layer of paint that is the basis for all the detail work to follow. Just like painting a room, you need to undercoat your figure first. This is a matter of personal choice—my preference is ‘old school’: I undercoat figures in white (I use Games Workshop spray white for this) because I can see the detail of the figure better, and colours go on brighter and in one layer. A lot of people these days prefer to undercoat in black, as the black ‘fills in’ any little details they might miss during the painting. You’ll have to experiment to see which method you prefer. Whether you choose black or white, make sure you spray your figures carefully, with even strokes, and outside with plenty of ventilation. Try not to breath in that paint or spray it over anything except the figures. I have an old table out in the back yard I use exclusively for spraying figures. Another good tip is not to use spray paint on a humid or wet day—this can make the paint go on in a strange way, trust me.

Time to Paint
Once your undercoat is thoroughly dry, you’re ready to start painting! This can seem daunting at first, but the only way to get better is to practice, so you have to start somewhere! The first thing to do is put your base colours on. Carefully apply your basic colours onto the figure and paint in the areas neatly. It’s often helpful to start with the ‘skin’ if there is any, and work your way ‘out’ through the layers of clothing. Detail work like belts and swords can be left until last.

If I can give you one really important tip from this entire article it is this—thin your colours! Depending on the paint, a brush-load of water to every brush-load of paint is about right. A dead giveaway of an amateur paint job is gluggy paint, filling in the fine detail of the miniature. If the paint is thinned it will flow off your brush a lot easier and with more control—several thin layers of paint are far better than one thick layer!

So what colours do you pick? Well, it’s up to you. Sometimes you’ll be painting within historical boundaries; for example, a little bit of internet research can give you the correct colours to paint the American and German forces from Memoir ’44. Other times, you might want match game illustrations of the characters, or save yourself the trouble of picking colours and use someone else’s choices (say, from a picture posted on But don’t be afraid to make your own colour selections if you want—just keep in mind that you usually want a roughly realistic look with appropriate colours, so maybe painting that Nazgul from Middle-Earth Quest a bright pink isn’t such a great idea!

There are lost of ways to paint, and you can find alternative methods on the internet, but for now I’ll take you through the system I find easiest after painting for some 25 years. The next step after the base colours is to apply shading. This has been made vastly easier by the introduction of quality washes (which you don’t have to thin, by the way), and the Games Workshop range is excellent. I use Gryphonne Sepia to wash flesh tones and Devlan Mud a lot for other areas, but you can also get more specific and use the green for greens, the red for reds etc. Experiment a little.

Washes are a fast and effective way to get the dark shadows in your figure. You might even want to stop here because a figure can look absolutely fine after having base colours and a wash applied. But if you really want to get a fantastic-looking figure, it’s time to move on to highlights.

The highlight stage really brings a figure to life. This is when you paint in the parts of your figure where, in ‘real life’, light would catch the upper folds of a cloak, or the tip of a nose, or the top of a hat. Of course our little figures are too small to have these natural highlights, so we have to exaggerate them to give the figure the impression of realism.

When choosing your highlight colour, don’t just reach for the white and mix it with your base colour. Again, this is where a bit of colour theory comes in handy. You can get different highlight effects depending on your choice of highlight colour. For example, if you have a bright green, it is best highlighted by adding yellow to the green rather than white (though you can add white if you’re starting with a duller green). Yellow is a good highlight for orange. Black can be highlighted by grey, or even blue, depending on the effect you want.

You can also try the ‘drybrushing’ technique for highlighting, and it’s especially useful when highlighting fur or hair. Get the highlight colour on your brush (use an older or cheaper brush for this) and wipe most of the paint off on a paper towel. Then gently wipe the side of the bristles over your surface repeatedly, leaving just a tiny bit of paint on the raised highlights each time. You can quickly build up a highlight without affecting the recessed areas.

You’re almost there! Now it’s time to go over your figure and fix up all those little details you missed. If you have a tiny brush and a very steady hand, you can paint the eyes black, and then either add two tiny dots of white for the whites of the eye, or dot them with white and then a dot of black for the pupil. Try not to make them look too ‘goggle-eyed’. Fine details like belts are best painted black, then painted again in brown or whatever, leaving a fine outline of black to make them stand out a bit. I use Tamiya ‘Smoke’ to paint a wash over metallics; I find it give a good, slightly oily effect to metallics.

Basing & Varnishing
You’re not quite finished yet however. Depending on the figure, you may want to paint some detail on its base. You can either paint a flat colour on the base that matches the board it will be moved on, or try a flat colour with a few ‘scrunchy’ layers of highlight using an old brush to give it a bit of texture. Or if you want to go all out you can use traditional basing techniques like glueing on sand or ‘static grass’ using white glue. If you’re using both, remember to paint and drybrush the sand before gluing on the static grass.

>Finally, you need a clear varnish to protect your hard work from the rigours of many hours of gameplay. Again, this is a matter of preference; there are both gloss and matt sprays available which give different effects. Some prefer the better protection and brightness of a gloss varnish; some the ‘realism’ and duller finish of a matt varnish. After much experimentation I’ve settled on a semi-gloss varnish available by Tamiya in small spraycan. Again, remember to spray outside and don’t breath it in!

Let your figure dry thoroughly and there you have it—a gaming piece that will give you many years of pleasure and pride!

Other Techniques
Of course, this is assuming you’re painting army or character figures like those from BattleLore or Last Night on Earth—what about the tanks from Memoir ’44 or Tide of Iron? The basic techniques outlined above are the same, though you can easily highlight with drybrushing. For some tanks, I’ve even got out my old airbrush to paint camouflage markings, which worked really well! When painting lots of figures that are the same, you can speed up the process by ‘batch painting’. Using white glue, attach five or so figures to a strip of foamcore or card and paint them in batches. Once you get into the flow of things you can paint a lot of figures quickly this way.

Your figures are ready to be brought to life—get painting!

by Universal Head.

Universal Head (, has been designing graphics from the most corporate to the most creative for more than twenty years. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, most notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent a year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for the computer game ‘The Omega Stone’. In between he’s designed everything from large corporate identities and websites, to packaging, to interactive educational modules. His personal site is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.


This week I’m going to be having a look at a time-honoured genre in the world of boardgaming—dungeon crawling (or, if you prefer, dungeon bashing)! Since the first parties of adventurers descended stone steps into the darkness in games of Dungeons and Dragons back in the early 1970s, gamers have loved to take stereotypical Tolkeinesque fantasy characters ‘down into the dungeon’ to test their prowess against the horrific denizens of the deep. And hot on the heels of D&D and other roleplaying games came boardgame equivalents. Let’s have a look at the huge range of dungeoncrawling boardgames out there, and examine a bit of the history of the genre.

Dungeon crawling in boardgame form pretty much started back in 1975 with a game called Dungeon! Heavily based on D&D, this simple boardgame was quite revolutionary for its time; allowing players to pick character classes and descend into a dungeon of six levels. You kill monsters, you get treasure … the basic template for dungeonbashing had been established.

Every geek of a certain generation will remember playing Heroquest as a kid; it is still the classic dungeoncrawl game. In a smart business move, Games Workshop partnered with mainstream games giant Milton Bradley to release this hugely successful game in 1989. Several expansion sets followed which all command high prices on Ebay (and there are different versions depending on where the game was published), and people still play, enjoy and collect this classic game. It certainly helped that it came with a spectacular range of plastic figures (even pieces of model furniture) and fantastic artwork for the time, but the game system itself is simple enough to be enjoyed by all ages. It also brought a bit of a roleplaying element back into the mix by having one player act as ‘Morcar’, the evil wizard who controls the dungeon and its monsters—in effect, he is the D&D ‘Dungeon Master’. Heroquest brought a lot of D&D players their first taste of the boardgame hobby—and it’s still a fantastic game to get young players into boardgaming.

It could be said that Advanced Heroquest (1989) was Games Workshop’s attempt to bring Heroquest players further into their hobby, and eventually to their tabletop wargames. It was a more complex version of Heroquest and came with a bunch of hero and Skaven (ratmen) figures; but along with the later Warhammer Quest (1995), these games were less self-contained and suffered from a heavy focus on getting players to buy more Citadel figures (Citadel was GW’s miniature company) and get more involved in the Warhammer world. They still very much have their fans and Warhammer Quest commands very high prices on Ebay.

It’s a fortuitous time to talk about GW’s next classic dungeoncrawl game Dungeonquest, because it’s the latest game to be ‘re-imagined’ by Fantasy Flight Games. This notoriously difficult game—it was easy to get into the dungeon, but getting out alive was another thing entirely—was originally Swedish and went by the name Drakborgen. GW released their own version in 1985 and a lot of people are very excited about the upcoming re-release. Dungeonquest put a twist on the genre by not only instigating a time limit to the adventuring, but a push-your-luck element where you can try to steal more and more treasure from the sleeping dragon at the heart of the dungeon—at the increasing risk of it waking up and killing you, that is! FFG have now set the game in their own fantasy melieu of Terrinoth and updated some of the mechanics, and it should be great to get this classic back on the table again.

So where was the original D&D brand while all this was happening? In an attempt to cash in on the gap left by the departure of Heroquest, Dungeons & Dragons The Fantasy Boardgame was released by Parker Bros in 2003. It had two expansions—Forbidden Forest and Eternal Winter. The game is quite similar to Heroquest, though the figures are not as good quality; and while it’s a good game for dungeoncrawl completists, it probably never quite recaptured the magic of the more popular game.

Now for something a bit different—it’s dungeoncrawling, but not as we know it, Jim! Hybrid was released by Rackham, a French company, in 2003 (an expansion called Nemesis followed the next year). At the time Rackham was known for its spectacular metal miniatures, and the game comes with an impressive collection of them. Despite its flaws—a terrible rules translation, ridiculously tiny type on the cards, confusing artwork on the ‘dungeon’ tiles—the game brought new complexity and richness to the genre, and the fantasy background is unique. If you can hack your way through the rules it is actually a very satisfying and original system, and the game certainly looks absolutely spectacular when set up, especially with painted figures.

Of course, if we expand our definition a little, dungeoncrawling needn’t be restricted to a fantasy setting. Heroquest was followed up in 1990 by another GW/Milton Bradley collaboration: a sci-fi version set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe called Space Crusade (and GW released Advanced Space Crusade, a completely different game, the same year). The Pressmen game Mutant Chronicles (1993) is also considered a bit of a classic of the sci-fi dungeoncrawl genre.

The videogame crossover hit Doom (2004) definitely deserves a mention. It’s one of my favourite games and has a wonderfully dark and creepy sci-fi gothic atmosphere. It comes with a large collection of beautifully-sculpted plastic figures and a set of stunning interlocking room and corridor tiles. The game also introduced an innovative dice-rolling system—one roll with a number of multi-coloured dice tells you the range of the shot, the damage, and even if you run out of ammo—and it features various scenarios that increase the story-telling aspect of the game. And don’t forget to pick up the essential expansion set!

Doom set the stage for the current grand-daddy of dungeonbashers, Descent (2005). This FFG behemoth has already spawned five expansion sets (including two special campaign sets) and shows no signs of slowing down. Featuring development of many of the mechanics from Doom—especially the special coloured dice—Descent is the gaming experience par excellence for those who want to go down into the dungeon and kill things and, with the expansion sets, run ‘roleplaying-light’ fantasy campaigns as well. There’s a vast selection of fantastic plastic miniatures to paint, hundreds of interlocking terrain tiles, cards by the thousand (or so it seems), and enough scenarios to keep even the most dedicated dungeoncrawling team busy killing things for years.

All the games I’ve talked about so far use a board or tiles and plastic figures, but for something completely different, try Cutthroat Caverns (2007). This clever card game turns the genre on its head; while you and your friends still head together into the dungeon to kill monsters—co-operating to do so—you’re also in it for yourself, trying to gain the all-important final blow so you can collect enough treasure to win the game. This can result in some hilarious last minute backstabbing. A plethora of special monster abilities add to the fun, and several expansion sets are available. The game also has the advantage of working especially well with a larger number of players (up to 6).

The most recent entrant into the dungeonbashing world is the beautiful Asmodee game Claustrophobia, released last year. In keeping with the high expectations of gamers these days, the plastic figures that come with the game are pre-painted, so you can dive into a stunning game experience right away. Claustrophobia is set in the alternative fantasy world of the miniatures game Hell Dorado, and features 17th century warriors delving under the city of New Jerusalem to battle demons from the depths of Hell. The game comes with several scenarios and more are being released online as we speak, and it has some interesting new mechanics that freshen up the genre. It’s certainly a worthy entrant into the rich genre of dungeoncrawling, and shows that this particular style of boardgame is showing no signs of becoming less popular any time soon!

Well, there you have it, a short look at the rich history of dungeon delving in boardgames. If you ever feeling like donning the mantle of mighty hero and clearing out the local dungeon of nasty inhabitants, give one of these games a go. Here’s hoping you make it out alive …

For more information about the games mentioned in this article, visit BoardgameGeek ( Many of these games are now out of print unfortunately, but can be found on sites such as Ebay. You can also find rules summaries and reference sheets for some of these games at Headless Hollow.

by Universal Head

Universal Head (, has been designing graphics from the most corporate to the most creative for more than twenty years. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, most notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent a year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for the computer game ‘The Omega Stone’. In between he’s designed everything from large corporate identities and websites, to packaging, to interactive educational modules. His personal site is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.

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